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Meditation is the Brain’s Pushup

February 15, 2013 2 Comments

By lyssa of the

Just like pushups are ubiquitous from gyms everywhere to P.E. to prisons, meditation is slowly becoming more mainstream. Goldie Hawn even founded a group to put meditation education in schools, called MindUp, and elementary students are reportedly loving it. New research reveals that meditators’ brains are not only filled with more gray matter, but they atrophy much slower. Imagine the possibliities if you had started meditating as a kid!

The Research

Two years ago, researchers found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than the brains of individuals in a control group. Now, a follow-up study in the online edition of the journal NeuroImages uggests that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy.

Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues used a type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, a relatively new imaging mode that provides insights into the structural connectivity of the brain.

“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” Luders said. “We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.”

The study consisted of 27 active meditation practitioners (average age 52) and 27 control subjects, who were matched by age and sex. The number of years of meditation practice ranged from 5 to 46; self-reported meditation styles included Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen, styles that were practiced by about 55 percent of the meditators.

“It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level,” says Luders, who meditates. “Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction,” Luders said. “That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.”

Nature vs. Nurture

While it is tempting to assume that the differences between the two groups constitute actual meditation-induced effects, there is still the unanswered question of nature versus nurture.

“It’s possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with,” Luders says. “For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice — meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.”

Still, “Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large.”



For some, today is a tough day for #happiness

February 14, 2013

Don’t have a Valentine?  No problem.  You don’t need the love of your life to celebrate love.  Make today a day about giving away love, not just romantic love. Just radiate it to everyone you meet, from the barista to the bus driver, your kid’s teacher to the receptionist.  Take it up a notch.  Smile.  Listen.  Pay attention to people.  Be a walking incarnation of St. Valentine.    Your happiness and appreciate for the holiday will grow like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas.

52 Zen Habits (You don’t have to do them all at once.)

February 13, 2013

Leo Babauta of has written an e-book that list 52 simple things you can do (1 per week) to make positive changes.  He tried little experiments, one or two a month, and sees what happens.  No judgement.  No failure for not doing all 52 things.  Leave all that behind.

A few prinicple…

1. One Change at a Time. Just one. Don’t make several at once, because then they’ll all fail.

2. Small Changes Only. Don’t try to run 30 minutes if you haven’t been running. Just do 2 minutes. Small changes are more likely to stick.

3. Enjoy the Change. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth doing. And it won’t stick anyway.

4. Iterate. If a change fails, figure out why, and improve the method. Or pick another change.

5. Pick a trigger. A trigger is something already ingrained in your routine that you use to anchor a new change. For example, go for a walk (the new habit) right after drinking co”ee in the morning (the trigger).

Zen Habits is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.

  • Change 1: Meditate
  • Change 2: Unprocrastinate
  • Change 3: Walking
  • Change 4: Flexible Mind
  • Change 5: Identify Your Essentials
  • Change 6: Mindful Eating
  • Change 7: Most Important Things (MITs)
  • Change 8: Clear a Shelf
  • Change 9: Start Saving
  • Change 10: Yoga or strength training
  • Change 11: Floss
  • Change 12: Pay a small debt
  • Change 13: Mindful Exercise
  • Change 14: Budget Simply
  • Change 15: Create a support crew
  • Change 16: Eat some veggies
  • Change 17: Gratitude
  • Change 18: Clear counters
  • Change 19: Slow down
  • Change 20: Play
  • Change 21: Flow
  • Change 22: Let go of a vice
  • Change 23: Don’t wish things were different
  • Change 24: Clear a closet
  • Change 25: Let go of TV
  • Change 26: Get more sleep
  • Change 27: Value time over money
  • Change 28: Replace opinions with curiosity
  • Change 29: Read
  • Change 30: Cut out shopping
  • Change 31: Learn that you’re good enough
  • Change 32: Create
  • Change 33: Eat real food
  • Change 34: Explore work you love
  • Change 35: Help others
  • Change 36: Breathe
  • Change 37: Enjoy the habit
  • Change 38: Solitude
  • Change 39: Unclutter a room
  • Change 40: Iterate the habit
  • Change 41: Less busywork, more impact
  • Change 42: Disconnect
  • Change 43: Let go of a goal
  • Change 44: Treat failure as a learning opportunity
  • Change 45: Reduce commitments
  • Change 46: Turn problems into opportunities
  • Change 47: Savor
  • Change 48: Clear your inbox
  • Change 49: Teach
  • Change 50: Compassion
  • Change 51: Reflect
  • Change 52: Realize you’re not missing out


Don’t Hate On Your Own Shine

February 12, 2013

This is about job hunting, but it applies to life in general…

By Christina Wood

We all have our own style, signature and colored lens to look at the world. It’s a gift, so find your own voice, embrace it and stop trying to be like someone else. At least, that’s what we often think about people who steal our ideas, criticize us unfairly or watch us just a little too closely. We tell people like that to stop hatin’!

But what happens when we become the haters? I don’t mean on someone else, but on ourselves. What should we do if we find ourselves dumbing down our ideas to gain others’ approval, or tearing down the personal brand we’ve established for ourselves, or nit-picking at every little thing we do wrong because we saw someone else do something that looks better?

You’ve got to tell yourself to stop hatin’!

As an emerging professional, it’s super important to find mentors and other people in your field who are where you want to be. But the most successful people haven’t gotten where they are because they CC’d themselves after someone else. Driven and successful people glean from other successful people, but they learn to adapt new ideas and fuse it into the plans they’ve already set for their lives, both personally and professionally.

Ready to embrace the you that others should want to follow? Here’s how:

Establish or review your personal brand

You can’t really make plans to go anywhere in life until you know who you are and where you want to go. Reading the how-to books and blogs like this one are great, but if you don’t know who you are, you’ll just be spinning your wheels.

Your brand is your personal manifesto. It’s your thesis statement. It’s what you want to be known for. It’s a succinct summary of your values and goals. As you assess the types of projects you engage in and the direction you want to move in for your career, match that to your brand.

Are you being true to what you want? Does your brand reflect your priorities? If you find yourself busy with a bunch of activities that don’t meet your goals, that’s a pretty good sign you might be headed in the wrong direction.

Identify your niche and expand your knowledge

Assess your interests, knowledge and experience. Ask yourself what you’re most passionate about, then start to focus on those areas — which means most of what you read, blog about or get involved in professionally should support those interests.

Join professional associations and Linkedin groups that reflect those interests, and get involved in conversations in those online hubs. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn more and interact with others who know more than you, so that you can start to add that information to your skill box.

Become an authority in your field

Now that you’re soaking up all this awesome information and growing and developing as a professional, don’t be stingy! It’s time to share what you know.

Offer yourself as a resource. You can do this within your professional circles by presenting at conferences, starting a blog and creating content that answers questions most people in your field want to know, or by launching a listserv, throwing out introspective topics that let your peers know you’re a focused thinker and a leader, and that you truly care about what you do.

This helps to build your reputation on the playground, so to speak. Before you know it, someone else will be gleaning insight from you.

So don’t sleep on what you have to offer. Self-evaluation is worthwhile, and we should always be looking for ways to bring fresh ideas to the table. But don’t ever compromise who you are for the sake of keeping up with the guy next door. If you do, you’ll likely never advance beyond that neighbor.

Christina Wood is an admissions counselor at Harrisburg Area Community College. She blogs atCommunity College Voice and is a contributing writer to The LI$T. Tweet Christina@ChristinaW82.


American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) in 1909

American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) in 1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer somebody else up.”

Mark Twain

Cheer Up

February 12, 2013

The Google Happiness Machine

February 11, 2013 2 Comments

Google 貼牌冰箱(Google Refrigerator)

(Photo credit: Aray Chen)

By  of

A few years ago, Google’s human resources department noticed a problem: A lot of women were leaving the company. Like the majority of Silicon Valley software firms, Google is staffed mostly by men, and executives have long made it a priority to increase the number of female employees. But the fact that women were leaving Google wasn’t just a gender equity problem—it was affecting the bottom line. Unlike in most sectors of the economy, the market for top-notch tech employees is stretched incredibly thin. Google fights for potential workers with Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and hordes of startups, so every employee’s departure triggers a costly, time-consuming recruiting process.

Then there was the happiness problem. Google monitors its employees’ well-being to a degree that can seem absurd to those who work outside Mountain View. The attrition rate among women suggested there might be something amiss in the company’s happiness machine. And if there’s any sign that joy among Googlers is on the wane, it’s the Google HR department’s mission to figure out why and how to fix it.

Google calls its HR department People Operations, though most people in the firm shorten it to POPS. The group is headed by Laszlo Bock, a trim, soft-spoken 40-year-old who came to Google six years ago. Bock says that when POPS looked into Google’s woman problem, it found it was really a new mother problem: Women who had recently given birth were leaving at twice Google’s average departure rate. At the time, Google offered an industry-standard maternity leave plan. After a woman gave birth, she got 12 weeks of paid time off. For all other new parents in its California offices, but not for its workers outside the state, the company offered seven paid weeks of leave.

So in 2007, Bock changed the plan. New mothers would now get five months off at full pay and full benefits, and they were allowed to split up that time however they wished, including taking some of that time off just before their due date. If she likes, a new mother can take a couple months off after birth, return part time for a while, and then take the balance of her time off when her baby is older. Plus, Google began offering the seven weeks of new-parent leave to all its workers around the world.

Google’s lavish maternity and paternity leave plans probably don’t surprise you. The company’s swank perks—free gourmet food, on-site laundry, Wi-Fi commuting shuttles—are legendary in the corporate world, and they’ve driven a culture of ever-increasing luxuries for tech workers. This week, for the fourth consecutive year, Google was named the best company to work for by Fortunemagazine; Microsoft was No. 75, while Apple, Amazon, and Facebook didn’t even make the list.

At times Google’s largesse can sound excessive—noble but wasteful from a bottom-line perspective. In August, for example, Forbes disclosed one previously unannounced Google perk—when an employee dies, the company pays his spouse or domestic partner half of his salary for a decade. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that Google doles out such perks just to be nice. POPS rigorously monitors a slew of data about how employees respond to benefits, and it rarely throws money away. The five-month maternity leave plan, for instance, was a winner for the company. After it went into place, Google’s attrition rate for new mothers dropped down to the average rate for the rest of the firm. “A 50 percent reduction—it was enormous!” Bock says. What’s more, happiness—as measured by Googlegeist, a lengthy annual survey of employees—rose as well. Best of all for the company, the new leave policy was cost-effective. Bock says that if you factor in the savings in recruitment costs, granting mothers five months of leave doesn’t cost Google any more money.

The change in maternity leave exemplifies how POPS has helped Google become the country’s best employer. Under Bock, Google’s HR department functions more like a rigorous science lab than the pesky hall monitor most of us picture when we think of HR. At the heart of POPS is a sophisticated employee-data tracking program, an effort to gain empirical certainty about every aspect of Google’s workers’ lives—not just the right level of pay and benefits but also such trivial-sounding details as the optimal size and shape of the cafeteria tables and the length of the lunch lines.

In the last couple years, Google has even hired social scientists to study the organization. The scientists—part of a group known as the PiLab, short for People & Innovation Lab—run dozens of experiments on employees in an effort to answer questions about the best way to manage a large firm. How often should you remind people to contribute to their 401(k)s, and what tone should you use? Do successful middle managers have certain skills in common—and can you teach those skills to unsuccessful managers? Or, for that matter, do managers even matter—can you organize a company without them? And say you want to give someone a raise—how should you do it in a way that maximizes his happiness? Should you give him a cash bonus? Stock? A raise? More time off?

Some of Google’s HR lessons won’t apply to other companies. The search company has been insanely profitable for much of its history, and many of its problems are atypical. Google has the luxury of worrying about the best way to give people more money instead of, say, the ideal manner in which to lay them off. Still, a few of POPS’ findings—like how to train a better corps of managers and how to improve interviews—will apply to most other firms. And among the tech giants—many of which are also quite profitable and face some of the same problems Google does—the search company is alone in trying to answer its HR questions scientifically. “We make thousands of people decisions every day—who we should hire, how much we should pay them, who we should promote, who we should let go of,” says Prasad Setty, who heads POPS’ “people analytics” group. “What we try to do is bring the same level of rigor to people decisions that we do to engineering decisions. Our mission is to have all people decisions be informed by data.”

This effort to bring rigor to HR grew out of Google’s larger culture. Most of its workers are engineers, the kind of people who demand data to get them to change their ways. One of the earliest examples of this was POPS’ effort to streamline Google’s hiring process. In its first few years, Google became infamous in the Valley for asking prospective candidates to endure lots and lots of interviews. “The intuition was that staffing was everything for Google, so everyone at the firm should be able to interview a candidate,” Bock says.

Laszlo Bock.

Laszlo Bock, the head of Google’s People Operations department
Courtesy Google.

The people in HR were skeptical of this approach; not only was the interview process slowing down hiring, it was also harming Google’s reputation among prospective candidates. So Todd Carlisle, who is now Google’s director of staffing, did a study to find the optimal number of times a candidate should be interviewed. He analyzed dozens of Google’s hiring decisions, keeping track of the scores that each interviewer had given a candidate after an interview. After crunching the data, Carlisle found that the optimal interview rate—the number of interviews after which the candidate’s average score would converge on his final score—was four. “After four interviews,” Carlisle says, “you get diminishing returns.” Presented with this data, Google’s army of engineers was convinced. Interview times shrunk, and Google’s hiring sped up.

Google’s HR department has uncovered many such nuggets of optimal organizational behavior. Among the biggest finding is that middle managers matter, which overturned Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s onetime presumption that you could run a company in which nobody was the boss of anyone else. POPS determined this by looking at scores the firm’s managers received from two-sided feedback surveys, taking into account both what a manager’s underlings and a manager’s manager thinks about his work. When analysts compared the highest- and lowest-performing managers, they found a stark difference—the best managers had lower attrition rates (meaning fewer people left their teams), and their teams were much more productive across a range of criteria.

“We were able to show them that those pointy-headed Dilbert caricatures actually make a difference to their jobs,” says Jennifer Kurkoski, a PiLab analyst. More importantly, the analysts were able to use their findings to make bad managers better. After scouring the feedback that successful managers got from their teams, the researchers boiled it all down to eight bullet points. They sound obvious and overly vague—“A high-scoring manager is a good coach,” “a good communicator,” “doesn’t micromanage”—but the bullet points worked: When POPS spread these truths through the organization and targeted unsuccessful managers for coaching, they found that the company’s managerial ranks improved. As a result of the coaching, Google managers’ collective feedback scores have improved every year since 2009.

Another major POPS finding concerned how to give an employee more money. In 2010, buffeted by the recession and increasing competition from other companies (especially Facebook), then-CEO Eric Schmidt decided to give all Googlers a raise. It was the job of POPS to determine the best way to offer that increase. The group ran a “conjoint survey” in which it asked employees to choose the best among many competing pay options. For instance, would you rather have $1,000 more in salary or $2,000 as a bonus?

“What we found was that they valued base pay above all,” Setty says. “When we offered a bonus of X, they valued that at what it costs us. But if you give someone a dollar in base pay, they value it at more than a dollar because of the long-term certainty.” In the fall of 2010, Schmidt announced that all Google employees would get a 10 percent salary increase. Setty says Googlers were overjoyed—many people cite that announcement as their single happiest moment at the firm, and Googlegeist numbers that year went through the roof. Attrition to competing companies also declined.

Prasad Setty.

Prasad Setty runs Google’s “people analytics” department
Courtesy Google.

Then there are the smaller findings: To nudge someone to contribute to his 401(k), POPS found that it’s best if you send him many reminders and that it’s better if your reminders call for “aggressive” savings goals. If you implore an employee to contribute $8,000 to his retirement rather than, say, $2,000, he’ll tend to save more—even if he can’t afford $8,000, he’ll put in more than he would have if you’d suggested $2,000. As for the cafeterias, researchers found that the ideal lunch line should be about three or four minutes long—that’s short enough that people don’t waste time but long enough that they can meet new people. The tables should be long, so workers who don’t know each other are forced to chat. And, after running an experiment, Google found that stocking cafeterias with 8-inch plates alongside 12-inch plates encouraged people to eat smaller, healthier portions.

Bock’s ultimate goal is to use Google’s experience to answer some big questions about the workplace: Are leaders born or made? Are teams better than individuals at getting things done? Can individuals sustain high performance over their lifetimes? POPS isn’t close to being able to answer those questions right now, but Bock argues that Google can eventually shed light on some of them. “We have the luxury of being a data-driven company with people with the analytic chops who can do the math,” he says. “We also have a large enough scale so that when we run experiments, they’re statistically valid.”

In time, Bock argues, Google’s findings—which it often shares with other HR professionals—may improve all our jobs. “You spend more time working than doing anything else,” he says. “If you work eight or 10 hours a day, it’s more time than you spend sleeping, more time than you spend with your spouse. When you add it up it gets really depressing. You like your job, but for all time it should be— and it could be—something more. So why isn’t it?

Pay It Forward Examples You Can Do Today

February 10, 2013 3 Comments

"Pay It Forward" - Flower Power

“Pay It Forward” – Flower Power (Photo credit: Brian Metcalfe)

From Good Juju

Most people have heard the term “pay it forward.”  It’s all about performing a random act of kindness and expecting nothing in return.  The other night, my husband reminded me how important it was to pay it forward to others.  He called me from work and told me he had just finished dinner at a local restaurant.  He was seated next to a single mother with two children.  When he was paying for his check, he felt the urge to pay for their dinner as well.  He did so, and left quietly not wishing for any credit or a thank you.  I was so proud of him and started thinking how different our country would be if more of us paid if forward.  Doing good deeds for others without any expectations.  Simply hoping to bring a smile to another person’s face.  Today, I am going to pay it forward to a stranger and I urge you to do the same.  If you need an idea, here are some suggestions:

  1. Put a quarter in a meter, any meter, that’s about to expire
  2. Be nice to the customer service people who are trying to help you with
  3. Forgive a driver directing road rage at you
  4. Buy or pack a meal for a homeless person (or give him/her your to-go box from a restaurant)
  5. Offer to do pro bono work on a project where your skills are needed
  6. Mentor someone
  7. Make a donation
  8. Say a prayer or whisper a kind wish for someone
  9. Compliment a stranger
  10. Next time you leave a foreign country, give all or some of what’s left of your currency to someone who resides in that country
  11. Next time you’re at the airport, offer to pull the bags belonging to a woman or a mother with child out of the conveyor belt
  12. Show respect equally to all human beings
  13. Put a tip in a street musician’s jar
  14. Let someone cut in front of you at the grocery store
  15. Give someone a chance to prove him or herself
  16. Encourage someone to pursue their dream
  17. Hold the door open for someone
  18. Teach a child something you wish you knew at that age
  19. Smile at strangers
  20. Offer sincere, kind words to someone who’s hurting
  21. Visit a hospice and spend some time with a terminally ill patient
  22. Spend some time with a senior citizen living alone
  23. Give up your seat on a crowded bus or train or ferry
  24. Inspire someone to be the best that they can be
  25. Give someone the benefit of the doubt
  26. Offer to babysit for a single mother
  27. Help a pregnant lady
  28. Sit and talk with a homeless person and learn their story
  29. Give blood
  30. Replace an angry or bitter thought toward someone with a loving thought (or at least try)

Life Lessons from the Dying

February 9, 2013

{love and happiness}

{love and happiness} (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Tom  Muha, Hometown Annapolis

Have you ever wondered what’s most important to people at the end of their lives? That knowledge could have a powerful impact on your life. In a beautifully written book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” Bronnie Ware describes how her life was profoundly transformed by the lessons she learned while providing care to the terminally ill. There is much to learn from the life stories of the dearly departed.

Grace provides the illustration for Regret No. 1: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. While caring for Grace, Ware repeatedly heard her lament that the dreams she had of living a life independent of her husband were never going to happen. “Why didn’t I just do what I wanted? Why did I let him rule me? Why wasn’t I strong?”

John was another patient with whom Ware cared for during his final months of life. He exemplified another common regret: I wish I didn’t work so hard. John’s wife had passed a year earlier, with her husband’s promise that he’d retire so they could travel being unfulfilled. “If I can leave any good in this world besides my family, I leave these words. Don’t work too hard. Try to maintain balance. Don’t make work your whole life.”

Regret No. 3 is that “I wish I’d have the courage to express my feelings.” Like John, Jozef also wished he hadn’t worked so hard. “I loved my work, I really loved it. That’s why I worked so hard, that and to provide for my family and their family. So I worked and worked and kept the family at a distance. They didn’t deserve to be so alone. Now I wish they really knew me.”

Living in a nursing home, Doris exemplified Regret No. 4: I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. “I have been dying of loneliness in here, sweetheart,” Doris told Ware the first time the two met. “I had heard it was possible and it is. Loneliness can surely kill you. I get so starved for human touch at times.” Together, the two of them tracked down Doris’s friends so they could reconnect one last time. Better late than never.

Finally, Regret No. 5: I wish I had let myself be happier. The client Ware chose to illustrate to become this regret was a woman who had been ahead of her time, a corporate executive named Rosemary. “What a miserable person I have been. I just didn’t think I deserved to be happy. But I do. I know that now. It’s really our own choice, isn’t it? We can stop ourselves from being happy because we think we don’t deserve it, or because we allow opinions of others to become part of who we are. But itis not who we are, is it? We can be whoever we allow ourselves to be. My God, why didn’t I work this out sooner? What a waste!”

Reflecting on lessons she learned from her decades of caring for the dying, Ware offers exquisite advice to those of us who still have the chance to get it right. “It takes fortitude to create big changes. The longer you stay in the wrong environment and remain its product though, the longer you deny yourself the opportunity to know true happiness and satisfaction. Life is too short to just watch it go by, just because of fear that can be conquered if faced.”

In discussing how to re-create one’s life, Ware writes “It is a delicate process of determination, bravery and at times, of letting go. It is having the courage to stop unhealthy relationships in their tracks and say ‘Enough.’ It is treating yourself with respect and kindness, both of which you deserve. Mostly though, to break free of your own trappings, it is about becoming an observer of your own thoughts and habits. This awareness helps solutions become apparent.”

Rather than being a book that leaves the reader despondent, Ware has crafted a work that inspires. “Life is your own, not someone else’s. If you are not finding some element of happiness in what you have created and are doing nothing to improve on it, then the gift of every new day is wasted. A tiny step or a small decision are great starting points, those and taking responsibility for your own happiness.”

If you’re struggling in life, I heartily recommend that you read this book – before it’s too late.

Dr. Tom Muha is a psychologist practicing in Annapolis. Previous articles can be found To contact him call 443-454-7274 or send email


Pleasant Surprises

February 8, 2013

It's the picture of Italian ice-cream in a sho...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Andrew Kensley, the Coloradoan

Last week while my wife was out of town, I took my daughters ice skating in Old Town and out for sushi. And since they’d been behaving well in Tanya’s absence and generally eating healthy food over the previous few days, I promised them ice cream.

“We love ice cream!” Ella, my 8-year-old, said. “Dad, you’re the best dad ever!”

My children are not alone in their use of superlatives. Sophia, my 5-year-old, often calls me her “best friend ever,” but also says the same thing about Tanya, Ella, and Lola, her stuffed bunny. Ella is equally effusive when she says she had “the best day of her entire life,” or calls a specific food the “best thing she’s ever eaten.” It’s fun to see my kids so enthusiastic.

I’ve noticed, though, that they tend to express those animated characterizations aloud only in certain situations. They don’t cheer wildly when I make fruit salad or convince them to bathe every now and then, even though those things are more beneficial in the long term. As we made our way to the ice cream shop, I wondered: how important are random, unexpected treats to overall happiness?

The meat and potatoes of parenting are in the routines of the daily grind. We make sure our kids sleep, do their homework, eat healthy foods and exercise. We teach them to be responsible, take care of their things and clean up after themselves. In theory, those basics are all they need for survival. There is no biological need for trips to Disneyworld or a triple decker sundae.

But humans don’t exist “in theory” only. Admit it: When you ditch the salad bar in favor of a greasy burger and a few beers, or stay out until 2 a.m. partying with your friends, you feel excited that you indulged. That’s because we crave pleasure, especially when we’re used to doing the sensible thing most of the time.

According to a 2001 article in “Neuroscience,” pleasant surprises lead to “marked stimulation in the brain’s pleasure centers,” which produce chemicals that make us happy. Since happiness tends to lead to more of the same, we would be wise to allow ourselves to be surprised every now and then. The promise and possibilities of rewards help us endure things like preparing our taxes and organizing that filthy garage.

Life success is built on the notion that if you work for five days, you get to play on the other two. Save for retirement every paycheck and you deserve to spend a month’s salary on a nice vacation once in a while. Rewards keep us engaged in the less exciting aspects of our lives, and kids are no exception. In fact, in a population that is constantly watching to make sure we’re paying attention, that kind of reassurance is crucial in their emotional development.

Back at home, I asked Ella if I was the best dad because of the ice cream. “No,” she said, and hugged me. “But it was delicious.”

Andrew Kensley is a writer, physical therapist, husband and father in Fort Collins. He welcomes your emails to


“When fishing for happiness, catch and release.”

by Shimon Edelman, author of  The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, .

Releasing a rod-caught Atlantic salmon on the ...

Releasing a rod-caught Atlantic salmon on the Little Gruinard in Wester Ross, Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fishing for Happiness

February 7, 2013

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