Raising Happiness


A New Theory of Elite Performance

August 26, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

As the kids head back to school, I’m thinking about what really leads to success--as well as happiness. Part one in a three-part series.

When we look at people who are at the top of their field, what do we know about how they got there?

We used to think that people were successful thanks to their genetic make-up—their inborn talents and innate passions. We called these people “gifted,” and assumed their success came from God-given talents more than their efforts.

The belief that success comes from God-given talent is not only discouraging—what if you don’t feel “gifted”?—but profoundly incorrect. Because researchers love to study super-high achievers, we know that the vast majority of achievements don’t spring from innate talent as much as they emerge from hard work and passion.

Angela Duckworth, the celebrated psychologist who first defined “grit” as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, has a theory about success. Instead of seeing achievement as simply a byproduct of IQ or intelligence or innate talent, Duckworth sees achievement as the product of skill and effort (Achievement = Skill x Effort) in the same way that we understand that Distance = Speed x Time. She explains:

Distance [is] an apt metaphor for achievement. What is achievement, after all, but an advance from a starting point to a goal? The farther the goal from the starting point, the greater the achievement. Just as distance is the multiplicative product of speed and time, it seems plausible that, holding opportunity constant, achievement is the multiplicative product of skill and effort…

Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.  Researchers across diverse fields have produced remarkably consistent findings that back up Duckworth’s theory. They find that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being merely good at something to being truly great.

This is hard for most of us to believe, but K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and author of several landmark studies on this topic, has shown that even most physical advantages (like athletes who have larger hearts or more fast-twitch muscle fibers or more flexible joints—the things that seem the most undeniably genetic) are, in fact, the result of certain types of effort (which I describe below). Even super-skills, like “perfect pitch” in eminent musicians, have been shown to stem from training more than inborn talent. Hard to believe, but entirely true.

It isn’t just putting in any old effort that will build the right skills and lead to elite performance. People who rise to greatness tend to have three things in common: 1) They both practice and rest deliberately over time; 2) Their practice is fueled by passion and intrinsic interest; and 3) They wrestle adversity into success. These three things together are the very essence of “grit.” In the rest of this post, I’m going to zero in on the importance of deliberate and persistent practice; my next two posts will cover other facets of grit.

Deliberate practice

Elite performers practice a lot, in a really specific way. Accomplished people spend hours upon hours in “deliberate practice.” This isn’t just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives—say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond their reach. In the beginning, they may practice a new phrase or even a single measure again and again and again.

Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t always pleasurable—far from it. In fact, it is the elite performer’s willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes people who are good at their chosen activity from those who are the very best at it.

There are a few ways to learn how to spell words for a Spelling Bee, for example. One way is to simply pay attention to words when you read for pleasure. Another way is to have your friends and family quiz you. But how exciting must it be to study long lists alone?

Yet it turns out that the most effective way to become a National Spelling Bee champion is the third option, solitary study. (This explains why I’d be lost without spell-check.) The highest performers in the National Spelling Bee spend the most time in this type of deliberate practice—the most effective, but probably the least fun, way to learn to spell obscure words.

What typically predicts how much effective-but-boring deliberate practice a champion engages in? In the Spelling Bee study, it was grit. The champions’ perseverance and passion for their long-term goals enabled them to persist with a preparation technique (solitary study) that was intrinsically less rewarding but far more effective than other techniques. Grit gives us the ability to practice the right thing, rather than to just practice what is fun.

Persistence over time

Elite performers also practice consistently over a pretty long period of time. Ericsson says that “elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.” Spending a half hour jogging over the weekend isn’t going to make you a great runner, but training every day might. Dabbling with your paints every once in awhile isn’t going to make you a great artist, but practicing your drawing every day for a decade might.

True masters gain experience over the long haul—specifically, for 10 years of dedicated work, or 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller Outliers, made the “10-year-rule” famous by colorfully illustrating Ericsson’s research. Most successful people average 10 years of practice and experience before becoming truly accomplished. Even child-prodigies generally work at it for a decade or more. Bobby Fischer became a chess grandmaster at 16 years old, but he’d been studying since he was 7. Tiger Woods had been working on his golf game for 15 years when he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship.

And there is something else: People who go to the top of their fields don’t just practice deliberately and persistently, they also rest strategically. This is a key component of success, and one that we often overlook in our 24/7 go go go culture.

This is part one is a series. The next post, “The Quiet Secret of Success”, deals with the relationship between rest and performance; part three, “Passion + Adversity = Success,” explores how passion helps us to overcome failure.

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Video: Are You Overscheduling Your Kids?

August 19, 2013 | The Main Dish, Posts with Videos | 0 comments

Do sports, music lessons, and enrichment activities increase kids' success?

As I’m planning for my kids to go back to school, we are in hot debate about my one-afterschool-activity-only policy. I may lose the argument this year; they’d do a different activity after school every day if they could! What do kids gain from lots of after school enrichment activities? This video explains what the research has to say.

© 2013 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Advice for New Parents

August 12, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

An open letter to my brother and his wife, who are expecting their first baby--a boy!!!--this fall.

Dear Timmy and Sammy,

As I know you know, our family could not be more thrilled about the prospect of having an infant in the Carter clan again. We’ve been doling out advice about strollers and birth plans like there’s no tomorrow; although it is probably really annoying, you are taking it with great grace. (Just this morning, I sent you an article about circumcision. I imagine there are huge disadvantages to having a sister like me.)

It isn’t that we think you need advice—clearly you two are extremely intelligent and compassionate people, with great judgement and solid intuition. Just the same, I can’t seem to help myself from offering you a near-constant stream of tips. Please forgive me.

People keep asking me what advice I’m giving you, so I thought I’d actually give it some thought and write it down. Here are the three things I think are most important in the first year of a baby’s life.

1) Take care of your own happiness first

Take the advice of the airlines and put on your own oxygen masks first; remember that should you become faint from lack of oxygen, you won’t be much good to anyone at all.

When you take care of your own happiness, you dramatically increase the quality of your parenting and the happiness of your baby. Children imitate their parents’ emotions as early as six days old; it is one of the primary ways that they learn and grow. And because research shows that people’s emotions tend to converge—we become more similar emotionally the more we are together—it follows that the happier you are, the happier your baby will be.

There are two critical places that this take-care-of-yourself business goes amiss for new parents: in the romance department, and with sleep. New parents are famously tired, trying to care for a baby that wakes them up to be fed every few hours or so. We joke with them about the bags under their eyes and their delirious, far-away gazes, but this is actually no laughing matter.

“Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” says Dr. Michael J. Twery, a sleep specialist at the National Institutes of Health. Sleep affects our heart and other major organs, like our lungs and kidneys. It impacts our appetite and metabolism and therefore how much we weigh. It determines our health by tweaking our immune function. Sleep influences how sensitive we are to pain. Lack of sleep slows our reaction times. And as anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter knows, sleep has a dramatic impact on our mood. Lack of sleep increases the probability of postpartum depression and anxiety.

We cannot be truly happy or healthy if we are exhausted. New babies get about 16 hours of sleep; you’ll need to get horizontal yourself for at least half of that time. Make a specific plan now (it will increase the odds that you will follow through) for how you’ll enable yourself to get the deep sleep you need. (Hint: Schedule at least five 90-minute blocks of sleep for every 24 hour period. This will be harder than it sounds. Let me know how I can help.)

Second, little is more important for your happiness than your relationship with each other, but many relationships suffer when a very demanding new family member takes over. If you’ve relied on connecting with each other by, say, going on vacations and out to romantic dinners, by lounging around in bed on Sunday mornings with the paper, by doing the no-pants-dance consistently, and by going on long, peaceful hikes on Saturday afternoons…well, then, you’ll have to find new ways to connect, because it may well be a decade (or two) before you can get back to those habits.

How will you connect with each other when the new baby comes? How will you nurture your relationship? Make time for a weekly date-night you can count on. (I’ll baby-sit!) Add a gratitude ritual that you can do at the end of your day, even if you are exhausted. Make a pact to put your relationship first, as it will be a critical factor for the health and happiness of your baby.

2) Whenever possible, hold your baby (knowing it isn’t always possible!)

As your house fills up with plastic bucket-like devices in which to deposit your little guy—strollers and carseats and bouncy-things—remember that babies have historically had physical contact with their mothers nearly 24 hours a day. Only in the last few hundred years have industrialized societies begun to separate babies physically from their parents for so much time.

Babies tend to cry when they are separated from their parents; they usually stop crying when reunited. This may seem like the science of the blazingly obvious, but when Fiona and Molly were infants and they’d start to cry, I’d often try moving them from one bouncy seat or swing to another. I wish I’d realized that there are neurological benefits for the baby that come from being held. I didn’t know that infants cry less in uber-nurturing societies—where parents respond more quickly to their baby’s crying, where they let them nurse frequently, and where they have lots of physical contact with their infants throughout the day and night.

Caveat: When tips 1 and 2 conflict, tip 1 wins. When you’re feeling exhausted and burned out from endlessly carrying, rocking, swaddling, shushing, and cooing to your little bundle of joy, give yourself permission to take a break.

The main point here is that you shouldn’t feel compelled to rein in your nurturing impulses—you can’t spoil a baby with too much love and affection. But you should also heed your impulses to take a rest, give yourself a break, and recharge.

(3) Don’t worry if you aren’t perfect

Shoot to be good-enough parents. Perfectionism is a particular form of unhappiness; it is a life driven by the fear of not being enough. The best parents allow themselves, perhaps with some humor, to be messy, mistake-making parents who love life and their children with an open heart.

I made a lot of mistakes when my kids were babies, both large and small. I clearly didn’t nurture my romantic relationship with my husband enough. And once, I dropped Fiona on her head. Another time, Molly got bit by a dog at a park—which, guilt-stricken, I found a way to blame myself for (even though I wasn’t there).

I used to worry a lot that the mistakes I was making would have repercussions that would last the rest of my children’s lives. But the thing is, no matter how hard we try, we all make a ton of mistakes. Here’s the good news: My kids have turned out fine, and yours will, too!

I think the most important thing that I’ve learned over the last decade is that if you take care of your own happiness and are engaged in the needs of your baby—which I know that you will!—everyone turns out to be joyful and successful in their own way.

Lots of love,
(Soon to be Aunt!!!) Christy

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