Smiling makes you happy

Here’s a great gift you can give to your family and friends, immediately, every day, for free, that will make everyone happy.

Smile and laugh more.

That’s right. Pretty simple, eh? It sure is.

But like a lot of things in life, it’s simple, yet profound.

Think about the times when you’ve been around little kids. Think about how you react and feel when a child smiles at you.

Do you smile back?

Do you feel happy?

It’s almost impossible not to smile back and feel happy. The genuine happiness exuded by kids is contagious. We can’t help but feel happy and smile back at them.

Decades of research have established beyond any doubt that smiling and laughing boost our well-being, reduce anxiety and stress, and help us cope with events in our lives – good or bad.

Lots of people think that our emotions dictate our facial expressions and body language. But did you know that it is actually just the opposite: our facial expressions and body language have a powerful effect on how we feel emotionally.

Studies show smiling has a direct impact on your emotions

In The How of Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubormirsky writes about a bunch of amazing studies on smiling.

Studies have demonstrated that when you smile, it has a direct impact on brain activities associated with happiness and positive emotions. In other words, if you are feeling gloomy or unhappy, the simple physical act of smiling or laughing can boost your mood.

She talks about a study that looked at what happened in people’s brains when moms smiled at their infants. This study found that moms who smile at their infants impact the emotions of their children. These infants begin to express positive emotions as well.

So, by smiling at your child you are actually giving them the gift of happiness. You can smile at your child whenever you want and it doesn’t cost a thing – in fact, you get rewarded in return.

Starting Fresh

Every once in a while we find ourselves getting bored. Things get stale. We don’t have the same excitement with our jobs or our hobbies. When we find ourselves just going through the motions, without any conscious thought or deliberation, that’s when it’s time to reboot, refresh, and recharge the batteries.

What’s the best way to recharge your batteries? I’ve found a couple of ways that are helpful to me personally that I want to share with you.

Detox from your digital life

First, I unplug completely. This is incredibly hard for me to do, because I am almost always connected to work and friends and family by email, text, etc.

Over Christmas, though, I turned off my email and texts and phone for four straight days. I did nothing but spend time with my wife and kids, read, and relax. I can tell you that I could physically feel my brain relaxing, unwinding, and clearing up. It was like a “massage for my brain.”

Have an attitude of gratitude

Second, have an attitude of gratitude. When you look at your life from the perspective of being grateful for where you are and what you have, you can see how lucky you really are.

It is so easy to forget how lucky you are because if you’re anything like me, you find yourself constantly looking toward the future about what you don’t have, what you want, and worrying about what the future holds.

If you look at your life with gratitude, then you’ll be fully present, and you’ll see everything that you have right now and appreciate how lucky you are. This will energize and inspire you.

For best results, rinse and repeat

At least twice a year, I turn off my phone, email, and text messages for an entire week. I read; relax; and spend time with my wife, my kids, and my friends. I spend as much time as I can with them. I go to bed early and wake up early to watch a few sunrises.

Starting fresh doesn’t work if you only do it once. You have to recognize when you’re starting to burn out and get too stressed. Give your brain a vacation and a massage a few times a year. The instructions on your shampoo bottle apply to your life – rinse and repeat.

Heck, I may even go fishing.

How to win an argument

One of my jobs as a lawyer is to be persuasive. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed. That said, I have become much more effective recently with my persuasion abilities than I was when I first started as a lawyer. That’s because I’ve spent a lot of time studying cognitive psychology and the latest science as it relates to how the human mind works.

Here’s a nice tip that I recently read that I thought you may be able to use in your own life. If you want to win an argument, don’t argue. As soon as you start arguing with someone, their brain puts up defensive mechanisms. If you start your “argument” by arguing, people will start to immediately think about all the reasons that you’re wrong and they are right. It’s next to impossible to convince someone that you are right and they are wrong by arguing your position first.

Start by asking good questions

The most effective way to persuade people to see your position is to start by asking questions. Question the other person about why they feel the way they feel and ask them to support their position with facts and information. Inquire how strongly they feel about their position and whether they would ever be willing to change it.

When you argue with somebody their brain goes into “fight or flight mode.” They want to protect their ideas like they are some sort of expensive jewelry. On the other hand, when you ask people questions, they don’t go into fight or flight mode. Instead they automatically start thinking about why they believe the way they believe.

Most people don’t spend any time at all actually trying to determine whether their thoughts and ideas are correct or incorrect. They would rather come up with conclusions based on what they want to be true, and then, after the fact, look for reasons to support the position they already hold. This is called “confirmation bias in cognitive psychology.

When you ask people to support the positions they hold with actual facts, you’ll discover that most people’s thoughts and opinions are based on nothing but thin air, tradition, conventional wisdom, the way they grew up, what their parents told them, what some influential teacher told them, what they read on the Internet, or some other less than fact-based reason.

Let them figure things out on their own

You have to let people convince themselves that they figured all this out on their own. You have to let people learn for themselves why they may be incorrect in the way they think about certain things. And the only way to do that is to ask them questions and let them figure it out.

So if you want to be more persuasive, if you want to “win” more arguments with your spouse, your boss, your coworkers, or your kids, stop arguing with them. Instead, be genuinely and openly curious and ask them questions about why they think the way they think and feel the way they feel.

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How I almost lost my mind, and how I got it back

I’d like to tell you a quick story.

A couple of years ago, I felt like I was losing my mind. And I mean that quite literally.  I would read all sorts of political commentary on social media and the Internet, and it seemed to me like half the world was insane. The half of the world that I felt was insane, not coincidentally, was the half of the world that had different political views than I did.

At one point, during the presidential debates, I called my dad and brother to discuss the results of one of the debates. I am closer to my dad and brother than any other two men in the world, with the possible exception of my two sons. We disagreed on the outcome of the debates. In fact we had completely opposite conclusions about what happened in the debate.

Here is the crazy part, though: both my dad and brother are highly intelligent people and also people of good faith. I started asking myself this question:

How can two people of intelligence and good faith watch the exact same thing and come to completely opposite conclusions?

I became fascinated with this question. In fact, I became a little obsessed. So I do what I tend to do when I get interested in a subject; I started reading.

What I discovered next opened my eyes to a whole new reality. I learned about cognitive biases. And it changed my life.

A lot of science has come out over the past two decades about how human beings cannot think rationally. Every single one of us is looking at the world through sunglasses that distort reality. Even if you are aware that you are biased, it is still often impossible to see clearly through that bias.

Scientists have discovered all sorts of cognitive biases.  One type, confirmation bias, explains how some people  only seek out information that supports the position they already hold. Cognitive dissonance describes people that perform mental gymnastics in order to support a position that they know is probably incorrect. Scientists have identified at least 30 other known cognitive biases.

But the trick with cognitive biases is not getting rid of them. You cannot rid yourself of cognitive bias. The trick is being aware of your bias so the biases don’t control your thinking.

I spent most of my time over the course of the last year or so, on the Internet and social media watching cognitive biases play themselves out in real time. It’s been absolutely fascinating. Facebook in particular completely confirms what science has been saying for two decades – people are driven primarily by unconscious mental processes rather than any conscious thought. Most people aren’t even aware of their biases most of the time, if at all. If, however, you can at least be aware that you’re biased, then the biases have much less effect on your thinking and behavior.

I plan to spend the next few months writing about my experiences with cognitive biases, neurolinguistic programming, hypnosis, and basic awareness training, along with my experiences meditating over the last four years. My hope is that I will reach a few people and perhaps cause them to reassess the way they look at the world in a more positive direction.

I’m convinced that one of the most important issues facing our country and our human species in general is the collision between our cognitive biases and how we look at the world. I’m also convinced that one of the most important things anyone can do today to make the world a better place is to help both themselves and other people understand how our brains are flawed in the direction of bias. This is important so that we can become aware of those biases and not let them drive our behavior all the time.

I’m excited about this project. I’m excited that you’ll be on the journey with me, and I’m excited that together, we will likely continue to discover some fascinating things about ourselves and the world.

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My thoughts on the college cheating scandal

I’m sure most of you have read the stories about various CEOs, celebrities, law firm partners, and other powerful people cheating to get their children into so-called prestigious universities.  Much of the focus has been on celebrities themselves, which isn’t surprising, because they’re celebrities for a reason. Some of the focus has been on the colleges themselves, and how these colleges let this slip through the cracks.

I think that’s the wrong focus.  The college admissions scandal is a great illustration of two important facts about our country right now.

1. Powerful people feel entitled to do what they want

The first is this: some powerful people feel entitled to do basically whatever they want to do as long as they don’t get caught. They feel a sense of entitlement, like somehow they and their kids are better than the rest of us. They feel like the rules don’t apply to them. You can see this every single day when our politicians take millions of dollars from huge corporations so they can change the rules to protect the corporations that don’t need protecting.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that one of the most important issues facing our country right now is not the battle between Trump and the democrats, or republicans and conservatives versus liberals and lefties, but powerful people and huge corporations versus the rest of us.

That’s what the college admission scandal is really about. Powerful people using their influence and money to gain an advantage over the rest of us in a way that doesn’t follow the rules. Heck, there was a poor black mother who got thrown in jail for six years for sending her kid to a school in the wrong school district so her son could get a better education. Let’s see what happens to all these powerful celebrities and CEOs whose conduct was worse and I’d be surprised if they faced any real consequences.

2. College admissions have become insane

I think the other important lesson out of the college admission scandal is how insane college admissions have become in general. Does it really matter if you get into Harvard or Yale, as opposed to Texas A&M or the University of Texas? It doesn’t matter at all. As somebody who has hired and fired employees over almost 20 years, I can tell you that the best employees I’ve had typically didn’t go to Ivy League colleges. I don’t think they get a better education than you would get at a good public school. In fact, I think a good public school teaches you more lessons about real life than any so-called elite or so-called prestigious Ivy League school.

One of the best things about the Internet, email, texting, and current technology in general is it’s much harder for people to cheat without getting caught. I predict we’re going to see a lot more of these kind of stories, where powerful people and corporations get caught trying to cheat the rules that benefit themselves at the expense of us all.

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Character v. accomplishments

I am a collector of quotes. Particularly quotes that change my perspective or reframe the way I look at the world.  

A few weeks ago, my wife told me about a fantastic quote I wanted to share. My wife and I have three kids ages 15, 13, and 10. They all play sports competitively, and they work very hard on their grades (okay, the 15-year old has to be pushed a little bit, but you get the point). Over the years, I’ve had a tendency to get really excited when one of my children does something really good. I pat them on the back, give them lots of encouragement, tell them how awesome they are, etc. etc.  

The quote my wife told me about changed my view on how I was encouraging my children. Here’s the quote:  

“Celebrate your kid’s character before you celebrate their accomplishments.”

Celebrate your children’s character first

Think about that for a second. When you celebrate your kid’s accomplishments first, you’re teaching them that they get positive reactions based on whether they win or lose, not necessarily how they play the game. That’s ingraining in their psyche the notion that accomplishments are the most important thing, as opposed to character.

On the other hand, if you celebrate your kid’s character before their accomplishments, you’re teaching them that how you play the game is more important.  You show your kids that it is less important whether you win or lose, or make a bunch of money in your job, or go to all the right schools, or have a bunch of followers on social media. None of that stuff means anything at the end of the day. What truly matters is whether we are raising good, solid human beings with a moral framework to make decisions as they grow into adulthood.

Accomplishments don’t last

Accomplishments are also transitory. They don’t last. They slip away. Maybe your child doesn’t accomplish what he or she wants to accomplish. That happens all the time, both in children and adults. If you are accomplishment-focused, then you will tend to feel bad about yourself regardless of how you end the game, and you’ll judge your self-worth based on whether you win or lose. That’s a toxic way to look at the world.

On the other hand, if your kids are focused more on character traits like hard work, perseverance, ethics, compassion, kindness, charity, or whatever other character traits you think are appropriate, they will be more focused on a much more important thing. How you play the game.

Cheaters don’t always win

I love winning. I hate losing. I love accomplishing things. I hate setting goals and not reaching them. So it’s not as if accomplishments aren’t important. But you don’t really accomplish anything of any substance without character behind it.  Sure, there are plenty of people that made a lot of money and cheated to get it. There are people that win sporting events unfairly. As we’ve seen from the college admission scandals, there are parents who conned their child’s way into prestigious universities. Those may seem like successes, but if you don’t have character to back it up, it’s not repeatable, it doesn’t last.

Character is repeatable and lasting. If you have good character traits, you will be successful, whether you make the most money, have the most Instagram followers, or go to the most prestigious school. What’s important is how you get there, building your character along the way.

I thought this was a super important quote and wanted to share it with all of you. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this quote.

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Why I love being wrong

I’ve been fascinated by science, math, engineering, and technology since I was a young boy.

One of the most important parts of science is the scientific method. The scientific method is about whether you can prove yourself wrong. When someone comes up with a scientific idea, the only way to test it is to try to falsify the idea. If the idea is not falsifiable, it’s not scientifically provable either. Scientists love being wrong, because that’s how knowledge advances.

The scientific method wants you to be wrong

Most people hate being wrong. I have bad news for those people. If you hate being wrong, it’s likely you’ll be wrong a lot more often than you will be right.

You should love proving yourself wrong. Search for information that disconfirms your beliefs. Don’t search for information that confirms beliefs I already have. That’s called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the exact opposite of the scientific method. It guarantees you’ll be wrong more than right, and it guarantees you won’t grow and improve. Instead, with the scientific method, you have a built-in mental model for avoiding confirmation bias because you are intentionally looking for reasons why you are wrong

Currently, I think our country has a huge problem with people not wanting to be wrong. One of the problems we have right now is that everyone is so sure of their opinions.  They don’t want to listen to what anyone else says, and in fact, when they learn that they’re wrong, they tend to double down on their position. This shuts down critical thought because their brain simply cannot admit they’re wrong.

Life is about mistakes and changing your mind is okay

The only way to grow is to make mistakes. Making mistakes about the way you look at the world, and correcting for those mistakes, is how you grow as a human being.  You cannot grow as a human being if you’re not willing to change your opinions.  In fact, if you’re not willing to change your opinions, even the most important things in your life, then you’re not growing, you’re dying.

By contrast, if you’re willing to change your mind about beliefs, even your most deeply held and cherished beliefs, then you are almost guaranteed to continue to grow.  Mistakes are growth opportunities.  And the only way you can make mistakes is to be wrong!

So as you look at your social media feeds, read newspapers or watch TV, instead of trying to figure out why you’re always right, try to figure out where your beliefs are wrong.  That’s the best way to grow. It’s super exciting to learn that you are wrong so you can make corrections and be more right in the future, and it’s a lot of fun too.

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“Why?” is the worst question you can ask

As a lawyer, one of my most important jobs is to persuade people to vote for my client. There has been a lot of science recently about how peoples’ minds work, the best persuasion techniques to use to get people to agree with your position, and other things like that.

Over Spring Break this year, I purchased a hypnosis course. No, not the kind of the hypnosis where you wave a watch in front of somebody and make him jump around like a monkey. Instead, I was interested in learning more about how therapists use hypnosis to help their patients see the world in a different way.

The course was phenomenal, I learned a lot of very important things. Perhaps the thing that struck with me most was how to ask appropriate questions.

What to ask instead of “Why?”

When somebody is having problems, or issues of some sort, whether that be sadness, anger, problems at work, or whatever, we all have a tendency to ask “Why?” We think that this shows that we are empathizing with the other person and trying to help them. 

Brain science says that “Why?” is the worst question you can ask somebody who is in a troubled state. 

Why would that be the case? So for example, let’s say your spouse says she’s feeling upset. The natural human tendency is to ask, “Why are you upset, honey?”  In fact, until I took the hypnosis course last week, that’s exactly what I’ve always done. I‘ve always thought that if I ask “Why?” that it would show that I care and I’m concerned about the other person.

The problem is it doesn’t work. When you ask somebody why, you literally force their brain to search for reasons to justify why they are currently feeling the way they feel.  You’re actually making matters worse. So to take the example I just used, if your spouse says he or she is upset about something, and you ask them why they’re upset, their brain will search for all the reasons to justify why they feel the way they do.

Fascinating.

Better questions are available. The two best ways to ask questions when somebody comes to you in a problematic state is to ask either “how?” or “what?” type of questions. So again, to use the example we’ve been using to write this article, if your spouse comes to you because he or she is upset, rather than ask why they are upset, ask, “How can I help you feel better?” Or ask, “What can I do to help you?”

Asking the right questions helps people see past their problems and find solutions

Do you see the difference? When you ask somebody how or what questions, instead of forcing their brains to ruminate on the problems they’re already having, you force their brains to look for solutions to the problems. It’s really a miraculous way to help people see past their problems and look for solutions.

So now that you know this, why would you ever do anything different? What about maybe trying to incorporate this into your own life?  How many ways do you think this may help you?

Mr. Rogers and the art of noticing

Have you ever paid attention to what you notice? Do you notice visual things first? How you feel? What you’re hearing? What you notice first when you walk into a room is going to be different than what everyone else notices.

We all notice things differently. But we aren’t always that good at noticing things. We all spend more time than we’d like to admit on auto-pilot. Science backs this up. An article in Psychology Today walks us through a few exercises to see how much we really notice in the world around us. The point of the article is to show us that when we realize we haven’t paid attention to things, we actually remember them better.

For example, can you locate the nearest fire extinguisher to you without getting up or moving around? Can you remember where it is? If you can’t remember where it is off the top of your head, go find it. Studies show that if I ask you to do this exercise again in three months, you will remember where it is right away.

The fact of the matter is that we have to practice noticing things to get better at it. We don’t just get better at noticing the visual and physical things in the world around us, we get better at the internal things too. Our feelings, reactions, and state of mind are crucial to how we experience life.

How Mr. Rogers can help you be better at noticing

I was recently sent a video of Mr. Rogers giving an acceptance speech at the Emmys in the 90s. He was a master at noticing things. And in this speech, he reminds us to take time and reflect on the people who have influenced us. He says:

“So many people have helped me to come here to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away and some are even in Heaven. All of us have special ones who loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. 10 seconds, I’ll watch the time. Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they have made.”

I know that when I run on autopilot, I tend to forget these people. It doesn’t mean they aren’t important to me. It just means they are there in the back of my mind even when I’m not consciously thinking about them. Watching the video, I took 10 seconds and thought about the people in my life who have helped me become who I am.

In that moment, Mr. Rogers made millions of people stop, take notice of their inner selves, and experience gratitude. Decades later, he made me do the same.

The art of noticing is about experiencing the world around you and then the world inside you. Aside from becoming a regular Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be blown away by the way you experience life when you pay attention and notice everything.

Watch the video and use those 10 seconds to reflect on the people who are most important to you. And, if I ask you in three months who those people are, you’ll be able to name them right away and explain why they’re important to you.

Enthusiasm

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Nothing was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Emerson was right.

Think about the times when you achieved something in your life that was really worthwhile. Were you enthusiastic about the work you had to do to achieve your goal? Wasn’t it a lot easier to achieve that goal because of your enthusiasm? Enthusiasm creates energy – it makes work easier and more enjoyable, it keeps you from getting discouraged, and it keeps you going when the going gets tough.

When I was in high school, one of my only goals was to play basketball in college. I was a decent athlete but nothing special. But man, was I fired up and enthusiastic about practicing hard enough to get good enough to play in college. I remember staying at the gym until 10:00 at night, practicing 5 and 6 hours a day. I would wake up on Saturday mornings and drive an hour to find pick-up games against good college players. I would watch games and read books about great basketball players. I attended basketball camps.

There is absolutely no way I could practice basketball for even an hour a day now. I don’t read books about basketball, and I only watch the occasional basketball game. I’m just not enthusiastic about it any more. But when I was, I could practice and watch basketball and play forever, and it was easy. I was enthusiastic.

Here’s the thing: Enthusiasm is a choice. You can choose to be enthusiastic. It doesn’t happen automatically.

So, figure out something you really want. Figure out why you want it. Think about how you would feel if you achieved your goal. And then choose to be enthusiastic about it.

Four ways to reduce stress instantly

We live in stressful times. Sometimes it seems as if modern society was designed to cause stress, anxiety, and depression. We are barraged with an endless stream of nonsense from the Internet, email, social media, and fake news sites. Most of this stream of garbage is very depressing.

It makes sense to reduce your stress levels. But how do you do it quickly?

We know that over time, we can reduce stress by removing the triggers that cause stress in our lives. Taking a digital detox. Sleeping more. Exercising more. Spending more quality time with family and friends. Meditating. Praying. Fasting. Reading. Writing. But all these things take time and only work over the long haul.

How do you reduce stress in the short term? Because when you’re feeling stressed you want a solution sooner rather than later, right?

Here are four quick ideas you can use to immediately reduce stress, backed by neuroscience and brought to you by one of my favorite writers on the Internet, Eric Barker of Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

1) Clench and relax your facial muscles.

Your brain and body communicate with each other. When you feel stress, your body tenses up, including the muscles in your jaw and face. When you relax your facial muscles, you send a signal to your brain that it’s time to relax.

I first realized that my facial muscles were tense most of the time during a meditation session. I never realized that I had a habit of tensing and clenching my facial muscles. Once I realized my facial muscles were tense, it was pretty easy to just mindfully relax my facial muscles when I was feeling more stress than usual.

2) Breath deeply and slowly

Breathing properly stimulates the vagus nerve which is one of the quickest ways to change your emotional state and reduce stress. You have to breathe correctly though. To do it, just breathe in slowly for a count of six, pause at the very top of the inhalation, then breathe out through your nose at the same rate for the same amount of time.

If you want to increase your energy, do the opposite (breathe faster).

3) Splash cold water on your face

This is one of my favorite things to do in the summer when I’m in Colorado. In Houston in the summer when you turn on the cold water it’s not really cold, it’s lukewarm. In Colorado the cold water is actually really cold. I love to splash cold water on my face almost as soon as I get out of bed in the morning.

4) Dance to one of your favorite songs

This last idea may seem goofy but it works. In fact, I find that sometimes when I’m in a particularly great mood I will listen to music and “jam” spontaneously. When I listen to one of my favorite songs turned all the way to eleven, I’m often tapping the beat on my car’s steering wheel or doing a little mini-dance while I get ready for work. I know I probably look like a complete idiot but frankly when I’m in that mood I don’t care. It works.

These tips help me feel calmer and help me be in the moment. When we’re stressed, we’re not able to be present and experience what’s happening around us. Try these tips and you’ll be able to “be there totally,” in the words of Eckhart Tolle.

The art of focus

In our technologically-advanced age, people are constantly trying to multi-task. We are trying to do more than one thing at the same time. We think multi-tasking makes us more productive.

Well, it doesn’t. Multi-tasking actually makes us less productive. All sorts of studies prove it, including a recent study. This Stanford University study proved that people multi-tasking across electronic devices cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time. Startling information, considering how many of us text/browse the internet while watching TV. We are more productive if we do one thing at a time – if we uni-task.

Don’t multi-task. Uni-task.

How do you become more productive through uni-tasking? You simplify and focus.

Simplifying is about saying no, to yourself and others. This is not easy to do. You may hurt some feelings or you may feel like you are turning down opportunities. But if you simplify, you can focus. And if you focus on the right things, you’ll be better and more effective at the things that matter.

At the end of the day, no one really cares about how many things you do. They care about how well you do the things that are important to you.

So while you may be able to send a text message, answer an email, read Facebook, drink a coffee, and do your “real” work at the same time, my bet is that you aren’t doing any of those things as effectively as you would if you set aside time for each task and really focused on the task at hand.

Try this experiment for one week: do one thing at a time.

Simplify and focus your attention and energy on that one thing. See how it works. I’ll bet you will be more effective and less stressed. I’ll also bed that what you spend time working on will turn out better than if you try to do too many things at once.