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Habits of Happiness

First of all, I want to thank everyone for being so understanding while I've been making my move to the new office. I'm slowly getting organized and the debit machine and some new furniture should be in place next week. I'm pleased that everyone seems to be happy about the improved parking situation and for those of you who live downtown that you haven't seemed to mind the walk across the bridge. 

Even though the move has been going smoothly, it's been so busy and I haven't had time to write for the blog (and my next immediate project to record a meditation audio to download). Mostly, I've been busy with administrative tasks - getting new business cards, changing my address with professional associations, and most exciting, getting my Alberta Health Services practitioner number so that I can now refer people to a psychiatrist directly (which will be very handy given that I work in an office with some really great psychiatrists). Before I had to send people back to their family doctor to get the referral, but so many people in Calgary don't have a family doctor that it has been very difficult since I moved to Alberta to help people get connected to the help that they need.

In any case, I wanted to post something quickly to tide you over until I am blogging more regularly again. So, I thought what could be better than one of my favorite TED talks: Habits of Happiness by Matthieu Ricard. Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk and often referred to as the happiest man in the world. In his uplifting 20 minute presentation he talks about how we can all train our minds in the habits of happiness. Inspiring and humorous, Ricard will help you feel that true and lasting happiness is within the reach of all of us regardless of our personal circumstances. Enjoy!



Online Booking Now Available!

I'm really excited to announce that online booking is now available! Now you can book your appointments 24/7 by clicking on the link at the top of the page and registering. I will make sure you get a phone call or email to remind you of your appointment and if you are coming for your first time I will give you a phone call within 24 hours to confirm your appointment and to learn a little more about your concerns.

If you prefer, you can still book an appointment by calling me directly at (403)561-6873 or by sending me an email.




I'm moving to Kensington!

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't posted anything new in a little while and I thought I should let you know that it's because I'm in the middle of moving to my new office. On May 1, 2009 (this Friday) I will be located at Suite 462, 301 14th Street NW. I'm going to be joining a group of wonderful psychiatrists and I am looking forward to working in this practice as I have always enjoyed collaborating and consulting with physicians (Psychiatrists have MDs and can prescribe meds and some, but not all, regularly do psychotherapy, while Psychologists have PhDs and can do psychological testing and psychotherapy). There is also lots of free 2 hour street parking next and near the building which will be a nice change from my downtown location.

You can still reach me at 403-561-6873 and at I'm also working on a few exciting changes to the website. Hopefully, early next week we'll have the kinks worked out and you'll be able to book your own appointments online (which there will be more of as I will be able to increase the hours that I work at this office). I'm also planning to post some meditation and relaxation mp3s to download as well as live webinars. Stay tuned and thanks for baring with me while I get settled into my new digs!



More than Willpower

"Habit is stronger than reason."

George Santayana

If you ever took a psychology course in high school or university, you are probably somewhat familiar with Pavlov. He is the Russian physiologist who discovered the conditioned reflex that basically works like this: if you give a dog a treat (unconditioned stimulus) when you ring a bell (conditioned stimulus), the dog will drool (unconditioned response). If you do this enough times, eventually you only need to ring the bell (conditioned stimulus) and the dog will drool involuntarily (conditioned response). To get rid of the conditioned response you would have to ring the bell over and over without giving a treat and after enough times the dog would stop drooling. If you gave a treat every so often when you rang the bell it would be harder to "extinguish" the behavior because the dog would never know if maybe this time a treat was coming (this is called a variable reinforcement schedule).

Why is this so interesting to a human psychologist, you ask? Well, we are built the same way and people don't realize that this sort of classical conditioning is involuntary (that's why it's called a reflex) and affects our own behavior without our even knowing it. For example, many cancer patients get nausea when they walk into the hospital before they receive their chemotherapy (or one person I worked with got anxious just driving down the road to the hospital long after her treatment was over). Some people become hungry simply by walking into the kitchen. Or maybe you work with a boss that reminds you of your ex-spouse and your not sure why you feel tense whenever you are in staff meetings. Smokers trying to quit often have worse cravings in certain situations, like if they are having a glass of wine or beer. And, if someone rang a bell every time they gave you a cookie, you would start to drool too whenever you heard that bell! There wouldn't be anything that you could do about it.

Like it or not, we are creatures of habit, or rather products of conditioning (well, at least a good portion of our behavior). The trouble is we are often quite hard on ourselves for being unable to change behaviors that are due to a conditioned response. We think that if we use force of will that we can overcome our "bad habits" or maybe others tell us to, "just get over it." The trouble is, these so-called habits are actually conditioned responses that we do not have any control over - they are involuntary!!

If you want to get rid of a conditioned response, you will need to work on it very gradually with great perseverance and patience. Walk into the kitchen enough times without eating and you will lose the conditioned response, go into the hospital over and over until you no longer have nausea, etc. Essentially, if you place yourself in the presence of some trigger (or conditioned stimulus) enough times it will lose it's hold over you. Sometimes, this is fairly easy because the reaction (conditioned response) doesn't create too much discomfort and you can ignore it. Other times, you may need some help because the feelings created by the trigger are overwhelming and you either want to run away or give in. In that case, you need to break down your deconditioning project into baby steps. If you are afraid of the hospital, maybe you are only able to drive a block away at first. The next time, you might get to the front door. The time after that, the lobby. No matter what it is, if you are able to experience the trigger without anything happening the response will go away! Just like if you ring a bell without giving a treat, the dog will eventually stop drooling. It's just the way we're built!

So, the next time you are down on yourself for not being able to change a behavior overnight, remember your reaction may be involuntary but that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do! Your body needs to unlearn the conditioned response (it's not enough to decide that you are not going to do something anymore). Little by little, step by step you can help establish healthy conditioned patterns to replace the old ones without feeling bad about yourself because you believe that you lack willpower. Here are a few suggestions that can help:

  1. Develop Awareness. The first step is simply becoming aware of your conditioned responses and don't let yourself go on autopilot. Often we let ourselves continue bad habits somewhat unconsciously. But if you can develop awareness (e.g., "Every time I feel sad I want to eat ice cream.") you have a better chance of changing the unwanted behavior.

  2. Exercise Your Coping Muscles. Once you have identified a conditioned reflex, you can practice not giving into the urge (e.g., "Just because I have the urge to smoke when I have this glass of wine, it doesn't mean that I have to give in. It's a conditioned response and it's not so bad that I can't resist! Over time it will go away"). The more you exercise your coping muscles, the sooner your urge or conditioned response will be extinguished.

  3. Baby Steps. When working on a particularly stubborn behavior, a behavioral psychologist can help you develop a hierarchy. Usually, this is done with phobias, or things you are afraid of because it would be too hard to make the change all at once. You make a list of different situations that would bring on a certain amount of fear and starting with the less scary options, you begin to face your fears and extinguish the response. For example, if you are afraid of spiders and run out of the room every time you see one, your fear of them will never change. Looking at the hierarchy below, you would start with looking at the cartoon picture of the spider until you no longer feel any fear. Then the picture of the real spider, then the youtube video, until you eventually can hold the real spider without panicking. You don't have to start with holding the spider (although that would be the fastest way) and it's important not to run away until the fear response disappears.

    • holding a spider 10/10

    • watching someone else hold the spider 9/0

    • being in the same room as a spider 8/10

    • being in the same room as a spider in a container 6/10

    • watching a youtube video of a spider 5/10

    • looking at a picture of a spider 3/10

    • looking at a cartoon drawing of a spider 2/10

  4. Find a Replacement Behavior. One of the best ways to get rid of one behavior is to find something else to replace it with. For example, people who take up exercise when trying to quit smoking are twice as likely to succeed and gain half the weight of non-exercisers.

  5. Get Rid of Your Triggers. Learn to avoid the situations or people who make it hard for you to resist your urge. If you overeat in the evening when you are watching tv, turn it off and read a book instead or better yet go for a walk. If you want to quit smoking, you might want to avoid your friends who still smoke or meet them in a restaurant where smoking isn't allowed.

  6. Write Down Your Reasons for Changing. It's a good idea to write down all the reasons you want to make changes on a small card and put it in your wallet or somewhere handy so that you can read it several times a day (e.g., I want to lose weight so that I can be healthy, wear nice clothes, not feel tired chasing after the kids, etc). It may sound silly, but without constantly reminding ourselves of the reasons we want to change we tend to lapse back into our old routines.

  7. Write Down a List of Things To Do Instead. Sometimes it can be hard to remember what we can do to resist an urge in the heat of the moment. If you were writing a card to help you deal with a craving for cigarettes it might go something like this: Instead of smoking I can 1) go for a walk 2) drink a glass of water 3) call a friend 4) meditate 5) listen to my relaxation cd.

  8. Get a Coach. A coach can be anyone who will help keep you accountable for the change you want to make. Whether it's weight loss, smoking, developing an exercise routine or facing a fear, having someone who can help keep you focussed on your goals can be a great help.

  9. Stay Positive. Contrary to popular belief, fear isn't a very good motivator. Instead of focusing on what you don't want or like about yourself, it will be easier to stay motivated if you daydream or think about the benefits of changing your behavior instead.

  10. Keep a Journal. In order to break a reflexive behavior that you do unconsiously it can be helpful to keep a record of your behaviour. In one study, dieters who wrote down everything they ate lost double the weight . Presumeably, this happens because you become more conscious of every bite that you take (a short cut could be using your cell phone camera to take a picture of everything you eat and then you can write it down at the end of the day).

The important thing to remember is that making changes often requires more than willpower. You need to understand that if a behavior is conditioned it is going to take some time and a plan before you stop feeling uncomfortable each time you resist it. Even then, the best of us relapse and fall back into old patterns. For example, most people have to make many attempts before they are successful at changing a behavior like smoking or overeating. Having a good understanding of why change and maintenence is so difficult can help keep you motivated and help you realize that it's not just your lack of willpower that makes it difficult.


Suffering Fools Patiently

The fool who thinks he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man; But the fool who thinks he is a wise man is rightly called a fool.


My favorite psychology research article of all time was published by Dunning and Kruger in 1999. In their work they demonstrated that the more competent an individual felt the less competent they were likely to be (and the more competent you are the more likely it is that you feel incompetent). After the laughter died down in Psychology Departments around the world, all of us thought, "Well, that makes so much sense!" Like the Buddha observed 2500 years ago, the wise man thinks himself a fool and the fool think of himself as a wise man.

What they found was that people who were incompetent couldn't tell when they were making mistakes and didn't know what skills they lacked. However, the competent individuals knew what they didn't know! They knew what they had left to learn and were more aware of their mistakes. A good example of this happens with grammar - if you don't know how to talk good, then you don't know how to go about talking more better!

Dunning and Kruger did find that with extensive training, incompetent individuals could improve. However, those who were incompetent tended to overestimate their ability, not recognize competence in others, and underestimate the extent to which they made mistakes. The Dunning-Kruger effect appears to be standing the test of time as well as replication, as you can read in their latest article: "Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent."

Now, while this research is very interesting, and explains A LOT, it has had a number of interesting effects on me personally since I read the original article. First, it has made me a great deal more patient with myself. It's very easy to be hard on yourself when you see everything else that you need to learn and get done in this lifetime. While I think it's good to be self-aware and know your own strengths and weaknesses - I don't think it helps to beat yourself up about it. You are where you are, and when you wish you were over there, then you will cause yourself suffering! Patience and self-compassion are required to moderate the harmful effects of self-criticism and I think this study shows how we might possess a "cognitive bias" or distorted thinking about our own level of competence. In fact, it points out that what you believe may not be true at all (and that is true of all the thoughts that cause us suffering).

The second benefit I found from reading this study is that it made me more patient with others! In grad school, I would meet weekly with my supervisor about my research and he would always ask me about my other classes and how life was going. While taking one particularly painful and annoying class, I would complain to him about it and the prof that who was teaching it. My supervisor would laugh, shake his head and would say to me, "Christine, you don't have to suffer fools gladly, but you do have to suffer them patiently!" That line always makes me laugh, but it really didn't help me suffer them patiently either (I just kept my mouth shut, but would still be boiling inside). After reading about the Kruger and Dunning effect, that was all I needed to be more patient. Suddenly, I realized that if you were incompetent you weren't doing it on purpose (it seems silly to me now that I ever thought that) and you don't know what to do to be more self-aware and competent. What an insight: People weren't deliberately trying to annoy me!

Now I work on expanding my patience to everyone who I may judge or criticize (incompetent individuals were just one group, that if I'm honest, I would look down on without realizing I was looking down on anyone). We all like to think that we don't judge, or have any prejudices, but the sad fact of the matter is that is the way we seem to be built. Essentially, you know you are judging someone when you start to feel annoyed, angry, frustrated, superior or any other negative emotion that creeps into your awareness. Behind every strong emotion, there is a thought lurking somewhere in you head causing all the trouble. Self-awareness means looking inward and rooting out all of our misconceptions and truly trying to understand and show compassion to ourselves and everyone around us. Giving up criticism and cultivating patience and compassion are terrific practices for a happier and more peaceful life. So the next time you're down on yourself for feeling incompetent (or critical of someone of someone else), tell yourself that it's actually a good sign and pat yourself on the back for having good self-awareness!