Is Facebook the New Debbie Downer?

Debbie DownerThe true-to-life nature of SNL’s sketch on Debbie Downer now has backing from the Facebook Team. According to a Facebook research study, it turns out our moods are directly affected by what our friends share on social media.

I was sent a Mashable article on the ethical implications of this study and traced it back to the origin to uncover the conclusions of this peer-reviewed research.

Along with Cornell and UCSF, Facebook researchers used their news feed algorithm to edit the posted content on almost 700,000 user profiles. They skewed the feed either positively or negatively and then analyzed the resulting posts. The hypothesis was that the ingested content would affect the readers’ emotional states and contribute to an increased emotional response in their own posts. But the question was whether it would be correlative or inversely correlative. In other words, would reading positive content lead to writing more positive content or to writing more negative content? And vice versa.

The results? In short, they found that those whose feed was skewed positively ended up posting more positive content themselves and, conversely, those whose skewed negatively posted more negative content.

For some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer. However, in psychology theory it doesn’t always pan out this way. Some research supports the opposite results that positive content skews negatively as a bias effect (meaning we’re socially influenced and typically react against that influence by assuming the opposite emotional response).

However we view the ethical implications of this research, it supports an important counseling idea: co-rumination. This is the belief that our moods are affected by the moods of those around us. This is so pervasive that, cognitively, when we hear others share negative beliefs about themselves, negative information, or critical ideas, over and over in a cognitive loop (rumination), we’re more likely to internalize those beliefs and feelings ourselves and start our own pessimistic loop.

Debbie Downer is a great example of this. Maybe you’re having a good day, but then run into Debbie who shares bad news, or you read something depressing on the internet. How do you feel afterwards? How does that content affect you? Now, imagine that Debbie doesn’t just share one piece of bad news, but fifteen horrible tragedies; how do you feel then?

In a digital world, we’re more vulnerable to absorbing large quantities of information in a shorter period of time than we were in bygone, analogue eras. Much of what we absorb has an emotional bias, whether we’re aware of it or not. This means that what we’re ingesting from our news feed can be metabolized differently depending on the emotions underneath that content. And anybody who knows dieting knows that metabolic rates can either make or break weight loss. In the same way, our ability to metabolize emotional content will affect the way we feel, think, and react—making or breaking our day.

This means intentional decisions about who and what we learn from are important to our emotional well-being. It also supports something else. Absorbing information well means we need to learn to stand on our own two feet. (More on that later.)

Have you considered how much you’re impacted by what you see and read on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.? It would be easy for any of us to believe we’re above such impressionable responses, but as social creatures we were made to respond to the emotions of fellow humans, so whether we like it or not mirroring their responses is instinctual and catalytic.

So if this post made you angry, or sad, you can just call me Debbie Downer, blame your mood on my irritating ruminations, and go back to scanning memes and witty aphorisms. Or, you can start viewing social media just a little bit differently.

For my part, I’m curious about Mark Zuckerberg’s emotional response when he sees articles like this hit his own news feed…

Magic Ball

Magic BallIn the brick-lined inner sanctum of Camden Yards, magic was made Thursday night.  The magician’s hat descended after an unexpected sleight of hand by catcher Caleb Joseph.

Joseph is a recent addition who competed for backup catcher in spring training.  He was sent to the minors but got his big break when Wieters hit the disabled list.  Joseph was catching for Matusz, deadly against left-handers but currently facing right-hander Jose Reyes.

Picture this four-second trick.

Second 6: Reyes takes a full swing and tops the ball.

Second 7: It hugs the foul line as it bounces towards first base with Reyes running in tandem.  Joseph pops out from behind home plate.  Instead of running in a straight line to the ball (the natural path) he darts left towards the infield to get a proper angle on the ball and gain momentum to field it cleanly.  Halfway through second seven, Joseph, expertly positioned for momentum, has to make the decision to field the ball or leave it.  The instinctive response for a catcher in this position is to let the ball roll foul.  Joseph doesn’t do that.  He bypasses that inclination and fields it cleanly.

Now, there’s a first base rule that avid fans and Caleb Joseph alike are singularly focused on in the space between seconds 7 and 8.  This rule is known as interference.  Forty-five feet into the run towards first base, the single white line splits in two, and if there’s an infield, first base line play the runner has to stay between the two lines or the catcher can hit the runner for an out.  Usually, hitting a player running to a base doesn’t incur an out.  But in this case if his foot touches the infield he could obstruct the natural path of the ball and interfere with the defensive ability to throw it.

Second 8:  Reyes lands at the split.  He’s forty-five feet into the run and has reached a definitive boundary: the baseline.  This is the two, white lines he must live within until his foot lands on first base.  Since Joseph has the right angle on the ball, it won’t take long to throw.  But as Joseph scoops up the ball barehanded, Reyes passes that boundary and his right foot lands on the infield white line.  This means that Reyes’ left foot HAS to touch down in the infield.  Joseph anticipates the implications of Reyes’ right foot placement in a millisecond.   In that flash, he has to weigh four trajectory choices: 1. The natural choice: Go further inside, to the left, and throw to the first baseman 2. The long route: Go out to the right and throw to the first baseman, who is poorly positioned on the opposite side of the bag. 3. The prayer: A lob toss over the runner’s head to first base.  They don’t practice lob tosses in training, so the potential for error is high.  4. The Baseline Rule: The least instinctive option.  Hit the runner with the ball before he lands on first base.  The players’ jersey numbers are stamped in the middle of their backs.   The steadiest part of a player, while he’s running, is his back.  It’s also the widest part.   This creates the perfect target for a defensive bulls-eye.

Second 9:   Joseph opts for the Baseline Rule.  He flicks the ball and hits Reyes squarely in the back—squarely on the number 7.  The number seven is often used to symbolize perfection, completion, and fulfillment.  There was a sleight of hand Thursday.  That bulls-eye on 7 brought a sense of fulfillment, but not for Reyes.  Reyes had been duped.


Reyes and Joseph both made split-second decisions.  The details of those decisions look like minutia: a quarter-inch foot placement, a 15 degree wrist flick, but they symbolize the difference between magic and mediocrity.

Humans are said to be creatures of habit.  Our everyday decisions can become robotic and patterned.  I wonder how often those decisions affect the broader outcomes in our lives.  Those patterned, habitual responses make the difference between success and failure.

The decision to hit the snooze button for an extra 15 minutes may leave you tired and rushed, affecting your productivity for the rest of the day.  The decision to watch TV instead of studying for the exam may leave you anxious and defeated, and ill-prepared when the exam time comes.  The decision to yell at your spouse rather than biting your tongue may mean hours of escalating arguments.  The decision to work late and miss your daughter’s soccer game may mean her getting the message that she’s not all that important.

Our productivity and relationships would benefit from baseball’s lessons.  To be aware of routine decisions and how they impact our lives is to be aware of how we shape the world around us moment by moment.

How do we create this awareness?  Close your eyes and play through a video of your own.  Observe a video of your typical day from beginning to end.  Pay attention to the routine decisions you normally take for granted.  I wonder how many decisions you make in a given four-second period that you aren’t even aware of.  Now, consider how those decisions impact your life.  What would happen if you chose to change even one of them?  What would happen if you were aware of those decisions, moment by moment, and chose the options that honored the people you love and the goals that matter?

The great thing about baseball is that it levels the playing field.  No matter how many gold gloves a guy has or what his batting average is, in any given play the backup catcher can don his magician’s hat and trick the all-star into an out.  Our little decisions do matter.  They level the playing field.  And if they level the playing field, then it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll choose magic or mediocrity.

Musings: Generation whY

“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me”

Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes

Each generation is a product of the trickle down beliefs of its predecessors.  I say trickle down because there’s an unintended message that drips down to the next generation leaving yellowed, patchy stains on the cultural morality of that group.  This is not to shove responsibility off on that previous generation.  There are many reasons why these cultural messages get lost in translation.

My generation is Generation Y.  We’re the millennials who feel entitled to anything we want and become despondent when we don’t get it…according to some.  The trickle down messages get communicated like this:

Intended message: “You’re special.”  Unintended message: “You’re entitled to get what you want because you’re special.”

Intended message: “You’re unique.”  Unintended message: “Others will recognize that uniqueness and immediately reward you for it.”

Intended message: “You’re capable.”  Unintended message: “You’re currently capable of doing everything you will ever want to do at 25.”

Intended message: “Seek purpose and meaning.”  Unintended message: “Structure and stability are dull and lifeless barriers to purpose and meaning.”

I read an article today describing Gen Y as mostly unhappy.  While I don’t agree with the reductionistic stereotypes, there’s some merit in considering the “specialness” phenomenon.  The article belabors important reasons for the development of discontent in my generation.  It’s worth a skim if you happen to live with, work with, or generally/specifically know a millennial.

When fellow members of Generation Y come into my office and tell me they’re special, I’m happy for them.  The knowledge that we’re all unique, purposeful beings who have something to offer is essential to actually having something to offer at some point in our lives.  So, by all means, bask in the knowledge of your special and unique giftedness.

What’s unhelpful to any of us is the pairing that can go along with this celebrated uniqueness: self-absorption in the form of entitlement.  For any generation, this trait diminishes our ability to offer what we’re uniquely capable of.  It diminishes our usefulness due to our preoccupation with the payoff (e.g. “If I’m special then…” “People will view me as awesome.” “I’ll get a raise.” “I’ll have a more fulfilling life.”).  That preoccupation distracts us from giving.  And if we’re too distracted, any awesome traits we may possess are obscured and aren’t helpful to our communities.   Not to mention the fact that our underlying philosophy for giving won’t have the community’s best interest at heart, but that’s for a separate post.

Let’s face it, in this self-absorbed state, we’re not all that concerned with being useful to the broader community.  Therefore, this approach misses a key developmental consideration: our uniqueness doesn’t prohibit our functionality, it expands it, and vice versa.  The more we use our gifts for something beyond ourselves the better we showcase our uniqueness, and the more our uniqueness develops, the more we have something to offer for a grand design.

Fleet Foxes, I’m channeling my inner millennial, here.  You can have your cake and eat it too.  You can choose to become a unique and functional cog in a world beyond your making.

Musings: The Written Word

It’s comical browsing The New York Times’ most e-mailed headlines to see a piece on the lamented end of handwriting rank #1. This particular article is worth a skim if you’re a champion of the written (not typed) word–especially to see how it ends.

I had a grad professor who stressed the importance of writing over typing, and strongly encouraged students to use the former in his class. According to the article, he may be on to something.

If true, this theory of handwriting implicitly supports the argument for mindfulness. Let me explain. The early research suggests not just any handwriting but cursive handwriting further improves learning, categorically, in the areas of reading, innovation, information absorption, memorization, and self-control. This improvement creates flexible and attuned learners. The theory being that writing, particularly cursive, requires a neurological commitment that surpasses the rote pattern recognition we employ as typists. This active involvement lights up more parts of the brain, thereby engaging more neural circuits than typing. More neural circuitry equals more expansive, higher order processing.

If we generalize to mindfulness, our active commitment to and participation in thinking, speaking, and being enhances our memory, control, creativity, and flexibility surrounding those activities (not to mention the catharsis that comes from processing our emotions in real time).

I bet none of us imagined the hours spent learning cursive Z’s in second grade would be brain-changing work.

Unfortunately for some, the implications are likely to get journaling advocates (aka therapists) excited. Clients, it’s time to dust off your favorite pens and unwrinkle your leathered parchment. Your therapists are days away from passionately imploring you to journal sans screens and in cursive. Better brush up on those Z’s.

Musings: Anne Lamott

Every single thing that has ever happened to me is mine. –Anne Lamott

“Well, that’s a double-edged sword.” I thought to myself while digging out from under a pile of memories.

I’ve been cleaning out old scrapbooks, journals, cards, etc. recently. While rifling through the stacks it struck me more than ever that there are things that have happened to me in my life that I wish hadn’t. There are events that have stirred searing emotions, videos that play in a perpetual loop in my brain, and words from past scenes that nag and pick at me. It’s important to note that when replaying memories, the bitter ones tend to linger well beyond the sweet and savory.

And, yet, the fact remains that everything that has ever happened to me is mine. And the same is true for you. Everything that has ever happened to you is yours–for better or worse, not your dog’s, neighbor’s, distant cousin’s, or closest friend’s. Your experiences are stamped, uniquely, by you. No one else has thought, felt, heard, or remembered the world in quite the same way–and they never will.

To be completely fair and respectful of Ms. Lamott’s writing, her statement is taken a bit out of context, here. Her point in the larger context is valid and helpful, it just happened to inspire some divergent musings for me. So with that in mind, what she doesn’t illuminate beyond that statement is the ubiquitous and uncanny turn of events that occurs when we live too long with the entirety of what “belongs” to us.

As time passes, as memories stick to our ribs until we feel lumpy and uncomfortable, the statement changes from “everything that has ever happened to me is mine” to, “everything that has ever happened to me is me”. Do you see the difference? In the first statement, we possess. We own it. The second statement is also possessive, but the master is not ourselves. This statement implies that our experiences are the sum of who we are. It implies that they own us. Do you want to be owned by your experiences?

I work with people who have experienced deep trauma, bone-chilling trauma. Time and again I see this theme surface. They believe they are only the sum of their experiences, AND, everything in life is colored and shaped by those experiences.

Fictional example: A woman lost her younger sister to a pool drowning when they were both little. The woman witnessed it and felt responsible for the accident. Her life since then has been centered around that trauma. She doesn’t fully realize the pervasive effects, but she doubts herself often, feels insecure, and lives with near constant feelings of guilt and shame.

In some fashion or another, we’re all haunted by past experiences or mistakes or ideas that have stuck to our ribs for so long that we believe they’re part of us.

What does it take to reclaim the story? A reckoning.

We have to settle with our memories, beliefs, mistakes. They only have control over us when we believe that’s all we are, or when we fear others believe the same. Keep in mind that this work may need to be done with help, depending on the stronghold our experiences have over us.

You are more than the sum of your fears and failures–real or perceived. Do you believe that? Really?

We’ve talked about the regression from “Everything that has ever happened to me is mine.” To, “Everything that has ever happened to me is me.” May I suggest a third statement? It is one that fits the idea of reclaiming our belongings.

The statement would be this: “Everything that has ever happened to me is.” Period.

Everything I have ever experienced is part of the story. But it is not and never will be the entirety of the story. My experiences exist in my timeline, in my narrative, but that’s not all I have. I have traits, abilities, characteristics, relationships that live outside of my most distressing experiences. I have value, purpose, worth, and a vocation that equal more than my “belongings”.

So which statement fits your life right now? Are your experiences who you are? Or do they exist, period?

If I may be so bold as to connect these ideas, the third statement leads to this ending: the dissolution of guilt and shame is an immeasurable freedom.

Musings: Seth Godin

Finally got around to reading The Dip.

Godin is sometimes considered reductionistic, but I like his white linen approach. It clarifies in all the places I obfuscate.

Case in point, he got me thinking about how I describe myself as a generalist, but he encourages specialization. So I quickly nuanced it: Am I a generalist who specializes, generally, or a specialist who generalizes specifically? They’re probably the same and both likely miss the mark with over-populated language that communicates little.

In that vein, more importantly than whether or not I’m a career specialist are all the things I specialize in that distract me from my career–and from all meaningful pursuits.

So here are a few examples stream of consciousness style. Do they resonate? What do you specialize in that distracts rather than clarifies?

1. Over-complication: Blanket apology to anyone who has ever read one of my posts. My ability to weave together a tapestry of discordant threads with hundreds of mixed metaphors is way more awesome in my mind than to any audience. Distraction meter is high on this one. And what looks like storytelling can end up as rumination, perseveration (insert your favorite jargony word, here).

2. Control: I specialize in that cement grip that crushes all conversation around surrender. But if Godin is correct, strategic surrender isn’t failure but success. To reference my previous post, it’s all about who and what we surrender to.

3. Procrastination: Yep, it’s meta. Distraction breeds further distraction. There are a number of circuitous routes I take to get there on any given day–convincing myself that this project is essential to complete before x, y, and z. All are deceptively rationalized as central, but they’re really not.

4. Doubt: The ultimate obscurifier (yes, a neologism meaning the purifier of obscurity). If we want burgeoning success to end in obscurity (deflated and invisible), the quickest way is to specialize in doubting our decisions. We accomplish this through continuous examination of pitfalls with no alternative options considered.

Since Seth talks about abandoning more for the sake of better (site), the conscious decision to de-specialize in distractions seems essential. If I do that, my likelihood of specializing in the good, noble, and just (the powerful trio) increases. At this crucial point the gravitas of nobility, justice, and beneficence creates a sustainable force strong enough to traverse even the most curvaceous obstacles.

So with the trio in tow and my compass fixed north, it looks like it’s time to take another dip in the dip….

Musings: Joan Didion

I’ve taken a week off from work to tackle a long to-do list.  I have a pile of information to absorb and as I do that, I’ll be sharing some of my musings, here.  They will be incomplete.  Sometimes there’s redemption in the unfinished and unkempt bits of life—and sometimes there’s not.  If it’s helpful to you, then it’s a testament to the belief that art can transcend the artist.  If not, feel free to discard and move on.  

A pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.  –Joan Didion, “Holy Water”

Do you remember summer days in that inflated plastic pool?  It littered yards through the neighborhood on sticky, hot afternoons.  It was filled with tiny bodies splashing uncontrollably as droplets cut across cheeks, noses, eyes, and lips, teeming with laughter.  The water was soothing to those small frames, amused and in the moment.  But those smiles would predictably disappear as the water seeped from the pool into the ground, dispersing as rapidly as it collected, unmanageable and absorbed.  The pool had sprung a leak.  It was at this point that the neighborhood moms, clustered together, would disperse like the water and begrudgingly amble over to refill the pool.  The goal was to buy them another half hour of free time knowing, all the while, that the small hole in the pool would lead to inevitable deflation.

Our attempts to control the uncontrollable share an indomitable fate with that plastic pool—they are artificial, bloated, temporary.  To soothe ourselves with the immediacy of containing such forces is to live in denial.  The energy it takes to deny the reality is beyond exhausting.  But our fear trumps our desire to escape the fatigue.  If we accept our lack of control, then what?  If we’re not in control, who or what is?  How will we withstand the outcome if we surrender, relinquish, or reset?

The real consideration is how we’ll withstand the outcome if we don’t.