Bad Habits & Addiction: How Mindfulness Can Retrain the Brain

Nobody’s perfect. We’re all shaped by our genetics and environment and susceptible to developing unhealthy behavioral patterns. Whether it’s compulsively checking social media, over eating, smoking cigarettes, drinking or doing drugs, the brain learns to associate certain acts with emotional comfort. The process is actually a learning disorder, one where the brain becomes wired to skew information, but—here’s the good news—we can reverse it.

How does a bad habit take hold? Let’s use food for a simple example of how the brain can lead us astray. When we see something delicious, the mind is programmed to think, “yummy.” And when we eat, we usually feel good because of the extra calories coursing through our system. So, as this process repeats, “yummy” correlates with feeling good.

But then at some point—maybe when we’re feeling anxious, abandoned or overwhelmed—the brain looks for a way to feel good again and remembers that eating does the trick. Eventually, if we eat during these situations often enough, the emotional trigger (feeling stressed, sad, etc.) sends us to the refrigerator when we’re not even hungry. In this scenario, eating becomes the source of comfort, love or safety we lack.

With other habits, it’s the same process, Most anything—compulsively checking […]

How to Diffuse Conflict: Flip the Script

Invisibilia recently shared a powerful story that demonstrates how emotional intelligence can diffuse a tense situation:

A man breaks into an evening dinner party, holds a gun to the temple of one of the guests and demands money. No one has money with them at the gathering, so they try to dissuade him in various ways, starting with guilt: “What would your mother think of you?”

But everything they say, fuels the situation until one woman offers the gunman a glass of wine and suggests that he sit down and join them. This moment flips the script. The gunman drinks wine, eats cheese, asks for hugs and eventually says, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” He then apologizes and walks away.

Watch this short video to hear a beautifully told and more detailed version of the story.

Non-Complementary Behavior
What’s remarkable about this story is that it’s a perfect example of what psychologists call “non-complementary behavior.” When we interact with people, it’s natural to mirror them. Thus, hostility begets hostility. Kindness begets kindness. And so on. Breaking this mirroring reaction, is non-complementary behavior.

Flipping the script is hard. When someone lashes out, we […]

Empathy is not Intuitive

Lots of people might argue otherwise, but empathy is not an intuitive process. Intuition is defined as the ability to perceive the truth, independent of any reasoning. Note that the key phrase is “independent of any reasoning.” Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, relies on listening and observation and being able to process the information gathered with rational thought, which is also known as systematic thinking.

And here’s the science to support it: Christine Ma-Kellams (from the University of La Verne) and Jennifer Lerner (from Harvard) recently published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Trust Your Gut or Think Carefully? Examining Whether an Intuitive, Versus a Systematic, Mode of Thought Produces Greater Empathic Accuracy.” For this study, they compared two modes of thought: intuitive thinking (going with your gut, what feels right) and systematic thinking (carefully analyzing the information available).

The psychologists performed four studies with 900 participants. The first study showed that most people believe that intuition is superior to systematic thinking to deduce another person’s thoughts and feelings accurately. But their following three studies demonstrated that this belief is, in fact, […]

Experience Greater Joy by Celebrating What’s Missing

Imagine yourself sitting on a granite boulder at the edge of a crystal-clear glassy lake, the reflection of the majestic mountains perfectly reflected in the still water. As the day turns to dusk, your reverie is broken by a buzzing in your ear and the bite of a mosquito. Soon, you’re swatting at your arms and legs, muttering, “If only these irritating mosquitoes weren’t here, then I’d be happy.”

This familiar refrain—“if only _______ were different, then I’d be happy”—appears frequently for many of us. We find faults in things and then wish that those problems would go away, assuming we’d be happier that way. When a problem actually is absent, however, we often fail to pay attention and miss the opportunity to feel joy at the absence of the phenomenon.

So last week, when I was up high in the Sierra mountains, marveling at the stunning peaks, mirror-like lake and the flutter of birds around me, I paused and noticed what wasn’t there. There were no mosquitoes. Or any other biting insects for that matter. None. Which is a pretty rare occurrence in the Sierras. Granted, I was already in a gloriously beautiful […]

Bringing Joy to Work

It’s hard to turn down something that will help you be happier and more successful at work. Activating joy as a fundamental quality of mind and emotions will power a more uplifted and engaged mind. And it can start with a simple shift in our inner narrative.

Here’s an Experiment
Consider your job with this outlook: “Work is a drag. I haul myself out of bed every morning. Throughout the day–incompetence, things don’t go right, a lot of stuff I’m going to have to put up with. And maybe I’m not good enough either. Why haven’t I finally made it to where I thought I’d be at this point in my life? How am I going to put up with work today?”

Now imagine showing up for your workday, full of meetings and tasks, with that mindset. How do you feel when you think about it? Probably not so good.

Now take a full breath in, a full exhale out.

Consider your job again with this outlook: “Today I choose to go to work. I could, if I really wanted, choose not to go. But for now, it benefits me to go:  I can grow, feel purposeful and support myself (and family) financially. There will […]

How to Boost the Happiness Index

Since 2008, The Harris Poll has surveyed Americans to assess their level of general happiness. Their Happiness Index is an average from responses that agree strongly with positive statements (about good relationships with family and friends, health and general happiness) and disagree strongly with negative statements (about anxiety, money, politics, work and pastimes). During the eight years since the index’s inception, the joy in America has stayed in the mid-30s (out of 100), which means that only one in three Americans see themselves as happy. This year’s results for are even worse: Happiness in the U.S. has dropped to 31—an all-time low.

That’s an “F” for happiness by standard American school grading. How could Americans become happier? Neuroscientists estimate that the human brain is made up of between 86 to 100 billion neurons. As we age, the brain produces new neurons, creating new neural connections, a process called “neuroplasticity.” This plasticity is advantageous because it means the brain is malleable, capable of being shaped and altered.

This means that we can be happier if we shape new neurons in a certain way. Granted, a large part of our […]

Facing the World’s Challenges: The Similarities & Kindness Practice

It’s been difficult and emotional in recent months around the world, colored by separateness, violence and often a sense of despair. With shootings, terrorism and violent protest around the world, it can be hard to stay connected to current events without becoming overwhelmed and dispirited. These events underscore the importance of the Search Inside Yourself program, especially parts of the program that teach the tools of empathy and leading with compassion.

We teach these practices by starting where it’s easiest—with the people who are closest to us, our family members, loved ones, closest friends and work colleagues. Starting with these easy-to-love people, we show how to become accustomed to seeing similarities and offering kindness. If we build this habit with the people in our inner circles, we can then extend the practice outward when there’s conflict in our lives or in the world, or to those who may have different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs.

Our hope is that everyone could learn, embrace and incorporate this simple, yet powerful, practice into daily life, especially during times of difficulty and conflict:

Focus on someone mentally and repeat to yourself: “This other person is a human being, […]

In Work-Life Balance, Mindfulness is the Bridge

When people talk about work-life balance, they often focus on scheduling, how to balance the actual time between work and the other important things in life. Statistics suggest the work habits of Americans haven’t changed in years, and these data are also measured by the hours worked each day.

But work-life balance, the concept of prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) and “lifestyle” (health, pleasure, leisure, family and friends, intellectual and spiritual pursuits), is about more than the hours spent working versus doing other things. After all, can work and life truly be separated? Isn’t your health and happiness an integral part of who you are both at home and at work? Is it possible to never think about family and friends while at work? And outside the office, do you never think of work? Trying to divide the two with a firm line is impossible.

Ideally, we’re essentially the same person wherever we go. And if the aim is to be happy everywhere, tallying the hours spent here or there is a dubious route. That’s not to say that 12-hour days at the office are going to improve relationships outside of work. […]

Memory Problems? Try Idling Your Brain

Thanks to the convenience of mobile devices, most of us spend a fair amount of time online these days. In fact, GlobalWebindex—which has tracked the time people spend on various forms of media since 2012—reports that digital consumers are online for an average of six hours per day. To be online for more than one-third of our waking hours affects us as individuals and a society in everything from productivity to the way we communicate.

Because of our online proclivities, exposure to digital images has hit unprecedented numbers. Researchers blame “image overload” for heightened anxiety and memory impairment. And in order to feed social media, people are going to extremes to gather photos. A sad sign of the photo-addicted times can be found in the ever-growing entry on Wikipedia titled “List of Selfie-Related Injuries and Deaths.” Started in 2014, the list has generated almost 60 entries to date—all to spawn likes for social media.

photo memories
What’s our fascination with photos? Throughout history, photos have captured moments and recorded memories. With the advent of social media, we’ve used these images to share stories and communicate—something humans loved to do […]

Put Down the Phone and Tap Into Mindfulness

Want a little motivation to take a break from your phone and do some good at the same time? UNICEF may have an answer.

The other evening as I was passing through the kitchen, my husband said, “You can’t touch Elizabeth’s phone.” (Elizabeth is our 15-year-old daughter.) I peered at the phone lying on the table. The screen was blue with pictures of bubbles rising up the surface. “There’s an organization that will give money to provide clean drinking water to people. The longer she doesn’t touch her phone, the more they donate.”

She left it on the table all night, instead of taking it into her bedroom with her. When she looked at in the morning, I asked, “How much?”

“Clean water for one person for 131 days,” she said.

Unicef Tap Project
The organization is UNICEF. I decide to check it out myself by going to First a message: “Millions of children lack clean water. How long can you go without something less vital…like your phone?” Then the screen changes, and there are the blue bubbles and the challenge: “Go without your phone to help give clean water to children in need.” To […]