Why We Suck at Saving Money, and Suck Even Worse at Saving Time

Two recent articles in the New York Times got me thinking about why most of us really suck at saving money and more importantly why we suck at utilizing our time well. These are two separate but very connected issues. They are connected because after all we all know that time is money and money is time.

Both money and time seem like nonrenewable resources. Time actually is a nonrenewable resource. Although we don’t know exactly how much time we have, it’s a pretty good bet that most of us have between 70 and 90 years on this planet. And we each have 16 to 18 hours of conscious time each day. Just like oceanfront property, we can’t manufacture more time, we can only better utilize the time we have.

Money also seems like a nonrenewable resource for most of us. But it’s not really. In fact, thinking that money is a nonrenewable resource is probably one of the main reasons why people don’t use time better.

The first New York Times article, How to Pinch Pennies in the Right Places, gave a theoretical thought experiment. If you could save $10 on a $50 set of headphones, would you drive 30 minutes across town to get a better price at a different store? (Answer this before reading on.)

Or, if you could save $15 on a $400 television would you drive 30 minutes across town?

Research done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1981 suggests that most people were more willing to drive across town to save money on the headphones than on the television. You save 20% on the headphones and only 3.75% on the television. But we don’t spend percentages, we spend dollars, and actually you’d be saving more money ($15) on the television than on the headphones ($10).

The same article discussed other research that suggested that consumers were willing to spend 20 minutes extra to save $3.75 on a $10 pen, but needed a savings of at least $278 on a $30,000 car to be willing to invest the same 20 minutes extra.

This of course is crazy! In the example of the pen people value their time at $11.25 per hour. But in the example of the car people are unwilling to make an investment of time that would pay them $834 per hour!

But we all fall prey to different versions of this. How much time do we waste surfing Amazon in order to save a few bucks on a product? Or to find a product that has 4 stars instead of 3 ½ stars?

This article also pointed out that people on the lower income level are less likely to fall prey to the percentage saved fallacy, because they care about each and every dollar. But I think the article misses a more important point – which is the real way to have more money!

Saving $10 or $15 on a purchase really doesn’t matter compared to lowering recurrent expenses. For instance, how much money do you spend each month on the following items: cell phone service, Internet service, cable or satellite TV, coffee drinks at your local café, restaurant meals, rent or mortgage, car payments? How much money did you spend on your last car? Spending $120 per month on cable TV comes out to $14,400 over 10 years. Nice late-model used cars can be had for $10,000-$15,000, yet many people drop $50,000 on a new car. Even just saving $30 on a less expensive cell phone plan means that you will save $3600 over 10 years.

(A number of years ago I looked at my recurrent expenses and realized that I was spending a lot of money on two business landlines, and on cable TV. I spent some time doing research and ended up purchasing a couple of Ooma telephone systems that when connected to the Internet provided completely free telephone service. I also put an antenna on my roof and switched to free over-the-air HDTV. The time invested was probably about 4 hours for all of the research and installation. But I saved almost $300 per month, without giving up anything I really cared about other than perhaps Monday night football (which is on cable TV only). My one-time four hour investment has paid me more than $10,000 in savings, which is roughly $2500 per hour! And I continue to save money each month.)

But the article also misses a more profound point, how to earn more money. People focus too much on saving money and not enough on earning more money, through work, entrepreneurship, education and training, and investment. In this era of the Internet there are 1 million ways to earn more money. And improving your education and training can help you earn more money in your current employment as well as well. Improving income opportunities lasts for life, while getting a good “deal” only lasts for a day! Or, if you can afford to invest money, then focusing your time on investing more successfully can yield huge benefits in total dollars. I know people that have spent the time to learn about investing in residential real estate, and who will retire with very nice incomes from the time they invested in acquiring and managing these properties.

Which brings me to the 2nd New York Times article, What Should You Choose: Time or Money? This is a fascinating and profound article. It summarizes research performed by Hal Hirschfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea which asked the question what do people choose, time or money? About 65% of their participants chose money over time, showing a small preference for money versus time. This in itself is not surprising or even particularly interesting. What’s more interesting is that those who chose time rather than money reported higher levels of happiness, even when the researchers controlled for participants’ amount of leisure time and income and money.

Realistically speaking, we are all in the business of balancing time against money. How we do this has significant implications in terms of our well-being and happiness. Research suggests that we should tilt in the direction of saving and valuing time rather than money if we want to maximize our happiness. There is ample research suggesting that experiences create more happiness than material possessions. And experiences take time (and sometimes money), while material purchases take money (and sometimes time.)

What can we learn from this research?

  1. When possible, tilt your decisions in favor of time rather than money. Don’t buy a cheaper house which requires you to spend many hours a week commuting. Don’t spend very much time in order to gain small savings in money.
  2. If you are going to invest time in order to save money, calculate your hourly “pay”, and only invest the time if the hourly salary is high. For instance, if it will take me 30 minutes to save 20 bucks, I’m earning $40 per hour. But if it takes me 30 minutes to save $5, then I’m earning $10 per hour. Try to be rational about these decisions and don’t pay any attention to the percentages saved, only to the dollar values and the time values.
  3. Time invested in saving money on recurrent expenses such as cable or satellite TV, car insurance, cell phone service, Internet service, etc. will always pay you a higher salary rate per hour. A few hours invested in researching less expensive alternatives and switching can save hundreds of dollars a month indefinitely which adds up to a very good return on your time invested.
  4. When you get excited about “getting a deal”, always calculate the true cost of the deal in time and in hassle. This will prevent you from driving across town to get a small savings or from spending too much time spent on the Internet looking for deals. (I am as guilty of this as most people, although I’m much more likely to spend time online rather than time in my car, even though both waste time.) Ask yourself whether on your deathbed you will be telling your grandchildren about this deal that you got. Remember that in the grand scheme of life, time is worth more than money. (See this classic parable about the poor fisherman and the entrepreneur.)
  5. Finally, remember that life is not just about time and money, it’s really about meaning and values. Spending money doesn’t really benefit you unless it ties into your core values and improves meaning in your life. That’s why even getting a multiplicity of small “deals” doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters more is whether you spend money to support your core values. That’s why grandparents sometimes pay for their grandchildren’s college, even though it’s an expensive proposition. And that’s why taking your family on a really fun vacation is a good investment as it leads to experiences and memories that potentially last a lifetime. (My siblings and I will always remember magical experiences from our family trips – playing telephone tag in the elevators of the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, riding donkeys along a precipitous cliff in Grand Canyon, screaming “beep beep” on a narrow, twisting road in Spain when our rental car horn failed.)
  6. And even time should be evaluated in terms of meaning and values. Here in Silicon Valley a lot of people retire early. This isn’t always a good thing however. What I’ve seen is that they often end up spending time doing things that don’t really add to their happiness. For instance, they will design and build a custom house, usually quite large, which eats up several years of their life playing at general contractor and quality control inspector.
  7. Just as spending money intelligently is challenging, it’s even more challenging to spend time well. I struggle with this all the time. But I try to continually improve how I spend my time, for instance trying to focus more on writing these blog articles rather than watching television or reading a novel.

This article ended up being a lot longer than I expected, but I think these are profound and important issues for all of us to think about and to improve. Now it’s time for me to have some fun!

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Forgiveness and Happiness Researcher Fred Luskin Says Turn Off Your Smartphone If You Want to be Happy

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to spend several morning hours listening to Stanford professor and researcher Fred Luskin talk about happiness. Dr. Luskin is a psychologist who has done groundbreaking research on forgiveness over many years. He’s the author of many books, and frequently lectures about forgiveness. I often recommend his book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness to clients suffering from anger and hurt.

But this morning he was discussing happiness. He came into the room with no pretense. His hair was wild and curly, partly dark and partly gray. He was wearing a puffy black down jacket, a T-shirt, running tights, and sneakers. Clearly a man comfortable with himself, and not trying to impress.

He started off by doing something quite outrageous. He asked the audience of 30 people to turn off their cell phones. Not to lower the volume, or turn off the ringers, but to actually shut down their cell phones. This clearly caused some discomfort among the audience. He explained that the reason he wanted people to turn off their cell phones is so that they would truly focus on the present and to listening to him. He cited a statistic that people check email on average 79 times a day. Each time they check their email they get a burst of adrenaline and stress. Clearly this is not conducive to genuine happiness.

He pointed out that you can’t really be happy unless you can sit still and relax. “We are all descended from anxious monkeys,” he said, and clearly most of us do not know how to sit still and relax. “Happiness is the state of ‘enough’ “, he said, “and is not consistent with wanting more.”

He pointed out that wanting what you have equals being happy. And that wanting something else than what you have equals stress.

He talked about the beginnings of his career, when clinical psychology was focused on unhappiness and problems. There was no science of happiness. Now there is a huge area of research and writing on happiness called Positive Psychology.

He shared some simple techniques for enhancing happiness. One simple technique revolved around food. When you’re eating don’t multitask. Give thanks for the food, and really focus on tasting and savoring that food. One technique I have often used is to close my eyes while I savor food, which greatly intensifies the taste.

Another simple practice is whenever you are outside, take a few moments to feel the wind or sun on your skin.

He also talked about phones and how we use them. We are completely addicted to the little bursts of dopamine and adrenaline that we get each time we check our email or we get a text. And rather than be present in most situations, we simply look at our phones. Go to any outdoor cafe and look at people who are sitting alone. Most of them are looking at their phones rather than experiencing the surroundings or interacting with other people. Even sadder, look at people who are with others, either at a cafe, or a restaurant. Much of the time they too are lost in their smartphones.

He discussed how happiness is not correlated with achievement. Nor is it correlated with money once you have an adequate amount to cover basic needs. What happiness seems to be most correlated with is relationships. If you like yourself and connect with other people you will tend to be happy.

He reviewed  the relationship between impatience, anger, frustration, judgment and happiness. He pointed out that whenever we are impatient or in a hurry all of our worst emotions tend to come out. When someone drives slowly in front of us we get annoyed. When someone takes too much time in the checkout line ahead of us, we get angry.

I really liked his discussion of grocery stores. He pointed out what an incredible miracle a modern American grocery store really is. The variety of delicious foods that we can buy for a relatively small amount of money is truly staggering. But instead of appreciating this, we focus on the slow person in the line ahead of us, or the person who has 16 items in the 15 item express line. What a shame!

He pointed out we have a choice of what we focus on, and this choice greatly influences our happiness. We all have a choice to focus on what’s wrong with our lives, or what’s right with our lives. And we have a choice of whether to focus on how other people have treated us poorly, or how other people have treated us well. These choices of focus will determine how we feel.

We also have the choice of focusing on what we already have, or focusing on what we do not have and aspire to have. For instance, let’s imagine that you are currently living in a rental apartment. The apartment is quite nice, although there are things that could be better. The kitchen could be bigger, and the tile in the bathroom could be prettier.

Perhaps you imagine owning a house, and you feel badly about renting an apartment. Rarely do we appreciate what we have. Having a place to live is clearly infinitely better than being homeless. And even a flawed apartment is still home.

All of us need to work on learning to emphasize generosity, awe, and gratitude in our lives if we want to be happy. Generosity means kindness and acceptance in contrast to anger and judgment. Awe is the ability to be astounded by the wonder and beauty in the world. Gratitude is appreciation for all the good things in your own life and in the world.

He cited one interesting study where researchers observed a traffic crosswalk. They found that the more expensive cars were less likely to stop for people in the crosswalks. Thus wealth often correlates with a lack of generosity and a higher level of hostility. Other data shows that there is very little correlation between wealth and charitable giving, with much of the charitable giving in the USA coming from those of modest means.

He also talked about secular changes in our society. He quoted a statistic that empathy is down 40% since the 1970’s. At the same time narcissism has increased by roughly 40%. This has a huge negative impact on relationships.

I was impressed by this simple but profound message of Dr. Luskin’s talk. Slow down, smell the roses, turn off your phone, focus on relationships, appreciate what you have, and become happier.

It’s a simple message, but hard to actually do.

I’m off to go for a hike in the hills, without my phone!

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Is There an Equation for Happiness?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a mathematical equation that could predict and explain happiness? We could tweak the numbers and get happy! Sounds pretty far-fetched, right?

Actually this equation exists. It looks like this:

Happiness-equation

 

 

A researcher named Robb Rutledge, at the Max Planck University College London Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Aging Research, developed this equation. It figures that such an equation would be developed at an institution whose name is 12 words long! Rutledge developed this equation based on outcomes from a smart phone app called The Great Brain Experiment. The data was derived from 25,189 players of the app, a pretty good sample size!

Let me explain this equation to you. I will leave out the weird Sigma symbols and the small w constants, and just explain the letters.

Basically, happiness depends on CR which stands for Certain Rewards or safe choices plus expectations associated with risky choices (EV, expected value), and the difference between the experienced outcome and the expectation which is called a reward prediction error (RPE).

So the key idea is that happiness doesn’t so much depend on how things are going, but how they are going compared to your expectations. Let’s use an example. You make plans to go to a new restaurant with your sweetie. You looked up the restaurant on various restaurant review sites, and it gets very positive reviews. You go to the restaurant and the meal is very good, but not quite as good as the reviews suggest. Your happiness decreases. Or you go to a restaurant that has mediocre reviews, and it’s actually pretty good. Your happiness goes up.

This may be why online dating is so difficult. People build up very high expectations of their potential date, based on photoshopped or out-of-date photographs, as well as email or chat communications that may represent an unrealistically positive view of the other person. When they meet the person their expectations are higher than reality, and they experience disappointment and unhappiness.

So the way to be happier is to have low expectations? Some researchers have suggested this is why Danish people are so happy. The Danes have a pretty good life, but they have lower expectations than people in many other countries, thus a higher level of happiness.

The only problem with this idea is that many choices in our life take a long time to reveal how they will work out, such as marriage and taking a new job or moving to a new city. Having higher expectations for these slow-to-reveal choices probably increases happiness, at least allows the person to hang in with the decision long enough to find out how it will work out.

In general, accurate expectations may be best. Of course the challenge is how to have accurate expectations.  Reading both negative and positive reviews of a restaurant or a product may help with this. But there’s no site that reviews your marriage or your current job so those kind of choices may be more of a challenge.

The same researchers also looked at brain scans and figured out that it appeared that dopamine levels reflect happiness changes, higher dopamine comes from increased happiness and lower dopamine comes from disappointment.

There are some practical implications from this research.

  1. For choices that have immediate feedback such as a restaurant or a movie, temper your expectations. Maybe read more negative reviews so that your expectations are lower for the event. Then you can be pleasantly surprised when the restaurant or the movie is better than expected. This also applies to online dating.
  1. For choices that you don’t get quick feedback about such as long-term decisions like marriage or a job, have reasonably high expectations., Or at least try to have realistic expectations.
  1. Lower other people’s expectations of shared choices rather than hyping the choices. For example, let’s imagine you have recently seen a movie that you loved. Don’t tell your friends it was the best movie you’ve ever seen and that it will change their lives, instead tell them it was a pretty good movie and leave out all details. Same with restaurants, cars, and other choices that we make. Downplay rather than overhype.

Now I have to go because I have reservations at that new five-star restaurant after which I’m going to that wonderful new film, and then I’m moving to Denmark! Wish me luck.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How to Forgive: A Cognitive Behavioral Model for Forgiveness and Letting Go of Anger and Frustration

What is forgiveness?

Here’s what it is not. It is not for anyone else, only for you. It doesn’t imply reconciliation with the person who hurt you nor does it imply that you approve of their actions. It does not mean forgetting what happened.

What is forgiveness?

It is only for you, in order to help you feel better. As one well-known researcher said, “failing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Forgiveness means understanding what is causing your current distress. It is not what offended you or hurt you years ago or even a few minutes ago. The primary cause of your suffering is from your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in response to your thoughts about the event.

This is a subtle concept. Most of us believe the reason we are angry is because someone has done us wrong. And it’s true, that if we could erase the event, we would stop being angry. But none of us own a time machine so we can not erase the events.

What makes us suffer is each moment that we think about the offending person or event. And how we think about these events. It is as if you own a DVD collection of movies of different events in your life. If you were to choose to only watch the upsetting movies, your overall level of happiness would greatly diminish. Choosing to forgive is choosing the DVDs of your life that are positive and full of joy.

There is another component of how people think about grudges. We often have a magical belief that our anger at someone else causes them to suffer. We imagine them feeling guilty about their behavior and suffering even when we are not present. We think of ways to hurt them in return – the silent treatment, constant criticism, reminding them of their offenses. But the reality is that most people are very good at blocking out guilt and punishment. Whenever they’re not around us they tend to think about other things. And they develop good ways of avoiding our punishment. So really the one who suffers is the person who’s angry and who fails to forgive, not the offender. And if the person we take out our anger on is someone we are still in relationship with, it damages the relationship and makes it even less likely we will get what we want.

Another trigger for resentment and anger is holding onto what the anger and forgiveness researchers call “unenforceable rules”. These are what most cognitive behavioral therapists call “Shoulds”. They are the demands we make on the world and on people around us. You can’t force anyone to do something they don’t choose to do, and you can’t require people to give you things they choose not to.

For instance, you might want fidelity in your romantic partner. You certainly have every right to want that. But you can’t demand or enforce fidelity. If your partner chooses to go outside the relationship, you can’t really change it. The only options you have are how to react to this. You have choices to make about the relationship and about your future relationships.

The research on forgiveness is very interesting. It reduces blood pressure, stress, anger, depression and hurt while increasing optimism and hope. The primary researcher on forgiveness, Dr. Fred Luskin at Stanford, has even done forgiveness research with women in Northern Ireland whose husbands were murdered. Even with these extreme cases people have found the forgiveness model very helpful at easing the pain.

I’ve written about how to conquer anger using the S A P model. In this model you change your shoulds into preferences rather than demands, you place into perspective the events that have caused your anger, and you shift out of the blame model and depersonalize most events.

Forgiveness is about being happy. Living your life to its fullest is the best revenge you can take on someone who has offended you. Instead of focusing on the hurt or betrayal, focus your energy on getting what you want in your life in a different way other than through the person who has hurt or betrayed you. Take responsibility for your own happiness rather than placing it onto other people and then being disappointed when they don’t provide happiness.

Change your story. Too often we have what is called a grievance story. We tend to tell this story to many people. It always ends with us feeling stuck and angry. Change your story. Change the ending so that it ends with a powerful and strong choice to forgive.

 
So to summarize, here’s how to forgive:

1. Let yourself first feel the pain. Share the experience with a few close and trusted friends.

2. Recognize that your anger is a result of your choices about what thoughts to experience about an event. Decide to forgive so that you can move forward and feel better.

3. Recognize that you probably won’t be able to get rid of your hurt and anger by punishing the other person. All you will accomplish is to damage the relationship or make the other person suffer while you continue to suffer.

4. Recognize the role that your “unenforceable rules” or Shoulds plays in your continued hurt and anger. Change or eliminate these rules.

5. Figure out what you want in your life and how to succeed in achieving those goals even if the other person doesn’t provide the answers. Remember that happiness is the best revenge.

6. Use the S A P model to change your shoulds, eliminate exaggerated awfulizing thinking, and take away blame.

7. Rewrite your script. Tell the new story where you were hurt but recovered and forgave and moved forward. You are a hero!

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

The Two Selves: Implications for Time Management and Productivity

I’m on vacation. I’m sitting on the deck of a house overlooking Sunset Beach in Hawaii. It’s a windy day and the waves are blowing. Since I’ve been so lazy here I’ve been thinking about productivity. And the paradox of our two selves.

Here’s an interesting question:  How is it that sometimes we tell ourselves “I’m going to do such and such task” and then don’t do it?

Who is the self who is giving the orders and who is the self who is not following them?

How is this even possible? Are we a collection of multiple personalities?

It’s such a common phenomenon that we take it for granted. We are never surprised when we say to ourselves “I think I’ll skip that cake” and then we end up eating the cake. Or we say to ourselves “I think I’ll work on that project,” and then we surf the internet instead.

And yet there is something profoundly strange about all of these phenomena. It is as if there is one self who tells the other self what to do, and then that other self decides whether or not to do it. Who is driving this bus?!

How do these two selves work? There is a little bit of research about this. In his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow Daniel Kahneman discusses these concepts and notes that we always assume that our future self will be more disciplined and more self-controlled. Sadly, this is almost never true. Our future self is merely an extension of our current self with all of its flaws. In fact, it is our incorrect belief in the future self being more sensible that allows our current self to overeat, smoke, drink, or procrastinate doing work.

We make the dangerous assumption that we can afford these bad behaviors in the present because our future self will clean up the problem. Unfortunately, our future self is just as much of a slacker and just as self-indulgent as our present self.

So how is it possible that we have these multiple selves and cannot control our own behavior? Who is driving the bus?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this issue lately and I have to admit I am somewhat puzzled by these phenomenon.

First of all, we need some terminology. Let’s call the telling-yourself-to-do-things-self the Commanding Self. And let’s call the self that actually does things The Behaving Self.

One possible explanation is that our real self is the Behaving Self, and the Commanding Self is the aspirational and illusory self. In this formulation, the reason that we don’t follow through on things is that we don’t actually really want to. Using this model we can elegantly use Occam’s razor to reduce our two selves to one self; the Behaving Self who is actually the real self. We would become behavioral reductionists, and to determine what people want we would observe what they actually do.

But then why do we spend so much time and energy having this other self who tells us what to do? And there are time when we actually do listen to the Commanding Self. What is different about those times when we listen and those times when we resist?

For instance, most of us have the experience of doing exercise, at least occasionally. And in order to do this we must listen to our Commanding Self.

Perhaps some of the current research on willpower can help us to understand the circumstances when the Commanding Self is listened to, and when it is not.

Current research on willpower suggests that it is a precious and limited commodity. It diminishes rapidly when used, and perhaps has about a 15 to 30 minutes half-life before it is exhausted. Other research suggests it is powered by our glucose metabolism so ironically the best way to resist overeating is to have a little bit of a sugary drink to restore blood sugar and thus willpower. The other factors that diminish willpower include being tired, hungry, or emotionally upset. The 12-Step people were onto something with their model of Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired (HALT) which captures this concept perfectly, and predicts relapse.

So perhaps another way of conceptualizing this strange dichotomy of selves is that the Commanding Self and the Behaving Self have relatively different strengths depending on our state of being both physically and emotionally.

The Commanding Self has more relatively more strength when we are well-rested, emotionally balanced, sober, and well-fed. The Behaving Self takes over when we’re tired, emotionally upset, inebriated, or hungry.

Perhaps we should label the Behaving Self the Misbehaving Self! After all, most of the time the Behaving Self actually does misbehave. And perhaps we should label the Commanding Self as the Demanding Self.

There are many other self splits that we can look at. For instance, there clearly is a split between our short-term self and our long-term self. Many of the discrepancies in our behavior are a result of this particular split.

For instance, dieting. The short-term self wants immediate food gratification regardless of the long-term consequences on our weight or health. The short-term self wants to spend money in contradiction to the long-term self’s goal of spending less money and saving more.

So how can we integrate these multiple selves? Is it possible to create cooperation between our Commanding Self and our Behaving Self?

Can we possibly learn to show up for ourselves and actually follow through on what we say we are going to do?

Exercise: Testing the Commanding Self by Interviewing the Behaving Self

Here’s an interesting exercise. What if you means-tested each command from the Commanding Self by asking yourself “How likely is it that I will do this?” And only issuing the commands that your Behaving Self agreed with?

So if you sit down at your computer and say “I’m going to do some writing,” you would ask yourself, “Do I really want to do some writing, and will I actually follow through and do it?” If the answer was not a resounding yes, then you would not issue the command.

It would be a very interesting experiment to spend an entire day doing this. One could also experiment with lowering the expectations of the Commanding Self. For instance, rather than saying I’m going to lift weights for 30 minutes, I would say I will lift weights for 5 minutes and then decide if I feel like doing more. That way I have at least lived up to my own expectations.

Same with eating. Rather than say I’m only going to eat one chip , I would instead say I’m going to eat the entire bag. Then if I leave a little bit I have actually outperformed my expectations.

In a sense what I’m suggesting here is that we have an honest dialogue with ourselves. As we write down our to-do list each morning, we should pretend that we are a boss or a manager asking an employee if they are willing and able to do each task. “Are you willing to sit down today and write for an hour?” “I don’t really know. I’m feeling sort of tired and unmotivated today. I guess I can commit to writing for 30 minutes, but I am not sure about an hour.” “Okay, why don’t you write for 30 minutes?”

And with each item on the to-do list we would have this honest discussion. We might also have a meta-discussion about the entire to-do list. For instance, “I notice that there are a large number of items on this to-do list and you only have a few hours free today. Is it realistic to really expect to accomplish all of these items or should you be moving several to another day?”

“Yes, I see what you mean. I probably can’t achieve all of these items. I guess I have to pick one or two items and focus on those.”

“Which items would you like to select? Which are your highest priorities?”

I recently did this experiment for several days and discovered that unless my ratings of wanting to do something were in the 80 to 100 range (hundred point scale), I didn’t usually do the task. This was very consistent. I also noticed that sometimes the rating of wanting to do something didn’t get up to this critical range until the task became urgent, which of course explains procrastination.

Using the Technique of Paradoxical Agenda Setting

The technique of paradoxical agenda setting involves taking a devil’s advocate approach. Rather than trying to motivate yourself to do things by telling yourself all the good reasons why you should do those tasks, you instead ask yourself about all the reasons not to do the task?

By focusing on all the reasons not to do something you can honestly assess your motivation and even address some of these resistances more honestly. Rather than just saying to yourself “Just do it!”, you look at your resistance and troubleshoot how to eliminate it.

EXERCISES TO EXPLORE THE TWO SELVES

Exercise One: Write down all the commands you give yourself for an entire day. That includes to to-do list items that you set yourself to do, informal commands such as “I won’t eat the entire pie,” as well as any agreements you make with other people to accomplish tasks.

Write down the tasks and the commands as you issue them, not later. Otherwise you won’t remember them. At the end of the day take an inventory. Determine how many of the commands you actually accomplished. You probably want to calculate a percentage accomplished.

Take a look at this percentage. If it is over 80 percent then your two selves are very well integrated and you probably should stop reading this article right now. If it’s between 50 and 80 percent you are doing better than most people but still have plenty of room for improvement. If it’s between 30 and 50 percent then you are struggling with a split between your Commanding Self and your Behaving Self. In fact, you might just want to call it your Misbehaving Self. And if you are below 30 percent then you are probably suffering many negative consequences from your inability to integrate your multiple selves.

Exercise Two: Learning how to lower your own expectations. Write down a goal for today. Now cut it in half. Now cut it in half again. That’s the new goal. We always bite off way more than we can chew.

Exercise Three: Ownership. Write down a goal for today. Ask yourself is this is really your goal or someone else’s goal? Is it something that you want to do or is it something that you think you should do based on someone else’s opinion.?

Exercise Four: Under-promise and over-deliver. For today, practice making very small promises to yourself and overachieving on each promise. You want to be authentic and sincere in these small goals. Don’t pretend that they are actually larger goals. For instance, set a goal to walk for 10 minutes for exercise, and then walk for 15.

Exercise Five: Gradually increasing goals. If your exercise goal is to exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes, but you only exercise once a week, then you must lower your goal first to one time a week. See if you can achieve that goal several weeks in a row. If you can, then you get to increase the goal to perhaps two times a week of exercising. Once you’ve achieved that goal you get to increase the goal to three times. But each time and each week you must reach that new goal otherwise you must go back to the previous week’s goal.

That means if you set a goal of exercising three times but you fail to meet that goal then you must roll back the goal to two times and achieve that goal that for at least two weeks in a row. This will train you to make reasonable and achievable goals and to follow through on those goals.

“Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die” : The Paradox of Goal Versus Time Management

One of the ways to explain the disparity between our multiple selves is the trade-off principal embodied by the heaven quote.

We all have many goals, but in order to achieve goals we need time. Goals are infinite, and we can add an unlimited amount of them to our to-do list. But time is the ultimate finite quantity. We can manufacture as many goals as we choose, but we can’t produce a single extra minute of time.

Hence lies one very simple explanation for the two selves paradox. The Commanding Self produces a list of goals or tasks to achieve. The other self, which we will call the Behaving Self, must perform the task of accomplishing these goals within limited time, and must balance the time to achieve one goal versus another goal. But because the Commanding Self doesn’t really consider time in it’s estimations, the Behaving Self is almost certain to fail. The problem is that the Commanding Self does not understand the trade-off principle. The Commanding Self assumes that time is infinite. Which of course is patently untrue.

So how to fix this paradox? Perhaps the Commanding Self should be required to first estimate how much time each task or goal will take. And then double or triple this time estimate. But that won’t be enough. Instead of a to-do list, perhaps the Commanding Self should only use a calendar and time schedule. If the Commanding Self wants to straighten up the house, then it should be required to put it on the time schedule. And if it doesn’t fit on a time schedule, then don’t put it on.

This gives power back to the Behaving Self. And it is the Behaving Self that actually performs tasks. So we need to take the power away from the Commanding Self, and give it back to the Behaving Self. This should resolve many of the paradoxes between the two selves.

In a sense, what I am suggesting here is for all of us to get rid of our to-do lists, and replace them with time schedules and calendars. If a task doesn’t fit in our schedule, then it doesn’t become an action item. Of course the challenge of this is that we tend to greatly underestimate the time it takes to accomplish each task, so we would have to either leave extra time, or split tasks into numerous sessions of work spread out over several days.

I am reminded of Neil Fiore’s book The Now Habit. He talks about the UnSchedule. What he suggests is that people put on their UnSchedule all of the things they have to do every day. This includes basic tasks of daily life such as showering, eating, commuting, all meetings, etc. What is left is the actual time you have to accomplish tasks. And for most people this is a very small amount of time. He then suggests that you fill in half hour blocks of work, after you accomplish that 30 minutes of work.

It is very sobering to do this. Most people realize that at best they have an hour or two per day to actually accomplish new work. Many jobs include multiple meetings which are required, leaving relatively little time in the workday to actually accomplish anything. When I did the UnSchedule I realized that after I included all of my basic tasks of daily life, exercise, returning phone calls, processing emails, and seeing clients, most days I only had an hour or two to accomplish anything else. And this hour or two could easily be used up doing a few tasks. When I realized how little time I really had during the work week, I lowered my goals and was happy accomplishing one or two significant tasks each day.

So these are some rambling thoughts from the beach about the paradoxes which make up our lives. Now my Behaving Self is saying time to go for a swim!

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

A Few Happiness Factoids from David Brooks

Listening to David Brooks on National Public Radio this morning, he mentioned two very interesting factoids related to happiness. (David Brooks is a NY Times columnist, and the author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.)

He was discussing the relationship of money and happiness relative to social connection and happiness. It turns out that belonging to a club that meets once a month is the equivalent in happiness boosting to doubling your income! And that getting married increases happiness the same amount as earning $100,000 more.

Good stuff and again proves the point that most of us would be better off focusing less on work and more on socializing. He also mentioned that the two activities most associated with happiness were having sex, and dining with friends. (Not at the same time!) The activity most associated with unhappiness was commuting.

So, to maximize our happiness, we should join a club, fall in love with someone in the club and get married, have sex with our spouse as much as possible, make friends in the club that we dine with, work less, and avoid commuting by living close to work or telecommuting. Sounds simple, right?

Off to my club meeting…right after…never mind!

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

How to Handle Mistakes–CBT Techniques for Gracefully Coping With Mistakes and Setbacks

Sometimes clients really integrate the learning about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and share it with family members. I was very moved when a client recently shared with me an email she wrote to her two teenage children. She gave me permission to publish it here, with a few identifying details deleted. Here it is:

To my dear children, please read this email because it will help you live life more peacefully.

I have lived my whole life worrying and I’m sick of it so I’ve spent the past months studying how to combat it. Here are some tips I’ve learned that should help you too.

As Dr. Gottlieb shared with me, here are key questions to ask yourself after making a mistake or facing something you think is devastating, in order to put the mistake into perspective

  • Did anyone die or get hurt? Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  • Will I remember it in 1 or 5 years?
  • Did I lose a lot of money? (Defined as an amount that would truly change your way of life. ($100, $1000, or $10,000)
  • Is the mistake easily fixable with time or money or words?
  • What can I learn?
  • Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?

OK, so the last point is the hardest.  Of course it always seems to totally matter and be catastrophic.  However, this brings me to the next step of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

Sit with your thoughts. Then ask yourself what are your negative thoughts causing you to feel this way.  For instance, “I’m going to get into a horrible college, have a lousy job, be poor, get fired, be miserable, etc.”

THEN recognize these thoughts.  Are they all-or-nothing thinking?  Am I mind reading, assuming that others feel this way?  Am I being catastrophic, blowing this out of proportion?

Once you determine that this is really a distorted thought, then examine the thought in a healthier way.  You can step back and ask yourself on a scale of 0-100, how bad is this current event really?  Think of something tragic that would be a 100 (ie: parent dying, you getting cancer, etc.). Ugh.  Then compare the current event with the true 100 catastrophic event.

To help you determine the true number, ask yourself a series of “what if” statements for healthier thinking.  For instance:  “What if I don’t get an A…. I won’t get into a good college… if this is true then what if you don’t get into a good college…. I won’t get a good job…. if this is true what if you don’t get a good job…. I’ll be unemployed forever, be poor and miserable”…. Is this really true?  No.  You can think of people who didn’t attend college and are successful. You can even think of the opposite of people who DID attend a prestigious school and never worked outside of the home. You can think that there are ALL types of jobs that require all types of skills.

Then re-number your worry.  It’s probably much lower.  If not, review Dr. Gottlieb’s key points above and go through this exercise again. Most of the time the worry/event isn’t as bad as we think.

Finally, turn unproductive worry into product worry.  Unproductive worry is just thinking OMG, OMG, OMG!  That doesn’t help.  However, productive worry is problem solving.  You switch the energy into something productive and try to solve the problem.

And one last thing, remember that if you’re mind reading (believing that others will think negatively of you), no one really cares.  True, your parents and close ones do care about the important stuff, but truly no one looks at you.  Everyone is a self-centered, too busy focused on them to be concerned about you.  And if you assume that people are thinking something negatively about you, do the above steps, asking yourself to replace this with a more realistic/healthier thought and the what if exercise.  Remember, just because you may have judgmental thoughts, doesn’t mean everyone else is.  The first step is to stop judging others and be more compassionate.  Once you stop being so judgmental of others, you’ll start treating yourself nicer and have better self esteem.

I hope that you read and implement these tips so you can lead happier, more peaceful lives.  And just think, I’ve saved you hours and hours of reading, studying and discussing this stuff…  You get the Spark Notes version.  🙂

I love you both dearly.

Mom

Thanks Mom for sharing this with me, and with all of my readers….

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Hacking Your Next Job Interview: The Real Secret to Getting Hired

This post is for my oldest niece, who told me she had an interview for a job, and wondered if there were any “psychological tricks” for doing well in an interview. I thought about it, and realized she wanted help with some Jobhacks™.

It turns out that there are some tricks. These are written about in a wonderful new book called 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman. I’ll be blogging more on the book, which is a concise, science-based set of tips for improving your life, and being happier, healthier, and more productive. I highly recommend the book. It’s a fun, easy read, full of great research and life tips.

(Full Disclosure: If you click on the link, and buy, PsychologyLounge will get a small payment, so you’ll be supporting this blog. If you don’t want to support this blog, just log into your own Amazon account, and search for the book.)

So let’s review conventional wisdom first.  Job interviews are based on academic training and work experiences, right? The candidate who gets the job is the one with the best academic credentials and the most impressive work history, correct?

That’s what most people think and they are wrong!

Chad Higgins and Timothy Judge did research looking at factors that influenced interviewers decisions about job candidates. I won’t bore you with the details of their research, but I will tell you what they found. First, they found that the qualifications and work experience of the candidate didn’t matter.

It turns out that the most important predictor of who will be offered the job was a magical and mysterious quality: the pleasantness and likability of the candidate!

So now you’re thinking: “Great, I need a personality transplant in order to become nicer and more likable. Thanks, Gottlieb, years of therapy for that one no doubt!”

No, you don’t need a personality transplant. You just need to follow a simple set of behavioral guidelines.

What were the behaviors that communicated likability? They were very simple:

1. Small talk. Talk about something that interests both you and the interviewer, even if it’s not about work. You notice a picture of them fishing, and you share fishing tales.

2. Praise. Find something you like about the organization they represent and compliment it. Or praise or compliment the interviewer in a genuine way.

3. Enthusiasm. Show your excitement about the job being offered and the company.

4. Connection. Smile and make eye contact.

5. Involvement. Show interest in the person interviewing you. Ask smart questions about the type of person they are looking for, and how the job fits into the organization.

That’s it. Do this and you will greatly increase your likability, and with it, your chance of getting a job. I suspect this would work pretty well in other interview situations too, like blind dates, but that’s more research…

P.S. Two more quick tips from 59 Seconds. If you have weaknesses that will most likely come up, bring them up early in the interview, that increases your credibility, and gives you time to use likability to your advantage. If you have a particular strength, share it later in the interview, in order to look more humble, and end on a strong note.

Copyright © 2010 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Does Money Buy Happiness? No, And The Answer Of What Does Buy Happiness May Surprise You

It is often said that money can buy happiness, and as I’ve blogged in earlier articles, this is true, but only up to a basic middle class economic status. Above that, money doesn’t seem to add much happiness. (See my posts here and here.)

So what does buy happiness? We have a surprising answer from our friends across the pond, at the University of Warwick in England. A new study published online Nov. 18 in the journal Health Economics, Policy and Law surveyed thousands of people on  their levels of happiness and correlated it with external factors such as a pay raise or winning a lottery prize, and compared this to receiving psychotherapy.  Astonishingly, even to me, a psychologist, the increase in happiness from a $1329 course of therapy was so large that to equal it people had to get a pay raise of more than $41,542! That’s a ratio of 32 times! That means a dollar spent on therapy boosts happiness 32 times more than the same dollar received in a pay raise or lottery prize.

As the study author Chris Boyce, of the University of Warwick, summarized:  “Often the importance of money for improving our well-being and bringing greater happiness is vastly over-valued in our societies. The benefits of having good mental health, on the other hand, are often not fully appreciated and people do not realize the powerful effect that psychological therapy, such as non-directive counseling, can have on improving our well-being.”

Bravo,Chris! Now when patients ask me whether therapy is worth the money, I can confidently say that research suggests it might be one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your own happiness. (And it’s okay to get a raise, as long as you spend it on therapy!)

The only problem I can see with this article being published is that it may lower MY happiness, as I might get busier, perhaps earning more money, but not having time to see my own therapist!

So to answer the original question, does money buy happiness? Money doesn’t buy happiness; it buys psychotherapy, which yields 32 times more happiness than money!

Copyright © 2009-2010 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D.  The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

Link to study: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_92421.html

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Does TV Watching Increase the Risk of Depression in Teenagers?

A study published in the February 2009 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry found that those teenagers who watched more than 9 hours a day of television where more likely to become depressed as young adults.

The researchers used data from a larger study of 4,142 adolescents who were initially not depressed. After seven years of followup, more than 7 percent had symptoms of depression.

But only 6 percent of the children who watched less than three hours a day of TV became depressed, while more than 17 percent of those who watched 9 or more hours a day became depressed.

Interestingly, there was no association with playing video games, or listening to music, or watching videos. The association of TV and depression was stronger for boys than girls, and was constant after the researchers adjusted for age, race, wealth, and educational level.

So what does this mean? First of all, it’s important to put this into context. Nine hours of TV watching is a lot!!!! It means that these kids came home from school at 3pm, and turned on the TV, and kept it on until midnight! Or it means that they spent the entire weekend watching television. So these findings are not so surprising. Basically television was their entire life, and that means that they had no hobbies, no friends, and no sports or extra-curricular activities. All these are a prescription for depression. The kids who watched less than 3 hours of television a day had lives, which is probably why fewer of them got depressed.

So the moral of the story is make sure your children have balanced lives, and limit screen time (which includes video gaming) to 2 or 3 hours a day, or less. One good way to control television time is not to have television sets in children’s bedrooms. Have a main television in the living room, and that allows you to know when and what your children are watching.

Okay, now I am off to watch no more than two hours of my favorite television shows…

Copyright © 2009 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

So Much for the Germ Theory: Scientists Demonstrate That Sleep Matters More Than Germs

More in a continuing series about one of my favorite topics, something we all do every day, and spend roughly a third of our lives doing…sleep!

Since we are in the middle of the common cold season, this post will be particularly relevant.

It turns out, grandma was right. Getting good sleep really does prevent colds. This supports a favorite belief of mine—that I don’t believe in the germ theory of illness.  Read on and you will see why I liked the referenced article.

Researchers at a variety of universities collaborated and did a clever study looking at sleep and its effects on susceptibility to the common cold. First they had their 153 subjects, healthy men and women between 21 and 55, report their sleep duration and efficiency for 2 weeks. (Efficiency is what percent of the time you are actually sleeping while in bed.) Next, these diabolical researchers sprayed cold virus up the noses of all the subjects (in quarantine), and watched what happened over the next 5 days.

The results were very interesting. Those subjects who slept less than 7 hours were almost 3 times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept 8 hours or more. In addition, those whose sleep was less than 92% efficient were 5.5 times more likely to develop a cold than those with 98% or more sleep efficiency. Interestingly, how rested subjects reported feeling after sleep was not associated with colds.  The lead author of the study concluded, “The longer you sleep, the better off you are, the less susceptible you are to colds.”

Now I promised that I would report evidence that this study bolsters my theory that germs don’t really matter that much. Remember the researchers sprayed virus up everyone’s noses. After five days, the virus had infected 135 of 153 people, or 88% of the people, but only 54 people (35%) got sick. What this suggests is that even among the people who were infected with cold virus, 60% stayed healthy, while 40% got sick. And the ones who got sick were much more likely to have reported less and lower quality sleep in the two weeks before infection. 

This is very relevant for everyday life, since much of the time we can’t really avoid exposure to common germs like colds and flu. If good sleep protects us even when infected with such germs, then it may be the key to staying healthy.

What is truly fascinating about this study is the precise immune regulation showed by those who got infected, but stayed healthy. To understand this let me digress for a moment with a short primer on the common cold. Most people think cold symptoms are caused by cold virus. This is wrong. Actually, cold symptoms are caused by our bodies’ immune reaction to the cold virus. Our bodies produce germ fighting proteins called cytokines, and when our bodies make too much, we get the congestion and runny nose symptoms. If our bodies make just the right amounts of cytokines, we fight the virus without feeling sick.

So getting 8 or more hours of sleep a night may allow your body to fine tune an immune response, and make just the perfect amount of germ fighting proteins.

Another interesting finding is the relationship of sleep efficiency and illness. Sleep efficiency was an even more powerful predictor of getting sick than total sleep. (Of course, this might reflect an overall difference in sleep quality. Those who sleep deeply may tune up their immune systems better, and they are likely to spend most of their time in bed asleep.)

But assuming that increasing sleep efficiency is useful, then those people who take a long time to fall asleep, and who sleep fitfully may benefit from spending less time in bed, and working on sleeping more of the time they are in bed. On the other hand, those who fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow, and who are sleep like logs, would probably benefit from spending a little more time in bed, since they are not getting enough sleep.

So there you have it. Sleep 8 hours or more, try to sleep well, and you can lower your odds of getting a cold greatly. Even if you are exposed to the virus, if you have good sleep quality, you probably won’t get sick. So much for the simple germ theory! I suspect that this applies to all infectious diseases. So getting good quality and quantity in sleep may be one of the most important health behaviors for staying well.

It’s late, and I’m off to bed now…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Copyright © 2009 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions/Andrew Gottlieb

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

The Neuropsychology of Long Lasting Love: Can Brain Scans Tell Us Something Useful About Staying in Love?


The Wall Street Journal today has an article called Keeping Love Alive, which documents some fascinating research looking at why a small minority of long term couples seem to maintain intense passionate loving connections.

First the grim background to these findings. Keeping love alive is no mean feat, as the research on long term relationships suggests that for most couples love is a fading affair.

From the article:

“Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline.”

This is not such good news for all of us in long term relationships. What do we have to look forward to? A sharp decline in happiness for the first ten years, and then a slow erosion of whatever remaining happiness is left, until either we run out of love or time, whichever comes first? Ugggh!

But then to the rescue comes Arthur Aron, who is a social psychologist at Stony Brook University. He’s looked at those unusual couples who claim that their love is just an intense years later. It’s a strategy of research which is called examining the outliers, those people who fall outside the averages.

Aron and his students are studying these couples in an interesting way. They are taking pictures of their brain function, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They have a person lie inside an MRI machine, and look at pictures of their spouse, while measuring the activity in their brain.

What have they found? It turns out that when these passionate couples look at or think about their spouses, a part of their brain called the ventral tegnmental area lights up. This is a section of the brain that is rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is connected to our ability to feel pleasure and joy. The results have been duplicated in China, suggesting this is not just a western cultural phenomenon.

So what does this all mean? It’s not of much help in the challenges that I face as a marriage therapist, in helping couples repair damaged love. One of the interesting details reported in the article was that these passionate long term “in love” couples show one behavior in common. They are constantly affectionate, kissing, hugging, and holding hands. They display many PDA’s (public displays of affection).

Now that there is a brain measure of this intense love, what is more important is to study how people get there. Are these couples just more intensely in love to begin with? Perhaps it is like cognitive function, where those who start off smarter and more educated deteriorate more slowly in old age. Maybe these passionate couples simply start with more love, and show erosion, but they have such an excess that it doesn’t matter.

We might be able to answer some of these questions with a long term longitudinal study of new couples that followed them over 10 years or longer.

Is it a selection process, where better mate selection leads to better long term outcomes? Or are there behavioral differences, a set of behaviors and attitudes that preserves love? These are the key issues in answering the question of how do we go about Keeping Love Alive.

What I find deeply fascinating is that in spite of the fact that most people value love as one of the most important things in their lives, we actually know very little about what predicts success, and even less about how to help people love better. Brain scans may tell us more about the process of love and attraction, but unless we develop a “love beam” that changes the activity of the key brain regions, it won’t help us fall in love and stay in love.

…Excuse me, I’ve got to go kiss my sweetie!

Copyright © 2008 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

All Rights reserved (Any web links must credit this site, and must include a link back to this site.)

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Secrets of How to Get Moving (Especially When You Are Stuck)

In a previous article I wrote at length and I admit, rather philosophically, about getting things done. In this article I am going to do something a little different. Clients often ask me for specific tips to help them get moving. We’ve all had the experience of being completely blocked, seemingly unable to get anything done, and struggling to get moving. Some of this is mood and energy based. When we are tired, sleep deprived, or blue, it’s hard to motivate to do anything, especially tasks that are not fun or interesting. But life demands that we function even under these circumstances, so here are 5 tips for how to get moving when you are blocked.


1. Priming the Getting Things Done Pump

The first secret is to prime your “getting things done” pump by getting something done, anything. Pick a small task that you’ve avoided or failed to do for a long time. It can be anything. It should take no more than 5 or 10 minutes to complete. The key here is that you are going to complete something, and it’s something you’ve been avoiding for a long time.

I picked a Microsoft Class Action legal settlement form that entitled me to $125 in rebates on computer products. I had sent it in a long time ago, but it had been rejected and returned on a technicality. I pulled it out, found an appropriate receipt to attach it to, and put it in an envelope, and mailed it. Time? About 8 minutes. Not only did I get something done, but I made $125 in 8 minutes, that’s $937 per hour!

The principle is to get something done, which flexes your “getting things done” muscles. By picking something you’ve avoided for a while, you get an even bigger kick.

2. The Smallest Piece Technique

You can use a related technique even for a huge and complicated tasks that we all tend to avoid starting, and thus never finish. If you have a huge task, break it down into component pieces. Then pick a very small piece, a piece that will take 5 to 10 minutes, and do it.

This breaks the ice, and gets you moving on the big task. Often once you’ve done the first small piece you can then do more pieces. Often it is best to use a pump priming strategy here. Pick the smallest piece there is, and get it done. For instance, if you want to do your taxes, you might simply set the task of pulling out your tax folders, and putting them on your desk. That’s it, you are done. (But now you want to do more, don’t you!)

This also works well for getting started with exercise. Rather than saying to yourself, “I’m going to take a 1 hour walk”, and then doing nothing, decide to take a 5 minute walk. Once you are outside and walking, you probably will find yourself walking for more than 5 minutes. The key is to set the task of walking 5 minutes every day, and then you break down your resistance.

3. The Dice Man (or Woman) Technique

The next technique is a good one if you find yourself frozen with indecision. You have a many important tasks to do, and you can’t decide which one to do first. You are like an octopus that is pulled in many different directions by each of its tentacles, and hence is frozen in place completely.

In this case, use the Diceman strategy. The The Dice Man is the title of a comedic novel published in 1971 by George Cockcroft under the pen name Luke Rhinehart, in which a psychiatrist begins to make all his life decisions using a set of dice. (It’s a wild novel, and pretty interesting.)

To use this strategy, make a short list of the some of your main tasks. Number them 1-6 or 1-12. Then throw one or two dice, and do the one that the dice indicates. Or you can throw darts at the list, or even just toss a penny onto the list, and do the task the penny falls upon.

What this does it to short-circuit the part of your brain that is trying to prioritize many equally important tasks, and gets you moving and finishing a task. Often, once you do this, it is much easier to continue picking tasks and doing them.

4. The Entertainment Strategy

What about those tasks that are just plain boring? For instance, like filing, or unloading or loading the dishwasher. The best way to do these tasks is to pair them with some other activity that is fun.

For loading or unloading the dishwasher, you could use a phone with a hands-free headset, and talk to someone you like while you take care of the dishes. The same technique is useful for straightening up the house.

For filing, this is also a good technique. Another approach is to do the boring task while watching or listening to some entertainment. I find baseball and football games on television perfect for tasks like filing. Both have many slow points, which allows me to get a lot done without missing key points. Listening to a good show on the radio also works.

5. When All Else Fails, Bribe Yourself!

Another way of getting unpleasant boring tasks done is to pair them with specific rewards. For instance, let’s say you have a big task to do like doing your taxes. This is a task that takes a couple of days. Before you start, set yourself a specific reward once you have finished. It could be that you get to buy something for yourself. Or go do an activity that you like. The key is to make sure that the reward is big enough to motivate the task. Telling yourself you get to eat a piece of pie after spending two days doing taxes won’t work. It probably will take something bigger, and not pie! I call this strategy “paying yourself to get things done.”

So there you have it. Five quick ways to explode your resistance and get something done! Good luck!

I have to go now, and pay one bill.

Copyright 2008 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

All Rights reserved (Any web links must credit this site, and must include a link back to this site.)

——————————————————————————————————————

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Are Men Happier than Women?

As reported in the New York Times, several new studies suggest an interesting trend in happiness when comparing men and women over the past 35 years. These studies used an interesting methodology. Rather than ask general questions about overall happiness, they instead asked people to rate their happiness while doing various tasks and activities. The researchers give people pagers that go off at random intervals. When the pager goes off, the person writes down what they are doing, and rates the happiness level they have doing the activity. This provides very interesting data that allows us to make conclusions about how people use their time and how enjoyable their activities are.

These studies show some interesting changes since the 1970’s. In the early 1970’s, women reported being more happy than men. Now it has reversed. Men now report being slightly more happy than women.

There are other changes as well. Compared to the 1970’s, men spend less time working, and more time relaxing. In contrast, now women spend more time doing paid work. Forty years ago, the typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in doing activities considered unpleasant, or 40 minutes more than a typical man. Today, with women working more, and men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

Even though women now spend more time doing paid work, they still spend just as much time doing unpleasant unpaid work. But the types of unpaid work have changed. For instance, women spend less time dusting. Is this because of some magic anti-dust technology? (We wish!) No, our houses are just dustier, and probably women care more about this than men. Perhaps this accounts for part of the happiness shift.

Another factor is changing expectations. Women probably have much higher expectations for life than they did 40 years ago. To quote from the New York Times article about this: “Ms. Stevenson was recently having drinks with a business school graduate who came up with a nice way of summarizing the problem. Her mother’s goals in life, the student said, were to have a beautiful garden, a well-kept house and well-adjusted children who did well in school. ‘I sort of want all those things, too,’ the student said, as Ms. Stevenson recalled, ‘but I also want to have a great career and have an impact on the broader world.’”

This creates a situation where unhappiness is much more likely. It’s hard to do it all, and men mostly don’t even try. We don’t try to have the beautiful house and well-adjusted kids, we just want a tolerably clean house and food on the table and kids who stay out of jail! Men have much lower and more reasonable expectations, and thus are often happier and less stressed.

Some more tidbits from the same research. Men enjoy spending time with their parents more than women. Women rated it less pleasant than doing laundry! Why? Probably because women do more work when they are with their parents and men just hang out and watch the football game with their dads.

Researchers also are finding there a happiness gap in high school kids. The percentage of high school boys that report being very happy is now 25 %, up from 16% in 1976. But 22% of girls report being very happy, which is the same as in 1976.

What has changed? Why are boys getting more happy, when girls are not? There are a number of theories but no one knows for sure. One theory is the “hottie” theory. The idea is that in the 1970’s all a girl needed to be was pretty, whereas now girls are expected to not only be “effortlessly hot” but also good students, good athletes, and popular, and get into a top college. The problem with this theory is that if it were completely correct, then girls should show a drop in happiness levels now, instead of the same happiness levels.

Although I think there is something to the “hottie theory”, I suspect what has really changed is the lives of boys. I was recently at a large family gathering, reminiscing about the past, and one thing that is different is the level of violence in schools. I don’t mean school shootings, or other kinds of dramatic violence, but rather plain old bullying and beating up. There is much less tolerance for these types of occurrences now than in 1976. So the experience of being bullied is much less prevalent now.

Another factor is the de-emphasis on athletic achievements. Now you can be cool without being an athlete. There is more emphasis on academic achievement, and a clever computer programmer can get girls just as well as the quarterback.

Which leads me to another very important change—sex. When I was a teenager in the 1970’s it was rare for kids to be sexually active before college. This led to a lot of sexual frustration for boys. Now it is the norm to be sexually active, so boys are having more and better sex at a much younger age, which I am quite certain improves their happiness levels.

So in conclusion, although the effects are small, men and boys are getting happier, while women fall behind. Much of this is because of changing expectations. In becoming more liberated, women have unfortunately taken on many more expectations for their work performance, but men have not picked up the slack at home. So women end up doing too much, and have a hard time downsizing their expectations for their house work and house appearance.

But it should be pointed out that these differences are small, and perhaps reflect more than anything else the changing expectations of boys and girls, and men and women. For women to be more happy, they probably have to do several things. One, they should push and encourage the men in their lives to do more housework and parenting, and they should do more relaxing. Second, they need to realize that they can’t “do it all” and lower their standards for household cleanliness and other household tasks. This will be hard for many women.

All in all, it’s good to be a man…

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge ™ All Rights Reserved

——————————————————————————————————————

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Sadder but Not Necessarily Wiser (and not quite as sad as expected)

Here is some more evidence that we poorly predict happiness and unhappiness.

A recent article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology again shows how poor we are at predicting our future states of happiness or unhappiness. As I wrote about in previous posts on happiness, we seem to be quite poor at predicting how we will feel in the future.

Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick at Northwestern University studied young lovers to see if their predictions of unhappiness after a breakup matched their actual suffering when the breakup occurred.

They looked at college students who had been dating for at least two months and had them fill out multiple questionnaires. Twenty six of the students broke up during the first six months of the study and these students predictions of distress were examined. The students at rated how painful a breakup would be on average two weeks before the breakup.

On average people overestimated the pain of a breakup. There was some correlation between how much people were in love and how much pain they suffered after the breakup, but everyone recovered more quickly than they had predicted. Looking at the actual study it appears that people were able to predict somewhat accurately their suffering in the first two weeks after the breakup. The correlation between their prediction and the actual distress was about 0.60 which means that they were able to predict about 36% of their suffering. But between weeks six and 10, the correlations dropped to about 0.30, which means that they were only able to predict about 10% of the variation in their suffering.

This is interesting in terms of the habituation process that I wrote about earlier. We habituate to both good and bad events. And we underestimate our ability to adapt to both types of events.

Now we shouldn’t make too much of this study. Remember this is a study of college students who had been dating for at least two months. This isn’t exactly a study of deep connection and commitment. It would be interesting, but much more difficult, to look at the same data for married couples who later break up.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge ™ /TPL Productions , All Rights Reserved

——————————————————————————————————————

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Getting Things Done: The Inner Game

How We Don’t Get Things Done

Today I am going to write about a topic that simultaneously seems ridiculously simple and yet is deeply complex. This isn’t based on any article or book, only my own musings, so you have only me to blame if this makes no sense. The question is: “Why can’t we accomplish our goals? Why can’t we get things done that we tell ourselves we want to do? Why is getting things done so hard?”

After all, think about it this way. If you want to raise your right hand and touch your chin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. You think, “Move your right hand to your chin,” and your hand moves completely predictably and reliably. You don’t forget to do it. You don’t struggle to do it. It is easy, almost effortless.

There are so many other examples where we get things done without apparent effort. You go to a restaurant, order food, and eat. No struggle, no difficulty. You don’t have to make a list of what to do. You don’t make a list; “1. Order food, 2. Eat food, 3. Pay bill.” You don’t check off anything. It all happens without drama or hassle.

So why is it so hard to do things like paying bills, cleaning up the kitchen, or doing financial planning? Why is it so hard to exercise? Who exactly is running the show? Which self says, “You should exercise.” Which self refuses to do so? How many selves do we have?

This is a deep mystery of the self. It’s almost like we have multiple warring selves, some of whom want to accomplish tasks and be productive citizens and some of whom want to sleep all day, or go to the beach, or eat crackers in bed.

How can we make sense of this? I’m going to propose a model for understanding this. It will develop as I write, so hang onto your hats.


WHAT DO WE REALLY WANT?

The first Big Question we need to examine is What Do We Really Want? Perhaps the problem is that we tell ourselves to do many tasks that we really don’t have any interest or intention of doing.

Why would we do this? Mainly because of social pressure, which we internalize. We are told you should clean up, pay bills, exercise, call your mother…and so on, and we end up internalizing these demands. But do we really want to do any of these things?

So when I tell myself, “You should pay the bills now,” do I really want to do this? I would argue that the behavior that follows answers the question. If I immediately sit down and pay the bills, then I wanted to pay them. But if I struggle, avoid, and don’t pay them without a lot of internal mental friction, then the answer is I didn’t want to pay them. I can force myself to do things that I don’t really want to do, but it’s hard, and takes extra time and effort. I want the bills to be paid, but I don’t want to pay them. That’s a common dilemma—we want the outcomes of an action, but we don’t want to do the action itself.

I am reminded of two stories that shed light on this dilemma. The first is a famous Zen story. A young monk visits the old Zen Master, telling the old master that he wishes to study with him to gain enlightenment. He goes on and on about how great it would be to study with the old master. The old Zen master says “walk with me.” They walk up a hillside, through a forest, and then come to a lake. The old Zen master walks out into the lake. Figuring that this is what Zen masters do, the young monk follows him out into the water. Soon the water is up to their necks. Calmly, the old master reaches out, forces the young monk under water, and holds him there with remarkable strength. The young monk struggles, and just when his lungs are bursting, he fights to the surface, and takes a huge breath. He looks with horror at the old Zen master, who simply smiles calmly and says, “Come back when you want enlightenment as much as you wanted that breath of air.”

Clearly we have no difficulty getting things done when we want those things done as much as the monk wanted that breath of air.

The second story is something I learned from a friend of mine who is a large animal veterinarian. I was always curious about the psychology of large animals like horses and cows. Carol worked with those, but also with more exotic beasts like buffalo. One time she mentioned a “buffalo bridle.” I was curious about what kind of bridle could be strong enough to control a buffalo, and asked her about it.

She looked at me with a sly smile, as if to say, “What a city slicker you are!” Then she explained that the buffalo bridle was not a thing, but rather something you know. Falling for it, I asked the obvious question: what do you need to know to control buffalo?

She said, “You only need to know two things.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“The first thing is that you can make a buffalo go anywhere you want…

as long as the buffalo wants to go there.”

“And let me guess the second principle,” I said. “You can keep a buffalo out of anywhere you want…. as long as they don’t want to go there.”

“Exactly!” she said.

So that’s another clue. We are a lot like buffalo. We get lots of things done, mainly the things we want to. And we are really good at not doing the things we don’t want to do.

So there you have it, a simple theory of why we get things done or don’t get things done. The things we get done easily are the things we wanted to do, and the rest is just a bunch of internalized “shoulds” that we never really wanted to do in the first place. In this radical notion there is nothing wrong with our “getting things done” mechanism. We simply have to stop fooling ourselves that we want to get all these things done. Accept our limited ambitions, and be done with it!

But there is a problem with this elegant and simple model. If this model is right, then what do we do? How can we get things done? It wouldn’t really work very well if everyone stopped doing the things they don’t want to do, like paying bills, cleaning the dishes, taking out the garbage, going to meetings, and so on. Unfortunately, sometimes we really need to do the things we don’t particularly want to do, like working at job, for an example.

Yet there is a simple allure to this model. And maybe we can use it to sort out the genuine wants from shoulds in our lives. Here’s an exercise. Take out a piece of paper right now. Make four columns vertically. In the first column list all of the tasks you find hard to get done. You can stop after 10 or so.

Next, label the second column “Want Rating.” In this column I want you to rate the degree to which you want to do each thing. This is your genuine desire to do the task, not the degree to which you think you should do it. Use a 0-10 scale where 10 is intense wanting.

In the next column rate the degree of should that you feel about the task. Again use a 0-10 scale.

Now look over the tasks where the rating for want is low, and should is high. In the last column write down what would happen if you never did the task. What would be the consequences?

This exercise can help sort out the wheat from the chaff, and help us eliminate thankless tasks or at least outsource them. For instance, I hate mowing the lawn, and can’t think of anything I’d rather not do instead. So I pay a gardener to do it. And I hate paying bills, so I don’t. Instead, I have most of my bills automatically deducted from my checking account or Visa card. If we analyzed all of our lives this way, perhaps we could spend more time doing our wants, and less time doing shoulds, and thus find happiness.

But let’s continue on our journey into the land of getting things done. Another question we need to ask is how can we want to do certain tasks? How do we increase our wanting? How do we become like that monk who desperately wants that next breath of air?

A Brief Digression into the Language of Wanting

But before I discuss that I want to take a slight detour through the intellectual forest, and talk about how we figure out what we want and perhaps more important, what we don’t want.

People often talk about doing things in terms of “having to.” “I have to go to work today. I have to take out the garbage, I have to pay the bills, I have to exercise, I have to take the kids to school.” Then there are other things that we don’t use this language about. No one really says, “I have to do the crossword puzzle, or I have to watch TV, or I have to kiss you.” But the truth is that the words “have to” don’t mean what they say. I don’t really have to go to work today. I don’t have to pay the bills. I can let the kids stay home and watch television. I can even let the garbage rot in the pail.

But we choose to do these things, mainly because we don’t want the negative consequences of not doing them. I don’t like the smell of rotting garbage, nor do I like bill collectors or truant officers banging on the door. The reason we don’t use the “have to” formulation for doing crossword puzzles, or watching television is because we enjoy them, and there are no negative consequences for not doing them.

Another difference is between process and outcome. Tasks that are easy are usually fun during the process of doing them, and have a good outcome. So watching a good show on television is fun during the watching, and leads to a satisfying outcome, assuming you are not watching the cliffhanger “24.” But paying bills is a mostly thankless process, and the only outcome is that you are poorer.

Another distinction is that easy tasks lead to some reward in the outcome, while hard tasks often the outcome is simply the lack of any negative outcome. When I pay bills, at the end I am a little poorer, and my creditors richer. All I have accomplished is to avert financial disaster.

So what happens if we change the inner and outer language we use? What happens if instead of saying “I have to _____” we instead say, “I choose to do_____” or even “I choose not to do _____?”

What is interesting is that saying “I choose not to do ____” is very powerful. It forces one to confront one’s actions as a conscious choice, rather than pretending that forces beyond your control are determining your actions.

And sometimes, when we say, “I choose not to do ____” we discover that that is just fine. For instance, my garage is a mess, but this weekend I choose not to clean it up. Instead I will take a bike ride.

Capitalism is to some extent based on altering what people choose to do. Forbes recently had a survey of the highest paying jobs in the United States. Almost all of them were medical jobs. Surgeons, anesthesiologists, dentists, and oral surgeons were all on the list. CEO’s were actually a little lower on the list.

Let’s think about this. We tend to think of these as good jobs. But let’s get real. Surgeons stick their hands inside the bloody guts of sick people. Anesthesiologist watch people sleep and try not to fall asleep themselves. Dentist and oral surgeons poke around people’s smelly mouths with small sharp tools. In order to get people to take on high stress, bloody, and often disgusting jobs, we pay them really well. Imagine if these jobs paid $40,000 a year. No one would do them. Most jobs that pay well require either lots of training, high stress, or great talent, and people are willing to work towards these jobs because they pay well. Salary is one way we get people to want to do things more than they would otherwise want to do them.

I often do a mental experiment with clients. When they are struggling to get something done, I ask them if they could do it if, upon completion, I wrote them a one million dollar check (and the check wouldn’t bounce.) Invariably, they say they would have no problem. So this tells us that one of the challenges of getting things done is that hard tasks have inadequate rewards. Or the rewards are too far off in the future to matter much. If I tell them instead of giving them a million dollars on completion, I will pay them 30 years later, then my offer loses most of its appeal.

How to Alter What We Want

So if my simple model is correct and we fail to accomplish things because we don’t want them enough, how do we change our wanting?

It seems that the key is to understand the basic principles that make us want to do things. Those things we do easily either are pleasant and fun during the actual process of doing them, or they have powerful rewards that follow their completion.

So understanding this we can begin to think about modifying tasks so that we can get them done. The first step is to improve the actual process of doing the task. For many boring, repetitive tasks, the easiest way to do this is to add another activity you do simultaneously. For instance, I usually clean the kitchen while on my headset phone talking with my mom or my brother long distance. This makes the experience almost painless, and I also benefit from staying in touch with people I love.

Or I will watch a baseball or football game on TV while sorting and filing papers. I have a rolling filing cabinet which I roll out into the living room, and this makes filing fairly painless.

Or I will listen to a podcast while grocery shopping.

Almost any task can be improved by adding good music, or an audiobook to the background.

The other strategy for lowering the aversiveness of tasks is time. If instead of trying to do an hour or two of boring paperwork, I instead break it down into 5 or 10 minute pieces, I can tolerate that much more easily. Some tasks are just too annoying to tolerate for very long, so breaking them down into smaller pieces makes good sense.

Another strategy is to change the reward structure. Let’s say you have 4 hours of filing to do. Although your papers will be filed at the end of the day, this is too small a reward to really motivate. You could break it down into 10 minute pieces, but this would mean you’d be still filing in 2050! The best strategy here is to create an artificial reward structure. Establish a reward you get when finished. Maybe you get to buy that Ipod Shuffle ™ you didn’t really need. I like to think in terms of an hourly rate of pay, even for nonwork tasks. I’ve set mine at $30 per hour, so after a four hour task I get to spend $120. Yours might be higher or lower, just be sure it’s high enough so that you are motivated. Pay yourself well for scut work!

This is the end of Part 1. In the next Part I will talk about the perils of prediction, the limitations of memory, and I’ll comment on the official Getting Things Done system.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

——————————————————————————————————————

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

The Physiological Mechanism for How Stress Affects the Brain


For those readers curious about the mechanisms by which emotional stress affects brain function, I found an interesting piece of research about the physical mechanisms for how chronic stress can induce brain changes that could lead to cognitive impairment.

Scientists at Salk Institute for Biological Studies subjected mice to mild chronic stress for two weeks. What they found was fascinating. First some background on the physiology of Alzheimer’s disease. As the article explains:

“Alzheimer’s disease is defined by the accumulation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. While plaques accumulate outside of brain cells, tangles litter the inside of neurons. They consist of a modified form of the tau protein, which–in its unmodified form–helps to stabilize the intracellular network of microtubules. In Alzheimer’s disease, as well as various other neurodegenerative conditions, phosphate groups are attached to tau. As a result, tau looses its grip on the microtubules, and starts to collapse into insoluble protein fibers, which ultimately cause cell death.”

So basically, when phosphate attaches the the tau molecules, it causes them to change from helpful molecules to damaging the neurons.

The mice research found that the brain-damaging effects of negative emotions are relayed through the two known corticotropin-releasing factor receptors, CRFR1 and CRFR2, which are part of the body’s central stress mediation system.

So what does this all mean? It suggests that we have to protect our brains from stress, particularly chronic stress. Occasional stress doesn’t cause problems, but daily chronic stress does. The mice only showed permanent brain changes after 2 weeks of daily stress.

So stress management through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other means is not just a nice comfort option, but may be essential if you want your brain to last. Emotional pain doesn’t just cause emotional damage, it also damages the brain.

Perhaps scientists will be able to develop drugs that change CRF1 and CRF2 levels, but in the meantime, better take up that yoga, meditation, relaxation exercise, or CBT stress management program!

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

——————————————————————————————————————

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Your Brain Wants You to Be Mellow: New Evidence Shows Chronic Emotional Stress Can Increase the Risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment in Later Life

So you’ve been putting off getting therapy, even though most of the time you feel anxious and upset? Well, a new study suggests that you may be putting your brain in danger.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, followed more than 1200 men and women who were 65 and older, average age of about 76. At the beginning of the study they made sure that none of them had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and measured their emotional distress using a simple 6 item scale of neuroticism. Items such as 1) “Are you the type of person whose feelings are easily hurt?”; 2) “Are you the type of person who is rather nervous?”; and 3) “Are you the type of person who is a worrier?” make up this scale.

At the beginning of the study the average score was about 15 on this emotional distress scale. Patients were followed up for up to 12 years. About 38% developed MCI during the study. Those in the top 10% of emotional distress at the beginning of the study were about 40% more likely to develop MCI.

What is interesting is this relationship held even after researchers statistically removed the effects of depressive symptoms at the beginning of the study. So the results were from emotional distress, not from depression. The risk for MCI increased by 2% for every 1 point increase on the distress scale. This is a pretty strong correlation.

So what does this mean? I think what it means is that chronic emotional upset is hard on the brain. It makes sense, since emotional stress raises stress hormones such as cortisol, which we know can damage the brain, especially the hippocampus, which controls memory. What we don’t know is whether this study was picking up some early brain changes in the elderly, changes which correlate with both emotional distress AND a tendency to develop MCI. A better study would look at younger people, and see if emotional distress in those aged 40 or 50 leads to the development of MCI in later life.

Since about a third of those with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s Disease, any reductions in the prevalence of MCI would be tremendously beneficial to society. Perhaps psychotherapy should be mandatory for all those over 65!

What can you do to lower your brain risk? First of all, honestly evaluate whether you suffer chronic emotional stress. Ask yourself if most of the time you feel calm and happy, or upset and worried and stressed. Also ask your close friends and/or family what they think. If you are someone who suffers chronic stress, then get help. A cognitive behavioral psychologist can teach you good stress management skills, and may help break lifelong patterns of emotional stress. Another good option is to learn mindfulness meditation and yoga and practice them daily. These are known to reduce psychological distress.

Whatever you do, don’t take it lightly if you are in long term distress. Your brain wants you to be mellow!

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

My Afternoon With the Dalai Lama: Lessons and Insights

I sat a mere thirty feet from his Holiness the Dalai Lama yesterday for 90 minutes. The day April 29, 2007 will always be special to me. It was very magical. Not because of what he said, standard but true Buddhism 101, but his character and his energy. There is a magic about this man, who more than anyone else seems to be completely in his own skin, and truly comfortable in that skin. He laughs, and he smiles, and he just seems unflappable. No pretense. When asked about parenting tips to raise a compassionate child, he laughs, and says, “I am monk. What do I know about raising children?” but then he continues, “Maximum care, maximum affection, and more time is the key.”

His basic message was about happiness. Happiness is mental, not based on people’s situations. Does this sound familiar? Basic cognitive therapy 101, happiness depends on how you think about things. Someone poor and homeless could be happier than someone wealthy and accomplished, depending on their respective expectations.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, happiness also comes from good companionship—friends, lovers, children, and a calm mind. Again, the Buddhists knew something 5000 years ago that modern social scientists are merely rediscovering—the critical importance of social support in mental health. For instance, 40 percent of married people describe themselves as “very happy” versus just 24 percent of single people. Those with 5 or more close friends are more likely to describe themselves as happy.

The fascinating thing about seeing the Dalai Lama is that once I settled down into a calm and meditative state listening to him, something transformative happened. I started to write down some ideas for creative projects, and suddenly words were flowing out of my pen. Anything was possible. I found myself having one of those magical moments that scientists describe as “Flow”. My confidence soared, and I had some important insights into life.

One of these insights was about watching television. I realized that watching television is about having nothing better to do at the moment. Even good television pales if there are wonderful social opportunities or creative ones. We watch TV because we are tired and a little bored. (Of course, even the Dalai Lama watches a little TV in the evenings, as he writes in the Art of Happiness—mostly nature documentaries, and not episodes of “24!” )

Another insight was about purpose. What is your purpose on this planet? What is the main thing you want to accomplish? So much of our striving and actions have no central purpose focus. We just sleepwalk through life. We just fill time. Some of us do it with work, some do it with relationships, some do it with reading, some with television, but all addictions have the same basic theme—how do I fill the time between being born and dying? If we know our purpose, then time fills itself.

The day after seeing the Dalai Lama, I awoke to a strange sense of emptiness. I felt like somehow it was gone: that quiet feeling of confidence, of knowing, of lack of worry. Was it all just a contact high? Later that same day, with meditation, contemplation, and writing I felt like I could get some of it back, so I knew then that my afternoon with the Dalai Lama had led to something real.

Namaste.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Shopping for Happiness ™

I’ve been working on a book length project on how to apply the current happiness research to everyday life, and this is an excerpt from that book.

It is said that money can’t buy happiness. This is mostly true. Like most generalizations, though, there are exceptions. What I hope to do in this chapter is to use the happiness research to teach you how to be better at shopping for happiness.

The happiness research teaches us several things. One basic principle is that of habituation, or getting used to things. This unfortunately robs us of joy from new and shiny possessions.

Thus using your hard–earned money to buy that shiny sports car will most likely not result in as much happiness as you anticipated. This is disappointing. After all, what is the point of making money if spending it doesn’t bring happiness?

The happiness research also shows us what tends to make people happy are experiences. This gives us some clues how to spend money to maximize happiness. Instead of buying things, which fade remarkably rapidly in their ability to please us, it makes more sense to use your spending to purchase items that allow you to have experiences you will enjoy. Or to directly purchase experiences that you will enjoy such as exotic trips, unique experiences, or thrills and chills like a parachute jump or bungee cord drop.

Let me give you some do’s and don’ts of shopping for happiness.

In many financial magazines and journals you will see little articles about how much money you can save by skipping the latte at your local café. They run the numbers, calculating one latte per day investing for umpteen million years, invested at 10% interest, becomes some ridiculous number by the time you are 93, perhaps even several hundred thousand dollars. It certainly would be nice to have a spare $200,000 by the time you are 93, assuming you make it that far.

The problem with all these articles is that they ignore what science has discovered about happiness. It really depends how you spend the $3 on your latte. If you spend $3 on a latte just so you can rush in and out of your local Starsucks, jump in your car, and spend your morning commute more caffeinated, then the articles are right. You’d be better off making coffee at home, putting it in a go cup, and investing that money for the long term.

However, if the way you enjoy your latte is by sitting at your local café where you know people, chatting with your table neighbor, reading the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or the local paper, and in general, relaxing and socializing, then this is a $3 very well spent indeed! What you done is to purchase a pleasant and social experience. If you do this daily, you will form a community of sorts, which always increases happiness.

Spending money in order to have satisfying experiences leaves you with memories of those experiences, which linger, and raise your happiness level.

Let me give another example. Someone close to me was living with a woman and he was struggling to find athletic activities he could share with his partner. She didn’t like hiking,  and would complain bitterly when they climbed hills.

Biking was even worse. She was a slow and unconfident rider. He was resentful at how slowly she rode, as it prevented him from enjoying a workout. He also constantly worried about her in traffic, as she had little experience riding, and often would dart out into traffic. She would get mad at him when he rode ahead of her. It was no fun for either of them.

This was a problem. What was the solution? I suggested to them that they spend some money to solve this. What did I suggest? I told him to buy a tandem bicycle. I had seen one on EBay, a recumbent tandem, for about $1800 shipped.

He bought it, and they started to ride together. She would ride on the back of the bike where all she had to do was peddle, and he would steer the bike from the front position. He got a great workout, even if she didn’t peddle very hard, and she was guaranteed to keep up.

It became a very enjoyable activity for them, riding almost every weekend, talking while they rode, and enjoying a pleasant and athletic activity together.

What did my friend purchase? It seemed like he purchased an expensive tandem bike. But in actuality, he purchased a “ticket to ride” or a ticket to a recurring pleasant experience for him and his wife.

Similar examples would be buying backpacking equipment, golf equipment, scuba gear, running shoes, and so on. But it should be something you use regularly. Buying a pair of skis and boots that you only use 3 days a year will not have a significant impact on your happiness level, in fact, in many of these cases it’s better to rent.

For instance, I enjoy scuba. But other than a mask and fins, I own no scuba equipment. The main reason is that I only scuba dive a few days each year, and thus the hassle of buying and owning and maintaining the equipment is not worth the small increment in happiness that my own gear would bring. If I dove frequently I would own my own equipment.

This brings me to another useful principle in shopping for happiness. I didn’t invent this one, my friend Dan came up with this principle. Dan taught me one simple principle for purchasing things. He told me that one should buy the very best in things that you interact with every day.

Again, if I scuba dive daily, I should buy the best equipment I can afford. Or if I am a bicyclist, and I ride daily or almost daily, then it makes sense to spend three, four, or even five thousand dollars on a great bike if I can afford that.

As a result of Dan’s law, I am writing this on my very sleek three-pound Dell XPS laptop computer, which I use almost daily for writing and web-surfing in cafes. At home I write on a three monitor workstation, with a 32 inch monitor flanked by two 24 inch monitors. This is a delicious luxury which I use for many hours each day. As an avid computer user, I think one of the best investments one can make is to buy large flat screen monitors for all of your computers. Especially if you are over 40, and developing presbyopia.

How does this apply to buying cars? Cars are tricky because there are at least three different issues that are relevant: status, function, and add-ons.

The most obvious issue is status. Unfortunately, this is the one that has the smallest and most fleeting impact on happiness. If you buy your car to impress others, they will be less impressed than you expect, even if you buy an outrageous car like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Secondly, their being impressed will actually give you less happiness than you expected, and you will get used to the oooh’s and aaaah’s all too quickly. Finally, the hassles and owning and insuring and driving a supercar will soon outweigh the relatively small happiness that status brings you. So rule # 1 is don’t buy things for status.

(The same applies for kitchens, bathrooms, televisions, or any other product where you might be torn between shopping for status versus function. If you are buying granite countertops because you like chopping food on granite, that makes sense. If you are buying them so your friends will say “Ooooooh and Aaaaaah” when they come into your kitchen, then your happiness dividends will be much less than you expect. After all, your friends will habituate to your new kitchen, and will stop marveling at its wonders after a few visits. And long before that, you too will have grown used to the “new normal” and lost your initial joy in it.)

Going back to the example of a car, you should be thinking about function. Therein lies the rub. Most expensive cars are not very different in function from less expensive cars. All cars have four wheels, a motor, brakes, and a radio. Heresy! You are thinking. Of course expensive cars are different. But not very much. Once you get into the $20,000 to $30,000 range for a car, you are getting a fast, quiet, and comfortable car that takes you where you wish to go. Above this amount, you are primarily paying for status or for features you can’t use much. Case in point, many expensive cars go very fast. A Ferrari can do a top speed of 155 mile per hour. Cool, right? There’s only one catch. It’s hard to get up to this speed on your morning or evening commute. In fact, you are lucky if you even get up to 45 mph.

So buying features you can’t use won’t increase happiness much, and may even frustrate you. Trying driving a six-speed manual transmission Ferrari in bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway sometime, if you don’t believe me.

Remember I said there were three factors. The first was status which I hope that I have demonstrated has relatively little lasting impact on happiness. The second is function. Function matters somewhat, but what really matters is the basic functions of a car, the ability to drive at reasonable speeds with reasonable comfort and quiet. That’s why convertibles rarely bring people as much happiness as they expect.

Convertibles are really fun about one or two weeks a year. But much of the time it is too hot, too cold, or too rainy to benefit. And convertibles are not very pleasant cars with the tops rolled up. So it makes more sense to rent a convertible for a week or two a year, and enjoy it. Most mid-range cars function very well, and expensive luxury cars have only a few additional functions, and sometimes these functions are more trouble than they are worth. As an example, the BMW 5 series, which has something called an I-drive ™ which is like a joystick that controls the car’s functions. Many reviewers have complained that this feature is confusing and difficult to use, and requires constant reading of the car’s manual.

The third principle of shopping for happiness with cars is the add-on principle. Instead of buying an expensive car, and having no money left over, buy a cheaper car and invest the money you save by customizing and improving the car in ways that will actually increase your happiness while driving.

An example is two items that can have a big impact on happiness. The first is a GPS unit. If you are like my friend’s girlfriend, who is directionally impaired, and who constantly is getting lost and arriving late to every destination, then buying a GPS unit will have a huge impact on your happiness level while driving. She has told me numerous times that buying a GPS was the best thing she ever bought for her car. It eliminated a constant annoyance in her life, for an investment of only about $300. (Or buy a good mount for your smartphone and use that as a GPS navigator.)

The other investment in a car that makes sense is a good sound system for your car. Now if you only drive 5 minutes a day, skip this paragraph. But if you are like most Americans, and you commute a significant distance each day, then it makes good sense to spend some money on adding a great sound system to your car, if it doesn’t have one already.

You will definitely want a way to play all of your favorite music. It doesn’t matter whether that is a way to plug in your Ipod, a CD changer, or some other device. You may also want to consider a satellite radio unit, especially if you like commercial free radio and you like talk radio without commercials. (No one has ever demonstrated that commercials add to happiness levels.) So for the mere $15 a month that it costs, satellite radio may be an excellent investment in happiness.

Once again, neither a GPS nor a satellite radio is very expensive, and they can be just as easily installed in a $15,000 car as a $100,000 car.

I practiced this with older cars for many years. When my Nissan Maxima passed its 15th year, I decided to give it a birthday party, and to improve the car. I replaced the sound system, put new shocks in the front, and added an anti-sway bar to improve its cornering ability. This greatly improved both the driving quality and the experience of being inside the car, and was much cheaper than buying a new car.

In a similar way, you could utilize the add-on principle for a house. Instead of buying a new house, you might focus on improving several areas of your current house, focusing on function rather than status.

I was speaking with a client recently, who loves cooking. She was contemplating a kitchen remodel. She was talking about granite countertops.

I asked her, “Can you cut food on granite?”

“No, of course not,” she said.

“Can you prepare food on granite?” I asked.

“You can,” she said, “but it’s not a good idea. The food can stain the granite.”

“How is a granite countertop going to make your cooking experience more enjoyable? “ I asked.

She thought about it for a moment, and then said quietly, “Well, it probably won’t make it more fun, but it will look nice.”

So I asked her how much the granite countertop would cost. She told me $12,000. I asked her if her budget was unlimited. She said no. Then I said, “Are there any functional items that would make your life easier as a cook? Are there any things you would rather spend your $12,000 on?”

She thought about it, and then she mentioned a special European dishwasher that had two drawers, so that you never had to unload it. And a special type of oven that was costly but worked better.

In the end, she decided to keep her tile countertops, and instead spent the money on high- end incredible appliances that she uses every day.

This was a great example of shopping for happiness. She spent her money on things that would bring her direct joy every day. In general, if you want to spend money on making your kitchen “look impressive”, you’d be better off spending the money on a beautiful painting, or on functional items that you can enjoy every day. Very few people spend time sitting in their kitchen, simply staring at and admiring the granite counters!

Let’s talk about more shopping decisions, and other ways to shop for happiness.

Travel is a great example where shopping for happiness principles are useful. First of all, travel in general enhances happiness. This is because even trips that aren’t that great tend to improve in memory, especially as we tell and retell the stories. Some of the biggest disasters on trips end up making the most memorable stories.

I’m reminded of an infamous bus trip I took while in graduate school, on a hippy bus line from Seattle to Baja Mexico. My then girlfriend and I decided it would be a lark to spend three weeks traveling around Baja on this hippie bus, and off we went. Many disasters ensued, including a middle of the night near head-on crash with another bus which took off the side mirrors on both buses, a trailered boat breaking an axle, falling off the bus, and taking a short and tragic trip across the chaparral, ending up in pieces, multiple encounters with Mexicans who were baffled by this group of Americans, getting off the bus when it became apparent that it was dangerous to stay on the bus, hiking to a deserted beach in the desert, and waking up in the morning to a beautiful experience of homemade fruit salad and skinny dipping, which resulted in every local bee attacking for hours, hiking out from the beach in a hurry as a result, and getting lost in the desert when I proudly said I knew exactly where we were, waking up in the middle of the night in a cheap hotel room only to discover 6 inch roaches trying to drag our food bags away, and then sleeping fully dressed, with blindfolds and the lights on for the rest of a very fearful night!

And these are just the highlights!

This is the stuff of legend, and I have to admit it was one of the best trips of my life. It also brought us closer because we had to cope with all of these disasters.

There are principles of shopping for happiness in travel which many people ignore. For instance, many people will pay more money to upgrade to business or first class when flying. This is generally not a good investment in happiness. (Unless work pays for it, then why not?)

(I should add at this point that these comments apply to people who do not have unlimited financial resources. If you are a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, you have a completely different set of problems in terms of shopping for happiness, which I will talk about later in a section called Shopping for Happiness Tips for the Billionaire.)

This is not to say that business class and first class are not pleasant experiences. In comparison to coach, they are. The reason why they do not deliver a proportionately higher level of happiness, relative to their cost, is that most airline rides are short. If you are flying 2 to 5 hours, the difference is not very significant. It’s especially less significant if you tend to nap on cross country flights. If I close my eyes, and nap for half of my cross country flight, then I am looking at a 2.5 hour experience in First Class, for a cost of an extra thousand or more dollars. Spending $500 an hour to have a slightly wider seat, better food, and a few free drinks seems like a bad investment in happiness.

The same principle applies to hotels. Many people like to stay in four of five star class hotels, probably because they like the status of doing so. In general this is not a wise investment of travel money, especially if you tend not to spend a lot of time in your hotel room.

If you mainly use the hotel to sleep, then a five star hotel offers very little that a two star hotel does not. As long as the bed is comfortable, and the room is quiet at night, nothing else really matters. A big TV is not important, as you can watch TV at home. A gorgeous swimming pool is also not so important, as you can use the five star hotel’s swimming pool even if you are staying across the street in the two star hotel. Or you can go to the beach, which is free.

There is one exception, though, which is if you plan on never leaving your hotel during your stay. In that case it may make sense to pay more for a luxurious hotel room, as you will get to experience that luxury 24/7. This may have a small impact on increasing your happiness level.

The better way to spend money on travel is to use the happiness research which tells us that status items do not bring much happiness, and that experiences are what we remember fondly. An example of this would be to skip the five star hotel in Hawaii which costs $300 or $500 a night, and to instead stay at the $150 three star hotel. Then invest the difference in buying great experiences.

One day you might spend $200 on renting a pair of jet skis, and have a very exhilarating experience zooming around the coast. Another day you could spend that $200 taking surfing lessons, and renting surfboards. Whether you surf successfully or not, you will have a memorable experience. The next night you treat yourselves to a dinner in the best restaurant in Honolulu, where you run into Barack Obama, who is having dinner with his family at the next table. (True story from 2006.)

Think about travel stories you have told or listened to. Was it very memorable that the hotel room was large or luxurious? No. What was memorable is when you left the hotel and had exciting experiences.

To be continued…

Copyright 2006-2017 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions/Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D.

 Shopping for Happiness ™ is a trademarked term. Trademark 2006, Andrew Gottlieb.

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

On Perfectionism and How to Overcome It

Today I am writing about perfectionism, that deadly trait that infects so many people, causing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and procrastination. Perfectionism is really about having unreasonable standards for your own or others’ performance. When you are a perfectionist, it means you never can live up to your internal standards. This causes unhappiness and depression. It may also cause anxiety.

Closely linked to perfectionism is all-or-nothing thinking. Although the real world is an analog world, we often think of it in binary terms. Our job is “good” or it is “bad.” A vacation is “wonderful” or “horrible.” People are “interesting” or “boring.” What makes all-or-nothing thinking part of perfectionism is that it makes your standards rigid and inflexible. There’s no grading on a curve with binary thinking. Your performance is an “A” or an “F.”

So what’s wrong with perfectionism anyway? Doesn’t it make one perform better?

The answer is no. Perfectionism actually leads to lower performance. When you have unreasonably high standards you are more likely to get disappointed when you fail to meet that standard. And disappointment makes people try less hard. It saps the will and depresses the spirit.

So you might be wondering how do I change my perfectionism? (And how do I do it instantly!) 🙂 The key to altering perfectionist tendencies is to do several things:

1. Set reasonable and flexible standards for your performance and others.

2. Reserve higher standards only for those tasks that truly require them.

3. Test out your standards. See if it’s necessary to actually be so perfect. Try doing things less well, and see if the sky falls.

4. Remember life is not just about performance. It is also about enjoyment, fun, and relaxation.

5. Think in terms of a continuum or grey scale. Instead of using all-or-nothing terms like “good” or “bad” instead use a 10 point rating scale. The dinner was a “6.” The movie was a “2.” This gets you thinking along a continuum, which is healthier and less stressful.

6. Always ask yourself before you decide on standards whether the task is actually worth doing at all. If something is not worth doing, then it is not worth doing perfectly. So for instance, when you purchase some small item that doesn’t work out, perhaps it makes sense to toss it out, or give it away, rather than gathering up the packing materials, driving 30 minutes, and returning it. Not perfect, but perhaps a better choice.

7.

The End (Notice the slight imperfection.)

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.