Positive Psychology

The power of volunteering

Dateline Portland, Oregon, Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Did you know that volunteering has been shown to have protective benefits for our health?

I am very fortunate to have been asked recently to join the board of directors of Cascadia Behavioral Health. As I sat in on my first meeting yesterday evening, I was struck by a number of things. First, CBH is a truly remarkable non-profit. The seeds of the agency have been around since the early 1980’s. Cascadia has a dedicated staff who are providing mission-driven services to men and women in need, people who would fall through the cracks if Cascadia were not there. They do amazing work with those who have severe and persistent mental illness. They provide medical and mental health care, vocational assistance and housing. They reach out to care for those who are incarcerated. They treat substance abuse and gambling addictions. They are forward thinking and self-reflective.

And I was struck by the composition of the board itself. People arrive to the decision to volunteer their time for many reasons, and they choose their volunteer settings for lots of reasons, as well. This board has directors who have served for over 30 years, returning again and again to help guide Cascadia through challenging times and good times, always mindful of the needs of the population Cascadia serves. There are directors who come to the board from other parts of the healthcare community, with integration of care in mind. There are directors who have joined the board for more personal reasons, too. It is an honor to be asked to join such dedicated ranks.

Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about volunteerism these days—about the ways in which it serves a community, to be sure. But also about the ways it serves the volunteers, themselves. Did you know, for example, that volunteering has protective properties for your health? Here’s a bit of research for you to consider the next time you set out to shelve books in your child’s school library, or serve on the PTA or join your neighborhood association:

Studies show that volunteering helps maintain social engagement, and has beneficial effects on emotional resilience as a result. But the benefits do not stop there: research has demonstrated that volunteers are less likely to develop high blood pressure and more likely to live longer. In a randomized study, Schreier, Schonert-Reich and Chen (2013) looked at adolescents who were assigned to either volunteer or engage in their usual activities. Those who volunteered lost weight and had improved cholesterol profiles when compared to their non-volunteering peers. Older adults demonstrated improved memory and greater stamina, as well as reduced levels of depression—some of which may be attributable to maintaining a sense of purpose and generativity in life (http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Press_releases/2009/02_09a_09.html). Okun, Yeung and Brown (2013) found that even when controlling for health variables that may contribute to mortality, volunteering reduced mortality risk of adults by 24%.

Volunteering is an altruistic act. But it comes along with personal benefits, too. Over the years I have served on boards that provide energy assistance to those in economic need, boards that steward forest resources, and boards that steer educational institutions. I have met people I love, and helped people I will never meet as a result. I have always come away feeling I got much more from the experience than I anticipated I would—and suspecting that I got more than I gave!

I have also had the joy of weaving my own child’s educational life into my calendar—teaching Junior Achievement and serving as a room parent in the early days, and drifting into the library when she got old enough that having me in the classroom became acutely embarrassing. I think back on all of those experiences with a kind of peaceful joy—I loved the opportunity to be a part of her school community, even if just for a few hours a month. And even when there was teen-years friction between us, I knew I could look forward to her stopping by the library to touch base and get a quick hug.

So when you think about how you spend your time, consider dedicating yourself, even if only for a few hours a month, to a volunteer gig. You’ll be glad you did.

Okun, M.A., Yeung, E.W., Brown, S. (2013). Volunteering by older adults and risk of mortality: A
     Meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 28(2), 564-577.

Schreier, H.M.C., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Chen, E. (2013). Effect of volunteering on risk factors for
     cardiovascular disease in adolescents: A randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of the American
Medical Association, Pediatrics, 167(4). 327-332.

Positive Psychology in a Negatively Biased World


Dateline, Portland, Oregon—Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Nobody has seen a saber-toothed tiger in eons, yet we still behave as though they are out there. Why so negative?

I have a lot to thank my pre-ancestors for—generation by generation, they made the right decisions to land me here, in this moment, writing this post. And those who lived in perpetually hazardous conditions had to be particularly dialed in to the world around them in order to avoid a variety of dangers. The ones who heard the snap of a twig signaling the approach of a predator, or remembered the particular berry eaten by someone who keeled over and died a short time later had an evolutionary advantage. That advantage kept them alive to breed the same attentiveness into subsequent generations.

In today’s world there are no true saber toothed tigers and our berries come vetted by the grocery store, yet we remain preferentially cued in to the negative around us. Is it a survival mechanism? Not for most of us. Instead it provides us with an implicit bias to pay attention to things that distress us, rather than appreciating the positive in our lives.

How do you know if you are doing this? Here’s a common example. You have a day filled with the typical ups and downs—a nice conversation with a friend or co-worker, a pleasant walk in the evening, a good meal, a moment of irritation with a friend. What do you think about as you are winding down for the day? If you are like most people, you will focus on the negative event, playing it over and over in your mind, paying no heed to the pleasantries of the day.

I think it helps us if we can remember this is a bias that made sense from an evolutionary perspective. But what was an essential survival tool back in the day is, in fact, a common contributor to depressed and anxious moods in contemporary times.

Martin Seligman is a psychologist whose observations have brought us many important theoretical models, including the concept of learned helplessness. In the past dozen years he has turned his attention away from what makes us anxious or depressed, focusing, instead, on what contributes to emotional growth. In the process he has become the father of positive psychology. Seligman has developed many tools and techniques (well-grounded in research) that help people create and sustain a greater sense of well-being in their lives, principles I apply routinely in my clinical practice. One of his tools is particularly useful in helping us learn to savor the small, positive events of our day, pushing against our biological drive to preferentially attend to the negative ones.

This easy and most powerful tool is the simple act of writing down three things that went well during the day each evening before sleep. Doing so helps us shift our cognitive bias away from the negative and toward the positive. It is easy to do, and while it sounds simple minded, I have seen this small behavior positively impact literally hundreds of lives.

Want to give it a try? Put a piece of paper and a pen by your bedside. Last thing before turning out the lights, write down three things you appreciated about your day. Maybe your favorite tree is in bloom, or you had coffee with a friend, or your dogs were there to greet you when you got home—these things don’t need to be earth shaking (in fact, they very likely won’t be), your goal is to simply notice the small things and jot them down in a word or a sentence.

Seligman’s research indicates that people who do this for a two-week period learn to savor the positive events of life. Even when they stop keeping the list, they feel significantly better six months later than they did at baseline. But as I tell my students and clients, you are going to savor something—why not make it something positive? it takes ten seconds, so keep it up forever!

Rozen, P., Royzman, E.B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance and contagion. Personality             and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296-320.      

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T., Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation            of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

The power of a good laugh

Dateline, Portland, Oregon—Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: A good laugh is hard to beat, and turns out to be contagious, and good for us. But why?

In 1979, Norman Cousins wrote a book titled Anatomy of an Illness. In it, the writer, political activist and editor of The Saturday Review outlined the story of his exuberant approach to a diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis. The apocryphal story tells us that he checked himself out of the hospital and spent a month in intentional laughter. When he returned for an evaluation he was found to be disease free. His physicians did not believe he’d laughed himself to health. But note that in the next phase of his career he was appointed an adjunct professor of medical humanities in the UCLA School of Medicine, where he did research on the biochemistry of human emotions.  

I have written elsewhere in this blog about our habitual emotional states, and work with my patients around these matters all the time. In addition, for the last five years my Introductory Psychology students have chosen to do a positive psychology project each semester. I have seen hundreds of them engage in an examination of their habitual emotional states as a result of this project. And news from the front—Norman Cousins was right! Laughter is excellent medicine.

I am thinking about this today because of the viral video featuring a Texas woman who purchased a Chewbacca mask, and shared her joy with the entire internet world this week from the front seat of her car. At this moment, 1,037,162 people have viewed this hilarious clip. Why is it so popular? Well, it is (to say the least) contagious. She is sharing a moment of pure joy with all the world, and the world is laughing along.

Why are such things so popular on the internet? We love to watch kittens and puppies do silly things, babies giggle hysterically at fathers who tear up sheets of paper, and zoo animals behaving in unexpected ways. And seeing someone laugh—even if it is on a computer screen—makes us laugh, too.

To understand the contagious power of laughter, it helps to understand the role of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are thought to be the home base of empathy, imitation and the recognition and capacity to share emotions that promote social engagement. These special neurons are found in the frontal and parietal lobes. They fire when we engage in behavior, and also when we observe behavior in others. In theory, observing laughter causes our mirror neurons to fire as though we were laughing ourselves.

When we choose laughter, we are making a choice to engage in something that bathes our bodies in stress-reducing hormones. There is evidence that this boosts our immune system, improves blood flow, boosts mood and dulls pain. Will it cure major illness? The evidence for this remains unclear, but there is no question that laughter creates a sense of engagement, soothes tension and destresses. So go ahead and find something funny to laugh about.

And to the wonderful woman in the Chewbacca mask, thank you! 

Goal Setting

Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Goal setting can feel like keeping a list of chores, but done right, it can help us feel successful, and assure we have time to relax.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.



When I was an undergraduate, I had this beautiful quote posted on the wall above my dorm room desk. And there is no doubt it inspired me—in fact It remains one of my favorite quotes to this day.

But where will boldness get you without a plan? Some potentially interesting places, to be sure…but maybe not the ones you’re intending!

I’ve just wrapped up my spring teaching semester—grades are in, my office is (somewhat) organized for fall, and I am looking forward to summer. How will I spend my time? I have patients to see and projects to tend to for the College and my family, but it would be pretty easy to drift along and get little else done. And yet, I have some bold plans…some specific goals for the months ahead.

This year for Christmas my daughter gave me the most beautiful planner I have ever seen. It is richly textured, the paper is fine, and it is laid out in precisely the way I like—week-by-week with a special column for notes. This planner has helped me indulge in my goal setting habit in style.

Once a week I sit down with my schedules—family, practice, college and personal. I begin by thinking about the main things I want to finish by the end of the week, and these things go on a list. Then I put obligations on my calendar—places where, if I didn’t show up people would notice. Next I build in time for myself—a lunch with a friend, a family event. After that, I take my week’s goals and think about what days might be best for what projects or parts of projects. On the calendar they go!

Setting goals is an important part of feeling successful and moving forward in life. For many of us, it is a difficult challenge. Some worry that it will be too time consuming, or make them feel trapped in obligation, or they fear they won’t accomplish what they hoped they would, and that would make them feel bad. For the last concern, I always tell people there is the next week, and the ability to break projects down into smaller component parts.

And a few reminders for us all

·         Setting goals helps us articulate what matters to us (and what matters to those to whom we are

·         Every time we check something off our lists, we get a little dopamine rush to the reward
       centers of our brains, and that feels good, and reinforces goal setting behavior!

·         Most important, setting goals down on paper helps us boldly stay on track—you wouldn’t drive
       somewhere new without Waze or Google Maps, think of your goal setting exercise as Waze for
       your life!

So this summer I have a number of personal and professional goals. I want to finish redoing the seat covers on our outdoor furniture. I am working on funding projects for Lewis and Clark’s Center for Entrepreneurship—that will be time consuming and a new area of endeavor, so I have blocked out a chunk of time each week to learn about institutional advancement. I have patients to see, some projects to oversee at my summer house, and the usual array of fun activities with friends and family. Armed with my lists, I know I’ve lots of free time, and a bunch of little dopamine rushes ahead!

I teach my students and patients to use a goal setting tool designed to help them break larger projects down to size and give them the big picture and the daily view. For many, this starts out as a chore, but for most it becomes unexpectedly freeing. I’d be glad to send you a copy of the worksheet I’ve designed for this purpose, just email me at ajwilcox@lclark.edu if you are interested.




One effect of meditation on the brain

Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Mindfulness-meditation is getting serious attention from scientists and consumers alike. Businesses are including it in their benefit packages, elementary schools are recognizing its power to improve classroom atmosphere, and psychologists are incorporating it into many treatments for conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression, pain management and insomnia. How, exactly, does it work on the brain?

Master meditators:
A number of years ago, psychologist and neuroscientist Richard Davidson began to look at meditation. In an effort to gain a clear picture of its effect on the brain, body and psyche, he went straight to the master-meditation source, Tibetan Buddhist monks. Monks in this tradition work for decades to become fully skilled in meditation practice, and they demonstrate the many positive effects of leading a life of contemplation. Monks are capable of a quality of focus, clarity, emotional control and mastery over bodily experience most of us would probably never expect to have in our own busy lives.

Can average people gain meditation’s benefit?
Davidson wondered whether some of the benefits of mindfulness-meditation practices could be taught to ordinary people with busy and stressful lives, and if so, whether the people who mastered basic skills would have a different experience of their world. To explore his idea that meditation might change people’s lives for the better, he brought a simple meditation training course to busy US executives. Eight weeks later he compared them to a matched sample of executives who had gone about life as usual.

Neural findings and experiential changes:
Davidson’s findings were powerful. EEG and fMRI data demonstrated that those who were taught simple meditation techniques shifted brain activity from parts of the brain associated with hypervigilance and stress toward brain regions associated with more positive mood states. Meditators in Davidson’s study also demonstrated improved immune response, when compared to those who were not taught simple meditation techniques.

What happens in the brain when we meditate:
Decades ago, neuropsychologist Donald Hebb coined the phrase neurons that fire together wire together. Some years later neuroscientists Per Andersen and Terje Lomo did basic brain research that led to the discovery of long-term potentiation, the scientific observation of Hebb’s neuropsychological theory. What does this have to do with meditation? Neurons that learn to fire together are developing habitual patters of action that have behavioral, emotional and learning correlates. As this applies to meditation and the frontal lobes, specifically, the meditating brain increases left prefrontal activation. With repeated practice, this activation becomes easier to produce, because healthy and functional neural pathways are created in the brain, and are strengthened and reinforced through meditation exposure. This is but one example of what is likely to be happening when you sit down to meditate.

Anecdotal reports:
Theory or practice, most people I know who make meditation part of their lives have a great deal to say about its positive impact on their mood and stress levels. And the research seems to back them up—indicating regular meditation may have powerful effects on a host of symptoms that are accepted as part of being alive in a stressful age.

People flock to yoga studios and meditation retreats in order to capture some of the effects in their own lives. But research indicates that even a few minutes a day spent in meditation, even if they happen while sitting at your desk, waiting in the carpool line or just before taking a big test in school, can lead to improvements in attention, concentration and clarity, and an improved sense of well-being.

Pond with lotus blossom.jpg

Getting started:
How do you get started? There are countless meditation apps available for your smart phone. Find one that works for you and see how it goes—keep a journal to track your progress. See what happens when your neurons fire together and wire together.