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Four Statements to Happier

written by Dave Shearon 17 January 2009

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

First, an acknowledgment — Aren Cohen’s beautiful and personal story posted on the 12th of this month, “How Sweet It Is…” inspired me to settle on this topic.  “Other people matter,” as Christopher Peterson says.

I have been thinking about what it takes for folks to change, especially the kind of change positive psychology focuses on — from ok to good or good to better: from +1 or +2 in well-being to +4, +5, or +6.

When I speak or lead a workshop, I usually make three disclaimers about what I will NOT be doing during the presentation or workshop:

  1. I will not be doing positive thinking.  I’m not Norman Vincent Peale or Tony Robbins.  I won’t be saying that if you think it, you can be it, or anything along those lines.
  2. DumbledoreI will not be doing magic.  I am not Albus Dumbledore and we’re not in Hogwarts.  I cannot wave a magic wand or say an incantation and have folks leave to live lives at sustained higher levels of happiness, optimism, resilience, etc.
  3. I will not be doing religion.  I am not Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, or any other religious leader.  What I say may sometimes have the ring of something you may have heard from a spiritual leader, but that’s because the science has borne out some (but not all) of the things many religions teach, in addition to handing us a few surprises.

Four Statements to Happier

So, having admitted that all I can do is present some information and maybe get participants to engage in some experiences that will help them begin to discover the power in some of the approaches of positive psychology, what are the necessary conditions for them to move forward?  I have settled on the following four statements.  The first is optional but highly recommended.  Statements 2-4 are mandatory.


“My name is _______.”

“I want to be happier.”

“I am willing to work at it.”


Let’s look at these in order, starting with “Hi.”  As I said, this one is optional, but highly recommended.  “Hi,” means there’s at least one other person working with you, and preferably a group.

Jumping happiness PPNDAs Aren said, one of the great things about MAPP is that, for many of us, we were not only learning abstract principles, we were also integrating them in our lives, and doing so with a group of like-minded folks.  When I sat down with my wife, the beautiful and patient Teresa, to have our final talk about whether I would do MAPP, she said, “I just want you to be happy,” and she was probably not the only significant other with that thought.  MAPP helped me become happier, more optimistic, more hopeful, more strengths-oriented, and (yes, Wayne!) more mindful.  My classmates were a big part of that change.  There are several readily available ways to engage with others.  A coach can be that other person.  “Happiness Clubs” that are starting in many cities can provide a group.  Regardless, “other people matter.”  You can pursue happiness, optimism, strengths, resilience, etc. as a solitary endeavor; it’s just not as much fun and may not be as successful.

“My name is ______.”

Smiling kids happiness PPNDThis means that we each start from where we are.  I was a pessimist (negative explanatory style, and, likely, negative expectational levels also) when I started working with positive psychology.  I also had certain strengths, both of character and of action.  I was trained to think like a lawyer and, though I had not spent my whole career exercising that training, I was and am closely associated with the field.  That’s where I was and who I was, and that’s where I had to start.  The same is true for each person choosing to become happier, etc.  “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and that step begins from where you are.  That’s where tools like the VIA and Authentic Happiness Inventory and the others on www.authentichappiness.org come in — they can help you better understand where you are and the strengths you have to work with as your start your journey.

“I want to be happier.”

You gotta own it.  Aren stated her purpose of getting married, at least to herself.  Wow!  What a gutsy move.  Robert Quinn talks about purpose in Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change, including a story about a romantic breakup in his daughter’s life.  Tal Ben-Shahar in Happier also talks about purpose, and even suggests Chapter 11 in Jim Collins’ Built to Last as a guide, though that book is about values and purpose in business organization.  Great suggestion — it is a great chapter, and one that stands on its own.

Poppy happiness PPNDIt was scary for me to admit I wanted to be more positive, more optimistic, more engaged, and, generally, happier in my life.  It is scary sometimes today to say that I am working on attorney well-being, and especially to act in my job based on what I now know.  But without a purpose to get better, to have more of what we really want and what is really important, and to make a difference in our lives and for others, we do not change.  By saying, “I want to be happier,” we let go of the facade many of us have held up to the world that our lives are perfect, we’re strong, etc.  We also open ourselves up to self-doubt (“Who am I to be happier?”) and to failure.  That’s the price of growth.  If you cannot say, “I want to be happier” or more optimistic, more resilient, etc., then you are not likely to get more!

“I am willing to work at it.”

Maynard G. KrebsThis one’s the kicker.  This is the statement that takes wishing and converts it to purpose.  I sometimes use Maynard G. Krebs as the metaphor for this when I speak.  Remember Maynard?  OK, some of you are too young, but maybe you’ve seen re-runs.  Maynard was the beatnik character on the TV series “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” that ran from 1959 to 1963.  Among his other idiosyncrasies, Maynard would screech “Work!” in a falsetto voice every time he heard the word.  He was allergic to work!  Well, those who want more happiness, optimism, hope, joy, relationship, engagement, and so forth without work want, as Thomas Jefferson said in a different context, “what never was and never will be.”  Results take work, work such as that suggested this month in choosing what to change, changing oneself first, and focusing on strengths.

As I described in my PPND article last month, attorneys who have attended my seminars and taken some action are significantly more likely than those who did not take action to report increased well-being and more commitment, energy, and engagement with their practices.  Stephanie West Allen has a post on The Complete Lawyer about mindfulness for lawyers in which she notes that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer meditates twice a day for 15-20 minutes each time.  That’s work!  Okay, maybe it ain’t digging ditches, but it takes commitment and action — work!

So, do you want to be happier, more optimistic, more engaged at work, have more and better relationships, etc.?  Then say it with me:


“My name is _______.”

“I want to be happier.”

“I am willing to work at it.”

Now we can go forward together!



Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Dumbledore from wikipedia. Maynard G. Krebs from here. Other images by David Niblack.

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Louis Alloro 17 January 2009 - 2:14 pm

Together! Yes, thank you Dave for a very simple and powerful tool. How do you think it’s best we can work together to become happier, more optimistic, more engaged at work, etc.? What do you think are some of the ingredients to relational success?

WJ 17 January 2009 - 5:28 pm

Louis, A tip on relational success. Accepting people for who they are. If they don’t want to change then so be it.

WJ 17 January 2009 - 5:56 pm

Dave, if you have a close look at Stephanies article she discusses reserach on meditation conducted at Penn. From I understand the MAPP course covers meditation in a very limited way. Why do you think this is?

And a second question – what do you undertand mindfulness to mean?

Dave Shearon 17 January 2009 - 9:17 pm

Hi, Louis! I think that becoming more strengths oriented helps relationships. My acronym is KUSE – Know, Use, See, Enable. We know more of our strengths, use them more, see strengths in others, and enable them to use theirs. Since most folks respond positively to being in the presence of someone manifesting a VIA strength, living from our strengths attracts others. And who doesn’t want someone to see their strengths and enable their use? So, though it is not the last word, strengths-based living and relating should strengthen our personal and group relationships.

Dave Shearon 17 January 2009 - 9:35 pm

Hi, Wayne! My MAPP experience did not spend much time on meditation. We also had only one brief lecture by David Cooperrider on Appreciative Inquiry, though now I think he is much more involved in teaching the organizational component in the Spring semester. Exercise was also mentioned, but not made a focus (though some folks ran together, etc.) This year’s class are participating in an experiment involving wearing pedometers and recording their steps. So, MAPP grows and changes. Also, many of the classes have had folks with extensive backgrounds in yoga, personal meditation disciplines, etc. I am not sure what I would have suggested they eliminate to make time for lectures and assignments on meditation. Tough choices!

What is mindfulness? I’m starting to read more of the literature and “nojudgmental awareness of immediate experience” seems to be a fairly common definition. I am currently thinking and reading to get a handle on what beyond this I would put in, such as meta-cognition, calm thoughts and relaxed body, focused attention, willed emotions, and intentionality. But, haven’t really got it thought out yet. I know you’ve done lots of thinking on this subject. What are your thoughts?

WJ 18 January 2009 - 5:28 am

Dave – the definition I use is fundamentally a meta-cognitive perspective – awareness of thinking and emotions without judgement. This contrasts with the way it is often used on PPND where the emphasis seems to be on awareness. In this situation it is just a distraction as opposed to an active cognitive process.

With regards to the advice that you gave Louis, I think it is far more powerful if you match other peoples strengths – rather than displaying your own. For example if I said to you “do have the courage to explore mindfulness” it would probably resonate with you as I suspect you have a strength around courage – but I could be wrong

Dave Shearon 18 January 2009 - 7:59 am

Wayne, would “flow” be a failure of mindfulness?

Using KUSE as a framework, I would see your suggestion that I tap the strength of courage as working from the SE component — See and Enable. Tapping courage could help me face up to any threat or challenge I might see in exploring mindfulness. Curiosity and Love of Learning may also motivate me to find ways to integrate more meditative practices into my daily schedule so I can better experience and understand mindfulness. I appreciate your participation here because you are so much more knowledgeable in this area — nice to be able to learn from you!

WJ 18 January 2009 - 10:25 am

flow isn’t mindfulness – you are a passive participant.

what i’m saying is that to engage you in the discussion I need to match your values – not my own. Courage isn’t important to me – it is to you.

This is the challenge for PP – the rest of the world isn’t “like minded” as you term it in your article. So you have to come at it from their perspective.

KevinT 18 January 2009 - 6:57 pm

Hi Dave:
I’m Kevin. I’m an academic and professional overachiver. I want to be happier and healthier. I am willing to work at it. Indeed, I have already done much work to achieve that goal..

WJ 19 January 2009 - 2:32 am

Dave, I have just found a study hot of the press (Dec 2008) that shows that mindfulness is more powerful than CBT (the ABCDE’s that you learnt in MAPP) with regards to managing stress. It has a really good explanation of mindfulness. The irony is that the study also found that CBT reduces mindfulness.

I’m speculating that there might be a need for some curriculum renewal in the MAPP course.

Dave Shearon 19 January 2009 - 8:02 am

Hi, Kevin. Sounds good! Hope you are seeing results. If you’d like to reach me off site, it’s dave dot shearon at yahoo dot com.

Dave Shearon 19 January 2009 - 8:14 am

Wayne, I’d love to read the study. What’s the cite?

I’d also be interested to hear more of your view of “flow.” I’m having difficulty viewing “flow” as a “passive” experience, or “mindless” for that matter. On the other hand, with it’s lack of self-awareness, it doesn’t fit some of what I read about mindfulness. Mindfulness seems to posit a duality between an “observing” portion of consciousness that observes thoughts and emotions “non-judgmentally” and the thinking, feeling part of consciousness. “Flow” on the other hand, is the experience of a loss of a duality of self-awareness, of all consciousness becoming integrated and focused on wholistically interacting with the experience. It is interesting to try and accomodate the two constructs in some unified view of “living the good life.” Maybe you will spell out more of your thinking on this. If so, and you don’t post it here, please be sure and send me a link!

WJ 19 January 2009 - 8:21 am

Dave, will send article. Flow doesn’t involve conscious effort – it happens by choosing the activity. Did you know that the most common place people achieve flow is while driving. Its glorified distraction – however there is nothing wrong with distraction – its called being engaged.

But what are you going to do when faced with a stressful situation – go into flow? Probably not. That’s why mindfulness is powerful

Louis Alloro 19 January 2009 - 10:18 am

Wayne – we are dynamic beings. We change every second of everyday – biologically, physically, spiritually, emotionally, etc.

Yes, it’s important to accept people for who and where they are, but that is not to suggest that we cannot help each other move in most positive directions.


WJ 19 January 2009 - 12:16 pm

Louis, I think you are referring to the concept of accepting in mindfulness. Acceptance ulimately means taking the judgement out of your thinking and emotions. It doesn’t mean being passive.

For example I accept that PP doesn’t pay a lot of attention to real mindfulness. As a consequence it doesn’t frustrate me (it would have in the past – yes people chnage). However I do choose to educate the PP community about all the research that suggests that mindfulness is a foundation life skill for anyone who is serious about PP.

I hope this makes sense.

Kathryn Britton 19 January 2009 - 12:37 pm


I don’t think there’s anything passive about flow. Whether you achieve it or not in a given situation is not under your control (maybe that’s what you mean by passive), but the conditions for achieving are effortful and stretching. As for achieving flow when driving, I wish people were that absorbed in what they’re doing when they drive!

So, given your statement about meeting people with their strengths, how about using that when you converse with the PPND community? There’s always a feeling that you are trying to take us down a notch or three. Maybe we need it, but it does make it harder to absorb the benefits of what you’re saying — it makes it harder work.

Just a thought…


WJ 19 January 2009 - 1:00 pm

kathryn, you capture what I mean by passive. And good thoughts.

KevinT 19 January 2009 - 3:17 pm

If driving is flow, I’m no l;onger certain I wish to pursue flow experiences…. 🙂

I think driving is insufficiently challenging to generate true flow; I think the phenomenon of not being conscious of our driving is lack of interest with unconscious habit taking over the driving duties. It is not the engagement of flow…
Indeed, the difference is easy to compare; skiing gives rise to flow—you are “totally in the now –in the moment.”
Driving–you are totally NOT in that moment; instead, your mind wanders as unconscious habit drives the vehicle…

Sean 19 January 2009 - 4:49 pm


A couple of thoughts. In following the various articles on PPND, I have been very interested in your comments on mindfulness. I hope you would consider writing an article for PPND surveying the topic. Your note about mindfulness being awareness plus non-judgment, and the non-judgment being key to our SWB, is very interesting. But what about noticing with a positive judgment? A celebration of what we notice – Like Walt Whitman, or Pablo Neruda’s “impure poetry” in which he notices onions, raw meat hanging on butcher hooks, and underwear, and he celebrates them – he finds in them meaning to life. Relying only upon personal experience, with no studies to back it up, it seems to me that this type of awareness with judgment would be wonderful for our SWB.

As for flow, you said that we probably would not go into flow in a stressful situation. I could not disagree more – My area of legal practice is high conflict negotiations. Stress is very high, I dread walking into the conflict, but once I am there I go into a state of total flow – all the elements are there: feeling that I am in absolute control, highly creative and clear thinking, time flying, etc. It becomes absolute play and almost a state of rapture. The stress provides the challenge that makes the flow possible. There is a level of energy present in the flow state that is not there when I am noticing without judgment.


WJ 19 January 2009 - 5:42 pm

Sean – I agree. But it’s easier to recall a positive emotion when you come from a calm state – thats why its a foundation skill. ie its easier to go from negative to positive via neutral.

With regards to flow you can indeed apply it in a stressful situation. But what if I shifted you out of the context of negotiation? And perhaps yopu are the exception. How many people have negotiation skills. Might work for you but not for the masses. What if you gained flow from a hobby – making model aeroplanes for example. Difficult to apply when stressed.

Scott 20 January 2009 - 6:53 am

Back to you for a second. Your statements are very thought-provoking. AND your comments on the final statement “I’m willing to work at it” are spot on. Studying people who have achieved great things (this is what fascinates me) indicates this is the pivotal statement. So many of us wish for things, but it is the achieving few that take control of their lives and move toward it. If you can get anyone to this point where they take an action the results are wonderful. Thanks for the statements
Another note for those reading this who are interested in Mindfulness. Having studied and experienced it from the inside of a monastery I found that a good read is Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-zinn. If you want more academic material, put Jon Kabat-Zinn in Googlescholar and you can read his research. Good stuff but Wayne might have some others.
Finally, Wayne, I agree with Sean. Flow is probably achieved MORE in what would be considered stressful situations than calm. Csikszentmihalyi’s arguement is that it occurs in the channel between challenges and skills and that you have to move further up the channel to experience more flow as you master the challenges. Even the chapter titles are more about stress than calm situations. J

jd 20 January 2009 - 9:09 pm

Dave, That poppy is magnificent. It is very O’Keefe.
Love those colors that grab you and wake you up. Maynerd is a funny, funny actor.

Dave Shearon 21 January 2009 - 7:13 am

Thanks, Scott. One of the challenges with lawyers is helping them find enough positive energy – motivation – to feel they can move forward. I also appreciate the mention of Kabat-Zinn. I’ve had others mention him also, so multiple references are putting him on my list!

Dave Shearon 21 January 2009 - 7:14 am

jd, I like the pictures also, but the credit goes to Senia! Thanks, Senia!


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