The Science of Wellbeing

I just finished the Yale Coursera class The Science of Wellbeing. It left me with a lot of food for thought.  The class is well documented. It’s thorough and convincing and most of the contents will not surprise you. What can you do to be a happier person? Sleep. Exercise. Be grateful for the things in your life. Engage with people in ways large and small. Be kind to others. Meditate.

Without getting into the neuroscience to convince you, joy comes from 3 places — health (sleep and exercise), focus (concentrated engagement with tasks or topics) and social connections both large and small. Casual pleasantries and warm not-creepy eye contact with the people on the train can be as temporarily uplifting as time spent with our intimates. Meditation can be useful for all three of these things as it helps us regulate stress, develop our directed attention so that we focus on what matters to us and (in the context of loving kindness meditation) can foster our care for others. Even if you don’t practice loving kindness meditation, simply being able to be present and focused in the moment when engaged with others also promotes social connection.

And me telling you all of this? Statistically, scientifically, I am shouting into the void. The nudges to internalize all of these things are small daily prioritizations. The process for changing your life is unsurprisingly devoid of magic pills. You do the work, you practice the discipline, you put one foot in front of the other because all of the work shifts your mindset. And what is the work? The first work is finding small ways to be kind to someone else. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee. Bring healthy food to the office break room. Think about people who are not you. Make eye contact with the people on the metro and just acknowledge they’re alive. Do one thing every day for a week. Look back on how you felt about it. Do it again. Finding time for sleep, for exercise, for meditation is hard. Start small. Ten minutes of meditation a day can make a difference. So can 20 minutes of exercise — even if you don’t break a sweat.

Look with skepticism on what your hindbrain tells you will make you happy when it’s solitude or things. Fun fact: Chocolate actually tastes better shared. Even if it’s shared by a stranger and you can’t see them eating it. Really. Experiences beat stuff in the dollars-to-buy-happiness competition Every. Time. Need I say especially shared experiences?

As I sat through the material, I was anticipating how you work the nudge — how you actually make yourself do the nice thing once a day, the 10 minutes of meditation, the finding time to exercise. The answer is making specific concrete measurable goals and then practicing a foolish sounding abbreviation called WOOP. Spend some time daily thinking about the Wished for thing, the Outcomes, the Obstacles and then working on a Plan. If that sounds unsatisfying, it’s because again, it’s more work and the thing I can’t give any of you is the full 6 weeks worth of lecture to provide the faith that these things all work. In the end, there’s an act of faith and bothering to try. If you look at the science, trust the work done by others, you pretty much have to put one foot in front of the other and see what comes.

I think I’m done rambling. The class was good (and just a reminder — FREE). I don’t expect any of you to take it, but I highly recommend it anyway.

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Fail fast, fail often, don’t let your self esteem hit you in the ass on the way out

When my older daughter was in the 7th grade, she made mostly A’s with the occasional B — all but one place. She had persistent Cs and sometimes Ds in French. She’s one of those kids with no visual memory for spelling. As a result of being a total bookworm, she’s got a giant vocabulary, properly used, horribly spelt. Bookworming squeaks her through in English, but in French, there’s not enough repetition in the world to drill all those irregulars into her skull. I was aghast. I watched her distress, thought about all of the authoritarian booming that could be done there and what good it would(n’t) do and stepped onto the stage to see what sort of parental patter would fall out of my mouth.

“You know, I’m sort of glad this is happening” I found myself saying. Really? I am? “I never saw grades like these until highschool Trig in the midst of my parents divorce and I thought my world was ending.” Dude. Where did this come from? Um. It’s true. Wait, what else am I going to say. “See the thing is, if you learn to deal with a bad grade now, you know how to try, how to study… how to apply effort… how to work with a teacher… how to own your own learning…. you’ll be a better student later. If you’re like me and got straight As and you don’t know why, when things don’t work all of a sudden it’s a problem. So this is great! You’re ahead of the game!” She dried her tears. We made some plans for how to study, how to be absolutely sure homework actually got done, and she went to work, not a failure, learning how to try.

Fast forward a few years and while she’s managed to make French give her consistent Bs, “ARGH!! French!” has been the “Remember the Alamo!” battle cry Betsy screams as she throws herself weapons drawn at every. single. quarter. I don’t know exactly where this determined, resilient kid came from (she believes *my* parental BS? WTF?) but she shakes her puny fist at the subject that denies her A’s and then signs up for another year. She could technically ditch it this year and skip the IB diploma, but she a. wants to actually SPEAK French and b. wants everything else contained in the IB diploma work load, so she sticks it out to get the benefit of the piece of paper.

There’s a bunch of other things going on right now that I don’t really want to throw in here about B’s successes and her failures. She’s been struggling with some non-academic challenges and all along, asking the exact right questions even when it’s not going the way she’d like. She may not be getting to show off some stuff she’s just done, but I admire the hell out of what I know she feels like are her “failures”. So, for this kid whose grit I admire so much, I’ll end on the up note. The quarter just ended. Her French grade? The first time ever, 91.

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Lying to educators #8 — Gingerzilla

The city is crowded. Too crowded for her. She kicks a building and watches it crunch, its roof flying. Her toe catches a bus, it falls to its side and catches fire. Ginger treads slowly, slowly; leaving a field of smoking rubble in her wake.

Tokyo trembles before her. Helicopters buzz her head and masses of frightened people flee in terror.
The army gathers before her, tanks approaching.
No matter what the obstacle, she is going home.

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Lying to educators #7


CinderGinger is made to work every night at home by her evil mother and older sister.
Daily she drudges, scrubbing toilets and doing the laundry, making bonbons we sit on the couch and eat with our pinkies in the air, sharing none. We laugh. Loudly. A lot.

She does not, however, dream of a fairy godmother and a handsome prince.

Why, you ask? Because that would be boring and someone else would be rescuing her from her indentured state.
Ginger dreams of access to the baseball bat in the hall closet that I’ve kept safe under lock and key. She dreams of access to a pitching machine. If you were foolish enough to let her walk home today, she might have access to these items that would be useful in bringing her evil family to heel. The pitching machine would make a pretty awesome weapon really…..

So, you educators are going to keep her enslaved…. right???? On NO ACCOUNT would you let her walk home today…. promise?????
If she ambushes me tonight with a pitching machine, I’ll know who to blame.


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Lying to educators #6

As a part of super hero practice, Ginger is providing security for well know rock star Natalie “Red” Williams after school today.
She’ll be escorting her to our house on foot and patrolling the grounds until she can be safely picked up by her usual security detail. There are no known threats against the artist known as Red, so all is expected to go well – this is a practice drill — but I’ll be present and supervising, in case adult super hero intervention is needed.

Thanks for your understanding and support in this very important endeavor.
Karen (yea I haven’t thought of a super hero name for me yet. Sorry) Hoofnagle

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Lying to educators #5

If you give a kid some candy,
she’ll probably want to put some in her lunch box
and if you let her put some in her lunchbox, she’ll probably eat it all instead of her sensible lunch when she gets to school…
and if she eats it all instead of her lunch when she gets to to school she’ll probably want to run around on the playground a lot instead of doing her lessons so that she can burn off all that sugar.
If she runs around on the playground instead of doing her lessons, she’ll probably get sent to the principle’s office and have her mom called to come get her.
And if her mom comes and gets her… she’ll probably see her candy stash and want to eat more candy.

None of which has anything to do with Ginger walking home today for super hero practice (aka jiu jitsu).
But perhaps all that Halloween candy will give her the energy to do more while there.

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Lying to educators #4

Ginger was a simple girl, who never had quite enough to eat until one day she traded her empty lunchbox for a bag of magic beans. Planting the beans led her to climb to a magical world where bags of candy were to be had merely by knocking on doors and asking. She came down the stalk with enough food to feed her entire family for a month… but she wants to go back.

Unfortunately for her, that beanstalk, unlike Jack’s, was a one-use item. If she wants to get back there, she’s going to need to get back to the super hero lessons and eventually (hopefully) learn how to fly.

She’ll be coming home today to work on sister-throttling with hopes of future flight.
I still don’t believe her secret identity as mild mannered Ginger is secure enough to trust her with that, but we’ll see.

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Lying to educators #3

Today’s note to school:

“Fast Ball” Hoofnagle is coming out of retirement to pitch one last game this season.
In an unexpected twist, the pitcher has rejected both limousine service and the private lounge with snacks generally reserved for celebrities and will be departing the building on foot in an attempt to slip past paparazzi and fans lying in wait for her.



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Lying to educators #2

Today’s exercise in hyperbole:

Ginger will be walking home today because she has super-hero training in the afternoon. Now that softball is over, she’s all over learning to beat up bad guys. We still don’t have a set schedule for crime fighting though.

After she’s learned to throttle people (she practices on her sister mostly) she’s hoping we’ll teach her to fly. She flew her braids all day earlier this week and said it was no effort at all so when can she fly the rest of her?

I told her flying was for people who could maintain a secret identity and the braids were proof she couldn’t. We’ll see if the braids stay earth-bound for a while.

PS This round of hyperbole and fiction brought to you by jiu jitsu, crazy hair day, braids, hangerwire and sleep deprivation

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Lying to educators #1

I’ve written one boring email too many to the school lately. Today’s missive:

Subject line: An epic journey home….

…is in Ginger’s future for this afternoon.

Alone, armed with only her backpack and her two good feet, Ginger must battle crossing guards, random other children and stray animals to reach our humble abode in safety.

Will she make it?
I’ll be waiting anxiously to see that she arrives.


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