Tune Your Guitar to Happiness in Three Steps

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about happiness; after all, as a clinical psychologist, helping my patients find a path to happiness is part of my job. And there have been many studies about what specific factors influence our happiness, looking at everything from salary to IQ.

But the true grandmaster of all happiness psychology is Abraham Maslow. He’s most famous today for introducing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which he claimed contained the key to the nature of true happiness and fulfillment. The basic idea of Maslow’s hierarchy is that we have different sets of needs which we have to satisfy. According to Maslow, some of these categories are more basic or fundamentally necessary than others. You should address each category in turn before moving on to the next level of needs—this is why it’s not Maslow’s Simple List of Needs. So Food and Shelter should take precedence over, say, finding true love (though maybe some of the modern romantics reading this will argue otherwise!) The highest, narrowest level—the tip of the pyramid—is “Self-Actualization”, which you can finally get over by reaching your fullest potential for yourself creatively. And after that, you’re done—you can now reap the benefits of a fully perfect, optimally happy life.

Seventy-one years later, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is still one of the cornerstones of the psychology of happiness. To this day it dominates the discussion on what it means to live a meaningful, rewarding life. And in my opinion, there is a better way to think about achieving happiness.

Hear me out. In my view, the implication of Maslow’s pyramid is that once you figure out with a given category of needs, it’s like you’re done with that category. Once you figure out how to feel safe, you can stop worrying about safety, and can move on to Love. And, the logic goes, once you figure out love, you can shift your focus to Esteem. Maslow’s hierarchy encourages you to think of happiness as a static and fixed structure, through which you progress from one level to the next until you reach the summit, at which you can just coast forever on your well-being.

The only problem is that happiness doesn’t work that way. Your life is a beautifully fluid experience, an elaborate, continually shifting flux of interwoven connections, and your needs for happiness shift right along with it, from one moment to the next. Which means that you can’t ever “figure out” Love or Health or Self-Esteem and then leave it aside while you tackle the next source of happiness. Instead, you have to work at each aspect every day, even after you’ve found it—especially if you’ve found it. Happiness isn’t a result that you work towards, it’s a process which you embody. And it doesn’t consist an arduous struggle against a huge, immobile set of obstacles: it lies instead in the tiny adjustments you can make as you move from one day to the next.

So happiness is not, in my view, a pyramid you have to climb. There is a more precise and motivating metaphor. I actually think it’s more like a guitar.

Again, hear me out. Over time, a guitar inevitably comes out of tune—not because it’s a bad guitar, but because that’s the nature of guitars. In fact, the key to maintaining a guitar is to notice when it’s not in tune and continually re-tune it—not set it on fire because it was out of tune – no offense, Jimi. Keeping a guitar well-calibrated involves a series of small tunings and re-tunings. It should be the same way with happiness: your happiness may fluctuate, it may even bottom out, but this doesn’t mean you should envision a huge insurmountable pyramid in which you need to reach the pinnacle of self-actualization for true happiness. It just means you need to adapt to your new equilibrium, to re-tune your inner guitar. That’s what happiness is—our ability to make the small but meaningful adaptations to whatever life throws at you.

In my own life, this approach has helped me better respond to situations when I fall short of my own personal goals. Lately I’ve been working on a book! Look out for it! Sorry to say its been delayed and at times the slow progress impacts my feelings of what I believe Dr. Maslow would call self-actualization

But instead, I took a step back and thought, “So I’ve come out of tune. But not a whole lot—I’ve been doing pretty well on the outline and proposal. So what can I do to get back on track?” The answer, of course, was to continue working on a small part of the introduction. And quietly, this little setback only sharpened my resolve continue moving forward.

I encourage you to see being happy not as an insurmountable pyramid you climb once and then forget about, but more like an inner guitar which you can tune slightly better each day. If you can work at thinking of happiness in this way,  you’ll be astonished by how approachable it becomes: how simple it becomes to plant the seeds for it today and help it sprout tomorrow, and flower the day after that. And if you fall short, realize that although we may occasionally get “out of tune”, that’s no sign of weakness. If anything, our ability to tune ourselves back, to recover, to adapt, and then to improve our lives—believe it or not, that’s the secret source of our truest strength.

My recommendation to you is to get out there, reflect upon your lives, and start tuning your inner guitars. Your happiness awaits.

What I Learned as a Sport Psychologist at the World Series

In 2015 I had the immense privilege of being the sport psychologist working with the New York Mets. This was tremendously exciting for me as I had been working with the team for nine years and also because I grew up in New York City with a New Yorker dad that was a Mets fan.

It was a incredible season full of exciting moments and a team that was full of enthusiasm. Surprisingly though, there were moments where I found myself struggling to enjoy it. In fact, I remember being on the field before one of the early games in the series and feeling like my mind was a swirl about all the things I had to do, my obligations and my stress about helping each player be their best. This experience taught me something. It is a lesson that I have applied to my work in many ways. Often we get so caught up with the outcome of things that we do not focus on the process. In sport psychology we talk about “controlling the controllables”. One way to do this is to really understand what you control in any one moment. Your attitude, your preparation and your effort. In sport and performance psychology we use the acronym APE for this. APE stands for your:

Attitude – Preparation – Effort.

You don’t actually control the outcome or results directly. You control your mindset and preparation. There are many sport and performance psychology techniques that apply to everyday life and help me in those moments.  But it’s not just me , in fact in this years exciting world series, one of the critical performers, Jose Altuve uses them too. In addition to being known for his incredible play on the field, Altuve is loved in the clubhouse for his preparation, and the energy he brings on a daily basis. It didn’t always look like it was going to be a happy ending for Altuve, however. When he was a young player and trying out for multiple MLB teams, he was consistently getting cut after each opportunity. Altuve, who is listed at just 5′ 6” did not let this get the best of him, and instead showed incredible grit and determination.

After getting cut the first day of a two day tryout with the Houston Astros, Altuve did  not take no for an answer. He went back to the Astros’ tryout the next day, hoping that the scouts who had cut him the previous day would not remember doing so. While they were suprised to see him, they allowed Altuve to try out again and eventually offered him a $15,000 contract. Now that Altuve is a leading candidate for the 2017 MVP award and playing in the World Series I would say that the Astros made a good decision. We can all learn from the tremendous grit, perseverance and positive mindset of Jose Altuve. He just never gave up on himself or his goals and that is the only way to overcome obstacles and reach your full potential.

Altuve is known to use the sport psychology skill I mentioned before called imagery/visualization, or “mental reps”.  This technique allows you to practice your performance mentally. Mental reps give a player a clear advantage over his opponents as he is able to place himself in a batters box an unlimited number of times and place himself in an unlimited number of situations.  Most MLB starting players get about 3-5 at bats per game, but including mental reps into your routine can help you to see more pitches from more pitchers in more scenarios.

The 2017 World Series has been incredible so far, and I am so honored to have had my own World Series experience with the Mets in 2015. I am a believer that life is a sport. In fact, so much so that I wrote a book about it! The lessons that we teach athletes in situations like Game Seven of the World Series can be applied to the meeting room, on a first date, and yes, even to my life as a sport and performance psychologist. Im lucky to continue to work with high performing athletes and other performers. By utilizing the same sport psychology techniques I coach athletes on, I can enjoy these precious moments more… and so can you.



Playoff Season: The Winning Strategy

Photo by Stuart Seeger

Athletes tend to calm themselves down before a high stakes match by practicing self-talk, stating, “It’s fine, it’s just like any other game.” In some ways, of course, this is true. The rules are the same and the players that have been beside you all season are still right there. However, don’t be fooled because it is a different game. The challenge of a playoff game is that it may seem like any other game, but it is an entirely new playing field.

These games hold much more importance for each individual player, the team as a unit, the coaching staff, and the fans. The heightened stress of these games for everyone involved raises the stakes and changes the environment in the stadium or arena. The challenge for teams, or for any high-level performer, is simple: Take the focus off the result and put it on the  process or the things you control.

In order to do this, you need to prepare for changes in environment and how you are going to adapt. Some teams do this by practicing in similar temperatures to what they will be facing or by replicating loud crowd noises. This commitment to total preparation is what gives a team the edge that it needs to come out on top. The focus on details during preparation may seem unimportant, but these are the factors that allow players to perform at their best, despite the pressure of their surroundings. The next step is to make sure that you have a solid mental preparation. By working on your mindset, your level of relaxation and your ability to focus, you will play the best you are capable of, playoffs or not.


The Psychology of Responding to Injury: The Birthday Complex

A common psychological response to injury is what I like to call the “Birthday Syndrome.”

Photo by Akadruid

As kids, our birthdays were the single greatest day of the year. I remember I would start counting down the days about a month before my big day. In fact, I would think so much about my birthday that while I was waiting for it to arrive, I would practically forget to focus on experiencing day to day life! The same is true for athletes when they are faced with an injury that prevents them from participating in their chosen sport for any extended period of time.

Daily rehabilitation is not a priority because their focus is on the day they can return, and getting back to their optimal level of performance.  To prevent this from happening, I recommend being process-focused, which means to engage with each moment. The way that we think impacts how we recover, and there are many simple mental techniques that one can utilize to foster engagement. It’s important to encourage the mentality to focus on what you can control, such as sticking to your rehab schedule, staying positive, and improving meaningful relationships. For instance, working to find ways to better support your teammates is a huge part of sports! A process-focused mentality will improve recovery time and develop mental strength, which will in turn enhance your game in the future. Make every day your “Birthday” and you will find that before you know it, you’re playing again!

Sport Psychology of Injuries: The Break Up

Photo by Michael Pollack

An easy way to understand how a sports injury affects a person is to compare it to a romantic break-up. The connection that one develops to their sport becomes a key part of their life and it can be very difficult when an injury causes that relationship take a break or end. This is both a loss of identity, and of the physiological benefits that come with sports participation. Exercise releases endorphins, which are chemicals that reduce perception of pain and trigger positive feelings in the bodyWhether you are a professional athlete or just play for fun, not being about to participate can be devastating. But there are things you can do to lessen the blow while you are sitting on the sidelines. Here are some of my favorite suggestions:

1. Don’t ignore or try to suppress what you are feeling. Be aware of how the injury changes your daily living.

2. Build a routine that helps compensate for this change. It could include modified workouts, getting support from friends and family, and using mental tools such as meditation, imagery and visualization to help with both physical healing and keeping your sports skills sharp.

​If you want to learn more about new mental skills to optimize your performance, please check out my book: Life as Sport