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Stuck on a Problem? Let Your Mind Wander, Researchers Say

A new study suggests that quiet, “unloaded” brains come up with the most creative thoughts.

There’s a reason some people say they get their best ideas when they’re running. A new study from researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that a clear mind—free of too much chatter—is a more creative one.

In three different experiments, about 20 people completed the same free association task. (They had to quickly name the first thing that popped into their head after they heard a series of target words.) But in each experiment, the researchers manipulated the “cognitive load” of the participants with various additional tasks. For example, some people were asked to remember a string of two digits (a low cognitive load), while others had to alphabetize the first three letters of each target word (a high cognitive load).

What the researchers found was that the participants with lower cognitive loads gave more creative responses. “When you reduce mental [stress], people have a greater tendency to avoid the ‘obvious solution’ and instead access unique thoughts in their mind,” study co-author and PhD student Shira Baror explained in an email to Health. In other words, when your brain is quieter, it can afford to “put aside its stored, immediate, well-earned associations and take a more interesting path of more original associations.”

mind wanderer

The study’s findings are in line with prior research, says Jonathan Schooler, PhD, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2012 he led a study that showed the benefits of letting your mind slow down and wander: His team’s work suggested that when you’re trying to solve a problem, you may get the best creative boost from engaging in a non-demanding task. Think taking a shower, doing light chores—or you know, going for a good sweaty run.

In fact, that’s exactly what Baror suggests when you’re stuck in a rut. “Ruminating on the same problem, especially when you’re under stress or tension, will not yield creative solutions.” Instead, she says, literally walk away, and give your mind the chance to make those seemingly random, unexpected turns that lead to breakthroughs.

 By Jessica Migala  June 23, 2016
 
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10 Forgotten Truths to Help You Get Through Hard Times

WRITTEN by MARC CHERNOFF 

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche

The wisest, most loving, and well rounded people you have ever met are likely those who have known misery, known defeat, known the heartbreak of losing something or someone they loved, and have found their way out of the depths of their own despair.  These people have experienced many ups and downs, and have gained an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, understanding and a deep loving wisdom.  People like this aren’t born; they develop slowly over the course of time.

Angel and I have worked with thousands of these incredible people over the past decade, both online and offline, through various forms of coaching.  In many cases they came to us feeling stuck and lost, unaware of their own brilliance, blind to the fact that their struggles have strengthened them and given them an upper hand in this crazy world.

Truth be told, when hard times hit, and the challenges you face are great, you can either let your situation define you, let it destroy you or let it strengthen you.  The choice is yours to make.

In today’s article I want to remind you of a few powerful, yet easily forgotten truths that will help you choose wisely and grow stronger even through the hardest times…

1.  Pain is part of life and love, and it helps you grow.

So many of us are afraid of ourselves, of our own truth, and our feelings most of all.  We talk about how great the concepts of life and love are, but then we hide from both every day.  We hide from our truest feelings.  Because the truth is life and love hurt sometimes, and the feelings this brings disturbs us.

We are taught at an early age that all pain is evil and harmful.  Yet, how can we ever deal with real life and true love if we’re afraid to feel what we really feel?  We need to feel pain, just as we need to feel alive and loved.  Pain is meant to wake us up.  Yet we try to hide our pain.  Realize this.  Pain is something to carry willingly, just like good sense.  Because you can only learn how strong you are when being strong is the only choice you have.

It’s all in how you carry the things that don’t go your way.  That’s what matters in the end.  Pain is a feeling.  Your feelings are a part of you – your own reality.  If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you’re letting the lies of insecurity destroy your reality.  You should stand up for your right to feel pain – to endure it – to own your scars – to deal with the realities of life and love, as you grow into the strongest, wisest, truest version of yourself.

2.  Mindset is half the battle.

It’s okay to have down days and tough times.  Expecting life to be wonderful all the time is wanting to swim in an ocean in which waves only rise up and never come crashing down.  However, when you recognize that the rising and crashing waves are part of the exact same ocean, you are able to let go and be at peace with the reality of these ups and downs.  It becomes clear that life’s ups require life’s downs.

In other words, life isn’t perfect, but it sure is good.  Our goal shouldn’t be to create a perfect life, but to live an imperfect life in radical amazement.  To get up every morning and take a good look around in a way that takes nothing for granted.  Everything is extraordinary.  Every day is a gift.  Never treat life casually.  To be spiritual in any way is to be amazed in every way.

Do not let the pain of a situation make you hopeless.  Do not let negativity wear off on you.  Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.  Even though others may disagree with you, take pride in the fact that you still know the world to be a beautiful place.  Change your thoughts and you change your reality.

And mindset is especially powerful when it comes to accepting that…

3.  Your biggest fears don’t really exist.

When times are hard it can be difficult to follow your heart and take another step, but it’s a tragedy to let the lies of fear stop you.  Although fear can feel overwhelming, and defeats more people than any other force in the world, it’s not as powerful as it seems.  Fear is only as deep as your mind allows.  You are still in control.  So take control!

The key is to acknowledge your fear and directly address it.  Fight hard to shine the light of your words upon it.  Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless, obscure darkness that you avoid, and perhaps even manage to briefly forget, you open yourself to future attacks from fear when you least expect it.  Because you never truly faced the opponent who defeated you.

You CAN beat fear if you face it.  Be courageous!  And remember that courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid; courage means you don’t let fear stop you from moving forward with your life.  (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Adversity” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)

4.  You are growing through experience.

Over time you will find that life isn’t necessarily any easier or harder than you thought it was going to be; it’s just that the easy and the hard aren’t exactly the way you had anticipated, and don’t always occur when you expect them to.  This isn’t a bad thing; it makes life interesting.  With a positive attitude you will always be pleasantly surprised.

When you stop expecting things to be a certain way, you can appreciate them for what they are.  Ultimately you will realize that life’s greatest gifts are rarely wrapped the way you expected.

Experience is what you get when your plans don’t go as planned, and experience is the most valuable commodity you own – it builds your strength.

You have the power to turn your wounds and worries into wisdom; you just have to do something about them.  You have to accept what has happened and use what you’ve learned to step forward.  Everything you’ve experienced has given you the upper hand for dealing with everything you have yet to experience.  Realize this and set yourself free.

5.  You can’t change situations you don’t take responsibility for.

Sigmund Freud once said, “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”  Don’t let this be you.  When you blame others for what you’re going through, you deny responsibility – you surrender power over that part of your life.

Make no mistake, in the end, the price of happiness IS responsibility.  As soon as you stop making everyone and everything else responsible for your happiness, the happier you’ll be.  If you’re unhappy now, it’s not someone else’s fault.

Ultimately, your happiness depends on your self-reliance – your unshakable willingness to take responsibility for your life from this moment forward, regardless of who had a hand in making it the way it is now.  It’s about taking control of your present circumstances, thinking for yourself, and making a firm choice to choose differently.  It’s about being the hero of your life, not the victim.

all-there-ever-is-there-is-now

6.  The present is all you really have to deal with.

Life is not lived in some distant, imagined land of someday where everything is perfect.  It is lived here and now, with the reality of the way things are.  Yes, by all means you can work toward an idealized tomorrow.  Yet to do so, you must successfully deal with the world as it is today.

Sometimes we avoid experiencing exactly where we are because we have developed a belief, based on past experiences, that it is not where we should be or want to be.  But the truth is, where you are now is exactly where you need to be to get to where you want to go tomorrow.  So appreciate where you are.

Your friends and family are too beautiful to ignore.  Take a moment to remember how fortunate you are to be breathing.  Take a look around, with your eyes earnestly open to the possibilities before you.  Much of what you fear does not exist.  Much of what you love is closer than you realize.  You are just one brief thought away from understanding the blessing that is your life.

Happiness is a mindset that can only be designed into the present.  It’s not a point in the future or a moment from the past; yet sadly, this misconception hurts the masses.  So many young people seem to think all their happiness awaits them in the years ahead, while so many older people believe their best moments are behind them.  Don’t be either of them.  Don’t let the past and the future steal your present.  (Read The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.)

7.  There is always, always, always something to be thankful for.

Life is better when you’re smiling.  Being positive in a negative situation is not naive; it’s a sign of leadership and strength.  You’re doing it right when you have so much to cry and complain about, but you prefer to smile and appreciate your life instead.

What if you woke up tomorrow with only the things you were thankful for today?

Think of all the beauty that remains around you, see it and smile.  Be thankful for all the small things in your life, because when you put them all together you will see just how significant they are.  At the end of the day, it’s not happiness that makes us thankful, but thankfulness that makes us happy.

8.  Great things take time.

Instant results are rarely the best results.  With patience, you can greatly expand your potential.  If your desires were always fulfilled immediately, you would have nothing to look forward to.  You would miss out on the joys of anticipation and progress.

Remember, patience is not about waiting; it’s the ability to keep a good attitude while working hard for what you believe in.  It’s the willingness to stay focused, confidently staking one small step at a time, knowing that the way you move a mountain is by moving one stone at a time.  Every stone you move, no matter how small, is progress.

Bottom line:  You deserve more than mere instant gratification.  Value that arrives in an instant is often gone in an instant.  Value that takes time and commitment to create often outlives its creator – YOU.

9.  Other people cannot validate you.

When we’re struggling to achieve something important, sometimes we look to others to validate our progress.  But the truth is, they can’t…

You are not in this world to live up to the expectations of others, nor should you feel that others are here to live up to yours.  Pave your own unique path.  What success means to each of us is totally different.  Success is ultimately about spending your life happily in your own way.

You don’t have to be flashy to be impressive.  You don’t have to be famous to be significant.  You don’t have to be a celebrity to be successful.  You don’t need to be validated by anyone else.  You are already valuable.  You just need to believe in yourself and what you wish to achieve.

You can be quietly humble and still be amazingly effective.  Just because people don’t fall at your feet and worship you, doesn’t mean you are a failure.  Quiet success is just as sweet as loud, flamboyant success, and usually far more real.  Success is how you define it, not what everyone else says it must be for you.  (Read The Gifts of Imperfection.)

10.  You are not alone.

In the midst of hard times, it’s easy to look around and see a bunch of people who seem to be doing just fine.  But they’re not.  We’re all struggling in our own way.  And if we could just be brave enough to open up about it, and talk to each other, we’d realize that we are not alone in feeling lost and alone.

So many of us are fighting the same exact battle alongside you.  We are all in this together.  So no matter how embarrassed or pathetic you feel about your own situation, know that there are others out there experiencing the same emotions.  When you hear yourself say, “I am all alone,” it’s just your worried mind trying to sell you a lie.  There’s always someone who can relate to you.  Perhaps you can’t immediately talk to them, but they are out there.

If you’re feeling desperate right now, hear me:  I often feel and think and struggle much like you do.  I care about many of the things you care about, just in my own way.  And although some people do not understand us, we understand each other.  YOU are not alone!

Afterthoughts

One of life’s greatest gifts is the fact that life is difficult.  Because in dealing with life’s difficulties, we build invaluable strength.  This strength enables us to successfully fulfill our deepest, most meaningful purposes.  It is precisely because life is difficult that we are able to make it great.  It is because life is difficult that we are able to rise above the difficulties.  We are able to make a difference and we are able to truly matter.

So remember this…

When times are tough, you must be tougher.  Don’t pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a tough one that leads to greatness.


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10 Truths That Will Help You Through Any Challenge

BY JEN NICOMEDES STONE    FEBRUARY 27, 2014 
I recently took a trip to the Florida Keys, when I often sat on the porch along the beach, mostly alone, next to the ocean. Sometimes I read, sometimes I practiced yoga; I napped, sipped peppermint tea, wrote, soaked up the sun, and relaxed. But mostly, I gazed out into the ocean.That’s where I found an incredible source of healing.The grandness of the water created a quiet, yet visually stimulating space for my meditation. Next to the ocean, I nestled into an easy place to silence the chatter noise of the external world and my inner voices.That first day, gazing at the blue, I dug much deeper within myself than I have ever done before.

In feng shui, elementally speaking, the Water Element symbolizes spirituality and wisdom. It helps us foster a deeper sense of self. It is a vehicle that helps us navigate and seek our inner truth and purpose. And it also teaches us to go with the flow of life.

While nature has its many gifts, the ocean, in particular, has taught me a few new things worth sharing, and they are:

1. Life is not always how you plan it, no matter how much you force or try to control it.

2. Change is inevitable, so you might as well welcome and embrace it.

3. Letting go is the scariest and most liberating thing you can do for yourself. It’s a gift in disguise.

4. It’s totally OK to be by yourself, alone; because sometimes, growth is a solo journey.

5. Learning to be more flexible affords you the ability to adapt. By adapting, you become more understanding, compassionate, and patient, especially when things get a little tough.

6. Clinging to the conviction of certain ideals and thoughts can sometimes destroy you. Once in a while, it’s best to bend the rules.

7. Never underestimate the power of idle silence. Some of the most profound insights come from the quietest of places.

8. Your inner strength manifests when you’re ready to confront your struggles. You are stronger than you think.

9. Make room for less talking, less exchanging. Just be.

10. Embrace all of your human tendencies — the good and bad — because those qualities already make you beautiful and real.


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Weathering the Storm

Failure destroys some people. Others rise from the ashes, only to come back stronger. A guide to surviving tough times.

By Bruce Grierson,       published on May 1, 2009       last reviewed on December 18, 2014

In September of 2008, Philip Schultz, a humble and plainspoken fellow, crossed the hardwood floor and slid in behind a temporary lectern in the Center for Well-Being at The Ross School in East Hampton. It was commencement day for the eighth-grade class. Some students recognized Schultz, who was giving the address, as the father of eighth-grader Eli. He was a local poet.

Schultz told the students he hadn’t learned to read until he was 11. By then, he’d been held back a grade and was a permanent member of what the other kids called the “dummy class.” Teachers just didn’t know what to do with a kid like Phil Schultz—who, it turned out, was dyslexic. When a teacher asked him what he wanted to do with his life and Schultz said he wanted to be a writer, the teacher laughed. “I wasn’t insulted,” Schultz recalls. “I understood it was a funny thing to hear from someone who hated to read and couldn’t write a simple English sentence.”

Schultz’ punishment for being a dummy was exile to shameful outsiderdom within a class moving forward. And that’s exactly the kind of experience from which writers are made. Within “the loneliness of having so little expected of me, and the pain of being overlooked and forgotten,” as he put it to the assembly, was time for careful attention to his interior life. All a writer really needs are the self-knowledge to decipher his feelings, the judgment to recognize the original ones, and the courage to make them public. It’s a job open to anybody—even dyslexics. And so Schultz steamed ahead toward the one career for which others thought he was the most ill-suited—poetry.

Cut to 2007. A working poet now, Schultz realized that almost everything he wrote was about failure. Failure was his clay. He was writing about his dad—a drunkard who’d been a lousy parent and a worse provider—but he was also tapping the part of himself that felt like a failure. Schultz had aimed to be a novelist, but couldn’t pull it off. Alongside the very personal poems about his father, a long poem took shape about a character who walked other, more successful, people’s dogs.

The voltage that shot through the plainspoken language was unlike anything Schultz had produced. He called the collection, simply, Failure. On its cover: a bent nail in a board. Last year, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

These days, failure—what Schultz calls “the great American taboo”—has bubbled to the surface just about everywhere. Few people can escape the feeling they’re giving up ground. The global financial crisis has produced the sort of circumstances playwright Arthur Miller warned every generation must face—the sort that mints Willy Lomans.

The recession has brought a sense of siege, and within it, the collective emotional tone of the whole world seems to cycle. More than 4 million workers have been laid off since the recession began. On a single day in January, 70,000 people were laid off, and another 50,000 or 60,000 lost their jobs on each of the 10 days that followed. The rage spilled into the streets in 10 countries.

One day, we may look back on this period as “a time when the gods changed,” to paraphrase James Michener, a moment when a convergence of big scares rattled people’s beliefs about basic things: Am I safe? Who can I trust? Is there anything I can do? And how, given everything that has happened, should I live? It no longer seems possible to avoid failing simply by being conscientious and working hard—the formula our parents, and their parents, took to the bank.

There are failures and there are Failures, but the differences between bankruptcy and financial diminishment, divorce and marital strife, spiritual crisis and anomie are distinctions of degree, not kind. And they are connected. Woe in one sphere strains the seams of others. It’s not pretty. And that’s why failure is something you wouldn’t wish on your least agreeable relative.

Or would you?

A theory is gaining momentum that looks at failure differently. Failure, it says, is at worst a mixed blessing: It hurts, but can pay off in the form of learning and growth and wisdom. Some psychologists, like the University of Virginia’s Jonathan Haidt, go even further, arguing that adversity, setbacks, and even trauma may actually be necessary for people to be happy, successful, and fulfilled. “Post-traumatic growth,” it’s sometimes called. Its observers are building a solid foundation under the anecdotes about wildly successful people who credit their accomplishments to earlier failures that pushed them to the edge of the abyss.

Last fall, J.K. Rowling described to a Harvard grad class a perfect storm of failure—broken marriage, disapproval from her parents, poverty that bordered on homelessness—that sent her back to her first dream of writing because she had nothing left to lose. “Failure stripped away everything inessential,” she said. “It taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way.”

Apple founder Steve Jobs describes three apparent setbacks—dropping out of college, being fired from the company he founded, and being diagnosed with cancer—that ultimately proved portals to a better life. Each forced him to step back and gain perspective, to see the long view of his life. “I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeed,” said Michael Jordan—as did Oprah, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Edison, in slightly different words. Indeed, so oft-repeated is the trope that we lose sight of how strange it is.

We do know that learning is error-driven—probably as a result of the brain trying to be efficient. Failures grab our attention. So many things happen the way we expect them to that mistakes register disproportionately. We’re forced to integrate that new information. Researchers have found that the more wildly wrong our prediction was, the quicker we learn. The brain, you might say, feeds on failure. We are acutely sensitive to negative feedback, and this “negativity bias” drives learning, at least from teenagehood on up.

Paul MacCready, Jr., the famed aeronautical engineer who died in 2007, understood the practical value of failure, and very consciously built his success on it. Vying for the Kremer Prize for the world’s first human-powered airplane, he designed his airplane to crash well—to protect the pilot and be quickly repairable, so he could crash, and learn, again. MacCready not only expected to fail, he actually depended on failure as necessary grist for the mill. (It worked: He won the prize.) For MacCready, failure had became an implicit part of the scientific method. Which of course it is. The term “trial and success” isn’t much heard, because it doesn’t make sense.

“An occasional failure in life is extremely important information,” Haidt says. “When you look at stories of great leaders, they almost all had major setbacks. That was the concern I had with Obama. I now think he’ll make a great president—but the fact that he really hasn’t had any major failures in his life means that he may not be as tempered, as challenged, as hardened.”

If you don’t get the kind of information failure provides, you’ll end up with unrealistic expectations for yourself, explains Haidt. You could wind up in a position where failure, which has gathered under cover of darkness, reveals itself all at once.

We should hope, then, for exposure to failure, early and often. The sociologist Glen Elder proposed that there is a sensitive period for growth—late teens through early 30s—during which failures are most beneficial. Such a pattern seems to promote the trait sometimes called equanimity. We learn that trauma is survivable, so we don’t plunge too deeply following setbacks. Nor, conversely, do we soar too high on our successes. Some businesses in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street make a point of hiring ex-pro athletes to their staffs. It’s not just that their high profile draws business. It’s because athletes are master compartmentalizers. “We needed people who could perform and not get emotionally attached to losses,” a Chicago oil trader told the New York Times, explaining why the firm likes jocks on the trading floor, particularly in ugly economic times like these. Buddhists call such equanimity upekkhaa. The image is of a rider easy in the saddle. Nothing can so surprise her—either for good or ill—that she’ll be knocked off.

One way to help keep life’s slings and arrows from knocking you off course is to ensure your life is multidimensional, says Stephen Berglas, a California psychologist and personal coach. That way, a setback in any one area won’t mean in your mind that you’re a failure categorically. Call it spreading your risk across your emotional portfolio—or adding another leg to the furniture for balance, says Berglas.

Failure—especially public failure—stirs some of the most potent social emotions we have: humiliation, guilt, shame. Guilt—which occurs when you chalk up a failure to something you did—can be beneficial. Shame, on the other hand—which is present when you attribute failure to something you are—casts a generalized depressive pall on you that’s harder to face, let alone fix, notes Richard Robins, director of the Personality, Self and Emotion Laboratory at the University of California at Davis.

That may explain why, though writer Sascha Rothchild’s rejection from Yale felt shameful and made her depressed, getting divorced after just a year of marriage didn’t seem as personal. “It seemed that the two of us tried this thing and it didn’t work out,” says Rothchild. “It was our fault. We weren’t working out together—that doesn’t mean either of us is a bad person.” The guilt left behind in the tailing pond of a failed marriage was actually productive. It made her deconstruct in minute detail what might have been done differently. (The result was a forthcoming memoir sardonically titled How to Get Divorced By 30.)

Failure has implications for our development as whole people, fulfilled and purposeful. It can initiate a search for meaning, a shift from pursuing the kinds of happiness that flare briefly to the kinds of happiness that endure. Suppose you’ve just gone broke. A wicked hit registers in the “work and success” dimension of your life. But the psychic immune system has a strategy for such a loss. There are four basic dimensions of our lives, says Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. There is achievement, community, spirituality, and legacy. When one dimension fails us—we lose “achievement,” say, when we’re laid off—the remaining three get stronger.

Achievement is a big one in America—disproportionately valued, and often conflated with material success. But other dimensions actually have a potentially higher payoff. We easily habituate to material things, and they quickly stop making us happy. But these other less tangible values, a number of researchers have found, don’t lose their happiness-making punch—at least not as much.

And so the once-autonomous striver, bulletproof and bowling alone, is forced to throw that old life over the side and start making other connections. A new unifying principle coalesces around some “higher purpose,” and damned if the new life doesn’t feel like an upgrade. Thus does failure lead, roundabout, to happiness. “London and Chicago seized the opportunities provided by their great fires to remake themselves into grander and more coherent cities,” Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis. “People sometimes seize such opportunities, too, rebuilding beautifully those parts of their lives and life stories that they could never have torn down voluntarily.”

Everyone gets laid low by failure sometimes, however briefly. The real difference between people who pull themselves out somehow versus the people who do not, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a psychologist at Yale, is that some slip into “rumination”—a spiral of morbid self-involvement that’s extremely difficult to shake. But what separates the ruminators from the resilients? Why is it that the same set of circumstances that drives one person deeper into the mud makes another stronger? Is there just a kind of native temperament, a Donald Trump-ish optimism some psychologists have described as “enthusiasm and persistence in the face of setbacks”—something that helps some people find the kernel of good inside the bad and profit from it—that’s either in play or isn’t? How can we learn, as Samuel Beckett put it, to “fail better”?

“Failing better” boils down to three things. It’s a matter of controlling our emotions, adjusting our thinking, and recalibrating our beliefs about ourselves and what we can do in the world.

“Chess is a game of failure,” says Bruce Pandolfini, an American chess master known for his work teaching young chess players. (Sir Ben Kingsley played him in Searching for Bobby Fischer.) “At the beginning, you lose—a lot. The kids who are going to succeed are the ones who learn to stand it. A lot of young players find losing so devastating they never adapt, never learn to metabolize that failure and to not take it personally. But good players lose and then put the game behind them emotionally.”

Pandolfini teaches his students this calming sense of perspective. The present moment is laid out against the past. What you see is compared to your memories of what you’ve seen—and mastered—before. What you have in the end is a kind of coherent story. He calls it chess instruction, but really, it works with anything. In fact, it’s not so different from the way writing down your feelings in a journal helps you process failure and move on, a phenomenon demonstrated by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas.

Teachers, studies reveal, can foster resiliency among students, creating students who don’t flinch from failure but actually welcome it as a learning opportunity. People have one of two belief systems about how intelligence works, says Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. We think intelligence is either “fixed” or “malleable.” In other words, we’re pretty much as smart and good and competent as we’re going to get, or else we’re a work in progress, and the way forward is up.

People who believe intelligence is fixed are less resilient. If you don’t believe you can learn anything from your mistakes, you won’t welcome failure with open arms.

But students who are taught that the brain is plastic and that they can become smarter and more competent—that the brain grows, like a muscle, when you work it hard—show a spike in grades and enjoy school more. Because they’re less afraid to fail, they succeed more.

Coping

How much failure is too much? Bubble-wrapping kids to shield them from failing does them no favors. Without that trial-and-error learning from gradual exposure to risk, kids become vulnerable to anxiety disorders, says Michael Liebowitz, a psychiatrist at Columbia University. But at the other extreme, exposure to repeated and relentless failure can crush the spirit of even a resilient kid. A parent’s job, then, is to create a kind of sweet spot of exposure to failure.

“There’s a bleeding edge of where we have to push ourselves—it can’t be too far in front of us,” says Michael Ungar, head of the International Resilience Project at Dalhousie University. “You can’t just say to a kid, go learn to swim on your own. But you can take them through the process gradually. Let them see what buoyancy feels like, let them have little moments of mild distress where everything is then immediately okay—manageable risk. This is how we learn to solve problems, and receive an inoculation against major stressors. But there is a little bit of a cult of self-esteem that short-changes it all.”

Failure can’t help us if we’re oblivious to it. And yet. There’s something deeply sympathetic, and not a little familiar, in repeat failure. So often are our rehabilitations short-lived. Despite our best intentions, our mightiest resolve, we find ourselves endlessly repeating earlier failures.

But the great payoff in failing is it gives us another chance, as Alex Trebek encourages his Jeopardy contestants who risk everything and crash down to zero to “start building.” To begin again from scratch is itself part of the American script.

In this sense, failing well amounts to taking a weird kind of pride not just in the potential positive consequences of failure but in the failure itself—the awful, agreeable humanity of it. Failure drives us out of our caves and into the world of Other People, that plane where happiness is less perishable.

After Failure was published, Philip Schultz couldn’t help notice the strong reactions other people had to it—the “triggering mechanism” of the word itself, as if it was a private shame or fear everyone had, and were grateful for having the entree to talk about.

“It’s interesting how many people are coming up to me and talking about their relationship with failure,” he says. “Everyone thinks they’re a failure. The only people who don’t are the ones who really are.” —Bruce Grierson

NINE ways to fail better

Some people learn from failure and bounce back stronger. For others, failure destroys them. Be one of the ones who rise from the ashes.

Lighten up

Most people who bounce back from setbacks have a sense of humor. They know when they’re taking things—and themselves—too seriously. We’re often so paralyzed by fear of failure that we “self-handicap,” sabotaging ourselves by putting an impediment in the way, says personal coach Steven Berglas. Because, hey, if something prevented you from trying your best, you can’t be said to have failed, right?

“I’ll die if I don’t win the Olympics,” Berglas sometimes hears from his clients. “Really?” he replies. “On the court? Or will you die of shame?” OK, they acknowledge, they didn’t really mean die. But now there’s a fissure in their anxiety through which the ridiculousness can seep in. It’s hard to find the funny in the fine grain. Humor is about stepping back for fresh perspective. We assume that’s something we’re born with, but we can become better at seeing the lighter side by sheer exposure to that way of thinking. And it does take the edge off of failure. After all, an embarrassment today makes for an entertaining story tomorrow.

Join the club

Misery loves company. Just look at the growth of Web-based support groups like “15,000,000 Recession-Touched People” (on Facebook) and Global Depression Support Group (on meetup.com).

There’s real value in commiseration. When Montrealer Sylvain Henry started a Facebook support group called “Recession Survivors” after being laid off from a software company, the group became a lightning rod for pain and blame. “You’ve gotta blame someone, right?” Henry says. “Whose fault is this?” People vented about the lost house, the failed marriage. It was cathartic.

Then something happened. “People vented themselves out,” Henry says. “After that came another impulse: Let’s do something about this.” The members began posting productive hints, little money-saving tips about budget-friendly cookie recipes or how to throw a good garage sale. The site transformed into a clearinghouse of resourceful coping strategies for hard times. Call it Failing Better: the Open-Source Edition.

Feel guilt, not shame

The difference between guilt and shame is the reason we assign as to why failure occurs, notes Richard Robins, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis. Guilt says it’s “something I did.” But shame means feeling failure occurred because of “something I am”—in which case, you expect failure and don’t act to avoid it.

But the cycle of learned helplessness can be broken. Instead of thinking “I’m a failure,” think “I’m a good person who made a mistake I can learn from.” If your story about failure is, “It’s all my fault,” you might need to practice looking outward and ask yourself, “What other things—things that aren’t about me—might have caused this negative event?”

On the other hand, if your story is, “It’s never about me,” you may need to seek out some aspects of the problem you can do something about. Because let’s face it, you do mess up—everyone does. In which case you need to own the failure, see what you can learn from it, and move on.

Cultivate optimism

Of the seven learnable skills of resilience—emotion awareness, impulse control, multiperspective thinking, empathy, the belief that you can solve your own problems, taking appropriate risks, and optimism—the most important is optimism, says Karen Reivich, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet, and indeed, paying attention to the positive infuses the world with hope—and creates a climate in which failure loses its sting.

The key to resilience is thinking more flexibly and learning to increase your array of options. The psychologist Martin Seligman advocates disputation, in which you think of your mind as a courtroom where negative thoughts are instantly put on trial.

You can rebut these thoughts, and you should. Now you’re acting as your own defense counsel, throwing at the court every bit of evidence you can think of to prove the belief is flawed. The bad thought is no longer a lock, and it dies amid the doubt.

Ask not what the world can do for you…

Getting fired and left without savings or health-care coverage is rough, but for some, it carries an unexpected message: “Now you are free.” Free to do something more meaningful with your life—like volunteering overseas. If you don’t have to earn money right away, ask yourself: How can you be of service to others?

The sales manager of a Portland, Oregon radio station, Margaret Evans was let go unexpectedly in late September. As she researched new jobs and grad schools, it occurred to her that getting laid off was a kind of gift. She’d always intended to do service work. “This was my chance to make it happen,” she says.

The tumblers aligned, and by December she’d signed on as a volunteer at an orphanage in Belize, through a Florida-based charity called Dream Center International. Travel, live cheaply, and do good for people who genuinely need it: not a bad recipe. “This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says.

Scale down your expectations for yourself

When we succeed, we tend to just ratchet up our expectations for ourselves and not get a lot of pleasure out of it. But when we fail, it’s much harder to ratchet down our expectations for ourselves. “That might be what failing well is,” says psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “A willingness to lower our sights when that’s realistically required.”

Gilbert Brim begins his book Ambition with the story of his father in rural Connecticut: or rather, his father’s windowbox. As a young man his father took pride in maintaining the forest on the whole property, but eventually that task became impossible. So as he grew older and weaker, he reduced the range and scope, until he was content just to tend the flowers in his windowbox, albeit to the same standards of excellence. If failure is about failing to meet goals you set for yourself, then one way to avoid failing is to revise those now-outdated goals. That way, instead of failing on a stage you once mastered, you’re still succeeding on a more modest stage.

Harness the Bridget Jones Effect

Keeping a journal can help you cope with failure. Jamie Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, studied middle-aged engineers who’d lost their jobs. Those who wrestled with their feelings about the trauma through journaling were far more likely to find reemployment. It wasn’t simply the tension-relieving “catharsis” of getting their feelings out. Nor was it that they were more motivated to get out there and pound the pavement—they didn’t receive more phone calls, make more contacts, or send out more letters.

Rather, writing helps create meaning—finding coherence and building a personal story that lassos all the question marks hanging in the air and making sense of them. Writing about their feelings forced them to come to terms with getting laid off. It also boosted their social skills—making them more likeable, less vindictive, and better able to get on with things. They were less wrapped up in their past. They could listen better and were more optimistic and less hostile.

Don’t blame yourself

Self-blame is corrosive. Research on kids raised amid domestic violence, abuse, or maternal depression shows that self-blame can trigger or worsen depression. Attribution errors—blaming yourself for the bad things that happen to you—are probably the biggest reason people metabolize failure badly. Attribution has a potent effect on depression—the more you blame yourself for problems, the more depressed you grow. And it’s a vicious circle—the more depressed you are, the more you blame yourself. By contrast, children who understand that such negative life circumstances are outside their control are not as vulnerable, notes Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.

Act!

Failure is an opportunity to change course. Seize it.


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4 Ways to Get Through Life’s Most Difficult Times

“Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”

It’s pretty easy to be happy and content when things are going well in your life; but what about when circumstances change for the worse? How do you react to this type of change?

Dwight Moody once said, “Character is what you are in the dark.” These dark moments are a reflection of your inner strength, courage, and resilience. Most people go through at least one very difficult time in their life – grief over the loss of a loved one, poverty, job loss, homelessness, or some other tremendous hardship which tests every ounce of strength they can muster.

Here’s something to remember that is easy to forget: you are much stronger than you think. And you are stronger still for going through difficult times. You’ll go through an inner storm; you’ll suffer; you’ll beg for it all to end, and it eventually will. When it does end, you’ll come out stronger and better than before.

Here are 4 ways to get you through life’s most difficult times:

1. Remember that happiness comes from within

Our society is inundated with messages of consumerism and materialism. The constant barrage of messages from the advertisement and marketing industries has created the illusion that more stuff means more happiness. This is simply untrue.

Sure, a spending spree at the local mall can provide some pleasure…temporary pleasure. Spending is never a long-term solution for easing pain – in fact, it’s just the opposite. In developed countries, most households have debt amounts that exceed their disposable income. This overspending has had tremendous repercussions on individuals and families.

The truth is that happiness will always be found internally. Doing things that truly promote happiness – being grateful, learning, playing, curiosity, meditation, exercise, prayer, family time, etc. – will provide genuine happiness…even in very difficult times.

No matter what is happening externally, you can tap into this inner source of happiness. Yes, the external circumstances of your life have an effect, but it’s not to the degree that you may think. It’s still possible to tap into a multitude of things – both discovered and undiscovered – that will create true happiness. Find those things and focus on them.

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2. Acknowledge your emotions

When pain – especially tremendous pain – presents itself, it is natural to want to run away and ignore it. Ask anyone who’s lost a child, parent, or someone near and dear to their heart. Quite understandably, the last thing they want to do is relive the hurt of that loss.

But the truth is that emotions need to be faced and experienced. Yes, you may worry because emotions can be overwhelming. As a result, many fear that they won’t be able to handle them. Just remember what was discussed in the introduction – you are stronger than you think.

Dr. Christina Hibbert, author of This is How We Grow, has experienced some tumultuous times – losing one sister at age 8, and another sister (and her husband) at a later age. As a result, she inherited an extended family; including two children as a result of the second sister’s death.

She’s certainly earned the right to give her advice, so here are her own words:

“(Ignoring your emotions) is like trying to run away from something that’s right on your shoulder. The only way to truly be free is to stop and face your emotions…people tend to get stuck because they’re not feeling their emotions…they are not letting themselves really feel the pain, loss, sadness, anger, that is lurking within.”

Hibbert developed her own grief coping method called TEARS – “Talking, Exercising, Artistic express, Recording or writing experiences, and Sobbing” she continues, “These five things can give us something to do when feeling overwhelmed by stress.”

3.  Remember to be grateful (even for the little things).

When dark moments happen in life, it’s easy to forget a lot of things, including gratitude. Emotions overtake our rational thought processes when we are overwhelmed with any type of stimuli, including pain.

The beautiful thing about gratitude is that you’ll never run out of it. Being grateful is all about perspective. Thinking about or meditating on the abundance in your life is a wonderful way to bring these things to the surface.

For example, if you are reading this right now, you have a computer (or smartphone) and internet access. Only about 40% of people in the world have access to the internet; with even fewer having access to a device such as a smartphone or computer. Did you have something for breakfast or lunch? About 1 billion people have gone without. Have you earned more than $1.25 today? About 1.2 billion people in the world have received less.

These statistics are not meant to create guilt, but to cause a change in perspective. There are destitute people all over the world that still manage to create happiness under far more difficult circumstances. Find something in your life to be grateful for and focus on it.

(As a side note): If able, please consider giving your time or money to those less fortunate. There are many great organizations focused on reducing and eradicating hunger, poverty, and disease in countries all over the world. These people need strong individuals to take a stand and help.

4. Practice being present

You’ll find that this is a consistent theme through much of the material on this site: the practice of being present. Living in the here and now is so important, and it helps you to deal with problems as they arise – without judgment, hesitance, or objection. Things are just as they should be, for better or for worse.

Regardless of the painful circumstances facing you, it is important to realize that this is where you are, wanted or unwanted. You can attempt to dodge, avoid, suppress or deny, but in the end, it just is what it is.

Being present goes beyond dealing with painful circumstances. Mindfulness and presence enable you to express full joy and gratefulness towards the blessings in life. Further, it allows you to perceive these blessings better when they do surface.

Resist the urge to judge what has happened in the past or what may happen in the future. All you have and all that you are guaranteed is the present moment. Take full advantage of the moment and appreciate the beauty of life that exists all around you.

Of course, being present sometimes involves pain, but it will be okay. Allow yourself to experience the moment, however painful it may be, knowing that it will pass…you will eventually flourish as a person – perhaps as a better version of yourself.