Home All Wake Up and Notice: From Balance to Well-Being

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

Nearly all of us have had the sudden awareness that while we have been driving along, sometimes for many miles, we have not been paying attention. How did I get here? It does not just happen on the interstate in the form of highway hypnosis but also when driving through our neighborhoods or on our commutes. It happens over and over in our lives, as we are half awake to what we could notice if we were not thinking about other things rather than enjoying the ride we are on.

Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. ~William James

Absent presence, as this phenomenon is sometimes called, is often attributed to things like cell phone use or eating while driving. The suggestion is that we are actually paying attention to other things. But if we are honest with ourselves, we are just as likely to “zone out” when deep in thought as we are when distracted or overwhelmed with competing thoughts. The upshot is that we are, as William James said, “only half awake.”

It’s time to discover ways to wake up!

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
~ Daniel Goleman

As you and your children prepare for back-to-school, it’s time to rethink how you manage your sustained, volitional attention. You can increase your mental balance and well-being, and regain control over your habits and will. After all, it wouldn’t do for you to expect these things of your kids if you don’t practice them yourself. Best of all, you can begin to notice things that you have failed to notice, by

  • training yourself to think about your thinking (metacognition)
  • cultivating attention skills
  • creating and sustaining the habits that lead to success
  • willing yourself to do what you don’t necessarily want to do
  • setting and achieving goals that are consistent with your values, beliefs and attitudes

According to Wallace and Shapiro (2006), there are four kinds of mental balance: conative, attentional, cognitive, and affective. All of them can be learned, coached, practiced, and used effectively.

  1. Conative balance makes it possible to set intentions, goals, and priorities. This allows a person to use greater wisdom when choosing goals, provides for increased sustained attention and more mindfulness of events. In other words, intention (planfulness) and volition (action) improve a person’s attention. So don’t just go along for the ride—Be sure wherever you are, you are there for a reason and that you have made the choice consciously. Meditation, even among novices, is correlated with increased activity in the part of the brain responsible for positive emotion. Give it a try! What’s the key to meditation’s success? Practice.
  2. Attentional balance can be affected by having either too much or too little attention for a given situation. Whether driving a car, learning in a classroom or doing homework, if a task requires focused attention, it will be necessary to tune in to what is salient, thus balancing either lax attention or hyperactive attention. So practice mindfulness: sustained voluntary attention without either forgetfulness or distraction. Simple tasks such as mindful breathing can be a great place to begin one’s attention-awareness. Become especially aware of body sensations that are affected by deeper, slower breathing. Also, note when you are in the flow state. When your talents meet your challenges—that’s flow—attention is highly aroused but you are not aware of it. Time stands still and you experience deep engagement. What is the result? Positive emotion!
  3. Cognitive balance happens when you are “presently present” as opposed to the earlier example about driving. You may have patterns of thought that are related to inattentiveness, or misunderstanding. You may even (gasp!) distort reality by looking into your rose-colored mirror. Become aware of when you have been absent-minded, overly reliant on what may be incorrect projections or expectations. Try cognitive balance when you are having homework battles. Avoid the temptation to catastrophize about your 6th grader’s college options when the assignment is about something in math that you don’t get. Stay enough in the moment to ask questions instead of becoming anxious, and, if necessary, help your child to ask for help.

    People’s minds are not intrinsically unbalanced, only habitually so, and with continued skillful effort, these imbalances may be remedied. ~Rewata Dhamma

  4. Affective balance is the outcome of volition (what we actively choose), attention (the balance of focus required to be actively present), habit (what takes us from practice to automaticity) and will (the self-regulation to do the right thing even when we don’t want to). It is the result of using our character strengths (find yours here), cultivating the ones which we most value, and becoming aware of how they operate in our lives. Your children have character strengths, too. You can register them to take the VIA-Youth (ages 9-17).

Perhaps most importantly, remember this:

Satisfaction is less a matter of getting what you want than wanting what you have.
~ David Myers and Ed Diener



Wallace, B and Shapiro S.L.(2006). Mental Balance and Well-Being. American Psychologist. 61, 690-701.

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Senia Maymin 6 August 2008 - 3:12 am


I really like the conative balance – I’ve never heard of anything even like that!

Also, Sherri, could you define Affective Balance a little more – is that really about your affect and your emotion primarily?

My best, thanks for the new research here!

Angus Skinner 6 August 2008 - 10:59 am

I love it Sherri
Final agreement that the notion that women can multi-task while men can’t is nonsense. If it were true then dancing would be impossible!

Sherri 6 August 2008 - 11:48 am

Hi, Senia-

The mental balance model related here is a fusion of sorts between classical Buddhism and Positive Psychology. In other words, the teachings of the Buddha have been merged with Western empiricism. The article (see references) is great. Network insider info: Shauna Shapiro was Shawna Mitchell’s advisor in psych grad school 🙂

Affective balance is the desired outcome of positive interventions. On the PP side, this means “cultivating the qualities of (a) loving-kindness, (b) compassion, (c) empathetic joy, and [on the Buddhism side](d)an impartial sense of caring for others’ well-being” (Wallace and Shapiro, 2006). The article specifically uses the term “flourishing” as the outcome of affective balance.

According to Buddhism, it is the freedom from excesses that leads to affective balance. On the Positive Psychology side, research shows us that the development of strengths such as gratitude, love, empathetic joy, compassion, and equanimity decreases negative emotions and increases positive ones. Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to build affective balance.

–Be intentional and act on your intentions (set goals!).
–Be attentive: Notice! Savor!
–Be actively and presently present.Count your blessings!
–Be happy with what you’ve got (and maybe even give away what you don’t need).

Sherri Fisher 6 August 2008 - 12:09 pm

Hi, Angus-
Neurobiology has all sorts of fMRI proof that the brain multitasks. We are fabulously complex creatures and the joy of dancing during a lecture on high quality connections is but one way we show it!


Senia Maymin 6 August 2008 - 9:14 pm

That is hilarious about dancing!

SteveM 6 August 2008 - 9:49 pm


The great mystic, intellect Thomas Merton explored the integration of Eastern and Western transcendence long before PP popped up in somebody’s mind.

If you are interested, see his book Asian Journal. It was published posthumously after he died suddenly while on a trek to Asia.


Sherri 7 August 2008 - 11:24 am

Thanks for that book suggestion, Steve.

Look up this article http://www.sbinstitute.com/mentalbalance.pdf
and find the specific empirical data that connects the East and West.

And…you are right, of course, that PP has been around for a long time. We in the field, for example, cite Aristotle as a “strengths psychologist” when considering his philosophical ideas such as the “mean between the extremes”.

Chris Peterson reaches a wonderful course that traces the roots of PP. As a specific subfield of psychology though, it is newly named. To hear Chris, sign up for one of his courses at http://www.mentorcoach.com.


zsuzsa 23 June 2009 - 10:05 pm

Hi Sherri,
I am a psychology student from Canada who is very interested in Positive Psychology and Buddhism. I have read the article you are referring to here, and been researching the subject for an Independent. I am wondering if you could point me to other relevant material on the “role” of Buddhist Principles/Philosophy in Positive Psychology.
Thank you


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