Tag Archives: Psychology

Psychological Factors in School Success

“What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle?,” I recently asked. As I said in a previous post, part of the answer may have to do with trusting that a student can learn independently, just as kids typically learn independently before formal schooling begins. Teachers and parents can encourage students to reconnect with their “lost instincts” to learn on their own, particularly at this time when students must learn at home without as much direct supervision.

The student experience is complex, however, and often neglected. As education theorist, John Dewey, wrote in the early 20th century: “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child.”

As I have tried to understand what enables some students to thrive in school during my past 20 years of college teaching, I have returned again and again to three interrelated domains that may be most fruitful to explore: (1) mindset, (2) self-discipline, and (3) motivation. Psychological research has found these domains to be most critical in student success.

Mindset

One of the primary psychological determinants of a student’s performance concerns how they explain success and failure to themselves. In over 30 years of research, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consistently has found that individuals with a “fixed mindset” – who believe that success and failure reflects a certain level of ability unlikely to change no matter what is done – often show lower levels of performance over time. Dweck finds this may be due, in part, to the fact that people with fixed mindsets are less likely to seek challenge at the outset and less likely to persevere when challenges arise. In contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” – who believe that ability can be developed through hard work or effort or trying out different strategies until one works – often show higher levels of performance over time. People with a growth mindset are more likely to seek challenge and believe they can overcome challenges with perseverance when they arise.

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Successful Learning at Home

What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle? This question is being asked with renewed urgency, as many students work from home without as much face-to-face involvement from teachers, and with many parents trying to help their children in this new environment.

Julia Cameron PexelsThe pandemic is excruciating for many reasons, but it also contains great potential for new growth as well. In this time, we may gain an opportunity for insight into the dynamics of education and to better understand factors that help students thrive.

It may be helpful to start by considering the basic structure of our modern education system. Most schools, Paulo Freire classically observed, apply a “banking model” of education. In this system, the teacher plays the central role in what happens in the classroom. We might add that teachers are often controlled by administrators and authorities beyond them as well. In this system, Jerry Farber suggested that students are socialized to be timid, depending on the teacher’s direction more than themselves.

To the extent this is true, teachers, parents, and students may be experiencing “withdrawal symptoms” at this time. Well-intentioned teachers may be trying to perform a “virtual miracle” as they try their best to continue instructing and guiding students while at a distance. Likewise, well-intentioned parents may feel like they need to take on the full supervisory role of the teacher at home amidst many other competing demands and concerns.

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The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

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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.”

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.

JI

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

***

 

 

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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Letter to a Middle School Student

Last week, I was delighted to receive this Letter from a Middle School Student asking for my thoughts about the meaning of life. My response is below. I think this brings together several elements of my thinking.

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Dear Jasmine,

It was a pleasure to receive your letter. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the great tradition of letter writing with you.

I share your interest in the meaning of life. In fact, probably most of us ask ourselves about the meaning or purpose of our lives at some point.

I think there probably are three ways to think about this. The first is about the Meaning of Life overall. Questions that fall into this category include: Why is there life at all? What are the origins of life? What happens after we die? What does it mean that we live in a universe where there is life? The second way to think about this is more personal. Questions include: What does my individual life mean? What is my unique purpose? What am I going to do with my “one wild and precious life?,” as the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver put it. The third way is to approach the question as a psychological scientist. Following this, we could ask ourselves how we might measure the perception of meaning in life, in general, and then consider how to perform scientific studies seeking to uncover what predicts the experience of more or less life meaning in a broad group of people.

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Soulfelt

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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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.

ben-white-Unsplash

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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Protesting God

This article was inspired by conversation with Deanna Thompson.

Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.

Then came September 11th, 2001.

When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.

After several months of total grief, Marian started to see beauty again. However, her spiritual life was different. As she stated in the PBS documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero:”

“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”

Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”

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Longing for More

What do you really want in life?

It’s a difficult question, but it may be the essential question.

Maybe you would answer with a concrete response, such as “I want sleep,” “I want a new phone,” or “I want to play more golf.”

Or maybe you would reflect more broadly. Some people even go beyond everyday desires to imagine deep yearnings for something more.

Source Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler Wikimedia Commons

Source: Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler / Wikimedia Commons

“Sehnsucht” is a popular German word with no simple English translation (click here for pronunciation). C. S. Lewis often relied on this concept in his writings, defining it as “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what.” Instead of “wishful thinking,” Lewis suggested how Sehnsucht involves “thoughtful wishing.” In my words, Sehnsucht has to do with an intense desire for something beyond our human capacity to fulfill. It is a sense that something is missing – something that, if fulfilled, would make everything complete.

To better understand, let’s consider some of the ways Lewis reflected on the concept.

In his “Chronicles of Narnia” series, Lewis states:

“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning… a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and always are wishing you could get into that dream again.”

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What is “Awe?”

The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. Scientific and popular attention in awe is surging, yet awe remains one of the most commonly misunderstood psychological concepts in our culture. What exactly is “awe?”

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