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 kinds 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 of 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.

Why You Should Never Read Online Illness or Medication Forums, and Why You Should be Skeptical of Google Search Results as Well

The first thing many people seem to do when they get a diagnosis of a physical or a mental illness is to go to the internet and search on that illness. Patients who are prescribed medications do the same. Often the search results lead to internet forums. These forums consist of user-generated content that usually is not moderated or edited by any professional. Anyone can post on these forums. This seems reasonable, right? But in this article I’m going to tell you why, for the most part ,you should avoid reading these forums. And I will also tell you why you should be skeptical of Google search results regarding any illness.

When people read on forums about their illness or medication, they get scared. Many of the forum posts will say that your illness leads to awful and dire outcomes, and that the medications prescribed to you will make you depressed, addicted, or crazy.

For instance, I often treat tinnitus patients. Samplings of the forums that cover tinnitus suggest that most of the people who post on these forums are completely miserable and suffering terribly from their tinnitus.

So what’s the problem here? Isn’t this useful information? Can’t patients learn something interesting and helpful from these forums?

Unfortunately, Internet illness forums often present a distorted, grim, and negative impression of most illnesses and most medications. Why is this? The main reason is because of selection and sampling bias. The groups of people who post on illness forums are not a representative sample of people with a particular illness. Let’s use tinnitus as an example. If you read the tinnitus forums you would assume that everybody with tinnitus is anxious and depressed about it.

But actually, we know from research studies that roughly 20% to 40% of the population experience tinnitus symptoms from time to time. We also know that roughly 2% of people who have tinnitus symptoms suffer psychologically. So the data from research suggests that a small subset (2%) of people who have tinnitus symptoms suffer anxiety and depression as a result of their tinnitus. Most people (98%) with tinnitus symptoms do not suffer significantly or they have adapted over time and gotten over their suffering.

But the forums are full of posts from the people who suffer the most. People who don’t suffer don’t spend their time posting. And people who have overcome their suffering also don’t post. So reading the forums gives a tinnitus patient a distorted and scary view of the experience of tinnitus.

The other problem in reading internet information about illnesses is the way that Google Search ranks and orders search results. When you search on tinnitus, what you might not realize is that Google presents pages in order of popularity, not in order based on how accurate or scientific they are. Sites that are clicked on more frequently will rise up in the Google search results and sites that are clicked on less frequently will fall down. When you do a Google search people typically click on the most shocking and scary links. “Tinnitus caused by alien abduction” will get a lot of clicks even though it may represent a site run by a single person who claims to have been abducted by aliens. Thus the alien abduction tinnitus site will move up in the Google rankings.

Boring scientific sites fall down in the search rankings. That’s because they have scientific names that don’t encourage people to click on the links.

So how can patients get accurate information about their illness or about medication treatments?

One way is to search within scientific and medical sites. For instance, Medscape is an excellent website that offers medical articles about almost every illness. WebMD is another site more designed for lay people, which also offers good information. If you want to search scientific articles you can use the PubMed search engine which searches published research articles.

Let’s do a Google search on tinnitus. Overall, the 1st page of Google results is pretty representative of medical and scientific sites. But the 3rd listing titled “In the news”, is an article “Martin McGuinness tells of misery living with tinnitus,” from the Belfast Telegraph. Pretty grim, you think, misery!

But if you actually clicked through to the article you would get a very different impression because Martin McGuinness actually says that “it had a limited impact on day-to-day life and work and that family, friends and work colleagues were very supportive.… It does not limit me in a professional or personal capacity.” This is a much more positive view than suggested by the title and the Google link.

This is a great example of why the Internet is dangerous. The headline is what’s called click bait, a link that falsely represents the actual page, which is designed to attract people’s clicks.

Forums about medication are also problematic. Many psychiatric medications can have side effects. For most people these side effects are minimal or tolerable and are overbalanced by the benefits of the medications. For a minority of patients, the side effects are not minimal and these are the patients who are over-represented in most Internet medication forums. Also, on an Internet forum you never really know all of the medications the person is taking, the accurate dosages, as well as their underlying illness.

There is one more problem with reading about illnesses on the Internet. It’s one that particularly disturbs me. Many websites, even websites that purport to be objective, actually are selling something. They may be selling a supplement or vitamin, or an e-book or some other kind of program to treat an illness. Obviously, to increase sales, these commercial websites will paint a distorted negative picture of any illness or condition. They may also disparage other more traditional and scientifically validated treatments or drugs. In general, you should be skeptical of any information that comes from a website that sells products or services.

To review:

  1. Take Google search results with many grains of salt. Remember that Google orders search results by popularity not by accuracy.
  2. Beware of Internet illness and medication forums. By and large, they are populated with an unrepresentative sample of illness sufferers, the ones who suffer the most and cope the least well. Reading them will depress you and make you anxious.
  3. If you want to get information about your illness or potential treatments, utilize established and reputable medical and psychological information sites. An exhaustive list of best medical sites can be found at: the Consumer and Patient Health Information Site. Some of the good medical sites include MedscapeWebMD, and MayoClinic. Some of the best sites for mental health information include PsychCentral, NIMH , American Psychiatry Association, American Psychology Association .
  1. Finally, remember that a very large percentage of websites are actually selling something, and be skeptical of information from these sites.

In conclusion, suffering any illness or condition is unpleasant and sometimes scary. Don’t make it worse by consuming information on the Internet in a random way. Be skeptical and selective and remember that Google is not always your friend. Often a good physician or good psychologist can give you clear and balanced information.

 

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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.