Tag happiness

Resilience IV – Is my dog unhappy?

In an earlier post, I summarized the ABC resilience methodology described by the authors of The Resilience Factor.  In this post, I’ll introduce a very simple example of a belief that seems to affect me on a fairly routine basis.  I will likely progress into more advanced examples in the future, but this is an easy one to explore and share this particular analysis methodology.

Adversity: My dog is staring at me and I am not sure what he wants to do.

Belief: What does he want now?  I need to focus on other things right now and I am not sure I really want to go outside again.

Consequences: A combination of frustration and guilt, and sometimes even anger.

While it’s perhaps easy to see why I would feel frustrated and even guilty, I have often been puzzled why I sometimes feel angry – sometimes to the point of being stressed out!  Let’s explore what these emotions are really saying about my belief system in this particular case.

Question: I take care of my dog almost better than I do myself.  Why does his staring bother me so much?

Answer: Because I don’t know what he is feeling and whether he is bored.

Question: Let’s assume he is bored, what is the worst part of that for me?

Answer: If my dog is bored, then I think he is unhappy.

Question: What does that mean to me if he is unhappy?

Answer: It means that I am not taking as good care of him as I should be and he deserves more than I may be providing.  It may mean that I am not doing a very good job at being a pet owner and that ultimately I may not be able to achieve a good balance between work and personal life if and when I do have children.  In some respects, I feel helpless.

It’s a safe bet that some pet owners don’t experience these feelings, but I am sure that many do.  Guilt, I think, naturally comes with having children or pets.  If you truly care about your pets and/or children, you are always going to want the best for them (i.e. their happiness) and thus any activity that impacts those feelings is going to result in some feelings of guilt.

As it relates to my feelings of anger, clearly these feelings are inward-facing.  My dog has done nothing wrong, and frankly it is unlikely that he is bored; perhaps he is staring at me out of pure affection? (or he just wants another treat!)

My anger is primarily about not being able to understand or satisfy a need that may not necessarily be there in the first place; feelings of helplessness are a natural byproduct.  At a much deeper level, it’s about potentially failing later on in a future partnership or family environment either due to a lack of understanding and/or an inability to make a positive impact / change (i.e. will I be able to attain a balance between my personal interests and those of my wife’s and or children’s?).

As you can see here, by taking a closer look at my emotions surrounding this particular adversity, I’ve learned quite a bit about this seemingly innocent dynamic. Given this in-depth analysis, however, it’s clear that this belief needs to change.  Being resilient in this case means the following:

  1. I’ll never understand what my dog is thinking, so yes I will perhaps always feel helpless but I can do what I can to ensure his happiness.
  2. Achieving a balance in this relationship (and in future relationships) is a simple means of establishing “boundaries” (in this case a loose schedule) and continuously measuring against those same boundaries to see what is working and what isn’t.
  3. There are some things in life that I will be able to change and many others that I will not.

While this is a simple example of approaches recommended in the text, you can see just how much information is uncovered and whether existing beliefs should stay or go.

What makes you happy?

Can you become happier through analysis of what makes you happy?  Can you gain greater understanding of other people’s happiness through similar analysis?  I think the answer to both questions is “yes.”

I recently purchased the second season of George Lucas’ The Clone Wars.  Overall, I’m completely thrilled – so much so that I am starting to think the series is better than the original trilogies.  As I progressed through each episode, I found my level of happiness directly linked to a few select scenes.  While I was happy watching every episode, I couldn’t stop but wonder why certain scenes were more “joy-provoking” than others.

Let me share a few examples to further explore this concept.

In the episode entitled “Cargo of Doom”, there is one scene where a bounty hunter named Cad Bane has jumped into a parked spaceship to flee from Anakin Skywalker.  Once Bane jumps into the spaceship, there is some brief animation as he turns on the ship’s power.  This is visible through the illumination of lights within the ship’s cockpit.  What really excited me was the sequence of lights that illuminated within the 1-2 second interval.  Instead of just showing a single illumination (i.e. the ship is now “on”), the animators took the time to show a purposeful sequence of illumination (spatial relationship and number) giving the sense of multiple subsystems and overall complexity.

Once the ship has taken off, and Anakin is forced to jump off the wing to avoid injury, the camera follows the ship briefly as the wings are lowered and the ship accelerates.  While difficult to convey here, the chosen camera angle illustrates the significance of the situation, the complexity and acceleration of the ship, and the sheer size difference between the ship, the hangar and humans on the ground.

So, what are the themes that comprise this scene? (i.e. why do I like this scene in particular?)

Themes: technology, complexity, purpose, attention to detail, “part of something larger”, perspective, power, energy, spatial relationship, design

In another episode (“Landing at Point Rain”), there is another scene that I simply love.  The Republic is taking heavy losses against the Separatists.  After much delay, Y-wing fighters are deployed to the planet to provide critical assistance.  The scene begins with a surprised Obi-Wan Kenobi followed quickly by a ground-level camera angle that shows the rapidly approaching Y-wing (a “fly-by”).  While the scene lasts all of two seconds (~60 frames of animation), the sheer power and acceleration of the spaceship combined with an equally powerful sound effect makes for a very immersive scene.

Themes: “feeling of being there”, magnitude, realism, sound, surprise, immersion, perspective, uniqueness, influence, control, sense of scale, speed

While I could describe other scenes that produced similar euphoria, I’d recommend renting or purchasing the series to witness this creative masterpiece for yourself.  What’s important here, however, is the opinion that one’s ability to describe the themes associated with feelings of joy and happiness can ultimately open up new opportunities for oneself and one’s connection with others.

To expand upon this latter point, when interacting with others – either as friends or as colleagues – you can learn about people by truly understanding the facets of the things that provide them with joy.  For example, the statement “I enjoy watching The Clone Wars” is one level of understanding, but as you’ve just seen, it’s simply scratching the surface.  Uncover the themes behind one’s enjoyment and you can learn a great deal.

Think about movies you’ve watched, books you’ve read, or places you’ve visited.  If you find yourself in a state of euphoria, ask yourself why.  What are the descriptors behind the event?  What do those descriptors say about you, and can you increase those feelings through additional exploration?

Mental Evolution III (“Lessons”)

January 1, 2011 marks the beginning of the tenth chapter (“Plane”) in the Planescape saga – a chapter I call “Immersion.”  While the details are still being mapped out, I am becoming enthusiastic about what this new framework entails.

In advance of sharing more details about Immersion, I think it’s worth sharing a few things that I’ve learned over the past year – particularly over the past sixty days – all of which will be incorporated into my larger advancement strategy.

  1. In the workplace, team chemistry is perhaps the most important thing to me.
  2. I have a much clearer sense for what I should ultimately strive for, and what I can leave behind.
  3. I have a better understanding of my strengths and skills, and also have the confidence to let some of those skills lay dormant as I develop new skills and further improve my strengths.
  4. I believe that if I am not happy, moving somewhere else will not necessarily change this.
  5. I am uncomfortable with a significant amount of uncertainty, but I have learned ways to accommodate where extreme uncertainty exists.
  6. I have learned what it feels like to be unemployed and the psychological effects of the job search.
  7. I have a better understanding of the types of companies that interest me – and those that do not.
  8. I know I need to centralize my development around design, technology and business.
  9. I need to be more careful and conscious of future decisions to increase my life satisfaction.
  10. The past several years of effort have ultimately paid off in terms of being able to tell a more accurate story of who I am and where I’m going.
  11. I am interested in leading design efforts with proper experience / education.
  12. I have learned that a continuous bombardment of failures can result in a sense of “learned helplessness” which can be corrected.
  13. I have a better sense of who to trust and when trust should be given.
  14. I have learned better decision-making skills given past failures.
  15. I do not wish to work at home or alone because it is psychologically very draining / alienating for me.
  16. I have a better understanding of what I want and do not want in my life.
  17. I have learned that I can become blocked when facing too many significant (life) decisions at once; thus, employing some type of partitioning strategy is necessary to make these decisions in confident, thoughtful and expedient manner.
  18. I may never be completely satisfied with my life, and maybe that is okay.
  19. My graphic design portfolio is fairly strong, but I need to spend more time developing the other sections of my portfolio (e.g. 3D).
  20. I would like to expend more time on entertainment design, but realize that it may always be a passion but not necessarily a career.
  21. A robust ID portfolio and MFA degree could open a lot of doors for me in the long-run.

Happiness Accelerator.

Having sold my iPad and after visiting the local Staples store for several weeks, I decided to purchase the latest Kindle.  I sold my iPad primarily because the manner by which I was using it wasn’t too far removed from what my desktop or laptop could essentially do.  Which isn’t to say that either are “touch-enabled” – rather the type of work I do doesn’t require this form of technology (at least right now).

I decided to purchase the Kindle because I read a lot and I don’t feel there is a need to physically take up more room with books that I may never look at again (the vast majority of my books aren’t opened again after reading).

After using the Kindle for just a few weeks, what really surprised me was how much faster I am reading.  Amazon’s goal of enabling an “immersive” experience – in my opinion – has been fully realized.  I originally thought the device would distract me, but the combination of the paper-like screen (“electronic paper“) and unobtrusive controls significantly streamline my ability to take in new content at an accelerated pace.

There are a couple of metaphors I can use to describe this immersive experience and the efficiencies gained through this technology.  The first is what I call “traffic flow.”  The concept basically involves the speed at which one will drive depending upon the conditions beyond the actual roadway.

Taking traffic and road conditions / markings out of the equation, one will tend to drive faster on a road that is void of signs, buildings and other “distractions.”  In contrast, when that same driver enters a town or area where there is an abundance of these “distractions” (natural or manufactured) she/he will reduce their speed to allow their mind to process this additional information.  Reading with the Kindle is similar to driving along the former roadway.

By removing the physical book you automatically eliminate numerous “distractions” – the weight, continuous adjustments to maintain the book “posture”, as well as the psychological barrier when reading books of significant length (Dhalgren is a perfect example).  While the Kindle has a way of conveying “progress” I’ve found the manner by which this information is displayed eliminates this distraction.

If I expand this concept a step further, the size of the Kindle’s screen accelerates the reading process even further.  By displaying only a small amount of content, the reader is able to digest this content much more rapidly and easily than if the page were larger in size.  Because pages are smaller, pages can be turned faster which translates into a feeling of progress.

While reading is not something that needs to be accelerated or rushed, the elimination of “distractions” translates into an immersive reading experience.  It’s this experience that translates into increased enjoyment and learning – and it’s these feelings that ultimately build upon themselves over the long-run.

The (New) Hierarchy of Needs – Part II

[This is part two of a series on project management that is based upon Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”]

Having managed projects of various sizes and complexity over the past several years, I was puzzled with the absence of “interpersonal” elements in project management literature given that the team is ultimately at the core of any successful project.  To this end, I formulated a hierarchy of needs that incorporates pure project management concepts along with core interpersonal elements.

This hierarchy looks like the following:

  • Momentum
  • Problem-Solving
  • Accountability
  • Storytelling
  • Constraints
  • Foundation

The key behind this structure is that it has a very close relationship to Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs.

This is important to understand because the “real” goal of any project is to have a team where each individual is striving to be the best.  If each team member can work within an environment or “operating structure” (the layers listed above) such that they are able to realize their full potential (i.e. she/he is involved and engaged) and reach a state of “flow” (self-actualization), the collective team will ultimately build enough positive momentum to virtually guarantee project success.

Thus, you can see why this hierarchy of needs and the concept (and primary goal) of “self-actualization” is extremely important: if team members are happy, the chances for project success are that much greater.

Let’s explore this hierarchy in more depth.


At the bottom of the hierarchy is a fundamental understanding of what the project hopes to accomplish.

To this end, going through a formal exercise of defining an explicit mission statement and underlying objectives can be extremely beneficial in the long-term.  This may seem unnecessary or even foreign.  But first, what exactly is a mission statement?

“A mission statement is a brief written statement of the purpose of a company or organization. Ideally, a mission statement guides the actions of the organization, spells out its overall goal, provides a sense of direction, and guides decision-making for all levels of management.” – Wikipedia

In the project management arena, the mission statement is ultimately there to guide the project team and to serve as a “beacon” when things start to become cloudy – “Why are we doing this again?” or “Why is this important to the company / LOB?”  In some circumstances, the explicit definition of a mission statement can start to raise questions across the board where assumptions will start to be challenged.  “Oh, I didn’t know that we are really doing this for LOB A …. if that’s the case, then we need to do X, Y and Z …”

Once there is agreement on the project mission, it’s only then where you can start to identify core objectives.

There really shouldn’t be many – three or four.  If you find that you’re heading beyond that, you may start considering ways to break up the project.  Be careful that the customer is not automatically jumping to the requirements definition “phase”.  This is not a requirements gathering exercise – it’s asking “What are you fundamentally trying to accomplish?”  If you’re struggling at this stage, it’s recommended that you remain at this “level” until you and your customer are certain what you’re collectively going to do.

In some situations where there are multiple organizations involved, it is also valuable to define what each organization/department hopes to gain from their participation.  While this may not directly change things, this level of understanding is helpful when challenges arise – “I see why team A is pushing back on X, because they are really focused on Y …”.  It’s better to know what’s driving behavior now than struggle with it later on.

Mental Adaptation.

In the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic is an interesting article entitled “What Makes us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  The article discusses a seventy-two year study by Harvard researchers, and it’s longtime director, George Vaillant, of the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores.  The study intended to find a scientific “solution” or “equation” to a life of happiness.

After following these individuals for quarter century, the study had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.  These factors are education, a stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.  The seventh, and perhaps the most important of them all involve “mature adaptations“.

Given some of the challenges that I have faced over the past several years, this concept immediately resonated with me.  Let me explain why.

About two years ago I read a book called “How Full is your Bucket?” where the premise of the book revolves around the metaphor of a “bucket” and “dipper”.  Continuous positive contributions result in a”full” bucket while continuous negative energy (or the absence of positive emotion) eventually results in an “empty” bucket.  The book goes on to provide several key strategies to ensure the “bucket” is always full.

One of the anecdotes in the text involves American POWs in the Korean War.  Even though physical conditions were adequate, many POWs were mentally “broken” through self-criticism and lack of positive support.  When I first read this, I found the concept difficult to comprehend.  It’s only until recently where I can understand how a lack of positive energy can spell the difference between success and failure – regardless of situation.

At a certain level, one’s ability to get beyond the current circumstance and to mentally “fabricate” positive thought is a core factor to long-term success.  In essence, how able is one to appropriately respond and adapt to challenges along the way?  This “adaptation” concept is expanded upon in The Atlantic article:

“This central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how – and to what effect – they responded to that trouble.  His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations”, or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty.  Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort – depending on whether you approve or disapprove – a person’s reality.  Defenses can spell our redemption or ruin.

In essence, one’s ability to successfully “adapt” is a key factor in one’s overall quality of life.

Vaillant goes on to rank these defenses in four categories (from worst to best):

  1. “Psychotic” – e.g. paranoia, hallucination
  2. “Immature” – e.g. passive aggression, projection, fantasy
  3. “Neurotic” – e.g. intellectualization, dissociation and repression
  4. “Mature” – e.g. altruism, humor, anticipation, suppression, sublimation

While “neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people, the goal is to continuously strive towards the “mature” defense behaviors.  Interestingly enough, these “mature” behaviors are in themselves “generators” of positive energy.  While it is admirable to try to employ all of these sub-behaviors, it may be beneficial to focus on one or two initially.

For example, sublimation is good one to start with.  The underlying concept behind sublimation is “energy flow”.  Your mind creates energy (positive and negative) and this energy needs to be directed away from destructive acts and into something that is creatively acceptable.  In fact, this blog is a good example of sublimation – channeling what could be negative energy into something that is constructive and creatively effective.

The lesson in all of this is awareness.  While the six factors described earlier are relatively “easy” to attain for most, I believe focusing intently on the “defense mechanisms” or “adaptations” is at the core to ensuring a positive and healthy life experience regardless of the trouble encountered along the way.  In the POW example described earlier, the key to survival was the single belief that things would eventually be better – the other factors didn’t really matter.

As important as these “adaptations” are, in an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?”  Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

New Book Additions.

I’ve added three new books to my reading list:

Industrial Design

1. The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

Genres: Business and Investing, Health, Mind & Body, Professional & Technical, Science

Product Description: First, businesses discovered quality as a key competitive edge; next came service. Now, Donald A. Norman, former Director of the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of California, reveals how smart design is the new competitive frontier. The Design of Everyday Things is a powerful primer on how–and why–some products satisfy customers while others only frustrate them.


1. The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Genres: Health, Mind & Body, Medicine, Professional & Technical, Science

Product Description: An astonishing new science called neuroplasticity is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable. In this revolutionary look at the brain, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, M.D., provides an introduction to both the brilliant scientists championing neuroplasticity and the people whose lives they’ve transformed. From stroke patients learning to speak again to the remarkable case of a woman born with half a brain that rewired itself to work as a whole, The Brain That Changes Itself will permanently alter the way we look at our brains, human nature, and human potential.

2. The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky

Genres: Health, Mind & Body

Product Description: A groundbreaking, practical guide to attaining happiness based on innovative scientific research, The How of Happiness is a powerful contribution to the field of positive psychology and a gift to people who have sought to take their happiness into their own hands. Drawing upon years of her own pioneering research with thousands of men and women, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky reveals that much of our capacity for happiness is within our power. Detailing an easy-to- follow plan, including exercises in new ways of thinking and understanding our individual obstacles, The How of Happiness offers a positive and empowering way to sustain a new level of joy in our lives.

Happiness 101.

From time to time, if I am feeling down, my family and friends will tell me to “Just be happy!”.  I have always struggled with  understanding what this really means.  This is not to say that I am not a happy person (I am), but if I am not happy, should I expend energy trying to be happy?  If I did, what exactly should I do to “be happy”?

Having just finished the book “Finding Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I think I’ve discovered the answer to this.

The answer ultimately suggests increasing your involvement and enthusiasm in your life and letting that experience and mindset ultimately guide you towards happiness.

Let me explain further.

Mihaly is best known for his research on the concept of “flow”.  Having experienced “flow” many times, I believe it is one of the most rewarding feelings that ultimately results in happiness.  But first, what is “flow”?

“The metaphor of “flow” is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives.  Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture.”

When I come up with a new idea or am in the final stages of a drawing, there is a high likelihood of experiencing”flow”.  I know when it happens because I don’t think about anything else but what I am doing at that moment.  While it may sound strange, it’s almost as if time does not exist.  It’s an amazing feeling.

Mihaly makes an interesting point in his book in that one typically doesn’t experience happiness during “flow” (i.e. there isn’t enough “room” for any real emotion during flow experiences).  It’s only when the experience is over where one can feel truly happy – i.e. because they have experienced “flow”.

Returning to my original dilemma (“how can one be happy?”), most people assume that being happy is synonymous with a fulfilling life.  According to the author, “happiness is not the only emotion worth considering [to have a more fulfilling life].  In fact, if one wants to improve the quality of everday life, happiness may be the wrong place to start.”

The key to achieving flow – and ultimately happiness – is being able to live a life filled with involvement and enthusiasm in all areas. Those that are able to achieve this are considered to have an “autotelic” personality – formed from the Greek roots auto (self) and telos (goal).

“Autotelic persons are not necessarily happier, but they are involved in more complex activities, and they feel better about themselves as a result.  It is not enough to be happy to have an excellent life.  The point is to be happy while doing things that stretch our skills, that help us grow, and fulfill our potential.”

(I am fortunate in that I have a long track of having an autotelic personality, although admittedly I never knew that such a formal description of such a personality existed.)

Some of you may be saying “I can be happy without being involved in a complex activity!” and you are absolutely right.  The challenge, according to the author, is that:

“… this kind of happiness [happiness without “flow”] is very vulnerable and dependent on favorable external circumstances.”

He then goes on to suggest:

“The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.”

Through the “Finding Flow” text, my mission now is not to “be happy”, but experience happiness through increased involvement and enthusiasm in all areas of my life – and not just those that are self-directed (i.e. through personal projects, classes, etc.).