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“When Children Feel Safe, Seen, and Soothed (Most of the Time), They Develop Security.” Interview: D

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute. Dan is also a New York Times bestselling author, neuropsychiatrist, and interpersonal neurobiologist. Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is a psychotherapist and the Founder/Executive Director of The Center for Connection, a multidisciplinary clinical practice, and of The Play Strong Institute, a center devoted to the study, research, and practice of play therapy through a neurodevelopment lens. She is a New York Times bestselling author whose books have been translated into over forty languages.

Their new book is The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired.

Their new book is The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired.

I couldn't wait to talk to Dan and Tina about happiness, habits, and relationships.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Dan: As daily as I can, missing some days but making most, I do a simple practice called the Wheel of Awareness. For me, this way of differentiating elements of consciousness from one another and then linking them has been a powerful way of feeling lighter in the face of all the heaviness in the world, and generating not only energy and clarity, but also a feeling of wholeness and joy. I’ve offered this now to nearly 47,000 people in person in workshops around the world, and the response when people take on the Wheel as a regular practice is similar.

One thing that is interesting is that the three “pillars” of mind training that research show make our health better (decreasing inflammation, improving immune function, enhancing the ways our heart communicates with our head, reducing inflammation, and even repairing the ends of our chromosomes—our telomeres—each contribute to not only our health, but slows the aging process!) as well as leading to the growth of integration in the brain—the best predictor in terms of neural function and structure of our well-being.

Tina: I spend at least one day a week, most weeks, with my best friend. Until we pick our kids up from school, we usually exercise and eat lunch together, and then, we play and are productive, but whatever we need to do, we’re doing it together. We often run errands, grocery shop, hit the post office, cook, shop, or help each other with projects. And sometimes we go to Costco (because we each have three teenage boys, but no one should ever go alone there—I definitely require a therapeutic companion to walk in the doors!), or we do “mean purge” where we go to each other’s houses and help each other go through a closet. We call it mean purge because we are brutally honest with each other and say things like “Just no. You should never wear that again.” We laugh and laugh and laugh and talk and listen, and I look forward to it every week, definitely making me happier and healthier.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Dan: Happiness is a skill you can develop, not just a function of your temperament or circumstance.

Tina: I’ve never thought about that question! For me, happiness and negative emotions are often not mutually exclusive. If I’m feeling sad, or worried, or anxious, I often also can feel happy.

Happiness and gratitude are so intimately intertwined for me that those two emotions are hard to separate in my emotion or physiology. When I’m happiest, I’m present to the gratitude I feel, and when I feel grateful, I am happy. And because this is the case, even when I’m going through something unpleasant or even devastating, and all that is between, if I can notice what I feel I grateful for, I can still feel a contented happiness. I grew up with parents who cultivated gratitude, and they explicitly appreciated moments all the time, and it’s very much a part of who I am.

My college son, who is several states away, became ill last spring and didn’t seem to be getting better, so I flew to lay eyes on him and help him recover. He was so ill that he was hospitalized and his life was in danger. I was there, bedside for days, by myself (and just in touch with my husband and mom via phone), worried about him. Very worried. And exhausted. AND I was so grateful that he called me, that I was there with him, that I trusted my instinct to go to him, that there was available healthcare. So even while I was sad, and worried, and in moments angry at some of the medical professionals, I could still feel grateful, so I could still access happiness with all the other feelings.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

Dan: Many things. The “mind” as a term, for one. Our fields that deal with it—psychiatry, psychology, philosophy of mind, education—don’t have a definition of what it “is.” Many descriptions exist, but no definitions. How surprising! This finding has then lead to an effort to offer a working definition, one that then gives rise to a way of building a framework based on all the fields of science, from math and physics, to psychology and anthropology, that we call “interpersonal neurobiology.” There is an “inter” aspect to our mind, and an inner, personal aspect to it, too. That view, of an inner and inter, has been a powerful perspective to take to the many fields that deal with happiness and health, for example, like parenting, education, mental health, organizational functioning, and even climate challenges. It’s been, and continues to be, an intriguing journey.

Once we can wrestle with a working definition of the mind, we can then make a working proposal of what a healthy mind is, and how we can cultivate one. These are the ideas that are embedded in the professional, public, and parenting books I write.

Tina: I am intrigued by the continual emerging science that explores the brain and nervous system, and how they change from the experiences we have. Specifically, what I find most intriguing is that as complex as the brain and human development are, there is a fairly simple finding from decades of many studies that relational experiences have a significant impact on how we develop and who we are. The science indicates that one of the best predictors for how well our children turn out is that they have secure attachment to at least one person.

Dan Siegel and I, in our book The Power of Showing Up, describe secure attachment with “The Four S’s”. When children feel safe, seen (being known and understood), and soothed (being helped to feel calm and good again) most of the time (not perfectly), they develop security (where their brain wires to expect that people will see their needs and show up for them). This can guide us as parents—parenting isn’t easy, but showing up and being present is something we can all try to do. This is also applicable in all of our relationships—when we don’t know what to do or how to respond, we can turn to the 4 S’s to instruct us—we show up, and when we are having a hard time, we can seek out people who will help us feel the 4 S’s.

As mammals, we’re driven to get close to someone else to help us survive. It’s hard to do sometimes, but I love the simplicity and clarity of it.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Dan: Yes—when I turned 40 over two decades ago, I realized that though I was trim, I wasn’t fit at all. I was lost in my head and lost in my relationships with my patients in therapy and at home with my kids and my wife and my friends and my dogs. I love walking around, but I didn’t know that my body needed to be pushing its aerobic meter a lot harder, and to use weights to combat loss of muscle mass and bone density. So, since then, I’ve been an avid exerciser. I love to exercise, actually. I don’t know if its all the physiological change that happens, endorphins and other substances that are deeply rewarding, or if it’s the time I have to just be with the exercise. It feels great to have a regular (five day a week) exercise routine that includes the gym, the pool, bike riding, and hiking. It’s also a time to listen to books or papers I need to read—so it’s a win-win-win situation. In fact, that’s where I’m headed after I