Book Review-The Denial of Death

Death has its tentacles around every part of life.  Though we fight to release life from its grip and deny its existence, Ernest Becker explains we don’t have The Denial of Death.  I’ve previously reviewed The Worm at the Core, which extends Becker’s work, and I won’t be revisiting those arguments here.  Rather, I share some of Becker’s insights about how we seek to escape the truth: that we’re all running away from death, consciously or unconsciously.

Run Away

The most haunting thing in Becker’s work is the realization that some of the tiniest aspects of our world are being subtly manipulated by our insistence that dying is a natural part of life.  The topics that we struggle with most in society are echoes of the death that we’re avoiding.  We struggle with sexual taboos and the hushed words that surround reproduction, because it’s a tacit admission that we’ll not be around forever, and as a result, we need to procreate to keep ourselves alive in some sense.

We build monuments to ourselves not just in our children but in our works as well in the hopes that something of ourselves will survive until antiquity.  Even these writings are an attempt to cheat death and allow ideas to continue after my death.

No matter where we look, we can find evidence that we’re running away from death and what it means.


But then, one may ask, what about those who sacrifice themselves for others?  What about those heroes who lay themselves down on a grenade to protect others?  The answer is that they may be forestalling death for the others.  In The Blank Slate, we learned that altruism could help genes survive when the altruism is directed at relatives.  In Spiritual Evolution, we learned that chimpanzee youth were more likely to survive based on the socialness of the mother.  Connect the dots, and you realize that, in the calculus of survival of the genes, it’s sometimes in your best interest to sacrifice yourself so that others who carry your genes may survive.

We can find immortality if only we can keep our genes alive, or so the story goes.


As was thoroughly addressed in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, humans are unique in our ability to project ourselves into our minds and possible futures.  For the most part, this has resulted in anxiety and stress over things that have never – and will never – happen.  We’re perfect machines for first predicting and then stressing about these future events that we don’t know will happen.


Another way to deny death is to rely on religion.  If we’re immortal souls who are just inhabiting a body for a time, death loses its sting.  After all death, then is just a transition, not an ending – an ending we all fear.  However, in this conceptualization, it cannot be that the body has control over the man.  Thus, we see references to the carnal nature of man and the need to overcome the acts of the flesh.  This is what of what drives our Victorian-era prohibitions about sex and talking about sex.  (See The Anatomy of Love for more.)  We can’t be immortal beings inhabiting a biological shell if the biological shell has control over us.

Illusions and Delusions

For many of us, there are some beliefs that we hold onto but don’t necessarily believe.  Even simple rituals, like knocking on wood or throwing salt, are dismissed as untrue, yet we continue them.  We continue them, because the cost of continuing them is small – and what if we’re wrong?  Rarely does it bother us that we don’t believe in the fairies and trolls that drive these superstitions.  They’re accepted.

Freud looked upon our fears to know ourselves and accept ourselves as we are as the core of psychodynamic theory and the root of psychological illness.  He, however, also believed that it was the suppression of sexuality rather than the suppression of the thought of death that drove people.  Becker (and many others) disagree, instead focusing on the need to suppress the thought of our mortality and death.


No matter how powerful a man or woman becomes in this world, they are powerless to stop death.  They cannot forestall its coming forever despite our modern attempts.  So, in this area of life, we are helpless.  The good news is that this reality rarely intrudes upon the rest of our life in a way that we become hopeless overall.  Hopelessness can lead to depression, burnout, and suicide.  (See Extinguish Burnout for more about the relationship of hopelessness to burnout, When It Is Darkest for the relationship of hopelessness to suicide, and The Psychology of Hope for more on what hope is.)

Follow the Leader

Leadership is hard to define, but even Becker seemed to endorse the fundamental premises in Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century and James MacGregor Burns’ Leadership.  That is, leadership is a relationship between the leader and the follower – or collaborator.  He’s further aligned in the understanding that leaders need followers – otherwise they’re not leaders.  What’s interesting, however, is the psychological structure of being a follower rather than a leader.

Becker explains that by allowing someone else to be the leader and blindly following their orders, you take no responsibility for either the activity or the outcomes.  “I was just following orders” is the common refrain.  While this would frustrate Bandura as he speaks about Moral Disengagement and prove Philip Zimbardo’s point in The Lucifer Effect, it does nothing to help the idea that everyone wants autonomy and control of their own lives.  Instead, Becker explains how some decide that it’s not worth the cost.  We see this in Work Redesign, where Ralph doesn’t want any more growth or responsibility.

There is a certain burden to freedom.  If we’re free, then we become responsible for the behaviors and, to some extent, the outcomes, which means we can be disappointed in our own behaviors and the outcomes in a way that isn’t present when we’re just playing follow the leader.

Tranquilize Themselves with the Trivial

Becker also explains that he sees most of humanity tranquilizes themselves with the trivial to avoid considering more important and global matters.  There’s the stereotypical person who works their factory job, drinks a few beers or a case, falls asleep, and does the same thing again the next day.  While Richard Florida points out in The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited that the way we work is changing, there is little reason to believe that creative people are any different than the hard-working factory worker.

We fill up on news and daily distractions so that we can prevent the considerations of death until we are on its doorstep.  That’s when we begin to hear the Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  We learn that they’re sorry they wasted too much time with the trivial.

Knowledge Securely Possessed

Today, we may know more than an any other time in human history.  However, we hold that knowledge to be more temporary and tenuous than ever before.  At first, the opposite appears to be true.  We see people on both sides of a conflict vehemently arguing their positions and assume that they hold their perspective as absolute truth.  However, what we know is that the knowledge you have that is the most secure is the knowledge you defend the least.  Security of knowing something means that you don’t need to defend it and are happy to hear others’ perspectives without fear that something they reveal will cause you to reevaluate your world.

Reevaluating your world, testing, and resetting your core beliefs is a frightening and exhausting process that everyone wants to avoid.  Those who are comfortable in their beliefs are able to listen, because the fear of the reevaluation is gone.

We learn more about our world through space telescopes, subatomic scanning, and large-scale particle colliders.  We learn about each other through genetic sequencing, brain scans, and statistical observation at a massive scale.  These observations have upended some of the widely-held beliefs of our parents and ourselves.  It’s natural that we’d want to defend the few beliefs that have not yet been called into question as a way of anchoring ourselves to our perspective of reality – even if that perspective is wrong.

The one thing that we cannot avoid is that much of what we do in this life is designed to protect us from the reality of death.  There cannot be The Denial of Death.


Book Review-Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention

There’s not much that works.  When it comes to suicide prevention, the list of interventions that reduce attempts is small.  There’s Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention (BCBT-SP), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS)BCBT-SP is a time-limited, targeted use of CBT, which has been widely validated for several concerns over the decades since its introduction.  It’s because it’s so widely adopted and widely known that it is so interesting to me.

Other Options

I should say that DBT, as the BCBT-SP book points out, is complicated and difficult to implement correctly.  It also tends to be resource intensive – as CBT can be.  That was my experience as I began studying it.  In addition, much as I found with NLP, everyone seems to define it a bit differently.  (See The Ultimate Introduction to NLP: How to Build a Successful Life for more.)  It’s still in my backlog for study, but it’s hard to bring myself to it.

CAMS is another option, which is more straightforward.  However, CAMS is intentionally designed for the mental health professional, and its training systems are geared towards that audience to the exclusion of non-professionals.  As a result, my research into CAMS was stopped before I started.

Direct or Indirect

The research is relatively clear.  When dealing with someone who is suicidal or potentially suicidal, the best path is direct.  Asking them if they’re considering suicide doesn’t make them more likely to attempt or die by suicide.  The clinical approaches that indirectly deal with suicide don’t work.  Despite this, many professionals don’t directly address the topic of suicide with their patients.  They instead work on skills they believe may be useful and dance around the topic.

There are likely two factors for this.  First, they probably don’t know the research.  Most mental health professionals don’t do that much work to keep current or to broaden their skills.  The reputation of the industry is not great, as The Heart and Soul of Change points out.  BCBT-SP explains that peer reviewed research points to “insufficient education and training for clinicians in newer and better models of care.”

Second, they’re probably, themselves, uncomfortable with the topic.  That makes it hard to have a conversation with patients.  If you can’t keep from being triggered by the conversation, you won’t be able to have it with a patient.


BCBT-SP focuses on the fluid vulnerability model, which has four factors: behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and physical.  They’re separated into two tiers: baseline and acute.  Each of us has a set of vulnerabilities for each of the four factors at baseline.  This is the place that we operate from most of the time.  We can have huge capacity and tolerance at our baseline – or not much at all.  An activating event triggers our acute factors.  When the sum total exceeds our threshold for tolerance, a suicidal episode may occur.  From the outside, it may seem like a relatively minor issue, but when processed by someone with a low tolerance, it may be more than they’re capable of.

The baseline tolerance comes from our experiences and our skills.  The adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) study connected health outcomes as an adult to the experiences as a child.  (See How Children Succeed for more on ACEs.)  Pushing back even further, fetal origins of adult disease (FOAD) indicates that the stress our mothers felt during our gestation may impact our health status decades later.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on FOAD.)  What’s unstated in this research is that our mental health – our ability to develop coping skills – has a huge impact on our physical health.  Change or Die quotes Dr. Raphael “Ray” Levey that 80% of our medical costs are driven by five bad behaviors: too much smoking, too much drinking, too much eating, too much stress, too little exercise.

Matthieu Richard, in Happiness, recognizes that we can’t change the past or, in many cases, our circumstances, but what we can change is the way that we think about our circumstances.  We can change our reaction to the circumstances and thus our capacity to tolerate stress.

Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation explains that our emotions aren’t directly driven by the external world but are instead processed through our brains and filtered to what we’d express.  Daniel Kahneman calls this System 1 in Thinking, Fast and Slow.  We see patterns, apply meaning, and respond – very quickly.  What BCBT-SP does is help to change our processing of our circumstances so we can see them in a better light.

Interpersonal Psychological Theory of Suicide

It’s a simplification of Joiner’s work, Why People Die by Suicide, to condense the model to just desire and means – but it works.  For a suicide to happen, one needs both the desire and the means.  If you eliminate either, you have no suicide.  Given the nature of suicidal ideation being so unpredictable and fleeting, it’s probably no great surprise that restriction of means has a greater impact on suicide attempts and deaths than attempts to change the way that people process their circumstances.

The problem with means restriction is that nearly 50% of the suicides in the United States are done with a firearm, and the United States is in love with our firearms.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution is the right to bear arms.  The mechanisms you use to restrict someone’s access to a firearm are often treated with a high degree of skepticism and concern.  Luckily, the research supports that you don’t need to create a big barrier between the use of the gun and the person with suicidal ideation.  Like Adrian Slywotzky explains in Demand, sometimes a small barrier is all it takes to prevent a behavior.

Certainly, it’s best to remove the firearms from a suicidal person, but smaller measures, such as installing a gun lock – which prevents activation until removed – is enough.  Even separating the storage of ammunition and the storage of the gun itself has a non-trivial, positive impact on outcomes.

Other approaches, like some of those that Thomas Joiner shares in Myths About Suicide are also useful.  95% of people who were stopped trying to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge never died by suicide.  Suicide fences on bridges (making it harder to jump) are also effective.  It turns out that people don’t often change their chosen method of suicidal attempt.  It seems like they just decide if they can’t die the way they want (gaining some control over death), they’ll just keep living.  (See Ronald Maris’ Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology for more on control over death.)

Escape the Hopelessness

Whether you subscribe to Edward Shneidman’s beliefs that it’s psychache – psychic, psychological, or emotional pain – that causes people to die by suicide or something else, the sense that suicide is sometimes an escape can’t be ignored.  If you believe that life is unbearable and won’t get better, then suicide begins to be seen as a reasonable answer.  When all other paths towards resolving the problems of life, are blocked then removing life seems reasonable.

Perhaps then part of the answer towards reducing suicide is the process of reducing hopelessness and the belief that suicide is a better option than any of the other options available – or even an option worthy of serious consideration.  Seligman and his colleagues first started writing about learned helplessness, the animal equivalent of hopelessness, in the 1960s.  They realized the powerful problems that becoming helpless – or hopeless – creates.  Decades of research has continued along these lines, and Seligman explains in The Hope Circuit that they got it wrong.  It wasn’t learned helplessness but, as a colleague of his Steven Maier showed, a failure to learn control or influence that caused the subjects to stop trying.

Negative Emotions

“Afflictive emotions” is the way that the Dali Lama describes them.  They’re emotions that take away from a person.  Strangely, what we call an “emotion” in English might have different words in Tibetan or at least more nuanced connotations than we typically observe in English.  For instance, pride in oneself might be bad, but pride in what others have accomplished can be good.

Anger might be an easy target for negative emotions – but it’s not necessarily an afflictive or negative emotion.  Aristotle believed that being angry with the right person to the right degree and for the right purpose was difficult – but when done to these standards, it’s not a negative emotion.

However, there are some emotions that are negative.  Humiliation, for instance, is universally bad.  There’s no need to humiliate others – or to feel humiliated yourself.  Other emotions, like guilt and shame, may be adaptive, but they’re still negative and can easily be overdone.  Guilt is that you’ve done something wrong.  Shame is that you are bad.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and guilt.)

These emotions may have an evolutionary advantage – teaching us what we should or shouldn’t do.  (See The Righteous Mind, The Blank Slate and The Evolution of Cooperation for more.)  The challenge is that these emotions are amplified in those who are depressed and can overwhelm them.

Listened To

In healthcare and in life, there are many forms to be filled out and an array of people who are looking to help you fill out the forms you’re expected to fill out yourself and those they’re expected to fill out.  They’re systems designed to ensure that people are treated well.  It’s common to use a PHQ-2 followed by a PHQ-9 if the answers on the PHQ-2 are concerning.  It’s a series of checks and answers – but often it seems like that’s all it is.

The questions are asked by others with leading language and guiding glances.  They don’t want you to answer in a way that triggers the second set of questions – and even if you do, they’re not interested in the truth.  They’re interested in checking the right boxes so they can go on with their next task.  It’s no wonder that people don’t feel listened to.  How can you feel authentically listened to when the entire interaction is about filling out the forms?

That’s why, when people go through the BCBT-SP process, they often remark that the process is the first time they’ve ever felt listened to.  The first step in the process is to have the person tell their story in their words as a narrative – not as answers to standard questions on a form.

White-Knuckling It

One of the oddities that we observe in suicide is that attempts go up at the end of a depressive episode.  Some account for this by saying that the psychomotor retardation (lack of desire to do anything) that depression brings abates (goes away) prior to the desire to die disappearing.  Another odd experience is the increase in attempts as people leave an inpatient treatment facility.  They seem to be getting better – but that turns out to not necessarily be the case.

One reason for the appearances not matching the outcomes could be that people are “white-knuckling it.”  That is, they’re summoning all of their willpower to push back the depression and suicidal ideation.  That can work for a while until they’ve exhausted their willpower.  Roy Baumeister explains in Willpower that it’s an exhaustible resource – just like our muscles.  So it can be that they seem better as they’re consuming willpower and fall when they exhaust it – sometimes falling into a pit of despair that leads to a suicide attempt.

Neither you nor those you care about should have to white-knuckle it.  Brief Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention is an alternative – that works.

Book Review-The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

If you’re going to be navigating something, it’s helpful to have a map – or even multiple maps.  For navigating depression, Andrew Solomon gives us The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.  A depression sufferer himself, he walks us through his personal experience, the experiences of those he interviewed, as well as a selection of the research on the topic of depression.  At times, the experiences and research appear to differ.  Even two people’s stories seem to point to different ways of experiencing depression.  In the end, Solomon exposes that what we call depression may be a cluster of similar maladies with a variety of factors leading towards them.

What is Depression?

It’s a good place to start.  Defining what depression is – and isn’t.  Of course, the DSM-5 has a definition for a major depressive disorder.  However, for most, including psychologists, this definition fails to capture the state well.  It leaves lots of gray areas between what’s “normal” and what’s “abnormal.”  Solomon describes depression as a flaw in love.  “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”  He clarifies later, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

Herein lies the rub of depression: assessing the circumstances.  We’ve learned that some of the best ways to combat depression don’t change the circumstances.  We find that the best treatments for depression change the way we view the same circumstances.  What’s proportional to one may not be proportional to another.

Later he admits, “Depression? It’s like trying to come up with clinical parameters for hunger, which affects us all several times a day, but which in its extreme version is a tragedy that kills its victims.”  We can map out the extremes of hunger – malnutrition – and the extremes of depression – major depressive disorder – but separating the normal from the abnormal or the proportional from the non-proportional is much, much harder.

The Impact

Depression is bad in that it prevents people from feeling good.  One of the preeminent markers is an inability to experience happiness or joy (anhedonia).  However, what’s the real impact of depression beyond the loss of happiness and joy?  It’s the leading cause of disability for persons in the United States over the age of five.  Fifteen percent of people who are depressed will eventually die by suicide – compared to 14.5 per 100,000 overall.  (Thus, this is 1,000 times increase in probability of suicide).

The How of Happiness quotes the World Health Organization as believing that depression will be the second leading cause of mortality and impacting 30% of all adults by 2020.  (Obviously, this was prior to 2020.)  Some place the estimated impact of depression through lost work and treatment at over $200 billion dollars annually.  It has a real impact on economies across the globe.

The Cause – Biology?

With the advent of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), it seems like depression might be caused by a lack of enough serotonin in the brain.  Supplements seek to increase the levels of 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a key precursor to serotonin.  There is some research that shows that these have impacts.  However, some are still appropriately concerned and critical of the impact of changing brain chemistry, including William Glassier in Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health.

Work continues to find genetic markers that lead to depression.  Research seeks to separate genetics from environment in an effort to focus on the key factors that lead to depression.  Meanwhile, we’ve begun to discover that genes don’t work on their own.  In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubornsky explains that roughly 50% of our happiness comes from a genetic “set point.”  This is consistent with others, including Judith Rich Harris, who explains that our children’s behavior may be similarly influenced by genetics at a level of about 50% in her books No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption.  In short, biology is not destiny.  Certainly, we see genetic factors in everything, but we are beginning to realize that many of our genes require activation from the environment.

The Cause – Environment?

It was a landmark study.  It coded childhood experiences – adverse childhood experiences – and tallied them.  The results were striking.  Those adults whose childhood was wrought with more adverse experiences had worse health.  In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough explains that the higher the score, the worse the outcomes.  However, that’s not the end of the story.  The trauma that leads to poorer health can precede birth.

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky highlights the work of David Barker, who was able to show that long-term health could be impacted by the stresses that a mother felt during pregnancy.  His research seemed to indicate that if the mother was stressed, the child would be predisposed to perceiving the world as stressful rather than safe.

Other research seems to indicate that if we constantly trigger the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is our response to stress, it may get stuck “on.”  In other words, exposure to stress can make us more likely to see stressful things – even when they don’t exist.  This is somewhat mediated by Richard Lazarus’ work as chronicled in Emotion and Adaptation.  (Lisa Feldmen Barrett in How Emotions Are Made expresses similar experiences).  The point of Lazarus’ work is that we see stressors and then we evaluate the stressor in comparison to the possible outcomes, their probability, and the impact.  This is divided by our capacity to cope.  The result is the degree to which we’ll feel stress in the situation.  Even in stress the way that we think about it – our controllable cognition – plays a huge role.  It may not eliminate the stressor, but it can change the impact it has on us.

Perhaps depression isn’t about our genetics – or our environment – but rather is some interaction between the genetics, our environment, and how we perceive it.

Relating to PTSD and Post Traumatic Growth

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is fairly-well known now.  However, the function isn’t as well understood.  PTSD comes from a traumatic experience that an individual has been unable to fully process.  PTSD is subjective.  What is traumatic and cannot be processed by one might be processed by someone else just fine.  It’s not a failing, it’s a mismatch between the developed skills and the perception of the events.  The secret to PTSD recovery is helping the person learn how to process their experience more completely.

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is another option for situations where trauma has occurred.  It’s processed, and the person is changed, for the better, as a result of having gone through the trauma.  It doesn’t mean that they’d want to incur the trauma again or that it was pleasant, just that they’ve found a way to become better through it.

Solomon explains depression in this way for him.  He’s found that he’s grown through his experiences with depression, no matter how much he may have wished not to have had to suffer.


When I reviewed Loneliness, I shared the dance that loneliness and depression are in.  Solomon agrees.  He sees depression as causing loneliness and vice versa.  Those in depression find themselves separated from others by an invisible wall.  They can see that there are others around, but at the same time, they feel separate and apart.  When you find loneliness, look, and you’ll find depression.  Where you find depression, look, and you’ll find loneliness.


As a goal, perfect isn’t bad.  It’s perfection that Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool were talking about in Peak: purposeful practice in the pursuit of perfection.  The problem is what Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice explains drives people to be less happy.  Maximizers – those who must have perfection – are less happy than those who are more likely to satisfice – settle for “good enough.”  We all have some times when we maximize, we’ve got to have it perfect.  The trick is that when we expect we must be perfect, we will invariably fall short, so we’ll be disappointed in our performance, and that is one step away from depression.

Burnout and Depression

It’s time for a slight side-step from Solomon’s work to explain an important relationship between burnout and depression.  Research shows that burnout screening is an early indicator for future depression.  They’re not fundamentally different – but they’re different.  Both are driven by feelings of inefficacy.  The difference with depression is a sense of futility.  In short, “What does it matter?”  This is not something that we typically see with burnout but is present when people are depressed.  (For more burnout/depression resources, see everything that we’ve got available at – almost all of which is completely free.)

Like most things in mental health, there are probably those who are burned out who are wondering about the futility of it all, and those who are depressed who understand the meaning of life.  However, as a general rule, a quick way to separate the two is futility.


At the heart of both burnout and depression is a sense of hopelessness – that it can’t get better.  It will never be any better than the current moment.  The situation is permanent.  It’s pervasive throughout someone’s life, not just the current situation.  It’s also personal.  It’s not caused by other factors, it’s a result of the person that someone is.  The problem is that these views aren’t right.  (See The Resilience Factor for more.)  The problem is that things do change, it’s not permanent.  No situation is universally pervasive, and it’s rarely as personal as we believe.

C. Rick Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope isn’t a feeling, it’s a cognitive process made of waypower – knowing how – and willpower – desire or commitment. (For more on willpower, see Willpower.) When we see people who are hopeless, we often find they don’t know “how” things could get better.  Some degree of cognitive constriction may lead people to overlook the ways that things may get better on their own, what they may be able to do to make it better, or simply how the situation can be changed.  It’s this same cognitive constriction that can lead to suicide, as The Suicidal Mind points out.

Suicide by HIV

Solomon admits that his intent was to die via AIDS.  He was trying to commit suicide but in a way that made it seem not like suicide.  This is at the heart of the challenge with identifying suicidal behavior.  Inferring intent – when someone doesn’t write a book about it – is hard.  (Only ~1/4 of people even write suicide notes; the odds of writing a book on depression are substantially smaller.)  In some cases, intent is clear, but in many others – like Solomon’s attempt – intent is very unclear.  (See Suicide: Understanding and Responding for more.)

We don’t track statistics – even if we could confer intent – on rare forms of suicide.  Instead, we must realize that there are many, many ways to kill oneself if someone wants to – and it makes stopping someone from committing suicide very difficult.  (See Suicide: Inside and Out for more on how difficult suicide can be to prevent.)

Weakness of Character

Depression, suicide attempts, and mental health issues are often seen not as illnesses but rather weakness of character.  It’s as if others believe that what’s lacking is willpower – not that there’s something wrong for which someone can’t be held accountable.  In Willpower, Roy Baumeister explains that it’s an exhaustible resource – something that everyone has limits on.  The introduction of SSRIs may have strengthened the medical model for depression, but as we saw above, it’s not enough, and people know it.

Never has someone said that it’s a weakness of bone when someone walked in with their arm flapping after a break.  We don’t call people weak-hearted as they’re having a heart attack.  Yet somehow, we believe that we should be able to control our mental health in ways that we can’t manage our physical health.  It’s been a long time since we believed that illness was a plague brought upon us by God.  Instead, we follow a biological germ theory of disease that says we were infected – not that God is inflicting suffering on us through physical illness.

There’s a serious schism of accountability and responsibility for mental health when compared to physical health.  In short, we don’t give people who struggle with mental health a fair shake.

Low Side Effects

Treatment with SSRIs isn’t because of their overwhelming efficacy.  They have low double-digit margins of efficacy over a placebo.  Solomon makes the valid point that they do help some – but that doesn’t excuse dispensing them via a PEZ dispenser.  We prescribe SSRIs with very little concern – in part because they have a relatively low side-effect profile.  Sure, there are sexual dysfunction concerns, but 99% of people with acute major depression report sexual dysfunction anyway.

At some level, SSRIs and other potentially addictive drugs are something to try.  If you can’t mitigate the pain, you’ll have trouble getting to a point where anything else will help.  Often, a pill is quick and easy.  Treatments like ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) and its newer cousins offer quick relief but there are still some concerns about side effects.  Talk therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), have been shown to be effective – but they take a long time.  In many ways, SSRIs and other medications are “the easy button.”

Substance Abuse

Chasing the Scream and The Globalization of Addiction do a good job at fighting back the pharmacological theory of addiction – that is, the substances make you do it.  Growing up in the 1980s, I was told that just one hit could start an addiction.  Nancy Regan told us to “Just Say No” to drugs – and it didn’t work.  The uncomfortable truth – for everyone – is that substance abuse is a solution to a different problem.  It’s quite obviously a bad solution – but it’s a solution nonetheless.  Something that started out as a coping mechanism to numb or distract from pain in someone’s life gradually took control of them until they could no longer stop.  Solomon says, “Every addict had a honeymoon, during which they could control their use.”  In short, it was a coping mechanism, but eventually the coping mechanism took control.

Depression and substance use disorder (SUD) – which is the preferred terminology now – are related.  When you’re depressed, you’ve got a part of your life you want to numb, and substances do that.  When it’s become an addiction, you start to lose connections with others, financial resources, stability, and sometimes even dignity.  That triggers depression.  They feed each other until they’re stopped.

Another view is that substance abuse is the substitution of a “comfortable and comprehensible pain” – the consequences of the addiction – for an “uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain.”  The uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain may not even be conscious.  It may be something that we’ve never been equipped to find or deal with.  If the substance takes away the pain from that, then it seems like its pains are a good bargain.

Time of Decide

One of the most effective interventions for suicide prevention is restriction to means.  (See Rethinking Suicide for more.)  People won’t often change their tool of choice from guns to drugs to bridges.  When you prevent access, you often prevent death.  We see it in suicide fences on bridges – which prevent people from jumping to their death.  We see it when gun locks are introduced into a population.  We see it wherever we work to block an avenue of death.

Seen differently, thoughts of suicide and the cognitive constriction that comes with it are often fleeting.  One moment, suicide seems like the only option, and the next moment, you’re left wondering how you could have possibly thought that – that is, of course, if you didn’t have access to the means you needed to carry the thought out.

When we’re considering how to decrease suicide, delaying is our friend.  Knowing that you don’t have to decide right this moment whether you want to die by suicide – you can defer that decision until later – may be helpful.  It’s not ideal.  We want people to cross it off the list of possible options – but for some people, that it is not possible or realistic.

Suicide and the Survivors of Concentration Camps

Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning as a way of chronicling the conditions of concentration camps but more importantly, to give hope that even in the worst of conditions humanity perseveres.  The problem is that too many of those rescued from concentration camps would later come to die by suicide.  The specific reasons aren’t clear.

Maybe they survived the camp only to have taken on too much mental anguish to continue forward on their own.  Maybe their hopes that their loved ones were still alive were dashed when they were freed, and they no longer felt as if they had anything to live for.

Whatever the reason, those who walked or rode out of the camps didn’t seem to have the tools they needed to free themselves from the memory of the camps and the tragedies they were forced to live among.

Proactive vs. Reactive

One of the challenges with depression, like all of healthcare, is that we often look towards solving things once they’ve become problems.  We don’t look for ways to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.  The old saying is “A stitch in time saves nine.”  Yet, we continue to battle depression and suicidal ideation after it’s formed rather than looking for ways to create mental health – rather than avoiding mental illness.  If we can be proactive, we’ll spend less – but that takes time and isn’t always in the politicians’ best reelection interests.

Mental Illness, the Family Secret Everyone Has

The thing is that every family has mental illness somewhere.  We ignore it, avoid it, and dare not discuss it, because it’s somehow shameful.  It’s sort of like passing gas – everyone does it, but no one wants to admit it.  The net effect is that we push mental health into the shadows and only want to address it when we see the next mass shooting.  We address mental health when it becomes visible, and someone demands that we put an end to the tragedies that those with untreated mental illnesses inflict on others – but by then, it’s too late.


One of the most overlooked and undervalued aspects of our human existence is the need for good, quality sleep.  It’s the brain’s way of rejuvenating, cleaning, and processing the day, yet we’re chronically sleep deprived.  We’re constantly trying to shave off a few minutes of sleep to get one more thing done – but in the process we’re making ourselves more depressed, more likely to attempt suicide, and generally miserable.  Prioritizing sleep is one thing that we can all do to reduce depression – and too few of us can make this a priority.

The opposite of depression is life.  Maybe you can find your way by studying the maps in The Noonday Demon.

Book Review-Understanding Beliefs

Why do we believe what we believe?  How do we know that the beliefs we hold are true – or that they’re held by others?  This fundamental philosophical problem of our existence is the one that’s addressed in Understanding Beliefs.  It’s a walk through the land of what beliefs are, how they’re connected to what we know, and how they can sometimes be distorted.

Procedural and Declarative Knowledge

We start by recognizing that there are two different kinds of knowledge.  The first kind, procedural, is know-how.  That is, how is it done?  It’s the kind of knowledge that Kate Pugh explains how to capture in her book, Sharing Hidden Know-How.  The second kind, declarative, is knowing that something is.  We know that the Earth orbits the Sun – at least we do now.

A large volume of our knowledge is in the form of our beliefs.  If we were to rewind the clock a few hundred years, we might be an outsider for expressing a view that the Earth orbits the Sun.  The Church might have us locked up for these beliefs as they did Galileo.  However, this represents a key problem.  Not only can we not articulate all our knowledge, as Michael Polanyi explained, but further we can hold conflicting beliefs.  (For more on Polanyi, see The New Edge in Knowledge and Incognito.)

While we expect that the beliefs of others should be thoroughly evaluated, our own beliefs remain largely unvalidated.  Much of what we “know” about the world will change given a few decades, but we have no systemic way of reevaluating our beliefs to ensure they match our current understanding of the world.  Consider the belief that atoms were the smallest unit possible against our emerging knowledge of electrons, quarks, and subatomic particles.  Our beliefs, due to the nature of our expanding understanding of the world, should change – but sometimes the process of changing beliefs gets stuck or slowed.

Runaway Beliefs

One of the other challenges with beliefs is that they’re formed by our experiences.  When engaged with others who hold similar beliefs, the degree of certainty in the beliefs can self-reinforce – and that can make even the false seem real.  Consider the Flat Earth Society, who believe that the Earth is flat.  Collected with others of the same mindset, they genuinely believe that the Earth is flat. even though it’s possible to demonstrate the curvature of the Earth easily.  From visual inspection mechanisms to the inability to explain satellites, it’s hard to believe the Earth is flat – but they do because it is continually reinforced to them.

Cults follow the same reinforcing dynamics.  Even those whose beliefs aren’t initially that strong are drawn to stronger beliefs through reinforcement.  This is just one explanation of why peer groups have such a strong influence on children – if their beliefs are close enough, and they’re spending much time together, they’ll coalesce and amplify.  (For more, see No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption.)

Scientific Grounding

One of the hallmarks of good science is that it can be validated by others as true.  This, in turn, means that any hypothesis must also be falsifiable.  That is, there must be a test that could prove it false.  The hallmark of a scientist is that they’re willing to change their beliefs when the data doesn’t support their conclusions.  In a sense, scientists ground their beliefs in reality.  If they can’t prove something right or wrong, then the belief is suspect.

Principle of Parsimony and Occam’s Razor

All things being equal, the simplest explanation is generally better.  It’s called the principle of parsimony, or alternatively Occam’s Razor, and it’s been demonstratable.  Certainly, it’s not perfect, and some simple explanations are wrong; but time and time again, when people come up with complex explanations, it’s because they don’t really understand what’s going on.  In returning to Galileo’s case, there were numerous complicated calculations that were designed to explain the motion of the planets, because they believed in a geocentric model that placed Earth at the center of the Solar System.  We know now that this model was wrong, which is why they kept having to try to find ways to adjust for the errors that were invariable given an incorrect model.

This principle is often overlooked by conspiracy theorists.  They often posit that the entire world – or just the wealthy and powerful – are in on a scheme to convince us of a false truth.  Which is simpler: that the world is round, or that people for centuries have conspired to keep the truth of the Earth’s flatness from the general population?  I’ve seen too many cases of secrets getting out to believe that people can keep something that big a secret.  The Greenbrier Hotel’s secret bunker for Congress was kept secret for roughly 30 years.  (See The Cold War Experience for more.)  How can we believe that bigger and more complex secrets are being kept for more than ten times as long?

Black Swans

One important consideration about beliefs is that we often fail to recognize that logical reversals require reversing both parts.  The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  The Black Swan makes this point well.  Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  In the end, you may find that you’re better prepared to navigate conversations, conflicts, and life if you can start better Understanding Beliefs.

Book Review-The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Life.  Liberty.  And the pursuit of happiness.  Our founding fathers placed it third, but Aristotle and most others would have placed it first.  Happiness is a central consideration in life, yet we’re notoriously bad at finding it.  The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want was written to try to fix that.  Research-backed practices are the path towards happiness – or at least one of them.


Before delving into Sonya Lyubomirsky’s work, it’s important to recognize that we’ve been struggling with the problem of cultivating happiness for centuries.  I first wrote my review of Stumbling on Happiness in 2007.  Since then, more than a dozen books have sought to cover happiness, including: Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness, and The Happiness Hypothesis.  The simple fact is that many people have tried to find the path to happiness that would reduce the misery of the masses.  However, none of them seem to have solved the core problem.  From approaches of philosophy, religion, and psychology – they failed to unlock the path for most of us.

The proof is in the fact that we’re some of the most medicated people in the history of the planet – and leading those medications are those designed to combat depression.  Depression (in some ways, the opposite of happiness) is at epidemic proportions despite all the work that we’ve done to try to understand how to address it – and to cultivate happiness.

Reconstructing a Moment

For some, we feel as if we’ve found happiness, and we’ve lost it.  Much like the movie Medicine Man, we feel like it’s possible to find happiness – if we can just recreate the circumstances.  What we must realize is that it’s not about finding happiness, it’s about creating it.  Research says that the things we believe will bring us happiness rarely do in a persistent way.  From increases in pay to awards, they may elevate us to happiness for a moment, but rarely will they hold us in a new heightened level of happiness.  They’re like a mirage that seems real in the moment – but that ultimately fade as we arrive.

Rather than trying to find happiness, we’re forced to find ways to construct it.  We construct it through the mental habits that we develop.  We find and maintain happiness not because of our external circumstances but sometimes despite them.

Happiness is a State of Mind

What makes two people in nearly identical circumstances diverge so widely in their degree of happiness?  While laying bricks in the hot sun, what is it that makes the worker on the left whistle a tune, and the one on the right grumbles and moans the whole time?  The answer isn’t their material circumstances; invariably, the answer is their perspective on their circumstances.

During the Great Depression, many people flocked to the public works projects as a part of the New Deal.  The work was hard – and competition for even these physically demanding jobs was fierce.  In the Depression, having any work was a blessing – even if it was hard.  Contrast that with today, with historic low unemployment rates, and people whose conditions are materially better than those on the public works projects who are grumbling about their job, their lot in life, or the fact that their employer is oppressive.  Better work with a worse attitude – because the expectations and perspectives were different.

The most important thing to know about happiness is that it doesn’t – and can’t – come from external things in a sustainable way.  Sure, a raise, a vacation, or an award can shift your happiness for a moment, but to get to a sustainable change, we’ll have to change our attitude about the circumstances we have.  Our attitude towards our circumstances is substantially more important than the “reality” of them.

Creeping Normalcy

When our happiness is changed by a change in circumstances, we acclimatize to the changes and return to our previous state of happiness.  Want to know how much money it takes to be happy?  It’s about 20% more than you currently make.  If you get that 20% raise, you’ll be okay for a while before returning to the belief that 20% more will finally make you happy.  The problem is that this is a mirage.  The closer you get to it, the further it moves away.

That isn’t to minimize the situation of those who are struggling in abject poverty.  However, that’s not the case for most of us reading the book or reading this blog.  Our basic needs aren’t substantially at threat.  There are many safety systems that help to ensure that we’ll have food or a place to rest.  (Again, not minimizing that these systems aren’t perfect and sometimes fail.)  Once a family is making $75,000 per year, the degree to which the 20% extra improves happiness drops substantially.

When I was growing up, I had a friend whose family literally didn’t have a phone in their home.  A government program eventually made it possible for them to get a phone.  However, the point is that something that nearly everyone today would perceive as a necessity wasn’t something that they had.  Today, we walk around with smart phones and expect that we will have them.  Our standards both at an individual and societal level creeps up.

Sensemaking via Writing

It was a friendly gathering at a breakfast restaurant.  I shared that I read a book each week and had for roughly 10 years with another avid reader.  His nearly immediate question was how I kept all the ideas straight in my head.  I explained that it was this process – writing book reviews – that made it possible.  It’s a sense-making and connecting process that allows me to connect ideas from one work to another and in the process helps me remember where something was discussed.

That being said, I must say that there’s tons that I have trouble remembering and finding the source for.  I frequently refer to these posts and to the notes from which they’re based.  I search books in Kindle (and in OCRed PDFs when the Kindle book isn’t available).  I work at connecting and keeping this information in the same way that those who are insistent on their happiness must work at the techniques that lead to happiness.

James Pennebaker’s work, which is referred to from The How of Happiness, makes it clear that this story writing and sense-making is critical to people’s ability to recover from trauma – and to be happier.  Rick Hanson goes further in his book, Hardwiring Happiness, where he focuses on some of the same techniques but by savoring positive images and making them more present in your life today – thus increasing happiness.

Envious or Happy – Pick One

One of the quips that I use in our presentations is that social media isn’t “real.”  After a pause, I explain that it’s a highlight reel.  Most people post the things they’re doing that are interesting and exciting.  They don’t often share their failures and the struggles of life.  While it happens, it doesn’t happen often.  As a result, social media leaves us believing that everyone else’s world doesn’t have times of struggle and sadness.  (See also Alone Together for this effect.)  Our fascination with cooking shows, reality television, and even home renovation shows exacerbates this.  All of them skip the boring parts.  The waiting isn’t worth watching, so it’s figuratively left on the cutting room floor.

The problem is that this can lead to a sense of envy of others that we barely know.  A friend shares their amazing photos from Hawaii or Iceland, and suddenly we want to go.  We’re envious for a moment – or longer – as we begin to evaluate whether we’ll be able to go or whether we’ll have to skip it this year or even this decade.  We envy their experiences even if we’ve had some amazing experiences this year ourselves.

The problem with this is not that we can’t have these experiences.  The problem is that we envy others, and envy blocks happiness.  It prevents us from accepting what we have and moving forward with ways that we can enjoy what we have.

Happiness Activities

The book shares 12 activities that have research support.  These are the things that, if you do them, you’ll be able to change your degree of happiness.

  1. Expressing Gratitude
  2. Cultivating Optimism
  3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
  4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
  5. Nurturing Social Relationships
  6. Developing Strategies for Coping
  7. Learning to Forgive
  8. Increasing Flow Experiences
  9. Savoring Life’s Joys
  10. Committing to Your Goals
  11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
  12. Taking Care of Your Body: Meditation, Physical Activity, & Acting Like a Happy Person

Fixed and Variable

It’s important to acknowledge that some degree of our happiness is inborn – it’s genetics.  However, there’s a substantial percentage, perhaps 40%, which is under our control (or influence).  This is the same sort of split we see whenever genetics are discussed in the human condition.  (See The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike for more.)

There are some people who will have lost the cortical lottery and will struggle with happiness their entire lives.  However, most people have the capacity for happiness which is well under their control – if they’re willing to work at it.  It’s those people – most of us – who could use to learn more about The How of Happiness.


Book Review-Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang

How is it that one boy becomes a Boy Scout Eagle Scout and the other finds their way into a criminal gang?  This is the fundamental question that Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang seeks to answer.  Parents of children wonder these questions before their children grow up and after their children have sorted their ways into different paths.  Other, more contemporary works, like those of Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, have described their view on the sorting process.  It was Ronald Marris’ Social Forces in Urban Suicide that caused me to pick up the book (published in 1955) to see what we might have lost in our understanding of how people end up dedicating their life to a disruptive counter-culture – and how others do not.

Delinquency Definition

Delinquency is, at its core, counter cultural.  It eschews the standards of “social convention.”  (See Choosing Civility, The Righteous Mind, and Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more about social conventions and their influence.)  Cohen in Delinquent Boys describes the subculture as “non-utilitarian, malicious, and negativistic.”  That is, the behaviors seem to have no utility, are seen by the traditional culture as malicious, and generally have a negative view.

In so much as delinquency is counter-cultural and malicious it is seen by most as amoral.  (See The Righteous Mind and Moral Disengagement for more on morality.)  However, it would be more accurate to say that it operates on a different set of moral values.

The Desire for Status

Delinquents have not or cannot find status in the traditional culture.  They don’t fall into a category or class that has the kind of recognition and status that they desire.  They’re not the jocks.  They’re not the nerds.  They’re not the kind of kids that go to college.  Their frustrated attempts to find a way to achieve status leads them to a group where their willingness to be malicious is enough to earn them that status.  (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for more about 16 different motivators, including status.)

In this context, rules aren’t just to be ignored or even evaded.  Rules are to be flouted.  It’s the fact that they’re willing to openly defy rules that creates their status in the eyes of others.  Being just ornery is ordinary; they’ve got to do something to stand out from their delinquent friends.

Here and Now

Another characteristic of delinquents is their prepotency of short-run hedonism.  That is, they are focused on their current desires for pleasures with little interest in long-term consequences.  (See The Time Paradox for more on different ways of viewing time.)  This can easily be caused by a lack of belief that they’ll be able to reap the rewards of any long-term planning.  For those who have had too many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), it may be difficult for them to see the stability necessary for long-term rewards.  (See How Children Succeed for more on ACEs.)

Delinquent Psychology

Let’s cut to the chase.  What are they thinking?  That’s what everyone wants to know.  There isn’t a single answer but instead there are a few generalizations that we can make.

First, their sense of self-esteem is unstable.  That is, they’re always struggling for status and approval.  Because of this, when their self-esteem is threatened, their ego’s defenses are automatically engaged.  (See Change or Die for more about The Ego and Its Defenses.)  A typical reaction is anger.  Anger, in Eastern traditions, is disappointment directed.  Disappointment is a judgement of something that missed the prediction or the standard.  (You can find more about this in my post, Conflict: Anger.)

However, anger isn’t the only outward sign of the struggle to maintain the façade of a positive self-esteem.  I explained in my post How to Be Yourself how projecting one image is difficult to maintain, like holding a gallon of milk out to your side.  Coupled with an inability to admit vulnerability, this creates a situation where the “boy” continuously struggles to be or do something that isn’t naturally possible.

While Delinquent Boys put on the airs of being immune to the kinds of hurts that others readily acknowledge, the truth is that they are often cut more deeply by them.  They believe that showing reaction to these hurts means they’re weak, and their culture won’t accept that.  We know that, for physical healing to occur, we need to provide the right conditions.  In many cases, that means either avoiding use or specifically targeting use of the injured part of our body.  We apply casts and define exercise regimens.  However, in the case of the hurts that occur in the Delinquent Boys, they can’t acknowledge the hurts or shape the way they move forward and grow.  (See Antifragile for more about how to recover better from hurts.)

Red vs. Blue

It is a common game.  Red teams are the aggressors, and blue teams are the defenders.  Whether the game is one of cyberwarfare or not, the teams are set up in direct conflict, and Richard Hackman’s work says that the red teams – whether they are less experienced or not – are more likely to be successful.  In Collaborative Intelligence, he explains both the situational and team dynamics that influence the success of each group.  Red teams are effective in part because they define themselves with an objective, where blue teams can only define themselves by not failing.  It turns out that defining yourself with what you’re not isn’t effective.

Delinquent boys are defining themselves with the idea that they’re not something.  They’re not the norm.  They’re not the establishment.  They’re not the suburban preppy kids.  They’re not going to be the hardworking folks that others step all over.  They’re different.  This has some utilitarian value.  It means that, if they fail, it’s trivial for their ego to deflect by saying whatever they failed at wasn’t important anyway.  However, because they can’t define themselves with a single thing, it’s hard to be successful at anything.

What does a motorcycle manufacturer with a poor track record in just about every aspect that one would want in a motorcycle company do to salvage its business?  Associate its brand with a culture of rebels.  Our desire to address under-addressed aspects of our personality is a powerful force.  Accountants and businessmen wanted to express their inner rebel, and Harley Davidson was there to help them do just that.  Instead of fixing reliability, they fixed their image in everyone’s mind that to own a Harley Davidson was to signal to the rest of the world that you’re a rebel.

The problem is that while “rebel” can be a part of your personality, it fails as a core part of a personality.  Being contrary to just be contrary doesn’t work in the long run.  You can’t anchor your identity to the idea of having no anchors.  So, Delinquent Boys are left adrift without anything to hold on to.

Counting “Nots”

A counselor once told me that you could tell when someone wasn’t saying anything real by counting the number of “nots” in their conversation.  Broadening this slightly to include other forms of negation, I realized that when someone says they want something, but they keep explaining it by providing negative examples, they either don’t clearly understand what it is they want – or they’re actively trying to prevent the person who they’re talking to from getting there.  This subtle form of manipulation is shame-inducing.

The person who is receiving the negative-laden explanation has no model to work from and therefore must continue trying random (or semi-random) approaches to address the need – only to be told that this, too, isn’t right.  The result is often demoralization and the feeling that you’ll never get things right.  In fact, in some cases this may be the point.

This is just one example of how trying to define in the negative doesn’t work – whether it’s intentional manipulation or simply because of attempts to define oneself by what we are not.

Unique – But Not Too Unique (Optimal Distinctiveness Theory)

We have inherent need to be accepted by others.  It’s wired into our evolution.  Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, explains that we survived to become the dominant biomass on the planet not from strength but from our ability to be social.  We know that when we’re standing on our own – rather than as a part of a group – we’re at substantially greater risk.  In historic times, being expelled from a community was likely a death sentence.  Individually, we’re weak.  Together, we’re strong, and that leads to our strong desire to be accepted by others.  However, that’s not the only force deep in our psyche that struggles to bubble up into our feelings, beliefs, and behaviors.

The other engine that drives us is our need for uniqueness.  We believe that we must be different – and ideally better—than others.  We don’t want to feel like we could be replaced by someone else.  That’s why it stings to hear that a former employer or a former lover has replaced you too quickly.  It’s the loss of our feelings of uniqueness.  However, uniqueness requires difference – and too much difference means that we can’t be accepted.

We know that people accept others that are like themselves.  If you become too different, and distinguishable from them, you threaten the ability to be accepted.  The result is that we try to find the narrow path between acceptance and uniqueness.  This has been called “optimal distinctiveness.”

The key problem with optimal distinctiveness is that it necessitates that the problem is a wicked problem.  No two people will define the need for and the appropriate degree of individualization the same way.  (See Dialogue Mapping for more.)  Ultimately, there is no solution to how to be optimally unique and at the same time conforming.  It’s one of the key challenges of life for all of us.

School Shootings

It was Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado.  It ignited a series of school shooting massacres.  It was also not the first time the perpetrators had made themselves known as delinquents.  Eric Harris’ blog had detailed his interest in harming others and some of his escapades with Dylan Klebold.  Both pled guilty to felony theft and were sent to a juvenile diversion program.  That was 16 months before the massacre.

Numerous others have followed in Eric and Dylan’s infamous footsteps, and more than we know have tried and were thwarted.  No Easy Answers walks through the Columbine Massacre and seeks to help us understand how bullying and a desire to feel strong created a situation that left Eric and Dylan believing their only option was to become powerful through a massacre.

Shifting the Blame

Delinquents have gotten quite fully into what Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace would describe as a box.  Inside the box, people’s vulnerability drives them to behaviors that are inconsistent with their beliefs and harmful to others.  Eric and Dylan weren’t from bad families.  On the outside, their values would seem to be that of any other child.  However, it turns out that they found ways to do the unspeakable.  They managed to disengage their morality.  (See Moral Disengagement for more.)

Following the Columbine Massacre, both Eric and Dylan were vilified, a reasonable response to people having lost their children or friends as a result of the rage.  What they didn’t effectively do is ask what conditions were in place which allowed these boys to become this way.  Certainly, there is the role of the parents, the community, and the school.  However, what about the environment is key such that so many copycats have followed them?  Perhaps it’s their feelings of shame at the hands of unchecked bullies.  Perhaps it’s something else.

We know that people resist accepting the blame for the situations that they create.  Delinquent Boys are no exception.  Without granting innocence or shifting the blame, how can we look back into their past to see what conditions preceded their delinquency?  Maybe you can find the answer in a nearly 70-year-old book about Delinquent Boys.

Book Review-No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School

It has been identified as the sentinel event.  The book No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School is an exposition and review of the events leading up to the Columbine Massacre as well as the aftermath of the event.  I started reading the book not because of the latest school shooting but instead because it offered potential clues to explaining unexplainable behaviors.  In the more than 20 years that have followed the event, much has been written and considered – perhaps among the tragedy, there might be some value.

No Easy Answers

In the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, some were calling for finding resolutions to the school shooting epidemic.  Depending upon their particular political beliefs, the focus of the call to action was on mental health, gun control, or better school safety.  What troubled me quite quickly was the look for an easy answer.

At Columbine, it would be easy to dismiss Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as deranged psychopaths, products of a hostile environment and poor upbringing.  However, having been to the Denver, Colorado suburb of Littleton that surrounds Columbine, the environment is anything but hostile.  By all accounts, both Eric and Dylan’s parents weren’t cruel or neglectful.  In fact, their parents would easily be considered above par in terms of creating home environments and engaging with their children.  Clearly, Eric and Dylan’s actions betray psychopathy – but how did this happen?

It’s not the case that they were just two “bad apples.”  Instead, we’ve got to look more carefully at the environment, the situation, the signs, and the gaps that allowed them to slip through.  As I explain in Fractal Along the Edges, things aren’t what they first appear.

The Environment

Judith Rich Harris, in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, walks through the mechanisms that can cause two children born to the same parents and in the same environment to differ in the trajectories of their lives.  To blame the parents ignores the external factors over which the parents have no control.  To blame the parents either burdens them with having produced genetically damaged offspring – which isn’t truth – or to distort their home lives to fit a freakish version of the truth.

But if we absolve the parents of responsibility – which I’m not completely advocating – who is left?  What in the environment might contribute to the awful tragedy?


The news is littered with the tragedy of students who take their own life because of the bullying that they receive – both physical and emotional.  Often, the bullying that these lost souls experienced went unreported.  Somewhere, they’d learned that they’d be blamed for the bullying.  They’d be told they’re weak, and they needed to just “suck it up.”  The authorities weren’t going to do anything about it anyway.  They’d only make things worse.  Whether these perceptions are true or only fears given inappropriate legitimacy, they exist in the minds of many of those who found themselves at the hands of bullies.

The same forces that drive some to give up and take their own life can drive the desire for revenge and rampage.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more on the connection.)  The forces that make someone feel weak and unprotected cause them to find their way towards strength and self-protection.

At the heart of bullying lies two concepts.  First is that someone is better than another.  That is, their position in the society grants them special privileges.  The second is that “might makes right.”

Social Hierarchy

The animal kingdom is practically built on social hierarchy.  We find that some animals are perceived as leaders, and they are therefore granted special privileges.  The interesting question is what leads us to the coveted top of the hierarchy and what are the rewards that come with this social status.  In the animal kingdom, this is mostly strength and ability to fight.  However, as humans, we’re not the strongest, nor do we have the fiercest set of natural attacks, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind.  What we do have is the ability to work together and our intelligence.  However, when you’re fighting your way to the top of the social hierarchy, how does this work?

In high schools like Columbine, the social hierarchy is driven in part by the kind of athletics you participate in.  The better your position and performance in a respected sport, the better your reputation, both with the other students and with the staff.  Football quarterbacks and starting centers get the highest spots in the hierarchy, where the captains of the chess and the debate team are less highly regarded.

This isn’t all bad, as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains that stress can accompany not knowing your place in the social hierarchy.  However, it also explains that when those on the top of the hierarchy aren’t happy, they tend to take out their frustrations on those who are lower in the hierarchy than they are.

Might Makes Right

Historically, at the micro-level, physical prowess provided a mechanism for extracting pleasure from the infliction of shame and pain on the unfortunate souls who happen to be within range of the wrath.  The goal of this superficially is pleasure.  However, if Jonathan Haidt is right, this goes against one of the most powerful foundations of our morality: care vs. harm.  He explains in The Righteous Mind that there are six foundations of morality, including care/harm and authority/subversion, and we each value the foundations differently.

It’s challenging, because it’s necessary to practice Moral Disengagement in order to feel safe.  The capricious nature of the harm caused to others is intended to instill sufficient fear that people don’t – or rarely – directly challenge you.  It’s much easier to portray the illusion of strength when others are afraid to challenge you – constantly battling others can drain even the strongest.

I should be careful to say that I’m not condoning the behavior of attacking those lower on the social hierarchy – far from it.  I am saying that this is the normal order of things in the animal kingdom and unfortunately in “polite society” – it’s just the approaches changed.  In Reinventing Organizations, Fredrick LaLoux explains the evolution of organizations, from those only a half-step removed from physically beating people into submission to the more enlightened environments designed to encourage everyone.

Historically, history was written by the victors.  They were in power and controlled the narrative around what happened.  Thus, those who had the power shaped the way they were seen in the eyes of the populace.  While the world has now changed, as movements like Arab Spring have shown, we still must accept that much in our history books is near fiction.


When we speak about burnout, we explain that it has three defining characteristics: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  (See Extinguish Burnout for free resources on burnout.)  What’s important here is that cynicism is an outcome.  It’s the outcome of feeling like you can no longer make a difference.  It’s a sort of resignation that all you can do is complain.

Some people reach this conclusion through a feeling of powerlessness.  They believe that they’re not strong enough to do anything.  These are the same sorts of people that become the best in their fields.  Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that people become motivated to get better, do the work, and focus on getting better.  In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin explains his rise to the top of both the chess and martial arts worlds – including his psychological struggles.  Being the best is hard.  For some, giving up is never an answer; for too many others, it seems like the only option.

Direct competition isn’t the only way that people are confronted with reasons why they’re powerless.  In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how Generation X grew up with a growing awareness of how the world systems that we should trust were broken and corrupted.  From the Oval Office to the board room, the system was rigged against us – and there was nothing we could do about it.  It’s no wonder Generation X is one of the most cynical.

When you mix a deep sense that the system is rigged against you, constant bullying and belittling, a pressure from others to change the world, and the power that can be found in the form of guns and explosions, you’ve got the recipe for a massacre.


In the United States, we believe in the right to bear arms.  We believe that we can enhance our power by wielding a gun.  It’s the way that we see our heroes in movies overcome their enemies, and it’s an accepted part of our lives as well.  Many of those who enter the debate hold a strong opinion about guns.  Either they believe that the government is slowly out to erode or minimize these rights to have guns, or they believe that guns are the root of all evil and should be banned from existence.

The sparring goes back and forth between statistics that show more lax gun laws result in more gun-related deaths.  The opposition counters that this is only true when suicide isn’t factored out.  They recognize that suicide is the most common death due to guns, not murder.  They also counter that many guns are obtained illegally – as those used in the Columbine massacre were.  Albert Bandura shares his point of view in Moral Disengagement, where he comes down on the side of more gun control and less violence on TV.

Entertaining Violence

Another of the easy targets for the cause of violence was the entertainment industry: movies, music, and monstrous games.  Eric had been fascinated with the movie, Natural Born Killers, music by Insane Clown Posse, and created levels for the computer game, Doom.  Surely one of the was to blame for the massacre.  It’s a short distance from seeing violence and performing violence, right?  Not exactly.  Bandura is famous for his Bobo doll experiment, which proved that children could learn social norms by watching others.

However, the work of Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society explains that children should have developed the ability to discern fantasy from the real world well before Eric and Dylan were exposed to violence in the media.  No Easy Answers explains how the Klebold family intentionally shielded their children from violence, including the uneasiness about the children purchasing the game Mortal Kombat.  (For more about why Bandura’s perspective may not be right, check out The Blank Slate.)

The Reality of Television

While television was blamed as a part of the concern for the entertainment industry’s part, what was overlooked was the actual factual news that was being reported.  It’s one thing to look at movies and television shows and see actors portraying violence.  It’s another to realize that your president had oral sex in the Oval Office with an intern and got away with it.  It’s more than the fantasy violence that contributes to the situation.  It’s the real events that we see are allowing people to escape justice.  In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how there are milestones that shape each generation.  Generation X was shaped by mistrust of people, politicians, and the power of corporations.

We didn’t have reality television to the extent that it’s prevalent today, but television was still a mirror of our culture.  Where the television didn’t intrude was into the homes of those families where children were abused, and that, too, we discovered.  We saw that people who should protect children weren’t – they were the villains in the story, not the heroes – and it confused everything.

Bottled Emotion

When it comes to emotions, the illusion that we can ignore them is fading.  We’re beginning to realize that we can’t bottle emotions up.  We can’t turn them off.  We’re as much emotional beings as we are rational beings – if not more.  Jonathan Haidt explains in his Elephant-Rider-Path model that reason is a tiny human on top of a massive elephant.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.)  Lisa Feldman Barrett in How Emotions Are Made explains some of the hidden processes that we go through to form emotions – and the power they hold on us after they’re formed.

The challenge was that Eric and Dylan were bottling those emotions – painful emotions – up.  As a result, they were emotional pressure vessels that were just waiting to explode.  When Eric’s grip on the difference between fantasy and reality waned just a little, it was all that was necessary to ignite the explosion.

Doing the Right Thing

What’s the right answer?  Certainly, not allowing others to be victimized and bullied is a good start.  However, at the heart of the matter is a complex interaction between dozens of forces, only some of which are visible.  This leads us back to the reality that there are No Easy Answers.  We may never know the real “truth” about Columbine.

Book Review-Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering

One of the common challenges with those who are embroiled in mental suffering is that they feel stuck.  It’s almost as if their suffering has caught them in a net, and they can’t find their way out.  Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering is focused on that idea – that people are caught by their mental suffering.  No matter which path they’ve been walking, somewhere along the line, they’ve stepped into a trap – and they’re struggling to free themselves from it.  Some are able to get free with support from medications and therapies, but some seem to be perpetually stuck.


While on the surface mental suffering may not look much like addiction, as you look deeper, the similarities begin to surface.  In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains a cycle that he claims helps us define habits.  (His reading of the science is a bit weak, but, conceptually, the idea of a cycle is a good starting point.)  If you consider that addiction is simply the progression of a coping strategy becoming more controlling of a person, it’s easy to see how this is a reinforcing cycle.

Slowing that down a bit, you can look at The Globalization of Addiction and Dreamland about how difficult drug addictions function and how they’re driven by these progressive loops.  In particular, there’s a reinforcing shame cycle.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and its effects.)  To understand the power of reinforcing loops, we can look to Donella Meadow’s excellent Thinking in Systems.  In short, when we have reinforcing loops without powerful balancing loops, any system can get out of control.

In the case of addictions, those reinforcing loops are initiated by the chemical and neurological changes.  Whether the addiction itself is chemically based or is simply the result of our internal neurochemical changes, the result is a system composed of powerful reinforcing loops with underpowered balancing loops.  One can argue that losing marriages, friends, finances, jobs, and most of the things that make life worth living would be powerful balancing loops, but often by the time that these kick in, the person is well under the control of the addiction.

Applying the same model to mental suffering, we know that many conditions – particularly suicide – are characterized by a cognitive constriction that prevents the ability to see a wider range of options.  (See The Suicidal Mind for suicide and cognitive constriction.)  In Drive, Daniel Pink explains that even mild forms of stress decrease performance through functional fixedness.  Specifically, research showed that even under mild pressure people wouldn’t recognize alternative uses for a container that tacks were placed in.

It turns out that it’s easy to constrict our thinking and difficult to expand it.  In Creative Confidence, the Kelley brothers explain that we’re all born creative, and it’s crushed out of many of us by the educational and commercial employment processes.  In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson is focused on the creation of psychological safety as an antidote to the constriction.  Richard Lazarus, in Emotion and Adaption, explains how our fear is based on the probability of an event and the impact of the event – and that our ability to cope mitigates our sense of fear.  Fear is clearly an enemy to being able to think broadly.

One of the challenges we face with mental suffering is that most people bring it upon themselves by reinforcing negative thinking, which constricts thinking to negative thoughts, and this loop ultimately continues until it’s difficult to see or accept positive things in our lives.  This is the same kind of cycle that drives addiction.  The difference here is that there’s no external object to which an addiction is attached.  Instead, the addiction is to the negative thoughts that continue to loop and consume those who experience mental suffering.

The Illusion of Control

Always lurking in the shadows, shaping our feelings and our actions, is the desire for control.  We crave predictability and love the predictability that comes with the illusion of control.  In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that we all want to control (others) but that none of us wants to be controlled.  One of the great revelations in The Hope Circuit is that Marty Seligman’s great discovery of learned helplessness wasn’t learned helplessness at all.  In fact, Steven Maier (one of Seligman’s colleagues) discovered that it was a failure to learn control – or influence – that kept animals from trying to escape mild shocks – even when escape was possible.

C. Rick Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope is a cognitive process based on waypower (knowing how) and willpower (desire). Inherent in the waypower aspect is the belief that if we do the right things, we can control the outcomes. While, at some level, we are aware that this isn’t the case, we suspend disbelief to engender hope and accept that while we believe we have control of the situation, we really only have varying levels of influence.

Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption that even with our own children, we don’t have positive control of how they’ll turn out – as any parent of a teenager has undoubtedly discovered on their own.  The desire for control is an illusion – but it’s an illusion that we need to keep intact.

Influence Not Control

There’s a dim awareness that we don’t have control.  Where control implies 100% influence, we’re often arguing with ourselves about the degree of influence that we have.  In How We Know What Isn’t So, Thomas Gilovich explains that we often overestimate our capabilities.  Change or Die explains that our ego is well armed with defenses.  We will often keep believing in things because the alternative is unpalatable.  Incognito and The Tell-Tale Brain explain that we’ll use a variety of defenses as necessary to continue to keep our beliefs about ourselves even when the data clearly indicates that our perceptions are wrong.  Whether it’s denying that we have any physical limitations despite the rather obvious facts that contradict that belief or an amputee’s belief in phantom limbs, we have an amazing capacity to ignore the truth.

If we begin to accept for a moment that we’re not in control but rather have limited influence, we must contend with the fact that we’re no longer “in control” no matter how much of an illusion that might have been.

Loss of Illusion

Obviously, when we lose the illusion of control, we lose hope, and that can lead us to burnout and depression.  (See for burnout resources.)  On the one hand, we need to accept that control is an illusion to free us from the burden of belief that everything is ultimately our fault; on the other hand, we must simultaneously retain the belief that we do have some degree of influence and that degree of influence may be enough.

We get caught in the belief of permanence in our current situation and our belief that we should have prevented it – but didn’t or couldn’t.  The result is a feeling of being trapped, greater stress, and, ultimately, our worlds narrowing into the perceived hopelessness.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more about the impact of stress.)


We cannot be ultimately responsible for things that we cannot control.  That is, we cannot accept all the blame if we only influenced the outcomes – but insufficiently.  Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) examines an under-acceptance of responsibility on the part of leadership.  While certainly this is a valid and important concern, we should be equally concerned when we attempt to take more responsibility than we are due for things that are largely outside of our control.  (See Happier for more.)

Those who suffer often take more responsibility than they should.  They shame themselves for not doing more when there was no way to know that more was called for – or ways that one could do more.  The burden of unnecessary and inappropriate responsibility buries us under weights of depression and disappointment that may be too much to escape.

If Only

When something bad, tragic, or unthinkable happens, we naturally question, “If only I had… would things be different?”  The problem with this line of thinking is that, at some level, the answer is always yes – you could have done something different.  The deeper philosophical challenge is how could you have known that more was necessary?  You begin to ask questions like: how would I change every response in ways that lead away from the result every time?  Often, these answers lead to hypervigilance and a breakdown.

We can’t undo the past no matter how much we may desire to do so.  Instead, we must find ways to take reasonable steps to prevent future occurrences while accepting whatever tragedy has already befallen us.  “If only” is dangerous, because it invites us into the loop where we recognize that we’re not capable of completely avoiding the future pains and intensifying the degree to which we second-guess ourselves.

None of Us Are Immune

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the tendency for people to get captured is the reality that none of us are immune.  We’re all bombarded by sensory input every day and ultimately the wrong set of inputs at the wrong time given the wrong attention can launch us into a loop – capture – that’s hard to escape.  Nassim Taleb in Antifragile explains how we can build resilience but how that all resilience has limits.  After we’ve been impacted by something we need time to recover – and ideally build up resistance – if the next wave comes too quickly or intensely, we can be overwhelmed – and caught up in a negative cycle of mental suffering.

The fact that all of us are susceptible doesn’t change our desire or need to make things better.  We’ve got to accept the fact that we can be captured and work to develop the kind of skills that make our descent into the spiral less likely and easier to recover from.

The Other Side

While Capture has the unfortunate consequence of burdening us, it’s not always a negative cycle that we find ourselves in.  Sometimes, the same mechanisms that drive depression can be turned around on themselves and leveraged to the most amazing experiences.  The experiences that we find the most engaging in life are experiences of flow, which are remarkably similar – even if much harder to enter.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)

In the end, the greatest hope we may find is not that we eliminate the drivers that lead to mental suffering.  Perhaps the answer lies in harnessing these powers for the development of greater happiness and joy.  Maybe it’s time to Capture happiness.

Book Review-Definition of Suicide

It’s hard to address something that you don’t have a clear definition of.  That’s why Edwin Schneidman wrote Definition of Suicide.  He’s not the only person to tackle this definitional challenge, but he may be the person with the most experience.

A Rainbow of Colors

There have been numerous taxonomic approaches to suicide that often describe the lethality of the method chosen and the degree to which the suicide was intended.  The Neuroscience of Suicidal Behavior tackles the problem with these as well as the degree of planning involved.  However, as was highlighted there, there is invariably a continuum that things fall on that are difficult to distinguish.  For instance, what differentiates a parasuicide from a suicide?

More frustratingly, intent is very hard to infer and is therefore a dimension of great question, as Assessment and Prediction of Suicide reveals.  Schneidman’s own The Suicidal Mind explains that he believes communication of intent is a part of suicide.  (Since then, several others have questioned the percentage of people who do communicate their intent.  In particular, see Rethinking Suicide.)


Emile Durkheim is at the root of suicide research – but sort of accidentally.  His primary interest, it seems, was the application of statistics to public health concerns.  It turns out that one of the examples that he used was suicide.  As the first work of its sort, it is something that everyone comes back to – and unfortunately replicates.

Bacon’s Idols

Francis Bacon, whose scientific method helped to crystalize science, also wrote of philosophical works.  One aspect of those works that Schneidman calls out is the concept of idols – or sources of bias in our thinking.  Bacon’s idols, as explained by Schneidman, are:

  • Idols of the Tribe (Idola Tribus). These are fallacies that accrue to humanity in general.
  • Idols of the Cave (Idola Specus). These are errors peculiar to the particular mental makeup of each individual.
  • Idols of the Market Place (Idola Fori). These are errors arising in the mind from the influence of words, especially words that are names for such non-existent things as “mind” or “soul.”
  • Idols of the Theater (Idola Theatri). These are erroneous modes of thinking resulting from uncritically accepting whole systems of philosophy or from fallacious methods of demonstrating empirical proof.


These are perhaps some of the earliest views on cognitive biases.  It’s how we see things differently than they really (or objectively) are.  (See Why Are We Yelling and Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about cognitive biases.)

A Time for Dreaming

Death and sleep are often compared as relatives – sometimes as close cousins, and other times as siblings.  Sleep brings us relief, a chance to stall our pain and dream of happier times – either in the future or the past.  With the close relationship between death and sleep, it’s possible to see how some might desire death as both an ending of their current pain and, in a warped sense, how it might give them a chance to live the life of their dreams.  It’s possible to see how it seems more desirable.

The overlooked item, in the cognitive constriction of suicide, is that sleep returns to wake where death does not return to life.  While a decision to sleep is temporary, a decision to die is irreversible.

Not Quite Human

A challenge with some who die by suicide (or attempt) is that they feel somehow less than human and therefore undeserving of the grace and love that all mankind should show to one another.  In Moral Disengagement, Albert Bandura explains the need to make people less human to be able to inflict harm on them.  Phillip Zimbardo expresses a similar perspective in The Lucifer Effect.  What if suicide isn’t murder in the 180 degree, as Menninger suggests in Man Against Himself?  What if the thing that’s turned against someone is their belief in their humanity?  Schneidman shares one example where someone describes herself as an “it” or a “thing.”  Those sorts of descriptors minimize her own humanness.

The situation that created those feelings were stories I’ve heard before.  Pregnancies that were initially twins where one died in utero, and the parents told the surviving daughter that she killed her sister.  Another case where a father openly told his son that he should have peed inside his mother.  The list of these harmful parental responses to children is long, and unfortunately, the outcomes aren’t good.

Who Needs the Afterlife?

Sidestepping the topic of who God is, what our purpose is, and all of the religiously entangled parts, there’s an interesting question about who needs an afterlife if the life here is better.  Of course, whether you believe you’re coming back as a cow or you’re going to heaven, there’s no need to dislodge that belief.  But a more interesting question is one about what we can do now, regardless of our beliefs about afterlife.  What can we do to improve how we treat other humans such that we want them less harm?

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind proposes that we all have the same foundations of morality, the first of which is care/harm.  In short, we believe in more care and less harm.  However, despite this framework and the work of Robert Axelrod that confirms our cooperation isn’t an accident, and in fact is part of the Evolution of Cooperation, we find that too many people are suffering.

Improving someone’s condition even a little bit will help them make a different decision than suicide.  Instead of feeling hopeless, the improvement switches on The Hope Circuit and allows them to see that things can get better – since their degree of cognitive constriction may prevent that without a spark of hope.


In The Psychology of Hope, C.R. Snyder explains that hope is composed of two components: willpower and waypower.  There’s an aspect of this that he doesn’t address directly, which is the degree to which you believe the rest of the world is friendly or hostile.  In a hostile world, someone is always trying to prevent your success, while a helpful world is constantly trying to help you achieve your goals.  (This is the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, and you can find more in The Secret Lives of Adults.)

However, even with a helpful view, you can get stuck in feelings of loneliness, which prevent the connection necessary to expect the world is helpful.  In Loneliness, it’s explained that loneliness is different than the state of being alone.  It’s about that sense of connection – and it can be critical.

The more we can help people who are feeling lonely feel more connected, the better off we all are – whether they’re suicidal or not.


Another way to envision suicide is that it’s declaring bankruptcy on life.  It’s the decision that you can’t make it better and you want to give up.  While this is tragic from the person’s point of view, it’s more complicated from the point of view of the others their life impacts.  Specifically, it means that people who knew the person feel as if their memories and experience with the suicidal person are somehow less important – at least less important to them.  They may even believe that the suicide invalidates their beliefs.

It’s easy to speak of the logical pieces of the situation.  Their pain.  The cognitive constriction that prevented them from seeing these memories.  However, that doesn’t help the hurting survivor who wonders what they could have done or why their perception of things was so different.

In the end, there may not be a suitable Definition of Suicide, it turns out we each may need to understand it in our own way.

Book Review-Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

For the most part, popular psychology isn’t exactly positive on your ability to really change your core personality, your default way of being.  Sure, it accepts that you can learn new coping skills and occasionally better ways of responding emotionally, but for the most part, the assumption is that your core personality is set.  This runs in stark contrast to the research about neural plasticity.  Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body explains – with science – how our perception of things that are unchangeable may be changeable after all.

It’s a Mindset

In mainstream psychology, there are some acceptable conversations.  Carol Dweck explains that a difference in Mindset results in a difference in performance and the way that people respond to setbacks.  Anders Ericsson explains in Peak how the top of many professions got there through purposeful practice and how their brains are different because of their work.  Because this work is founded on traditional psychological and performance principles, there is relatively little push-back.  Even the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, despite his observations of 5x performance and lasting effects, isn’t all that controversial.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)  Again, coming from a Western point of view, it’s largely accepted, like the medical machines that make the observations of the brain possible.

However, when it comes to the topic of meditation and mindfulness, there’s skepticism.  That’s particularly true if we rewind the clock 50 years or so and see how these ideas were shunned in the United States.  To be fair, there were charlatans and “snake oil salesmen” who sought to make money with no proof that anything they were selling actually worked and, perhaps in more than a few cases, a dim awareness that it didn’t.  Altered Traits is a walk through the research about how different forms of meditation and mindfulness have demonstrated efficacy in clinical trials and how the effects may be lasting – or even mind-altering.

Mindfulness and Meditation

In the interest of providing a framework for the remainder of the conversation, it’s important that I pause to say that “meditation” is a catch-all word for a variety of contemplative practices.  One of those is mindfulness – that is, the process of observing whatever comes to mind without any reactivity.  They’re observed and let go.  Other forms of contemplative practices are designed to focus on something – including a process like a body scan or breathing.  In those times focus is lost, the distracting thought is acknowledged and let go.

Because there are different forms of meditation, each of them seems to have different results in impacting our neural patterns.  That’s why research into the impact of these practices is often focused on a specific technique, so it’s possible to measure the impacts of that specific process.

That’s complicated somewhat by the fact that the techniques used by meditators varies with experience.  More advanced techniques are used by the meditators with the most experience, making it difficult to compare the results of the more fundamental forms over long periods of time.

After Enlightenment, Chop Wood

Collaborating with the Enemy quotes an ancient proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”  The point is that while enlightenment may be a desirable goal, you return to the same life you left.  Or do you?  Heraclitus said that “no man ever steps in the same river twice.”  Meaning the river has changed and the man has changed – but changed how?

Those who had the experience of peace – or the high — that can come from a retreat or focused practice still realize that “after the high goes, you’re still the same schmuck you were before.”  But the research in Altered Traits seems to show that that’s not entirely true.  Much like Heraclitus’ man and river, it can be that the changes are so subtle that they don’t even register – but over time, they can make a big difference.

The After Is the Before for the Next During

The continued cycle of improvement is what the complicated statement “the after is the before for the next during” means.  Said differently, whatever skills, experience, and capabilities you developed during this meditation you bring with you to the next one, making it possible for it to be easier, deeper, or better.  Of course, there’s no straight-line improvement, but repetition makes it easier.

One of the key skills of the advanced meditators is the capacity to settle their minds quickly – on demand.  While average or moderate experience meditators may take a few minutes to settle down, the expert meditators seem to flow into it as quickly an easily as stepping into the next room.  I can’t share this experience with meditation – but I can share it with flow.

Most of my career has been built on the need to get into flow – in different situations.  Sometimes, it’s writing code.  Sometimes, it’s writing books, articles, or blog posts.  Sometimes, it’s presenting in front of thousands of people or facilitating a group of ten leaders.  They’re all different environments where I must get into flow to be effective.  In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler brushes the way that various athletes push themselves into flow.  For me, it’s a sort of mental trick normally accompanied by very familiar and very loud music.  Once I’ve dropped into flow, I instinctively turn the music down.  I’ve had to drive myself into flow so frequently that it generally – but not always – comes easily.


It was Aristotle’s word for flourishing, fulfillment, accomplishment, or well-being.  It’s the positive in positive psychology.  (See Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, The Hope Circuit, or Flourish for more.)  The aims of positive psychology and the spiritual-philosophical roots of meditation are well aligned.  The aim to move beyond human suffering to compassion or loving-kindness.

There are many nudges in the Eastern tradition that the goal of enlightenment or even fruits of meditation shouldn’t be for yourself.  The goal of the practice shouldn’t be because you’ll benefit yourself but rather the benefits should be something positive for humanity.  In other words, not just flourishing for oneself but flourishing for all mankind.

Focus on Others’ Suffering to Forget your Troubles

When you help others – when you care for others – you forget your own troubles and concerns.  Atul Gawande in Being Mortal explains that something as simple as a plant can reduce mortality of those living in senior centers.  Twelve-step groups have known for some time that the best way to get someone through their addiction is to get them serving others quickly.  Like in meditative practices, you’re encouraged to find a coach with more experience than you – in twelve-step terminology, a sponsor.  However, twelve-step groups take it further when they encourage you to take on a mentee.

Aaron T. Beck, whose work on cognitive behavior therapy and depression is the cornerstone of treatments today, is credited with first saying that when you focus on someone else’s suffering, you forget your own troubles.  This is true – but with the caveat that this may not always be the best answer.

Sometimes, people use their focus on others’ problems to look down on them – or to avoid dealing with the issues at the heart of their troubles, and this can ultimately cause more pain and suffering than had they just dealt with their own issues first.  It’s a delicate balance.

The First Person to Benefit from Compassion

Who is the first person to benefit from your compassion?  The answer is you, according to the Dalai Lama.  It’s the opposite of harboring anger for someone else.  In The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck explains that harboring anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.  Harboring compassion, however, is hoping that others benefit from you taking vitamins.  We develop compassion for others’ benefit and in turn reap some of the rewards.

They Are All One

When Neem Karoli was asked which path (approach to meditation) was best, his answer was “Sub ek!” – Hindi for “They are all one.”  Though various approaches differ and have aspects that are more focused in one direction or another, ultimately, all the roads lead to the same place.  It’s a place where people are better people.  That’s probably the best way to think about Altered Traits – better people.