Dr. Scott Glassman: “Practice directed mindfulness”

The key to more consistent happiness, and resilience, is gratitude. Any time you enter a state of thankfulness, recognizing the gifts in your life, you are accessing a very deep source of well-being, one that can withstand the force of life’s turbulence. It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or […]

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The key to more consistent happiness, and resilience, is gratitude. Any time you enter a state of thankfulness, recognizing the gifts in your life, you are accessing a very deep source of well-being, one that can withstand the force of life’s turbulence.

It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Scott Glassman.

Scott Glassman, Psy.D. is a psychologist and author of A Happier You: A Seven-Week Program to Transform Negative Thinking into Positivity and Resilience. He teaches graduate psychology courses at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), where he is a Clinical Associate Professor. Dr. Glassman is also a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers and has been a speaker and trainer at many national and regional organizations, including the American Psychological Association.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Health and wellness have always been a part of my life story. I grew up in a home where my father, a physician in private practice, often encouraged me to get involved in the healthcare field. I remember shadowing him in the operating room in high school, admiring how much skill, confidence, and focus he showed in these high-pressure situations. My mother was an art school graduate, photographer, and clothing designer. She instilled in me an appreciation for the power of creativity. I think because I was a shy, sensitive, and introverted kid, I gravitated more toward creative pursuits. I was very happy spending time alone reading and writing, diving into my imagination and delighting in what I found there. I always hoped one day to be an author, but was also fascinated with astronomy and archaeology. I think all of our childhood passions stay with us in one way or another. The kind of awe I felt in looking through my backyard telescope or seeing pictures of excavated Egyptian artifacts became an important piece of how I think about psychological well-being today. Appreciation of beauty and mystery can play an important role in happiness. I continue to find joy in the world of ideas as an adult. Every idea is the genesis of something that could profoundly change people’s lives for the better.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My journey to becoming a psychologist actually began with some painful childhood experiences. I was bullied severely in middle school at a time before bullying was recognized as a public health issue. I became severely depressed as a result, often wondering if I would ever be happy in my life. I was fortunate though to meet a wonderful psychologist, who was the warmest, most affirming person I could ever imagine coming into my life. It was clear he wasn’t focused on “fixing the depression” as much as highlighting my strengths. He genuinely valued my sensitivity, creativity, and thoughtfulness. I was really drawn to the idea that you could instill hope simply by talking with someone. As I recovered, I knew I wanted to learn everything I could about psychology and how to help others improve their lives. The next burst of career inspiration came while I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. I joined Dr. Martin Seligman’s lab as an interventionist for the Penn Resiliency Project. We taught cognitive strategies to middle school students to help them manage stressful life events. This was about two years before Dr. Seligman brought positive psychology into the spotlight as an important field of study. It’s interesting because we were immersed in this work already, even though the term “positive psychology” hadn’t yet made its way into the world. It also felt like I had come full circle at a personal level, providing the same kind of preventive skill-based support to middle school students that I wish I had received during my own middle school years.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Sometimes the key to achieving success is having someone remind you of your strengths, especially when you are having trouble seeing them for yourself. My father was one of those people. When I think about him now, he reaffirms my desire to invite the best of who I am into all situations. In my book A Happier You, I write about finding a sealed letter he wrote to me before his death. In that letter, he asked me to always remember that I “come from tough stuff.” He was reminding me that we often underestimate our capacity to bounce back from life’s challenges. It also made me reflect on what that “tough stuff” is. For me, it’s the personal strengths that can fly under the radar, which include love, curiosity, enthusiasm, and appreciation of beauty. This journey is not about “toughing it out” as much as cultivating our best personal attributes. This includes honoring the power of self-compassion, vulnerability, and an openness to learning from our mistakes. Our strengths aren’t always apparent though. Sometimes they need to be “woken up” into the world of action and awareness. I would encourage anyone who needs a similar reminder to think of an example of a time in the past week they showed a strength. If you can’t think of something, it may help to ask someone who cares about you what positives they see in you. There’s a high probability that evidence of your strengths is there, ready and waiting to be brought to the surface of your attention.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

After working for a number of years as a mental health counselor in the field of substance use, I began to lose the spark for what I was doing. I think it was a combination of burnout and wanting to explore new horizons with my master’s degree. I thought that working on the administrative side of behavioral health might be a better fit. After spending a couple years outside of clinical work, I discovered how much I missed it. However, by that time, I was in a well-paying position in test development for medical student exams — very far away from my original intention in taking that first career detour. I learned two important lessons. First, it’s never too late for a course correction! I re-entered the counseling field reinvigorated to learn more about health psychology. Soon afterward, I enrolled in a doctoral program in clinical psychology where I could focus more intently on that area. The second lesson was that sometimes we need detours in life to learn about ourselves. Our values can guide us in helpful directions, but our values also change as we grow and experience life, leading us in directions we never thought we would go in. We don’t always immediately know where our “best fit” in life lies. This is true both in our careers and relationships. But if we can meet that uncertainty with compassion rather than self-criticism, we stand a much better chance of making the necessary adjustments in healthy ways.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am currently developing an online Master in Applied Positive Psychology program at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. This program will give students a foundation for understanding how we can better promote well-being at individual, community, and global levels. I get excited when I think about how we can build a new kind of leadership for the future, across fields, equipping our graduates with a research-based approach to cultivating resilience and happiness. I’m also exploring innovative online pathways to happiness through my program, A Happier You. Over 7 weeks, A Happier You guides groups of participants through positive psychology practices in areas that include mindfulness, personal strengths, accomplishments, gratitude, lightness in life, and kindness. During the pandemic, A Happier You has combined virtual community-building with teaching happiness-boosting skills in unique ways. On Clubhouse, an audio-only mobile app, I recently started a “Habits of Positive Leaders” group where we discuss different topics each week around personal growth. Virtual forums like Clubhouse and our online Happier You program can connect people from around the world, encouraging the collaborative development of transformative ideas that can shape our future in positive ways.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The single most important trait that has contributed to my success in leadership is mindfulness. After a car accident in 2004 left me with chronic back pain, I found that mindfulness — the ability to bring a soft nonjudgmental awareness to present moment experiences — helped me feel more in control, hopeful, and ready to advance proactively toward my goals. It is much more difficult to interact with the world in a positive way if the relationship you have with yourself is ruminative or adversarial. I learned how to step out of the story of what happens to me. With mindfulness, we can find the space of equanimity around anything that arises in awareness — pleasant or unpleasant. By being continually mindful of what my body needs, such as when I notice that I’m sitting too long, I can take better care of myself. By taking better care of myself, I become more creative, productive, and emotionally present for those who depend on me.

The second trait is empathy, although I view it more as a skill than a trait. All my relationships deepened when I learned the art of complex reflective listening. Complex, or deep, reflective listening is conveying the unspoken meaning in what someone says to you in a conversation. Listening to someone in this way forms the foundation of caring, a kind of selfless gift. Over the years, students have sometimes come to me feeling upset about something that has gone wrong in the course of their graduate work. Those conversations almost always have gone better when I first set aside my inclination to solve the problem. I make it my primary goal to understand and validate their experience.

A third trait I have found crucial to success is hope. Maintaining a hopeful stance about the world keeps my energy level high as a psychologist. Most of the time, we are all doing the best we can given the circumstances of our lives. Seeing the best in people also generates a more compassionate mindset. We have an inherent capacity to grow in positive directions under the right conditions. This hopeful view of human nature has inspired me to spend my career thinking about how we can create positive ripple effects to strengthen well-being. One of the wonderful outcomes of this hopefulness was a campus-wide kindness exchange at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where I have taught psychology for the past 8 years. People left kind messages attached to a banner over the course of a month. It was inspiring to see the outpouring of good-heartedness. We had hundreds of contributions to that project by the end. It was clear that together we had created a stronger sense of campus community.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?

I have 13 years of experience in motivational interviewing, a strengths-focused conversational style that helps people change in positive ways. This professional focus really prepared me to notice how positive thoughts, feelings, and intentions emerge in relationships and language. My doctoral research focused on how positive emotional experiences arise during conversations. One of the most interesting findings was that we often move between two sets of positive emotions: passive and active. Passive positive feelings like comfort, safety, and trust were connected to receiving empathy. The more active emotions, like hope, enthusiasm, confidence, pride, and excitement, were usually associated with describing accomplishments. Happiness seems to be a combination of these passive and active positive emotional states, emerging in the context of a caring relationship. In running the Happier You program over the past 4 years, I’ve paid close attention to what makes people feel good and how they communicate it. From my observations, survey feedback, and reading the positive psychology literature, feelings like joy, meaning, and connectedness are interrelated. They work hand-in-hand in contributing to subjective well-being.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?

To understand reasons for the US’s lower ranking, it’s helpful first to look at the top-ranked country for happiness. In 2020, it was Finland. When you look at Finland, you can see a number of factors that contribute to its stellar rating: clean air, natural beauty with pristine lakes and forests, low crime levels, universal healthcare, a strong educational system, a higher level of socioeconomic equality, and the Fins’ tendency to lead active lifestyles which include jogging, biking, and camping. The impact of healthy lifestyles should not be underestimated. If we look at Denmark, the third-ranked country in happiness in 2020, we find that its capital Copenhagen is known as the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. In 2019, it was estimated that 62% of its residents commute to work by bike. The message is clear. To increase collective happiness in the US, we should take care of our environment, increase equality, invest in our educational and healthcare systems, and encourage active, healthy lifestyles. Increasing the average paid time off American workers receive each year may also help. Finland, for instance, offers an average of 30 days off annually, whereas the average is 17 in the US. Finland workers tend to use all their days too! This suggests that we need to create a stronger norm around self-care, personally and institutionally. We need to give ourselves permission to recharge our batteries more often.

What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

One myth is that happiness depends on having a lot of money. Research suggests that money increases happiness at lower income levels, but that this effect diminishes at higher levels. There seems to be what’s called a “satiation point” at which well-being no longer rises with income. Related to that, lottery winners are not significantly happier than non-winners after the thrill of winning has worn off. There’s also evidence that people who focus on money as their primary happiness fuel are less satisfied with their lives. Happiness seems to depend more on how we spend the money we have. If we spend it on activities that satisfy our needs for connection, autonomy, and personal growth, we are more likely to feel fulfilled in life. Examples include buying guitar lessons, going to a restaurant with a friend you haven’t seen in years, or supporting a community-based charity.

Another misconception is that a happy life lacks adversity. While it’s true that major losses and trauma threaten well-being, not facing challenges in life can actually limit our growth. We may miss out on chances to develop new skills, to gain clarity around our values, and to build confidence in overcoming future obstacles. Although I wish bullying had never been a part of my life, I’ve found a great source of strength and meaning in having survived it. That early adversity led to what I do today as a psychologist. With the appropriate professional help, adversity can build resilience and contribute to your “why” in the world, becoming a core part of your personal mission, as it did for me.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

I think one of the main mistakes people make in searching for happiness is taking an all-or-nothing approach, believing that they need to achieve major life goals in order to be truly happy. Seeing life through that all-or-nothing lens can certainly increase your drive to reach your most important goals, but it has a downside too. It can make you see anything short of that goal as less valuable — or not valuable at all! Not only can this result in chronic dissatisfaction, but what often ends up happening is that you begin chasing something else once you reach the so-called peak of that mountain. This has been called the “hedonic treadmill,” where you find yourself constantly seeking the “next big thing” to feel happy. Also, that “summit” you had your heart set on may not feel as wonderful as you expected once you get there. As an example, I once thought that if I just found the right life partner, I would have made it. I would have found my bliss and all would be well. While meeting my future wife certainly made me a lot happier, I quickly began to focus on what I was lacking in other areas, namely my career. The lesson is that if you make happiness all about reaching a destination, you can easily miss the enjoyable and meaningful moments along the way. It’s our ability to appreciate the bright moments in the process of life, as we work toward our goals, that may matter most.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

The first key to living with more joy and happiness is to practice directed mindfulness. This is the core skill I write about in my book A Happier You. Being mindful means becoming a nonjudgmental observer to whatever is happening in your life. In contrast, directed mindfulness involves focusing the power of your attention on positive aspects of experience. Another word for it is “savoring.” By looking closely at the good moments that happen to us throughout the day — the compliment someone gave us, the delicious dessert we ate, the surprise recognition we received at work — we can generate stronger positive feelings, thoughts, and meanings. How do you focus your mind in this way? You ask yourself questions. For example, I’m often grabbing food on the go due to my busy schedule. I like fruit, raspberries especially, as a snack. When I eat a single raspberry, I will eat it slowly and ask myself questions like, “What am I enjoying most about the flavor?”, “How is eating this raspberry versus a cookie a healthy decision for me?”, and “In what ways can I appreciate nature through this raspberry?” The answers to these questions almost always expand the depth and range of good feelings in that moment. I feel a sense of awe in considering everything that went into creating the opportunity to eat that raspberry — time, sunlight, rain, soil, the farm industry, taking a self-care break, my health. By answering these questions in your mind, you can become more fully immersed in the expansive meanings of that present moment, feeling more joyful or fulfilled as a result.

The second key to increasing a sense of well-being in life is to recognize our personal strengths and celebrate our small wins. Each of us has a set of core strengths that we can bring to the forefront of awareness. We can do that best by finding examples of those strengths in what we do every day. How do you identify your strengths? I offer a strengths list in my book as a set of possibilities, but you can also ask yourself, “What positive qualities do I see in myself, or do others see in me?” Once you settle on one or two strengths — let’s say it’s persistence and creativity — you can begin exploring how those strengths appear in your life. Maybe you were persistent today by solving a work problem that had many roadblocks, or maybe you set aside some time at night to paint, which satisfied your creative side. When we catch our strengths in action, we can consider these successes, or wins. We also open the door to a powerful stream of positive thoughts about ourselves, like “I am effective at tackling tough obstacles” and feelings like satisfaction, excitement, enthusiasm, and hope. It’s my opinion that, for us to maximize happiness, we need to be willing to shine the spotlight on any evidence of that strength, no matter how small. Simply getting out of bed on a Friday morning at the end of a grueling work week could be one of those small wins, which clearly reflects the quality of persistence.

The third key to more consistent happiness, and resilience, is gratitude. Any time you enter a state of thankfulness, recognizing the gifts in your life, you are accessing a very deep source of well-being, one that can withstand the force of life’s turbulence. Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, talks about how appreciating the simple parts of nature helped him find the will to survive amid the worst of human conditions. From a contemporary perspective, Sonya Lyubomirsky calls the expression of gratitude a “meta-strategy” for happiness because it seems to activate multiple channels of well-being. I would say that both the internal experience of gratitude and its expression are equally powerful doorways into happiness. For example, try this little experiment. Think about someone in your life you are grateful right now. See if you can picture them as vividly as possible doing or saying something that helped you. Ask yourself, “What feels good about this and why is this person so special to me?” It’s likely you will feel some combination of love, meaning, contentment, appreciation, connectedness, joy, lightness, and possibly an intention to do something kind for them in return. The next time you see that person, see what it feels like to thank them from a deeply authentic place. You’ll likely be strengthening your relationship in the process.

The fourth key to cultivating happiness is activity, being in motion in some way that brings pleasure or meaning. When we treat clinical depression, often marked by inactivity, we often start by helping someone schedule things to do each day that create a positive feeling, or that have some meaning. We can kick-start a positive chain reaction by becoming active. For example, we had one participant in A Happier You say that if she was feeling down, she would schedule a time to talk with a friend, take a walk, or watch a favorite TV show. We asked her to closely observe what it was like to participate in any of those activities, using directed mindfulness. In talking to her friend, she noticed the thought “my friend really cares about me.” This led to a feeling of being valued, which then gave her the energy to exercise. By the end of her run, she wasn’t feeling down at all, but energized and optimistic about the next day. It also made her want to schedule more conversations with her friend and more time at the gym. In this way, small positive actions build momentum. I’m sure there is a formula for positive emotional momentum that Newton might have added to his third law of motion!

The fifth pathway to happiness is kindness, and the type of kindness I want to focus on here is self-kindness. When we face major stressors in life, as so many of us have during the pandemic, it is easy to become self-critical or give more to others than we give to ourselves. Self-kindness embodies a quality of unconditional acceptance and care for who we are. When you hold self-kindness as a core value, you’ll tend to take that extra break from work when you are feeling worn down. Just keeping in mind that we are doing the best we can under the circumstances is a way that we can honor the incredibly challenging roadblocks that life puts in our way. Self-kindness includes giving yourself permission not to be happy and joyful. The times in my life when I felt the most depressed, it was because I was not accepting myself as someone who had intensely sad moods, who made mistakes, who had shortcomings, and who needed support. I was denying what self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff calls “common humanity,” the truth that we all suffer and feel pain. Self-kindness may not lead directly to joy, but it is a foundation that sets the stage for pivoting into more positive states of mind and feeling. The key is to grant ourselves the unpressured space to sit with our negative thoughts and feelings, just like a best friend might do for us, when we are struggling.

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

I think one of the most important things concerned friends, colleagues, or partners can do is listen without giving advice. When you are feeling down or depressed, you usually want someone to understand and empathize with what you are going through, rather than to try and solve your problem for you. Reflecting back what you hear that person say with “It sounds like…” without adding commentary or judgement shows a deep form of care — and usually takes some restraint. It’s common to want to tell others what to do! But if we can restrain that reflex, we are better prepared to be what that person needs in that moment. At the same time, if you hear someone say they are feeling extremely depressed or express thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves, it becomes critical to get them connected with professional mental health services. Let a licensed professional counselor or psychologist do the work of assessing their needs. This removes the potential pitfalls of acting as a therapist without the proper training, or blurring your role boundaries in detrimental ways.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would want a movement where people committed themselves to spending at least 30 minutes every day being kind to others — in thought, words, actions, or some combination of all three. I include that principle in my 5 Ways To Be a More Positive Leader. One act of kindness is like a stone dropping into a pond, creating ripple effects that fan outward in every direction. We know that our happiness can spread through social networks, impacting people we have never met. It makes sense that kindness works in the same way. It also reinforces the truth that we are all interdependent on this planet, and so being kind to someone else — as well as our environment — is a way of improving our shared experience of being human. It’s a way of creating meaningful, positive connections that can help us survive the most turbulent of times.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I’ve been very moved by Eckhart Tolle’s work on the ideas of presence, stillness, and our relationship to thinking. Eckhart has a beautiful and relatable way of reconnecting us with pure presence, the kind of spaces where we can rest a bit from thinking. I would love to hear him tell the story of his own awakening and learn about the challenges he faces today in maintaining a connection to the present. I’m also curious about what he would say about our relationship with technology and the environment. I’m sure our conversation, even if brief, would be incredibly powerful.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

If readers would like to learn more about me, my book, or my program, A Happier You, they can go to my website http://scottglassman.com and follow me on Instagram @scottdavidglass. I am eager to meet people from all over the world and learn about their well-being journeys.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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