June 2015

Welcome Mid-June!

As we officially enter summer, the sun streams broadly through my office window and I thank our local civic leaders for approving a noise bylaw: it allows me to write with my office window open onto the street below. (In recent years, many trucks and motorcycles created terrible noise and air pollution.)

With the threat of frost behind us, my container pot garden is flourishing: I hope that yours is, too. The sun cheers me, as I write another busy month of your marketing and communications materials.

Last month’s issue featured Nicole Dieker’s observations on “listicles,” and Aja Frost’s top six podcasts for writers. Thank you to those of you who wrote to say that you found those articles helpful!

This month I plumb some of the depth of Shawn Achor’s Book, The Happiness Advantage (2010). I visit Victoria Maxwell’s performance on living with mental illness. And I return to wordsmithing with etymologist Bryan Garner. As usual, I’ll also update you on sundries in the usual “Shop News.”

Enjoy this issue and the beauty of our Saskatchewan summer!



Principal, Elizabeth Shih Communications



Revisiting Seven Principles of Positive Psychology from Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work (2010)

In the mid 2000’s, Shawn Achor, a Harvard based psychologist and consultant on positive psychology, conducted a widescale test of 1600 Harvard undergraduates,  and later, dozens of Fortune 500 executives internationally, to explore the nature of the relationship between happiness and success.

The traditional view of  the two, taught by schools, parents, companies and society, is that “If you work hard, you will become successful and once you become successful, then you will be happy” (emphasis Achor, 3). Achor contends that this formula is wrong, because “with each victory or achievement, our goalposts of success keep getting pushed further and further out, so that happiness gets pushed over the horizon” (3). Few end up feeling happy at all.

Achor writes that from more than 10 years of research in positive psychology and thousands of studies in neuroscience, he and his colleagues can now theorize a kind of “Copernican revolution” in the relation between happiness and success: it “works the other way around . . . . happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result . . . . happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement,” giving people a “competitive edge” of “the happiness advantage,” on which he names the book (4).

Does happiness warrant this scrutiny? Achor cites 2004 statistics that show that four out of five Harvard undergraduates suffer depression at least once in the year and nearly half of all students suffer from depression “so debilitating that they can’t function.” The problem is not limited to Harvard, since a Conference Board survey in 2010 found that “only 45 percent of workers were happy in their jobs,” the lowest rate in 22 years of polling (8). The CBC has reported similar statistics for Canada.

Overall, depression was 10 times greater in the US in 2010 than it was in 1960, he reports. And compare the age of onset of 29.5 years in 1960, compared to only 14.5 years of age in 2010. So Achor studied those subjects who were “ahead of the curve” with “happiness, performance, achievement, productivity, humour, energy [and] resilience,” in order to find patterns to apply to all (8). Such study had to correct the first mistake of traditional psychology, where to understand human behaviour, researchers look at average behaviour or outcomes: “If we study what is merely average,” Achor writes, “we will remain merely average” (10).

This alternative vantage point matters because society knows well “how to be unwell and miserable and so little about how to thrive” (11): eliminating anxiety and depression does not teach optimism or make a person happy. “We become more successful when we are happier and more positive” (emphasis Achor 15).

If we focus our time and mental energy on something, we can make that our reality, Achor writes, and offers seven principles on how to do that:

(1)   “The Happiness Advantage”: Achor says that because “positive brains have a biological advantage” over neutral or negative ones, this principle teaches us to retrain our brains “to capitalize on positivity and improve our productivity and performance” (17). Achor says that our actions should not be limited to mental “flight or fight” and that we can think more deeply and widely when we are “primed” to feel contented and happy, versus the usual anger or anxiety. “Positive emotions broaden our scope of cognition and behaviour,” so that we can “build more intellectual, social and physical resources” to “rely upon, in the future” (44). (He cites the psychological study in which doctors who were given [and not even consumed] a gift of candy prior to conducting an experiment, performed nearly twice as fast as a control group.)

Furthermore, happiness is not a short-term fix, but even brief experience of it “can help to permanently raise our happiness baseline” (51). Achor recommends integrating positive practices into our lives, such as meditating, finding something to look forward to, committing conscious acts of kindness toward others, seeking out positivity in our environments, exercising, spending money on activities that lift our spirits and using a personal strength that makes us feel empowered (57). We will “feel better, become more efficient, motivated, productive” and new “opportunities” will arise “for greater achievement” (57).

(2)   “The Fulcrum and the Lever”: He writes that how we experience the world and our ability to succeed within it depends on our “mindset.” Picturing the image of a board set above a ball, as in a child’s “see saw” slide, we can “learn how to adjust our mindset (our fulcrum) . . . in a way that gives us the power (the lever) to be more fulfilled and successful” (17).

From high school science, you may recall that if a lever is long enough and there’s a fulcrum to place it on, you can lift anything with it, easily. He says that the brain works similarly, so that the length of the lever (the potential power we believe we have) and the position of the fulcrum (the mindset that we generate the power to change) we can move behavioural mountains: “It’s not the weight of the world that determines what we can accomplish,” he writes. “It’s our fulcrum and lever” (65). Move the fulcrum to a positive mindset and the lever’s power will be magnified to move everything up.

(3)   “The Tetris Effect”: Just as kids can get stuck mentally after playing a computer game for too long, so do our brains dictate the way we see the world around us. We need to teach ourselves how to retrain our brains to identify “patterns of possibility,” so that “we can see and use opportunity wherever we look.” (Otherwise, our minds “get stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity and failure, setting us up to fail.”)

A positive use of the “Tetris Effect” would be to notice that gratitude is essential to well-being, so that writing down three “gratitudes” each day opens your brain to recognize positiveness and to be open to goodness, when they arise.

(4)   “Falling Up”: In the midst of defeat, stress and crisis, our brains map different paths to cope. Achor advocates here for finding a “mental path that not only leads us up out of failure or suffering, but teaches us to be happier and more successful because of it.”

To “fall up” is to try to move from failure or setback to a place where you’re stronger and more capable than before the fall. We tend to forget or give up believing that this path exists, and so feel “helpless and hopeless.” Achor says that is a “third path” (beyond those of not changing or turning more negative, in the face of loss). This “third path” involves looking “for positive opportunities” and “refus[ing] to believe that every down  in life leads us only further downward” but can allow us to “move up, not despite the setbacks, but because of them” (109). One example he cites is the largely unrecognized truth that there can be post-traumatic growth, such as increased spirituality and compassion for others (and not just PTSD) that comes out of trauma: “Crises can be catalysts for creativity” (120) if we don’t give in to learned helplessness and despair.

(5)   “The Zorro Circle”: When challenges lie ahead of us and we feel overwhelmed, our minds tend to be “hijacked” by our emotions. The concept of “The Zorro Circle” (in which Zorro learns to fight by confronting his emotions within a small circle before him) teaches us “how to regain control by focusing first on small, manageable goals. From there, we can gradually expand to achieve bigger and bigger ones.”  The first circle is to use the “thinker” or rational part of the brain to find self-awareness (e.g. by expressing your feelings and recovering). The second circle is to address some aspects of a situation that you do not control and then subsequently, to slowly expand outward.

(One executive that Achor trained uses the concept of “Zorro’s Circle,” by spending only two hours a day, over several weeks, to process thousands of backlogged emails that otherwise overwhelmed him. Similarly, one of Achor’s students at Harvard regained order in his messy and chaotic dorm room by focusing first on clearing and then keeping clean only one section (and then another) of his desk.

(6)   “The 20-Second Rule”: Our willpower is limited and weakens as we use it, so bringing about change can feel impossible. When our willpower fails, we tend to fall back to old habits. By making small changes in our behaviour, we can rewrite the “path of least resistance” and replace bad habits with good ones.

Habits form, Achor says, “because our brain actually changes in response to frequent practice” (149). The “20 Second Rule” is an effort “to eliminate the amount of activation energy required to start doing something.” (Achor himself practiced going to bed in clean gym clothes, so as to make it easier to get to the gym, the next morning. Another time, he placed his guitar in his living room, to prompt him to practice regularly.)

(7)   “Social Investment”: When meeting stress, lots of people “hunker down and retreat within themselves,” and forgo social support when they need it most. The most successful people “invest in friends, peers and family members, to propel themselves forward.” Investing more in a social support network, Achor says, is “one of the greatest predictors of success and excellence.”

Connecting with like-minded friends and family decreases stress hormones like cortisol and increases the pleasure-inducing hormone, oxytocin, in the blood stream. Social support and connectedness drive achievement and not only “feeling good.”

Conclusion: Achor doesn’t work alone, as a positive psychologist. But when he published this book in 2010, findings of such research were “mostly unknown in business and professional fields” (23). So his purpose was to bridge the gap between these principles or theories and daily workplace action (23).

He stresses that this is not merely “positive thinking” from yesteryears (a la Norman Vincent Peale), or the plan to wish away problems, or to think that everything will “come up roses”: Achor says that “[h]appiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change; it is the realization that we can” (24).

We can become happier by expending our brain’s plasticity, so that happiness can fuel our success (26). We are not limited to our genes, because the brain “can increase in size and power through use . . . in response to our actions and circumstances” (29). And Achor says that recent research now shows that this mental change can continue, even in our senior years.

The “Happiness Advantage” isn’t just about making changes within ourselves, although they are crucial. In the world of business, to name just one, these changes spread to our teams, organizations, peers and “everyone around us.”

Do you think these seven principles could  yield happiness, as a process?

Can (and would) you apply these to your daily working life?

How do you see Achor’s insights benefiting your workplace or community?


Nerd Alert! Word Nerd’s Corner . . .

On Metaphors . . .

Etymologist Bryan Garner writes that most of us know that a “metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is called by the name of something else, or is said to be that other thing.”

You’ll recall that metaphors are unlike similes (which use “like” or “as”), because metaphors are “implicit, not explicit. Skillful use of metaphor is one of the highest attainments of writing; graceless and even aesthetically offensive use of metaphor is one of the commonest scourges of writing” (“Usage Tip of the Day,” April 30, 2015).

Metaphors are supposed to lend “both force and compactness to writing,” which can only happen when the figure of speech agrees with its context. “[S]peaking technically,” Garner writes, “the ‘vehicle’ of the metaphor” (i.e. the image or phrase used) “must accord with the ‘tenor’ ” (i.e. the quality or meaning intended), “which is to say that the means must fit the end . . . . It’s the comparison of the tenor with the vehicle that makes or breaks a metaphor” (In the expression “love is a red, red rose,” the tenor is “love” and the vehicle is the “red, red rose.” Because the two components are not in close relation, this would be a weak metaphor.)

Garner adds that a “writer would be ill advised, for example, to use rustic metaphors in a discussion of the problems of air pollution . . . Doing that [would] mismatch the vehicle with the tenor.”

Next month, I’ll visit some of Garner’s other usage tips.

What metaphors do you frequently draw upon, in the spoken or written word? Are they skillful in agreeing with their context or not?

Please share your usage bugbears with me: I’d be delighted to share this column with you!

(c) “Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day” (April 30, 2015)


Ask an Expert: Victoria Maxwell, “Crazy for Life Co.,” on Living and Working with Mental Illness…

This article is more about living than it is about writing. But just as life for writers always returns to the creative process, so will this article. Please bear with me: the connections will get clearer. . . .

In early May, I attended a performance by Victoria Maxwell, a Vancouver based actor, speaker, advocate and writer of psychiatric (usually called “mental health”) issues, with more than 20 years’ experience. She was speaking and acting as a part of Saskatoon’s “Living with Mental Illness Conference for Family and Friends”– a conference funded by contributions from organizations including the Saskatoon Health Region and the Royal University Hospital Foundation.

Maxwell dramatized her childhood years, growing up as an only child in a family with parents who both had psychiatric issues. Their love galvanized her from intensive school bullying she endured as a child. But the hospitalization of her mother for psychiatric issues when Maxwell was still a child left her feeling insecure and alienated from her peers.Those feelings intensified when she herself was later diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder, depression and anxiety.

I found Maxwell’s performance of these experiences, including her efforts to find new (supportive) friends, to date again, to remake her career, to renew ties with aging parents and to optimize support groups and community recovery services to be poignant, often consciously hilarious and inspiring.

(Here is her site and you can sample some of her performances there and over YouTube, as well.)

After Maxwell earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in drama, she left behind the instability of auditioning for Hollywood projects to work as a freelance performance artist, advocate and writer for mental illness. She has spoken around the English speaking world to sold out venues. Some of her “gigs” have been in Britain and Australia. She has also won numerous awards for her work, whose “insider’s perspective” was powerful to take in.

Like Maxwell, I am among the now nearly one in three Canadians who have also experienced mental illness and I recently began speaking and writing about these health issues. I’ve done so as a consumer inspired by Maxwell (who first visited Saskatoon several years ago) and by multiple Olympian Clara Hughes (who biked across Canada last summer, through Bell’s “Let’s Talk” initiative, to counteract the stigma that surrounds mental illness).

Closer to home, I’ve also found the writing of local writer and editor Cam Hutchinson (of the “Saskatoon Express”) courageous in discussing his experience of anxiety and panic disorders.

In my own work, I try to bust our community’s social stigma, whenever I meet it.

As Maxwell demonstrates in her art, psychiatric health isn’t politically correct or socially palatable. At a time when we often hear of tragedies and violence that result from failed treatment and/or a lack of necessary treatment (e.g. medication), we urgently need to bring these issues “out of the shadows.”

Mental health conditions result from biochemical imbalances in the brain and therefore are also physical illnesses, in need of treatment. And these illnesses are readily treatable, even if the treatments available at this time are imperfect (e.g. many are reported to cause side effects).

So many artists like Maxwell and great thinkers throughout history (and now) have endured conditions that range from varying degrees of depression and anxiety to PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit disorder, dementia and more.

While family support is crucial, consumers also need community supports.

So I was heartened to hear in May that groups are beginning to address these needs which often become public at the onset of a consumer’s illness, or during relapses. For instance, after Maxwell’s performance, members of “PACT,” a police and crisis intervention team of specialists, spoke about their work in Saskatoon to mitigate mental health emergencies. As with many initiatives, the demand already outweighs existing resources.

Mental health research has historically been the one of the worst funded and least understood areas of medicine. And while “second generation” medications have vastly improved upon earlier formulations, they are still administered by a “trial and error” process, which can be slow and frustrating for the consumer.

Contemporary medicine still has yet to unlock a more precise, timely way to treat these illnesses, and with fewer troubling side effects.

So why blog about this now? And why from a writer and editor like me? On July 24th, a remarkable fundraising event will be held in Saskatoon, called the “One Voice” fundraiser.

At a recent press conference, organizer Dr. DeeDee Maltman (a local specialist in integrative medicine) announced plans to develop more effective medical program (“The Neural Health Project”) that will address body, mind and spirit of mental health consumers.

She is partnering with a high profile friend, Detroit Red Wings’ Coach Mike Babcock (originally from Saskatoon), and his many contacts in professional sports, to strengthen the project. Please visit their site (at http://www.theneuralhealthproject.com/one-voice-fundraiser).

Here’s more of the press coverage for the fundraiser (http://www.ckom.com/story/mike-babcock-leading-mental-health-fundraiser-saskatoon/550550).

(At the time of publication, iContact’s link service was not functioning, so I have included the full URLs above).

This new venture is exciting and I hope that philanthropists will write large cheques that evening, to advance innovative mental health care in our province.

As Maxwell says, “Recovery is more than a lack of symptoms. It’s the return of meaning, sense of self and quality of life.” Another writer in the field, Bill MacPhee, refers to recovery as “the desire to be no one other than yourself,” even with a mental health diagnosis.

Emboldened by Maxwell’s performance art (and looking forward to reading more of her writing), I’ve begun listening to survival stories of people in my corner of the world. These folk lack fame and fortune, but have often experienced mental illness or supported someone else with it, outside of the public eye. . . . . Again and again, I’ve been touched by these individuals’ sincerity, decency and courage.

As I earlier indicated, some of the world’s most creative, artistic and scientific minds (and writers!)  have endured some form of mental illness. We cannot afford to ignore the close to 30% of Canadians who daily endure it.

In upcoming months, as I mention in “Shop News,” I hope to write and publish  some everyday consumers’ stories in an e-book format– a book that will do some work of its own, in giving voice to outliers in our community, including those who experience or serve those with mental health issues.

Do you agree that advocates like Victoria Maxwell build public awareness of mental health?

And would you like to know about recovery options for people with mental illness in our community?

Please share your thoughts with me, through “contact” page of my website.

And please stay tuned, as this conversation continues.


Shop News . . .

In early June, I appreciated sharing another conversation with mentor  Monica Kreuger (Founder/CEO of Praxis School of Entrepreneurship and President of Global Infobrokers). Monica and I discussed the possibilities of my new e-book project (now begun) on the creative lives of several local artists who are “over 40” in age. This is a project that I’m sharing with local artist and editor Kat Bens and which will appear as a promotion on my website in future months. (Thank you, Monica, for stoking the flames again. And readers, please stay tuned!)

Extra special thanks to Bob Pitzel and Maureen Doezel for opening their beautiful home and garden near Humboldt to me, as I interviewed Bob for this upcoming e-book. Also generous and valued were the contributions of Ernie Quintal that afternoon, fellow protege of the Raj Manek Mentorship Program (RMMP), who has known Bob and Maureen for some 20 years. Ernie has built a tremendous community in the Warman Chamber of Commerce and is now shifting his focus to On Q Resolutions, his consulting and strategic planning firm.

Also this month, I appreciated Silvia Martini’s seminar for the Raj Manek Program. Her ambitious presentation on customer service included the analysis that customers today are trending increasingly toward video communication, such as FaceTime and Skype. Customers also expect an admiring exchange that not only delivers “the goods” but also reflects their “shopper identity.” The exchange now must show social conscience that ranges from providing politeness to contributing to charity. Special thanks to Silvia for sharing both theory and practice on this topic.

After unseasonably cold weather in some of April and much of  May, the past three weeks have blessed us with mild air, sunshine and all of the ease they bring. Summer is finally here: Enjoy and savour it, friends!


About Us . . .

Since 2011, Elizabeth Shih Communications has provided B2B marketing and communications services on the Prairies and across Canada.

Do you need help writing your “marcom” materials? Please contact me through my website, via the CASL-compliant email form, on the right-hand side of each page (www.elizabethshih.com).

After I have received your permission, I’ll be pleased to discuss projects with you!

I help small- and medium-sized businesses and some not-for-profit organizations create e-newsletters, blog postings, promotional emails, press releases, and related documents that secure good clients. Please visit my website for more information (www.elizabethshih.com).