Book Review-Work Redesign

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1980, Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham wrote Work Redesign, which explains how and when to redesign work. I picked the book up in no small part due to my respect for Richard Hackman and his work in Collaborative Intelligence. What surprised me most as I read Work Redesign is that we believe many of the trends that are happening in our organizations are new. However, if you look back in time 40 years, you realize that the changes were already in motion – or they were completely in place. The fact that we’re still writing about the same things is interesting – and a bit confusing.

Worker Classes

It would be 2002 before Richard Florida would write The Rise of the Creative Class. Before then, we thought in terms of blue collar and white collar. We thought about those who worked on the floor doing “real work” and those who wore white dress shirts and ties and sat in air-conditioned offices. Since the earliest writings, there was a distinction. Management and the Worker, which goes back to the late 1920s, clearly delineates the management – white collar – and the worker – blue collar.

Despite the distinction, as early as 1974, both groups were saying the same thing. “I’m a robot.” Rather than being the height of what Taiichi Ohno put together with the Toyota Production System (TPS), which would become the core of lean ideas, workers felt like they were the machine – instead of the intelligence that allowed the machines to work effectively. (See Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management for more.)

What Workers Want

In the 1940s and 1950s, the thing that workers wanted most was “steady work.” Perhaps coming out of the Great Depression, workers were scarred by layoffs and lack of work. By 1957, not much had changed. Job security still topped the list of things that workers wanted. However, by 1969, the tide had already turned. Interesting work was the thing workers wanted most – and job security fell to the seventh position.

In 1968, Frederick Hertzberg wrote one of Harvard Business Schools’ most requested reprints, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” The snarkiest of titles was supported by a bi-modal representation of motivators. Hygiene factors were necessary to keep people from quitting. Motivating factors got them more engaged and increased productivity. Kahneman would elaborate on some of these concepts in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He summarized research that he did with Amos Tversky, which explained that additional money didn’t increase happiness equally.


In the same year that Work Redesign was published, Frederick Freudenberger published Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. His work was about how people who are high achievers seem to lose their fire. They suddenly burn out. People in burnout believe that what they’re doing doesn’t matter – it doesn’t make a difference. The story of Ralph Chattick in Work Redesign shows a different variation of the same problem. Ralph was a solid – but not necessarily high – achiever, but he made the same decision. He decided that his contributions didn’t matter, and as a result, he disengaged. Unlike the high achievers that Freudenberger was talking about, Ralph’s disengagement went unnoticed. (See the materials on our Extinguish Burnout site for more about burnout.)

People like Ralph disengage because it’s safer. They choose the path of least resistance rather than fight the system that they may see as set against them. They say, “If I’ve got to bust my ass to be meaningful, forget it; I’d rather be monotonous.” They resist redesign of their work because it disrupts their ability to accept their decision to disengage.

Redesigning Work

At its best, redesigning work serves to improve the quality of the relationship between people who do the work and the jobs they perform. At its worst, it exploits people and makes them victim of a system. It intentionally burns them out and discards them. However, even when the intentions are best, they collide with the disengaged staff who are quite happy with the arrangement they’ve made and don’t appreciate the implication that their work will be changed.

Rather than being seen as a gift and an invitation to make things better, the work redesign process dredges up memories and feelings long since buried about how they’ve lost their dreams and aspirations for their work career. The result can be a very negative reaction, which may serve to poison others to the work redesign process or to cause them to want to leave the organization.

Decades of Engagement

While there are many areas where the research from 40 years ago matches that of today, there are some places where the desires of employees seem to be shifting. In the 1980s, there had been 20 years of consistent job satisfaction, ending with about 80 percent of people being satisfied with their jobs. However, more recent evaluations by Gallup seem to point to people being disengaged with their jobs. Today, only slightly more than 30% would say they’re actively engaged in their organizations with the remainder sorted between ambivalent and actively disengaged (also called subversive).

There is a subtle change from satisfaction to engagement, but at the same time, such low levels of engagement are concerning. It can be that folks like Ralph are really satisfied but have become disengaged with their work, because long ago, they decided that it wasn’t going to be fulfilling, and even if it could be, it wasn’t worth the effort.

Under Engagement

One of the things that sometimes happens with children and animals can happen with workers. Rather than becoming consciously disengaged, they can become a part of the actively disengaged. While they may not think of their activities designed to make work more interesting as sabotage, the organization may see it that way. Children and animals who aren’t sufficiently engaged will often create havoc just to get attention or activity.

The solution for situations like these is to increase the opportunity for alignment and engagement with the workers so they no longer feel like the best kind of attention is negative attention.

Rocking the Boat

When we pursue an approach of organizational change through work redesign we must simultaneously consider that we may be unleashing the law of unintended consequences. In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers references an old journal article, where Stone-Age Australians received steel axe heads, and the result was murder, prostitution, and the breakdown of society. While this may be the extreme example of what can happen even with the best intentions, we open ourselves up to this possibility when we initiate change.

Even with a good appreciation of how things are related to each other in systems and that the systems will continue to iterate, it’s very difficult to predict what will happen when multiple competing loops look to reinforce and balance various behaviors. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) Even Philip Tetlock in Superforecasting explains that prediction is hard, and only through continuous observation, revision, and seeking of diverse viewpoints can we approach predictability of most events.

Four Paths to Changing Work

There are four possibilities for changing the way that people work:

  • Change the people themselves – through different recruiting, placement, and education. (See Who for recruiting and hiring.
  • Change the supervisors – to change the personal influences influencing the workers. (See The Leadership Machine for attempts at this.)
  • Change the environment of the work – to achieve different behaviors through environmental influences. (See Kurt Lewin’s Behavior Function.)
  • Change the consequences of work – to apply external motivators.

Confusing Causal Arrow

Which way does the shape of behavior flow? As leaders, do we treat our employees a certain way because of our innate or learned beliefs, or are we adapting to their behaviors? Are we the tail or the dog? One of the challenges that we have when assessing our behavior – and the behavior of others – is determining what are the driving factors.

The short answer is that it’s both. There probably isn’t a causal arrow that flows in one direction. Instead, it’s more likely that they are co-dependent, and one causes the other and vice-versa.

Reciprocity is for People

Reciprocity is one of the greatest motivators available and thus why there is a prohibition against quid pro quo in government. (See Influence without Authority.) Robert Cialdini explains in Influence how small gifts can create a sense of indebtedness that powerfully motivates a response. Despite its power, it doesn’t work with organizations – it only works with people.

You can’t create a sense of reciprocity between organizations, because it works solely at the level of people – not organizations. That’s why it’s important to help managers build and maintain strong relationships with their teams – and why moving managers from position to position in the company can be costly.

Dysfunctional Dependency on Others

There are challenges created when too much dependency is created. In Anatomy of Love, it is pointed out that, when women started getting jobs that allowed them to become self-sufficient, the divorce rate soared. In other ways, we see that when we create too much dependency, the result is dysfunction both on the part of the person who is dependent and the person who is depended upon.

Social and Technical Systems

The activity of work redesign sits in the special place between technical and social. From a technical perspective, there should be an optimal flow. There should be a sequencing and arrangement that works best mechanically. However, the impact individually and in aggregate of employees has an important and potentially overwhelming impact on the design of the system.

At an aggregate level, people don’t always enjoy the most efficient approach. There is the need to recognize that, sometimes, for all humans, the best design is the one they’ll do. There plenty of examples of perfectly functional solutions that no one liked – and over time, they were abandoned for easier solutions.

At an individual level, it’s hard to design a single process devoid of the knowledge of the person because even though we know that aesthetics matter in aggregate, we also know that individuals have different preferences and desires. What may be optimally designed for one person may be unworkably impossible for another.

Together, these social issues are more challenging than any technical challenges that you might encounter. You’ll have to design for people in general – and for the people who are really doing the work.

High Growth Needs

One continuum of differences for individual is their desire and need for growth. In Strengths Finder, it’s called Learner. (See Strengths Finder 2.0.) The Values in Action (VIA) survey calls it Curiosity. (See my reviews of Flourish and The Hope Circuit, or take the free test at Steven Reiss in Who Am I? also calls it curiosity. Whatever you call it, it’s the desire to be challenged and to grow. People with these kinds of needs behave very differently than those who don’t have a high need for growth.

Some people are quite happy living their lives as they are. Their needs are simple, and they’re quite content with a degree of safety and security. They’re uncomfortable with high growth, because high growth means taking risks and striving in ways that threaten the safety they value.

On the other hand, those who are high-growth would be bored with such a stable situation. They’d be disruptive just to have some excitement in their lives. When you’re looking to change the work of someone, it’s important to realize the desire for growth in the individuals. The higher the growth, the greater the interest in change and optimizing the process. Conversely, the lower the need for growth, the greater the desire for safety and minimization of changes.

Redefining Tasks

I was in a co-op program where I was working for Dow Corning. My job was to handle administrative tasks related to the storage of chemical formulas and the processes that created them. The data entry was very boring for me, and while I did it, I took rather minor parts of my job and invested in them to create effective templates that made the whole process easier to execute. For me, it was more fun to optimize the process than it was to do the work.

It was a fair trade for my employer, but it was definitely not what they were thinking when we started. Whenever I think about how people redefine the tasks in ways that are interesting and comfortable for them I think back to those days. I realized that with latitude – that I needed – I was able to change the definition of my work, and the research says that I’m not alone. Every employee, to some large or small degree, redefines the task they’re given in the context of what they want.

Visibility of Work Performance

If you’re going to redesign work for performance, one thing is clear: you’ve got to plan to show people the results of their work – their performance. It’s the obvious statement that gets missed in businesses and makes the successes and failures of entrepreneurs seem magical. Most people today go to work and know that they’ll receive a fixed amount of money for the work they perform. Even those whose income is variable find that they have some base amount they’re guaranteed to make and a second variable amount that is stacked on top. The predictability is part of why millions of people get up and go to work every day.

Entrepreneurs are the rare breed that are aware that their actual income is quite unrelated to the effort they put in or, in some cases, even the skills they possess. They accept the risks associated with working hard for potentially little gain in the hopes that their work will be rewarded handsomely. But entrepreneurs are the exceptions. Even entrepreneurs long for some degree of predictability in their efforts. That’s why books like The E-Myth Revisited, which extols the ability to build systems that generate predictable results, are so popular.

However, when we redesign work, we often forget to directly connect the work that people are doing with the results that are being received – both personally and organizationally. While The Four Disciplines of Execution includes both a focus on lead measures and the creation of a clear scorecard, few organizations build such clear linkages. Despite Douglas Hubbard’s How to Measure Anything, most organizations fail to measure the results of the work that individuals do – and report it back to them.

While there is such a thing as too much emphasis on metrics, measurement, and achievement, as The Tyranny of Metrics explains, too few organizations know what the metrics are that connect the work behavior with the desired outcomes, and therefore they fail to give workers the feedback they need to improve. We know from research on the highly productive psychological state of flow that immediate feedback is required for 5x performance, but it’s all too often missing. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more.)

Groups or Individuals to Complete the Work

Perhaps the most perplexing challenge facing anyone who is working on redesigning work is whether to assign the task to an individual or to a group. Working in teams has become in vogue. However, that doesn’t mean that everything should be assigned to a team, as Team Genius points out. Some tasks are more efficient and better suited for an individual, and some require a diversity of skills and perspectives that can – practically speaking – only be found in a team.

As you plan to change work, making the decision about whether the work should be performed by an individual or a team may just be the key to make your Work Redesign successful.

Book Review-Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust

One of my favorite things to do in a presentation on collaboration was to ask people to define it. I’d offer up the idea that, much like trust, they probably thought they knew what it was that collaboration meant – right up to the point where they’d try to define it. Though, often, my audiences would come up with something like “work together towards a common goal,” they’d often miss an alternative – “to conspire with the enemy.” Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust combines these two definitions and explores a fundamental misconception about how we perceive collaboration in organizations and across society.

Working Together

The belief that we understand something so fundamental to our humanity like collaboration only to discover that we’re deceived by our thoughts isn’t unique to collaboration. Robert Flores and his colleagues surface this problem with the concept of trust in Building Trust. They explain that we’re flummoxed when asked to define trust and often define trustworthy instead. Trustworthy and trust are two sides of the same coin but are also very different.

Collaboration is challenged by the belief that one definition – to work together towards a common goal – is radically different than another definition – to conspire with the enemy. We believe that when we’re working towards a common goal, we must be working with people we know, agree with, like, and trust. However, what we all objectively know to be true is that we’re often working with people we don’t trust, don’t agree with, or don’t like. While not agreeing with someone can have great positive benefits (see The Difference), working with people we don’t like or trust is harder.

Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that the reason we’ve become the dominant biomass on the planet is likely because of our ability to work together. Others have suggested that our ability to work with one another is nothing short of Mindreading, but there’s more to it than that. Not only can we see what others are thinking, we must find ourselves working together towards a goal that we both agree with – or at least are willing to work together towards.

We assume therefore that, to work together, we must agree with, like, and trust others when we know that this isn’t the case. We find the definitions that seemed like opposites are not, in fact, opposites but rather two characterizations of the same phenomenon – working together towards a common goal, often with someone that could be considered an enemy.

Collaboration Control

Working with the operating assumption that we like, agree with, and trust those whom we’re working with, we can incorrectly conclude that collaboration can be controlled. We believe, erroneously, that everything can follow a neatly scripted plan despite our experience to the contrary. While J. Keith Miller explains in Compelled to Control that we all want to control, we must acknowledge that too few things are actually under our control. Forces and other people have influence on our lives and our circumstances that limits our ability to control.

The Halo Effect explains that our world is probabilistic. That is, A+B=C, but only 80% of the time. In such a world, we can’t believe in control. Superforecasting makes the point that those who are best at predicting outcomes recognize the probabilities of certain events happening and aggregate those into a set of probabilities around various outcomes. We cannot ignore the fact that randomness exists in the world and our ability to control outcomes is limited.

Accepting Complexity

To succeed at collaboration, we can’t minimize or ignore the role of complexity in our work. The Cynefin decision framework is designed to expose a model for understanding the various kinds of decisions we must make and the degree of complexity or chaos inherent in the impacted systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems.) Too often, we misjudge the collaboration efforts that we’re doing as mundane, predictable, and ultimately controllable. We fail to realize that collaboration lies at the very heart of our humanity and that it is, at some level, both magical and illusion.

We scoff at those who say they can read our minds. We know that true mind reading is beyond our capabilities. We are disturbed by the degree to which our microexpressions may expose our inner emotions. (See Telling Lies for more.) Despite the awareness that we cannot read one another’s minds, we regard collaboration as trivial.

The truth is that our ability to have a “theory of mind” about someone else is unique to our humanity and has many limits. Our brains and their limited capacity take many shortcuts to reach a perception of what is going on inside of others, and it’s often wrong. (See Incognito and The Tell-Tale Brain for more.) In fact, Inside Jokes suggests that laughter is a part of the error checking mechanism for these shortcuts, and it’s why we’re rewarded with dopamine when we recognize we’ve been misled.

In short, we hide the complexity of the process of mind reading from ourselves and trivialize the complex nature of coordinating activity between two or more individuals. In doing so, we fail to recognize that control is an illusion – just like our ability to completely understand someone else’s experience.

Winners and Losers

When we’re collaborating with others, we’re making change. Our goal sounds lofty, but in some small – or large – way, we’re seeking to accomplish change. The fact that we’re working with others towards the goal almost ensures that the goal is large. Those large goals create change for those impacted, and some of those impacted will be winners while others will be losers – and that is in large part driven by their perspective.

The change may mean less work or faster operations. Less work seems good unless you’re in fear of losing your job. Faster operations feels like it’s better for the organization, but it is better for the individual who is supposed to keep up with the increased production?

We cannot forget that the common goals at the heart of collaboration may be positive or negative for each person – and that whether it’s a positive or a negative largely depends upon the perspective.

Truth and Perspectives

You know that someone isn’t able to see others’ perspectives when they utter the words, “The truth of the situation is…” Instead of being open to accepting that truth is elusive and constantly changing, perceiving it as a fixed and unchanging point makes it impossible to accept that others’ perspectives can contribute to your understanding of the truth. At our best, we recognize that we can’t fully understand the truth. We cannot see from every angle and every perspective to understand our situation in a way that offers the truest representation of the truth.

Defining the truth as the way someone sees it – no matter how good their perspective – necessarily blocks collaboration and development. It stops dialogue.

Disagree and Dialogue

“Dialogue” is a word we throw around casually as if it were the same thing as conversation. However, dialogue is a special place: it’s a place where we are safe enough to learn and grow with one another. (See Dialogue for more.) Dialogue is essential for our ability to understand others’ perspectives of the truth and how they do or do not line up with our own. We can only agree that someone else can see things differently than we can when we’re willing to create safe spaces that allow dialogue to happen. (See The Fearless Organization for the concept of psychological safety in general.)

Dialogue is not a guarantee that we’ll reach agreement – too often, we won’t. Even if we can address the perspective of the situation, we’re left with the need to agree on the values impacted by the situation. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that even our morality is based on differing values, which can often come in conflict, and we’ll decide differently based on how we rank the values and how we perceive the situation relates to them. Steven Reiss expands this idea to how we’re motivated in Who Am I?

The key to being able to collaborate isn’t to reach a single understanding and agreement on the objective. In fact, most collaborations are made stronger by multiple overlapping views of why the objective is important. Our goal with working with others shouldn’t be agreement, it should be a willingness to accept others’ perspectives and a willingness to work together despite the lack of agreement. In Fault Lines, we learned that some of the deepest divisions aren’t solved by agreement but instead by a willingness to move forward in the presence of unresolved issues.

Us and Them

The greatest challenge of humanity is the illusion of separateness. We fail to recognize that we’re more alike and interconnected than we could realize. The things that we discriminate against represent a completely insignificant percentage of our overall makeup. We’re all most all genetically identical from a statistical point of view. However, we’re focused on our differences instead of our similarities.

We evolved with an “us versus them” perspective. We learned that we could trust our “us” group and fear everyone that was in the “them” group. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Trust for more.) The key when we’re collaborating with others is to find a way to draw the “us” circle larger.

Every time you’re tempted to put people or groups in the “them” category, draw the circle larger. We’re all members of humanity, and as such we’re all a part of the same group even if our natural tendency is to shrink the circle and protect ourselves from them.

Influence without Control

Control is an illusion, but it’s one we all crave. (See Compelled to Control.) We want control because it makes things simple and straightforward; however, we must accept that things are not that simple. Our world is probabilistic. (See The Halo Effect.) We’re able to influence others but not control them. Joseph Rost explains in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century that we’re all influencing others, and as such we’re all leaders and followers. (Rost’s work is based on James MacGregor Burns’ in Leadership if you want more depth.) We want to lead our collaborative efforts, but we need to do so in a way that is open to being led as well. The beauty of collaboration can be the ability for us to learn and to see the world more realistically.

Act and Test

Ultimately, our goal in collaboration should not be endless debate but rather a series of actions and tests which allow us to continue to calibrate how we work together and our understanding of the goal that we are faced with. We should recognize the wisdom in Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle and Rittel’s understanding of the kinds of “wicked problems” that plague the complex actions that we attempt when we collaborate.

It’s Not All About You

In the end, when we collaborate with the enemy, we must release our focus on ourselves and focus our thoughts on the goal and how we’re intending to change things. This keeps us from overreacting to the perceived attacks and open the door to look at our conversations in the most generous way possible. It’s that allows us to do the process that is Collaborating with the Enemy.

Book Review-The New Peoplemaking

I picked up The New Peoplemaking not because I wanted to continue delving into family systems but instead because that Virginia Satir’s work is often used as a model for change. I have no problems with the fact that her change theories were based on changing the family systems of her clients and many of the applications that we speak of for the model are designed for corporate use instead. While the book doesn’t fully enumerate Satir’s model for changing family systems, it does illuminate some of the powerful forces that shape families and clearly communicates Satir’s respect for those people who bravely pursue the process of having children – and therefore people-making.

Impacting Society

We speak of cultures, nations, and societies as if they exist. In truth, they are collections of people, processes, and thoughts. They don’t exist in the sense that you can reach out and touch them. They are, however, the big questions that we seem the most interested in working on. But because they don’t directly exist, we can only change them by changing the individuals that make up these institutions.

This has been the focus of Satir’s work: individual changes. How do you change the behaviors that people choose in their everyday interactions with their families and the world? Satir simultaneously recognized the personal responsibility of every member of the family system and the system itself. More importantly, she recognized that sustained societal changes happen only when you develop people. No amount of arrangement or organization will be effective in the long term if the people aren’t supported and enabled to be the best people they can be.

Strangely, the connection for individual change and its relation to organizational performance comes from the Hawthorne Works, as described in Management and the Worker. In it, the relationships of the operators changed. It wasn’t the intent of the study, but the result was a change in individual health and therefore productivity.

The Hardest Job

Satir asserts that family is the hardest, most complicated job in the world. While family isn’t one of the Gareth Morgan’s prototypical Images of Organization, perhaps it should be. If raising a family is the hardest job, then perhaps it could be a good model for how to make organizations work.

When you look at the factors that influence the effective and ineffective operation of the family, one can easily see that they’re the same sorts of factors that influence the effective operation of an organization. Quoting Satir (emphasis mine):

The factors in a positive pairing relationship are:

  1. Each person stands firmly on his or her own feet and is autonomous.
  2. Each person can be counted on to say real “yes’s” and “no’s”—in other words, to be emotionally honest.
  3. Each person can ask for what she or he wants.
  4. Each acknowledges and takes responsibility for her or his actions.
  5. Each can keep promises.
  6. Each can be counted on to be kind, fun to be around, courteous, considerate, and real.
  7. Each takes full freedom to choose to comment on what is going on.
  8. Each supports the other’s dreams in whatever way possible. Together, they cooperate instead of competing.

Compare this with the kinds of guidance that Amy Edmondson recommends in The Fearless Organization, Tim Clark exposes in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, or Richard Hackman shares in Collaborative Intelligence, and you’ll see similarities.


The basis of any human endeavor are relationships. Whether it’s a work, professional relationship or a family relationship, it’s the basis of what it means to be human. Historically, counseling focused on the individual who was representing problems, either of their own report or because their behaviors deviated the norms that their families and society could accept. However, Satir recognized that the behaviors operate only in the system that they’re created. Kurt Lewin explained that behavior of a function of both person and environment. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.) Thus, counseling one person necessarily misses half the problem.

Satir recognized that relationships start in pairs: two people in relationship with one another. However, these relationships quite quickly take on a third element, whether it’s the first child entering into the marriage relationship or someone else. While triads can be powerful, in the case of relationships, they’re generally fragile. In chemistry, O3 is ozone, and it’s unstable. O2 is the more familiar oxygen molecule that we’re used to. In Grannoveter’s work, he recognized that sometimes we see unstable relationships through forbidden triads like a man, his wife, and his mistress. It can work together, but often does not. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)

Family Portrait

While the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a discredited test that used to be used as a part of psychological evaluations that drew inferences from pictures, the idea of visualizing your family portrait may have value. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.) By visualizing the way you see your family and then comparing it to real life, you may be able to see distortions that lead to poor interaction patterns.

Too many people are led to believe that family life must be perfect. This is an expectation that simply cannot be lived up to. In my review of Fault Lines, I explained that we believe our family lives should resemble Norman Rockwell artwork, but it can’t. That’s not real. The perception of our family should accept the faults that we have, that our family members have, and how our relationships aren’t perfect. We can’t expect perfect, we can only look to accept things as they are and work to make them better.

Stopping Problems

Dysfunctional families spend all their time and energy working to prevent problems from happening. They want to hide their reality from the outside world and as a result they use all their emotional energy trying to prevent the inevitable.

Healthy family systems recognize that problems will happen. They aren’t desired or welcomed, but they’re expected. These systems don’t waste their time preventing problems that can’t be prevented or denying the problems that are happening. Instead, they focus their energies on coping with the problems that do occur.

Fear of the Future

All fears are fundamentally a fear of a negative situation happening in the future. Our fears are the result of our concern that a negative outcome will substantially impact them in a way that they won’t be able to cope. (See The Hidden Logic Behind Perceived Situational Safety for more.) The key is that the more people believe they have the resources and capacity to overcome any impacts of the risk or stressor they fear, the less fear they’ll have.

We fear what we don’t believe we can successfully confront – whether that confrontation is a threat to our life or just our ideas.

The Control of our Attitudes

Sometimes the circumstances can’t be changed. Consider a family that is severely in debt. They can’t instantly transform themselves into a debt-free family – though this is possible over time. What they can do is change their relationship with money and, more importantly, how they interact with each other when they feel financial pressure. It’s not the circumstances that have changed that can create the substantially positive result, it’s the attitude about the circumstances that matter.

I’ve seen numerous people who are in the midst of struggles with their finances, their relationships, and their addictions. The most powerful changes they make aren’t the changes they make in their situation. The most powerful changes were in their attitudes about their situation. When they stopped seeing their marriage as an obligation and started seeing it as a way to express their love to their children and spouse, the problems nearly disappeared. Objectively nothing changed, but subjectively the entire world was different.


Having self-worth isn’t always easy. Whether it’s the voices of your parents or others in your life that told you that you were no good, didn’t meet the standard in some way, that they hoped for something else, or a myriad of other options, understanding your inherent value as a human is a powerful way to keep fear at bay – and to improve relationships with others.

Many of the problems that people have in their relationships are reflections of their poor self-worth. Instead of interpreting the other person’s comments in the most generous way possible, they respond to their childhood hurts and lash out. A husband can ask her wife where the spatula is and receive a response about him interfering in her kitchen, because she fears that if he cooks, she’ll have no value.

Everyone has redeeming qualities and aspects of themselves that are adored – or can be adored – by others. Finding ways to expose these aspects in ways that allows the person to grow can be difficult. In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain that all of us are born creative and it’s “reinforced” out of us. How do you send messages of self-worth to yourself and others instead of messages of worthlessness?

Planting a Person

Consider for a moment that a trusted friend gives you a seed for a precious plant that they want you to have, but they don’t (and won’t) tell you what plant the seed will grow. You dutifully plant the seed, water it, and fertilize the soil. You’ve created the conditions under which the seed can grow without controlling or directing its growth. (For more of this general idea, see On Dialogue by David Bohm.) Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption that you can’t expect your children will grow exactly the way you want them to. There are too many factors involved. The result of this is your children are precious gifts that you can’t control but you can encourage towards growth.

Taboo Against Touching

In some families, touching is restricted. Fathers stop hugging their daughters, and, to a lesser extent, mothers stop hugging their sons. What may have been a family ritual of piling on the couch to watch a movie becomes awkward as the children grow, and the parents become concerned that touching their children may be misinterpreted. Out of fear, they pull away from physical touch that is a part of our human condition.

It’s not that there don’t need to be boundaries and that attention need not be paid to appropriate vs. inappropriate touch – there does need to be. However, in too many families, these waters seem too difficult to navigate and in the process all touch is prohibited.

In our world, I can tell you that I hug our sons and our daughters – and Terri does the same. We recognize that this is an important part of feeling connected as a family and work to find appropriate ways to share touch without it feeling sexual to any party.

Taboos Against Sex

As explained in Anatomy of Love, our Western culture has numerous restrictions on discussion and acts of sex in general where other cultures are much more open. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we’ve unintentionally taught our children that sex is bad. As a result, when they become a part of a relationship where sex is appropriate (say marriage as an example), they still struggle with their ability to express themselves sexually because they can’t shake the feeling that it’s somehow bad.

The more we can be open about sex – without encouraging it for young adults who aren’t ready – the less dysfunction that the children are likely to express as an adult.


There are many words that are used to describe the same concept. “Congruence” is Satir’s word for the same thing that I’d call a “stable core” (see Resilient for more) or that Brené Brown calls “wholeheartedness.” (See Dare to Lead for more.) The Arbinger Institute uses different language in Leadership and Self-Deception about staying out of the “box,” but the point is the same. It’s about being the best possible person, a person who can experience negative external events and situations without being overly reactive. Satir’s word hints at the stance that makes that possible. She hints to the facts that what someone does on the outside, the way they act, is in congruence with the way they feel in the inside. They’ve not just changed their outward behaviors, but they’ve also changed their inner mindset.

Privacy and Self-Integrity

Many people will claim their need to privacy. However, this isn’t exactly what they need. Privacy creates places where we can behave in ways inconsistent with our values or the image, we want to show the world. A person with an integrated self-image (see Braving the Wilderness) will need very little privacy and only in cases necessary to prevent vulnerability.

However, it is important to note that the root of the suggestion that we need privacy comes for the need to protect our identity from others. We also ask for privacy when we’re concerned that others may try to intrude on our identity.

Don’t Talk About It

A friend of mine’s family didn’t talk about certain things. Growing up as a preacher’s kid, he learned that if it was negative or too “out there,” you just didn’t talk about it. The unwritten rule in the family was that if it wasn’t talked about, it didn’t exist. Of course, this is like burying your head in the sand. It doesn’t change the actual situation, it just changes your perception and not in a good way.

His family isn’t alone. Many learn the message that you shouldn’t talk about Aunt June’s drinking problem, Jimmy’s conviction, or the fact that we know other members of the family are cheating in public. If you don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. Embarrassment prevents reality.

The problem is that it doesn’t. In addiction circles, there’s a saying that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” (See Neurodharma for more.) The more that we can be open about any topic and discuss it, the less likely we are to find ourselves in dysfunctional states.

You, Me, and Us

One of the key questions in relationships is how to take two separate things and mix them together to become not you and me but you, me, and us. Some relationships have a high degree of you and me with very little us. Conversely, some people become so enmeshed that they lose themselves. They really don’t understand how they can exist without the other person.

For healthy relationships, there must always be all three – you, me, and us. For those who have stronger senses of themselves, it’s possible to minimize the amount of me. For those who are co-dependent or unsure of their own identity, minimizing their identity in a relationship is dangerous. They may very well lose themselves.

Often, we see people lose themselves to the us, because they’re so afraid of loneliness that they’ll do anything to avoid it.


Loneliness explains how being alone and loneliness are not the same. We can be surrounded by people and feel loneliness and conversely be alone and not feel lonely. Loneliness is an unfortunate feeling that humans must endure. There is no avoiding it.

The key is to accept loneliness in appropriate amounts and to learn how to move your way back from the loneliness. Forming and maintaining multiple relationships is essential for keeping loneliness from lingering for too long. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on multiple relationships.)

Good from Bad Stock

One of the challenges with guardians – including parents – who are negative about a child’s parents is that you may unintentionally create self-esteem problems. The question becomes, “How can I be good if my parents aren’t good?” This creates a huge problem – and it’s one of the hidden impacts of parental alienation. (See The Progression of Parental Alienation for more.)

There are ways to decouple someone’s self-esteem from their parents’ value, but it’s not always easy. One tool is to reduce the belief that genetics are the only thing that makes someone good or bad. (See No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption for more on the degree to which genetics play a part.)

Reaction Not Control

One of the challenges in any family is the degree to which one family member believes that they have the right to control other members of the family. While this happens from parents to children rather frequently, it also happens with siblings. Older siblings are often enlisted as assistants with the younger children and therefore retain some sense of responsibility or control.

We all want to control others, but none of us want to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control for more.) As we attempt to control others, their natural inclination is to try to turn away. If, however, we learn to be responsive to them and their behaviors without accepting responsibility for them or attempting to control them, we’ll find that the entire family system becomes healthier. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment, and Responsive or Responsible for more on the real meaning of responsibility.)

Pals for Parents

Another trap that parents can fall into is the desire to be friends with their children. Children need strong boundaries (see Parent Effectiveness Training and Boundaries). The primary responsibility of a parent is not to be their child’s friend, rather their primary responsibility is to help their children become functioning adults. Too often, parents become so concerned with being their child’s friend that they’re unwilling to hold them appropriately accountable. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more.)

You Should Know

One of the weapons that is used against other family members is the statement, “Well, you should know.” Whether used by children or parents, it’s a weapon that isn’t fair and is one of the worst things that can be done. In The Science of Trust, John Gottman speaks about things that break down relationships the most serious of which is stonewalling. “You should know” combines stonewalling with shaming by implying that you’ve done something wrong that you don’t know – and effectively preventing further conversation on the topic.

It’s a logical fallacy that one should “know” anything, and that it should be allowed to end the conversation. (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for more.) Certainly, “You should know” may be uttered in frustration, but to prevent it from being toxic, it should be followed with “but here’s what the issue is.”

If you’re a parent or you’re thinking of becoming one, I encourage you to prepare for The New Peoplemaking.

Book Review-Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray

It started simple enough. I wanted to explain to a friend who was struggling how there were different kinds of love. The problem is that I couldn’t figure out how to get to the right words. I knew that there were different kinds and different expressions of love, but I just couldn’t find the words. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Helen Fisher’s work, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. Buried in the middle of the work was the important answer I needed, but surrounding it was a rich study of how love works. Drawing from anthropology and neurology, Fisher explains possible answers as to why humans bond in the first place and why those bonds seem to break too easily.


The friends who introduced me to Fisher’s work are polyamorous. Both members of the couple are people my wife and I would consider good friends. While Terri and I are both clear about our beliefs about marriage and relationships, we continue to try to understand the perspectives and beliefs of our friends. The truth is that the couple aren’t the only ones we know who’ve decided at some point to have a kind of relationship that strays from what most people would consider traditional.

With the pieces that I’m about to share from the book, one might reasonably assume that I’m considering a polyamorous life; however, that would not be true. While I recognize that monogamy isn’t the norm for mammals and may not have been designed to last more than the time it takes to rear a child, for me, it’s still the right answer. The good news is that I gained a bit of extra insight as to why and how my friends find themselves with a primary bond and a non-primary bond.

Dual Strategy

The anthropological research shows something odd. Marriages exist in most cultures and adultery is common. It seems that most humans developed a dual strategy for ensuring the survival of our offspring. We find a good mate – a primary bond – and we find lots of others for whom we share a special affinity. In tribes across the globe, it seems like there was a marriage relationship and the expectation that there would be coitus outside of marriage. This is particularly true of men but, in many cases, true of women as well.

In some cultures, men often offer their wives to their hunting partners, friends, and guests. With mutual consent, the wife and the non-spouse have sex. In other cultures, it’s believed that it takes many men to father a child, thus everyone in the village feels as if the child is, at least in part, theirs.

Western Moral Code

It turns out that it’s only Westerners who attach such a stigma to sex in general but also to various sexual relations. The strict regulation of sexual activity may have been necessary to prevent communities from being unduly burdened by children from parents who couldn’t support them, but the result was a sense of shame and guilt about sex in nearly every form.

In other cultures, sex and promiscuity are more openly accepted, with everyone in a village knowing who is coupling with whom. In many cultures, the knowledge is shared in the community but never discussed directly between spouses. Perhaps this approach avoids jealousy and therefore prevents uncomfortable confrontations.

The only sacrosanct prohibitions about sex are that you shouldn’t disrupt the marriage union.


The marriage union serves a useful purpose. Humans’ massive heads can’t fit through the birth canal if fully developed, so Mother Nature started kicking out human offspring before they were fully able to care for themselves. The result was an even larger burden on the mother in caring for the child and therefore the greater need for support from another – typically the father or presumed father.

Marriage, then, as a concept provides a framework for support of the development of an offspring. Fisher’s research seems to lead towards the idea that marriages happened for 3-4 years if only one offspring was produced and continued only for 3-4 years after the birth of the last offspring.

One often points to other species to speak of the kind of monogamous pair bonding that we seek to achieve in marriage. However, only about 3% of mammals pair bond like we do. While 90% of birds pair bond, the problem is in how long it lasts – and the degree to which it holds. Scientists have found both that birds will copulate with others outside of their primary bond, and they’ve found in many cases the primary bond is limited to a single mating season.

Birds have a much shorter time until having an empty nest than humans, and their rapid de-pairing after a season means that it’s possible that humans have the same built-in timeclock, but the clock just takes longer to wind down.

When Marriages Fail

From an evolutionary perspective, having multiple suitors makes sense for the female. It’s been widely accepted that males chase and females choose. For a male with limited commitment to the development of an offspring, copulating with as many females as possible increases the chances of their genes to continue. For women, it can increase their chances for the survival of their genes as well. By courting favor with many men, should she become abandoned – or should there be a situation where her husband dies – she’s got a built-in set of potential stand-ins to assist her in raising her children.

Spiritual Evolution explains that baboons with better social bonds improved the outcomes for their children. What better way to form a social bond than to unlock nature’s reward system with dopamine?

The Reward System

Much has been made of the human reward system and how dopamine is the way that we’re encouraged to keep doing something. The Power of Habit perhaps overplays the hand by speaking of anticipation; but other books about addiction, like The Globalization of Addiction, take a more balanced view, explaining how addiction is fueled by the dopamine system and simultaneously explaining environmental factors.

The simple truth is that evolution equipped us with a set of mechanisms that rewarded behaviors that led to the survival of our genes. Simple biases added up to a system where sexual reproduction was rewarded with dopamine – our natural pleasure drug. It’s a quick response that helps us know that this is the sort of thing to do – like eating sugar, chocolate, or salt. Add to that the neurotransmitter oxytocin, and you add to the pleasure a sense of desire to bond – or pair bond. Which is, of course, what we need if our offspring require a great deal of resources to support their birth and growth to self-sufficiency.

It’s Not All About Sex

Despite the powerful neurochemicals in play most people (95% of females, and 91% of males) say that the best thing about love is not sex. There’s more going on than the neurochemical wash associated with sex. It seems like that the need for connection, understanding, and belief of mutual support is more powerful than we would anticipate.

Moving back to the analogy of love as an addiction for a moment, Fisher’s work parallels what we know about addiction. Addicts do receive a bit of dopamine from their addiction – in whatever form – however, the way that we fight off addition isn’t the use of more dopamine at other times. Instead, the way that we combat addictions is through changing the person’s environment and, most importantly, their connection with a community.

The Risks of Sex

One of the interesting changes that came to the way we view sex is the change in the degree of risk that sex entailed. We’ve had condoms as a form of contraception for centuries. The efficacy of this mechanism has varied over the years but has generally become more effective at preventing pregnancy and often the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. As I mentioned in my review of The Normal Personality, the change in views on sex was accelerated by the development of the birth control pill in the 1950s and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in the 1970s that legalized abortion.

Within a few decades, the possibility of an unwanted child dropped substantially. Two forms of contraception and the possibility of abortion made it a much lower risk. Add to that a set of new antibiotics and other treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, and you have the foundation for a change in perspective about sexual practices.

While the Western world is still has many cultural taboos about sexual practices, there are forces set against that, and the tide of perspective about sexual practices is changing.

The Attraction

One of the most interesting ponderings is how someone’s love map is formed. That is, why are some people attractive and others are not? What is it that makes someone interesting as a mate? Some of it appears to be due to timing. While it’s possible to be attracted to a childhood friend, it appears as if there’s a period of time when familiarity makes you someone who’s not a reasonable suitor. Children raised together will rarely date or marry – but if they’re not together during a critical phase, there seems to be no such resistance. (It’s estimated between 3-6 years old.)

The opposite is also true. When someone is ready to “mate,” it seems as if the right person will come along. It seems that we tend to be attracted to those who are available – which, of course, would be advantageous if you don’t have that many available options – and it would help to be attracted to someone that actually exists.

That being said, we also tend to be attracted through our noses – and to people who have a set of genetics that broadens our immune defenses. Sweat has been an ingredient in love potions around the world. It’s been found to trigger luteinizing hormone in women – which increases sexual arousal. Sweat was more appealing when there was a genetic diversity in the histocompatibility complex, which drives our immune system.

The Nuclear Family

For the most part, we take for granted that the best family for a child to grow up in is a nuclear family. However, this is largely a new phenomenon. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains that family structure of the “GI Generation” was multigenerational. While Robert Putnam notes the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids, the nuclear family that rose during the “Silent Generation” was largely considered a luxury by the time the baby boomers were starting their families. Fisher’s work indicates that, in many cultures and in the prehistoric past, it really did take a village to raise a child – or at least that was the way it was typically done.

So, while our mating habits supported our dual strategy with marriage and adultery, the burden placed on any individual marriage was less weighty. Over time, as our relationships with others eroded (see Bowling Alone), and we removed the societal expectation of collaborative support – a social safety net – we began to put more emphasis and weight on the individual marriage, a weight that it seems evolution didn’t plan for, and we saw the rise of divorces. (For more about divorce in general, see Divorce.)

The Rise of Divorce

In Islam, it was easy to divorce a wife. In some cases, it meant saying that you divorced the other person three times and waiting out the waiting period, and it was done. However, divorce was also different. People’s possessions weren’t really up for grabs in a divorce. It was simply the end of the pair bond. The man kept his tools, and the wife kept her things, and both went along their merry – or not so merry – way.

However, the greatest influence on the rate of divorce in the Western world was World War II. During World War II, there were many changes that created a greater competition for men. More important, the labor shortage moved women into jobs that generated income, and suddenly their dependence upon men for their material needs vanished.

That is not to say that women didn’t work before; they did. However, they worked in “pink collar” jobs that allowed them to buy the modern conveniences that they wanted. After World War II, they were making real incomes – and realizing they weren’t dependent upon their men for money.

That is not to say that they didn’t make room for the returning men or that anyone did anything wrong. It’s just that, in the Western world, the illusion had been broken, and it became more of an option to divorce. Additionally, the introduction in the law of “irreconcilable differences” reduced the friction of getting a divorce – and released some of the couples from marriages that weren’t good but for which it was too difficult to escape.

Despite the focus on the United States, divorce rose in all places where women became less dependent.

God and Marriage

Many of the sexual acts that we would describe as immoral today were commonplace in the ancient past. The Greeks were notorious for their sexual practices – including homosexuality. In the Jewish faith, there were relatively few rules for sexual conduct. Though the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used by Christians for the condemnation of homosexuality, there’s a great debate about whether that’s the true reason for God’s decision to destroy the two cities. In fact, it’s in this story that we see perceptions of sexuality, as Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men – rather than the two male guests. One interpretation of this recounting (one I admittedly favor because it fits within the broader story arc of the Bible) is that it’s not the homosexuality which is the root of God’s anger but is instead the lack of concern for others’ willingness or beliefs that plagued the towns.

Fisher reports that the change in the relationship between Judaism and sex started somewhere after the exile period (516 BC) through to the follow of Jerusalem in about (70 AD). Suddenly, God was much more concerned about what people did – and didn’t do – sexually.

While contemporary Christians believe that the current interpretations about God’s position on sexual relations were always the case, there’s evidence that things have changed – and that they’ve been distorted. (Another serious distortion not covered by Fisher is the idea of whether sex before marriage is prohibited by the Bible or not. My reading doesn’t show any such prohibition on sex before marriage, but it’s become a well-established perspective in Christian circles.)

Why Do We Cheat?

If the system that we’ve created is one that is dual with both commitment and adultery, then why is it that we have adultery at all? The traditional explanation is that the marriage is bad or that one party is unhappy. The problem is that it can’t explain every case. Of those who admitted to adultery, 56% of men and 34% of women rated their marriages as happy. In short, the “party line” doesn’t work. They’re happy in their marriage, and they had a paramour. While the degree to which women admitted to having a paramour jumped from 9% in the 1950s to 25% in the 1970s, there’s no reason to believe they were substantially less happy in their marriages. Either they were more open about their dalliances, or they felt more free to have them.

While Fisher’s subtitle offers the idea that we’ll learn “why we stray,” it would be more accurate to say that we’re presented with a series of reasons why we might stray rather than a straightforward, linear, step-by-step, progression, perhaps indicating that there isn’t one reason but instead many. Factors like higher income increased the probability, while religious affiliation seemed to have no impact.

Perhaps the most strenuous statement about adultery is that these has never been found a culture that didn’t know of it, nor has there been a culture where societal rules have extinguished it. There are, however, many societies and communities where there is a strong pressure to stay in marriages as long as possible.

How Long Can One Be in Romantic Love?

Before fully explaining the various types of love, it’s important to recognize the factors that tend to lead towards the idea that chemically dependent kinds of love must be short lived. If we derive our feelings of attraction solely through a neurochemical, and love makes us feel this more intently, then eventually our brains will habituate or adapt to this heightened level of neurochemical and establish this as a new normal – thereby depriving us of the infatuation kind of love that we expect. From our study of drugs, we know that it takes more and more of the same drug – chemical – to derive the same result. What is called “tolerance” in alcoholics might be called “expectations” in those who are in love.

If we look at love as a set of different chemicals and mental processes, we have the option to find paths that lead us to a permanent, enduring love. Yes, we can develop greater production capacity for these chemicals, or we can release the chemicals in patterns that don’t increase tolerance while still giving us the intense feelings of attraction and infatuation that we associate with love.

Fisher’s research has shown while romantic (attracted or infatuated) love typically fades, it doesn’t have to fade. She found couples who had been madly in love for decades. The sight or thought of their mate still triggered the same areas of the brain and elicited the same kind of response. So, while it’s not the norm to remain infatuated with a mate, it’s certainly possible.

Four Kinds of Love

When C.S. Lewis spoke of love in The Four Loves, he did so more or less metaphorically. When Fisher describes her four different kinds of loves, she does so from the perspective of the four neurochemicals involved in the process. They are dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and oxytocin (estrogen). Dopamine, as has been previously addressed, is associated with infatuation, attraction, and lust. Fisher describes them as potential romance junkies. It’s the first kind of love.

Serotonin-driven love, Fisher proposes, may be disposed to becoming attachment junkies. Serotonin as a neurochemical is most well-known through the class of anti-depressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The short of this is that low levels of serotonin are connected with depression, and some love increases natural happiness – or at least protection from depression.

Testosterone-driven love are those prone to feeling as if they’ve accomplished something. It’s the kind of love where you guard your mate from being interested in others. Perhaps that’s why men (who have naturally higher testosterone) are two-to-three times more likely to commit suicide after being rejected. They’re also more prone to violence.

Oxytocin is known as the cuddle drug and drives people to want to be together and in physical touch with one another. This type of love is driven by physical closeness and touch.

Intimacy, Privacy, and Trust

Today, we desire greater intimacy in our relationships. We want to know more completely those whom we are committing ourselves to. Perhaps our changing expectations of intimacy are why we are considering ideas like people having Intimacy Anorexia. We expect greater degrees of intimacy – and not everyone has adapted to this greater need for and expectations of intimacy.

At the same time, we’re also fiercely protective of our privacy. We believe that we should be able to keep some things private – even from our committed spouse. We’ve grown up with private bedrooms and the expectation of privacy from even the rest of our family. In the 1940s it’s estimated that a home averaged about 1,000 square feet with only roughly half having indoor plumbing. The 2015 US Census places the average single-family home at 2,687 square feet. That’s with the trend in the number of people who are living in each home declining.

We talk to our neighbors less as Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone. No longer do we chit-chat with our neighbors coming home from work. We drive our cars into our enclosed garages and hit a button to close the garage door behind us before anyone can intrude upon our space.

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explains how we’re not as connected as we once were despite having faster, and richer communications options than have ever been present before. We feel hollow as we use these new technologies to try to form connections. We overexpose ourselves via social media and long for privacy from others.

As I explain in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited, intimacy comes from trust, which leads to safety, which leads to vulnerability. One of the great challenges of our modern world is the belief that even among married couples there should be privacy. I disagree. I see the need for privacy as the result of a lack of feeling of safety. In some way, we believe that our marriage partner will judge us, and we will be harmed.

I know too many married couples who aren’t willing to allow their partner to see them naked – or at least they avoid it. There are those who don’t know the lock code for their spouse’s phone. In some of these cases, it’s because they don’t want to feel judged for what is on it. If we long for intimacy, we cannot rely on privacy and secrets.

Broken Homes

At some level, all our families of origin are broken. Whether they were fraught with a denial of emotions, bouts of rage, alcoholism, prison sentences, or other factors, we’ve all received our training for how to do love and family in incomplete or dysfunctional ways. This is just a part of growing up.

One of the key challenges that is often overlooked is the degree of enmeshment or fusion between parents and their children. Some parents cannot separate their children’s successes and failures from their own. Some are trying to relive parts of their lives they feel they missed though their children – and it’s unhealthy.

It leads to a potential pattern where privacy may be necessary in a marriage relationship. In every relationship, there must be a you, a me, and an us. In healthy, committed relationships, the amount of you and me can be small but well protected by both parties. An unhealthy relationship – driven by challenges during our upbringing – may require a larger amount of you and me to ensure that they don’t disappear. In general, these should only be large in as much as they are necessary to protect each individual from disappearing all together.

If you’re looking to better understand relationships and love, a good place to start may be the Anatomy of Love.

Book Review-Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

One of the most frustrating and hurtful things that can tell someone who is suffering is that it’s their fault. Bad things happen to good people, and it has nothing to do with their faith, their character, or anything other than the randomness of life. Barbara Ehrenreich starts Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America with her story about how people expected her to disconnect from reality for the service of just being happy.

Breast Cancer

Ehrenreich recounts her confrontation with a breast cancer diagnosis. She shares how her negative thoughts and comments weren’t accepted or appreciated by others. In complete denial of what we’ve learned from Kubler-Ross’s work in On Death and Dying, the expectation is that patients must jump to acceptance without flowing through the natural grieving process. (The Grief Recovery Handbook is another good book on how to support those experiencing loss and therefore grief.)

The truth revealed in Worm at the Core is that most of us aren’t comfortable with our mortality, and when others are negative about their diagnoses, which may include death, we’re reminded of our mortality – and we’ll do whatever we can to avoid the pain we experience as we consider it. (See also Change or Die for more.) People start to move away from those who are experiencing the natural cycle of loss, because they don’t want to get too wrapped up in it.

The great lie that is told to cancer patients is that their happiness is how they will survive. It comes from a logical fallacy. (Learn more in Mastering Logical Fallacies.) The fallacy is that your immune system will attack cancer if it were only functioning properly. This is fed by the true statement that your immune system is less effective in the presence of constant stress, as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains. The leap is that our immune system would attack the cancer if it were only healthier. The problem is that our immune system doesn’t function this way. Our immune system is designed to attack things that are “not us,” but cancer appears to the immune system as “us,” and therefore it’s left alone. (I won’t go into the details of how this happens or what the variables are, but I encourage you to study the immune system if you disagree.)

The push towards positivity comes out of misguided belief but at least in some circumstances comes from a genuine concern for the other person. The problem is that, in the service of this ideal, they’re encouraging people to deny themselves and how they really feel, which we know creates other problems. (See How Emotions Are Made and Emotion and Adaptation for more.)

The one place here that I must take issue with Ehrenreich’s work is in the conclusion that the cancer death rates haven’t decreased from the 1930s to 2000. The problem with this statement is that it’s not true according to the Centers for Disease Control, which shows a death rate that’s dropped from over 30% to less than 20% since 1975. No argument that there is more to be done and we need to continue to work to eliminate this painful killer – however, statistically speaking, medical treatments have made an observable shift in the survival of patients.

Hope Is Not an Emotion

Ehrenreich further describes hope as an emotion and optimism as a cognitive stance. C.R. Snyder’s work The Psychology of Hope argues effectively against hope being emotion. Instead, hope is a cognitive process built on willpower (see Willpower and Grit for more) and waypower – or knowing how to move forward. Hope is, therefore, possible to be cultivated both through the careful cultivation of willpower and the discovery of paths that lead forward.

Optimism is, as she explains, a cognitive stance. It’s a way of viewing the world. It’s the proverbial glass half-full instead of glass half-empty. She says that “presumably” anyone can develop it through practice. The research says that people can develop healthier ways of managing self-talk. (See two different approaches to this topic in The Hidden Brain and Advice Not Given.) She complains that optimism may require deliberate self-deception and blocking out unpleasant possibilities.

It’s true that optimism does require deliberate self-deception. The problem is the implication that this is bad. The research says that the outcomes are better with optimism. Self-deception can be problematic (see Leadership and Self-Deception), but self-deception isn’t always bad. Self-deception can be useful when it leads us to more humility (see Humilitas) and greater compassion, including self-compassion. The other implication is that we don’t self-deceive otherwise. However, we know that we are always deceiving ourselves – the trick is to create consciousness of it and gain some degree of control. (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

Finding Fault

Ehrenreich seeks to transfer responsibility from the individual to society. She, like Happier?, points to income inequality as being unfair, and therefore it’s not fair to hold people accountable for their happiness. As with many of her arguments, there is truth. Income (and opportunity) inequality isn’t fair. However, as discussed in Hurtful, Hurt, Hurting, it doesn’t matter who hurt you, you’re responsible for the healing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re to blame for the situation or it’s something that was externally generated, you’re responsible for the recovery.

When Ehrenreich cites initial research that couldn’t be replicated, I nod my head yes. I know that most published journal articles results can’t be replicated. (See The Heretic’s Guide to Management.) Whether it’s a missing component in conditions specified in the original article or a fluke, replication of findings is important and widely missing. However, Ehrenreich angrily laments about how support groups don’t seem to help. Having been in the position of facilitating some support groups, I can say that there are functional groups and dysfunctional groups, and it takes a keen eye to see what works and what doesn’t.

The National Speakers Association

Ehrenreich also rails against the National Speakers Association (NSA). I’ve previously recounted my experience with their national conference but never said directly that many of the people at the conference seemed to be wannabe speakers. Ehrenreich is more direct about that point. She also appropriately questions some of the speakers who are making it.

She explains the focus on positive messages, including some messages which aren’t founded on science (or reality). She specifically calls out the Heart Math Institute, which I address in my review of The HeartMath Solution. So, I can easily acknowledge the truth in the frustration with the focus on positivity. However, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned 30 years ago.

I was writing reviews. I’d get a piece of hardware, and I’d be expected to talk about how it would be helpful to readers of the magazine. The problem is that I couldn’t always do that. Sometimes, what I was sent was garbage in a pretty package, and I wanted to say that. My editor was a seasoned professional and explained that negative reviews weren’t useful to the readers, and therefore they didn’t get printed. I’m sure there was some degree of pressure for advertising revenue, but the point stuck with me. People want to know what works, so they can use it or replicate it. They don’t want to know 1,000 ways to not make a lightbulb – they care about the one way to do it. (See Find Your Courage for more on Edison.)

Quantum Physics

One of my favorite quotes about quantum physics is that “anyone who claims to understand quantum physics doesn’t.” Whether it’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or Schrödinger’s cat, the concepts are difficult for anyone to grasp. Ehrenreich appropriately challenges speakers who believe to have a master’s grasp on quantum mechanics and why these are a force for positive energy in the lives of their audience.

I interpreted this to justify magical thinking. It made me wonder how their childhood development might have been disrupted or interrupted. (See Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society for the stages.) I know that we used magic and superstition to explain things that we couldn’t explain – and to supply the raw ingredients for unbridled hope. Ehrenreich appropriately pushes back.

The Religion of My Church

Similarly, she challenges evangelistic preachers who promise that God wants you to have everything you want if you only have sufficient faith – and, presumably, tithe appropriately. The problem with this is these preachers have presumably never really understood the Bible they’re claiming to quote. As I explain in my post Faith, Hope, and Love, faith is literally always a gift from God. It comes from prayer, which is exchanging worries for faith. I suppose that this would cause them to simply change their admonishment to claim that you’re not praying enough. (You’re called to pray unceasingly, which is a bit impractical with that whole problem of sleep.)

She cites the rise of megachurches and those churches that came from charismatic preachers who studied what people wanted in a church before starting their megachurches. The problem is that churches are – overall – struggling. Churchless, The Great Evangelical Recession, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone contradict the view that overall church attendance is growing. Admittedly, it’s possible that it’s becoming more focused into megachurches, but her point seems to be that churches are now delivering positive messages so they’re not driving away parishioners.

Improving Our Situation Before Improving Our Circumstances

Near the end of the work, Ehrenreich asks the question, “How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in?” The answer is to change your view on the situation. Certainly, if you’re struggling to have enough food, simply being happy about it won’t solve your problem. However, believing that you have the capacity to change your situation today creates the opportunity that you’ll do it tomorrow.

It’s my experience that people must first change their perspective, their mindset (see Mindset), before they’ll be able to change their circumstances. They need to see things differently, so they see the problem in a way that makes their circumstances easier to deal with. We know that stress – which is entirely driven by our perceptions – reduces our creativity with solutions. (See Emotion and Adaptation and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for perceptions of stress. See Drive, Diffusion of Innovations, and Why We Do What We Do for the impact of stress on innovation.)

If you want to find a healthy relationship with positive thinking, perhaps you need to read Bright-sided so you’re not ambushed by positive thinking unrelated to reality like Ehrenreich was.

Book Review-Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America

One of the things that I deeply respect is people who are willing to do the reading and research necessary to have a complete and balanced view of a topic. That’s what I found in Daniel Horowitz’ Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America. It’s no secret that Horowitz isn’t impressed with the movement towards creating a happier America just from the title; however, if you’re trying to map how our focus on happiness evolved, he’s done a great job.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

When the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the idea that people could aspire to happiness was a lofty idea. Most people lived lives that are more in line with the poem of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It describes “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s easy to grow up in America today and just expect that you should be happy. It’s too easy to believe that happiness is some inevitable birthright of those who have been born in America. However, it’s neither a birthright nor something that everyone believed was possible.

America is in an epidemic of depression. It is as large a health problem as any other. We continue to prescribe more and more antidepressants, yet we’re not stopping the tide of people struggling. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more.) We firmly believe that one of the drivers of both burnout and depression is the gap between our expectations and our reality. If you expect that you should be happy in every moment, your life is bound to be disappointing. (See the resources on for more.)

Critical Thinking

The impetus for reading Happier? came from a note from Marty Seligman in the Friends of Positive Psychology list server. He was providing a draft response to a negative article that was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and was asking for feedback. I read his response and the original article. The original article referred to Happier? and another book that is critical of positive psychology, Bright-sided. I wanted to see if I could trace the line between my experience with positive psychology through these resources to the scathing article that I saw.

Instead of being defensive of positive psychology, I was curious. How did we get to such a disconnect between what I knew were the possibilities of positive psychology and the grim specter that was painted by the article? It turns out that it was distortion like the kind that makes a massive shadow on a wall.

The Need to Accentuate the Positive

While helping to support a program that took people who were in some way broken by life and returned them to normal functioning, I encountered a frustrated, exhausted leader who longed to be able to help people thrive instead of just survive. He had spent his career picking up people who had hit rock bottom. He was grateful for the impact he was having in the lives of others but at the same time longed to make people more what they had the potential to be.

This is another rendition of the same siren song that called Martin Seligman, then President of the American Psychological Association (APA), to encourage professionals to make whole health a priority. Instead of just responding to illness, he wanted to follow the same pattern set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1946, when it called for physicians and other providers to consider the health of people as more than just the absence of illness, defect, or deficiency.

Positive is different kind of territory than negative. In mathematics, it’s flipping the sign. However, in life, it’s something totally different. Positive psychology helps people be healthier as defined by joy and enduring happiness in their lives instead of the absence of pain and hurting. It’s easy to agree that this is something that we should all be striving for.

Collectively and Individually

Happiness studies tended towards the broad categories of social happiness, and positive psychology was more focused on individuals. More specifically, the positive psychology studies focused on hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) happiness and happiness driven by meaning and purpose. However, the distinction between the two is sort of like looking at both sides of a coin. Societies are made up of people, so happier people make a happier society.

In happiness studies, there’s a focus on what are perceived as the evils of the 21st century. Things like income inequality and whether it’s increasing or decreasing became important as it related to happiness. (See Capital in the Twenty-First Century for more on income inequality.) The short version is that our perception of finances is based on our peers, and the data about the long-term impact of income inequality isn’t fixed, it keeps changing. If we feel like we’re doing well relative to our peers – particularly our neighbors – we’ll feel good.

The degree to which people are connected in committed relationships crosses over between happiness and positive psychology. Committed intimate relationships are positively correlated with happiness, and, of course, the better relationships that we have, the better societies we have.

Positive Psychology

In all transparency, I believe in the power of positive psychology, particularly in the tendency to reduce victimization. (See Hostage at the Table for more about victimization.) I’ve read and reviewed Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, The Hope Circuit, Flourish, Positivity, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Flow, Finding Flow, and other books that would be defined by Horowitz as a part of the genre. I’ve even studied happiness directly by reading Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, Hardwiring Happiness, The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness, Happiness, and others.

While there are aspects of all of these that sometimes minimize the overall challenges with developing a positive mindset, the overall picture is a relatively complete one that drives the arc of humanity forward. (For understanding the impact of mindset, see Mindset. Brené Brown calls minimizing challenges “gold plating grit” in Rising Strong.)

Critics in Every Corner

In service of balance, Horowitz sometimes quotes extreme positions. For instance, he quoted a comment on Grit that said: “anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work ought to be jailed for child abuse.” The problem with this response is that it represents the kind of escalation that was addressed in The Coddling of the American Mind. Suddenly, the idea that you can take control of your circumstances and develop skills is wrong. The problem is that it’s not.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s book, Peak, reports on their study of top performers – and how they get there. It’s research that Malcolm Gladwell first spoke about in Outliers. If you’re willing to put in the work, there are very few things that are truly beyond what anyone – particularly a child –can accomplish. The challenge is that it’s rare that someone is willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary. (The Rise of Superman is a good survey of some of the amazing things that people can do because they worked at it.)

That being said, the equation for life isn’t defined solely by the characteristics of the person. Kurt Lewin described behavior of a function of both person and environment – the same could be said of the accomplishments of a person. Their accomplishment, in an area or more globally, is the relationship between the person and their environment – including circumstances and luck. This is at the heart of the challenge that Horowitz raises with the movement towards positive psychology. (Interestingly, Paul Ekman, whom Horwitz mentions in the evolution of positive psychology, acknowledges the role of luck in his career in his book, Nonverbal Messages.)

Foundations of Morality

Jonathan Haidt’s work isn’t limited to The Happiness Hypothesis or The Coddling of the American Mind. In his book The Righteous Mind, he explains his research and work on the foundations of morality. He explains that it’s not that others are immoral but rather that the weight they place on the various foundations of morality are different. Horowitz’ message is that positive psychology places too much focus on a person’s ability to overcome their circumstances. The claim is that income inequality is morally wrong and is an unfair burden placed on many people.

I agree. It’s unfair. I also agree it’s a burden. It’s not that I disagree, because I don’t. However, I believe there are other factors – factors that are often called “internal locus of control” – that are a compensating factor. Let me slow down and first say that society is a complex system and obeys the rules of an interrelated system. (See Thinking in Systems for the basics of systems.) The system itself may be sufficiently complicated, complex, or even perceptively chaotic that it’s impossible to predict the outcomes. (See Cynefin for more about these labels and the different strategies for dealing with ideas in these spaces.) However, there are some factors that we do know are powerful forces that can help to shape the systems – and therefore the societies that we live in.

Feelings of “internal locus of control” is a powerful factor that is cited in Smarter Faster Better and is woven through Edward Deci’s work Why We Do What We Do and therefore indirectly in Daniel Pink’s Drive. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There acknowledges that some degree of control that people believe in may be false. However, whether the control is real or imagined is largely immaterial. Rick Hanson explains that the impact of an internal locus of control leads people to be more Resilient.


I need to pause and talk about one of the risks that occurs on both sides of the issue that Horowitz is covering. There’s a potential that one will believe the answers that work for them are the answers for everyone. There’s the risk that an agenda will be pushed forward with the idea that people are too stupid to make their own best choices. and therefore we should structure society in a way that moves them in the right direction. Nudge calls this “choice architecture.” In The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy Clark challenges this notion and wonders whether paternalism is good or bad. I conclude it’s both – and neither. Steven Reiss, who wrote Who Am I? and The Normal Personality, would call the idea that people believe their ideas are the right ideas for everyone “self hugging.”

On one side is the belief that we should address the structural issues to happiness, and on the other side is the idea that we should ignore the structural issues and just do what we can at an individual level. After all, the collective society is built on individuals. From my perspective, it’s not an “or” choice. It’s an “and” choice. We’ve got to learn how to be better at accepting other people regardless of what they believe. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for the importance of acceptance.) I believe that continued communication, conversation, and dialogue is necessary to move forward. (See Fault Lines for the importance of communication, and Dialogue for more on how to engage in productive dialogue.)

The Rise of Self-Esteem

Horowitz cites Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone as evidence that Americans have lost their connection to community and have become more focused on their own world. That’s certainly true. However, the more interesting question is what are the factors that are leading people to be more self-centered. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock first published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shared the regret that Dr. Spock had as he considered the outcomes of his advice. His encouragement towards unfettered individualists had led to a rise of children believing they needed to have self-esteem and that it was more important than character.

It’s not to say that people don’t need self-esteem – we all need some sense of ego. (See Change or Die for more.) However, we need to keep our self-esteem in check with our character, which many people believe has been on the decline for decades. In Leadership and Self-Deception, The Arbinger Institute walks through the challenges of self-esteem and its need to be fed in the absence of the character needed to stay out of dysfunctional states. (See Roy Baumeister’s work for more on the need for character – including Willpower.)

This Not That

At some level, Horowitz rediscovers the universal truths that we’ve learned over the past two centuries. We know that experiences and relationships are more important than stuff.

We need to seek satiation and help people accept what they have. The secret to happiness isn’t having what you want – it’s wanting what you have. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on satiation.)

We’ve learned that we need more generosity and less scarcity. (See Give and Take for generosity and Daring Greatly for limiting scarcity.)

Express gratitude – appreciate what you have – both to others and, if necessary, in the form of a written journal. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for appreciation and Flourish for generating gratitude.)

Participate in rituals to provide consistency and connection. (See Spiritual Evolution for a general appreciation for connection, The Relationship Cure for the personal power of rituals, and Stealing Fire for how rituals have been used to unite and motivate.)

Rejection of Negativity

Horowitz appropriately criticizes some of the vaulted leaders of happiness for their explicit rejection of sadness or negative news. Their solution was to eliminate the challenges and negatives, thereby biasing the overall mood in a positive direction. However, rejection of negativity at a personal level is destructive, as it leads to disassociating parts of the psyche. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more.) By and large, my experience has been that people who are focused on positive psychology and helping people be happier are more focused on encouraging responsibility for happiness, adjusting expectations, and developing skills. If people are recommending that one should not speak about their negative thoughts, they may do well to review the kinds of problems that it causes. (See Solve Employee Problems Before They Start and Dialogue.)

Hedonistic Treadmill

We live in a consumer economy, where marketers are focused on getting you to long for, want, and crave the next new thing. This has been the case for decades. Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders is a classic book about how marketers are trying to get you to buy their wares using the latest psychological research, a bag of tricks, and the desire to part you from your money. As a result, we’ve collectively climbed on the hedonistic. We seek pleasures every day to save us from the need to do the inner work it takes to develop our gratitude and our character.

We believe that we deserve to be happy, and we believe that if we just get the next new thing, we’ll be happy. If I just get that next raise, I’ll be happy. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for this fallacy.) We think the next new phone or the new car or the new house will solve our problems. However, research consistently shows that we’re absolutely lousy at predicting what will – or will not – make us happy. We think that the new hobby will continue to help us find fulfillment. It may do that for a few weeks, but in the long term, it becomes the next set of equipment parked in our closet unused. It leaves us longing for a solution to the constant yearning in our souls for this elusive happiness that we believe we deserve.

The Happy Pill is Easy

Americans are a drugged society. We consume two-thirds of the supply of anti-depressants on the planet. As we became more affluent, we plunged deeper into despair against the invisible villain, depression. Acedia & Me makes it clear that some form of depression has been with us for centuries. However, now that we have selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), we can – we believe – address depression. However, as Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Harmful to Your Mental Health explains, the effects aren’t persistent – and aren’t nearly as large as many would like to have you believe.

The problem is that people see their physician and expect that we’ll get something to make them better – even if the solution can’t be found in a pill. Prescribing a solution is easy for the provider and for the patient. No work involved. It’s the same reason why we’ve got antibiotic-resistant bacteria now. We’ve overprescribed antibiotics, and patients haven’t taken them as prescribed. But physicians feel the push to appear to be doing something. (See Better and Mistreated for more.)

Set to Happy

There’s agreement that there are three key factors to your happiness:

  • Genetics – Your genetics influence the degree to which you’ll be happy.
  • Environment / Circumstances – Your objective environment can increase or inhibit your happiness.
  • Perspective / Attitude – The way you perceive your situation can shape your happiness.

Horowitz basically argues that those who push happiness want to minimize the impact of genetics and environment and claim that people can be happy regardless of their genetics or circumstances. Here, he’s got a solid argument. People have pushed too far with their claims of the power of positive psychology; however, simultaneously, the argument overreaches.

There is substantial power in managing our perceptions. Two people can be in the same objective circumstances with one being quite happy and the other miserable. (See 12 Rules for Life and Loneliness for more.)

You’re Not Responsible for their Happiness

One of the loose ends to the conversation is whether you’re responsible for your own happiness or whether others are. If you accept responsibility for your own happiness, then others should, too. Problems arise when you are concerned about someone who is not able or willing to take responsibility for their own happiness.

Responsibility carries a weight. What if it’s more than the other person can bear? In our work on Extinguish Burnout, we’re quite clear that you don’t control others. (Also see Compelled to Control.) While we believe in personal accountability, we also recognize that you can’t be responsible for things that you cannot control. You can only be responsive to them.

Money Can Buy Happiness

The saying goes that money can’t buy happiness. I used to say, “but it will give you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease.” It’s funny, but it’s true. Having resources – including money – does make you happier. The Easterlin Paradox says that, at some point, money stops adding happiness, but there are many that refute that finding.

More than the individual level of money being a part of happiness, it’s big business. People have made fortunes on helping others find happiness – whether their customers were successful or not. We can’t forget about the fact that there’s a lot of money that hangs in the balance with positive psychology and happiness efforts.

Martin Seligman

Perhaps the most well-known leader for positive psychology – known as its father – is Martin Seligman. Marty, as he prefers to be called, continues to move the ideas of positive psychology and happiness in general through many projects and approaches, including his work at the University of Pennsylvania. However, Horowitz clearly has an issue with Seligman’s recognition. He points to works from which Marty derived his ideas and others who have made valuable – and less recognized – contributions.

Here, I’m not quite sure what the axe is that Horowitz wants to grind. My interactions and experience of Marty has always been positive, professional, and generous. The constant frustration with Marty’s prominence in the space is perhaps the biggest weakness of the book.

All that being said, I expect that you will find some useful pieces in the book. Maybe you can be Happier?

Book Review-Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

Nice guys finish last – or do they? This is at the heart of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. If you study people and sort them into categories of the most giving and those that are trying to wring out the very last ounce that life has to offer by extracting it from others, who will come out on top? Does the hard-nosed negotiator win by a nose, or does the giver gallop to the lead?

The Biggest Losers and The Biggest Winners

Grant’s research showed that givers were the biggest losers. When they gave to others, they deprived themselves of productivity, and therefore they lost the race. When they contributed to others’ projects and worlds, they short-changed their own, and that showed up in their results. Game over. Case closed. Just take what you can, and you’ll get further. But wait, not so fast.

What if instead of using the time horizon of a few weeks, months, or years, you began to look at givers across the span of their lives or widened the lens out to account for many years and decades of continuous giving? What then? It turns out that givers come out at the top of the list.

In the short term, being a giver works to your disadvantage; but in the long term, being a giver works to your advantage. Giving is an investment in people, and it pays off – but only after time. Givers may never receive back from someone what they invest in them, but that’s okay. Whether you want to make it mystical and call it karma, or you decide to make it relational and talk about goodwill and positive affect, people begin to do nice things for givers, and those are things that the giver couldn’t do for themselves. They’re invaluable.

Knowledge Management

For years now, I’ve had the honor of being a part of the knowledge management community. It’s practitioners that have the lofty goal of getting more people to share what they know in ways that allows that knowledge to be helpful to others and therefore the organization. It’s fundamentally designed to create more givers in a corporate world that is more often filled with takers. Grant explains that, though we often act more generously in our personal lives, we tend to operate like takers in the corporate world.

Demand explains the idea of a hassle map. It’s the small things that often seem trivial or insignificant – but create big changes in people’s behavior. Knowledge managers are often focused on removing the barriers or friction to being able to share – either by connecting people to one another or improving findability of explicit (written or recorded) information. By paving the roads between the user’s current behavior and a more giving behavior, they help more people share.

Taking a page from Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Happiness Hypothesis (as was picked up in Switch), knowledge managers make the default answer the right answer. (Nudge also covers this idea.) The easier it is to do something, the more it will be done. The Tipping Point explained an experiment where the goal was to get more students to get a tetanus shot. There were several approaches, but the one that was the most effective was to include a map to where the students could get the shot. It didn’t require sharing gory details of possible outcomes. It required reducing the effort and confusion.

In the end, knowledge managers are trying to push the pendulum a bit more towards the giving side than the taking side.

Environment Matters

Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. That is, the environment has a great deal of influence on behavior. You may be generous with family and friends and cold hearted in business. The environment (or context) matters. However, the environment is malleable. The way people behave becomes the expected culture of the environment, and that environment then influences future behavior. (See Thinking in Systems for more on how systems loop back on one another.)

In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod shows with game theory that cooperation is adaptive. Programs competed in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma, and those that did best were those that used the tit-for-tat strategy. That is, you did back to the other party what was done to you. A slightly modified version, which occasionally forgave indiscretions by the other party, did even better. The kinds of programs that were competing dramatically impacted the overall success. The more positive and giving the programs were, the more likely it was for better overall success.

Weak Ties and Reputation

Programs can’t learn about reputations easily. The simulations are too direct, and don’t run long enough. However, our lives are much longer, and the number of interactions that we have are much more diverse. We begin to develop a sense of how we expect others to behave – and we can rely on other signals in our network.

In Analyzing the Social Web, we learned about how weak ties are sometimes more useful than strong ties. Weak ties bring you things that aren’t already in your experience. Granovetter published his research that showed that it was weak ties – not strong ones – that led to the most jobs. Our reputation is an expression of even weaker ties – and influence on those weak ties. If they’re so important, then perhaps in the very long term, making investments in reputation are critical.

Short Term vs. Long Term

In the narrowest view, the decision between whether you should be a giver or a taker is largely based on how long-term your view is. If you’ve got a short-term, tactical view of the interaction, then taking is the most advantageous strategy. If you’re looking for the long term, then giving up a bit now and being a giver seems to be the best answer.

In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explain that shared history creates a strong bond that in turn creates a relatively positive impact on reputation. If you knew this person when you were both younger, you’re likely to be more positive about them than you would have been then – or perhaps should be.

Philip Zimbardo in The Time Paradox explains that people have different ways of looking at time. Some people look for the hedonistic immediate gratification while others look forwards or backwards in time – either positively or negatively. (Sidebar: Zimbardo is more famous for his role in the Stanford Prison Experiment, which he recounts in The Lucifer Effect.) It may be that the more inclined you are to look into the future, the more likely you are to take a giving strategy. Similarly, if you look at Clayton Christensen’s question, How Will You Measure Your Life?, you may be more likely to be a giver.

Service to Others

An odd aspect of this is service to others and how givers sometimes overcommit and burn out. (Check out Extinguish Burnout for burnout related resources.) One of the things that Grant noticed was that sometimes the right answer to burnout when you’re serving other people isn’t to serve less – but to serve more. What he saw was that, sometimes, when you add additional service, people became less burned out. We’ve seen this too – but the key point is that the people who added the additional service got clear, unmistakable feedback that their service was valuable. That drove their awareness of their results and made them feel like all their contributions were more valuable.

Agreeable and Assertive

One of the traps that givers sometimes fall into – which is often easier to escape than burnout – is the idea that they can’t be assertive and protect their boundaries. They believe that to be liked they must always be agreeable even when it doesn’t support their needs as a human. Learning that although people generally like others more if they’re agreeable, they often respect people more when they’re assertive. (See Radical Candor for more about this.)

Adaptable Styles

In truth, neither the giver nor the taker style is right for every situation – and neither is the third style that I’ve not mentioned, the matching style. The right answer for giving and taking is to be adaptable. Being generally a giver but being willing to prevent getting run over may make it easier to get to where you can use both Give and Take.

Book Review-Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

Coming by estrangement in your family honestly doesn’t make it feel better. Knowing you’re not alone in the struggle doesn’t resolve the pain of broken relationships. However, the more you know about estrangement, the more you can come to terms with it. Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them isn’t a panacea for all that ails families broken by estrangement, but it’s a helpful salve that can take away some of the pain and perhaps start the healing process.

All in the Family

Growing up, I knew my dad wouldn’t speak with his brother. It started when I was about ten and lasted until I was nearly forty. It could have been a bit shorter or longer, but that’s my recollection of it, as one doesn’t put such things on a calendar. The disagreement that led to the situation was about money, and the recollection was ultimately meeting his brother’s wife at the death of his uncle.

Ironically, his uncle and his father had some disagreement that had estranged them. I never knew the story and haven’t asked. I just know that, at the very best, their relationship was strained. It seems that somehow my father had inherited a sense of estrangement from his father.

Today, I’ve lost track which of his siblings he is and isn’t talking to. I know that the state of the relationships is always in flux, with times when the mere appearance of one of his siblings will incense him. I stood in the middle of that at my brother’s wedding.

My mother has had an on-and-off again relationship with each of her three siblings. Sometimes they’re doing okay, and sometimes they won’t talk. Her relationship with her parents was similarly strained. When her father died, she didn’t come back for the funeral. I know that she has always felt slighted by them in some way or another.

In my own world, I barely speak to my mother, and my father has recently made it clear he wants no contact with me. My sister and half-brothers aren’t close. My son is also avoiding contact with me, and while I hope that it gets better on all fronts, I’m not sure how or when that will happen. I picked up Fault Lines as a part of a broader quest to understand how people get stuck in patterns of thinking which they can’t break. It’s about estrangements, but it’s also in general how people can become locked together in a battle of alternative facts. (Think Again is another example of trying to understand this dynamic.) I feel far from finding an answer, but I will continue the quest.

Norman Rockwell

Many of us developed our sense for what family life should be directly or indirectly through the work of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s portrayal of American life was idealized and showed heartwarming moments. Over five decades his images reinforced an idyllic family life and created the unspoken impression that life in the family should be perfect.

Of course, Rockwell wasn’t trying to skew the perceptions of an entire generation, but that was undoubtedly the effect. Sometimes the most positive intentions lead to poor outcomes. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for some examples.) Rockwell wasn’t alone in having a powerful impact with unintended consequences. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Finding Flow, Dr. Spock, responsible for the wildly successful Baby and Child Care, shared regrets in his later life about the advice he gave, which essentially coddled children. Others have said that the sense that everything must be perfect made it so that children never encountered difficulty and as a result became children that the parents couldn’t stand to be around.

Perhaps by burying familial problems under the appearance that everything is fine, we’ve injured ourselves and our families. Perhaps it takes a more open approach that no family is perfect and that the pursuit of perfection in families isn’t accomplished through covering but is instead accomplished through hard conversations and deep concern. (I wonder because of my experiences with twelve-step groups, as I described in Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.)

Hard Conversations

There’s a need for hard conversations and self-reflection from every member of a family – whether they’re facing an estrangement or trying to avoid it. Admittedly, hard conversations are even harder after an estrangement has happened, but they’re always hard.

Crucial Conversations is a book that many point to as a practical guide for having difficult conversations. However, it’s focused on conversations that occur between power-balanced pairs. The relationship between parent and child is not a power-equal but is instead one-up/one-down. In that case, works like How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk may be more helpful.

One of the difficult spots in any hard conversation is acceptance of our emotions. We must believe that the way we respond to the conversations we’re having is the result of our perspectives and ultimately our choices about how we want to respond. (See How Emotions Are Made, Choice Theory, and Emotion and Adaptation for more.) Too many people believe that others make them angry. It’s more accurate to say that from their actions, behaviors, and words, we’ve chosen to become angry. It’s about establishing that we have an internal locus of control of our emotions. In other words, we’re responsible for them – not other people.

The Right to Control

As I considered the stories in Fault Lines and in my own experience, a pattern emerged for many but not all the estrangements. The pattern was our need to control. Parents felt like they could control their children – and the children demonstrated their independence instead of acquiescing to the parents’ demands. This, of course, angered the parents. Let me decompose this a bit.

First, everyone wants to control, and no one wants to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control.) Even those with a low need for independence (see Who Am I?) have some level of desire for their own autonomy. (Deci and Pink point to autonomy, mastery, and purpose in Why We Do What We Do and Drive, respectively.) At some level, we all know this. We ourselves have escaped our parents’ home and therefore their rules. We’ve all expressed our need for freedom and independence.

Second, the perception of control on the part of the parents leads to a sense of assurance based on the certainty of the situation. (See Think Again for more about the need for certainty.) This need for certainty feeds back and creates a greater perception of control than parents really have. Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption challenges the assumption that either genetics or the nurturing of the parents can guarantee an outcome. In short, Harris explains why the control we believe we have is an illusion.

Third, we tell parents that they’re responsible for their children. That’s not true. You cannot be responsible for something that you can’t control. (See The Road Less Traveled.) We’re expected to be responsive to our children’s needs and protect them. but the idea of responsibility implies control that we don’t have – or deserve. (See Kin-to-Kid Connection: Responsive or Responsible for more.)

Fourth, in Eastern/Buddhist thinking, anger is disappointment directed. (See Destructive Emotions for more.) Disappointment is a failure to meet an expectation – or, more clearly, stated a prediction of what will happen. Parents are obviously angry when their children don’t do what they expect they should do. It’s the natural response. The challenge is to assess whether the expectations that led to the disappointment are the problem – or not.


It was early on in my career that I encountered a friend who told me something akin to “my marriage works because of low expectations.” It was my first full-time job after graduating, and the comment was very confusing to me. I gradually came to learn that it was the expectations we had that led to disappointment, and appropriately setting expectations was key to avoiding frustration. That isn’t to say that we should necessarily lower our expectations but rather that we could ground our expectations in reality.

When we’re addressing estrangements, we need to learn to expect what the other person is capable of – and decide whether we can accept that or not. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the importance of acceptance.) There may be times that we need to cut someone out of our lives for a time to allow ourselves to heal – but fundamentally, if we believe that we can erect a boundary that keeps someone out forever, we’ve misunderstood Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend’s work, Boundaries. Dr. Townsend explained in his follow up book, Beyond Boundaries, that boundaries may be temporary, protective boundaries, or they can be permanent, defining boundaries. The key is that boundaries are about what you will and will not do – it’s not about what other people will or won’t do.

Temporary, protective boundaries make sense at times to allow you to heal from your hurts, but no matter who caused the hurts, you’re responsible for addressing those hurts – and removing the temporary boundary.

Dr. John Gottman was concerned with the behavior he called stonewalling. He called it one of the four horsemen of relational apocalypse. In fact, he believes it to be the most challenging, because from stonewalling, there is almost no recovery.


Gottman’s work has primarily been with couples. He is noted for his 91% accuracy rating at predicting divorce after only watching three minutes of a couple. They’d argue about one of their most long-standing and contentious topics, and through coding the behaviors, he’d predict divorce. It turns out that how you’re willing to treat someone else in a conflict is quite predictive of whether divorce is on the horizon or not. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

Intimacy Anorexia doesn’t ever use Gottman’s term “stonewalling,” but it explains the pain associated with someone who must keep themselves away from others to prevent them from being fully understood. (Under the idea that, if they’re understood, they won’t be liked or loved.) The problem with stonewalling is that it prevents any recovery. Time passes, but the relationship is stuck at the time when the wall is constructed and can’t move forward.

Love and Disagreement

One of the things that I believe is missing in estrangement is the ability to disagree with someone and love them at the same time. I mentioned this simple statement in my review of The Available Parent. It seems to be missing in estrangements. It’s like the disagreement becomes bigger than the love.

When Terri and I teach conflict resolution, we do so by explaining all conflicts are caused by either a difference in perspective (we see things differently), or a difference in values (we believe in different things). We also teach that if you want to get through a conflict, you must separate agreement with understanding. Agreement is a judgement. It’s an alignment of perspectives and values. Understanding is a fundamental gift that we can give one another. It’s part of how we became the dominant biomass on the planet. (See The Righteous Mind.)

Stonewalling robs us of the ability to understand, and it’s probably one of the reasons why it’s such a destructive and harmful coping skill when confronted with a disagreement that you don’t have the skills to handle positively.

Divorce as Estrangement

Before continuing to how to repair estrangements – when that is possible – it’s important to stop at another area of family life that is strangely like estrangement. Divorce is sometimes the right answer, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t send negative ripples through the family. (See Divorce for more.) The similarity to estrangement is that, often, divorce causes family to take sides, and after the divorce, there is often little or no contact with the divorced person and their extended family.

This same pattern plays out in disagreements in the family. Family members frequently – but not always – pick sides. The members of the disagreement rally support for their perspective and cause people to join them in their frustrations with the other party. Eventually, battle lines are drawn, and those willing to be swept up into the conflict have made their decisions.

Invisible Gorillas

When estrangement erupts in a family, it creates a fault line that encompasses not just those involved but also the family members around them. It also crystalizes the fault of the other party. The unfortunate fact is that rigidly believing in the fault of another makes us blind to other circumstances.

There’s a famous experiment where people were asked to focus on counting basketball players’ bounces and passes. Most people got the numbers right or at least close. However, they completely missed the gorilla that entered the frame, beat its chest, and moved on. (See The Invisible Gorilla for more details.) Incognito and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) both make the point that our perspectives, beliefs, and understanding are manufactured fiction rather than fact, and we’ll defend them vehemently.

One Way Forward

It’s tempting to take the olive branches that are offered by the other party and use them to justify your perspective on the disagreement that led to the estrangement. It’s tempting to try to set right the perspectives and values that created the conflict in the first place. However, the chances of redefining the past situation are slim according to Pillemer – and my own experiences. The truth about moving forward past estrangements is that you must move forward and leave the past behind.

This isn’t the first time that my father and I’ve spent years not talking. The first time was in my late teens and early twenties. I was graduating, and I asked my father about getting his tax returns so I could fill out the forms for federal student aid. He refused. I asked if he was willing to start paying back child-support, as my mother had committed to giving it to me for college expenses. He refused. The result was I couldn’t make the math work. Though accepted with honors to the college of my choice, I couldn’t make it work. Not only could I not receive any need-based support, I was summarily ineligible for most scholarships.

I was hurt. I knew it took my life in another direction. At the time, I thought I’d work and go to school, but it didn’t work out that way. While I’ve now received both my Bachelor of Science and my Master’s degree, the rejection stung, and as a result, I didn’t talk to him for years. Ultimately, I had to move forward and forget the past. I worked on what the future could be like.

I wasn’t going to get him to understand the difficulty he created for me. I decided I couldn’t try to make him understand. He had his own challenges and struggles. I’d have to move past the hurt to find a way forward.

Family Systems

The curse of family systems is that everyone in the system has their own role to play. To find healthy relationships, you must know what your role in the dynamics are. Sometimes you can prevent the unhealthy relationships that drive the system. Other times, you can dampen the oscillations. Sometimes you can’t influence them at all.

Even if you feel there is no fault, you must recognize your role in the system. For me, I realize that I should have been more transparent with my father. I knew he’d be unhappy, and that he might take it out on my sister-in-law and the girls, so I kept silent. Whether I made the right decision or not, it’s this structure that created the opportunity for him to be angry now – and to feel as if I was working subversively.

Sometimes, the energy that sets the system into a tailspin is a new member of the family joining. A new spouse comes in, and suddenly they become treated like a member of the family – and in some cases, that means poorly. The new member bucks the trend, creates a ripple, and ultimately ends up willingly ripping the son or daughter out of the family system – estranging them.

Into One Estrangement

I’ll let you further in on one of the estrangements in my world. My father confronted me about luring my sister-in-law from Paris, IL where he lives to Carmel, IN where I live. My sister-in-law is my deceased brother Rusty’s wife. She and her two girls lived in the town that Rusty and she were born in. She had expressed openly to everyone in the family a desire to get away from the town and make a new life for the girls.

Over the years since Rusty’s death, I had continued to reaffirm my support for her and the girls. It was how I believe that I’m called to behave to my brother’s widow. The time came when she decided that the school systems and opportunities meant it was the right time for her to move.

The truth was that the school systems are better. The career opportunities are greater. However, that’s not what my father wanted to hear. He was (and is) focused on the fact that the girls were going to move away from some family. (Two of my brothers still live in Paris, and obviously he and my stepmother live there as well.)

It boils down to my father believing that I shouldn’t be willing to support my sister-in-law and her decisions. He believes – consciously or unconsciously – that his decisions are the right ones, and that she should have stayed in Paris. Because I was supporting her leaving, I was (and am) somehow against them.

Providing the statistics comparing the two schools was seen as an attack on where most of my brothers went to school rather than being viewed as a statistical fact. Instead of recognizing that I could see some logic in the decision, it was seen as evidence that I was luring them away from the family.

It’s my hope, as I write this, that he can move past this disagreement and remember that love – in both directions – is more important. I’ve written this on his birthday and Father’s Day. (They are the same day this year.) It’s the only gift I can give him, because he’s refused mail and threatened to bring harassment charges if I contact him. In short, someday I hope to repair the Fault Lines.

When You Should Not Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

There are valid reasons to not get the COVID-19 vaccine, and there are valid reasons to recommend caution to those you care about. Before getting into those, let’s walk through where we are so we’re all on the same page.

COVID-19 is Real

At this point, almost everyone knows someone who has had COVID-19. A year or more ago, that wasn’t the case. It was possible to say that it’s not real or it’s like the common cold. In fact, the likelihood is that if someone we knew had the disease, they got better. For some, it was no worse than a cold. For others, it was more severe – more like a bad case of the flu.

So, while we accept that it’s real, it’s harder to accept the real impacts of it. When we hear that more than half a million people in the United States have died because of COVID-19, it’s hard to wrap our head around if we don’t know anyone personally. The truth is that the chances of someone who is infected with COVID-19 dying is less than 1% (~0.6%).

Of course, the next belief is that those people who do die from COVID-19 are all feeble and, in some cases, “were going to die anyway.” We’re all going to die at some point. That doesn’t stop us from convicting a murderer for bringing on the outcome sooner. Much has been made of inflating the COVID-19 mortality numbers by including people with “comorbidities.” That is, they were already compromised by something else.

Maybe that’s true, but the unfortunate fact of American life is that most of us have some form of comorbidity – something that’s hastening our path towards the grave. Whether it’s cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and/or cancer, slightly less than half of Americans (45.4%) have something. It’s not so easy to dismiss that the people dying were going to die already when you realize how many of us have chronic conditions that would put us in that category.

With all these statistics, it’s no wonder that few of us have seen people die of COVID-19. We’d have to know 100 people with COVID-19 to see one death. Personally, I’ve lost a brother-in-law, a high school friend was hospitalized for five months, and my daughter wasn’t able to work for five months. I clearly must know more than 100 people. If we shift the focus to hospitalization for COVID-19, the rate goes up. If you are in your fifties, it’s about 5%; by the time you’re in your eighties, it’s about 33%. Clearly, the older you are, the higher the chances you’ll be hospitalized or die.

I’m Okay

Many younger people think to themselves, rightly so, that their chances of getting the disease and needing to be hospitalized are low. For them, that’s fine; however, the real problem is not the person themselves but those they come in contact with. Some losses are just unacceptable. When you go to see your beloved grandmother and infect her without realizing it, you’ll feel terrible. What about that older man or woman who has always looked out for you, whose wise counsel you’ll dearly miss when it’s gone? What happens if they get sick?

If too many of them end up in the hospital, the hospital will fill up and won’t be able to accept more patients. It’s tragic enough to get the disease and need to go to the hospital. It’s even worse when you’re told there are no beds available at the hospital, and you’ll have to figure out something else. Most people have never experienced being turned away at a hospital, so the idea that it could happen doesn’t feel like a possibility.

Being Careful

The challenge isn’t just that you can be careful and not infect folks. Even if you isolate yourself as soon as you feel symptoms coming on, it’s too late. You’re contagious and potentially infecting others up to two days before you feel symptoms personally. That’s one of the reasons that so many people are being infected. With the original COVID-19 disease, each infected person on average infected 1-2 people. With the Delta variant, the number is 5-8 people – in that way, it’s like chicken pox.

While there are current discussions about when to wear a mask and when it’s not necessary, there’s a broader question about the efficacy. There are a number of variables involved when people are wearing homemade masks and when the masks are made of varying materials. Getting to well-researched numbers is difficult. What we do know is that the particles that transport COVID-19 are slowed by masks – in both directions.

Excuse the crude example, but if you spit at someone, your chances are much better of hitting them if there’s not a screen door between you – and even less if there are two screen doors. Sure, the COVID-19 virus itself is small, but it needs something to ride on to get to someone else, and those “somethings” are collectively larger. Any sort of barrier will reduce what makes it through.

Vaccine Safety

As a general statement, vaccines are safe and effective. We’ve all had vaccines since we were children. These vaccines have eradicated polio and have substantially reduced the incidence of measles, mumps, and rubella. We’ve pushed back tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. The problems with the vaccines have generally been very rare.

In fact, the government stepped in to create the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It’s a small fee with each vaccine dose that’s collected automatically and is held to compensate those who do have an issue with a vaccine. The current cost per vaccine is $0.75. Clearly, the number of people harmed by vaccines is very small, because the fund could not operate with those kind of fee rates if the incidence of claims was very high.


The other major concern regarding vaccines comes in the form of a single article published in the prestigious Lancet journal. In the article, the lead investigator, Andrew Wakefield, claimed that children developed autism after receiving the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. As a direct result of that article, the physician lost his license to practice medicine. The Lancet published a very public retraction. What wasn’t known at the time was the conflict of interest that Dr. Wakefield had in the publishing of the article.

The loss of a medical license is a serious issue – particularly when no patients were directly harmed. It’s a powerful statement about how grievous the community felt Dr. Wakefield’s ethical problems were. Despite the public condemnation of his behavior, many are still concerned about the potential of causing autism in their children with vaccines.

It’s hard to think that something you’re doing – authorizing to have your child receive a vaccine – could be harming them. It’s easier to think that you did nothing and take your chances with the diseases that the vaccine is designed to prevent. However, there is no scientifically validated link between autism and vaccines – it’s just not there.

COVID-19 Vaccines

The most widely studied vaccines in the history of mankind are the COVID-19 vaccines. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. While studies aren’t complete, and there is still more to learn, the communications and information technologies have made it possible to use much larger study sizes and to more precisely track the symptoms after receiving the vaccine.

The two different approaches are used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The first approach involves messenger RNA that’s been used since the 1980s. The messenger RNA (mRNA) approach used by both Pfizer and Moderna tricks some cells into creating the characteristic protein spike for the COVID-19 virus that the immune system needs to learn how to identify.

The second approach, used by J&J (Johnson & Johnson) uses a modified version of a different virus to deliver important instructions to the cells. The cells then produce the spike protein that our immune system learns to defend against. Both result in the production of a harmless spike protein that is found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus.

For both approaches, these protein spikes don’t do anything on their own: the immune system recognizes them as foreign and gets an opportunity to learn to attack and contain them without the threat of the virus.

We can’t know the long-term impacts of this vaccine, but we do know that the technologies used are well known and well used. Much of the vaccine development was already done but not tested because of other outbreaks, including SARS in Canada, and MERS. The coronavirus has been with us for a long time, and we’ve previously seen mutations of the virus that became more impactful to humans. COVID-19 (and the Delta variant) is simply the latest set of mutations of this virus, which happened to have unlocked a pattern that’s more deadly to humans.

What We Know Without Vaccines

Much has been made of the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 virus. However, we do have another analog. Just over 100 years ago, influenza, known as the Spanish Flu (only because the Spaniards were willing to openly discuss it), infected roughly a third of the world population (~500 million people) in four waves with a death toll between 20-100 million of those infected.

Without the benefits of vaccines and other tools of modern healthcare, that pandemic took somewhere between 1.5 to 6 percent of the population.

Vaccine Reactions

There are, in fact, reactions to vaccines in general. There are people who are allergic to any of the ingredients in a COVID-19 vaccine who should not get that vaccine. If you have had a severe or immediate allergic reaction to any ingredient in the mRNA vaccine, you should not get either of the currently available mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. On the other hand, people who have underlying medical conditions, including immunosuppressed individuals, are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and are recommended to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. For those who do receive the vaccine, the rate of reaction is very low. The most typical response is some pain or redness around the location of the shot itself followed by headache or fever.

There are more serious reactions, such as a specific form of blood clots, which occurred at a rate of about 120 per billion doses. To put that in perspective, you’re about 60 times more likely to be struck by lightning. Reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome happened at the rate of about 1 in 100,000 for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Which is still very, very unlikely. Guillain-Barre Syndrome is also associated with the COVID-19 virus itself. It’s unclear whether the patients affected would have been impacted the same way with the virus or at the same rate. There’s just not enough data to make a firm conclusion. While Guillain-Barre Syndrome doesn’t frequently cause death, it can have a serious impact on quality of life.

The final complication that is being tracked as a possible side effect of the mRNA vaccines is an inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis or pericarditis), which happened at a rate of about 2 per million. Putting this in perspective, you’re about 5.5 times more likely to die of dog attack in your life.

So, while there are reasons to not get the vaccine, do they apply to you? If they do, maybe you can pass this along to those in your world who believe that they shouldn’t get the vaccine.

Book Review-The Coddling of the American Mind

I use pink to highlight those passages of text that I disagree with. My notes from The Coddling of the American Mind were a sea of pink highlights. Normally, this means that I struggle with what the authors are saying. When I look back at The Marketing of Evil, I found a sea of pink as well. However, I’m a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work, so to disagree would be odd. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind.) It turns out that the passages I’ve highlighted in pink are those that Haidt and his coauthor Greg Lukianoff struggle with as well. They are the genesis of the challenge the authors have with what’s happening in colleges and in America.

Societal Changes

Every society is in a state of constant flux. Things shift in the long arc that are often difficult or impossible to see in the small arc. Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone how we are less likely to be a member of a group and in Our Kids how parenting approaches are producing different results in our children. Sherry Turkle in Alone Together describes how our reliance on technology for interacting with others has made us less likely to engage in deep and meaningful ways. In Finding Flow, we see hints that Dr. Spock, who famously wrote Baby and Child Care, reconsidered his permissive approach to parenting.

The disturbing trend that prompted the book, however, seems to be playing out in the very place that is supposed to most prevent it from happening in the first place.

Redefining Violence

Colleges and universities are supposed to be places of great scholarship and debate. Indeed, it’s debate that generates scholarship. It’s the process of productively disagreeing with others that increases our own understanding and contributes to our world. It’s the best of what our universities offer, but it’s under attack. We’ve become so concerned that the words we write or say may unnecessarily trigger others that we don’t say the things that need to be said and don’t write the words that should be etched into eternity.

We notice it when people redefine violence as harm. Instead of violence being reserved for willful, intentional harm, it’s allowed to be broadened to those things that others simply find offensive. The argument goes that because offensive materials cause stress and stress causes harm, they must therefore be violence. This is a summary of an article that was written by Lisa Feldman Barrett, who wrote How Emotions Are Made. I struggled with her work then – though most of the struggle never made it to the blog post – and I am appalled at the implications of this line of thinking now.

Trigger Happy

Before I even finished The Coddling of the American Mind, I had to write a post about becoming emotionally triggered. It’s real. It’s a challenge – and it’s necessary. (See Trigger Happy.) While I struggle with the fact that Charles Duhigg fundamentally missed some of the key points of the very research that he was quoting in The Power of Habit, I acknowledge that he has an appropriate degree of focus on finding the triggers that start the cycle that lead to habits.

Finding how you’re triggered by your environment and making changes to eliminate, reduce, or mitigate those triggers is one important aspect of addiction recovery. For example, alcoholics remove all alcohol from their home when they can. They avoid meeting people in bars – particularly bars where they have a history of abusing alcohol. However, there’s an important and often missed aspect of the need to reduce triggers: responsibility.


Psychologists call it “internal locus of control.” Said differently, it’s taking responsibility. It’s not always easy to admit you’ve made mistakes, and sometimes it’s even harder to accept that you’re your own worst enemy when it comes to avoiding poor behaviors. However, it’s also critical for your mental health. If you can’t take responsibility for your situation, then you can’t change it.

Marty Seligman and his colleagues discovered something odd in the late 1960s. If dogs were given a mild shock and prevented from escaping it, they wouldn’t even try to escape it in a situation when they could. They called it learned helplessness. (See Flourish.) Decades later, the advent of fMRI machines led one of Seligman’s colleagues Steven Maier to the opposite conclusion. It wasn’t that the dogs learned helplessness. Instead, they failed to learn control – or influence – over their situation. (See The Hope Circuit.)

The issue of control – or influence, since true control is an illusion – is what responsibility gives us. (See Compelled to Control for why control is an illusion.) If we take responsibility for managing our own feelings, then we can manage our feelings. If we believe that others control our emotions through their actions, then we’ll be unable to change our outcomes, and that means we’re always looking to make our lives – and the lives of others – easy instead of making ourselves and others capable of handle what life throws at us.

Folks like Rick Hansen speak of resilience in Resilient, and Angela Duckworth talks about it as Grit. The most common way to think about it is developing character. We all believe that we want to develop character in our children – but struggle to figure out ways to do it. Books like Robert Lewis’ Raising a Modern Day Knight offer some ideas but fall well short of a practical guide. Judith Rich Harris’ work in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption call into question a parent’s capacity to instill character into their children. It seems like character development is the hard work that no one wants to talk about directly even while experiencing a tragedy of ethical issues. (See How Good People Make Tough Choices.)

Helicopter Parenting

There’s a disturbing trend that started a few decades ago and has apparently managed to trickle its way into university. It’s called “helicopter parenting,” because the parents are constantly hovering then swooping in to save their children from any harm. Michael Gurian argues in Saving Our Sons that we need to have some degree of rough and tumble life but that parents are depriving their children of these experiences.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that parents should never support their children or stand with them when they stand up to oppression. I’m saying they shouldn’t always stand with them. Sometimes, it’s important to stand back and watch what happens. (See my post Where the Consequences Live for more.)

John Duffy in The Available Parent walks the line of recommending more interaction with your children and avoiding the tendency to become overly involved. It’s true that children need discipline and structure, and as a generation of parents, we’ve deprived our children of the discipline they need.

The Last Lecture

Randy Pausch’s last lecture became very popular. (See The Last Lecture book review for more.) At Carnegie Mellon University, there’s a tradition of making your last lecture a big thing. It’s normally reserved for retiring professors. In Randy’s case, he was retiring – but due to a terminal pancreatic cancer. His lecture was a message for his children. He knew that he couldn’t survive to send them the strong, encouraging, and corrective signals they’d need. Instead, he used his last lecture to encode as much of his wisdom as possible in the awareness that the lecture was likely to survive the sands of time until his children had a chance to absorb it.

He minced no words when he explained that he was saddened by the degree to which kids are coddled and how they’re not taught the value of hard work. The book was published in 2008, and it seems like now we’re dealing with our young adults the outcomes of the coddling that Pausch was worried about over a decade ago. If you want to learn more, you may want to read The Coddling of the American Mind.