What People Who Enjoy Life Have in Common

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I wrote an article last fall in which I said that the pursuit of happiness may be misguided in the sense that even if we find it, it tends to be temporal. And that is particularly so if that “happiness” is connected to money or other material possessions. A more meaningful pursuit may be to find purpose.   On the other hand, we do observe people who seem to be “happy,” or at least content with their lives. To the extent that it is possible to live happy lives, what does research tell us leads to such contentment? And what doesn’t provide that outcome?   It appears that there are a handful of things that people who consistently enjoy their lives have in common.  

Attitude Not surprisingly, one of those things is simply their attitude about their lives. This is complicated because none of us wakes up in the morning and says, “Today, I’m going to be a pessimist and think my life sucks no matter what happens.” Our attitudes are influenced by many things, external and internal, but the really interesting thing is that for people who can see life through a more positive lens, they actually feel more content regardless of the circumstances! My father, for example, was an eternal optimist, despite many data points to challenge his perspective. He faced many successes and difficulties, some severe, in his life, but he always verbalized that he was incredibly fortunate and that there was some level of positivity to everything that happened. He did this consistently and hearing himself say it did, in fact, influence how he actually felt. Even for those of us who default to a glass half empty perspective, probably the simplest way to support a positive attitude is by noting gratitude.  

Social Connection We are social creatures and genuine connection with others not only supports contentment, it also supports physical health. Studies show that loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day in terms of cancer risk! Importantly, the power of social connection can be fully realized with a single, meaningful relationship or even multiple, “casual” connections such as pleasant conversations with someone at the supermarket, with an Uber driver, etc. Regardless, we are deeply wired, for evolutionary reasons, to connect with others, and doing so affects our neurochemistry, which affects our emotional state.  Key point: although online interaction can provide some meaningful social connection, it does not provide the same neurochemical benefits that face to face interactions and physical touch do.

Limited Stress Interestingly, the absence of stress is highly predictive for contentment, while the chronic presence of stress, like loneliness, not only mitigates against happiness, it actually makes both physical and psychological illness more likely! Similar to attitude, stress is strongly correlated to how we feel about or react to a given circumstance. Two different people may face the same situation and one person is crippled by stress and the other feels little or no stress at all. People who experience healthy levels of stress tend to do two things. First, they limit the stressors in their lives that they can control such as exposure to toxic people, workplaces, etc. Secondly, they tend to be good at self-calming and self-regulation through practices such as meditation, breathing, yoga, etc.  

Physical Activity I wrote a recent article about the ongoing collective decline in mental health in which I noted that from an evolutionary perspective, we have spent almost all of human history living very active lives, mostly outdoors. Now, many of us live sedentary lives, mostly indoors, for which we were not designed. Extensive amounts of time on social media also negatively impacts happiness. The research is overwhelming that exercise and other physical activity not only promotes physical health, but that is has substantial implications for emotional and cognitive health as well. Physical activity also helps the body metabolize stress, which, like meditation, turns out to be critical in helping our mind-body return to homeostasis. The good news is that what is required to support contentment and wellness is very doable by most people. It does not require hours per week in the gym. It can be walks or gardening or recreation.  

Mindfulness People that enjoy their lives tend to spend more of their attention and effort in the present. The therapeutic definition I use for mindfulness is simply: awareness, in the moment, without judgment. Because content people spend less time regretting the past or worrying about the future, they are able to notice what’s happening in the now. This is really important because much of our stress, and almost all of our worry, are related to things that aren’t actually happening in the moment. In fact, the more time we can live mindfully in the present, by definition, the more our feelings will be unencumbered by regret and worry.  

Purpose and Control Not surprisingly, people who have found purpose in their lives and some level of control over how they live, tend to be more content and satisfied with their lives. While happiness supported by the factors noted above can be real and worthwhile, it tends to be less sustainable and resilient to environmental challenges than purpose, which tends to better endure life’s ups and downs. As for control, the research suggests that being able to spend a meaningful amount of time how we want to spend it is far more valuable than money related to our wellbeing. In fact, some of the least happy people in society are those who have earned large amounts of money, but have sacrificed their time and relationships in the process.  

So, whether we use the word “happiness” or “contentment” or “enjoyment,” etc., there are people whose sense of their own lives tends to be more positive than that experienced by other people. We know that factors such as attitude, social connection, limited stress, physical activity and mindfulness support a greater sense of wellbeing and, thus contentment. We also know that once our basic needs are met, that neither money nor status nor material acquisitions correlate with happiness. And, as I noted in my article on happiness vs. purpose, “when we pursue purpose and meaning in our lives, we are more likely to experience alignment between our values and our behaviors and feel more satisfied with our life, both of which are probably more valuable and sustainable than happiness in isolation.” Even if we manage to achieve a kind of contentment, having meaning in our lives might be the more powerful objective.

The Insidious Power of Othering and Tribalism

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An elderly member of my family, who has identified with one church or another for most of her life, recently stopped attending her church because her pastor was showing too much love for folks who don’t look like or live like she does. He was being too…. Christian.  

This pastor was advocating a New Testament love and acceptance for those in the LBGTQ+ community, immigrants, people of color, people of different political persuasions, people who have sinned (everyone), etc. Apparently, he was too committed to Jesus’ message.  

So, how does someone who has been a “Christian” all her life, who has accepted Jesus Christ as her savior, abandon a church and a pastor for showing too much Christian love? In short, she was in church for about an hour a week, but watching and listening to right wing media for dozens of hours per week.  

Over the last few years, I have observed her shift from a relatively open-minded, loving Christian to a “Christian” who fears immigrants and Democrats, believes LGBTQ+ citizens are immoral and dangerous (out to convert the rest of us), the COVID vaccine was made with microchips and has killed tens of thousands of Americans, the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and various consumer products are made with “baby-parts.”  

It has been both fascinating and horrifying to watch this devolution in a once-loving, rational person, who also happens to be a close family member. It is also a case-study in the power of othering and ensuing tribalism through hate. My personal sense is that she first had to be made to feel fear before she could move on to hate, and the Youtube videos, far right and conspiratorial websites, and news channels she watches were more than happy to oblige. If nothing else, they have a deep understanding of human psychology and frailty.  

Equally fascinating, the same media bubble has convinced her that government programs and policy that support the poor and otherwise disadvantaged folks are part of an evil, socialist plot, even though she herself is able to live a relatively stable life because of Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and subsidies for utilities, transportation, and even the internet through which she accesses the messages telling her all of these services are part of an evil, socialist plot. That is the power of tribalism. If facilitates a kind of mental gymnastics that makes it possible to criticize, if not hate, other people who benefit from social services and subsidies, but somehow makes it okay for oneself (and others in the same tribe) to benefit from the same evil plot—all without any apparent dissonance.  

Being able to observe this process with a family member, and individuals around her who have gone down the same path, has helped me understand how this kind of manipulation can lead to extreme outcomes such as overt cruelty and even genocide. If othering and tribalism are severe enough, it becomes possible to not only exile others, but to even kill those who are different, because, they’re not just “different,” their differences are seen to pose an existential threat.

Observing this radical change in a person so close to me has been like a violent car wreck that I’d rather not see, but can’t turn away from. It is both macabre and fascinating at the same time – sociopathology in real time.

Our Collective Mental Health is Tanking. What’s Going On?

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As a relatively new psychotherapist practicing since 2021, I’ve had a front row seat to what’s going on with our collective mental health. Based on my personal experience, empirical data, and discussions with my more experienced peers, some who’ve been practicing for over 40 years, we seem to be more psychologically fragile now than at any previous point in modern American history, and this is even more acute for young people. Anxiety, depression, ADHD, and suicidality are at all time highs across American society—and many other countries as well. For young people, the numbers are staggering with the CDC noting a 66% increase in depression and a 72% increase in the number of adolescents actually planning suicide between 2011 and 2021. The World Health Organization reports that one in every 100 deaths worldwide now happens by suicide. The number would be higher in the U.S. if it were not for so many gun deaths. So, what’s going on here?  

First, humans have always struggled with some level of mental health issues, particularly manifestations of depression, anxiety, more rarely schizophrenia, and some level of what we refer to as personality disorders. That’s the deal with human beings: Environmental inputs generate psychological outputs. But something qualitatively different is going on over the last decade or so, particularly on the extremes of the life span, with both young folks and the elderly experiencing higher levels of mental “illness.” The challenges are even more alarming for LGBTQ+ youth, who attempt suicide at 4 times the rate of their “straight” peers, not because they’re queer, but because they are ostracized for being queer.  

Some of the growth in contemporary mental health problems could be explained by better, and therefore increased recognition of issues that have always been there, but previously hidden by ignorance, stigma, and cultural values that diminished the significance of mental health in relation to physical health. For example, the Affordable Care Act, which finally required insurance companies to cover mental health conditions, dramatically increased access to mental health care in the last several years. However, the potential reasons noted above would only explain a small part of the increase in the societal-level mental health challenges we are facing today. In short, in many ways, the past was more brutal, but also more simple. Even in rarely recent times such as the cold war, for example, absurd nuclear drills in schools were frightening, but also temporary, and for most children, left behind after the school day. Today’s version of that, “live shooter” drills, represent real, concrete threat, that generate genuine fear. There have been nearly 400 actual mass shootings in American schools since Columbine in 1999.

It is much more likely that the sudden, dramatically greater prevalence of mental health issues across all strata of society is explained by a genuine, quantitative increase in psychological “illnesses” similar to what we are seeing with diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and earlier onset cancers, for example. In all cases, the causes are likely environmental, and in many cases, the same environmental inputs cause both physical and mental health problems. Importantly, I put illnesses in quotes because troubling psychological symptoms are only illnesses or disorders when viewed through a medical, pathology-based, lens that separates individuals from their experience and environment. When viewed more holistically, the symptoms are what we would expect as a natural, predictable, even adaptive response to psychic threat.

As this relates to mental health, there is likely a “perfect storm” of factors that have frankly never been experienced all at once since humans have been on earth. To be clear, over human history, we have faced, horrific, existential crises, both natural and manmade, including everything from volcanoes burying entire settlements and cities to war, genocide and slavery. The “victims” of these crises experienced PTSD, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and a host of other psychological and somatic symptoms long before we had names for them. With some exceptions, such as colonialism, slavery, and generational oppression, one difference now is that most of the existential crises we’ve experienced in the past were relatively limited in both geography and time, and typically much less ambiguous. Another difference is that only recently has basic human survival been consistent enough that we actually have time, over extended lifespans, for other complicating variables to present themselves in our lives. As an example, for most of human history our entire life spans encompassed a few decades. As a result, there were no “midlife” crises as we experience now, nor did people endure the challenges of what now qualifies as old age. And the time over which we had to manage relationships was a fraction of what it is now. There was no work stress or divorce court or bankruptcy. Yes, as noted earlier, life was very hard and there were existential threats, but we were biologically designed for those situations. The fight, flight or freeze response, for example, was brilliantly designed for momentary physical threats. It is frankly a lousy system for addressing the “threat” of an accusatory email or loss of a job, yet that’s the system that gets triggered when we feel an emotional threat. Anxiety, after all, is just fear based on a false alarm.

As with other examples such as diet, the sudden attention on mental health reflects a kind of privilege as well. For people who have lived under endemic racism and other kinds of oppression, there has always been a higher incidence of both physical and mental health problems, worsened because the very nature of being second class and othered within myriad societal structures has also diminished both the recognition of health problems and access to healthcare! It may simply be now that more privileged members of society are being exposed to environmental factors that compromise mental health, such that it now receives recognition it has not had in the past. If so, what are these factors?  

Since the increase in mental health problems for many Americans (and globally) is empirically documented, it is helpful to identify environmental factors that are also objectively different. A good place to start may be the dissolution of societal institutions that historically provided collective support and identity in less divisive and tribal ways than we see today, keeping in mind that these experiences are far different for “mainstream,” privileged folks than less privileged and, of course, oppressed members of society.  

Examples include things like places of worship, public schools, and neighborhoods. Although these same institutions were sometimes powerful sources of “othering,” as well as segregated protectors of privilege for many, they were also often sources of stability, support, and predictability across societal strata. It is arguable that what remains of such institutions today is as much about deep tribalism and isolation as about supporting the collective good.  

Potentially greater differences today include influences such as the internet, social media, perpetual digital tethers, and the effects of late-stage capitalism. There has been some form of media for the last few centuries, as well as peer pressure, but at no time in human history have we, particularly younger people, been exposed to such ubiquitous, often toxic digital content, with—and this is critical—almost no extended respite. Previous, analogue media was not only physically fixed in time and space, presenting limited daily exposure to consumers, but there were no such things as digital algorithms designed to play on human psychological frailties and neurochemistry, driving us into ever more divisive, tribal bubbles and content purposely designed to make us feel inadequate. That dynamic feeds mental health vulnerabilities and it changes our behaviors, often leading to actions that hurt us and those around us. Although it is difficult to prove causation between specific social media exposures and subsequent mental health issues, three likely outcomes of extended exposure are social anxiety, depression, and decreased self-esteem. This is frankly a mass experiment, the likes of which are unprecedented in human history, and the problem is not just the effect of digital media itself, it is the displacement of interactions and behaviors that are no longer happening, but that have been central to human wellbeing over millennia. In short, constant engagement with digital media and other elements of economic culture designed to separate us from ourselves and each other, preempt other activities that might support in person, in the moment, human connection and mindfulness, not to mention physical activity, thus exacerbating technology’s inherent dangers. As Gabor Maté notes in The Myth of Normal, “by its very nature, our social and economic culture generates chronic stressors that undermine well-being in the most serious of ways, as they have done with increasing force over the past several decades.” If we think in evolutionary terms, about 99% of hominid existence has taken place primarily outdoors and with significant physical activity on a daily basis. Even if we think only about the existence of humans as a species we recognize today, merely 5% of that history has taken place under some kind of “civilization.” We are simply not wired for the indoor, sedentary, technology mediated, capitalist lives we currently live. As Maté succinctly notes, “The evolutionary crucible that formed who we are and what we need was subject to very different conditions than our own.”  

Another challenge we see with many youth today is a profound struggle to differentiate from parents and to confidently make decisions on their own, which is not surprising since all Gen Zers and younger millennials have never experienced extended periods of time disconnected from electronic devices, and by extension, their parents. How can they possibly learn to be comfortable by themselves and to make decisions in the absence of parental influence? Ironically, this parental influence is often connected to fear and control rather than the nurturing that would actually benefit young people. Moreover, their brains are being fundamentally rewired for a real-time, never-off, digital existence in which virtually every element of their lives, including their most intimate relationships, are mediated through technology! While we don’t know for sure exactly how constant connection to digital devices relates to decreasing mental health, we can assume that a profound shift in how humans interacted for millennia, as well as unceasing messages that we are not, and cannot be, enough, is in some way central to psychological distress, including manifestations such as eating disorders and suicidality. We do know, however, the mechanism that keeps us constantly checking our devices (and so do the inventors of those devices and content): It activates the same dopamine reward system that both chemical and other behavioral “addictions” activate.  

In addition to all of the factors noted above, the last 15 years or so have also forced all of us to deal with “unsolvable,” global, existential threats beyond our control. Gen Zers, for example, have only known a life of climate crisis, economic crisis, political division and manipulation, police brutality, a global pandemic, and serial wars, both involving American troops and other nations. One could even argue that the fact of having a narcissistic president precipitated vicarious trauma in some individuals who witnessed daily anti-social behavior perpetrated by the most powerful person in the country. And importantly, 24/7 mass and social media have made exposure to the external threats noted above inescapable for most people.  

Relatedly, it is only recently that American society, via millennials and Gen Zers has called “BS” on previous generations, peeling back centuries of self-serving denial. Despite silly, last gasp claims to the contrary, privilege is real. Patriarchy is real. Systemic racism is real. Capitalism has winners and losers, and profound inequality. Duh. All of those things can be true in a country worth living in and defending. The problem related to mental health is that it is exhausting and debilitating to see what’s obvious, yet be consistently gaslit by powerful elements of society that what you see and know to be true is just a “woke” political agenda. Even the concept of woke was stolen and repurposed! It’s possible that no previous generation has had to carry more dissonance than young people today.  

One other factor that bears exploration is the extent to which our new level of comfort with discussing mental health is also a potential element in a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m aware that this point will be highly controversial among some readers, but there is a clinical argument for why a focus on trigger warnings and safe spaces may be counterproductive. A principle of cognitive behavior and exposure therapies is that avoidance of triggers actually validates the perceived threat in our minds, thus worsening the effect of the trigger and mitigating against resilience. In other words, a common treatment for anxiety, phobias, and other fears is to face them, i.e., “touch the ghost,” such that they lose their power over us. This often begins through imagining the threat, then progresses to actual real-life exposure, but either way, it may be that our efforts to protect ourselves from uncomfortable stimuli may make us more rather than less vulnerable. Relatedly, when we resist distressful feelings, that act of resistance itself can actually increase the discomfort. In fact, a principle of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is that the difference between pain (unavoidable human experience) and suffering (avoidable anguish) is acceptance. However, to be clear, I am not suggesting that individuals with untreated trauma should just “suck it up” and face their demons in uncontrolled settings. It is always preferable to directly treat trauma in a safe, supportive environment as a precursor to subsequent environmental exposures. Moreover, there are some situations, such as facing an abuser in real life, that may never be helpful. Having said that, our inclination to protect ourselves and others with trigger warnings and safe spaces may be counterproductive.  

In summary, based on the work I now do with clients in my psychotherapy practice, I’ve come to believe that modern life may, in some fundamental ways, be simply incompatible with the human psyche, which is foundationally hundreds of thousands of years old and designed for a very different life experience. To reference Gabor Maté, physician, philosopher and writer again, in modern life, trauma may simply be a spectrum of human experience, rather than something that only happens to some people. I suspect he may be right, and would add, that due to everything I’ve described in this essay, what we call complex and “little t” trauma, has become far more common on that spectrum. The combination of chaotic and abusive childhoods, bullying, damaging relationships, and toxic school, work, and other social environments, have conspired to crush our souls. As Maté insightfully notes, “Today’s culture hastens human development along unhealthy lines from conception onward, leading to a ‘normal,’ that, from the perspective of the needs and evolutionary history of our species, is utterly aberrant.” This would explain why I don’t think I’ve seen a client who does not bring some kind of trauma history to therapy.  

The primary takeaway of my experience so far is twofold. One is that our mental health symptoms are simply a reflection of our lived experience. Initially, our reactions and behaviors were rational and effective as coping mechanisms to address psychic threats. Over time, however, many of those same responses have become maladaptive and even pathological. The second takeaway is that regardless of how we define it, trauma seems to have become endemic to human experience, probably because the human experience, as we know it now, is at odds with our evolutionary needs as humans. It’s not an “if,” but “when” phenomenon that certainly varies in severity from person to person, but as my own very wise therapist notes, “no one escapes unscathed.” Fortunately, my work has also taught me that we have effective tools, a therapeutic renaissance really, for addressing our mental health challenges, and more importantly, we humans have an innate capacity for healing if we can just remove the toxic inputs and tap into internal sources of resilience.

Radical Belonging

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In a recent talk about intimacy, the wonderful therapist and philosopher Tara Brach, shared the concept of radical belonging, which she discussed juxtaposed with “unreal othering,” which refers to the highly conditional connection we often have to others. Authors such as Bruce Alexander and Gabor Maté have described the extreme version of unreal othering as alienation or dislocation, in which there is no meaningful connection at all.  

If we want true intimacy in our lives—with other people or even the broader world around us—we need to be open to radical belonging with others, to nature, to the universe. My sense is that this kind of connection is fairly rare because it requires precursors such as vulnerability, acceptance, faith, and sacrifice and it fundamentally contradicts the values of American society which favor status, achievement, competition, and materialistic acquisition. It also takes time. But intimacy through radical belonging provides intense relational elements such as trust, warmth, emotional safety, growth, and discovery among other benefits.  

It is very likely the omnipresence of unreal othering, if not dislocation, that makes so much of the pain and suffering we cause each other even possible. We can only give ourselves permission to hurt others if we see them as other. This doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t hurt people with whom we are intimate; it’s that we don’t purposely hurt people with whom we are intimate. In fact, it is the vulnerability of true intimacy that can provide both sublime human connection and debilitating emotional pain. Critically, however, emotional pain in the context of intimacy is not the same as the suffering that comes from alienation. It is simply a foundational element of being an evolved human.  

I’ve come to believe that our tendency to forsake intimacy for unreal othering is actually a kind of pathology that may have at some point been based on a rational coping mechanism for protecting ourselves from people who see us as other, but it is ultimately a painfully maladaptive approach to relational elements of our lives and existence, because it makes genuine intimacy (and radical belonging) impossible. And, in the absence of intimacy, we fail to experience our full humanity.

Why We Respond the Way We Do When We Get Triggered by Someone Else

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Based on the model by neuroscientist David Rock

When we perceive a threat in a situation involving other people, we usually oversimplify the situation, attributing it to the other person being selfish or our being jealous, etc. In terms of what’s actually going on in our brains, we tend to see the threat through one or more of five domains. This applies to any situation involving a social context (more than one person). The domains are:

  1. Status: how we see our importance relative to others.
  2. Certainty: our capacity to envision the future with some level of confidence.
  3. Autonomy: the extent to which we believe we have agency and control.
  4. Relatedness: our sense of safety and connectedness with others.
  5. Fairness – our sense of the fairness of our interactions with others.

These threat domains lurk in the background of other, seemingly innocuous statements and transactions. This could be with a boss, spouse, friend, sibling, etc. Often, when we feel threatened, we are not aware ourselves that we are assessing the situation through one or more of the five domains. In effect we are subconsciously evaluating the extent to which one or more of those domains does or doesn’t meet our needs and expectations. For example, a comment about our lack of experience might be a threat to our sense of status, or a behavior we see as ambiguous may threaten our sense of certainty about what will be true at some point in the future. Sometimes, the “threat” is real in the sense that one’s autonomy, for example, might actually be threatened. An example would be a controlling spouse or micromanaging boss.

Questions we often ask ourselves internally, and possibly without conscious awareness—the answers to which result in us seeing a threat or not—are things like:

  • Am I valued by the other person?
  • What degree of certainty do I have about future outcomes related to this situation?
  • Is there room for my autonomy in this situation?
  • Is there a worthwhile place for me in this social construct?
  • Is this process/situation/negotiation fundamentally fair?

Of course, our capacity to assess the situation and respond effectively depends on the extent to which we’ve been triggered by the threat. If we are feeling highly stressed or our fight/flight/freeze response has been triggered, we may literally not be able to “think straight.” To the contrary, if we feel a strong sense of connectedness and being valued by another person, we may not be affected by what would otherwise be highly triggering comments or behaviors.

For our part, we want to avoid doing or saying things that trigger a feeling of threat in any of the five domains in those we care about. Although this can sometimes be complex and nuanced, some simple tools for avoiding threatening others are to first, pay attention to how other people are reacting. This can be facial expression, body language, proximity, tone of voice, etc. Secondly, imagine what words or actions would be threatening to you. If it would bother you, then don’t do it with other people. Basically, if someone your interacting with is behaving as if they’ve been triggered, then ask yourself what domain you might be threatening for them.

Another issue is related to the power dynamics between those involved in a given situation. For example, due to the influence a boss can have over our work lives, we are much more likely to see threats to our autonomy or status related to some statements or behaviors in that context, regardless of whether or not the threat is real. Similarly, if we are feeling insecure with a spouse or significant other, our sense of relatedness or certainty about the future may be threatened.

In short, the notion of domains of threat can be a really helpful way to process what’s behind the triggers we often feel with other people as well as things we might be doing to trigger others. Rock’s model allows us to move past our typical, superficial thinking about the nature of a trigger and it also helps to relieve some of the blame we put on ourselves and other. For tips on how to work more effectively with the five domains in the workplace, check out this Mind Tools article.

A Recent Podcast on Happiness, Purpose, Spirituality, and Midlife Course Correction


We all want to be “happy.” As parents, we want the same for our children, but are we after the wrong thing? It is interesting to note that even when we attain happiness or contentment, it is usually temporary, especially if we associate it with acquiring something. In the end, the reward is short-lived.

Continuous pursuit of happiness may also lead to a cycle of pursuit, short-term reward, and then back to pursuit. In addition to being unfulfilling, it is ultimately exhausting, and it can lead to disappointments and frustrations. 

Research suggests that this is true, but what might be an alternative that could be more effective?

In the Office, Remote, or Hybrid? Some Very Interesting Research from Gallup (and Some Common Sense)

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For the first quarter million years or so of human existence, we only had face to face interactions, so any technology mediated exchanges are going to require adaptation from what we were biologically and socially programmed to do. Not surprisingly, Gallup conducted research years before the pandemic to find out what kinds of work communications and schedules work best. Then the pandemic challenged most of what we thought was possible or advisable.

In person meetings tend to better support social bonding and work commitments, but the nature of the meeting is probably more important than whether or not it is in person or remote. For example, if there is a good, actionable agenda, opportunity for problem solving, access to support, and some social component, then in person is likely to be more productive and more valued by participants, but those same objectives improve remote meetings as well!

There is also some research to suggest that working in the office promotes less tangible, but potentially important activities such as informal, “hallway” conversations, dissemination of information, and even opportunities for mentoring.

Not surprisingly, just as with educational effectiveness, a hybrid model is probably preferable to either solely in person or solely at a distance arrangements, as it provides flexibility and the benefits of face-to-face interaction.

However…. there is a gender component as well. Women tend to value and benefit from the flexibility offered by hybrid and remote work more than men do. Rules requiring 100% in the office work schedules will disproportionately, negatively impact women, which leaders ignore at their own peril.

So, what are the implications for leaders? First, whether folks are in the office or remote or both, if you’re going to require that they participate in group activities/meetings, then those activities must be designed in such a way that both participants and the organization are better off than they would have been without the activity. Getting people together just to report on what they’re doing is usually a recipe for lost time and frustration. On the other hand, get togethers that honor people as social creatures, are driven by an agenda that people care about, offer opportunities for collaboration and solicitation of resources and other types of support, and empower folks to accomplish more than they could without the meeting are a good use of time. Ideally, leaders will facilitate a work schedule and arrangement that yields some face to face opportunities, while also providing flexibility, particularly for female employees. Moreover, the research noted above suggests that there is value in standardizing in-the-office commitments so that employees can plan in advance.

In short, the recent pandemic, now endemic, proved that many arrangements that we previously thought were undoable are, in fact quite doable. The primary challenge of leaders in this context is to identify and maximize what was learned during the pandemic, while also leveraging the most positive elements of pre-pandemic work arrangements and schedules.

It Is through Feeling that We Find Ourselves

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Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

E.E. Cummings, from Spectator magazine, 1955

E.E. Cummings shared the wise words above in a “Poet’s Advice to Students.” Although he wrote those words nearly 70 years ago, they somehow feel particularly relevant today. Maybe it is mass media, which was nascent in the 1950s or maybe marketing or maybe social media which seems to fill just about all the space we have, but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that we are under assault with messages hounding us to be like others or like some perverse notion of what is desirable/normal/expected.

It is not by chance that people with many followers on social media are referred to as “influencers” rather than as communicators or supporters or content providers.

I think that Cummings figured something out decades ago which is that our feelings cannot be owned by others. Can “influencers” make us feel certain things? Yes, but that is a reaction based on our insecurities designed to elicit behaviors. It is not a feeling that defines us. The feelings that define us are those generated internally; they are sacred. They can be shared, but they are not for sale.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

Cummings could not have known just how hard the battle would become. For many of us, it is not just a battle to be ourselves, but a battle for survival; a battle for our souls, the manifestations of which are often despair and hopelessness, but also self-discovery, liberation, and empowerment.

Much of the work I do with clients ultimately ties back to “Who am I?” and “Why do I matter?” Healing, then, often requires emancipation from, to paraphrase Cummings, “a world that is doing its best, night and day, to keep you from being yourself.” That emancipation comes from the courage to feel and the courage to claim oneself back.

The sublime and grace inherent in the human experience is that, even in the face of relentless, often brutal attacks on the self and self-worth, we possess the resource to battle back, to reclaim ourselves, to heal. I am grateful to be part of that journey for so many people who have entrusted and honored me to share that journey with them.

Five Foundational Components of Mental Health and Wellbeing

Image Credit: mysouldiscoveries.com

Although there are many factors that contribute to mental health and wellness, there are several that form the basis, or foundation, of wellbeing. One is biological (sleep), three are mental (mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude), and one is psychosocial (human connection).

Why do these factors matter?


Of all the factors affecting physical and mental well- being, adequate sleep consistently has the biggest impact. Others include diet and exercise.


Mindfulness supports equilibrium between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic nervous systems and provides the awareness necessary to support other interventions.


Self-compassion is critical to addressing many mental health issues and is essential for addressing trauma and shame. It supports better self-concept and counter-acts negative self-talk.


Gratitude provides healthy perspective on life events, supports resilience, and mitigates against worry and frustration.

Human Connection

Connection with others is central to the human experience and meets the foundational need for acceptance and belonging. It also supports purpose and resilience, while boosting mood.

Assessment of Foundations of Mental Health and Wellbeing

I sleep at least 7 hours per night.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I engage in a daily mindfulness practice.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I practice self-compassion daily.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I note what I’m grateful for at least weekly.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I connect meaningfully at least weekly with someone who cares about me.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

Total score from each item _____ (A total score of 10 or less suggests that you are not effectively employing tools that can positively affect your mental health and wellbeing.)

Plan for any item scored 2 or lower:

Sleep __________________________________________________________________________________

Mindfulness ____________________________________________________________________________

Self-Compassion _________________________________________________________________________

Gratitude _______________________________________________________________________________

Human Connection _______________________________________________________________________

If you’d like a consultation on better understanding the foundations of mental health and wellbeing in your own life, you may email me directly at wkp@wallacekpond.com or complete a brief contact form here.

Making More Money to Find Happiness: A Really Bad Idea

Image Credit: MattAboutMoney

“There are two ways to get richer: One is to make more money and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already at hand.”

Alain de Botton

Most of us who have chosen the first path described by Botton have discovered that even when we do make more money, there comes a time, usually decades into the pursuit, in which the internal dissonance of that quest starts to get in the way. For some of us, it’s just a nagging sense that maybe we’ve compromised more than we wish we had. For others, it’s a full-blown crisis. Either way, we ignore this wake-up call at our own peril.

To put it mildly, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. We live in a system in which some minimal amount of money is required to meet basic needs and a little more than that for access to modest opportunities and comforts. However, the research is clear that as income increases, its contribution to happiness decreases and we actually encounter a new set of stressors, challenges, and demands that compromise our wellbeing and our happiness.

When money is connected to work, as it is for almost all of us, there is almost always a direct correlation between how much money we make and how much additional time we dedicate to that pursuit. Unfortunately, the research cited above also makes it clear that above a certain income (typically less than $100,000 annually), time is a much stronger predictor of happiness than money, as is the way we spend money. For example, money spent on experiences and on other people predicts more and longer lasting happiness than does spending money on objects of desire, particularly objects that simply reflect luxury or status. So, for many of us, the pursuit of money is really a Faustian pact in which the more successful we are with that quest, the more factors come into our lives that mitigate against our search for happiness. Not so ironically, as wealth increases, so do difficulties in relationships. Research suggests that as wealth grows, people engage in less healthy interpersonal behavior, have less time for healthy, non-work, non-finance activities, develop fear of losing their wealth, and become vulnerable to making personal and moral compromises in the interest of maintaining and growing their wealth.

The effects of a quest for more and more money are usually insidious, sneaking up on us over time. It is only when we are forced, by dissonance, mental health issues, relationship problems, etc. to look back over “how we got here,” that we recognize just how much time, effort, intellect, and spirit we’ve dedicated to activities and people that, in retrospect, often didn’t align with our own values, desires, and wellbeing. And, equally insidious, in most cases, money turns about to be incredibly ephemeral. We can go from “rich” to “poor” in a strikingly short period of time with just a couple of unfortunate circumstances.

Of equal importance, we’ve also been sold a bill of goods related to happiness itself! Research suggests that happiness is somewhat ethereal and vulnerable to so many factors, that even in ideal situations, it is hard to sustain. It probably makes more sense to focus on having purpose, which is more sustainable over time, and is even less correlated with money. And—big bonus—purpose is not only more resilient than happiness, while negative events typically compromise happiness, they can give more meaning to life. In short, when we pursue purpose and meaning in our lives, we are more likely to experience alignment between our values and our behaviors and feel more satisfied with our life, both of which are probably more valuable and sustainable than happiness in isolation. In other words, we can feel good about ourselves and our lives regardless of whether or not we feel “happy” in a given moment, which sounds like a heckuva lot better thing to shoot for.

If you’d like to join a small group discussion on October 28th at 2pm Eastern time about how you can begin to shift from a pursuit of money (and dubiously happiness) to a pursuit of purpose, fill out a contact form here.