Appearances Can Be Deceiving (2. Solitude and Loneliness)

January 27, 2016 Leave a comment

All that glitters is not gold, and alone is not always lonely.

Last week I began a series on behaviors that are often mistaken for one another. Elsewhere I’ve called them “multi-source behaviors,” in the sense that one single behavior might originate in different psychological spaces. Last week we saw how fidgeting and restlessness could be interpreted on the one hand as evidence of impatience, but on the other as evidence of boredom. One must stay vigilant to the possibility of multiple meanings behind behavior and not always assume we know the meaning of a grimace, a smile, or a frown. A simple “What’s the meaning behind that frown?” can often prevent bad feelings and a trip down the wrong inferential path.

A commonly misperceived behavior is the state of being alone. All too often, Gregarious Groupies try to nudge Solitary Singles into joining them on the assumption that the Solitary Single is lonely. But, being alone does not necessarily entail loneliness. We are built differently. Some of us have high thresholds for the afferent and efferent nerves,

1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent CC BY-SA 2.0

1996 Jocassee Quiet Solitude, by anoldent; CC BY-SA 2.0

such that the 105 decibels of sound at a football game may not phase us because we have a high threshold for noise, while those bombarding decibels would wear me down because of my low noise threshold. After the game, you’d be ready to party, and I’d be ready to be private. I would not be lonely, but quiet and (probably) alone, or at least with another quiet person.

I remember a couple from graduate school days in Chapel Hill. He had a lower sensory threshold, she, a higher. He read in the library most days, while she taught junior high school choral music. He would arrive home in the evenings not lonely from a day at his library study carrel way off the beaten path, but, in fact, mentally energized from a day of reading and thinking. She would get home eager to talk through her day with him, not in the least exhausted from the hustle and bustle of hormonal youth trying to harmonize. When she spied him opening a book shortly after getting home, it was “What do you have against people? Talk with me!” And this was met with his “What do you have against quiet? Get comfortable with yourself!” Over time they learned to respect each other’s differing traits—they’re still married after 50 years.

These two were extremes—extremely introverted and extremely extraverted, the one energized by solitude, and the other energized by society. Then there are folks like me—ambiverted—ready for society after a day of study, or ready for study after a day of society. I give out of society juice after being in the thick of the action for too long and must get quiet, which usually (but not necessarily) means being alone, or with my ambiverted partner, Jane. On the other hand, I give out of solitary juice after extended study sessions (mostly writing and reading), and am ready for some social stimulation.

Loneliness happens when a soul has run out of fuel for being alone and is ready for some action but finds none. Most of us manage our needs for solitude and society successfully. When we begin to feel lonely, as in having had enough solitude and are now ready for company, we know where to look. Reaching out for contact could be satisfied by playing with a loved pet at one extreme or going to visit family or friends at another. Often, the simplest cure for loneliness is an open-ended question. Sometimes when I fly, I am ready for solitude, and I blank out the persons sitting on either side as I read. Other times I have just emerged from extended solitude and am ready for society, so I ask one of my seatmates an open-ended question and hope that an engaging conversation ensues.

So the learning is to never assume you know a person’s mental state when you see them alone. Ask. Then either let them be alone, or engage them based on their response.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (1. Impatience and Boredom)

January 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Last week a colleague called me impatient. I bristled—I don’t like to be called impatient.

“What leads you to say that?” I asked, puzzled not knowing the evidence that led him to judgment.


“I want It Now,” by Denise Krebs CC BY 2.0

“You sometimes look away from others, move around a bunch in your chair when others are talking with you or to the team, leave the room to go get things, frequently refer to your iPhone or iPad, make notes that don’t appear related to the topic of the moment…. How’s that for starters?”

“Oh, that!” Relieved, I now know what he meant. “What you see as impatience is actually boredom. When I’m unengaged around others, I find it almost impossible to sit passively as words fly back and forth. My mind is constantly generating ideas, opinions, memories, and other items that I want to follow up on. But when I’m engaged—when I’m in flow—when I am interested in what you or others have to discuss, I think you will find me attentive and willing to take all the time necessary to get to an agreeable stopping point.”

To cover up boredom is not patience, but dissembling for the sake of good manners. Impatience is wishing for, and urging, others to speed up. “Come on, hurry up!” The classic example of impatience is trying to rush something and not allowing it to take its normal course to maturity. “No wine before its time” is anathema to the impatient. Cutting corners, skipping steps, and, in general, lowering quality standards, are the signs of impatience. If I try to hurry my scrambled eggs by turning up the heat, that is impatience. If I get bored while the eggs slowly cook, and find a way to occupy my mind meanwhile (clean off the counter, make the toast, set the table, dice scallions for a topping, and so forth), that is avoiding boredom and preventing the temptation to cut corners out of impatience. And, it is a choice.

Do I get impatient while waiting for something to run its normal course? Well, I try not to.


“Boredom,” by Kayla Sawyer, CC BY-NC 2.0

When I go to the post office and find a line, that is normal. I can’t rush it. This is a recipe for impatience and boredom. However, I am in control of how I use my mind while waiting. To wait in line and not use my mind somehow means boredom and probably impatience. To wait in line and use my mind avoids boredom. When I am not in control of my mental life while having to wait—yes, I will be both bored and impatient. In a chess match, that is why time limits exist. I can study possible future moves while my opponent cogitates, but if they take too long I begin to fidget—there is a limit to my plotting the future, and manners say I shouldn’t read a magazine while my opponent ponders. But as in waiting in line and waiting for an opponent to move, usually I am in control of how I might engage my mind during this invitation to boredom. Standing in line, I can: calculate the average transaction time of the postal clerks, catch up on my email (on my iPhone), review recent Facebook entries, start a conversation with a neighbor, practice balancing on one leg, practice yoga deep breathing, read one of several books I’ve started on my iPhone Kindle app, jot down notes for a project I’m working on (I always have a pad of Post-It notes in my pocket along with pen and pencil, plus my iPhone), call Jane or another family or team member to check in, ask my neighbor to hold my place while I go shop for stamps, meditate while standing, people watch and make up stories about their possible backgrounds…. In short, ways to use my mind while waiting are limited only by will, imagination, and manners. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.

So, appearances can be deceiving. The next time someone appears to be impatient, it is possible that they are bored and disengaged, not impatient. Check in with them somehow, with “Looks like you’ve checked out of this discussion,” or “Are we boring you?”, or “What’s on your mind?” Find out the source of their inattention and find a way to either re-engage or liberate them (as in excusing them from the meeting).

People high in the Big Five trait of Originality (aka Openness) are more susceptible to boredom, those who are low in Big Five Accommodation (aka Agreeableness) are prone to impatience, and persons high in Big Five Consolidation (aka Conscientiousness) are more likely to be patient. Nonetheless, boredom and impatience are both choices. You can choose to find a way to engage your mind when bored, just as you can choose to find something meaningful to do while waiting for something to run its course. Boredom can look like impatience, but impatience seldom looks like boredom. The one is disengagement in need of meaning, while the other is intolerance of someone’s or something’s natural pace towards completion or maturity.

See my earlier posts on establishing flow to avoid boredom and frustration, and on various ways to relieve boredom.

People as Particles

January 13, 2016 Leave a comment

I often enjoy comparing small scale elements of nature to their large scale counterparts—the melting of an ice cube to the melting of a glacier, an ant colony to a major metropolis, a piano score to a symphonic score. Studying similar natural phenomena at different levels leads to new insights.

Such is the case with quantum mechanics and human personality.

German Nobel physicist Werner Heisenberg defined his eponymous uncertainty principle (also known as the Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy) as follows: You can know the indeterminacylocation of a particle, and you can also know the speed of a particle. However, you cannot know a particle’s location and speed and the same time. This humbling discovery—humbling in the sense that it puts a limit on how much you can know—had a huge influence on modern philosophy. That influence is even reflected in the movie/book Jurassic Park when the mathematician urges “humility before nature,” meaning that it is arrogant to think that one can know everything and have total control over nature.

Last week, The New Yorker, my favorite source of cartoons, ran one by Benjamin Schwartz showing Dr. Heisenberg embracing a woman in his classroom as she muses, “I know where we stand right now, Dr. Heisenberg, but where are we going?” [chuckle, chuckle] I so much enjoyed this cartoon that I clipped it and showed it to several friends and associates. To my surprise, no one was familiar with the uncertainty principle. However, after explaining it, they did enjoy the humor.

Particle physics is certainly not everyday conversation among my associates, but personality and human behavior certainly are! It occurs to me that just as an ice cube is a small scale version of a glacier, so is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle a small scale version of what we call trait/state theory. Just as you cannot know both the position and the velocity of a particle at the same time, you also cannot know whether a person’s current behavior is ordinary or extraordinary—everyday or temporary. If you meet 12194789013_bfd1459d74_bsomeone new and they appear talkative at certain events, you do not know if this person is normally talkative across all situations, or whether this is a rare exhibition of garrulousness. If a person is normally quiet and reticent to speak their opinion, we say that they have the trait of being reserved. If a person is normally talkative and free to give their opinions and not remain silent, we say that they have the trait of assertiveness. But if a person is normally quiet, and we see them being outspoken, we say that they are in a state of assertiveness. In this sense, state means temporary, as in “he is in a state and will soon get beyond it,” while a trait is permanent.

As we get to know someone, we cannot know with confidence which behaviors are merely states and which are traits. Over time, we can get a sense of which behaviors are everyday, typical, and predictable for this person, as opposed to those behaviors that are rarer, more uncommon.

All the more reason to favor long courtships over short ones!

Starting in Focus

January 6, 2016 Leave a comment

My worst score on the archery range was the day I had no target.

My least satisfying year was when I had no goal.

It helps me refresh my outlook from time to time with the five basic modes of positive being. Observing them daily leads to flourishing and away from languishing. Use these five guidelines to shape your goal-setting for the new year.

  1. Progress towards Goals. Not only must we have goals, but we must goal steps
    make progress towards achieving them. I have a friend whose goal for 15 years has been to write a book on leadership. He has made no progress, and that contributes to a sense of languishing. Write an outline for his book, and he would tilt the scale towards flourishing. A little progress from time to time is a wondrous thing. Jared Diamond calls it invention by creep (as opposed to leap)—incremental progress rather than all at once.
  1. Fit. Ensure that your goals require use of your strengths—goals that require use of your weaknesses and aversions invite procrastination, and sometimes they lead to health problems. A coaching client of mine aspired to be a plant manager—and made it, but he was introverted, kind, creative, and spontaneous. He had to suppress all his natural behaviors and be outgoing, tough, down to earth, and disciplined. He developed high blood pressure. I recommended to management that they move him from line management to a staff management position. They moved him to headquarters in Michigan as a VP for Research and Development, and his blood pressure smiled.
  1. Flow. Goals that require too little of you lead to boredom, while goals that require too much of you lead to frustration. Find ways to stay in flow by having goals that require a moderate stretch for you, and work on your skills and resources to stay on top of your goal requirements. At this moment, I am trying to integrate the Heath brothers’ (Dan and Chip wrote Made to Stick) guidelines for sticky language into this blog, which is keeping me from being bored by using new standards of writing on a topic that is second nature to me.
  1. Altruism. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, and a kind deed a day keeps languishing at bay. Ever notice the inner glow that follows an act of kindness?
  1. Relationships. Two guiding principles for nurturing important relationships: more positive emotional events than negative ones (attaboys/attagirls versus “you ignoramus”), and divvying up the onerous tasks so that one person in the relationship doesn’t get all the drudgery.

My book on happiness devotes a full chapter to each of these five modes of positive being. Observe them, and have a happy new year!


A Modest Proposal

December 23, 2015 1 comment

In 1729, Jonathan Swift brought attention to the plight of Ireland’s starving poor by ironically suggesting the children be fattened and served up to the rich.

My modest proposal today employs no irony. Rather, I address a serious issue by suggesting a small, effortless, non-resource-consuming, incremental change.

The serious issue: Carbon emissions. The suggestion: Cut your engines when idling unless at a stop light or in stop-and-go traffic.

It was Friday, December 2, 2011. Jane and I were standing alongside the bellman just outside the main entrance to Tokyo’s Shinjuku Hilton. We were waiting for our host and Japanese partner, Nori Furuya, to fetch us and be off for our day of meetings. An immense, airport-bound bus with rear-view windows the size of parking lots pulled up. Then something happened I had never before witnessed, nor ever expected: The driver cut Shinto gatehis engines. Silence. No fumes. We were struck by his apparent courtesy.

Later, riding Tokyo’s maze to Nori’s office, I shared this epiphany with our host and asked if it were commonplace. He said, “Oh, yes. It is core to the Shinto world view. We hold great respect for the earth. To leave one’s fossil-fueled engine idling unnecessarily and spewing fumes onto Mother Earth is like relieving your bladder on your mother’s living room carpet. It is disrespectful.”

Ever since that time, I have cut my engines when stopped and not in traffic. When I swing around to the portico of our office building at 5 o’clock this afternoon to pick up Jane, if she is not standing there, I will come to a stop and cut my engine. Last week, waiting for her to return from Providence, R.I., and parked in the cell phone lot at Charlotte’s airport, I read from my iPad with the engine off. I uncomfortably noticed that over half the other cars in the cell phone lot were parked and idling, unnecessarily contaminating Mother Earth. I felt an urge to circulate and knock on windows, suggesting they show respect and cut their engines. It was a mild evening—no need for air conditioning of any kind. This morning, wondering what I would blog about this week, I parked in the rear of our office building and made my way to work. I passed a car that was idling, its driver primping in the mirror in preparation for her encounter with society, her tailpipe pumping trash while she applied her mask. Again, I wanted to knock on her window and request she attend to her tailpipe emissions. And, again, I resisted being the Mother Earth emissionspolice.

But, I had my blog topic! Please join me in this sign of respect and cut your engines when not in traffic and stopped. Give Mother Earth this gift for the holidays, and for her lifetime, which is in danger of foreshortening lest we do our part.

For my Big Five friends:

  • If you’re feeling more N+, do it because your conscience tells you to.
  • If you’re feeling more N-, do it because logic entails it.
  • If you’re feeling more E+, do it because you want to set a good example.
  • If you’re feeling more E-, do it because you love the quiet and pure air.
  • If you’re feeling more O+, do it because you are intrigued by the idea and the broad global impact.
  • If you’re feeling more O-, do it because you want to preserve what has been entrusted to you.
  • If you’re feeling more A+, do it because I told you to.
  • If you’re feeling more A-, do it because you want to be better at reducing your carbon footprint than the rest of us.
  • If you’re feeling more C+, do it because it will move us towards a more perfect universe.
  • If you’re feeling more C-, do it spontaneously.

But howsoever you are feeling, do it. Cut your engine. And have a rejuvenative holiday!

May the Force Be With You, But Do Your Homework

December 16, 2015 Leave a comment

The Force will be unleashed on a hungry public this Friday. Popcorn and slushies will fertilize the minds of moviegoers eager to digest the wisdom of the Jedi warriors. Or, if not to digest wisdom, perhaps to accompany sheer entertainment.

How many times have we jocularly tossed “May the Force be with you” to friends and family? Such empowering valedictions are a (usually) well-meant attempt to boost the energy and sharpen the focus of loved ones embarking on a challenge.



As-Salamu Alaykum

Khuda Hafiz



My prayers are with you


Blessings upon you

The urge to pray or otherwise lubricate the channels to ease the journey of those close to us is universal.

NPR talk show host Diane Rhem once asked her guest, former President Jimmy Carter, to describe his prayer life while in the White House. After Carter affirmed daily and frequent prayer while president, Ms. Rhem followed up with “Were your prayers answered?” With a sheepish grin (I’m sure) that could only be imagined by radio listeners, the peanut farmer quickly responded with “Yes, all my prayers were answered. But, you must understand that sometimes the answer was “No”!”
Prayers for self and others can only hurt if they become an excuse to slack camel tiedoff. Hope must be accompanied by effort. The Sufi master: “Trust Allah, but tether your camel first.” Or, more crudely, Frank Loesser put it to song in 1942 in response to Pearl Harbor attacks with “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” Every sign of the cross preceding a foul shot must be accompanied by hours of practice. Prayer isn’t enough—there’s work to be done. But for many, prayer is an unseen partner that makes the work more standable.

Making the Most of What Willpower You Have

December 9, 2015 1 comment

Our capacity to pay attention varies along a continuum from highly effortful to totally effortless. Effortful attention is like when you must read the instructions for a new piece of computer software. For most of us, this requires highly focused concentration that entails the marshaling of all of our mental resources. As such, much energy is consumed by our brain. This results in a decrease of glucose—the brain’s fuel. After an episode of effortful attention, it is difficult to continue with another episode of effortful attention—we simply don’t have the energy for it. In one study, persons who solved a difficult math problem were then given the choice between a healthy (celery and carrot sticks) and an unhealthy (chocolate chip cookies). Those who had worked on the math problem were more likely to pick the unhealthy snack, while the control group that had not dealt with the math problem were more likely to resist the unhealthy snack in favor of the celery and carrots. It just requires more mental energy to resist sweets.

It is best to follow effortful attention with non-effortful attention for a while before returning to effortful attention. And even better, have a snack after effortful attention. Studies have shown that having a healthy snack (i.e., not sugary and non-banana and pbnutritious) can restore our capacity for effortful attention by replenishing our glucose supply.

These activities require significant mental effort:

  • Resisting something you like (like chocolate chip cookies)
  • Doing something unfamiliar/novel (like studying instructions for new software)
  • Doing something you don’t like (take your pick!)

These activities require little or no mental effort:

  • Resisting something you don’t like (for me, wrapping presents—I’m not really a Scrooge—I just don’t like wrapping things, so I procrastinate)
  • Doing something that is familiar (scrapbooking)

Willpower is the capacity to engage in effortful attention. Florida State University social psychologist Roy Baumeister, in his 2011 book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has pulled together the relevant research on what it takes to make the most of one’s capacity for will power. These are among his findings:

  • Take frequent breaks and snacks.
  • Keep in good shape–sleep, exercise, diet healthily.
  • Remove unwanted distractions.
  • Practice with relevant distractions, as in football offenses who practice listening to their quarterback’s signals with blaring loudspeakers in the background to simulate antagonistic crowds of 75,000 fans at away games.
  • Use library study carrels.
  • Avoid unnecessary multi-tasking.
  • Install distractions or obstacles from bad choices, as in the kids in Walter Mischel’s experiments who resisted eating a proffered marshmallow by entertaining themselves with a game or other diversion, just so they wouldn’t have to think about not eating the marshmallow.
  • Declare your intentions publicly, to associates, family, and other stakeholders or observers.
  • Negotiate for appropriate absence of interruptions, as in communicating with your work team or family that you are going to close your door for two hours to work on a project, and to solicit their cooperation—I’ve done this kind of thing by burning a candle and wearing a baseball cap at my computer to signal that I’d prefer not being disturbed.
  • According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unfinished earlier projects cause intrusive thoughts when we attempt to work on subsequent ones, as in “I should really be working on the patio rather than writing this book.” Having a plan for unfinished business reduces and sometimes eliminates intrusive thoughts about that unfinished business that interferes with current priorities.
  • Eliminate boredom increasing your challenges and/or handicapping yourself, and eliminate frustration by increasing or skills and personal resources and/or reducing your degree of challenge. Read Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow (1990) for further explanation. Also see my chapter on the flow concept in Howard (2013).
  • Have a partner for support and monitoring.Cat and Dogs
  • Join a support group, real (face-to-face) or virtual (Internet).
  • Understand and practice Mindfulness (start with meditation training—read Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, in which she treats the pervasive positive influence of meditation/mindfulness).
  • Understand the importance of practice and repetition in establishing new habits or patterns.
  • Three most common ways of battling a bad habit:
    • Vigilant monitoring (e.g., Seinfeld’s calendar app, inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s actual practice of having a year-long calendar on one large page on his wall, then marking a big X every day that he executes his good habit—as in writing for at least 30 minutes—and then enjoying the chain of Xs and only breaking the chain when major obstacles occur—e.g., sickness)
    • Creating distractions or constraints from irresistible cues (Ulysses’ being bound to mast)
    • Changing the situation (e.g., going to library where there’s no refrigerator)

Being in the field of personality assessment, we are certainly aware that some personalities lend themselves to these practices more naturally than others. However, these practices are habits, and habits are learnable by everyone. We must simply pick the habits that feel the most natural.


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