Grow inner strengths

Hanson_thI’ve hiked a lot and have often had to depend on what was in my pack. Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.

I’m using the word strength broadly to include positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of well-being, wise and effective action, and contributions to others.

The idea of inner strengths might seem abstract at first. Let’s bring it down to earth with some concrete examples. The alarm goes off and you’d rather snooze-so you find the will to get up. Let’s say you have kids and they’re squabbling and it’s frustrating-so instead of yelling, you get in touch with that place inside that’s firm but not angry. You’re embarrassed about making a mistake at work-so you call up a sense of worth from past accomplishments. You get stressed racing around-so you find some welcome calm in several long exhalations. You feel sad about not having a partner-so you find some comfort in thinking about the friends you do have. Throughout your day, other inner strengths are operating automatically in the back of your mind, such as a sense of perspective, faith, or self-awareness.

A well-known idea in medicine and psychology is that how you feel and act-both over the course of your life and in specific relationships and situations-is determined by three factors: the challenges you face, the vulnerabilities these challenges grind on, and the strengths you have for meeting your challenges and protecting your vulnerabilities. For example, the challenge of a critical boss would be intensified by a person’s vulnerability to anxiety, but he or she could cope by calling on inner strengths of self-soothing and feeling respected by others.

We all have vulnerabilities. Personally, I wish it were not so easy for me to become worried and self-critical. And life has no end of challenges, from minor hassles like dropped cell phone calls to old age, disease, and death. You need strengths to deal with challenges and vulnerabilities, and as either or both of these grow, so must your strengths to match them. If you want to feel less stressed, anxious, frustrated, irritable, depressed, disappointed, lonely, guilty, hurt, or inadequate, having more inner strengths will help you.

Inner strengths are fundamental to a happy, productive, and loving life. For example, research on just one strength, positive emotions, shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds, and improve resilience, well-being, and life satisfaction. Positive emotions encourage the pursuit of opportunities, create positive cycles, and promote success. They also strengthen your immune system, protect your heart, and foster a healthier and longer life.

On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them. To me this is wonderful news, since it means that we can develop the happiness and other inner strengths that foster fulfillment, love, effectiveness, wisdom, and inner peace. Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.


Your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially by what’s in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain-for better or worse.

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Based on what we’ve learned about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version would be to say that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.

Looking back over the past week or so, where has your mind been mainly resting?

In effect, what you pay attention to-what you rest your mind on-is the primary shaper of your brain. While some things naturally grab a person’s attention-such as a problem at work, a physical pain, or a serious worry-on the whole you have a lot of influence over where your mind rests. This means that you can deliberately prolong and even create the experiences that will shape your brain for the better.
This practice of growing inner strengths is both simple and authentic. First, look for opportunities to have an experience of the strength. For example, if you are trying to feel more cared about, keep your eyes open for those little moments in a day when someone else is friendly, attentive, including, appreciative, warm, caring, or loving toward you – and let your recognition of these good facts become an experience of feeling cared about, even in small ways. Second, help this experience actually sink into your brain – the good that lasts – by staying with it a dozen seconds or more in a row, helping it fill your body, and getting a sense of it sinking into you as you sink into it. (Hardwiring Happiness gets into the details of this process.)

In essence, growing inner strengths boils down to just four words, applied to a positive experience: have it, enjoy it. And see for yourself what happens when you do.

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Be happy so that others may be happy

Saddhamala wrote the other day about how we “catch” emotions from others. As she points out, this happens when you’re hanging around someone who is negative, and it brings you down, and that it even happens when we watch a movie!

So this is definitely a part of our experience.

You may not have realized, though, just how infectious our emotions are. The effect of one person’s emotions — whether negative or positive — can be measured as they ripple outward through our friendships and contacts.

Let’s deal with the negative first.

An important study by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo showed that lonely people tend to share their loneliness with others. He uncovered this by looking at data from a large-scale study that has been following health conditions for more than 60 years.

You might be wondering: if lonely people aren’t in contact with others, how can they spread their loneliness? The thing is that loneliness is a state of mind rather than an absolute absence of social connections. Lonely people may be with others much of the time, but they aren’t able to connect. They feel disconnected and isolated even in social situations. And the people they are in contact with pick up on and share those feelings. But those feelings do of course affect relationships, and lonely people lose friends. Sadly, before their friends leave, they end up feeling lonely as well!

This is true for other negative emotions, too, such as anger and depression. It’s even true for factors such as obesity, criminality, and bankruptcy.

Now for the positive.

Another study by Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler from the University of California, San Diego, found that happiness also spreads through populations. One happy person spreads their joy to others. In fact, they could measure the increase in happiness as it formed a chain reaction that benefitted not only people’s friends, but their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. This effect lasts for up to one year.

How strong is this effect? It’s strong. If you’re happy, a friend living within a mile experiences a 25% chance of being more happy. One of your friends’ friends has nearly a 10 percent chance of increased happiness, and a friend of that friend has a 5.6 percent increased chance—a three-degree cascade. Compare that to, say, a $5000 income bump, which increases your odds of being happy by just 2%.

Every happy person in our world has a significant effect on many people around them, adding in a measurable way to the sum total of human happiness.

A study by Nicholas A. Christakis and others showed that the average lifetime of a contentment “infection” is 10 years, while the average lifetime of a discontentment “infection” is 5 years.

Also, this study showed that happiness spreads faster than misery. As Christakis says, “It’s pleasurable to be near other happy individuals and not near other unhappy individuals.”

Sometimes the quest for happiness is seen as being selfish, but it’s clear that that’s a shortsighted view. Our own happiness has an effect on others around us, and it’s almost an imperative for us to become happier if we want others to be happy.

As the Buddha said, 2,500 years ago,

Conquer the angry man by love.
Conquer the ill-natured man by goodness.
Conquer the miser with generosity.
Conquer the liar with truth.

When you consider how powerfully interconnected our world is (for example, on Facebook every person is, on average five connections away from any other person) it’s clear that this ripple effect is a powerful force for changing the world. Remember, one happy person raises the happiness of people — measurably — even at three degrees of separation, and possibly beyond.

This means each of us is more powerful than we may give ourselves credit for. Your happiness (or your grumbling) can affect the world. Use your power wisely!

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Positivity is contagious

A black woman and an Asian person of indeterminate gender sit on a couch together laughing

Are you a movie buff? Do you enjoy going to a theater, watching a movie and getting caught up in the plot and relating with the characters and leaving your own plot behind?

When you watch a movie about climbing mountains, and you are afraid of heights, does the fear of the situation cause your heart to race and your palms to sweat?

These are examples of how energy and feelings are contagious.

And have you noticed that when you are with someone who is negative, you feel negative too?

This frequently happens when someone is talking in a negative way, or complaining, about someone or a situation.

Listening to negativity and complaints is not an uplifting, positive experience.

But listening to someone speak about what is positive about a situation or a person can lift our hearts and our moods and then we feel positive as well.

Have you ever been in a lackluster, dull mood and then spent some time with a friend who was happy and in a positive frame of mind? Did you find that your friend’s positivity was contagious? I have witnessed that situation and experienced it as well.

In meetings with friends, at work or with family members, we can have an effect on the emotional tone of the gathering. Our positive outlook can transform a negative atmosphere.

The next time you are with one person or a group of people, and the discussion becomes negative with gossip or ill will, try turning it around by speaking about the positive qualities of the person other people are gossiping about.

At work, if colleagues are speaking negatively about a change in procedure, you might empathize with their feelings about the change and then, if you see positive outcomes of the change, mention them.

We can sometimes fall into feeling negatively without even realizing what is happening. With mindfulness and an understanding of the interactions between a couple of people or a group of people, we can turn negative energy into positive energy.

Do you have a friend or family member who is negative most of the time? Try turning the interaction around by being positive and see whether being positive is contagious.

How we think about and respond to situations is our choice. We have a choice to be negative or to be positive. Negativity breeds more negativity. Positivity breeds more positivity.

Each person’s positivity has an effect on the people they are with – positivity is contagious.

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How to clear your mind of negative thoughts

African elephant on the savannah

One of my friends is a lawyer in New York. He graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, got his license to practice, worked for a short time and then was laid off due to the failing economy.

I wanted to rescue him because I worried that like many lawyers in New York, he would be unemployed, would not be able to pay off his school loans and would not be able to maintain his apartment.

We worry, we obsess about the same things over and over again, we are anxious about things that never happen, we want more than we have, or something different from what we have, and we have expectations of ourselves and others that may never be met.

The mind is like a wild elephant that needs taming. If you have ever meditated and tried to quiet your mind, you will have experienced your thoughts as continuous and difficult to manage.

When we think negatively about ourselves and others, we do not experience the beauty and joy that can be found within ourselves and others.

A couple months after my friend was laid off, he met a colleague who offered him a job. All of my worrying was energy spent on something that never manifested.

Rather than worrying about my friend being unemployed, I could have thought positively about the situation. I could have thought about my friend’s strengths as a hard working, skilled lawyer.

I could have thought that the situation could actually end up to his benefit – he might find work he enjoys more than the work he was doing before he was laid off (which is what happened).

In meditation I practice working with my mind and I have experienced changing negative thoughts. First I become aware of my negative thoughts.

For example, I may notice that I am anticipating a negative outcome from working with a person with whom this has happened in the past, however, worrying about a situation in the future, when I do not know what the outcome will be, is wasted energy.

Rather than being concerned about working with the colleague, I could consider the positive qualities about the person and empathize with circumstances that might have made our interaction difficult for her.

She might have been experiencing personal or professional difficulties or have health issues or just see things differently.

When I think positively and with compassion, I am successful in clearing my mind of negative thoughts – it just takes awareness, mindfulness, understanding and compassion.

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Is there a link between gratitude and happiness?

Woman showing gratitude with a gesture of prayer

Research suggests that people who feel gratitude benefit in the following ways. They’re:

1. happier
2. less depressed
3. less stressed
4. more satisfied with their lives and social relationships
5. aware of their purpose in life
6. self confident
7. positive
8. able to cope with the difficulties in positive ways
9. more likely to seek support from other people, and
10. able to learn and grow from their experiences.

It has been said that gratitude is strongly linked with mental health. Several times in my life I have kept a gratitude journal, in which I have written about five things I was grateful for each day. I kept this journal on my computer in the form of writing an email to a friend each evening with my list of things I was grateful for. Many times I felt grateful for more than five things.

It is so easy to focus on circumstances or people whom we are disappointed in. Continually thinking about negative people and situations results in feeling depressed, angry, annoyed, irritable, and generally cranky. We talk to our friends looking for justification for feeling this negativity which just makes us feel worse.

The habit of writing in a gratitude journal each evening is a way of focusing our attention on what is positive in our lives. It also helps us to look for things to be grateful for during the day. Gratitude enters our consciousness and directs our minds towards positivity.

Some of the items in my gratitude journal are: healthy children, dear friends, a sweet cottage to live in, the pond by my cottage, freedom to explore creativity, work that I have enjoyed or not enjoyed but learned from, finding spiritual practice that inspires me, appreciation for beauty in nature and in people, a sense of aesthetics, enjoying simple pleasures, simplifying my life, taking time to really listen to people, cooking for myself and my friends, good movies, good popcorn to munch while I watch the good movies, instances which have been very difficult that have taught me about myself, kayaking, dancing, sunsets, small acts of kindness, strolling through museums, looking at a photograph of the Dalai Lama, availability of books, the ocean, pristine snow covered woods, giving and receiving gifts and especially gifts from the heart, observed acts of generosity and kindness.

Remembering all these things lifts my heart. It is easy to understand how gratitude is responsible for the positive and healthy characteristics of people who feel it. We spend so much time looking for things to make ourselves happy – and all we really have to do is appreciate what is all around us each and every day.

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