On being positive

One day after 9/11, I would like to depart a bit from the scientific focus of this blog, and add some personal reflections on the “mental muscles” of Being Positive and Appreciation, which is what we probably need to survive in times when we read of a new bombing every day, still 5 years after the terrorist attack.

I remember a few years ago when, over brunch, my good friend Rohit proposed that

Happiness = Reality – Expectations. (Play with it, and it grows. It is very powerful)

A few months later after this discovery, at a public concert, while some friends were having a lively debate on this equation, a nearby stranger proposed a nice refinement:

Happiness = (Appreciation, of what we have, and can do) x ( Reality – Expectations)

Which is nicely phrased in the sentence I have read in a number of places

We need Serenity to accept
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Mahatma Gandhi encouraged us to “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

The fact is that there is much good around us, and much more good of us can do. We don’t always see it this way, but it is a fact (if you doubt this, why don’t you do the Basketball experiment in a previous post). We probably would benefit from having easier access to a CNN of Positive News, of Kind Gestures, Unexpected Generosity, Magic Coincidences, Beautiful Growth.

Some constant sources of inspiration, encouragement, and Appreciation:

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, and their conviction that “Everyone is a changemaker”

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, that supports amazing and inspiring agents of change worldwide.

– Just read a review of sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s last book The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion, where he tries to bridge both worlds and focus them on common ground.

No matter our religion, or lack thereof, we can benefit from what the book Daniel Goleman’s Destructive Emotions: How Can We overcome Them proposes as “A Gym for Emotional Skills”. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio opened new ground in his seminal Descartes Error book on the role of emotions in our decision-making.

How can one train this muscle of Appreciation? well, no clinical studies here, but my wife and I like to do, less often that we should, an exercise proposed by Jeffrey Brantley in Five Good Minutes: 100 Morning Practices To Help You Stay Calm & Focused All Day Long:

First, travel back, in your mind’s eye, to a time when you felt a healthy exhaustion, and let you relive that moment as vividly as you can.

Then, remember, re-experience, a loving exchange that really touched you. Pause. See the moment. Smell it. Hear what happened around you.

Next, visualize the most caring gesture you have ever received, as full of details as possible. Who gave you that gift of caring. How you felt.

Now, travel to the most magnificent place you have seen. Enjoy the views. Pause. Listen. Smile. Appreciate.

Good night



  1. I like your thought process. Well thought over and presented. I have some articles of mine on Happiness. If you get some freetime please do visit my blog. I would love your comments.

  2. Matthew said

    Alvaro, this entry is inspiring, calming and thoughtful. You are a true business intellectual. When in *your* book coming out?

  3. Alvaro said

    Thanks Suresh and Matthew.

    Happy that you are enjoying the blog. How do you usually, let’s put it this way, “train your calmness”?

  4. Chris Wu said


    I think of happiness or Eudaimonia, loosely the fullness of human life, as not only a goal but a way of being. That’s why Aristotle talked about a kind of excellence in life with respect to eudaimonia. Emotional states tend to be cyclical and fluctuating. However, eudaimonia is much more constant because it attempts to achieve its purpose without being tied solely to circumstance. That’s where your happiness formula which incorporates attitude and expectation comes in.

    People can go through the same circumstances (such as 9/11) and respond to it in entirely different ways. Believing that we can change the world positively is the first step. The rest is the hard work of creating eudainomic communities. We now have the instantiation of the de Chardin’s noosphere through the internet – it is limited only by our creativity and passion.

    (PS Having a preview and editing of comments would be helpful)

  5. Elona said

    “Be the change you want to see in the world”. How optimistic and empowering. Recently, I have been doing a lot of reading about Buddhism and listening to Buddhist pod casts. This quote reminds me of some of the things I have read about Buddhism. Interesting how one thing reinforces another.

  6. Alvaro said

    Hi Chris and Elona,

    I am happy that you enjoyed the post.

    Elona, yes, there are practices in Buddhism that have universal value. The Mind and Life Institute , http://www.mindandlife.org/, is sponsoring research on what happens in the brains of both novice and expert meditators, and the Dalai Lama is personally very involved.

    Chris: I agree, our creativity and passion can be great legs for our journey. Thanks for the feedback, too.

  7. andrey said

    The images that came back to me were from the moments when I actually stopped for a moment and told myself to enjoy it.

    Lesson learned: make “enjoying the moment” a habit, or at least a regular practice! – you will thank yourself later (many times).

  8. Alvaro said

    Andrey, thanks for sharing that reflection. It helps us stop for a moment too, and enjoy.

  9. […] Go to the Smart Brains blog. […]

  10. […] Go to the Smart Brains blog. […]

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