Archive for May, 2011

The truth about the lies behind “The Secret”

Posted on May 25, 2011 in FiM, WaW

Because of my research on human happiness I am often asked what I think about the book The Secret. The short answer is that I think it is potentially dangerous. The book wraps a lot of misinformation and distortion around a few kernels of truth. Like most propaganda, it plays on peoples’ hopes and fears to draw them into its web of deceit. I want to take on some of these distortions and, at the same time, try to highlight and recast the small bits of truth.

A recent research study suggests that visualizing ourselves achieving valued goals or enjoying coveted successes may actually work against us ever obtaining those hoped-for outcomes. The researchers found that people who engaged in this positive self-imagining had less energy and devoted less effort toward those goals. Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen found that positive fantasies seem to induce responses that would normally accompany achievement, responses like reducing energy and relaxing, rather than motivating the energy and persistence that are necessary for real achievement.


Setting stretch goals, on the other hand, can be very motivating. The key is to visualize why the goal really matters to you, what you need to do to achieve the goal, and how you can how you can mark progress toward it. This kind of positive visualization can have powerful motivating properties which can create lots of energy that actually help you do the work of striving toward the goal.


There are aspects of positive self-imagining that can be helpful. A group of fantastic researchers at the University of Michigan describe how a method they call the “reflected best self” can help us gain important insights about ourselves and then put those insights to good use (Roberts et al, 2005). Ken Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky support those claims with good science. It’s not magic, but used correctly, the reflected-best self can lead to significant growth and help us achieve important goals.


Kappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (4), 719-729


Roberts, L. M., Dutton, J. E., Spreitzer, G. M., Heaphy, E. D., & Quinn, R. E. 2004. Composing the reflected best-self portrait: Building pathways for becoming extraordinary in work organizations. Academy of Management Review, 4, 712-736.


Sheldon K. M.and Lyubomirsky, S. (2006) How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. [Special Issue: Positive Emotions], The Journal of Positive Psychology , 1, 73–82

The power of self-forgiveness

Posted on May 5, 2011 in WaW

Self-forgiveness might sound like new-age hocus pocus, but research is showing that it is real, and that it matters. A recent study found that students who forgave themselves after an initial bout of procrastination were less likely to repeat their avoidant behavior. Those students who did not study for a first test, but forgave themselves, were more likely to study for the next exam.

It’s probably easy to see some of the implications of this research. Those of us who are hard on ourselves might be self-handicapping. While it is good to have high expectations for ourselves [more on the Galatea effect soon], we also need to be careful about being too hard on ourselves when we do not perform up to those expectations. Doing so might be self-defeating behavior.

Of course, there is always a middle ground here. We don’t want to accommodate or excuse negative behavior, but self-forgiveness seems to involve recognizing what we did wrong, identifying how we can do better, and then stopping ourselves from ruminating on our conduct too long. We need to get it, then get over it!

Wishing you much happiness


Research citation: Wohl, M., Pychyl, T., & Bennett, S. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (7), 803-808

Doodlers learn more?

Posted on May 5, 2011 in FiM

Today I have the privilege of presenting some of our research to a fantastic group of UCC ministers. And, it is is Boston. A double-dip of happiness. Thinking of me presenting also conjured up thoughts of boredom, and some advice I would give to those great people who will listen to me today: doodling can help you pay attention when the speaker is not captivating enough.

There is a famous story about this that involves Tony Blair, Bill Gates, and some doodles found after an important speech. The basic story is that the doodles were mistakenly attributed to Tony Blair and it was claimed that the doodles indicated that he was not paying attention to the speaker. The doodles were evidently drawn by Bill Gates, and researchers have since found that doodling can help us pay attention better. The short story is that drawing occupies part of our attention so we can more fully direct the rest toward the important, but not-so-engaging speech.

So, this might be good to remember when you see congregation members drawing during your sermon. Even if they are not taking notes, they are paying attention.


[Yes, I am an inveterate doodler]

Here is a New York Times piece on this research.