Whatever Gave You That Idea? : The Misinformation Effect


iStock_000023926936XSmallThe story was told and retold at many events throughout my childhood. It came up at every wedding, every wake, most family events in between. It was the story of how my father’s friend, little Ray (Bucky) Dahmen, all 5-8 and 150 lbs of him, scored the dramatic winning touchdown for Notre Dame to snatch a victory away from Ohio State in the closing minutes of the game. The storyteller was always my father, as his buddy Bucky sat proudly by, grinning at the glowing reports of his heroics. Bucky would fill in the details, how he saw the play unfold and took the risks of his daring moves. (If you’re that little, you better be daring on the football field.) The two old men told and retold the story, always ending the same way. Bucky was the hero who won the game.

One day, after decades of hearing this story, my eldest brother came across the history of the infamous Notre Dame – Ohio State game. To his great surprise, the account of the great play was missing. There was no dramatic last-minute score. There were no daring moves down the field. There was no story.

My brother confronted my father. There was no game saving run by good old number 26 from Youngstown, Ohio, as told to us all of these years. My father’s reaction was a pause, then a whispered plea: “Don’t tell Bucky!”

The Misinformation Effect

Maybe this account can be attributed to two old men wanting their glory years to shine brighter in their golden years. Or, maybe, this is an example of the increasing amount of research on how frequently our memories are faulty. Skeptics will attribute faulty memories to confabulation, or plain old making stuff up to put ourselves in the best light. Confabulation certainly accounts for a portion of faulty memories, but not all of it. Consider just a few other reasons under investigation by researchers:

“Post Event Collective Memory Formulation” – This describes memory acquisition by comparing your recall of events with others who experienced the same event. Narrators who undertake the retelling of what happened have an advantage; their personal opinions or interpretations are more likely to be accepted by the larger group as “fact” and adopted as the collective memory. As a personal case study, think back on a conversation about what happened at a group meeting. Did the group’s collective memory reflect what actually happened, or the interpretation of what happened by the loudest voice?

Emotion – Our emotions distort information we take in and increase our susceptibility to post event suggestibility. The impact of emotion on memory is a root cause of why eyewitness testimony is often wrong. In a Canadian research study, participants were assigned to watch one of three events:  one with highly charged negative emotions, one with highly charged positive emotions, and one evoking neutral emotions. Participants took a subsequent survey that included questions about what they witnessed, with false information planted in the questions. Participants who witnessed events evoking highly negative emotions recalled false details 80% of the time. Those who witnessed positive events recalled false details about 40% of the time. Even those who watched the scene that produced no changed emotions got facts wrong 40% of the time. Emotions, especially negative ones, cloud our interpretation of events.

Inattentional Blindness – We miss things that happen in front of us because we were paying attention to something else. If you are among the millions of viewers who’ve watched the “gorilla” video on You Tube, you know what I mean. Viewers are asked to count how many times two people pass a ball. As the ball moves faster, many never see the gorilla that walks into the scene. Viewers don’t remember something never seen in the first place. The problem is that we look for what we expect, and believe we’ve noticed everything. We never know our original interpretation is faulty, so our recall stinks, too.

Memory is a Lousy Tool

Confabulation, post event collective memory formation, emotional impact and inattentional blindness are just a few of topics under research to explain why our crystal clear memories are often wrong.

Memory is a lousy decision-making tool because it is often faulty. The best recommendations from researchers, as well those of us in real life, is not to rely on memory alone. What does seem to help is to write things down, especially at the end of a meeting or conversation. Share with others in current time to check for agreement. If you must rely on memory, rely on more than recollections of one person. These suggestions may seem tedious. But so are endless loops of “ I did/No, you did not” debates.

A Public Service

This blog is a public service to all of us who will attend a reunion or family event this summer. Now you can honestly understand that your favorite aunt does not have the story of your great misadventure quite right. Or your high school prom date does not accurately recall your teenage social skills. If it’s innocent, assume the storytellers mean well, but are stuck in a web of misinformation. Enjoy the fiction. Don’t spoil it for Bucky.


If you’d like to read more research about memory and misinformation, here are 3 places to start:

Ozuru, Yasuhiro (2004). Formation of collective memory through group conversations: Examining the involvement of “Post Information Effect”. New School Psychology Bulletin, 2004.

Porter, Steven. ( 2003). Blinded by emotion? Effects of the emotionality of a scene on susceptibility to false memories. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, July, 2003.

Chabris, C. and Simons, D.J. (2009). The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intentions Deceive Us. New York: Random House.

Tired of Being a Quitter? Manage The Three P’s.


Photo courtesy of istock photo

Just 49 days ago, we charged optimistically into the New Year, determined to make necessary changes for good.  Armed with determination, advice and plans, we were confident that 2013 would be the year we’d reach the goals that would improve our lives.

Where are you today, six weeks down the road into the New Year? It’s estimated that over a third of people who made 2013 resolutions have given up by now. By June, over 60% of 2013 resolutions have been discarded. The reasons why we give up on the resolutions once so meaningful to us would be an interesting topic. But a more interesting topic is not why people give up on goals, but why others keep going.

The reasons why some persevere and others give up are as individual as the people making those choices. But research from Martin E. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a common trait among those who persevere towards goals. The “keep going” crowd tends to be more optimistic than the “give up” crowd. Some are optimistic by nature, which gives them a useful advantage in many parts of life. But the really good news from Seligman’s research is that we can learn to be optimistic, or at least optimistic enough to achieve our goals.

The Mr. Rodgers Legacy

I blame Mr. Rodgers for the bad rap on optimists. (This may make me the first to blame Mr. Rodgers for anything.) He represents a caricature of those perceived to be ill prepared in the dog eat dog, grind it out world.  Mr. Rodgers represents those perceived to be not tough enough, not aggressive enough, not strong enough. We can’t imagine living to his standard of responding to every nasty remark or misguided plan with his neighborly smile and pointing toward the sunny sky.  Nor do we want to.

The truth is, I love Mr. Rodgers. But his style of optimism isn’t really what Seligman encourages us to emulate. Seligman was the pioneer in the concepts of learned helplessness and explanatory style. In his words:

Learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do does not matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why things happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness.

Martin Seligman from Learned Optimism

In other words, those who give up too easily (i.e. pessimists) explain to themselves that nothing they can do will change their circumstances, so further effort is futile. If the effort is futile, the logical choice is to give up.

Seligman presents optimism as the opposite reaction to learned helplessness. In his view, it’s not that optimists spend their days in Mr. Rodgers neighborhood where the skies are always bright and sunny. It is that optimists have a different orientation when faced with failure. They think about it differently. They talk about it differently. This orientation makes optimists less likely to quit in the face of challenges.

The Three Keys to Learn Optimism

Of all the contributions Seligman has made to neuroscience and psychology, none may be more important than demonstrating the relationship between how we explain events to ourselves and our outcomes. What we tell ourselves about events matters far more than anyone else’s views, no matter their importance in our lives. We can truly be our own best friends or worst enemies.

If you would like more of a best friend relationship with yourself, start by monitoring the “three P’s” in your thoughts: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization. A description of each, along with what the optimist and pessimist may say to themselves during a challenge, follows.

Permanence: Optimists see events as temporary or situational. Observations such as “sometimes” and “recently” show up when they process disruptive events. Explanations could be: My schedule was out of control this week, but I’ll get back to the gym on Monday or There’s a right time to approach my boss. Today wasn’t the right day. Pessimists explain events as permanent. Words like “always” and ‘never” show up in explanations about why they quit. Explanations might be: I never have any discipline about exercise or My boss always ignores my ideas.  After all, if it’s always going to be like this and circumstances are never going to change, why try?

Pervasiveness: Optimists view good events having universal causes and bad events as random occurrences.  They believe life is generally good with occasional obstacles. An optimist might explain: The family is doing well. Everyone is adjusting to the new town. Like my team. The new role has a big learning curve, but I’ll get through it. Pessimists view bad events as having universal causes and good events as random occurrences.  They tend to expect catastrophes to spread from one part of their lives to another. Explanations might sound like: They must have picked me for this job because they were short-handed. I’ll never fit in here with this team. The family is going to have a tough adjustment, too.  Why did I agree to this move?

Personalize: Optimists externalize blame.  When things go wrong, they look for what went wrong in the situation, not themselves.  You might hear“ It was the wrong time” or The competition won” when optimists explain bad outcomes. Pessimists internalize blame. When things go wrong, they often find some way to blame themselves. “ I should have….”or “ Why did I think I could do this…” may explain mistakes.  The continuous self-blame creates a downward spiral in confidence that exacerbates pessimism.

 It’s Not too Late for 2013 Resolutions

We still have 303 days left to achieve 2013 goals. There may be good reasons why you need to change a goal, or perhaps you just haven’t started. But if you’ve just quit at the first obstacles, think about why. Can the way you explain the situation to yourself make a difference? Are the obstacles permanent or temporary? Prevalent or situational? Is the barrier about you or other circumstances? The great news is that you only have to answer these questions for yourself. The way you answer may make the difference in giving up or going on.

What do you think? Can you learn optimism by managing your explanations?  Do you think this makes a difference in outcomes?


Seligman, M.E.P. (1990,1998, 2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  New York: Random House.

If you are a Martin Seligman fan like I am, there is a treasure trove of his work here: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx

My Head Hurts


My neurons have gone from coach potato to Cross Fit. After working on the questions from my last post, they are shouting “STOP!” Hopefully, they don’t take matters into their own dendrites or I’m in trouble.

What about you? The people have spoken in response to the post on brain teasers from William Poundstone’s book Are You Smart Enough To Work at Google? In a light turnout, the majority voted to warm up their grey matter on grey days and work on the three puzzles posted.

There is more than one way to solve each puzzle. This point succinctly sums up the value of Poundstone’s work.  The benefit is in flexing our intellect and creativity to figure out a solution with the ability to explain it. If you’re done with your mental workout and want to know potential answers, keep reading!  If you just want an open book test and get the answers, keep reading! The best answers posted from the book are posted first. My answers are listed next. Note the distinction.

Hint: Have pencil and paper handy to diagram the first two solutions. It helps.

1. Using only a 4- minute hourglass and a 7-minute hourglass, measure exactly 9 minutes.

 Best answer:  Assume both hourglasses start at 0 minutes.  Start both hourglasses.

When the 4 minute hourglass runs out, turn it over. (Potential for 8 minutes)

When the 7 minute hourglass runs out, the 4 minute hour glass will have have 1 minute left on its second run.  (8-7)

Turn over the 7 minute hour glass for the second time. When the 4 minute hourglass runs out for the second time, there will be 1 minute left in the bottom of the 7 minute hourglass. So far, you’ve measured 8 minutes. ( 7+1)

Turn over the 7 minute hourglass and let the last 1 minute roll back into the top of the hourglass. 7+1+1= equals 9 minutes.

Susan’s answer: Turn over the 7 minute hourglass. As it runs out, start the 4 minute hourglass. When the 4 minute hourglass is half way through ( 2 minutes) stop it by turning it on it’s side. Voila – 9 minutes.

2. There are three men and three lions on one side of the river. You need to carry them all to the other side, using a single boat that can carry only two entities at a time. You can’t let the lions outnumber the men on either bank of the river because they’d eat them. How do you get them across?

Diagram this answer as you read it. It’s the shortest way to “Ah-Ha!”

Best answer: Assume that lions cannot maneuver boats. You need to keep a man onboard to drive the boat.

First trip: One man and one lion cross. The lion stays, the man returns. One lion on one side; two lions and three men on the other still need to cross.

Second trip: One man and one lion cross. Man pushes lion out. Two lions remain, the man returns. Two lions on one side, two men on the other still need to cross.

Third trip: Two men cross. Two men and two lions on one side,  one man and one lion on the other still need to cross. Return one man and a lion in the boat. ( You have to bring the lion in the boat  on the return trip or you would leave one man and two lions).

Fourth trip: Leave the returned lion. Two men cross.  Three men and one lion on one side, two lions remain on the other still need to cross.

Fifth trip: Send a man to get a lion. He’s supposed to “coax” it into the boat. Three men and two lions on one side, one lion still needs to cross.

Sixth trip: Send a man to get the remaining lion. ( I guess the one who knows how to coax a lion into a boat.) All are happily now on the other side.

Susan’s answer:  Didn’t get it. If the lion eats the man in the boat on the first trip, the whole thing blows up.

3.  A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. Share what happened in a single sentence.

Best answer: He was playing Monopoly.

Susan’s answer: Ah-Ha. Caught myself over thinking again.

Now that I’ve subjected you to this mid winter mental workout, I’ll let you in on a secret. I hate brain teasers and puzzles.  They push my comfort zone. They make me work when I want to be lazy. They force me to confront many possibilities when one is just fine. Like challenging other  muscles in a workout, they make my head hurt.

After scanning Poundstone’s book, I conclude that “Do brainteasers” is the “Eat my spinach”  advice of  mental agility. They build stronger muscles for reasoning and creativity, whether I like it or not.

 Reference: Poundstone, W. (2012). Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Come Out of Hibernation!



Cold starts on gloomy mornings. A few hours of brightness following by early dimness. Cranky starts and slow acceleration. This is your brain on winter!

Shake those neurons out of hibernation with a few brainteasers. Try these puzzles from William Poundstone’s book Are You Smart Enough to Work At Google?

1. Using only a 4- minute hourglass and a 7-minute hourglass, measure exactly 9 minutes.

2. There are three men and three lions on one side of the river. You need to carry them all to the other side, using a single boat that can carry only two entities at a time. You can’t let the lions outnumber the men on either bank of the river because they’d eat them. How do you get them across?

3.  A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. Share what happened in a single sentence.

You, dear readers, will decide whether or not I post potential answers. Vote using the poll below. Whether or not you get to work at Google is up to someone else.

Reference: Poundstone, W. (2012). Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Never Too Old For New Habits


This is the third and final post on the theme of habits (at least for now.) To read the first two posts, click here and here.

one new shoe and one worn out shoe

All the pieces are in place. I have goals, some left over from 2012. I know what habits to change to reach them. I selected one keystone habit to change to instill positive momentum. All of this, and two weeks into 2013, I’m stuck.

Easy To Imagine. Hard to Do.
My experience in changing habits may be like yours. We know what we want to change. We know at a conscious level how to do it. But the deeply imprinted routes in our brain that direct our behavior about “what to do when” easily overwhelm our intentions. It’s one of many paradoxes about changing habits. It’s easy to imagine. It’s hard to do.

The good news is that while habits are powerful, they are not our destiny. We often hear habits described as “good” or “bad.” In fact, they are neither. Our brains can’t tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one. We are just wired to see a clue, automate a response, and get a reward. The outcomes may be good or bad, but that depends on the habits we develop, not the process.

The Key to Changing Old Habits is Creating New Ones
If we’re going to have habits (and we are), and we want good outcomes (and we do), then our challenge is to create new habits if the old ones don’t get us what we want.  Our habits never go away. Researchers who reprogram mice to run a maze by putting the reward in a different place find that when they remove the reward, the mice run the old pattern. Think you’re smarter than the mice? Change the reward of being able to fit into your clothes and see how quickly you’ll go back to your version of after school milk and cookies on the couch watching television.

Old habits will always be with us. But for new outcomes, we need new habits.
Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit, describes how we can make them. It’s sort of like this:


1. We experience some triggering event. It reminds us of a previous experience. The alarm is sent.
2. We retrieve our automated response. To change a habit, change the response.
3. We get a reward. To reinforce the response, reward it.

My Plan to Get Unstuck
So, if I am going to get my momentum back to reach leftover 2012 goals, I still need to change habits. I need to change them starting with the one key habit that will give me the greatest momentum: getting up one hour earlier.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll have the same trigger. Night will turn to day. (And, if that doesn’t happen, I have bigger problems.) But I will manage my clue differently. I will force myself to get out of bed to get the coffee I want.  (Note to dearest husband: No more whispering Are you ready for coffee yet? as I rest, eyes closed, curled around my pillow. Ignore my pleas. Forgive my reaction when you do.) Reward myself for getting up with a half hour of Italian lessons over cappuccino. (Now that’s worth getting out of bed for. Seriously.) The day after tomorrow, I’ll do the same. Soon, my new habit will be my old habit. That’s how it works.

The Work
Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility – to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012)

What about you? How will you leverage the power of habits? It’s not too late, and you’re not too old, to get to work.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and in Business.  New York: Random House.

Make Your Habits Your Allies


What would you do if you were unemployed, nearly broke and an emotional wreck? Where would you start to turn your life around? What would you do if you were named as an outsider head of a struggling company with employee upheaval, manager disengagement and on the verge of a stakeholder revolt? In both situations, there is not one thing wrong- there are many things wrong. And all are big things. Any one of these challenges left unattended could lead to your complete unraveling. Where would you start? If you were like people profiled in The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2012), you would start by changing one cornerstone habit.

Your Personal Search Engine

Habits are like our brain’s search engine. Our subconscious doesn’t evaluate whether a habit is good or bad, it just gets the stimulus and offers up the response. Like Google, put in the stimulus and get back your top responses in behavior. This pattern is ubiquitous. Duhigg cites a Duke study that suggests 40% of our actions during a day are a result of habit. If true, it means that nearly half of the things we do each day are not a result of conscious, in the moment decisions, but pre programmed responses to stimulus.

Get Your MoJo Going

Habits also build momentum. Good habits generate behavior that gets positive responses, generating more positive stimulus. This explains what happened to one of the people profiled in The Power of Habit. Duhigg describes a woman at the end of her rope after a very bad patch in life. She was overweight, unemployed and nearly broke. In an attempt to motivate change, she set a goal to make the trip of a lifetime, which required her to be in good physical shape. She targeted one habit to start toward this goal: stop smoking. By focusing on changing one bad habit, she taught herself to reprogram other habits, too. When she stopped smoking, she had more ability to get in shape. She took up jogging. To keep up jogging, she had to positively change her eating, sleeping and time habits. She had more money so she changed her savings habits. The woman not only took her dream trip, but she had the confidence, and ability, to override old bad habits to go back to school and get a new job.

The same principle worked for Paul O’Neill when he was named the new CEO of Alcoa. He walked into a list of changes needed to restore employee relationships, customer relationships and profitability. What did he do? He focused on safety.  He set a goal of zero injuries and instilled one habit: all accidents must be reported within 24 hours with a plan to make sure the injury never happened again. What were the results? The union was encouraged because worker safety had been a critical issue they felt had been ignored. Leaders had to review lines of communication with their facilities.  Floor leaders had to be alert for safety issues and ask workers for ideas on better environments. By changing one habit, O’Neil set in force the mechanism to change a culture. What happened? Injuries declined, but so did costs because people needed to talk to each other about molten metal waste  (a leading cause of injuries) and faulty equipment that broke down and slowed production. Quality improved, along with customer satisfaction.

O’Neil  leveraged the power of habit by picking one thing that required everyone to re program bad habits into good ones. He summarized his strategy in a few words we could all take to heart:

“ I knew I had to change Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could disrupt habits around one thing, it would spread through the entire company.”

Paul O’Neil, former CEO of Alcoa, as quoted in the Power of Habit

Picking The Little Thing That Could Be A Big Thing

I reflected in my last blog post that I was going to keep old resolutions but change habits.  For me, 2013 starts with unmet goals related to my business, my development and my personal life. The one thing they all have in common is the need for more time. So, the cornerstone habit I’m going to focus on changing for 2013 is my use of time. I am going to change a habit to get up one hour earlier each day. That gives me 7 hours per week and 28 hours a month that can be devoted to achieving goals. Who knows what an extra 28 hours a week will do for my momentum?

You may think this is small. But that’s the thing about habits. It’s the small things that set the momentum for bigger things. The woman who stopped smoking found the secret to changing habits that changed her life. Paul O’Neil used a change of habits to convince a bunch of skeptics that they could work together.  The secret strength of habits is going for big outcomes, not big inputs.

What about you? What are the one or two habits you could change that could give you the momentum needed to achieve those dusty resolutions? Think of them and get ready. In the next post, you’ll read how habits can be changed.


References: Duhigg, Charles ( 2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business. New York: Random House.

Change Habits, Keep Resolutions


I‘m not going to make new resolutions for 2013. There are enough old ones still relevant to dust off and try again.  In fact, if anyone is looking for a resolution, I have enough lying around that I could give you a few.  Lose weight? Got that one. Get a better job?  Several options to chose from. Be Better Organized?  I can set you up. These are just a few of my many past resolutions available to be recycled.

It’s not that I fail to see the value in resolutions. In fact, setting goals (aka resolutions) is a critical part of the change process.  They provide a picture of success, set the boundaries for choices, and allow us to measure success.  Resolutions are so important that I’ll change my focus from making them to keeping them. This year, I’ll keep the same resolutions but change my habits

The Invisible Force

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and asks ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

David Foster Wallace as quoted in The Power of Habit 

The passage above is one of the best descriptions of the power of habits I’ve read.  Our habits, the automatic, subconscious decisions we make routinely, are our water. Frequently unexamined and often invisible to us, habits set the agenda for our behavior and ultimately our results. So, if we want change, start with habits.

How Habits Happen

The first step in changing habits is to understand how we create them in the first place. Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit provides an excellent description in a book that makes very interesting reading.

Habits are created because our brain looks for ways to save effort. When we do things routinely, our brain stores the steps into “chunks.” Try to remember learning something for the first time, like your commute to work. The first few times, you paid great attention to the directions, the traffic patterns or the train schedule. It required attention and energy you didn’t have later for other things. Reflect on how quickly your commute became routine. The next time you go to work, you won’t even think about it. You’ll know the time to leave, the route to take, or where you sit on the train with little conscious thought. Your commute has become your water.

Your brain has turned your commute routine into a habit, without you making a conscious decision about whether you wanted this habit or not. This is a good thing.  Mental energy every day is finite. Once it’s depleted, it’s gone until restored.  Do you want to use it figuring out what roads you take to work or on new challenges once you get there? Probably the latter. So, our brains are wired to help us out by being efficient.  This efficiency becomes a habit.

The paradox about habits is that they are easy to create but hard to change. Old habits won’t get me, or you, to new places, no matter how staunch the resolutions. My 2013 resolution is to start new habits to help me reach old goals. Intrigued? Follow me to see how I do.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

Clarence Was Right: A Little Mystery Makes Us Happier

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the American film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The film lapsed into the public domain in the United States due to the failure of National Telefilm Associates, the last copyright owner, to renew. See film article for details. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know how the movie ends, yet I watch it every year. At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, I light up when Clarence Odbody earns his angel’s wings by saving George Bailey. My heart opens when Clarence saves George; not by imagining live events, but by re-imagining what might have happened if George wasn’t there.  Now I know the secret to the happy ending.  Clarence was right: a little mystery makes me happier. It can make you happier, too.

The George Bailey Effect

Timothy D. Wilson explains The George Bailey Effect in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.  Wilson explains that clarity helps us adapt to life events by providing the closure necessary to move on.  My post How Happy People Deal With Bad Stuff describes how this works in dealing with negative events.  Clarity reduces the impact of an event; mystery gives it power.  This has the same effect with positive events in our lives. We come to understand them, accept them, and incorporate them into our lives. The same process that helps us move on from bad events encourages us to take the good ones for granted.

Wilson suggests that The George Bailey Effect adds to our happiness through the “pleasures of uncertainty.” His research suggests how it works. Strangers were handed cards with dollar bills attached.  One group received cards that simply said  “The Smile Society -Promote Random Acts of Kindness.”  A second group received cards with detailed explanations about why the group was handing out dollars. Even though it was the same gift handed out in the same random order, group members who received the “mystery” cards reported being happier with the gift.  Their happiness was boosted by the time spent working on the puzzle: Who is the Smile Society? Why was I selected? Does this happen to everyone? These questions caused members to invest more energy on the positive event, which made it bigger. The second group had the fleeting moment of being surprised, but nothing else forced them to savor it.  With nothing left to wonder about, the event got smaller.

The “pleasure of uncertainty” explains why practices like keeping gratitude journals have mixed long-term results on happiness levels. The paradox is that the more we think about the good things in our lives, the more clarity we have about them. The more clarity we have, the less power these events have to impact our happiness.

Power Up Gratitude

Wilson suggests a method to power up our gratitude. Instead of writing what we are grateful about, write about what our life would be without this blessing. For example, write about the day as if you didn’t have your health. Write about the consequences if you didn’t have a job. Write about your life if you didn’t have your beloved partner, friend or child. Put The George Bailey Effect to work in your gratitude practice and see if it makes a difference.

Be your own Clarence this season. Make your blessings special again by imaging your existence without them. Use a little mystery to deepen appreciation of your wonderful life.


Wilson, T.D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown & Company.

How Happy People Deal With Bad Stuff


In this season of list making, what’s on your list of what you really want? Happiness is likely to be at or near the top. We all want to be happy. Sometimes, happiness is a current state. Often, it’s a future state, as in “I’ll be happy when…”. If we’re perfectly honest (O.K., if I’m perfectly honest), sometimes setbacks are cited as the cause of our unhappiness. This shows up as “I’d be happy if it wasn’t for…”. Regardless of where we are on the happiness scale, the great news is that most of us can be happy, even if we’ve been dealt some bad breaks. Psychologists and social scientists have produced findings about happiness that we can all use to get there, despite our starting point.

Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia, is one of the researchers who explain how we create happiness. His book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, describes how to influence our happiness by editing the stories we tell ourselves. It offers several compelling examples, but one really stood out to me. What do we tell ourselves when things go badly?


Editing Our Stories About Setbacks

Wilson offers an example of the impact of our narratives using the greatest setback of all: early death. Suppose you were among a population that may carry a genetic marker for a disease that would kill you in middle age, but its symptoms would not appear until your thirties or forties. Do you want to know? How will this knowledge affect your happiness?

Wilson’s research followed a group of young adults who faced these questions. These young adults previously made a choice that placed in them into one of three groups:
A. took a genetic screen and learned that they carried the gene.
B. took a genetic screen and learned that they did not carry the gene.
C. refused to take the genetic screen; don’t know if they carry the gene.

Wilson studied each group to evaluate their happiness at three points: immediately after their decision, six months later, and one year later. Which group do you think reported being happiest? Which group was most unhappy?

The results surprised me. Group A – the group that got the bad news – was understandably the unhappiest immediately after the results. But, at six months and one year later, this group self reported happiness levels similar to those of Group B – the group who knew they did not have the gene. Even though members of one group got really good news and the other really bad news, after time, their self reported happiness levels were indistinguishable.

Perhaps the most surprising result is that the group members who were most unhappy over time were members of Group C- the group that chose not to know. Even though they reported happiness levels similar to Group B immediately after the decision, feelings of well-being deteriorated. Wilson reports that a year after the decision, group members who were uncertain about a bad outcome reported being more depressed and anxious than those who were certain of one.

This study offers conclusions for any of us who face setbacks far less ominous than early death. The secret to editing our stories is to find meaning and purpose in what happens to us. As Wilson states, “making sense of negative outcomes is the first step to recovering from them.” Those who knew for certain that they carried the marker had the certainty to come to terms with it. They created narratives about what their life could mean and a sense of urgency to make the most of it. They dedicated themselves to a purpose for their lives. Those who were uncertain didn’t have this framework for sense making; they lacked a basis to adapt and move on. Their narratives likely represented the anxieties of “What If’s” instead of “What Could Be’s.”


How To Be Happy After the Bad Stuff

Wilson suggests an approach to help us make the setbacks in our lives more understandable and predictable: the Pennebaker Writing technique or the “Step Back and Ask Why” approach. It’s simple, anyone has the tools to do it, and if you are like others in Wilson’s research, you’ll find that it works.

This writing exercise requires two conditions. First, enough time has passed between the bad experience and the present that you can think about it without being overwhelmed with negative emotions. Next, you can analyze why the event occurred instead of ruminating over the fact that it did occur.

Once you can get to this place, write about this experience for at least fifteen minutes on three to four consecutive days. Importantly, write about the experience as a dispassionate observer reporting on the experience, rather than rationalizing the case for your feelings. As Wilson states, “Don’t recount the event, take a step back, reconstruct and explain it.”

The Pay Off

If you get the same results as the research, you’ll find the basis of sense making: clarity and understanding. Wilson offers examples. College students who previously ruminated about a bad grade got the clarity that they didn’t prepare well, so had a better understanding of how to change study habits. Employees scarred by an ugly confrontation with a boss understood that difficulties in the boss’ life that produced the outsized response. This clarity and understanding changed perceptions about a negative event and created new narratives. Participants reported that they had fewer negative emotions, ruminated less and experienced less stress.

Happiness is the gift to give yourself this season. I hope you recount many blessings in what you tell yourself. (If you don’t talk to yourself, start now. Just be careful about what you say and don’t do it out loud in public.) But, the real opportunity is to change the way you talk about the bad stuff. Give it time, report it rather than ruminate, and write down what caused it to happen. Then move on. There’s too much good stuff ahead to be happy about.

Wilson, T.D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.