Mindful Eating for the Holidays

Savor your favorite dishes without food coma


by: Due Quach

The phrase “feast or famine” describes how I used to relate to food. As a kid, on the special occasions I was treated to my favorite dishes, I would compulsively eat it like it was my last meal on earth. If no one was watching me, I would eat the entire family sized amount all by myself. I would eat until I was so full, I couldn’t move and felt like I could die from bursting.

My entire life, I have had an irrational fear of running out of food. In hindsight, I suspect this fear and these compulsive eating tendencies could be linked to my family escaping from Vietnam when I was about six months old. I starved for several days when our boat ran out of food and experienced a long period of malnutrition during the one and a half years we lived in refugee camps in Indonesia before we were resettled in the United States.  

As I grew older, I developed more self-control and realized my favorite foods were not disappearing. Being surrounded by an abundance of food meant that I did not have to gorge on them like there was no tomorrow. Furthermore, getting sick from overeating enough times forced me to learn the capacity of my stomach.  

However, all these lessons flew out the window during the holidays. Something about the combination of holiday music and decorations, cold weather and snow, the rareness of gathering so many loved ones together, the specialness of holiday foods, having over-indulgence be socially sanctioned, and not wanting to waste any food would lead me to eat double, triple, or quadruple my normal meal size.   

Learning mindfulness changed everything by helping me understand the difference between eating mindlessly and eating mindfully. See table below.


The key to mindful eating is to be able to observe when my mindless eating habits start to kick in and then consciously choose to come back to the mindful eating practice. If while eating, I start to multi-task–meaning watching TV, doing work, or thinking about something else–my autopilot will naturally take over the process of eating, activating hardwired eating habits so my mind can do something else. The only way to not eat on autopilot is to actually pay attention and be present for every step of the eating process.

Mindful eating helps us develop our capacity for interoception, which can be broadly defined as the ability to sense signals originating within the body and also interpret them. Basically, interoception enables us to answer the question “How do I feel?” The interoceptive system is made of special nerve receptors that enable us to sense and assess our physiological condition by tuning in to internal vital signs, such as respiration, heart rate, hunger, thirst, and the need to use the bathroom, as well as our energy levels and emotional state.

Interoception activates the vagus nerve, which serves as the superhighway by which internal organs send signals to the brain. The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs our “rest-and-digest” functions. Interestingly, the fight-or-flight response deactivates the vagus nerve (and the parasympathetic nervous system); conversely, activating the vagus nerve helps the body shift from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest mode. So tuning in while we eat can increase the activity of the vagus nerve and enable the digestive system to function more optimally.


Instructions for mindful eating

When you begin, it helps to eat slowly so you can feel all the micro movements and sensations involved in each step of eating.

  • Engage your senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound:
    • Notice what your food looks like with your eyes.
    • Notice how it smells with your nose.
    • Depending on what you are eating, if it makes sense, touch the food and notice its texture in your hands.
    • Notice the initial flavor and the sound as you bite into it.
    • Notice its texture in your mouth and how the texture changes as you chew.
    • Notice how different flavors get released as you chew.
  • Observe each step of the process. Notice what muscle movements are required for eating:
    • How do your hands bring food to your mouth?
    • How do your body and head move as you eat?
    • How does your jaw work to bite and chew this particular food? How does the way you bite and chew vary with different types of food?
    • How does your tongue work to taste food and move it around in your mouth?
    • When do you swallow?
    • How do the muscles of your throat contract to swallow the food?
  • Give yourself plenty of time to savor every bite. Wait until you finish each mouthful before reaching for the next portion.
  • With each bite, send gratitude to all the people who were involved in some way in preparing the food you are eating.
  • Tune in to sense and feel what it is like to be in your body. Pay attention to all the flavors that are released and all the sensations in your body as you eat (and drink).
    • Can you feel yourself becoming full?
    • Does your body tell you when you’ve had enough sugar, starch, fat, or salt?
    • What emotions do you feel?

You may find as you settle into the practice that your mind will have the tendency to wander off and automatic mindless eating habits may kick in. This is normal and part of the process, especially in the beginning. Simply notice this tendency and gently return to bringing mindful awareness to the experience of eating.

Mindful eating is like re-learning how to eat by appreciating your food and tuning in to your body. It can take time because you are slowing down each step of the process to pay full attention to it. But as you get used to appreciating each bite and tuning in to the signals from your body, you can start to eat mindfully at a more “normal” pace. Over time, mindful eating becomes intuitive. It becomes your natural way to eat.

I hope this article helps you mindfully enjoy your meals this holiday season!

Happy Holidays!  

Why I’m Grateful for Gratitude

Reasons to harness the benefits of gratitude 365 days a year

By Due Quach, November 22, 2017


When we spend most of our lives rushing from here to there maximizing productivity, we end up living in autopilot mode. In this state, it is so easy to take the people and positive things in our lives for granted.

As we run around taking care of tasks and goals that we can then cross out on our checklists, we experience a type of tunnel-vision in which we literally don’t notice the beauty and wonder of the world around us or fully appreciate the many services that others do that benefit us.

Fortunately, human beings have an easy built-in mechanism to come out of autopilot mode: GRATITUDE.

In the Calm Clarity Program, we explain that our emotional states correspond to three archetypal patterns of brain activation which we call Brain 1.0, Brain 2.0, and Brain 3.0. Whichever pattern we are experiencing effects how we think, feel, and make decisions.
Brain States

Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 are so strongly interconnected that they often function like two sides of one coin. For instance, when we don’t/can’t get the reward we want, we often feel threatened and spiral into Brain 1.0. It is common for people in Brain 1.0 to try to escape negative emotions by indulging in Brain 2.0 impulses for immediate gratification (stress eating, retail therapy, drinking, etc).

Like most things in nature, the human brain evolved to be as energy efficient as possible, and will thus delegate most of our functions to autopilot mode. The basal ganglia is the structure of the brain that stores our habits and routines that we can do on autopilot without any conscious effort, and it also happens to be the key structure of Brain 2.0.

What this means is that it’s much more energy efficient for us to spend our lives in Brain 1.0/Brain 2.0 and it takes conscious effort to intentionally shift into Brain 3.0. This is where gratitude makes an impact.

Gratitude is powerful because it is one of the easiest ways to activate Brain 3.0. Simply taking a moment to feel genuine gratitude and appreciation enables us to come out of mindless autopilot mode. Furthermore, genuine gratitude triggers biochemical cascades that calm the stress response, enhance heart health, and boost your immune system.

The physiological benefits of gratitude are most likely linked to its impact on the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is widely known as the cuddle hormone because it is released by gestures of affection such as hugs and holding hands, in particular when mothers bond with children.

The release of oxytocin promotes bonding, trust, and nurturing behavior and also serves to buffer the stress response by decreasing the release of stress hormones like cortisol and contributes to resilience by enhancing heart health, promoting the regeneration of heart tissue, dilating blood vessels, and reducing blood pressure.


A 2014 study led by Sara Algoe and Baldwin May at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that couples expressing gratitude to each other showed elevated levels of oxytocin. The increase in oxytocin corresponded with the participants reporting that they felt more loving and peaceful, and that they perceived their partner as being more understanding, validating, caring, and generally more responsive. [1, 2]

According to UC Davis Health, “Gratitude is associated with higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL), lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), and lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, both at rest and in the face of stress. It also has been linked with higher levels of heart rate variability, a marker of cardiac coherence, or a state of harmony in the nervous system and heart rate that is equated with less stress and mental clarity.” [3]

I believe the power of gratitude to bring us all into Brain 3.0 may explain why Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday of the year in America. The collective act of giving thanks with our loved ones enables us to see the bigger picture and appreciate what really matters in our lives. Yet why do this only once a year?

Let’s incorporate the benefits of giving thanks into every day of our lives to shift into Brain 3.0, feel more calm and centered, and be our best selves.



  1. Lauren Klein, “All You Need is Love, Gratitude, and Oxytocin,” Greater Good Magazine, February 11, 2014,
  2. Sara B. Algoe, Baldwin M. Way; Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 9, Issue 12, 1 December 2014, Pages 1855–1861,
  3. “Gratitude is good medicine,” UC Davis Health,


To learn more:

The Calm Clarity book will be released by Tarcher Perigee Penguin Random House in May 15, 2018.


Pre-orders available through:


About the Author:

Due Quach (pronounced “Zway Kwok”) is the founder and CEO of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people master their mind and be their best self. A refugee from Vietnam and a graduate of Harvard College and the Wharton MBA program, Quach overcame the long-term effects of poverty and trauma by turning to neuroscience and meditation. After building a successful international business career in management consulting and private equity investments, Quach created the Calm Clarity Program to make mindful leadership accessible to people of all backgrounds. She now leads Calm Clarity workshops in inner-city high schools, university lecture halls, and corporate executive board rooms alike. Due is also the founding chair and executive director of the Collective Success Network, a nonprofit that supports low-income, first-generation college students in achieving their academic, personal, and professional aspirations. The Collective Success Network collaborates with the wider business community to create innovative approaches to foster socioeconomic diversity and inclusion. After living and traveling all around the world, Quach is once again a proud resident of Philadelphia, her hometown.


Mindfulness Explained by a Mind-hacker

An explanation grounded in neuroscience and direct experience

By Due Quach, Founder of Calm Clarity
Featured Image: “Self Reflected in Violets” courtesy of artist Greg Dunn


The fact that my first taste of mindfulness meditation in college was a complete disaster helped spur me years later to take up the challenge of developing a mindful leadership training that uses neuroscience to make meditation practices more understandable and concrete. My own initial confusion makes it deliciously gratifying when my clients share that Calm Clarity was the first program that enabled them to really understand what mindfulness and meditation involve.

In 2000, during my senior year of college at Harvard, I took a documentary film-making course and for our final project, we had to make a biography. My partner and I chose as our subject the most interesting person we could find: Aba-la, a Radcliffe scholar who defied categories. She was a Jamaican-American civil rights activist who had since become a Tibetan Buddhist nun. As part of the project, we accompanied her to the Shambhala Center in Boston to film her activities there.

At the center, she asked us to give her some peace and quiet so she could meditate and to our surprise, she challenged us to sit quietly alongside her. I completely failed. The issue wasn’t that my mind was restless — I was used to my racing mind. The problem was that my body couldn’t sit still. In a few minutes, my legs fell asleep and I spent the rest of the meditation miserable and trying hard not to distract the rest of the group with my fidgeting. I quickly concluded that whatever we just did wasn’t right for me. I wouldn’t bother trying meditation again for another decade.

Then around 2010, after reading about brain imaging studies that showed that meditation and mindfulness practices enhanced brain functioning, I became intrigued. As a brain geek, the neuroscience was too compelling not to explore further. In 2012, after being frustrated with unsatisfactory attempts to learn meditation from watching videos online and from teachers who couldn’t explain it in a logical and concrete way, I bought a one-way ticket to Dharamsala, India to get a more direct experience by doing several meditation retreats there. If I still couldn’t make sense of meditation after that immersion, I would simply give up and move on.

Tushita Class Group.jpg
Due (first row, second from left) with her retreat group at Tushita Meditation Center, April 2012


To my surprise, what I experienced in those retreats enabled me to take mind-hacking to a whole new level. It was astonishing the degree to which my interior world transformed because these retreats enabled my brain to re-wire and break habitual neural pathways at an accelerated rate. I got so fascinated, I kept going deeper and deeper. By the end of 2013, I had developed a prototype for a new science-based approach to teaching and explaining meditation, which I named the Calm Clarity Program.

To provide some context, mindfulness is the English translation of a Buddhist concept called “Samma Sati” in Pali, the original language believed to have been spoken in the region where the Buddha lived in northeast India 2,500 years ago. In the 1970s, when the founders of the Insight Meditation Society adapted meditation teachings for an American audience, they placed a strong emphasis on the concept of mindfulness as “an innate human capacity to deliberately pay full attention to where we are, to our actual experience, and to learn from it” (Jack Kornfield). Then later when Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for secular, clinical, and academic settings, he defined mindfulness as “ moment-to-moment awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”

The conventional way of teaching mindfulness involves instructing people to sit quietly, usually crossed-legged on the floor, and focus their attention entirely on their breathing. Inevitably, the mind will wander, so in this type of meditation, practitioners have to vigilantly keep guiding their attention back to the breath. It’s hard for beginners not to feel like a failure because they find no matter how hard they try to focus on the breath, the mind jumps all over the place. This is what is called the “monkey mind.”

As a brain geek, I found it interesting that the standard instructions don’t explain that the mind is supposed to wander. In fact, researchers have found that the typical mind wanders within 12 seconds and hypothesize that mind wandering evolved as a way to give our executive functioning neural pathways a break to refuel and to allow creative insights to emerge to the surface of consciousness.

Oftentimes, the instruction to pay attention to the breath in a way that is not grounded in neuroscience tends to give people a misguided notion that mind wandering is a problem, so they start wrestling with their wandering minds. This struggle then becomes a distraction that may prevent a person from experiencing the essence of Samma Sati, which can be more accurately translated as “higher consciousness / remembering.”

As a mind-hacker, I intuitively realized that the aim of Samma Sati could not be to fight against how our brains are evolved to function. For me, Samma Sati involves becoming familiar with how the mind wanders and accepting that we don’t actually control what unfolds inside our minds. Thoughts are really nothing but neural circuits firing. The monkey mind is essentially a chain reaction of neural circuits firing in response to thoughts already in our mind and sensory stimuli triggering associated neural circuits to fire.

The mind has a tendency to weave stories out of whatever neural circuits get activated, which in turn, continuously fuels a tornado of mental activity into which we get lost inside our heads. Often, the voice inside our head projects a fantastic narrative that is far removed from what is actually unfolding right in front of us in the present moment. By getting swept away in our internal ramblings, we become ungrounded from our bodies and spin out into the past or the future. Because of these mechanisms, we spend much of our lives lacking presence.

In the Mahasatipaṭṭhāna-sutta (which means The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness), the Buddha explains Samma Sati (which is the 7th component of the Eight-Fold Noble Path). To give a quick synopsis, he is essentially teaching people how to develop the ability to unpack perception, so we can attend to the raw sensations that come in through our sense organs and distinguish these sensations from our mind’s reaction to and interpretation of them.

For me, Samma Sati involves two key components: metacognition and interoception. The word metacognition etymologically means the ability to think about thinking. It involves awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes and the ability to steer and regulate one’s thinking. Interoception refers to our ability to tune into what it feels like to be inside our bodies. The interoceptive system is made of special nerve receptors which enable us to sense our physiological condition and vital signs, such as respiration, heart rate, hunger, thirst, the need to use the bathroom, as well as our energy levels and emotional state.

Practices to cultivate Samma Sati essentially develop metacognition and/or interoception. In these practices we learn to feel the raw sensations that come into our sensory nervous system, notice what they trigger in terms of emotions, feelings, memories, ideas, concepts, and other sensations, and notice what stories arise in our minds in response to the sensations and what gets stirred up within us. Eventually, by being able to observe how perception unfolds and see that sensations, thoughts, and feelings continuously arise and pass away, we lose our attachment or aversion to these phenomena. We eventually gain equanimity and inner freedom by developing detachment from the stories woven by the voice inside our heads. As the tornado of activity inside the mind calms because we stop fueling it, this allows us to be in tune with the present moment and experience a higher consciousness.

With metacognition, I’m able to recognize sensations as sensations, feelings as feelings, thoughts as thoughts, stories as stories, and as a result, I’m no longer lost in a whirlwind of mental activity. Tuning into my interoceptive system naturally grounds me in my own body into the present moment. Together, metacognition and interoception enable me to create space for calmness and clarity to emerge. For me, the experience of Samma Sati is like having the mind become a white canvas on which the brush strokes of my inner wisdom can clearly be perceived and appreciated.

In designing the Calm Clarity Mindful Leadership Program, I intentionally “hacked” traditional mindfulness practices to give people a taste of Samma Sati. After I guide people to directly experience what that inner freedom feels like and how it enables them to respond more effectively to what’s in front of them, they are naturally inspired to continue the practices on their own. When people experience what’s it like to connect to their inner wisdom / higher self, they naturally want to maintain that connection.

It would be wonderful if we all could simply read about Samma Sati and understand it. But unfortunately, Samma Sati is not something that can be learned from reading other people’s accounts. It can only be genuinely understood from direct experience. If you are intrigued by what I have shared, I welcome you to experience Samma Sati for yourself at a Calm Clarity Weekend Retreat.

What is Brain 3.0 and why do we need more of it?

Have you ever wondered why how you think, feel and act can change dramatically from day to day or even moment to moment? 

Psychology Puzzle HeadOn some days, you are in your best form and can rise to any challenge with grace. On other days, the most minor irritation upsets you or you have no self-control no matter how hard you try to control your urges. The answer is literally in our brains. Findings from neuroscience reveal that our state of mind depends on what neural networks are firing in our brains, that our neural wiring can either help us or cause us to get in our own way, and that by changing our neural wiring, we can gradually gain mastery over our mind. This paper explains how our emotional states impact brain functioning and how proactively shifting our emotional state enables us to experience a higher level of awareness and consciousness in our daily lives and interactions.

The three emotional states of the brain

The Calm Clarity Framework: Brain 1.0, 2.0, 3.0

Several years ago as a brain geek turned social entrepreneur, I created the Calm Clarity Program to help teenagers from economically disadvantaged communities understand how the brain works and direct the development of their brains to become more resilient to stress and trauma. To do this, I developed a simple, intuitive framework by connecting our emotional states to three distinct overarching patterns of brain activation, which I call Brain 1.0, Brain 2.0 and Brain 3.0, and showing how our brain functioning in each of these states affects the way we think, feel, behave, and interact with people.[1]

This framework for the three emotional states of the brain was partly based on the triune brain model developed by a neuroscientist named Paul MacLean in the 1950s.[2] His theory proposed that the human brain evolved over time in three main layers, such that the structures in each layer enabled new adaptive functions and behaviors. The Calm Clarity framework also integrates more recent insights from brain imaging studies which reveal that emotions correspond to distinct patterns of brain activation and that as human beings shift between emotional states, certain neural circuits are strongly activated or deactivated. For example, activating Brain 1.0 or Brain 2.0 can turn “off” our physiological capacity for empathy because the neural mechanisms for empathy are intertwined with Brain 3.0 (more details on this topic later).

Brain 1.0: “Our Inner Godzilla”

I call the first emotional state Brain 1.0 because the underlying structures are fully formed when we are born. These structures correspond to the self-preservation system that keeps us alive, helps us scan for threats, avoid danger and protect ourselves. When Brain 1.0 is activated, we tend to feel afraid, threatened, defensive, or angry. We become hypervigilant, sometimes even paranoid, about all the things that can go wrong. This is a state of high stress which is often referred to as “fight-or-flight.”[3]

I informally call the persona of Brain 1.0 “the Inner Godzilla” because when Brain 1.0 hijacks our minds, we often feel an urge to smash things or completely withdraw. We’re easily irritated and are likely to take our frustrations out on others. In Brain 1.0, we are consumed with saving ourselves, so Brain 3.0 (which contains our neural mechanisms for pro-social behavior) gets turned “off.”

Brain 2.0: “Our Inner Teen Wolf”

I call the next emotional state Brain 2.0 because the underlying structures mature during adolescence. These structures correspond to the dopamine system (also called the reward system) which motivates us to expend lots of energy to chase after rewards we associate with happiness, success or social status. To reinforce behaviors that promote our own growth and the survival of our species, evolution wired us to get a surge of euphoria-inducing dopamine when we engage in reward-seeking activities; else, we would have no inclination to take on challenges that involve high risks.[4]

The dopamine system is extremely sensitive to conditioning by our culture, by our environment, and by our experiences, such that the things we find pleasurable or that we associate with success and status differ by culture and community. While the dopamine system is commonly associated with pleasure, dopamine also generates high levels of anxiety to spur us to take action in order to alleviate our anxious feelings. An over-activated Brain 2.0 often manifests as addiction, obsessive-compulsiveness, impulsiveness, and reckless thrill-seeking and risk-taking.

When Brain 2.0 is triggered by a reward/carrot, we tend to feel a sense of anticipation, craving, emptiness or incompleteness, restlessness, like the grass is greener on the other side. Then if and when we get the reward we’ve been chasing, we feel high, like we are on top of the world. The problem is that the high doesn’t last and then we have to chase and win another reward to feel it again. In Brain 2.0, we can get so consumed by chasing the object of our desire, we get locked into tunnel vision: we want it at any cost, as soon as possible, and feel like life would be utterly miserable if we don’t get it.

I informally call the persona of Brain 2.0 “the Inner Teen Wolf” because when Brain 2.0 hijacks our minds, we feel a strong primal urge to become more dominant in status and power, win every competition, and have all our cravings and desires immediately satisfied. For the Inner Teen Wolf, the means justifies the ends. In this state, we tend to be selfish, competitive, domineering, manipulative, and less ethical. The way the brain is wired, when we are consumed with obtaining the reward/goal/carrot, neural mechanisms for pro-social behavior and morality (which lie in Brain 3.0) can also get turned “off.”

How our Inner Godzilla and Inner Teen Wolf feed each other

In many ways, Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 are intertwined because they are near each other in the brain.[5] When we are in Brain 1.0, we are more likely to seek immediate relief or escape by satisfying our impulses. When we are in Brain 2.0, we can get so worried and anxious about not getting what we want that we get highly stressed and go inter Inner Godzilla mode. While both Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 serve an important role in our survival and the fulfillment of essential needs, when they become over-activated, we may feel like we’re stuck on a roller coaster ride driven by our inner demons (the Inner Godzilla and Inner Teen Wolf).

Brain 3.0: “Our Inner Sage”

I call the third emotional state Brain 3.0 because the corresponding structures, the frontal lobes, are the last parts of the brain to mature―in fact, they fully develop in our mid-twenties. The frontal lobes house our capacity for executive functioning, planning, aspiration, imagination, altruism, compassion, self-regulation, as well as empathy. Brain 3.0 contains the neural pathways that enable us to rein in our animal instincts, connect with a purpose greater than ourselves, and make sacrifices for the greater good. Most important, these are the neural pathways that enable us to calm down Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 when they get triggered so that we can then harness the energies they unleash into a more effective response guided by Brain 3.0.

Being in Brain 3.0 is associated with stronger brain integration, meaning the pathways connecting the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain are activated and functioning optimally.[6] In Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 these pathways tend to get deactivated or impaired, so people have less executive functioning in these states. The integration experienced in Brain 3.0 gives us a strong even-keeled disposition that enables us to calm and rein in Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 if and when they get triggered.

I informally call the persona of Brain 3.0 “the Inner Sage” because in Brain 3.0, we naturally act like our best selves and are more tuned into our inner wisdom. When Brain 3.0 is activated, we feel a sense of centeredness and deep meaningful happiness that the Greeks called “eudaimonia” (which means good spirits). Eudaimonia is a type of expansive feeling that often brings a sense of elevation, purpose, clarity and inspiration. Activating Brain 3.0 is linked to self-mastery and self-actualization and thus living in this mode helps free us from the roller coaster ride of living in Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0. Further, in Brain 3.0, we can see a bigger picture perspective; whereas in Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0, we get locked into tunnel vision and therefore miss opportunities. The way the brain is wired, we have to be in Brain 3.0 to have full access to the higher level processing capacities of our frontal lobes. Therefore, to perform at our peak, it’s optimal to be in Brain 3.0.

Linking the brain states to stress, well-being, and connectedness

The Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic Stress “Fight-or-Flight” vs. Parasympathetic Homeostasis “Rest-and-Digest”

Homeostasis is the catchall scientific term for the internal self-regulating feedback loop processes by which our body keeps our organs functioning optimally. Homeostasis is regulated by the autonomic nervous system which governs the life supporting mechanisms that happen without our direct conscious control such as respiration, heartbeat, digestion, hormones, and sleep. The autonomic nervous system has two main arms: the sympathetic nervous system or SNS (stress: fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system or PSNS (homeostasis: rest-and-digest).

Chronic stress, which means experiencing elevated stress levels for long periods of time, tends to pull the body out of homeostasis, such that it becomes more vulnerable to disease because the body wasn’t designed to handle high states of stress for more than short bursts. Chronic stress wreaks havoc on our cardiovascular system because it increases blood pressure and puts our immune system on extended red alert, which leads to high inflammation. In order to return to homeostasis, the body needs to spend the majority of time in parasympathetic mode to rebuild and regenerate. When the SNS is strongly aroused, it turns on the “fight-or-flight” cascade which “turns off” the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Thus, the PSNS is not able to fully do its job of maintaining homeostasis when we are in fight-or-flight mode.[7]

Unfortunately, the fight-or-flight cascade also reduces blood flow to the frontal lobes (which house Brain 3.0), thus impairing our mental processing capacity and our ability to regulate our impulses. When we can’t think straight, we tend to react to stressors in ways that create even more stress in our lives by impulsively doing and saying things we later regret.

To tie this back to our framework: being in Brain 1.0 revs up the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and floods our bodies with stress hormones. Being in Brain 2.0 (and feeling anxiety about not getting the outcome we want) also revs up the SNS and puts us into a state of high stress. High stress turns “off” the PSNS and Brain 3.0. Therefore, given the way the autonomic system is wired, the PSNS functions best when we are in Brain 3.0. Turning Brain 3.0 “on” in a challenging situation enables us to modulate the stress cascade as well as harness the energies unleashed by stress into constructive efforts that can make a positive impact on the situation.

The Vagus Nerve is Key to Homeostasis and Healthy Relationships

It is important to note that the vagus nerve — a major part of the PSNS which connects and sends messages between our brain and vital internal organs, such as our heart, lungs, stomach, pancreas, and intestines — gets deactivated and goes “offline” when we are in fight-or-flight mode. The vagus nerve also plays a key role in relationships because it enables us to tune into friendly non-verbal communication like tone of voice, smiling, and heartfelt gestures.[8] In Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0, we have less empathy and exhibit less pro-social behavior because the vagus nerve is deactivated by the stress cascade. In turn, we are also more likely to feel disconnected and isolated.

Interestingly, the mechanisms for Brain 3.0, pro-social behavior, and our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) appear to be interwoven. Activities that stimulate the vagus nerve also turn “on” the PSNS and release oxytocin, a chemical known as the “cuddle hormone” because it promotes bonding, empathy, and prosocial behavior. Oxytocin helps us recover from stress by regulating levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, and restoring blood flow to the structures of Brain 3.0. This explains why activities that increase oxytocin, such as connecting with loved ones and getting a hug with genuine warmth are very effective at relieving stress.[9] Conversely, being in Brain 3.0 also seems to stimulate the vagus nerve and the PSNS, thus enabling us to be less ruffled by and more resilient to stressors. Furthermore, being Brain 3.0 is more conducive to building strong emotional bonds and connections which elevate levels of oxytocin. These intertwining mechanisms mean that activating Brain 3.0 creates a positive spiral for enhancing resilience, wellbeing, and social connection. Thanks in part to the contagious nature of these mechanisms, our natural ability to calm, comfort, uplift and inspire others is also maximized when we are in Brain 3.0.

Modern Life Challenge: Chronic Stress

In the modern age, we are less exposed to the physical dangers that beset our ancestors, but the human body reacts to psychological and financial stressors using the same fight-or-flight cascade for physical threats. This means that our bodies can react to uncertainty, change, information or sensory overload, social tension, taxes and bills the same way we react to encountering a bear or tiger. Being continuously exposed to stimuli through technology and media (both traditional and social) can keep people in a chronic state of worry and high alert. Living in chronic stress activates and strengthens Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0, making us even more vulnerable to being hijacked by the Inner Godzilla and the Inner Teen Wolf.

In this age of increasing speed, change, and uncertainty, so many people are burning out because they spend so much time in Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 and not enough time in Brain 3.0. Unfortunately, this can lock us into a negative spiral because we need to regularly use and exercise Brain 3.0 to make it strong enough to have the ability to calm and direct Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0. Else with an undeveloped or weakened Brain 3.0, our Inner Godzilla and Inner Teen Wolf have more power to wreak havoc in our lives.

Mastering the Mind: Shifting into Brain 3.0

The emotional states of the brain provide a new way of understanding Albert Einstein’s comment, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” When we operate mainly out of Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0, our brain functioning is handicapped. We tend to get stuck in short-term tunnel vision regarding matters of self-preservation and self-interest that render us more likely to exacerbate or perpetuate challenges rather than solve them.

For human beings to access our capacity for higher level processing, big picture thinking, and deep listening, we need to shift into Brain 3.0. Furthermore, being in Brain 3.0 naturally declutters our minds by turning down the volume on the Inner Godzilla and the Inner Teen Wolf. In Brain 3.0, we can attune to and embrace the present moment without having our minds burn valuable energy ruminating on the past or anxiously worrying about imagined catastrophes in the future. To clarify, shifting into Brain 3.0 doesn’t mean Brain 1.0 or Brain 2.0 never get triggered; it means when they are triggered, we can connect to our Inner Sage to listen to the information that Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 communicate and respond effectively and appropriately without over-reacting in Inner Godzilla or Inner Teen Wolf mode. Furthermore, when we are guided by the Inner Sage, we increase the availability of our inner wisdom and are more likely to experience flashes of insight and epiphanies that present us with new approaches to solving difficult challenges.

Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Changes

One thing to keep in mind is that the neurons that make up the brain are continuously reorganizing themselves according to our life experiences, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Two simple maxims that capture this process can be summed up as follows: “neurons that fire together, wire together” and “use it or lose it.” The neural pathways that are used the most become like super highways in the brain and the ones that aren’t used atrophy.[10] Therefore, we can only develop and strengthen Brain 3.0 by being in Brain 3.0 more often through the regular, deliberate, and intentional activation of Brain 3.0.

To Be Our Best Selves: Retrain the Autopilot in Brain 3.0

To minimize energy consumption, the brain tends to function in autopilot mode when we go about our daily routines. In autopilot mode, the neural pathways that are strongest in our brain self-trigger without the need for any conscious prompting. In general, our neural super highways shape how we react to everyday life events and in turn, our reflexive mental and emotional patterns reflect the neural pathways that are most strongly hardwired in our brains.[11] If we do not intentionally and mindfully train these neural highways, the autopilot default is to be in Brain 2.0 and Brain 1.0. Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer’s statement that “Virtually all of our suffering comes from our mindlessness,” is an apt way of conveying why we want to be mindful rather than run around mindlessly on autopilot.

Given that we spend most of our waking life performing daily routines, if we want to be the best version of ourselves, we have to activate and exercise Brain 3.0 on a regular basis by consciously building new mental and emotional habits guided by Brain 3.0. By tying our neural superhighways to Brain 3.0, we can shift from “mindless autopilot” to “conscious autopilot.” This will enable us to live more and more in tune with the Inner Sage and bring our best selves into all the situations life may throw at us.

Exercise Brain 3.0 Using Practices that “Turn On” the PSNS

Building up Brain 3.0 is not as straightforward as building muscles by weight-lifting because it involves fine-tuning our autonomic nervous system, which is a challenge because, by definition, we don’t have direct conscious control over this system. Fortunately, research has shown that ancient contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation kick-start a cascade of biochemical mechanisms to recover from stress, turn “on” the PSNS, and bring us back into Brain 3.0.[12]

Guided by insights from neuroscience and research on traditional meditation practices, I designed a variety of meditations that are easy for beginners to understand and practice yet also effectively activate and enhance various functions of Brain 3.0 in a relatively short amount of time.

For example, one of Calm Clarity’s foundational exercises is a modified version of an ancient meditation technique called compassion meditation. Although this particular meditation practice has only recently started to get attention from scientists, several preliminary studies by different research labs have found that the practice is associated with increased positive emotions, higher empathy, and prosocial behavior (which are linked to Brain 3.0).[13] Furthermore, the long-term practice of compassion meditation is associated with higher gamma synchrony across the many regions of the brain, a property that is believed to be conducive to higher level thinking.[14] (It is hypothesized that gamma synchrony is connected to having eureka moments, creative breakthroughs and innovation, but the science on brain waves, in general, is not yet conclusive.) Based on these and other findings from scientific research, I designed the Calm Clarity Compassion Meditation to activate and boost Brain 3.0 in a relatively short amount of time (10 to 12 minutes) so that it is convenient to practice and easily incorporated into a daily routine.

The Calm Clarity approach to strengthening Brain 3.0

The Calm Clarity Mindful Leadership Program was designed to offer a compelling and easy-to-grasp approach for understanding how the brain works and strengthening the neural circuits that enable us to master our minds and be our best selves at work and in all areas of our lives. The program uses science to show people how to rev up Brain 3.0 like an engine: stimulate the vagus nerve, boost oxytocin levels, and jumpstart Brain 3.0 so strongly that we become more resilient to triggers that could otherwise pull us into Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0.

Our Mindful Leadership Program is an experiential in-person training composed of four modules:

· Module 1: Boost Brain Functioning. We explain the emotional states of the brain and help you recognize your triggers and understand how you think, feel, and act differently in Brain 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. We also introduce science-based techniques to activate and strengthen Brain 3.0 (which also naturally calms Brain 1.0 and 2.0).

· Module 2: Minding Your Autopilot. We explain how the autopilot helps us to conserve energy by hardwiring habits into our brains. We then explain how mindfulness enables us to observe and retrain the autopilot so we can bring more of our patterns into conscious awareness. We then apply mindfulness to activate Brain 3.0, which enables us to observe and break habits that no longer serve us.

· Module 3: The Voice in Your Head. We explain how our prior conditioning and beliefs shape our stream-of-consciousness inner dialogue I call the “mind-track.” We become aware of how in Brain 1.0 and 2.0, our mind-track often sounds like an “inner critic” that beats down on us and other people. We also notice how when we are in Brain 3.0 the mind-track changes to an “inner coach” that guides us forward. We then apply mindfulness to activate Brain 3.0, which turns up the volume of the “inner coach” and turns down the volume of the “inner critic.”

· Module 4: Deepening Connection. We present research on relationships, communication, and empathy. Then we apply techniques such as mindful listening to intentionally build empathic connections with people and genuinely open our minds and hearts to see and feel another person’s perspective.

As participants go through the training, they experience what it feels like to be in Brain 3.0 and gain a visceral understanding for how they naturally embody their best selves when they are in Brain 3.0. With this new perspective, they are inspired to be the Brain 3.0 version of them as much as possible. They then leave with a sense of empowerment from having a concrete understanding of the science as well as specific tools to further develop and strengthen Brain 3.0. By bringing a higher level of consciousness into their lives at work/school and at home, our alumni create positive ripple effects by using what they learned in our training to help elevate people they interact with into Brain 3.0.

When teams or families go through this training together, it helps them understand each other on a deeper level and break through self-limiting patterns that keep them from being truly collaborative and effective together. It also helps them build a deeper heartfelt connection and support each other to shift more and more into Brain 3.0 over the long-term.

Are you ready to shift into Brain 3.0?

If yes, come experience our Mindful Leadership Program by joining one of our intensive two-day Weekend Retreats in Philadelphia which take place from 10 am to 4:30 pm. Your tickets also enable us to give scholarships to college students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend the retreat alongside you.

We also offer in-house training for organizations looking for world-class science-based leadership development. Please contact us at for more information. By engaging with us, you are also funding Calm Clarity to create social impact by offering pro-bono training to help disadvantaged groups such as low-income first-generation college students and inner city teenagers shift into Brain 3.0.


Copyright © 2017 by Calm Clarity Co. All rights reserved.


[1] Please note: the purpose of this framework is to synthesize complex brain science into a user-friendly tool that young people without a college education can understand and apply to everyday life, so it is intended to be simplistic rather than comprehensive or fool-proof.

[2] MacLean, Paul D. The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. New York: Plenum Press. 1990.

[3] For a detailed understanding “Brain 1.0” and the impact of trauma, I recommend reading Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, And Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014).

[4] For a detailed understanding about “Brain 2.0” and how it develops during adolescence, I recommend reading Dr. Laurence Steinberg‘s Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence (2014).

[5] The structures of Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 are located in an area of the brain called the limbic system (limbus means border or margin) which lies between the neocortex and the brain stem.

[6] For a more detailed understanding of “Brain 3.0,” I recommend Dr. Daniel Siegel’s books which dive into the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, such as Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation(2009) and Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (2017)

[7] For a detailed understanding about the physiological mechanisms of stress, I highly recommend Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcer (1994).

[8] More information on the vagus nerve can be found in this article in Time: “The Biology of Kindness: How It Makes Us Happier and Healthier” by Maia Szalavitz.

[9] For a more detailed understanding of the role of oxytocin in mediating stress, I highly recommend Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (2015).

[10] For a more detailed understanding of neuroplasticity, I highly recommend reading Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (2007).

[11] For a more detailed understanding of the autopilot, I recommend reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012).

[12] See research on mindfulness-based stress reduction and other contemplative practices conducted by the Center for Healthy Minds led by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.

[13] See research led by Dr. Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina and by Dr. Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

[14] Please refer to this article in the Washington Post: “Meditation Gives Brain a Charge, Study Finds” by Marc Kaufman.

About the author:

Due Quach (pronounced “Zway Kwok”) is the founder of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people master their minds and be their best self across the socioeconomic spectrum. A refugee from Vietnam and graduate of Harvard College and the Wharton MBA Program, Due overcame the long-term effects of poverty and trauma by turning to neuroscience and meditation. After building a successful career in management consulting and private equity investments, Due traveled to India to study various contemplative traditions and understand how they align with brain science. She then synthesized what she learned to create the Calm Clarity Program in order to help more people overcome adversity and unlock their potential.

Due has brought the benefits of Calm Clarity to many organizations, including Ernst & Young, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Vanguard, M&T Bank, Devereux, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University. Her inspiring story has been featured in the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Streetwise, and the Seattle Times. Her forthcoming book, “Finding Calm Clarity,” will be published by Tarcher Perigee Penguin Random House.

Resilience: 10 things you can do right now to calm yourself and regain clarity in the midst of chaos

photo-1443948308135-d57fc66de368The results of the US presidential election has set off a mass wave of disappointment, sadness, grief, anger, anxiety, fear and panic. It is clear that people will need time to process these emotions.

As someone who once struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and panic attacks, I would like to share some advice on managing the fight-flight-freeze response to help people avoid spiraling into hopelessness and helplessness.

When people feel threatened, like their life is in danger, a structure in the brain called the amygdala goes on red alert and turns on the stress cascade. This causes high levels of cortisol and adrenaline to get pumped throughout the body, bringing the body into fight-flight mode. In cases where the threat is accompanied by feelings of helplessness, the body may go into a more extreme state of stress called the freeze response. Signs of fight-flight-freeze includes feeling sick in the stomach, tension, insomnia, fear, anxiety, anger, drained of energy, helplessness, and hopelessness. It is important to create a compassionate space inside to acknowledge these feelings and process them, rather than suppress or deny them.

During times of heightened stress, there is also a risk that as we worry, the voice in our head may weave exaggerated stories about how bad the situation can get. These internal narrations often end up amplifying negative emotions and intensifying the fight-flight-freeze response. If we have not yet trained our minds using meditation and mindfulness techniques, we tend to believe everything our internal narrator says. This can get us so completely lost in worst-case scenarios of our imagination, that we plunge deeper and deeper into anxiety, and into a full-blown amygdala hijack. When this happens, blood flow to our pre-frontal cortex is reduced, thus impairing our ability to process information and see a bigger picture. Our perception becomes distorted such that we compulsively hone in on signs of danger and we feel as if we are all alone, surrounded by enemies rather than friends. Worse, we start to create self-fulfilling prophecies. We are then set up internally for a full-on panic attack.

I hope it is self-evident that being in this extreme state of stress for long periods of time is not good for anyone’s health nor is it conducive to finding a way to move forward. The fact that worrying has no benefit in crisis is illustrated by this quote from the Dalai Lama who has dealt with his share of adversity without developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” 
                                                                                                 ~Dalai Lama

When faced with an enduring long-term challenge, we actually need as much of our prefrontal cortex as possible to be “online” so we can learn, process information, listen to ideas, connect with others, and develop an effective solution. We cannot do that if our amygdala is on red alert. So the key to resilience is calming the amygdala and restoring blood flow to our prefrontal cortex.

Here are 10 suggestions for calming the amygdala and restoring your brain:

1. Go for a jog or some form of aerobic exercise so your body consumes the cortisol and adrenaline (please keep the intensity within your normal workout routine, so you don’t over-stress your body).
2. Do yoga or deep breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic nervous system
3. Turn on the tend-and-befriend response: connect with people you love, hug and support each other.
4. Savor and appreciate the good things in your life.
5. Perform an act of kindness to affirm the power you have to make a difference and help others.
6. Do a compassion / loving kindness meditation (you can try Calm Clarity’s version here).
7. Read about inspiring people who overcame adversity.
8. Knowledge is empowering: educate yourself about how the system works and what actions can be taken to advocate for what you believe in.
9. Recommit to your values and role modeling the change you want to see in the world.
10. Practice self-care. Be kind and nurturing to yourself.

The Philadelphia Inquirer shines a spotlight on Calm Clarity

The Philadelphia Inquirer printed this story on the front page of the business section on 11/30/2015. 

Turning her stress into a tool for others


Calm Clarity is a Philadelphia-based “mind hacking” start-up that aims to help everyone from corporate executives to students learn mindfulness, reduce toxic stress, and boost productivity.

Not surprisingly, its founder was born in a war zone.

Due Quach (pronounced “Zway Kwok”) was just a baby when her parents fled Vietnam as boat people in 1979. As refugees, they entered the United States through San Francisco in 1980 and ultimately settled in North Philadelphia.

Then the next battle began. Quach and her parents opened a restaurant in West Oak Lane, and “we traded one war zone for another,” she recalls.

Her father was beaten in the neighborhood, gangs shot at each other in their restaurant, and Quach was so traumatized she didn’t speak until kindergarten.

Luckily, she says, “school became an escape, and before graduating from Central High School, my parents said if I got into the best college, I could leave home.”

She won a place at Harvard, and immediately noticed that her classmates “had come from boarding schools, and had their own privileged hang-ups. I had parents who couldn’t understand what ‘spam’ email was, and I started feeling guilty for not being at home helping them.”

Her senior year, Quach fought panic attacks, couldn’t sleep, and almost didn’t finish Harvard.

“I finally broke down and sought out a psychologist, who explained that trauma and stress impact the brain.”

She stabilized with medication and therapy, then began researching what she calls “mind hacking” techniques. She stopped pulling all-nighters, ate better, quit isolating herself, and graduated. After working in consulting, she earned a Wharton School M.B.A. in 2006, then spent four years working in finance in Asia, even visiting Vietnam.

“I wanted to come back to the U.S. and do something that makes a difference,” she says.

Quach studied Tibetan Buddhist meditation specifically for Western audiences and became a certified yoga instructor. But “I don’t believe in the New Agey dogma; instead I believe in the clear scientific evidence of the benefits of meditation.”

In 2014, she founded Calm Clarity, which integrates neuroscience into mindful leadership training to enhance concentration, creativity, decision-making, and teamwork.

“We show professionals how to optimize their state of mind and address counterproductive habits that contribute to stress, tension, and health issues,” she says.

“I call it trauma-informed resilience training,” using the science of “learned optimism” from psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Martin Seligman at Penn, who is known as the “father of positive psychology.”

Calm Clarity has worked with Cabrini College, Bartram and Masterman High Schools, the Wharton Alumni Club, and other educational institutions to address toxic stress and prevent burnout, which Quach remembers well.

“People report reduced stress, public speaking without panicking, and they love it.”

Gina Scarpello, director of Cabrini Mission Corps, calls the workshops “very practical. People change with these tools.”

A weekend workshop costs $400; educators and students receive reduced rates. Calm Clarity also offers shorter sessions. For information, visit

Doing well by doing good

Quach wants Calm Clarity to grow from a nonprofit to a for-profit in 2016, but in the form known as a “B corporation.”

B corporations have a double bottom line: making money and a social impact. In the meantime, “we are running programs and pilots as a nonprofit project under the fiscal sponsorship of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia,” she explains.

Calm Clarity operates out of CultureTrust’s offices at 1315 Walnut St., along with other start-ups that need back-office support and sponsorship.

B corporations include well-known brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Honest Co., Warby Parker, King Arthur Flour, and Method Products; tech start-ups such as Kickstarter, Etsy, and HootSuite; and sustainable-business icons like Seventh Generation and Patagonia.

The outfit that grants B-corporation certification, both nationally and internationally, is in Wayne. Called B Lab, it was founded by Jay Coen Gilbert, Bart Houlahan, and Andrew Kassoy, who were college friends.

Prior to B Lab, Gilbert and Houlahan sold AND1, a $250 million basketball footwear and apparel business. Kassoy is a private-equity investor, most recently at MSD Real Estate Capital, a $1 billion real estate fund controlled by MSD Capital, the investment vehicle for tech entrepreneur Michael Dell and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

For more information on B corporations, visit B Lab’s website,

215-854-2808 @erinarvedlund

Science shows that kindness is its own reward

Science shows that kindness is its own reward

By Due Quach, Founder of Calm Clarity
September 2, 2015

The City of Philadelphia is declaring Oct 27, 2015 (the 333rd anniversary of the founding of Philadelphia by William Penn) as A Day Of Kindness to honor the visits of Pope Francis on September 26-27 and the Dalai Lama on October 26-27. The 30-day period between these visits will be filled with programs and activities to spread kindness throughout the city. The organizers have asked me to explain the science of kindness. The following is an initial draft. 

Ever wonder if the popular saying, “It is better to give than to receive,” is actually true? Recent studies across many fields show that the answer is yes.

1. Givers are star performers

The impact of altruism on career achievement has been the focus of research by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, who observed that most people at work operate as takers, matchers, or givers. “Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.”  Grant’s research revealed that many of the most successful people across many industries are givers. By probing deeper, Grant found that givers who have learned how to protect themselves from being exploited tend to accumulate an enormous amount of social capital over the long-term and even inspire the many people they help to pay it forward and give.  Matchers, who make up the vast majority of people, have a natural tendency to reward givers with new opportunities and punish takers.  In the book “Give and Take,” Grant builds a strong case that giving is actually a solid strategy for success.

In a separate study, Donald Moynihan at University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrated a positive relationship between altruism in the workplace and happiness by following up with participants in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study of more than 10,000 Wisconsin high school graduates in 1957. He found that individuals in their mid-30s who rated helping others in their work as important said they were happier with their life when surveyed again almost 30 years later. The data showed that altruists in the workplace are happier than their fellow employees. Moynihan shared: “Our findings make a simple but profound point about altruism: helping others makes us happier. Altruism is not a form of martyrdom, but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system.”

2. Doing good is good for your health

Over the last several decades an explosion of research on the science of well-being has shown that altruism actually benefits the giver.  Stephen Post, a professor at Stony Brook University, who summarized this body of research in 2005, concluded that “altruistic (other-regarding) emotions and behaviors are associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity.”

Post cited a longitudinal research study led by Stephanie L. Brown at the University of Michigan titled, “Providing Social Support May Be More Beneficial Than Receiving It.” The study examined the relative contributions of giving versus receiving support to longevity in a sample of 423 older married adults over a period of 5 years. Post explains, “Each couple was asked what type of practical support they provided for friends or relatives, if they could count on help from others when needed, and what type of emotional support they gave each other.” The analysis showed that the risk of mortality for people who provided no instrumental or emotional support to others was twice as high as for people who helped spouses, friends, relatives, and neighbors. Helping and supporting others had cut the risk of dying by half.

Post also referred to a study conducted by Kathleen Hunter & Margaret Linn at the University of Miami School of Medicine in the early 1980s. The study looked at retirees above 65 years of age, comparing those who volunteered with those who did not.  The results showed that retirees who volunteered had “significantly higher degree of life satisfaction, stronger will to live, and fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and somatization.” Post explained that these findings have been consistently confirmed in a number of subsequent studies on altruistic activities among older adults. According to Post, “Giving help was more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help.”

3. How altruism benefits us physiologically  

The benefits of altruism are connected to its role in mitigating the stress response and shifting people out of negative emotional states. One explanation for the underlying physiological mechanisms at work is that altruistic behavior is associated with increased levels of oxytocin and improved functioning of the vagus nerve. Oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” is released by social bonding and is believed to reduce levels of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone.”  The release of oxytocin is regulated by the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve connects the brain to internal organs such as the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines, and is also involved in speech, eye contact, facial expressions and the ability to tune into people’s voices.  The vagus nerves plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings the body back into homeostasis after it goes into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode.  The function of the vagus nerve is measured by a concept called “vagal tone” which is determined by using an electrocardiogram to measure heart rate variability. People with higher vagal tone can relax and recover faster after a stressful event.  Prolonged stress decreases vagal tone, thus, increasing a person’s susceptibility to chronic disease.

Dacher Keltner, director of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, explains in his book,  “Born to Be Good,” that people who have very high vagal tone, whom he calls “vagal superstars,” tend to display high levels of prosocial behaviors such as caring for others and have strong social support networks.  Keltner’s research showed that vagal superstars are healthier, more resilient and better able to concentrate and remember things.

In 2013, Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok at the University of North Carolina demonstrated that vagal tone can be increased through the practice of loving-kindness meditation. Loving-kindness is a specific form of meditation where people self-generate positive emotions by making altruistic wishes for themselves and other people.  In a randomized controlled study, half of the 65 participants were taught this meditation and practiced it over a period of nine weeks.  The analysis showed that participants in the experimental group who reported greater increases in positive emotions “also exhibited greater increases in social connections, which were in turn associated with larger increases in vagal tone.” In contrast, there were no significant changes in positive emotions, social connections or vagal tone for the control group.  This study was the first to show that vagal tone “can be improved through sustained enhancements in an individual’s emotions and social perceptions.”

More and more research is underway to better understand how kindness has a positive physiological impact on people. For example, Shelley Taylor and Laura Klein at UCLA are now investigating how the “tend-and-befriend” response offers a much more effective approach to overcome stress and adversity compared to the “fight-or-flight” response.

Now that you know that being kind can help you thrive, how will you apply this in your life?

Sources and additional reading:

Grant, A. M. (2014). Give and take: Why helping others drives our success. New York: Penguin Books.

“Virtue rewarded: Helping others at work makes people happier” by University of Wisconsin-Madison News.

Moynihan, D. P. (2013). A Life Worth Living: Evidence on the Relationship between Prosocial Values and Happiness. Working Paper Series, La Follette School Working Paper No. 2013-008.

Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 2, 66–77.

Brown, S., Nesse, R. M., Vonokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science, 14, 320–327.

Hunter, K. I., & Linn, M.W. (1980–1981). Psychosocial differences between elderly volunteers and non-volunteers. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 12, 205–213.

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Vince, G. (2015). Hacking The Nervous System. The Huffington Post.

Kok, B., et al. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science, 24(7) 1123–1132. 

McGonigal, K. (2015). How to Transform Stress into Courage and Connection. Greater Good Science Center.

Celebrating freedom with inspiring words from Desmond Tutu

In commemoration of Independence Day 2015, I would like to share words of wisdom that emerged from South Africa’s victory for freedom and human rights.

These passages are taken from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book “Made for Goodness,” which he published with his daughter in 2010.

Life-artists are people who use freedom to “create lives of beauty.” 

Photo of Archbishop Desmond Tutu from the Skoll World Forum on Flickr

  “Creating a life of beauty is a choice. We are given the freedom to choose how we will use the gifts and challenges that we are given.” (p. 54)   

 “…Out of the cacophony of random suffering and chaos that can mark human life, the life artist sees or creates a symphony of meaning and order. A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Wholeness depends on how we experience our lives.

     In a life of wholeness…we will still confront the death, grief, and pain that are part of human reality, but they will not destroy us. A life of wholeness can accept, even embrace, death, grief and pain. They are essential parts of the fabric of life. They lend texture to life.

    In a life of wholeness, we will endure failures. And we will come to know so many of our own flaws. But that will not defeat us. A life of wholeness can meet failure as the wisest teacher. A life of wholeness can accept flaws and vulnerabilities as doors to relationship. If we can do all things flawlessly, we have no need of anybody else…Flaws and vulnerabilities destroy the illusion of self-sufficiency and can open our eyes to our common humanity. Flaws and vulnerabilities can build the bridge to human community and to a relationship with the divine. 

    In a life of wholeness we may face brokenness and endure woundedness, but our suffering will not be meaningless. Meaningless suffering is soul-destroying.

    Time and again I have been with people who have undergone unspeakable anguish. I have listened to people who have been subjected to brutal torture. I have sat with people who have borne terrible loss. Some could find no meaning in their suffering. Years after the horror had passed, the memories still held them hostage. Others…possessed a freedom that was theirs even as the apparatus of state held them bound in chains.”    (p. 48-49)

Calm Clarity and KIPP Philadelphia Collaborate to Address Toxic Stress

On March 20, 2015, Calm Clarity ran the first of a series of professional development workshops at KIPP Dubois Collegiate Academy in Philadelphia. The aim of the training is to equip teachers and staff with tools and techniques to reduce the impact of toxic stress, improve well-being, and reduce burn-out.

Calm Clarity and KIPP Philadelphia plan to collaborate to offer all ten modules of the Calm Clarity Program to staff and teachers and to eventually train teachers to provide the Calm Clarity Program to their students.

“Calm Clarity is an effective program geared at increasing mindfulness and reducing stress. This creates a more productive work environment.
As a School Leader I deal firsthand with the effects of stress on staff and students. We are working with Calm Clarity in order to give tools to students to address their major stress factors. It is a vehicle to address the negative impacts of the greater society on our students in a systemic way.
I highly recommend the program and look forward to continued collaboration in the future.”

Aaron Bass, Chief of Staff
KIPP Philadelphia Schools

Calm Clarity brings stress relief to Penn and Wharton Alumni

On March 25, the Penn Alumni Club and Wharton Alumni Club of Philadelphia hosted a pilot session for alumni to experience the Calm Clarity Program.  The event was met with great demand, as more than 55 people registered, filling up the capacity of the venue.

During the session, Due Quach presented the first module of the program, which was very positively received. Afterwards, many of the participants expressed interest in experiencing the rest of the program. We are now in discussions with the organizers to offer more workshops to the membership.

Please read below to see what the organizers shared about the event:

“The Penn Alumni Club of Philadelphia and Wharton Alumni Club of Philadelphia hosted a joint event with Due as the speaker. Our alumni experienced a wonderful evening of learning and meditation. The experience was exceptionally positive, and we look forward to working with Due and Calm Clarity again soon.” 

~President of the Penn Alumni Club of Philadelphia

“Due brought the Calm Clarity techniques to a sold out Wharton Club / Penn Club event in late March. She was an extremely engaging speaker with a unique ability to convey important ideas to the audience about brain science and how to bring more calm to our stressful lives. There were many positive comments from audience members after the program. I would highly recommend the program!”

~President of the Wharton Alumni Club of Philadelphia