by Joe Delaney, Financial Lifeguard
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, I don’t have to tell you that the last few years have been stressful. We’ve seen natural disasters all over the globe, civil unrest, a political landscape as divided as I can remember in my lifetime, and the worst global pandemic in a century.
So much of our stress comes from our sense of powerlessness. When we’re constantly reminded of stressors we can’t control, it puts our well-being at risk.
Thankfully, there is an antidote.
That’s what Brad Steiman with Dimensional Fund Advisors shared with us at Lifeguard Wealth’s recent live event, The Power of Positivity. He offered some potentially life-changing, practical tips to improve your well-being for yourself, your loved ones, coworkers, and society as a whole.
How a Panic Attack Changed Everything
Several years ago, Brad suddenly realized he was 20 minutes late to an important meeting. An admitted perfectionist, he was completely rattled.
All the chairs were taken. He could feel the eyes on him as he pulled a folding chair up to the corner of the table. It felt like he was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving.
When his turn came to give an update to clients from all over the world, he could barely speak. Brad was experiencing his first panic attack. As Brad explained:
“The higher-order centers of the brain shut down. So the oldest part of the brain, the so-called lizard brain, takes over and as a result, you have physiological symptoms, kind of like you're being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. Heart pounding, shortness of breath. I remember being dizzy and disoriented, couldn't form a coherent sentence.”
The incident itself wasn’t even the worst part. Not knowing what caused his panic attack, Brad had no idea when it might happen again. His skin would crawl before every meeting. The best he could do was try to accept that he would have to live with this unrelenting anxiety.
This is what so many of us have experienced over the last few years taken to a terrifying extreme. Anxiety that seems to be beyond our control. No end in sight.
But then Brad discovered a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris, former anchor for Good Morning America. Inspired by a similar experience that Dan had—on live television, no less—the book helped Brad see that he could exert far more influence over his own well-being than he realized.
Improving Your Well-Being with Positive Psychology
As of the 1990s, the focus of psychology had been almost entirely on helping people who suffered from mental illness. Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania had an entirely different focus. He wanted to better understand people who were flourishing.
His initial findings, which he called “happiness theory,” aimed to identify the factors that cause people to experience superior life satisfaction. He and other researchers have since updated the terminology to better reflect the goal: not a fleeting emotion, but overall well-being.
Emotions are part of the equation, but there’s more to it than how you feel from moment to moment. Psychologists measure well-being through a framework called PERMA, which stands for five distinct metrics.
- Positive Feelings
I want to share with you just a little about each one, with some examples from Brad’s presentation.
One of the most empowering ideas Brad shared—which he focused on more than any other—was about the relationship between thoughts, actions, and feelings.
Many people’s thoughts and actions are driven by feelings. It’s common to believe that this is “just the way it is.” But that’s a disconcerting idea, especially for Brad. If feelings control actions, and feelings of panic can just come out of nowhere, then he’s doomed to live in fear.
But as Dr. Sonja Lyubomirski, a psychologist at the University of California has found, the opposite can be just as true. Although the moods we tend to default to are influenced by genetics, intentional thoughts and effortful activities can have a powerful effect on feelings, both in the moment and long-term.
Before he explained how to start cultivating positive feelings, Brad explained how many of us get this concept wrong.
Human beings tend to put too much emphasis on certain actions. We believe that if we do one major thing—make a big purchase, take a trip, score that next business deal—we will experience lasting happiness.
Example: Buying a New Car
Brad likes new cars. He tends to lease them for three years. Toward the end of his lease, he’ll start getting excited about the next one. The anticipation builds and builds. When he leases the new car, it really is everything he dreamed it would be. He loves driving it, showing it off.
Inevitably, those positive emotions fade. After a couple of months, the experience of driving the new car feels a lot like driving the old one.
This happens time and time again. A lottery winner experiences elation at first, then life returns to normal within a year. Brad said that while studies show that while there’s a positive correlation between higher annual income and life satisfaction, the gains appear far less pronounced after $75K, at least in the U.S.
Buying a new car, winning the lottery, and increasing your income are actions that provide a temporary boost in mood. There’s nothing wrong with them. It’s just that there are more reliable ways to cultivate life satisfaction.
A far more effective way to feel good more often is by taking action in your thought life. As Brad explained, this is something he wishes he’d understood sooner.
Example: The New Principal
Brad told us about the time he and his wife took their two daughters to two private schools for admission interviews.
The first school principal interviewed them as a family, and his older daughter struggled. She has ADHD and is on the autism spectrum. When the attention wasn’t on her, she would roam around the room.
Brad and his wife got the impression that the principal found this distracting and didn’t think she would be a good fit. The girls didn’t get in. Brad assumed this was why.
The girls got into the second school, and everything was fine for a few months. But then they heard that the principal was leaving, and the principal from the first school was taking the job.
Brad and his wife were devastated. They suffered for months, thinking their older daughter could no longer thrive under the leadership of this principal they assumed didn’t approve of her.
He started reading another book around this time called Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat, which is about “engineering” your path to joy through the power of positive thinking. Brad found one chapter entitled “What You Know” especially relevant to his situation.
“What he says is what you know is often very little. The facts, so to speak, are very few. And what the mind wants to do is grab onto those few facts, extrapolate them, start telling stories, often biased towards the negative. And before you know it, you can't tell what's the story and what's a fact. And then it occurred to me, that's exactly what we're doing here.”
Brad and his wife were choosing thoughts and making assumptions that caused them incredible distress. As it turned out, their suffering was completely needless. The new principal wasn’t only good for the school, he turned out to be one of the family’s greatest advocates.
If only he had known what he does now, a few techniques could have helped Brad tremendously.
How to Cultivate Positive Feelings: 4 Daily Practices
Brad shared with us his secrets to looking inward to clear his mind, improve his mood, and experience greater life satisfaction through four daily practices: meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, and kindness.
- Meditation: Taming the voice in your head.
As Brad explained, meditation isn’t about chanting, robes, or trying to turn off your brain. It’s really about learning to observe your own thoughts without judgment and eventually start to understand them better. Here’s how he put it:
“The way I think of meditation is that it trains my mind to help tame the voice in my head, to not get swept away by thought as easily. To recognize thoughts sooner as just thoughts and be able to let them go.”
Over time, doing this daily can almost literally “rewire” your brain. Unlike the big dose of happiness that we try to give ourselves when we make a major purchase or do take other external action, the benefits here come more from frequency than intensity. He recommends 10 to 15 minutes a day, but even five minutes is helpful if it becomes a routine.
For guided meditation, Brad suggested an app he uses called Headspace but added that there are free ones you could try as well.
2. Mindfulness: Being present in the here and now.
We tend to enjoy life more when we’re in the moment. It’s only natural to think about the past and the future. But to enjoy life in the present, we have to be in the now mentally.
The ideal formula is to be 10 percent in the past, 80 percent in the now, 10 percent in the future. Brad confessed that he used to be about 80 percent in the future all the time. Even on vacation, instead of enjoying the sunset and a glass of wine with his wife, he’d flip open his laptop to research where they might go next year!
Mindfulness means being intentionally present, actively thinking about what you’re doing and who you’re with right now. As I’ve written about before, you might have to unplug to do it.
3. Gratitude: Expressing appreciation for what you have.
Many people think of gratitude as an emotion you experience when something good happens to you. Actually, gratitude is an emotion you can cultivate.
Brad recommended keeping a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, simply take five minutes to write down three things you’re grateful for. Try to avoid repeating things. When you stretch yourself, you’ll start actively looking for new things you’ve maybe never thought to appreciate before.
This is something I’ve incorporated into my own routine. Brad recommended an app called the 5 Minute Journal, which I use myself. It really does make a difference.
4. Kindness: Doing the right thing for others and yourself.
Being kind to others doesn’t have to be selfless. In fact, Brad pointed out, psychologists will tell you you’re more likely to do show kindness if it’s in your best interests.
Simply put, being kind feels good. Brad told a story of stopping on the road so his daughter could give a muffin to a hungry man. She’s usually very talkative, but she was silent for several minutes after they drove away. When she spoke again, she said, “Dad, I feel so good!”
In trying to cultivate being kind in his own life, Brad is determined to hold the door open for someone almost without fail (so long as they’re not so far away that it’s awkward). It’s a simple act that he can do to get a thank you and some eye contact, and log it away: “That felt good.”
My approach to cultivating kindness is my own version of PIF: pay it forward. Every day—that’s my goal, at least—I try to reach out to someone in my network to thank them for something specific or show my general appreciation for them. It’s usually a text but can be a personal note or even a passing comment.
And just like Brad, whenever I do this, I make a mental note that it felt good. Maybe they appreciate the gesture, but it definitely contributes to my own well-being.
As I said, Brad had a lot to go over about the “P” in PERMA. But there is more to well-being than just cultivating positive feelings.
The “E” in PERMA isn’t really about emotion. Engagement is kind of the opposite, a lack of conscious emotion. Instead, it’s a sense of timelessness in which you experience what psychologists call “flow.”
It occurs when we are deploying our highest strengths and talents to meet the world, matching our skills with the challenge at hand. The difficulty level is just right.
Brad said he experiences flow when he’s playing hockey. He’s not really thinking or feeling anything while gliding over the ice. He’s just using a skill he has to engage to meet a challenge that those skills equip him for, and the experience contributes to his sense of well-being.
We are most engaged when using our character strengths. Most of us have just a handful of signature strengths, perhaps half a dozen at the most. The more we use them, the more engagement we experience.
Brad’s are judgment, perspective, gratitude, love, and humor. More than one could be especially useful in a hockey game, but certainly in his family life and work as well.
To find out your signature character strengths, visit the VIA Institute on Character website to take the free survey.
The “R” in PERMA is something we’ve probably all thought about during the pandemic. It’s never been clearer how important our relationships are to us than when we can’t be with our family, friends, and coworkers.
Brad shared a clip from The Happiness Lab, a podcast from Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale. Pandemic aside, she describes feelings of loneliness as a growing epidemic that in recent years has been twice as prevalent as it was in the 1980s.
And it’s dangerous. According to Santos, the impact of loneliness on physical health is about equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
Filling Our Leaky “Happiness Tires”
Though we’re not always aware of it, passing up opportunities to connect with other people is harmful to us. Thankfully, just like other practices Brad talked about, the key to getting the mental health benefits of socializing is frequency, not intensity.
It’s like you have “leaky happiness tires” that need to be topped off on a regular basis. The people around you, even strangers, are air compressors. If you’re a little low, even a brief conversation about the weather with a sales clerk can fill you up.
But if you’re really low, it’s going to take a lot more “fill-ups” to improve your well-being. As we start to come out of this pandemic, we could all benefit from taking time to reconnect with loved ones.
The “M” in PERMA is about finding a sense of purpose in your life.
Some find this in their work, as Brad does. He said knowing, as an investment manager, that his actions will impact his clients’ families for generations is deeply meaningful to him. I can certainly relate.
But it doesn’t have to be your work. Whatever you think it is for you, three conditions must be met to check this box in your life:
- No one can give it to you. It’s about what’s meaningful for you, not what others think.
- It involves other people. It has to be bigger than you with an impact on others.
- It’s a long-term pursuit. What truly fulfills your sense of purpose will occupy you for life. It can’t be achieved in the short term.
If you’re not sure what your “M” is, just figuring that out will be a great first step in improving your overall well-being.
Finally, the “A” in PERMA is achievement for its own sake.
It’s not about what you accomplish for others. To check this box, you’ve got to do it for yourself and no one else.
The example Brad gave to explain how this is different from all the others is the Ironman Triathlon. Why do people do this 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.22-mile run? How does it contribute to well-being?
- It certainly doesn’t feel good. Training for Ironman is grueling.
- It doesn’t give you a sense of flow. The challenge is purposefully too great for that.
- Relationship-building isn’t really the point, as Ironman isn’t a team sport.
- It certainly doesn’t serve any purpose and doesn’t translate into lifelong meaning.
It’s an example of something you do solely for the sense of achievement it brings. We’re not all going to do the Ironman, but we all need to take on and overcome challenges, just for ourselves.
Let’s Improve Our Well-Being Together
Although it would have been wonderful to get together in person for this event rather than Zoom, it was still a terrific presentation full of great, practical advice.
As a Financial Lifeguard and Certified Life Planner, I’m interested in helping you connect the dots between attaining your financial goals and true happiness. Doing so improves my well-being.
So if you’re interested in learning more about working with Lifeguard Wealth, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
And if you’d like to learn more about any of the resources Brad talked about in this wonderful presentation on the Power of Positivity, check out the links and book titles below.
- Coursera: The Science of Well-Being
- The Happiness Lab
- Five Minute Journal
- VIA Institute on Character
- The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
- Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar
- 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story by Dan Harris
- Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin E. P. Seligman
- Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy by Mo Gawdat
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine
- The Ripple Effect: Sleep Better, Eat Better, Move Better, Think Better by Greg Wells
- Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman