Motivation by the Carrot or the Stick

Does reward or punishment work better as a self-motivation?

Do you tend to use a carrot or a stick on yourself? This idiom refers to the idea that a cart driver can use a carrot or amotivation by reward or punishment stick to motivate a horse to move forward, thus pulling the cart. The horse will either move forward by the enticement of the carrot, or by the avoidance of punishment via the stick.

Research suggests that some people are more responsive to reward and others more responsive to punishment. Interestingly, it seems that genetics may determine which works better for you. Some people are genetically more responsive to dopamine, while others are more responsive to serotine, and this seems to make the difference.

Research also suggests, however, that punishment can create unexpected and unwanted outcomes. Sometimes punishment can backfire by actually increasing the undesired behavior, creating negative emotions or increasing aggression.

The impact of the carrot or stick choice can really be seen when we are trying to motivate ourselves. We can motivate ourselves by setting up rewards for getting tasks done. For example, we might give ourselves a night out as a reward for cleaning out a closet.

We can also reward ourselves by imagining or visualizing the natural positive consequences of working hard and completing a task. I did this during graduate school, as I imagined myself enjoying working in my private practice, as a motivation to work hard on my doctoral studies. It really did work to keep me going during the hard times.

People use punishment on themselves when they put themselves down or criticize themselves for poor performance. They beat themselves up, and claim this is necessary to make them try harder. It almost never works, and reminds me of the old poster saying, “The beatings in this company will continue until morale improves.”

So today, watch your thinking to see whether you use a carrot or stick on yourself. Consider the possibility that your self-punishment is actually hurting your performance. Try visualizing the positive results when you accomplish a task, or promising yourself a pleasurable activity for task success. I think you’ll find that it works better as a motivation, and doesn’t damage your self-esteem.


Comments: Please share some of your experiences with the motivators of reward and punishment.

The Power of an Attitude of Gratitude

A thankful heart gives us hope, connection and resilience. It's good for the soul!


Happy Thanksgiving! This day, we remember our many blessings. My hope is that you will live in an attitude of gratitude is good for mental health and self-esteemgratitude every day of the year. Even in our difficult days, we have much to be thankful for. Today, I have posted a previous article about the power of an attitude of gratitude. Hope you enjoy it.

Once more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already knew; that counting our blessings, or an attitude of gratitude, will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.

In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.

We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.

First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.

The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.

The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.

We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!

Being Human

A few facts to consider when assessing your self-esteem or self-worth.

When writing and teaching about self-esteem, I’m often urging people to reconsider their negative self-beliefs andgirl_looking_in_mirror work toward healing self-esteem wounds. I point out that every human being has worth, and try to help people gain a healthy perspective on themselves.

But today, I thought it might be interesting to consider just what it means to be human. Exactly who are we in the grand scheme of things?

First, we are mammals, like cows, dogs, sheep, monkeys, etc. we are born alive and we nurse our young. We are totally helpless when we are born, and remain totally helpless longer than any other mammals. Without someone else taking total care of our physical needs, we would die quickly.

We live a fairly short life. In the United States, the average life expectancy is 79 years (76 years for males and 81 years for females). In other countries of the world, the average life expectancies range from 84 years in Japan to only 46 years in Sierra Leone. While living to around 80 years may seem like an eternity to a sixteen year old, those of us in the last half of the trip realize that it is a blink of an eye.

For years, people have quoted that the actual chemical worth of the elements in a human body (calcium, carbon, iron, etc.) is about 97 cents, but inflation has helped us a bit. It is now said that our various raw ingredients are worth about $5:00. I guess that’s one way to feel better about ourselves.

From a psychological perspective, we can sometimes be a mess. We operative out of raw emotion far too often. We are constantly assuming what others think and feel, and we’re often wrong. We incessantly compare ourselves to other humans, as if we could actually do such a thing objectively. We all tend to have our insecurities, but work so hard to give the impression that we have it all together.

But, at the same time, we humans can do great and wonderful things. We often give our money, our time and even our lives to help the people we love, and even those we don’t know. We can entertain dreams and ideals and then move mountains to attain them. We have the ability to love selflessly. We often show great courage and determination. We have the capacity to touch others in a meaningful and last way, even when we don’t realize that we have done so.

And we actually are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The human brain, that 3 lb. mass of pink tissue behind your forehead, contains about 100 billion neurons. There are anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 synapses in each neuron. Neurons develop at a rate of 250,000 neurons per minute during early pregnancy, and humans continue to develop new neurons throughout life due to mental activity. No computer has ever been created that remotely matches the capacity of one human brain.

I said earlier that the raw chemicals of the human body were worth about $5.00. While that is true, the synthesized components of one human body (e.g. hemoglobin) would actually cost about $56,000,000. That seems a little better doesn’t it?

Fact is, you are an amazing creation. Now, live today like you know that!


Comments: Please share your thoughts or questions about what it means to be human.

Making Yourself Happy

You have more control over your mood than you think.

Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

                                                                       Abraham Lincoln


How happy are you today? How happy are you most days? Do you tend to go through your days with a sense of well-being or joy, or do you tend to move from one problem to another in your mind?Abraham_Lincoln


Research, and common sense, suggest that we have more influence over our happiness than we think. We can increase our feelings of happiness if we are deliberate about it. Most of the time, we can improve our mood if we make the effort.


Now, I want to be clear that I’m not referring to clinical depression here. The disease of depression is a physical and mental disorder, which requires treatment. You can’t just snap out of depression. Even in depression, however, you can sometimes improve your mood, with effort. You can’t just decide to make it go away.


I’m referring to our day-to-day moods when depression is not a factor. In these situations, we can shift our mood if we try.  We don’t have perfect control over our mood, but we do have more control than we think.


Have you ever noticed that your mood one day might be pretty positive, and another day be down and out. Did you notice that your life situation might have been exactly the same on both days? It wasn’t your circumstances that determined your mood, it was your thinking, your perspective or your outlook. One day you thought negatively about yourself or your life, and the other day your thoughts were more positive.


So let’s imagine that you listened to the quote from Abraham Lincoln above, and made up your mind to be happy today. You determined this morning to make it a good day. How would you do it? What thoughts would you generate? What thoughts would you avoid? What would you want to notice or focus on?


Most likely, you already know the answers to these questions. You would want to deliberately notice or focus on the positive aspects of your life. You would try to avoid obsessing about your problems. You would remind yourself of the things you have to be thankful for. You would make efforts to cheer others up, or make them feel better. You would look for humor. You would get engaged in life activities. You would take the time to notice the beauty of nature. You would remind yourself of the positive traits of those around you, rather than their deficits. You would take the time to do something nice for yourself, or give yourself a little treat, without guilt. You would try to smile more.


The problem is not that we don’t know what to do. We just forget to do it. We focus our attention on the negative circumstances in our lives and believe strongly that we can’t feel better as long as those circumstances exist. We believe that we have no choice. We exclaim, “How could I possibly be happier in this situation?”


You may be right. Some circumstances are so negative that they do dictate your mood. But most are not.  Everyone has negative and positive circumstances in their lives. If you’re waiting for all your negative circumstances to disappear before you can experience happiness, you will be waiting a long time.


What would it take for you to improve your happiness level just one or two notches? Why not give it a try. Be deliberate today about improving your mood. Make up your mind to feel better today. See if Lincoln was on to something.

Comments: What techniques have you found to be helpful in improving your mood?



The Lies of Suicide

There are many false beliefs for the suicidal person and the grieving loved ones left behind.

In some way, all of us are affected by suicide. Whether you worry about the possibility that a loved one is consideringcasket it, have had a loved one attempt it or die from it, or whether you have grieved with a friend or neighbor when it happened, suicide leaves its mark.

Every year, one million people attempt suicide in the United States. Over 40,000 Americans die from suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in those aged 10 to 24 years. A surprising fact for many, the highest risk of death by suicide is actually older adult men.

Two people in the U.S. will probably die from suicide before you finish reading this article. Worldwide, there is one death by suicide every 40 seconds.

Most people who consider suicide are in the midst of a deep clinical depression. In the moment of the suicide attempt, the person really does lose touch with reality. They may not hallucinate, but they believe things that are untrue. They are momentarily delusional. Here are some of the lies of suicide:

  1. “Everyone would be better off without me.”
  2. “They’ll get over it soon.”
  3. “My life will never get better.”
  4. “There is no help for me.”
  5. “I don’t deserve to live.”
  6. “I’ll show them how badly they’ve hurt me.”
  7. “I have no other options.”
  8. “Nobody cares.”

Unfortunately, many deeply depressed people believe these lies, and they act on them. If they don’t succeed, and when the depression improves, they realize that they were lies, but in the moment they don’t know any better.

Suicide also conveys several lies for the loved ones that are left behind. Their grief is complicated by confusion and many, many questions. They struggle to make sense of the loss. They often blame themselves. Here are some of the lies placed upon the loved ones left behind by a suicide:

  1. “I should have seen it coming.”
  2. “I should have done something.”
  3. “If only I had ……”
  4. “What did I do to cause it?”
  5. “She tried to tell me, but I didn’t listen.”
  6. “He made a decision to leave me.”
  7. “How could she have been so cruel?”
  8. “Others will blame me. I feel so ashamed.”


The reality is that none of us can perfectly predict human behavior. Most people try to do the right, loving thing, based on what they know in that moment. They can’t know what is going to happen in the future. If they had known, they would have done anything to intervene.

We know that this horrible thing should not have happened. Our next thought is to ask who is to blame. We look at every interaction, every missed opportunity. But in the moment, we probably did what we thought was best. We didn’t know. We couldn’t know.

If you have a loved one who is depressed, and you have concerns that they may be considering suicide, talk to them. Ask them if they are thinking about it. Tell them how much it would hurt you if they did something to themselves. You won’t suggest the idea, and you might just give them the opportunity to change their mind.