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 People build up very high expectations of their potential date, based on photoshopped or out-of-date photographs, as well as email or chat communications that may represent an unrealistically positive view of the other person.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.

Dealing with Conflict Over Typical Home Neatness/Cleanliness Issues: The Houzz Interview and Some Other Thoughts

I was recently interviewed for the site Houzz, which is a web site and online community about architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement. In an article, A Therapist’s Guide to Dealing With Conflict at HomeI was interviewed by Mitchell Parker, a writer for Houzz.

He asked me to comment on that age-old problem when people live together of neatness/sloppiness and cleanliness/messiness. How can people get along?

I suggest you read his article which really quite nicely captures my thinking about these issues. In a nutshell, it’s all about communication. It’s not the dirty dishes that create conflict, it’s the failure to communicate about the dirty dishes in ways that resolve the problem.

Most importantly, I discussed the fallacy of the moral high ground in neatness and cleanliness. I admit I might be a bit biased on this issue, living closer to the moral low ground, but the argument is that there is no moral high ground in terms of these issues. Because our culture often values neatness and cleanliness, in arguments the neat person always takes the moral high ground, “I am the one who’s right therefore you should change.” Needless to say this doesn’t usually result in any positive progress on the issue.

I prefer to think of these issues as aesthetic preferences. Just as one person might prefer abstract art on the wall, while another person might prefer realistic paintings, messiness versus neatness is really an aesthetic preference. Handling it this way usually leads to better outcomes in conflicts over these issues. If two people come at the neat/messy conflict from a position of having differing preferences as opposed to “shoulds”, it is more likely that they can come to some sort of negotiated compromise which will be workable.

And treating these differences as preferences has another advantage as well. It usually leads to much more respectful communication about these issues. If a neat person recognizes that their need for neatness is simply a preference, they will not demonize their partner who is messy, calling them a “slob” or a “pig”. In a similar way, if the messy person recognizes that their disorder is a preference, they won’t label their partner as obsessive or a “neat freak.” This makes it much easier to discuss the differences.

The key issue is to apply a sort of flowchart to these issues. The flowchart looks like this:

1.Identify what each of you wants in terms of your home environment. Recognize that these are aesthetic preferences, and not moral shoulds.

2.Identify the ideal state that you would prefer, and also identify a less than ideal but okay state. It’s the latter that you will most likely end up with.

3. Discuss the differences, and see if there is a workable compromise. Sometimes the compromise will not be a simple meeting in the middle, but will instead involve a trade-off. For instance, if one person prefers an impeccably clean house, but the other person is not willing to spend the time and effort to do this, the couple could agree that they will hire someone to come in weekly to clean the house. Or the neater person might clean the house, but the other person agrees to do other life maintenance tasks such as paying the bills, parenting tasks, gardening tasks, or house maintenance tasks. Things don’t have to be perfectly split down the middle, it’s just important that they feel fair.

4. In looking at these differences it’s also useful to see what people are able to do, and what they are willing to do. Willingness and being able to do something are completely different things. As hard as it is to believe, (for the neat person), many messy people actually do not have the ability to be ordered and neat. This seems hard to believe. After all, can’t anybody fold their clothing and put it away? Can’t anybody put a dish in the dishwasher? And of course the answer is yes, technically, but in practice, especially over time, many people lack the skills.

Think of it this way. Technically anybody should be able to exercise every single day of their life and also eat healthy. We all know how to eat healthy and how to exercise. But how many people actually succeed on a daily basis? Very few. We are willing but not very able.

5. Which brings me to my next issue that of willingness. Even if we are technically able to do something, we might not always be willing to spend the time and energy doing it. Time and energy are a zero-sum game. We only have 16 hours of conscious time each day, and actually most of us have far fewer free hours, with work, parenting, relaxation, and other priorities.

Cleaning and organizing takes time and energy, and while some people feel the time and energy is well rewarded others do not. In my interview, I suggested a market-based way of assessing willingness. Although I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suggested that if one partner wants the other to do something they offer to pay them. If I want my partner to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, what am I willing to pay on a daily basis? And what price would they require to be willing to do this?

This is more of a mental exercise than an actual exchange of dollars. But I know for myself if my partner asked me what it would be worth for me to keep every surface in my home perfectly cleared every single day, I would set the price very high, something like $500 a day. That is because it would take a lot of conscious work in order to keep every surface clear. And it would take perhaps an hour or two every day. My price represents my perceived value for the change.

And then my partner could decide if that was worth it. After all, we make these kinds of evaluations all the time. If our not so new car gets scratched in a parking lot, most of us choose not to spend a lot of money to have it fixed. We accept the scratches and live with them.

6. What it comes down to is very simple. If you want your partner to change some house related behavior, first try to assess their ability and willingness to do so. If they are able and willing then you can try to get them to change their behavior. This will require ongoing discussions and work, and will not be easy.

Or you can outsource the problem. If you don’t like cleaning toilets and you can’t get your partner to do that, pay someone to clean your toilets. Most of us do this in other realms without any issues. We pay car mechanics to fix our cars, we pay gardeners to cut down our trees, and we often pay tutors to help our kids learn.

Finally, you can accept the difference. Acceptance is probably the most powerful tool in dealing with these conflicts. Acceptance frees you to stop wasting energy being angry or trying to change your partner. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it frustrates you and annoys the pig.”

I started this post thinking I would just point to the interview that I did on house, but discovered that I wanted to elaborate on some of the concepts that I discussed during that interview.

Good luck to all of you, these can be difficult issues, and the key thing is to remember to be gentle, loving, and respectful in your communications about these differences. Nobody gets divorced over dishes in the sink, they get divorced because of the way they interact around dishes in the sink.

I’m off to straighten up, or maybe not?

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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.

12 Techniques for Giving Criticism and Feedback so that People Can Hear It without Getting Defensive

I was recently asked a very interesting question by one of my clients. He asked, “What percentage of people can listen to feedback and criticism without getting defensive?” I responded, not really in jest, “Only the people that have taken my non-defensiveness training!”

The reality is that most people instantly get defensive when criticized or even given mildly negative feedback. Regular readers will recall that I’ve written extensively about how to respond non-defensively: see “Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill.”

But I also wanted to write about the other side of the equation – some techniques for giving feedback and criticism that lower the probability of the other person feeling hurt or getting defensive.

Here are 12 great concepts in giving feedback and criticism.

1. Focus on behavior and not on the person. Never label the person with a pejorative label. Avoid words like “inconsiderate”, “jerk”, “slob”, “lazy”, and all other negative label words especially four letter words.

2. Be specific and concrete when you focus on behavior. Use the journalistic technique of who, what, when, where, and if appropriate, why when you describe a behavior. For instance, consider this feedback from a wife to her husband: “An hour ago, when we were talking to Herb and Lucille, in their garden, you told them about my getting fired from my job. This upset me because I have a lot of shame right now about getting fired.” Notice that this feedback includes all of the specific descriptors.

3. Whenever possible, tell the person what you want instead of what you don’t want. So instead of criticizing your partner for sitting on the couch while you clean the kitchen, instead ask them to help you clean the kitchen. If there is a specific behavior that you would like the person to stop, it’s okay to ask them to stop but usually better to also specify something else that you would prefer. Example: “I’d really like it if you wouldn’t scream at the children. Could you instead talk firmly to them? I’d really appreciate that.”

4. Recognize what people can change and cannot change, and how difficult a specific behavior will be for them to change. This is a difficult lesson, and one that most of us resist. But it’s terribly important.

I’m reminded of the famous parable of the frog and the scorpion. In the story, a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I’ll drown, and I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the sting, knows he is dying, and has just enough time to gasp “Why did you sting me, now we both will die?” Replies the scorpion: “Because I am a scorpion, it’s my nature…”

Another similar saying is, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it will frustrate you and annoy the pig.”

Some things people can change and others are more linked to their basic character and nature, and are extremely difficult if not impossible to change. There is also the issue of what people are willing to invest energy in changing.

Here are some criteria for determining whether a particular criticism even make sense.

  • Has the person had a specific behavior for most of their life? If so, what makes you think it will suddenly change?
  • Is the person genuinely interested in making the desired change? Is it within their value system to change? People can change the things that they strongly wish to change, but if they’re only changing because you asked them to, they will most likely fail.
  • How much energy would it take for the person to change the behavior? Something that takes very little energy is more likely to happen than a request which will take herculean amounts of energy.
  • Is changing this particular behavior the most important thing for you or might there be a different behavior that would yield more satisfaction for you?
  • Does the person have shame attached to the behavior you are criticizing? If so, you should carefully consider whether the criticism is worth the pain you will most likely cause.

The idea here is to avoid asking the scorpion not to sting. If someone’s been messy and disorganized for their whole life, it’s probably not reasonable to ask them to become neat and organized. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t make any requests, but a more reasonable request might be to ask the messy person to keep their mess within a specific room or rooms, and then close the door.

Always evaluate if it’s even worth giving criticism. Remember, criticism is fairly toxic to relationships. Women sometimes criticize men in the hopes that the men will change. Nobody really changes. If you feel a need to criticize your partner constantly than the problem is probably with you and your lack of tolerance and acceptance. Or maybe you need to re-evaluate whether the relationship makes sense to continue.

5. Avoid giving feedback or criticism when you are particularly angry. Very few of us have the skills to give gentle and reasonable criticism when we are really frustrated and angry. If you give criticism when you are pissed off, you will blow it. You won’t be able to follow any of the rules in this article. Your primary goal will be to hurt the other person, which never works out well.

6. Pick your time and place carefully. This should include assessing your partner’s state of mind. If they are hungry, angry, stressed out, or tired then defer your criticism for later. It will never go well if you’re not attentive to time and place and state of mind. And remember, sometimes the right time and place is never and nowhere.

7. Ask for change, don’t demand change. Most of us get really stubborn when someone demands that we change. Besides, who made you the boss?

8. Avoid spending any significant time discussing the past. Mistakes made in the past are over and done with unless you own a time machine. Giving multiple examples of past mistakes will only overwhelm the person and make them defensive. Give only one example at most. Better yet, use an example from the current time. Assume your partner isn’t stupid and can understand the specific behavior you’re asking them to change.

9. Once you’ve asked for a change don’t micromanage that change. Let the person figure out how to do it, and don’t stand over them or constantly monitor them.

10. Be very specific about your feedback and the desired outcome. Your requested outcome should be so clear to the other person that anyone would be able to determine whether the outcome had occurred or not. Use the journalistic model of who, what, when, where, and why. Use accurate language, and avoid extremes of “never” or “always”. Don’t ask your partner to never again throw their clothing on the floor. Instead, specify that you would like it to happen less frequently.

11. Use a soft start up. Give a compliment first and be gentle in the feedback you give. Point out (if true) how the criticized behavior is a departure from the person’s usual terrific behavior. This is a way of giving a compliment while giving criticism. Example: “You are usually so helpful in the kitchen. But last night you left all of the dirty dishes. I’d really appreciate if you’d clean them up this morning.”

12. Never threaten your partner or deliver ultimatums. Even if you are at the end of your rope never threaten the termination of the relationship. When people hear an ultimatum they shut off. Also it triggers resistance since none of us like to be blackmailed into action.

Also, you can only make an ultimatum once. If you make it more than once you lose all credibility. So just avoid them entirely. (Notice this applies to parenting children as well.)

So there you have 12 great techniques for giving feedback and criticism in a healthy way. Remember that it’s essential to balance criticism with lots and lots of compliments and showing appreciation. Good relationships typically have at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback. If your relationship has a lower ratio than this then it’s time to change. Catch your partner doing things that you like and appreciate, and let them know in a warm and genuine way. This is perhaps the most important secret of giving criticism – let it be in the context of lots of praise.

Now I have to go tell my sweetie that she is awesome!

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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.

“Not Tonight Dear” Why Couples Stop Having Sex (and what you can do about it)

When I do couples therapy a very common complaint is that the sex is infrequent or nonexistent. Over a period of time this tends to erode a couple’s sense of connection. It also tends to breed resentment and anger.

Why do couples stop having sex, and what can you do to prevent this?

There are a number of reasons that can cause couples to stop having sex.

1. Anger and resentment in the relationship

A big reason is unresolved anger or resentment in the relationship itself. Most couples don’t want to have sex when they’re angry. (Angry sex or makeup sex seems to be relatively rare amongst most couples.) Often the anger or resentment issues are long-standing, and feel unresolvable. The couple feels distant from one another, and as a result stops being affectionate or sexual.

The solution to this problem is talking. Talking calmly and non-defensively in order to resolve problems and eliminate resentments. Clearing the air on a regular basis is essential for couples happiness. If you can’t do it yourself, get some couples counseling and learn the skills for resolving conflict.

2. Mediocre or boring sex

Another reason couples stop having sex might seem very obvious — the sex isn’t very good. Perhaps there are sexual problems such as erectile difficulties or difficulties having orgasms. Or perhaps the sex is just mediocre and routine. Perhaps sex is too much work.

The antidote to this problem is to work on improving the quality of sex and touching. There are a number of exercises that couples can do to improve their ability to please one another. One such exercise is called sensate focus. In this exercise couples take turns touching one another all over the body, while the recipient of touching give us feedback about what feels good. The purpose of this exercise is to learn where and how to touch your partner in order to give them the most pleasure.

Verbal communication is also essential for improving the quality of sex. Most couples talk about everything other than sex. It’s difficult for couples to communicate what they like and don’t like sexually. But without this communication the couple is driving blind, and the most likely outcome is going off the cliff.

If couples cannot achieve this on their own, then a few sessions of focused sex therapy can be very helpful. During these sessions the couple learns how to talk about sex comfortably, and troubleshoots issues that are preventing them from having good sex. Typically sex therapy is brief therapy — less than 10 sessions. Unless you have a fabulous sex life, a few sessions of sex therapy, learning how to communicate sexual desires, fantasies, turn-on’s, and turn-offs, is highly recommended.

3. Issues with initiating sex

Another reason couples stop having sex is issues with initiation. Initiating sex is a very delicate balance. When one person approaches the other, there is tremendous potential for hurt and rejection. If one person suggests sex, and the other turns it down, this often leads to resentment and finally avoidance.

Other initiation issues include one person doing all of the initiating, with the other partner never initiating. Or perhaps neither person is initiating sex, instead waiting for the other to initiate. If neither person initiates obviously there will be no sex.

Initiation issues are complex. One general rule of thumb is that as much as possible, partners should never reject a sexual initiation. If absolutely necessary, then the rejection should be as kind and gentle as possible, and include a rain check suggestion. Something like, “I’d really love to honey, but my stomach is killing me. Can we make love tomorrow night instead?”

The reason for this guideline is that very few people will persist after multiple sexual rejections. Couples who have a healthy sex life typically will almost always say yes to sex, even if they are tired or stressed. They may negotiate different sexual activities, or even suggest having sex the next morning or night, but they rarely say no. Saying no often usually leads an eternal no.

4. Failure to make sex a priority

Sex is a very important component of relationships, yet many couples fail to make it a priority. Couples allow work, children, exercise, socializing, television, Internet, and housework to dominate their priorities so completely that they don’t have time for sex. This is a huge mistake. Sex is one of the basic glues that hold couples together. A failure to make the romantic and sexual relationship a priority often leads to divorce.

Couples should figure out a way that they can consistently have private time in order to have sex. Perhaps this might mean even scheduling sex, which most couples resist as being unromantic, but is often essential when people are very busy. Perhaps Wednesday night is date night, and the prime focus is to connect and to make love. Sunday morning might be another time to schedule. If couples work close each other, perhaps a noontime meeting at a hotel or at home might be fun.

Turn off the TV or computer and talk, cuddle, and get close. Make having sex a priority even if it means scheduling sex. Yes scheduled sex is a little bit less romantic, but it reminds me of a famous comedian’s line, “Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s pretty good.” Paraphrasing this a bit, we get “Scheduled sex is a less romantic experience, but as less romantic experiences go it’s pretty good!”

5. Excessive masturbation to pornography

This is primarily a problem with men. Some men turn to Internet pornography and masturbation when they are not having consistent sex in their relationship. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, but there are some serious issues that can develop. One issue is that middle aged men do not have infinite sexual potential, so if they are masturbating frequently, they will have very little left over for their wife or partner. Their libido for their partner will be low. Or when their partner wants to have sex, they will be unable to because they have just masturbated that afternoon. (Obviously this is less of an issue for young men.)

The other issue with Internet pornography is that typically the women that are depicted are young, slender, and extremely beautiful. They may be of a different race or color than the man’s actual partner. For a man with a middle-aged partner, the contrast between the perfect bodies he sees in pornography in his own partner’s less than perfect body will be jarring. This may cause loss of desire.

A similar issue is that in porn women do many sexual activities that most women have little interest in such as anal sex, threesomes, orgies, or sex in public. A man whose sexual norm calibration is based on pornagraphy will will greatly out of sync with his actual partner.

The solution to this problem is to first impose a temporary moratorium on masturbation and Internet porn. Stop for 30 days. This will allow your libido for your partner to recover. During that 30 days focus on any of the other problems with sex and address them. Schedule sex at a frequency that is comfortable for both of you. Once you are reliably and consistently having sex again, there will be less need to masturbate. Also you can schedule your masturbation sessions so that they do not interfere with scheduled partner sex.

6. Failure to attend to personal hygiene or appearance

Once couples have been together for a while they often get lazy about their hygiene or appearance. They may not brush their teeth before kissing, or showering before being close. Both partners may walk around the house wearing sweat pants and sweatshirt. Lingerie disappears out of the relationship. People put on weight and don’t maintain their fitness.

All of these things can cause problems in the bedroom. I often hear from men or women that when they married their partner they were very attractive, but they’ve let themselves go, and they are no longer so attractive. Men complain that their wives come to bed in sweats and gym socks instead of naked or in lingerie.

These are difficult issues to discuss with a partner. There is potential for very hurt feelings when one person tells the other that their weight gain has made them less attractive. Or that their breath in the morning is deadly. Or that when they walk around in their granny nighty, it’s not in the least sexy. Obviously approaching these issues with tact and sensitivity is essential. Some are obviously easier than others. It’s easy to change one’s sleep apparel. It’s fairly easy to brush one’s teeth. As all of us who are middle aged know, weight loss is more difficult.

7. Failure to address sexual dysfunction

Another issue that can get in the way of having sex is a failure to address sexual problems. Many men suffer at least intermittent erectile difficulties. Many women have difficulty having orgasms, or difficulty lubricating adequately. Shame and embarrassment about these issues often leads people to avoid having sex with their partner.

Depending on the problem, there are good solutions available. Men with erectile difficulties can often benefit from either sex therapy to address issues of anxiety and performance, or erectile disorder medications such as Cialis, Viagra, or Levitra. Of these drugs I usually recommend Cialis, as it is long-lasting (lasts up to three days), and relatively side effect free. Often a low dose of Cialis such as 5 or 10 mg can greatly improve a man’s ability to get and maintain an erection. This restores confidence, and also makes sex relatively worry free.

On the female side, difficulties in orgasm can because by issues of anxiety or inhibition, or simply issues of sexual technique and stimulation. Unfortunately there is no medication that improves female sexual functioning, but sex therapy can be very helpful. Lubrication is often an issue, and few people realize that lubrication is the female equivalent of an erection. With aging comes less lubrication, and this can often make sex painful or difficult. The solution to this problem is incredibly simple — use artificial lubrication. There are a variety of lubrication products on the market, some are water-based, and some are silicon-based. Both are good. Use lubrication liberally, and sex will feel better and be more fun.

8. Forgetting that foreplay starts long before the bedroom.

Oprah has a wonderful saying that foreplay starts early in the morning when a man unloads the dishwasher. The well-known marriage researcher John Gottman has found that men who do more housework typically get more sex. Many couples forget that foreplay starts first thing in the morning. And never stops and healthy happy sexual marriages. Showing kindness, concern, consideration, affection, respect, admiration — all are forms of foreplay. Specifically, compliments that focus on someone looking sexy or handsome or beautiful or hot get the motor running. With modern technology we can flirt even more effectively. Sending a sexy text during the workday can lead to a much more pleasant and fun evening. (Just be sure that text has some subtlety so your work phone doesn’t create problems for you with your boss.)

In similar ways, physical touching and affection can turn up the heat later in the bedroom. A quick but passionate kiss in passing. A squeeze of the bottom. Caressing and sexual touch can be normal parts of your affectionate repertoire even outside the bedroom. (Try not to scare the children or the dog!) Remember, everything can be foreplay.

So there it is — why couples stop having sex and what you can do about it. Don’t settle for a lack of sex or mediocre sex. Follow these guidelines and you can start having consistent and pleasurable lovemaking. If you need help, seek out a skilled psychologist who has specialty experience in doing sex therapy. Generalized couples therapy, although useful for other types of problems, does not usually help with sexual difficulties. Questions to ask a potential sex therapist are:

  1. What is your training in sex therapy?
  2. What is your approach to sex therapy? Can you give me an idea of the typical session?
  3. How long does sex therapy with you typically take? (If the person says a year or two then you should probably find someone else. Most sex therapy is brief therapy.)
  4. Finally, when you meet with the sex therapist, do they seem comfortable and direct talking about sex? Do they use direct language for sexual activities and sexual parts, or do they beat around the bush? If the sex therapist is not more comfortable than you are talking about sex, it is unlikely that they can be of much help.

Now I’ve got to go meet my sweetie for some crazy hot……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.

Is “Married Sex” an Oxymoron? (and Other Myths of Sexuality)

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about sex. (That sounds bad, doesn’t it?)

It’s not what you think. My own life in that respect is just fine, thank you! But in the couples counseling work I do, sex is a big deal. Most of the couples I work with are married, and most of them are not having much sex. Some are not having any sex. Is “married sex” an oxymoron? And why?

It is remarkable how easy it is for couples to get out of the habit of having sex. As part of my general screening/evaluation interview with new couples, I always ask, “When was the last time you two had sex?” I’m often stunned when they can’t remember, not because they are suffering memory impairment, but rather because it has been that long. It’s not uncommon that it has been more than a year, or even more than several years.

What’s surprising is that most of the couples I see are not coming to therapy for help with sexual issues. You could argue that I don’t see a representative sample of couples, and I would agree. But even amongst my friends who are married, sex is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Recently the New York Times had an interesting article called “Yes Dear. Tonight. Again” about two couples who faced a similar sexual drought in their marriages, and who had an unusual response. One couple, the Muller’s, decided to have sex 365 days in a row. The other couple, the Brown’s, went for the more reasonable 101 days (or nights). The Muller’s book is called “365 Nights”, and the Brown’s book title borrows from the famous Nike line; “Just Do It.”

I haven’t read either book. What I found interesting was that both couples reported that their overall relationship improved by having more sex. It turns out that there is a high correlation between marital satisfaction and the frequency of sex. No one really knows if more sex makes people happier, or happier couples have more sex, or both.But the couples who wrote these books add a data point to the notion that more sex makes people happier.

How often do married people have sex anyway? From the Times article: “According to a 2004 study, “American Sexual Behavior,” by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, married couples have intercourse about 66 times a year. But that number is skewed by young marrieds, as young as 18, who couple, on average, 109 times a year.” So the youngest of couples are having sex about twice a week. And older couples are having sex quite a bit less, perhaps less than once a week. And some couples are having much less sex, such that they could count the number of times per year on two hands, without using toes!

So let’s assume that the causal relationship works in both directions—happy couples want to have more sex, and more sex makes couples happier. What can we do about this? Helping couples to be happier is outside the scope of this article, and is something that often takes couples therapy. But what about the other side of the equation, that of having more sex?

First of all, we need to consider some myths of sexuality. The first myth is that sex shouldn’t be planned and scheduled. I don’t know where people get this idea, because we plan and schedule everything else good in our life. We buy concert tickets months in advance, we make reservations at good restaurants, we plan to attend our children’s school play. We plan to go to work each day.

Imagine if we applied the same model to daily life as we use with sex: “You know, honey, I just don’t feel like driving the kids to school today. I ate too much as breakfast, and I kinda feel fat, and getting behind the wheel will make me feel bad.” “Yeah, I don’t really feel like going to work today. I’m a little tired. I think I’ll just stay home in bed and sleep all day.”

This is what I call the Myth of Spontaneity. We wait for the sun and the stars and the moon to line up for both people in the couple, and then and only then can we consider sex. If anything else then gets in the way like kids or telephone or dogs, forget it. Waiting for everything to be ideal for two people greatly lowers the odds of having sex at all.

Instead, I suggest that couples make sex dates. (Or call them pleasure dates.) Sit down and talk about how much sex you would like to be having. What’s the optimal frequency for each of you? Compromise if you have different answers. Then pull out your calendars, and figure out times when you can plan to have sex. Consider other distractions like children, pets, jobs, etc. Every couple should be able to find at least one time a week where they have some time and some privacy to get intimate.

Then make it happen. As the Browns would say, Just Do it! No excuses. If you find there is always something getting in the way, consider what the issues are. Are there other resentments that are being expressed sexually? Are there sexual issues that need to be talked about and worked on? Are there issues of appearance or hygiene that can be addressed? Sit down and talk about what’s getting in the way, and if you can’t do it alone, then see a therapist to help talk it out.

Another myth is what I call One Size Fits All. This means that couples often think of having sex in terms of a standard sexual script; a little foreplay, maybe a little oral sex, a few minutes of intercourse, and off to sleep afterwards. It is a full course meal or nothing at all. The antidote for this myth is to have a varied repertoire of sexual activities you both enjoy. Perhaps sometimes it is okay to have a quick snack, instead of the full meal, so to speak. If one person is tired, and one is feeling more amorous, maybe the tired person can be pleasured by the amorous one. Again, it helps to talk over these options. What do each of you like to do when you are not that sexually energetic? And sexy cuddling is okay too. Maybe you fool around a little, skin to skin, and no one orgasms, and that’s fine too.

Still another myth is what I call Not Tonight Dear. This is the idea that it’s fine to turn down sex whenever you don’t really feel like it, since after all, you wouldn’t want to have sex if you don’t feel like it. The problems with this belief are multiple. First of all, most people are very sensitive about being rejected sexually. A “not tonight dear” crushes them. And then they are less likely to initiate the next time. Second, if both people say “no” often, it dramatically lowers the chances that the couple will ever have sex. And both people will decrease how often they initiate, further lowering the probability of successful sexual connecting.

What is the antidote? First of all, try to limit saying “no” to the extreme examples. If you are having a massive migraine headache, food poisoning, or something similar, I think it is fine to say no. The “no” response should be rare, less than once in ten times. In the Brown’s book “Just Do It” there is a story of one time that the husband was having a vertigo episode, but they still had sex!

Second, it is okay to say yes in a limited way. For instance, let’s imagine you don’t feel very turned on. I think it is okay to say something like, “You know, I’m not feeling very sexual right now, but I’m willing to play a little and see if that changes. Is that okay with you?”

Finally if you really do need to say no, then offer a specific alternative time and place. For example, “I’m really tired tonight, honey, and I’d really rather make love tomorrow morning, is that okay?”And be affectionate and loving when you say it.

So let’s review. If you want to make sure that “married sex” is not an oxymoron in your life, then follow these guidelines:

1.Plan to have sex. Make dates to have sex, and keep the dates. Decide on your sexual goals, and then figure out the best times to schedule your “pleasure dates”.

2.Be flexible about the kinds of sexual encounters you can have. Sample from a varied menu of sexual options, and don’t be all or nothing about sex. Even sexy cuddling can be a type of sex, and is better than nothing. Not all sex needs to result in orgasm for both or even one partner.

3.Avoid turning down sex more than infrequently. To paraphrase the Brown couple, Just Say Yes. This lowers the probability of hurt in the bedroom, and keeps both partners willing to initiate because they know that rejection is infrequent.

4.Talk about your sex life, what works, and what doesn’t work. This is the only way you can improve things. And if you are too shy or inhibited to talk about it on your own, see a good couples or sex therapist, who can facilitate this dialogue.

And having said all that, now I have to go, as I have a scheduled date with my sweetie!

(Fade to black…)

Copyright © 2008 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.

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.

How to Stop Anger in its Tracks: Applying the SAP™ Model in Three Easy Steps (Part 2)

In my previous article, How Anger Works: The SAP™ Model (Part 1), I wrote about the SAP™ model, which stands for Shoulds, Awfulizing, and Personalizing. In this article I want to teach you basic anger management skills that will help you to neutralize anger.

Background Concepts About Anger

I should point out a couple of important concepts about anger first. A simple way of conceptualizing anger is that it is related to the amount of difference between our expectations and reality. The larger the difference, the more anger and frustration we experience. Thus if I expect a 10 percent raise, and I only get a 5 percent raise, I will be more angry (and disappointed) than if I got a 9 percent raise.

This leads to an obvious point. To decrease anger and frustration, we need to lessen the difference between our expectations and reality. There are two ways of doing this. One is to change reality so it better conforms with our expectations. The other way is to change our expectations so they better conform with reality.

Here is where it gets tricky. Which should you try to change, reality or your expectations? It depends. When it’s possible and easy to change reality, it makes sense to do so. If you don’t like rush hour traffic you can leave earlier or later to work. Or if you have been dating someone for a few weeks and they consistently annoy you, break up with them. It’s easy, and solves the problem. Or if you have an abusive boss, and you can relatively easily transfer or find another job, do it!

But what if you are angry at your wife or husband of many years? Or at your children? Or you feel angry at the fact that Republicans have run the country for 8 years. These are much harder to change, and more costly. So in cases where you either can’t easily change reality or you don’t really want to change reality, then you need to adjust your expectations. Instead of happiness meaning getting what you want, it can mean wanting what you’ve got.

The famous Serenity Prayer summarizes these concepts elegantly: In Latin, “Deus, dona mihi serenitatem accipere res quae non possum mutare, fortitudinem mutare res quae possum, atque sapientiam differentiam cognoscere.” Or in English, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I like to use the “80 Percent Rule” in determining whether my expectations are reasonable ones or not. If 80 percent of the time, my expectation matches reality, then it is okay to hold onto that expectation. Therefore, if my friend Hugh is on time for our dinners 80 percent of the time, it is okay for me to expect that. But if he is only on time for dinner 20% of the time, then I need to change my expectation, or change friends.

Step One: Defusing Anger by Changing your Shoulds

The first step in reducing anger is to change your “shoulds”. What is a should? We tend to assume that it is a universal law, but in reality, it is simply our personal demand on the universe. If I have a should that says, “People should always treat me fairly,” this is really just a different way of thinking “I want everyone to treat me fairly all the time.”

The first step to defusing anger is to change your shoulds into preferences. Instead of thinking “My wife should not spend so much money on clothes” you would think “I would prefer she not spend so much money on clothes.” Simply doing this reduces the intensity of anger significantly. You are owning your beliefs, instead of putting them into some imaginary universal law. If they are your beliefs, then you can choose to alter them.

Try a mental experiment. Think of something that makes you mad. Identify one of your shoulds that has been violated. Say the should to yourself a number of times, and notice how angry you feel. Now transform it to a preference statement. Instead of “They should _____”, it becomes “I would prefer that they ________”. Notice what happens to the intensity of the anger.

What you will notice is that the intensity of the anger diminishes. It doesn’t disappear, but it does transform in intensity. Why doesn’t it go away entirely?

This is because even our preferences may be distorted. Let me give you an example. I live in the Bay Area, where traffic tends to be quite heavy and slow at rush hour. Let’s imagine that I have the should statement, “I should be able to drive at 65 mph on the freeway, even at 5:30pm.” This should is likely to frustrate me when I am stuck in 25mph traffic. So I turn it into a preference, “I’d prefer to be able to drive 65 mph at 5:30pm.” This doesn’t really help very much. I’m still going to be frustrated because there is a large gap between my preference and reality.

Here is where applying the “80% Rule” is helpful. I ask myself if my preference is true 80% of the time. The answer of course is no. Perhaps only 10% of the time does traffic flow well at rush hour. Thus even my preference violates the 80% rule.

So I need to change my preference. A more reasonable preference would be “I prefer that traffic moves at 25 mph during rush hour.” Now there is a better match between my preference and reality, and I will not get as frustrated.

So, to summarize Step One, first you turn your Should Statements into Preference Statements. Next, evaluate the preferences using the 80 percent rule; does reality match this preference at least 80 percent of the time? If not, change the preference. This should at least lower your anger level, if not eliminate it.

Step Two: Defusing Anger by Putting Things Into Perspective and Emphasizing Coping

The next step of the SAP™ model is Awfulizing. Here we tell ourselves, “It’s awful and terrible, and I can’t stand it.” This creates a lot of internal psychological stress, and intensifies our feelings of anger and helplessness.

How can we change these patterns of thought? We can do so by putting the problem into perspective. On a 100 point scale, how awful is it really? Imagine that a 100 represents having a leg cut off without anesthesia, or a root canal without Novocain. Then rate how terrible is it to not have your should or expectation met. So if I am stuck in a traffic jam, and no one is shooting at me, and there is no blizzard outside, how awful is it really? Maybe a 10 on the 100 point scale.

Most frustrating events are actually relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. But we lose perspective, and this creates anger and stress. Another trick is to ask yourself if you will remember this event in one month, one year, or five years. If the answer is no, then it’s really not very awful.

The other aspect of this is the second part of the awfulizing statement, which is “I can’t stand it.” How often do we say this to ourselves? I define “not standing it” as meaning that you are going insane, hallucinating, curling up in a catatonic ball, or standing on the roof of a building getting ready to jump. Anything less than that means that you are actually standing it!

So what you want to do is replace “It’s terrible and awful, and I can’t stand it,” with “It’s inconvenient, or a hassle, and I don’t like it, but I can stand it.” This will greatly alter your emotional response.

So to summarize the second step in anger management:

  1. Ask yourself “How awful is this really?” Rate the awfulness on a 100 point scale, where 100 is something truly awful, like a serious injury or death of a loved one. Put the event into perspective.
  2. Remind yourself that most events will be quickly forgotten, and that most things in life are really hassles or inconveniences, rather than genuine disasters. Substitute the phrase “It’s a hassle, and I don’t like it but I can stand it,” for the Awful-izing statement of “It’s awful and terrible and I can’t stand it!”

Step Three: Defusing Anger by Reducing Personalizing

The final step in defusing anger is to de-personalize events. Remember from the previous article, that personalizing an event greatly intensifies the anger. If I believe that someone is purposely doing something to hurt me, I will get much angrier than if I believe it is an impersonal event.

This is easy to say, not so easy to do. The trick here is to realize that most of the time, when people don’t meet your shoulds or expectations; they are not doing it to harm you. When the clerk ignores you in the store, it’s more likely that they are tired or stressed than they saw you and thought, “Gee, I think I will piss off Dr. Lounge Wizard by ignoring him as long as possible.”

But what about people we love. Don’t they purposely hurt us?

Probably not. Most of the time, when loved ones do things that we are frustrated by, it is because that’s their nature. For instance, a messy person is messy because it is their nature, and it’s not because they are trying to anger their neat spouse. (Believe me, I know.) Everyone is trying to do the best they can, and pretty much doesn’t worry about you, or plan to hurt you.

So the secret is to simply assume that most things aren’t personal, and even when they appear to be, to reframe it as the person’s nature. A critical boss is critical of everyone, in most cases. A bad driver in front of you is probably always a bad driver, even when you are not behind them!

To summarize Step Three, remember than most of the time, no one is out to get you. They are just doing their natural thing. Use compassion, and think gentle compassionate thoughts that other people are flawed, but this isn’t personal.

So there you have it; the Three Steps to Anger Management. Try it out. I suggest you keep an anger/frustration log, and write down the S.A.P’s and then write down the counter thoughts for each step.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge™/TPL Productions All rights reserved

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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 Anger Works: The SAP Model ™ (Part 1)

In this article I will give you a simple cognitive behavioral explanation of how we get angry, and how you can use this knowledge to short-circuit and defuse your own anger. Anger is probably the most cognitive of all of the emotions. We can’t get angry without thinking. And most anger directly stems from our distorted thoughts.

There are three cognitive steps to getting angry. The first two are absolutely necessary for anger, and the third is like gasoline on fire, it intensifies anger. The acronym for remembering these three steps is SAP(tm), which is what anger will make you if you think these thoughts.

To help illustrate this lets consider a common situation where a person might get angry. You are driving on the freeway and a car cuts you off. You instantly react with anger. You steam all the way to work.

STEP ONE: VIOLATION OF SHOULDS or “SHOULDY THINKING”

The first step to getting angry is that you must have a set of shoulds or expectations that have been violated. Without this there is no anger. In the driving example what are your expectations? You tell yourself that the other driver shouldn’t have cut you off. He or she should have looked first and seen you. Obviously this should has been violated. This is what some cognitive therapists call “shouldy” thinking!

STEP TWO: AWFULIZING

But just having a set of shoulds or expectations is not enough to generate anger. The second step is necessary. In this step you exaggerate the negative consequences of the violation of the shoulds. You tell yourself it is awful and terrible that this event has happened. In our driving example your self talk is “Wow, the idiot could have killed me. It’s awful and terrible that they allow people like that to drive. Grrrrrr!” This step is called Awfulizing. Or Terribilizing, if you prefer. The key distortion is that you blow the event out of proportion. After all, if you are able to have these thoughts, then obviously no serious accident has ensued.

STEP THREE: PERSONALIZING

The first two steps will get you mad, but the third step of Personalizing or Blaming will make you crazy angry. If you tell yourself that the person didn’t see you, and it was an accident that they cut you off, you may still get angry. But if you tell yourself they did see you and purposely chose to cut you off anyway, then your anger spirals out of control. Blaming thoughts are like pouring gasoline on the fire of anger. They are responsible for such things as road rage.

So this how anger works. Let’s consider another example. This time we will use one closer to home. It’s early Saturday morning, and you are sleeping in after a long hard work week. Suddenly you are awoken by the loud noise of a lawn mower. It’s your neighbor George, who for some unknown reason, has decided that Saturday at 7:30am is a good time to mow his lawn. You are furious.

Let’s analyze this. What are the shoulds? Basically that your neighbor shouldn’t do noisy activities until 10 or 11 am on a weekend day. This should has been violated by George. What is the awfulizing? You are thinking that now you will be tired all day, and you’ll be cranky and irritable, and won’t have any fun. Is there a personalizing statement? Yes, you think, “George knows I work late, and knows I like to sleep in, so mowing his lawn so early is a direct insult to me!” And so you explode with anger.

So there you have it, a simple cognitive model of anger, the SAP model: Shoulds, Awfulizing, and Personalizing. Try an experiment. For a week, write down each anger incident you have by identifying the three Anger Thought Steps. This will help you to increase your awareness of how anger works, and prepare you for the next step, learning to defuse and eliminate your anger, which I will discuss in Part 2 of this article,  How to Stop Anger in its Tracks.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/ TPL Productions All Rights Reserved

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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.

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

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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.

Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Make a Baby? How Psychological and Behavioral Factors Can Reduce Infertility

An article in the May 7 edition of U.S. News and World Report titled “Success at Last: Couples Fighting Infertility Might Have More Control Than They Think” shows how health psychology can impact even something as basic as making a baby. This fascinating article shows that behavioral and psychological factors may play a big and controllable role in producing the infertility that 1 in 8 couples suffer. It turns out, that the body may be smarter than we gave it credit for. Woman’s bodies may recognize certain states as not ideal for childbearing, and therefore prevent or lower fertility. Two examples are being overweight or underweight. Overweight risks pregnancy complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure, so the extra estrogen produced by body fat interferes with ovulation. Underweight women may not have enough body fat to sustain a baby, so the pituitary gland releases less of key ovulation hormones. Other behaviors strongly influence fertility. Take smoking for example. Multiple studies show that smoking can delay getting pregnant by a year or more. And one study at

Columbia University found smokers entered menopause 3 years earlier on average. Or diet. Trans fats, a key component in such unhealthy foods as donuts, cakes, etc. may raise testosterone, which suppresses the ovaries. Research shows that as little as 4.5 grams, which is the amount found in one donut, can have this effect. Even positive behaviors can negatively affect fertility. One study found woman who exercised four or more hours a week were 40 percent less likely to conceive after their first IVF (In vitro Fertility) treatment than women who didn’t exercise. Once again, it may be that the body interprets hard exercise as danger and stress, and shuts down the fertility system.

Even pure psychological stress can affect fertility. Here’s the biological mechanism. A few hours before ovulation, the pituitary gland sends out luteinizing hormone (LH), which tells the ovaries to release an egg. But if you are experiencing psychological stress such as a fight with your husband, or a dressing down from your boss, or a kid having a tantrum, then your LH will be suppressed, disrupting ovulation.

Even mild stress may have a big effect. One study of monkeys found that moving monkeys to a new cage, combined with a little less food and 1 hour on treadmill caused 70 percent of the monkeys to have irregular menstruation! So don’t skip that meal and take a long run when stressed, or you’ll greatly lower you odds of getting pregnant.

What’s worse is that IVF treatment itself may lead to large amounts of psychological stress. One fertility expert found that 40 percent of women in infertility treatment had all of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depression: sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. So if stress lowers fertility, and fertility treatment increases stress, then fertility treatment may actually harm fertility!

But cognitive behavioral therapy may improve the situation. Alice Domar and colleagues at Harvard found that a 10 week cognitive behavioral group therapy program improved the success of fertility treatment from 20 percent to 55 percent in the women who participated in the group therapy. So what can we learn from this research?

  1. A woman’s body is wise. It will respond to behavioral and psychological stressors by lowering fertility. Anything that resembles stress, even hard exercise, will trigger physical responses that lower fertility.
  2. At critical points such as several hours before ovulation, even normal stressors can disrupt the ovulation process. And in stress-prone or perfectionist or angry women, the likelihood of experiencing stress during these critical hours is very high. Thus for women who are experiencing difficulty getting pregnant and who by personality are “stressy” (you know who you are!) cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will be helpful in learning to manage and lower stress.
  3. Infertility treatment is by its nature stressful, and this leads to a paradox; infertility treatment may lower fertility if it increases stress. It may be helpful to evaluate stress levels in women undergoing IVF and if stress is high, intervene with CBT group or individual therapy.
  4. The ultimate in infertility treatment may be what I recommended to my friend Jill, who had tried many cycles of IVF to no avail. I told her, “You’re young, why don’t you and your husband stop trying to get pregnant, and just have sex for fun, and enjoy life for a few years. If nothing happens then you can adopt.” She was pregnant within the year, and now has two lovely children. A good long relaxing vacation with no schedule, no hard exercise, healthy food, and no stress may be the best fertility treatment available, and even if it doesn’t work, at least you’ve gotten a great vacation!
  5. Finally, what this research shows us is how linked our minds and bodies are. Changing thoughts and feelings and behaviors changes our bodies, and fertility is just one example of this.

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.

Thoughts about Online Dating: Why you should go offline if you want to find a partner!


Scientific American recently had a terrific article about the reality behind online dating, which shows scientifically what psychologists have known for a long time. Online dating doesn’t work very well.

The data is fascinating. The biggest problem is deception. Twenty percent of online daters admit openly to deception, but the real numbers are probably closer to 90%, since that’s the number most online daters say fits the other daters online.

Everyone, male and female, adds about 1 inch of height. Everyone is attractive, in a strange sort of Lake Woebegone world, only 1% of online daters say they are less than average attractive. Wow! A world of movie stars and models. If only!

Women lie a lot about their weight. In their 20’s they lower their real weight by an average of five pounds, in their 30’s this “error” goes up to 17 pounds, and in their 40’s they are deceptively reporting their weight as an average of 19 lbs. under their real weight!

Everyone lies about their age. Men will say they are 36 rather than 37-41. Women say they are 29 rather than 30-34. They also like the ages of 35 and 44 rather than their real ages.

All this would be fine if the services worked. But they don’t. There is a terrific White Paper written by Philip Zimbardo , Mark Thompson, and Glenn Hutchinson: CONSUMERS ARE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT ONLINE DATING.

In it Zimbardo, a former president of the American Psychological Association, concludes about one popular service, “When eHarmony recommends someone as a compatible match, there is a 1 in 500 chance that you’ll marry this person…. Given that eHarmony delivers about 1.5 matches a month, if you went on a date with all of them, it would take 346 dates and 19 years to reach [a] 50% chance of getting married.”

Other services overpromise and undeliver too. Match.com claims 15 million members, but only 1 million are paying members, which means that only 1 in 15 “member” can even reply to emails. This sets users up for rejection when they contact a user who is not able to respond.

In general, there are probably far fewer Americans than advertised using online dating services, and surveys suggest that less than 25% of them are satisfied.

There is also the “click” problem. This is where singles, thinking there is an infinite supply of available singles, will click away the instant they detect any flaws or problems. And most only allow for one date with potential mates, since why spend time getting to know someone when there is probably someone better over the online horizon.

So, online dating promises deception about appearance, age, income, and other things, and sets you up for disappointment and rejection. And yet it has become the way that many tech savvy singles use to meet people.

Why? I think it’s because we’ve gotten too timid and afraid of the real world. There are a million opportunities to meet people in the offline world. But it takes a little courage and chutzpah to meet them.

The real world offers some real advantages. In the real world you get to see people and there is no deception in terms of appearance (other than good lighting or makeup or elevator shoes). Age you can evaluate by appearance, and personality you can quickly ascertain. Let me give you some suggestions for how to meet people in the real world.

Women, start by getting over your fear of flirting. Men are eager to approach you and talk with you, you just have to show them with smiles and eye contact that they won’t be rejected if they do. If you see a guy you think is cute, smile at him. Go up to him and ask him any question, it doesn’t matter. Start a conversation with him. This could be in a café, bar, restaurant, or bookstore. It doesn’t matter. If he is interested he will talk with you, and if you hit it off, he may ask you for your phone number. But if he is timid, he may chicken out, so if you like him, don’t let him get away. Suggest that you exchange cell phone numbers or email addresses so you can “get a cup of coffee sometime.” This will overcome the fear of most men, and if he demurs, then it’s probably because he is either not interested or not available. (You might want to look him in the eye, and ask him point blank, “do you have a girlfriend or a wife?”)

Men, you too must get over your fear of flirting and rejection. Start by talking to women more. Talk in line at the post office, at your favorite café, in the store, at work, etc. Learn how to make women laugh, that’s the thing most women like in a man. And don’t be afraid to ask a woman for her phone number or email address. What’s the worst thing that will happen? She might say no. Big deal!

If you really want to make it easy, start by looking around your workplace for attractive potential partners. Or join a biking or hiking club, and get to know its members. The main thing is to get out of your apartment or house, and go places where people hang out, and start to talk with them, flirt with them, and get comfortable asking them to coffee, drinks, lunch, or dinner. The offline world is full of exciting, attractive people, all you have to do is put down your mouse, close your laptop computer, and go out into the real world!

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.