Category Archives: Psychology

Finding Self-Worth in a Pandemic

I feel like I’m finally settling into a bit of a rhythm during this time of “shelter-in-place,” and most days, I start with some kind of spiritual meditation. One that has particularly struck me came from a podcast by Krista Tippett, host of one of my favorite programs, “On Being.” (I’d encourage you to listen. The podcast is about 10 minutes long.)

What initially made me pause was how Krista referred to how individuals typically gain a sense of self-worth, and how this time of pandemic is sometimes proving to be a mental health challenge because of that. In fact, research in Social Psychology by Jennifer Crocker shows how people use many strategies to find worth, some of which are more steady and healthy than others. Krista points out that in our individualistic, modern world, many of us have been taught to believe our worth comes from achievement and activity, and how this source of worth is now being threatened because we are not as able to achieve and be active as we might prefer. Others, in contrast, may find worth through their relationships with others, and that, too, may be challenged now during this time of physical distancing.

As an alternative to these sources of self-worth more likely to fluctuate – particularly in this time – Krista discusses how, at her best, she finds worth in simply “being human.” This idea is heavily referenced in Humanistic Psychology and particularly the writings of one of my Psychology heroes, Carl Rogers, who basically argued that all humans have dignity by birthright. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this kind of inherent worth is thought to stem from the fact that we are “children of God,” “made in God’s image,” or possessors of a “Divine spark.” That means we don’t need to strive for worth; we already have it, if we’d just accept it as ours now.

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Paul Tillich

In a passage that has become one of my spiritual touchstones, theologian Paul Tillich put it this way:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.'”

Seeking Control in a Pandemic

Few of us have ever dealt with a situation that feels as uncertain, unpredictable, and uncontrollable as the novel coronavirus pandemic. At this early stage, we don’t possess good information about how people are doing psychologically, but many behavioral scientists wonder how individuals are thinking, feeling, or acting differently.

Some insight may be found in a seminal research article from 2008, in which Aaron Kay and his colleagues write:

Imagine a glass that only when full represents a given individual’s preferred level of perceived order within his or her environment. As one way to fill this glass, this individual might rely on his or her perceptions of personal control over his or her outcomes: To guard against perceptions of randomness in the world, that is, he or she can affirm the belief that whatever happens, good or bad, will be due to his or her own actions and therefore not random. Often, however, such perceptions will only partially fill the glass because levels of perceived personal control, for a variety of reasons, tend to fluctuate. Much of the time, therefore, to fill the glass completely, he or she will need to complement these beliefs in personal control with one or more external systems of control.

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Source: Anna Shvets | Pexels

In other words, we all desire a certain amount of order and control. When that is lacking in our environment – such as in a time of pandemic – we look for ways to find it. We do what we can to personally increase feelings of order and control to compensate for what’s happening around us, sometimes in some interesting ways (hoarding toilet paper). The reality, though, is we humans only have so much control over what happens in life, and when that becomes evident to us – as is the case now – we depend more on secondary sources.

Kay and colleagues interestingly studied two such sources of secondary control in their research: (1) the government and (2) God.

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Spirituality and Breast Cancer, Part 2

With so much going on regarding the coronavirus crisis, it’s really important to remember that some are suffering for other reasons, such as breast cancer.
In this follow-up to a previous blog post about spirituality and breast cancer, my amazingly talented and beautiful wife interviewed me and my brilliant and wise friend, Dr. Deanna Thompson, about the trauma of breast cancer. I’ve personally learned so much from Deanna about suffering over the years, and I’m really honored to be included in an article in which we engage in “virtual conversation.”

Coping with a Pandemic

Concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) appear to be rising in tandem with the numbers of reported cases and fatalities.

Many of us are consciously or unconsciously asking ourselves: what are we going to do?

Until we can answer that question – at least to some extent – I believe our response will be wanting.

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Source: Unsplash

From the decades of research conducted on stress, one consistent finding is we need – and therefore seek – some semblance of control. When something such as COVID-19 comes along that is both threatening and uncertain, many of us experience great distress. Part of this is because our sense of control is lacking.

As I wrote previously in my blog entry called “What To Do When Stressed:”

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Spirituality and Breast Cancer

It’s not every day that my lovely wife asks if she can interview me! But, a few weeks ago, she did exactly that. The topic was spirituality, and the context was a blog series she was writing for Firefly Sisterhood on spirituality and breast cancer. You can see the blog entry here.

Being Moved by Story

In the past few months, I have become quasi-obsessed with the experience of being emotionally moved. I reported on new research about that experience a few weeks ago, and also discussed how someone sharing something “soulfelt” often might prompt a feeling of being moved or touched in others.

I suspect when one becomes more aware of an experience such as this, one starts to pay more attention to it. And so it has been with me.

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Jennifer Isaac

A few weeks ago, my beloved college celebrated its 50th anniversary with a faculty & staff talent show. My friend and longtime collaborator, Jennifer Isaac, shared a Moth-award winning story about her brother that moved everyone in my aisle to tears. I suspect storytelling – along with a few other major modes of expression, such as music – are particularly likely to move people. With Jennifer’s permission, I share her edited story below. It’s also available by video beginning at around 1:21:00

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Flying: A Personal Story
By Jennifer Issac

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The Experience of Being Emotionally Moved

At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.

This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.

Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows  kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.

There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.

The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:

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What To Do When Stressed

A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.

My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.

Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.

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Gays and the Church

Although the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges seemed to settle many civil issues about same-sex marriage in the United States, the topic remains contentious in many religious communities. In recent years, some denominations have broken with the historical Christian view that same-sex relations “miss the mark” and have become more LGBTQ affirming. Many have not, however, meaning they will not support “unrepentant” same sex sexual behavior or same-sex marriage in their churches.

From February 23-26, 2019, another major denomination will meet to discuss its official stance about same-sex relations, as leaders in the United Methodist Church will convene in St. Louis, Missouri to discuss “a way forward.” The plan recommended by the Methodist Council of Bishops would allow local decision-makers to implement policies about matters such as same-sex marriage that best fit their social contexts. If approved, this would enable more progressive districts to support the ordination of gay and lesbian Pastors and marry same-sex couples, subject to the conscience of the local pastor, while allowing more conservative districts to remain unchanged in policy and practice.

At play in these deliberations are questions of how to know what is true about matters of faith. The founder of the Methodist tradition – John Wesley – proposed four “ways of knowing,” now organized in what is popularly termed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral:” experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture. Basically, Methodists look for “converging evidence” in these four domains when creating church policy, although Scripture is prioritized.

Gays_2In anticipation of the denomination’s upcoming meetings, I have led a discussion group at my local Methodist church exploring same-sex relations, using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an organizing tool, for the past six weeks. Members of my church community have discussed their experiences with gays and lesbians, we invited several gay Christians to our group to listen and learn from their stories, and we have explored Scripture from both conservative and progressive perspectives. As a facilitator, my charge was to lead this group neutrally, meaning I have not shared my opinion very often, I have tried to make sure the best of materials are shared from both conservative and progressive viewpoints, and I have sought to create an atmosphere that is hospitable and conducive to honest, respectful conversations among individuals who often disagree.

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The Meaningfulness of Living with Soul

Craig is the worship leader at my church. To say his style is unique would be a great understatement.

Craig mostly plays piano and sings at church, combining a mix of folk and country with a bit of blues and funk thrown in for good measure. He is humble, but once in a while, he plays a solo, and when this becomes apparent, my wife and I glance across the aisle at each other, and smile knowingly that we are about to share a sacred moment. Whenever Craig sings his one-of-a-kind rendition of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah,” for example, tears flood our eyes. And we leave church a bit different as a result.

Craig is nearing retirement and recently pulled back from leading all three worship services, restricting himself to the early 8:00 service. His replacements are talented musicians in their own right, but many in the congregation started attending church earlier just to hear Craig play. There is just something intoxicating about his music.

The best way I can describe Craig’s music is that it is “soulfelt.”

“Soulfelt” appears in none of the major dictionaries. By this criterion, it is not a word.

But, I think it should be.

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The Courage to Create

This past summer, I spent a glorious month teaching at “the most experimental college in North America,” Quest University Canada, north of Vancouver, British Columbia. One of my favorite aspects of Quest’s one-of-a-kind educational model is that, rather than majoring in something broad such as Business, Communications, or Psychology, students focus their work around one self-selected question. For example, one of many talented students spent her university years focused on the question of how creativity and happiness are related. As a part of a final project, she asked to interview me – along with about a dozen others – and ultimately created the short documentary below.

In this spirit, may 2019 bring you great creativity and happiness!

When Religion Promotes Violence

In a survey released last week by U. S. News and World Report, over 21,000 people from all regions of the world most commonly rated religion as the “primary source of global conflict today.” Individuals identified power, economic factors, and political beliefs less frequently.

Of course, the fact that survey respondents believe religion drives global conflict more than any other factor doesn’t mean it actually does. However, the survey does raise questions of how religion may contribute to conflict and what could be done in religions to better promote peace.

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Religion Needs a Savior

A few weeks ago, a journalist from U. S. News & World Report called to interview me about new data showing that individuals across the world most commonly rate religion as the greatest source of global conflict today. She asked about why religion contributes so frequently to conflict and what to do about it. You know, simple questions!

Here’s the article.

It’s interesting to see how a journalist decides what to include and what not to include from a 45 minute interview. If I could summarize my take-home advice more simply, I’d say this:

1. Identify first as a fellow human.
2. Then identify with your groups.
3. If your groups don’t help you do (1), find different groups.

Psalm 1: The Psychology of Meditation

“Blessed are those…
who delight in the law of the Lord
and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.”
~Psalm 1: 1-3~

Meditation occupies an important place in contemporary society. What most people associate with the term “meditation” today is mindfulness-based meditation. This form of meditation originates in Buddhism and generally encourages individuals to empty themselves of difficult sensations, thoughts, and emotions by mindfully focusing attention, for example, on their breathing. Psychologists now widely accept mindfulness-based meditation and incorporate it into psychotherapy. Unfortunately, as recently argued in a major research review released by the Association for Psychological Science, much of the practice and hype for mindfulness meditation seems a bit premature given the lack of rigorous scientific study on the topic.

I personally use mindfulness meditation as a way to manage stress, anxiety, and pain. For instance, if I’m feeling anxious, I often will take some time to focus on what I’m feeling and where in my body I’m feeling it. Sometimes, I will mindfully observe my thinking and intentionally label my thoughts as “anxious.” Usually, when I connect with how I’m experiencing anxiety, I also recognize that the sensations really aren’t that bad, that I’m not in any real danger, and that my feelings usually have an understandable cause. This helps me to let my anxiety go and direct my attention toward something more productive.

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Source: Ben White | Unsplash

Although potentially very useful, this isn’t the kind of meditation the psalmist had in mind.

Whereas Eastern meditation seeks to empty, traditional Judeo-Christian forms of meditation attempt to fill. As discussed by Richard Foster in one of my favorite books, “The Celebration of Discipline,” Christian meditation comes in four major varieties.

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Six Forms of Resolution

As we begin a new year, many of us find ourselves in a bit more contemplative mood than usual. What were our highs and lows in 2017? What do we want for 2018? We all could use some clarity to live our best lives.

Sometimes, we’re waiting for clarity to strike us from the outside, maybe in the form of a sign or revelation. But more often than not, the clarity we seek is already within us, waiting to be discovered.

When I was a Sophomore in high school, I started to connect with my own unclarity. What was I going to do with my “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it? A friend gave me a copy of Anthony Robbins’ “Awaken the Giant Within,” a book I generally now regard with great skepticism, but nonetheless that helped change my life.

Eventually, I found my way to a chapter on goal setting. Like most everyone, I had been taught I should set goals for my life. But just like how I had also been taught I should dust my room and floss my teeth, I wasn’t particularly motivated to do so. Goal setting just seemed painful, with no clear benefit. So, when I started reading the chapter, I was surprised to find a quote from Carl Sandburg: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” I had never thought that goal setting may be more akin to dream identifying. I continued to read:

“Are you ready to have some fun? Are you willing to be like a kid again and let your imagination run wild?”

The tone caught me off guard. Maybe goal setting wasn’t like dusting my room or flossing my teeth.

I then was led on a series of tasks in which I dreamed what I wanted to create in my life. I brainstormed for 5 minutes about four areas each: personal development, career / economics, adventures, and contributions. Ultimately, I identified the most important one-year goal in each area.

The effects of this exercise on me can’t be overstated. It brought me clarity for the first time in my life. I had been a mediocre student, for instance, often struggling in difficult subjects, sometimes getting into trouble with my dad because of earning a “D.” But, during my goal setting session, I decided I wanted to be an “A” student. From that point forward, that’s exactly what I made happen. I earned straight “A”s through the rest of high school. This allowed me to enroll at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I continued being an “A” student. This, in part, allowed me to get into a top-rated Counseling Psychology program at the University of Minnesota. My future opened before me. And it all started with a goal.

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The Psychology of Religion

One of my first memories happened at church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosery, but this one particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the austere metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors to be closed. It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only 4 at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peak through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!…” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.

The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?

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In Awe of Christmas

Christmas elicits so many emotions. For many people, these emotions are negative. There can be great loneliness, embarrassment, or shame when loved ones or traditions to share are few. There can be great sadness when memories flood our minds of loved ones no longer with us to celebrate.

What makes Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year” for many others is the glow of positivity surrounding the holiday. For me personally, I remember the excitement of opening presents when I was young – and how my anticipation led me to hunt for where they might be hidden, and lose sleep the night before having the opportunity to open them. Holiday lights, Christmas cookies, mulled wine, pageants, and concerts all fill me with cozy feelings laced with history. Looking through the cards we have received thus far this year, I am struck by references to “joy,” “peace,” “love,” “cheer,” and “merriness.”

A couple of years ago, though, I had an experience that changed the way I think about the meaning of Christmas. I was attending a Christmas Eve service at a church that my family and I had recently started attending. The service was organized differently from what I had expected, with alternating readings and songs.

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