Permission to be Human: Tal Ben-Shahar (part 2)

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On July 2, I published the first part of my report about Tal Ben-Shahar speaking to about 1000 people at at the illustrious Streicker Center at the Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Here is part 2, with the remaining 2 major points from his speech and some of the observations that came up during the question and answer period.

Editor’s note: I request permission to be human! At the end of part 1, we told you that part 2 would be published on Thursday, July 5. However I failed to keep the promise because I took a daylong vacation from my computer to celebrate my birthday. I had a lovely day disconnected from technology and connected to people. The weather has been so nice that I’ve spent my time outside.

4. It’s ALL About Relationships

Citing the World Happiness Study for 2018, Tal reported that the happiest countries in the world, including Denmark, Israel, Norway, and Australia, share two main indicators of well-being:

  • The ability to find the positive even in difficult situations
  • The presence of positive relationships amongst friends and family, co-workers and community groups

Playing Mahjong

For example in Denmark, one of the happiest countries, 93% of the population are members of social clubs or churches. They get together regularly for worship or recreation, such as playing MahJong or boating. In Israel, people form strong relationships in school and sports and spend quality time with family and friends observing holidays and the weekly Shabbat.

Online relationships do not provide the same upturn in positive emotions as the positive resonance experienced in person. New York University Sociology Professor Jon Kleinberg posits that the more time we spend on social media, the lonelier we’re likely to be.

5. Pay-if-forward

“You can always give something, even if it is only kindness.” ~ Anne Frank

Tal used the story of Anne Frank, hidden in an attic in Amsterdam for more than two years to avoid being taken by the Nazis, to remind us that we have a choice to be kind to others even when our personal situations are grim.

Giving benefits the giver

Paying-it-forward motivated me to launch Soaringwords, a global not-for-profit organization 17 years ago. My family had experienced three episodes of death and illness over the course of ten months. Gary, my only sibling died, my father had two bouts of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and my oldest son Jon was stricken with Rheumatic Fever and bedridden for four months. Instead of giving in to despair, I decided to take my experiences and create an organization that helps ill children, their siblings, parents, and the extended community learn how to take active roles in their own care. Soaringwords inspires ill children to pay-it-forward because this action facilitates transformative self-healing by focusing attention away from suffering and towards helping another person.

Tal confided to the audience that his favorite Hebrew word is NATAN. In Hebrew and in English NATAN is a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same when the letters are arranged forward or backwards. Natan means “When I give, I receive.”

How does money make you see the world?

Tal cited studies by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues where students in a lab setting were given a nice sum of money and randomly divided into two groups.

The first group was told, “Spend the money on yourself. Buy yourself something nice… a new gadget, a new pair of shoes… whatever you want.” Naturally the students in the first condition experienced a shopper’s high: their happiness went up for that day and went down only slightly the next day.

The second group was given the same sum of money and instructed to “Spend the money on someone else.” The students in the second group also experienced an upsurge in happiness on the first day. The difference was that these students still reported an upswing in happiness one week later.

Questions and Answers

The question and answer session was moderated by the talented Julie Rice, WeWork’s Chief Marketing Officer. Julie and Tal took the audience behind the scenes to uncover the powerful benefits of exercise, reframing, and legacy. Here are some of the highlights from this riveting part of the program.

The Wonderful, Undeniable, Powerful Impact of Exercise on Well-Being.

Julie Rice and her partner, Elizabeth Cutler, built Soul Cycle into a successful company with 47 locations with a loyal following. They bucked the conventional wisdom of hard-core gyms which can seem competitive and intimidating. When people arrive at Soul Cycle, they feel embraced by an energized community where instructors are motivational and nurturing and everyone is appreciated for his or her own ability. According to Julie, “We were familiar with the research of Michael Blumenthal and colleagues at Duke Medical School that showed how exercising three times a week has the same as psychotropic drugs to reduce depression. Exercise (and community) cause a powerful natural reaction to occur releasing positive natural chemicals into the brain that help regulate mood, such as serotonin.

Tal and Julie both brought up the research by John J. Ratey demonstrating that physical exercise reduces the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease by 52%. The mental benefits of exercise far outweigh the physical benefits. Exercise is a powerful way to reduce stress and enhance vitality.

He Lives What He Says

In addition to being a principal contributor in several positive psychology institutions, Tal is also a social entrepreneur. He co-founded Potentialife to “bring the science of flourishing to the world.” The company runs several not-for-profit programs including programs on positive psychology in schools throughout Israel.

Back in 2012, Soaringwords was invited to collaborate with Zumba® Fitness and invite instructors to lead free monthly classes in hospitals around the world. I met Tal at the Global Zumba Instructor Convention where he was the inspirational keynote speaker for 9,000 Zumba leaders.

Tal and Zumba enthusiasts

Here is a photo from our first meeting at the Zumba Instructor Convention. The following summer, Tal agreed to emcee a Soaringwords’ program at the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) World Congress the following summer.

Tal and Barbara Fredrickson were the emcees at the IPPA celebration where 300 people paid-it-forward by making SoaringSuperhero® puppets for hospitalized children and then enjoying a Zumba Master Class led by the fabulous Marcie Benavides and DJ Francis.

Tal with Parents at Graduation

Honor Your Mother and Father.

Tal cites his mother and father as the inspiration for a life of gratitude, service, and positive relationships. “My siblings and I did not have an easy life, but we always felt that our parents loved us and valued us. My parents put an emphasis on education so we all felt that we really mattered. When I taught the Positive Psychology course at Harvard I saw how students from all walks of life are striving for meaning and purpose, as well as relationships, and happiness.”

You can read the first part of the article here.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2014). Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness. The Experiment: Reprint Edition.

Anderson, A., Huttenlocher, D., Kleinberg, J. & Leskovec,J. (2012). Effects of user similarity in social media.

Blumenthal,J. A., Smith, P. J., & Hoffman, B. M. (2012). Is exercise a viable treatment for depression? ACSM’s Fitness Journal, 16(4): 14–21. doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2018). Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays offCurrent Directions in Psychological Science.

Dunn, E. & Norton, M. (2013). Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. Simon Shuster.

Easley, D. & Kleinberg, J. (2010). Networks, crowds, and markets: Reasoning about a highly connected world. Cambridge University Press. Draft version available online.

Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Playing Mahjong courtesy of Immagini 2&3D

Gift of tomatoes Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
The remaining images are used courtesy of SoaringWords.


Sir Anthony Seldon Interviews Martin Seligman

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On the occasion of Dr. Seligman receiving an honorary degree from the University of Buckingham on March 28 in New York City.

Seligman with MAPPsters

I was delighted to dash into the Lamb’s, a club on West 51 Street in New York City. It’s just a few steps away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, and the bustle of Fifth Avenue. I was ushered into a plush third floor sitting room where the man of the hour, Dr. Martin Seligman, was nursing a scotch surrounded by several graduates of the MAPP program at Penn. He smiled broadly to see me, and I did the same.

Seligman was holding court, discussing pressing global trends in quick succession: the dearth of positive news coverage and the urgent necessity to overcome media bias by looking for news with a global perspective and from different media outlets. We discussed leadership from Brexit to Putin to the president of the United States. It was a typical, thrilling, probing, impromptu discourse with one of the great thinkers of our time.

I was thrilled to be invited to witness Seligman receiving an honorary degree from the University of Buckingham, the only university in the UK completely independent of government support.

Suddenly we were ushered into another room where Marty and the top brass from the University of Buckingham donned their brightly colored ceremonials robes.

Seligman holding honorary degree

After the ceremonial march and the bestowal of the honorary degree, waiters arrived with champagne flutes on silver platters. Sir Anthony Seldon invited everyone to raise their glasses to toast the occasion. He then invited the audience to listen to an intimate interview with Professor Seligman.

Seligman began his initial remarks by addressing the audience. “If well-being is going to be a moral compass, then we need to understand what’s missing.” He then posed a stark question, “In the past year, how many of you experienced a major tragedy directly?”

Hands shot up and Seligman calculated the response.

Seligman: About 5-10%. That’s the correct percentage of the general population. It’s typically what I see when I ask audiences this question. So here’s the missing piece. Given this relatively small percentage of people who experience profound tragedy, why do people think that the world is in terrible shape?

Today the Worldwide Well-being Index is 6.5 out of 10, while there is more flourishing globally more than at any time in recorded history. More people have been pulled out of poverty. Many life-threatening diseases have been eradicated. There’s a huge gap between actual negative events and the reporting of negative events.

This is because the media’s continual bombardment of tragedy and terror. Young people today perceive that the world is a terrible place. So the first thing that is needed to enhance well-being is balanced journalism that reports positive, hopeful events that are happening all the time, rather than just reporting the negative, catastrophic events.

Interview underway

Seldon: In your estimation, what are other trends that impact global well-being?

Seligman: We are in need of positive political leadership because a positive human future cannot happen accidentally. We need leaders who actively cultivate a positive future.

Seldon: You’ve written twenty books and co-authored hundreds of scholarly articles. You are considered the founder of the field of modern Positive Psychology. Can you share your career trajectory with us?

Seligman: There are five stages of my career. When you get to be my age you have perspective on what you’ve accomplished. When I was 21 years old, I worked on helplessness: what happens to people and animals who experience uncontrollable events. The conclusions were that helpless beings experience more depression, have more ailments, and actually die sooner. At the time I was doing this work the field of psychology was male-dominated with 80% of the practitioners being men, compared to 20% women.

For decades I had been sweeping important data under the rug. In time I noticed that some people did not become helpless. In fact, a third of the people and animals resisted helplessness. So I wondered, what is it about these humans and animals that makes them resilient? I started to study the way people thought about tragedy and noticed that some people tended to view things as permanent, pervasive, and their own fault whereas the more resilient respondents had a different tendency: “Things will not always be this way. I can do something to improve my situation. The current state of affair is not my fault.”

A relief to study optimism

That started the third phase of my career when I decided to study optimists. I must say this was a welcome change from studying helplessness and depression for so many decades!

There is so much data on why optimism is a good thing, including significant positive health outcomes. Among the findings we discovered were that optimists get depressed less than pessimists, have fewer colds than their more pessimistic counterparts and tend to live eight years longer. This work led me to question the way the psychology profession was oriented where everything was diagnostic and professionals were focused on what was wrong with people and how to cure them. It was 1998 and in my inaugural speech to the American Psychological Association convention I called for a science of positive psychology to study what makes us human and what makes us experience more well-being.

Seldon: Can everyone on Earth become happier including neurotic people and depressed people if they do the right things?

Seligman: When you are below the poverty line, the more money you have, the happier you become. Today 300,000 people will come out of poverty. Tomorrow an additional 300,000 people will come out of poverty. Once the majority of the world population rises above the safety net the challenge for the human future is building more well-being into our lives. Once someone earns more than $95,000 there’s a curvilinear impact as a person earns more. Around $120,000, happiness flattens out.

Seldon: What things can people do for themselves and their loved ones to be even happier?

Seligman: Look at how you celebrate in your marriage or key relationships. How do you celebrate together, what rituals do you do together? Another essential thing is how you respond to each other without tuning each other out or responding in habitual, numbing ways. Active Constructive Listening is a wonderful way to reinforce your partner’s strengths and to let them savor what they really are and what they are good at.

Mandy Seligman

Earlier today my wife Mandy got elected to PhotoSoho as a professional photographer, a clear distinction after years of being perceived as an amateur photographer.

Instead of saying something Passively Constructive such as, “Congratulations Mandy, you deserve it”

Or something Passively Destructive such as, “What’s for dinner?”

Or Actively Destructive, “Do you know what tax bracket this will put us into when the gallery starts to sell your photos?”

I decided to be Actively Constructive in my response which went something like this: “You know Mandy when I saw the portfolio you brought to the meeting with the gallery, that photo of the swan you took from our vacation in UK at Blenheim Palace, it was the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen of a bird. Where were you in the gallery when they told you that you were elected? What specifically did they say to you? What strengths do you have that draws you to this profession? How can you use these strengths more? Let’s open a bottle of Dom Perignon and celebrate.”

Seldon: Thanks for sharing such a wonderful personal example from the master of positive psychology. To be happier is not selfish, it’s actually pro-social. There’s a difference between happiness and pleasure. If we make our relationships happier and our organizations happier than everything works for the greater good. Marty, I have one last question: Can you teach this to children?

Seligman: Yes students are malleable and readily embrace the Character Strengths based learning. Alejandro Adler at the UPenn Positive Psychology Center just concluded a study in Peru among 700,000 students. The findings clearly show that character strengths education has a positive impact. It can significantly enhance literacy, numeracy, and scientific reasoning. Read more about this study here “Teaching Well-Being increases Academic Performance: Evidence …

Seldon: So Marty what’s your current focus?

Seligman: The fifth phase I’ve been pondering for quite some time actually pertains to the concept of time. I realized that the traditional view of psychology is built on a conceptual foundation of “what’s wrong with our lives” and this framework is wrapped around analysis of the past. For example, ruminating or analyzing about all the things that went wrong in our childhoods, or all the things that have gone wrong in our lives up until today.

Seligman’s new book

This antiquated worldview is a default mode of thinking: the notion that our past would predict our future. When one recognizes the colossal failure of predicting the outcome of the UK election and the most recent US presidential election based on past behavior we can clearly see what a poor indicator past behavior is on future outcomes.

Furthermore, the default mode is the same circuit that lights up when we daydream but there’s another circuit that I call the Hope Circuit. I believe that this is the most significant distinction that makes us human. We are not homo-sapiens, we are homo-prospectus, creatures of the future.

Wishful thinking is passive. Hopeful thinking is active and has a great deal of agency behind it.

Seldon: Thanks to everyone for coming to this special celebration. Please join me in thanking Dr. Seligman for sharing his insights that prove that the highest form of intelligence is to know how to live well.



Adler, A. (2016). Teaching well-being increases academic performance: Evidence From Bhutan, Mexico, and Peru. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.

Dweck, C. (2014). The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. TEDx Norrkoping.

Lopez, S. (2013). Making hope happen: SoaringWord interview.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). APA President Address 1998.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2018). The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. PublicAffairs.

Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus. Oxford University.

Permission to be Human: Tal Ben-Shahar (Part 1)

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On June 12, a standing-room-only crowd of 1,000 people gathered at the illustrious Streicker Center at the Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in New York City for a talk by world-renowned happiness expert, Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal is deeply humble, but he mesmerized an audience that hung on his every word, eager to learn about the science and practical steps necessary to experience greater well-being. At the end of his presentation, Julie Rice, WeWork’s Chief Marketing Officer, interviewed Tal in a riveting discussion of happiness. I shall cover 3 out of his 5 major points in this article and return on Thursday with the rest.

1. Be Open to Negative Emotions

Tal opened his talk with a paradox: when we suppress or reject painful emotions, it actually hurts us because we internalize the trauma. Tal recommends a middle ground where we do not deny painful emotions, but we also do not give in to despair.

Golda Meir

Instead, he recommends active acceptance: experiencing the painful emotions, then letting them flow out of us and dissipate, thereby allowing us, in time, to have room to experience more positive emotions.

We allow ourselves to be human when we experience the full gamut of emotions. In this way we can truly appreciate the good, and then the good grows.

Tal quoted Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel who said, “Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”

2. Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste!

According to David Schnarch, world-renowned sex and marital therapist, the most common causes of relationship gridlock are things that won’t surprise you. The deepest conflicts ensue from four areas: The Kids/Education, Sex, Money, In-laws.

According to Tal, when couples reach an impasse, there are three common ways to respond:

    • The partners separate.
    • The partners stay together, but they are not really emotionally together.
  • The partners stay together and things are bumpy, it feels hard, and it hurts. With time, the difficult emotions pass, and the relationship is stronger because it endured the difficulty. The best relationships are those where the people work through conflict together. They follow Winston Churchill’s advice:

    “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.”

Things do not always happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of things that happen. The most successful learn from the challenging circumstances.

This is true in other arenas besides personal relationships. Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas concluded that adversity brings out the best in real leaders.

“Even when battered by experience, leaders do not see themselves as helpless or find themselves paralyzed. They look at the same events that unstring those less capable and fortunate and see something useful, and often a plan of action as well.” ~ Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas

3. Stress is Here to Stay. It’s All About Recovery.

Everyone appreciates that life today is full of stress. Wherever we turn, stressors abound. It’s naïve to imagine that you can avoid stress, so the operative question is, “How can you best recover from stress?” Tal posits that ability to recover distinguishes those who experience well-being from those who experience burn-out.

Tal presented a three-tiered approach to recovery that is easy to implement in any stressful situation, as long as you remember to pause and detach for a moment.

Micro-Level Recovery

It only takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes to experience a Micro-level Recovery Break. Close your eyes, and take three deep breaths. This puts the brakes on your amygdala flooding your brain with stress hormones. Your mind and body can come back to balance.

Tal recommends setting an alarm or building this practice into your schedule four times each day. This practice can make an enormous difference in your well-being.

Mid-level Recovery

Reciting Blessings over Shabbat candles

Tal expounds the necessity of getting a good night’s sleep (eight hours) and taking a Sabbath or mini-vacation for one day each week. Tal is a sabra born in Israel, so he appreciates the practice of observing a day of rest. The country of Israel officially slows down on the Jewish Sabbath so that people can spend time relaxing and being with family and friends.

Macro-level Recovery

It’s no coincidence that the words creation and recreation are similar. J.P. Morgan, one of the most successful business leaders of all time alluded to the need for recharge and step away from the daily grind by saying, “I can do the work of a year in nine months, but not in twelve.”

To read Part 2 of Permission to be Happy click here



Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

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

Ben-Shahar, T. (2016, June 23). Relationship gridlock. Happier TV.

Bennis, W. G., & Thomas, R. J. (2002), Geeks and Geezers: How era, values, and defining moments shape leaders – How tough times shap good leaders.Harvard Business Review.

Snarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships. W. W. Norton.

Soaringwords Soiree

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Please join us at the Annual Soaringwords Soiree at 
WeWork Bryant Park on Monday, June 4.

Honoring Sheri Sobrato, Founder of the Digging Deep Project 
and Soaringwords Volunteers

54 West 40 Street
Bryant Park 2nd Floor Ballroom
New York, NY 10018

Cocktails 6:00 Dinner at 7:30

Click here to buy tickets through Eventbrite website. 


Soaringwords’ mission is to inspire ill children and their families to take active roles in self-healing. Soaringwords provides fun, creative and educational activities both in person and online based on positive psychology concepts. Soaringwords is unique as it is the only organization to motivate ill children and families to “pay it forward” to help others. Studies show that when a child does something kind for another child it accelerates transformative healing.

If you would like to purchase tickets via check, please mail to:
54 West 40th Street
New York, N.Y. 10018

For more information contact: Lisa Honig Buksbaum, 917-499-3783,

Click here to download Soaringwords Soiree Invitation.



International Day of Happiness: Three Ways to Soar

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Each morning the locker room overflows with people from all walks of life who come to stretch, swim, meditate, or pump iron. At 7:30 am, the early morning crew of active seniors completes water aerobics class and heads out for coffee as the pre-work professionals grab pilates or yoga classes before running to their offices.


As I toss my towel into the bin and head out to work, I relish seeing my favorite cohort, adorable babies with mommies and babysitters getting ready for swim class. Watching these small humans proves the adage that we’re actually born with distinctive character traits. Many babies happily munch on Cheerios intrigued by locker room activity all around them. But sometimes piercing wails reverberate off locker room walls making sure everyone knows that someone is NOT HAVING A GOOD DAY while earnest mothers cajole and plead with their precious offspring to take off socks or put on bathing cap and goggles.

As we grow wiser, we begin to understand that we are the only ones truly responsible for our own happiness. It’s a choice to let someone else’s mood, actions, or words destroy our happiness. So today, on the 2018 International Day of Happiness, here are three simple actions to elevate your well-being.

Take a deep dive into what makes you unique.

The VIA Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) Classification emerged from three years of globe-spanning research as leading scientists searched for universal character strengths that answered the question: “What is it that makes us human?”

Click to see larger view

The scientists gathered artifacts from art, literature, and music across time, geography, world religions, and multi-cultural relevance. The 24 strengths that met their criteria include Creativity, Bravery, Love and be Loved, Fairness, Humility, and Gratitude, as shown in this image of the 24 strengths arranged in 6 virtue categories.

When you take a little time to complete the VIA survey you will be immediately delighted to access your signature strengths, the ones that make you the best version of yourself. Reading through your Character Strengths and Virtues Classification is like running into a dear friend from college or grade school, someone you used to enjoy. Perhaps you haven’t thought of this person in a long time due to the press of responsibilities that bear down on your busy, active, grown-up life.

The best part is that everyone has signature strengths. Empirical research by Gander and colleagues posits that use of signature strengths in new ways can lead to feelings of enhanced well-being, which can last for up to six months. Thus, doing something you love, in which you excel, can result in positive cascading emotions for up to half a year! I hope you will take the VIA this week. Post a comment about what you discover when you reconnect to your essence.


Over the past 17 years that I’ve led Soaringwords, I have seen thousands of patients use signature strengths in pay-it-forward expressive arts projects to inspire other ill kids to “Never give up!” In my capstone research, I found that inviting a child or teen to do something kind for someone else by harnessing his or her unique strengths accelerates transformative healing.

Reframe things in the face of difficulty

The only certainty in life is that nothing is constant. Your ability to be flexible in the midst of challenges plays a significant role for you to be able to experience greater equanimity and balance, even in turbulent times. One way hospitalized children, teens, and family members experience greater optimism is by a process called reframing. Reframing is the ability to look beyond the negative or painful aspects of an illness or hospitalization and to see and appreciate some of the unexpected, delightful things that happen.

Courtesy of Photo courtesy of All Saints Episcopal School

In my upcoming book, I profile Anna. Anna is legally blind and deaf and the heart of the girl’s middle school basketball team in her small New Hampshire town. Her tenacity and courage inspire her teammates and opponents to put aside competition several times during each game for the purpose of giving Anna the thrill of scoring a few baskets. Although only twelve years old, this girl is a master reframer. As her family was driving home from a recent game in which her team was trounced, she told her parents, “I’m so happy, that was a great game. Last time we lost by 92 points, today we only lost by 75! I think we’re getting so much better.” Both of her parents raised her to find the bright side of every situation. They encouraged her to figure things out without excessively coddling her.

Think of an example in your life right now that could use some reframing.

Experience sacred moments of awe

Sometimes we experience positive moments that take our breath away. Most people state that awe is experienced in the midst of massive and staggeringly beautiful natural phenomena, such as a gorgeous sunset, an epic mountain range, or the beauty of the sea. Other people describe feelings of awe when listening to a powerful piece of music.

In the Bois de Hal

Awe arises with feelings of admiring wonder when witnessing the feats of high-performance athletes or dancers.

However, children, teens, and families grappling with serious illness often recount that they experience sacred, fleeting of awe in the midst of pain or suffering. Awe involves being in the presence of something powerful often associated with feelings of submission or being overwhelmed.

I remember being on the beach with dear friends Elissa and Clint when their son, Jake, stood up by himself for the first time in six years. Anyone who witnesses a loved one speak for the first time after a debilitating stroke surely knows an awe that may be the most powerful emotion they’ve ever experienced. Be present. When you are receptive to awe, you will be rewarded.

Since awe is often inspired by nature, pay attention to rainbows, stunning sunsets, moody clouds, glorious trees, or the dazzling array of color on a single leaf.

Remember a moment of awe that you experienced in your life. How does this experience of awe and wonder make you feel more hopeful? Is there anything that happened after this experience that makes you feel more hopeful about something else in your life? Take a few moments to savor the experience by writing about it and send me a post.

International Day of Happiness: March 20, 2018


International Day of Happiness is a wonderful time to remember that there are literally hundreds of opportunities each day to flex your character strengths. When you use your signature strengths you harness the best parts of yourself.

When things are not going well it’s an excellent opportunity to reframe things to recognize anything for which you can be grateful.

Remember that giving yourself time for stillness and reflection provides a daily opportunity to experience awe, a powerful emotion that elevates thoughts and souls.


Buksbaum, L. SOARING into Strength: The New Science Approach to Help You Heal. In preparation.

Gander F., Proyer R. T., Ruch W., Wyss T. (2012). The good character at work: an initial study on the contribution of character strengths in identifying healthy and unhealthy work-related behavior and experience patterns. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 85: 895–904. DOI: 10.1007/s00420-012-0736-x

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Photo Credit: 
Most are used courtesy of
The forest image is used courtesy of INABA Tomoaki with a Creative Commons license, retrieved from Flickr using Compfight.
Official logo of the International Day of Happiness

Women SOARING into Strength to Celebrate International Women’s Day

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Wen a child is ill, the whole family is in crisis. Often mothers are the ones who nurture and support the entire family. That’s why today and everyday we salute millions of women who love, support, care for, and inspire ill children, teens, and families to “Never give up!”

The SOARING into Strength model of my organization, SoaringWords, is built around seven core Positive Psychology constructs to enhance the well-being of ill children, teens, families and caregivers. This evidence-based model has been tested among hundreds of hospitalized children and teens around the world. I’m going to use this structure to celebrate some of many heroic women who have shaped the SOARING components of positive psychology:

  • Shifting
  • Optimism
  • Altruism
  • Resilience
  • Imagery
  • Narrative
  • Gratitude

SHIFTINGis creating changes in your attitude, your body, and overall well-being. When a child is hospitalized, each day the child’s PATIENT identity gets reinforced as hospital technicians read the code number on his hospital identity bracelet before each medical procedure. The child is forced to wear institutional hospital scrubs identical to the other patients. The child is isolated from his or her friends and family. Even the hospital bed often resembles a jail cell with cumbersome plastic or metal guardrails on either side. The child starts habituating to this new identity of someone who is SERIOUSLY ill. They can lose their sense of self. Child life professionals and nurses do the daily heavy-lifting of patient-care, essential to restoring children’s identity and well-being. Soaringwords’ expressive arts projects are powerful tools to shift a child’s perspective from isolation and despair to engagement and re-connection to sense of humor, creativity, and kindness.

Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Children and caring professionals enjoy making SoaringJoke Books and other expressive arts projects to share with other children.

OPTIMISM is finding the good even when times are difficult or painful. When we think of positivity, Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of the field of Modern Positive Psychology surely comes to mind. Barbara’s Broaden and Build theory of Positive Emotions proves that when we experience positive emotions it broadens us and enables us to experience MORE positive emotions. Our peripheral vision expands, our relaxation response kicks in, and our body produces more endorphins, making us feel better.

Photo: the author interviewing Barbara Fredrickson for the launch of her book, Love 2.0, at the International Positive Psychology Association World Congress in L.A.

Optimism is expecting good things to happen in your life, while pessimism is expecting bad things to occur. Optimistic people and pessimistic people tend to approach life in radically different ways. The way a person approaches problems has an impact on her health and well-being and also her children’s well-being.

For example, when an Optimist faces a challenge she tends to expect a good outcome, even if things will be hard. Optimists acknowledge the problem, place it in as positive a light as possible, use humor to relieve the stress, and try to do whatever possible to lead to a positive outcome. This proactive way of thinking and acting gives her a sense of control that she is taking an active role to do what she can in the face of a challenging situation.

When JoAnne was born without the use of her legs, the pediatric neurologist told her parents “Children like this are like wet rags. Just enjoy the limited time you have with her….” Instead of succumbing to his dire prognosis, her parents created “Operation Puddle Jump” where they gave their daughter every opportunity to experience a happy normal childhood. JoAnne became a nationally ranked ballroom dancer (from her wheelchair) and is a Zumba® instructor inspiring her students.

Photo: JoAnne rocks the stage at the Soaringwords’ presentation at the International Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida

ALTRUISM is gaining a sense of control by sharing your creativity, kindness, strengths, and hope with others. Jane Dutton is the world-renowned expert on compassion, a positive psychology exemplar who has mentored and nurtured dozens of accomplished leaders who have made valuable contributions to the world. Compassion and kindness are foundational for healing. Once you focus your attention on others, your heart opens and you feel connected to something larger than yourself. At Soaringwords, we motivate ill children and families to “pay it forward” to help others. When a child does something kind for another person, it accelerates transformative healing.

Isolation is often the most prominent negative emotion people experience when they are ill or hospitalized and when someone they love is ill. Being ill isolates people and physically removes them from their normal circles of support. Doing something kind for someone else lessens isolation considerably. So your grandmother was right, “It’s better to give than to receive.” And, the best part is, you also end up feeling pretty great too.

Photo: Lisa and Jane at the Compassion Conference in Louisville KY with the Dalai Lama.

RESILIENCE is flourishing through difficult times. We can’t control external factors in our lives such as illness, natural disasters, or the behavior of others. However, we can take an active role in our own responses to life’s adversities and challenges.

Being resilient is not about being strong on the outside or stuffing our feelings to present a brave front. True resilience is about being open and vulnerable to our deepest feelings, and then choosing to give our all to take the next right step even in the face of serious challenges.

Recently, grit, a new word for resilience, has burst into the vernacular. Dr. Angela Duckworth, my mentor, friend and professor, is the leading expert in the world.

Duckworth defines grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals that are really hard. Hospitalized children, teens, and their families are some of the grittiest people on the planet because they are fighting for the most important thing in the world: to regain health. This passion makes them resilient. There’s nothing more important than working hard to have a good life despite the challenges and limitations thrust upon you. Caretakers, parents, and hospital personnel may be able to enhance a child’s and teen’s grittiness by teaching him or her how to focus on what is going well.

Photo: Angela Duckworth on the eve of the launch of GRIT creating a video for hospitalized children and families.

Teaching and modeling can help children and teens experience a sense of accomplishment in the face of tremendous challenges. I believe that if a hospitalized child or teen and his or her parents can learn to focus on simple goals that a child can accomplish throughout the course of a day, they will be better equipped to stay positive.

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, we invited 220 patients to create a SoaringSuperhero message and artwork to donate to another patient. All 220 patients chose to make a superhero to pay-it-forward. One patient was in the Intensive Care Unit at the time of the survey. It took her two weeks to complete her superhero but she persisted in between surgeries and recovering. Imagine the pride and sense of accomplishment that she felt to know that she was capable of doing something so positive and significant to give hope to another child.

Photo Courtesy of Rainbow unicorn girl artwork

IMAGERY is connecting to your inner knowledge to heal through imagery exercises. Imagery is the shared social language of the mind. It takes less than 60 seconds. When you have pressing work or personal challenges, imagery can immediately recalibrate your body chemistry, halting the fight or flight response and restoring you to equilibrium. ALL OF THE ANSWERS ARE ALREADY INSIDE OF YOU. The more you do imagery the easier it becomes to draw on it.

I first met Gabby a ten-year-old girl because her mother works at Johnson & Johnson, one of the amazing companies that supports the work of Soaringwords. Someone mentioned that her daughter had leukemia. I asked to speak to the mom and later that night I was on the phone speaking to Gabby and her mother. They were extremely receptive to learning how to reduce the pain from Gabby’s bi-monthly spinal infusions of chemotherapy. In less than ten minutes, I taught them how to do healing imagery to help Gabby take an active role in her self-healing. For the next two years every morning and night, Gabby and her mom did the healing imagery. She has completely recovered.

Photo Courtesy of Gabby learning imagery

NARRATIVE is sharing the power of storytelling, reading and writing positive stories. In the old days people gathered around the fireplace or town square and lived in extended communities, often many generations living in the same dwelling. Today our families and our lives are fragmented. Everyone has heard the expression that laughter is contagious. So is happiness.

Dr. Margarita Tarragona has merged narrative therapy and positive psychology, helping people understand the stories they are telling themselves and construct new stories that fit the facts.

Link to short interview of Dr. Tarragona about narrative practices.

GRATITUDE is the most powerful of all the positive emotions. When you are grappling with serious illness or someone you know or love is ill, gratitude can often be the life-line that saves your sanity and prevents you from hating everyone you encounter whose life seems to be fabulous and perfect.

There are many wonderful way of EXTENDING gratitude. Writing gratitude letters is one very very effective way. You write the letter and then, if possible, set up a time to meet the person in person. When you get together you actually read the letter to them. You can still write a gratitude letter to someone you know or someone who has died. The act of writing the letter is extremely therapeutic.

Another powerful gratitude exercise is writing a gratitude letter to yourself to recognize and celebrate the wonderful qualities that you possess. Try it, you’ll be amazed at how powerful this exercise is.

In her book about 12 ways to enhance happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has described other ways to use gratitude to enhance well-being.

Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Sharing a Gratitude Letter is a powerful way to experience positive emotions

Wishing you inner fortitude and strength as you celebrate wonderful women and thoughtful men in your life.