Home » Blog » Happiness

Category: Happiness

The Secret to Happiness Webinar

What is the Secret to Happiness?

Everyone I meet eventually asks me this question, usually sooner rather than later.

The good news is that there are many secrets to happiness. But some keys to happiness are much more powerful than others, and the more powerful ones tend to be more surprising, as well.

I’ve studied the science related to happiness and positive emotions for more than a decade. A little over a year ago, I took a step back from the research to determine which happiness tips were the most powerful for my coaching clients, and in my own life.

What emerged was a list of real-life keys to happiness that I had never really blogged or written about, and that my colleagues haven’t been teaching or talking about.

I was so surprised! (And truly glad to be surprised! I can only tell people to practice gratitude so many times before we all start looking for something new.)

3 Surprising Happiness Tips Webinar

In any case, I’m going to share my 3 Surprising Happiness Tips in a quick, free webinar I hope you will join us! Register now here.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone
How to Say No Gracefully

Three Steps to Say “No” Gracefully

Yesterday, a friend asked me if she could borrow my car to run a long-distance errand because my little car gets better mileage than her big one. I wanted to say “no”; switching cars on an already busy day felt like a hassle to me. But I didn’t say no. Instead, I hemmed and hawed and hesitated, hoping she’d get the hint.

It can be really hard to say no. Despite my best attempts not to care what other people think of me, I still find myself wanting to be liked. I don’t want people to think I’m selfish. More than that, I don’t want to be selfish. And I never want to miss easy opportunities to help someone out.

But we human beings will often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will make us happiest in the future—and pleasing others (and thinking of ourselves as generous) by saying “yes” tends to be far more pleasant in the present than saying “no.” But saying yes when we want to say no tends to bite us later, in the form of resentment and exhaustion.

We can make better decisions by picturing ourselves moments before the event in question. Would we be relieved if it were canceled? If so, we’ve gotta say no now so that we don’t find ourselves trying to weasel out of it later. Here’s how.

  1. Rehearse Saying No.

When we are stressed and tired, we tend to act habitually. Knowing this, we can train our brain to habitually say no rather than yes to requests by rehearsing a go-to response when people ask us for favors. Research shows that when we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with our original intentions.

Something simple—like, “That doesn’t work for me this time”—is almost always sufficient. (See this post for 21 more ways to say no.) Pick a default way to respond when you don’t want to do something, and practice saying it before you need it.

  1. Be clear about your priorities and truthful in your refusal.

Saying no is easier when we’re clear about our priorities; it’s even harder to decline a request when our reasons for doing so seem unimportant.

I could see that if I had to switch cars with my friend it was going to screw up my whole morning, and it would mean that while I could make it to my meeting in time, I would not be able to take the dog for a morning walk. “I won’t be able to walk the dog,” would have felt like a weak explanation. But walking the dog is my favorite part of my morning, and I count on it to get centered for the day. So, it was also true for me to say, “I have plans in the morning which would make it hard for me to switch cars with you tomorrow.”

Note that even though I was being vague about my plans, I was telling the truth. Untrue excuses and white-lies lead to further entanglements and greater stress. Lying sends your unconscious the message that there’s something wrong with saying no—but there’s not.

Be honest, but don’t be afraid to be vague. Telling the truth is not the same as sharing more details than are necessary, even if someone asks why you can’t help them out or come to their party. Detailed explanations imply that the other person can’t handle a simple no—and they often lead to people solving your conflicts for you, when you don’t really want them to.

If your “no” isn’t accepted with grace, persist. Repeat your point calmly, using the same words. This will help the other person see that you are sticking to your no, and that their pestering isn’t changing your answer. If that doesn’t work and you need something else to say, express empathy. For example, say, “I understand that you are in a tough spot here,” or, “I know this is hard for you to accept.”

If they still won’t back down, tell them the truth about how you are feeling. For example: “I feel uncomfortable and a little angry when you continue to ask me even though I’ve declined.” Focus on your emotions—how their refusal to accept your honest answer is making you feel—and not the logistical details or logic for your refusal.

  1. Make your decision final.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has famously shown that when we can change our mind, we tend to be a lot less happy with our decisions. So, once we decline an invitation, we need to make an effort to focus on the good that will come from saying no, not the regret or guilt we might feel. Perhaps we will be better rested because we didn’t go to a party, or we’ll feel less resentful because we let someone else help out. Maybe saying no to one thing frees up time for another (more joyful) activity.

Say you are thinking of missing your monthly book club because you aren’t interested in the book. Send your RSVP as a definitive no, not a “maybe.” And then immediately turn your attention to all the time you just freed up for yourself.  What do you get to do now instead?

This strategy can be a great tool for offsetting the fear of missing out. The brain reacts to potentially missing out on something in the same way it would with an actual loss. By focusing on what we gain by saying no, we keep our brain from perceiving loss.

If you are feeling nervous about saying no, take a moment to call up the respect for yourself that you’d like others to feel for you. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of others. But it’s worth it. In the long run, the ability to say no is a little-known key to happiness.

Need more help saying no? I hope you’ll join my Brave Over Perfect Coaching group, where we practice the skills we need to say “no” strategically, so that we can say “yes” with joy and abandon. Learn more here. 

 

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone
Awe

The Days of Awe

The Days of Awe are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The idea is to stop, look around, and reflect. What do you want to let go of from last year? Who do you want to be in the New Year? I am not Jewish. Some of my former students call me Jew- “ish” because I like the traditions and ceremonies. As a teacher, it makes sense to me to celebrate the New Year in the fall. This year, I spend the Days of Awe outside, in nature as much as possible. I lie back in summer’s last green grasses. I watch the trees gain color and lose suppleness in their leaves. I notice that the wind smells of apples and wet soil, and that the ducks rise like mist from the pond to fly south. 

I adopt the Jewish ritual called Tashlikh of dropping bread crumbs into a stream to cast away sins from last year. A young friend of mine calls this ceremony, “Kiss the Bad Thing Goodbye.” I take my lunch and sit under the giant willows by the creek. I throw the crusts of my toast in the current, kiss the bad things goodbye, and watch the swift water rush them away. I remember that what makes us human is that we are capable of making great mistakes, and yet we are also capable of great transformation. Maybe this tumor isn’t meant to set me back, but to help me transform.

I am fascinated by metamorphosis. Years ago, I wrote a children’s book, Eliza and the Dragonfly, about the process of a dragonfly nymph becoming a dragonfly. I wanted to show children the magic that exists all around them. But I also wrote it for myself, because I wanted to understand how metamorphosis happens. A dragonfly begins its life in water. When it is young, it breathes water instead of air. And it swims instead of flies. For years, it mucks about in a pond, being itself. Then it wakes up one morning with wings. It crawls out of the water, breathes air for the first time, stretches its wings in the sun, and flies away.

I wrote the children’s book because I kept wondering what I needed to do to transform into something great and become the grown-up that I wanted to be. It helped me to learn that dragonfly nymphs, like monarch caterpillars, don’t do anything to make their transformation happen. They just are. Every time I see a dragonfly, I remember to be myself. I am good enough. One day I will wake up with wings. 

Here’s a poem I wrote in gratitude for this time of year and to celebrate how far I’ve come, how far we’ve all come.

The Days of Awe

These are the days of awe.

Lie back in summer’s last green grasses.

Listen.

Each cricket’s song is slower now,

the wind smells of ripe apples,

the soil devours rain

and coughs up stones.

Mallards rise like mist off the pond

and fly south.

Trees gain color and restraint overnight,

act like old ladies who

snap their purses shut.

Remember

The sun isn’t traveling

East to West.

We are

spinning — West to East,

setting to rising,

beginnings growing out of endings,

not the other way around.

Lie back in the wet grass.

Wait for the sky to grow dark.

Breathe in the moon

like a question

you’re not quite ready to ask.

Be like the river

Who moves toward the unknown,

who doesn’t turn around

and ask the mountain for directions.

Listen to the grace of insects,

then drop, swell, and release

like bread in cool, swirling waters.  

–SCR


Brave Over Perfect Coaching is an effective and affordable way to learn how to live–and parent–with more courage, acceptance, joy, presence, self-compassion, gratitude, and authenticity. It’s only $20 for three coaching calls, two months of online support, and tons of online resources. We would love to have you join us!

Life is hectic and uncertain. You don’t have to be.

Learn more or enroll now here.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone
my-best-happiness-advice-christine-carter

Back-to-School Happiness Advice (Video)

We have four teenagers headed to high school — two of them 9th graders at new schools this week. Remember how nerve-wracking it can be starting high school? I can never resist offering a little advice at an occasion like this!

I’ve made a lot of happiness mistakes. I know you will make some of those same mistakes. But there are certain things I’ve finally learned that I hope you learn earlier than I did.

For starters, the best way to be happy is to make kindness the central theme in your life. Usually we think that happiness comes from getting what we want. But what I know now is that happiness comes not so much from getting, but from GIVING. It turns out that happiness usually doesn’t come when we’re thinking about ourselves, or about what we want.

So when you are feeling down, or disappointed, the best way to get your happiness mojo back is by helping someone else.

The second thing is that to be happy, we need to let ourselves feel what we feel. We live in an age of anxiety, and when we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed) our world offers us a host of ways to numb those negative feelings, to not really feel them. We can spend hours on Facebook avoiding our feelings. Or we can have a cocktail to “take the edge off” our fears. Or we can eat that whole pan of brownies. The problem is that when we numb unpleasant feelings, we numb everything that we are feeling.

So to honestly feel the positive things in life — to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude — we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. If you want to be happy, you need to practice feeling, to practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.

Your emotions are how your heart talks to you. #HappinessTip Click To Tweet

Finally, to be happy we need to forget about achieving, and instead focus on the journey. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more stuff, a bigger house, a faster car, more popular or important friends, more prestigious jobs. But when they arrive wherever they have been working so hard to get to, odds are, they’ll feel let down. (And, to be honest, it’s usually worse than just feeling let down. They may find, after working 12 hour days year after year, that despite their awards and achievements, they wake up one morning to see in the mirror an exhausted and unhappy person fast-tracking it to old age and loneliness.)

I know from experience how easy it is to think thoughts like, “If I could just earn more money…” or, “If I could just live in that city…” or, “If I could just get into that school…THEN I could be happy.” But when we think things like that, we’re almost always wrong about what will make us happier. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.

As Katherine Center once said: “You are writing the story of your only life, every single minute of every day.”

My greatest hope for you is that you are writing a story in which you can experience great gratitude, and profound compassion. I hope you are writing a story in which you are happy.

Join our NEW group coaching!

Together we’re leading our most joyful, intelligent, productive, and stress-free lives. Learn more or enroll now here.
Special thanks to Marielle and Macie, who put together this video; to Blake Farrington who got it started; and to Gonzalo Brito, who played the guitar piece in the background.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone
Mama and me

The mother I wanted; the mother I got

When I was younger, I wanted a mother who was sweet and nurturing, who baked cookies, and who welcomed my friends with cheerful holiday decorations. What I got was a mother who raised us well, but without softness, and who baked so rarely that she kept a heavy chair in front of our oven door. On Halloween, she turned off the lights and left a bowl of toothbrushes on the front step. At Christmas, she hung a tangled strand of lights on a house plant and called it a day.

My favorite picture book was “Are You My Mother?” It’s about a bird who falls out of the nest and goes looking for its mother, asking the cow, the hen, even a bulldozer if they are her mother. Growing up, the book was an inside joke between my mom and me, because I always felt so different from her, and she knew it. I was a little hippie girl and she was more like a Spice Girl. I lay on the floor and listened to Bob Dylan while she moonwalked to Michael Jackson. She was messy and I organized everything. She seemed to be care free. I worried constantly. She had clear boundaries, I ran ragged trying to keep everyone happy. When I read that the legendary folk singer, Joni Mitchell, had given up a daughter about my age for adoption, I fantasized that she was my real mother. I imagined the warm embrace when we finally met, and the cover story in the newspaper. There would be a picture; Joni with her guitar, Susie with her ukulele, and we’d be sitting under a tree, smiling. The headline, “Mother and Child Reunion.” Basically, I just wanted my mother to be different than she was. Doesn’t everybody?

Now that I am a wife and a mother myself, I appreciate that my mother was never conventional and always 100% herself. One of my mom’s best friend’s described her as, “often wrong, never in doubt.” And my mom laughed. That is the thing about my mother: she can laugh at herself easily, joyfully. Just last week we were trying to carry a suitcase down a flight of stairs and when we realized that we only had 1 good arm and 3 good legs between us, she started to laugh, and then I laughed, until the two of us were laughing so hard that I peed—just a little—right there on Boston’s South Station steps.

The first time she came to see me post-surgery in Boston, I wanted her to help me prepare meals, do laundry, clean up. When she arrived, she set down her hot pink bag and declared, “I don’t cook. I don’t do dishes. Never have. Never will.” Instead, she made me swallow monster gummy multivitamins, get my hair styled, and do exercises that she had seen the Olympic rugby teams do on TV. I was frustrated; I kept wanting her to be better at this nurse stuff, and know exactly what to say and do. I wanted her to be different.

It was the same as when I was a teenager in the house. While I raged at her shouting, “Why can’t you be more like other moms?” I missed what she was demonstrating to me every single day: how to be authentic and real. Be yourself! Her actions screamed. And I missed and missed and missed the memo. When my parents divorced, I was just a baby. I never knew what it was like to have two parents under one roof. Somehow, I blamed my mother for the divorce. If she had only been a little more like the other moms, I reasoned, he would still be around. I vowed to be different when I grew up. And by different, I meant the same as others. I reasoned that if I acted a little less myself and more like other women, my prince wouldn’t leave. But the consequence was that I gave up my uniqueness in order to fit in and not rock the boat. Even when I realized that I was holding my mom to impossible standards, I didn’t realize it enough to stop holding myself to those same impossible standards. I worked to maintain my status as the good daughter, the good wife, the good spouse, the good mother. I managed others’ needs and feelings to the detriment of my own to the point where when my husband asked me what I needed one day, I had nothing to say. I had no idea.

When my mom came to visit me last week during my radiation treatments, we had wonderful days together. This time, instead of just wishing she were different, I spoke up and asked her directly for what I needed. She listened and responded. When I wanted privacy, she took my phone and guarded my door. When I wanted to go for a walk, she strapped on her squeaky running shoes and led the way. When I was hungry for breakfast, but too tired to get out of bed, she made me porridge. And this time, she only destroyed my host’s stovetop once. All week, I was relaxed and able to appreciate my mother for who she is, bold and brave. I was also able to appreciate myself for who I am, curious and courageous. We are more similar than I thought. This helped me to finally accept that Joni Mitchell is taken; the tabloids say she is reunited with her daughter in a California suburb. That’s OK. I hate suburbs. Plus, I think I am the lucky one. My mom may never be a great nurse or maid, but she can lift me out of my negative cycle of thoughts with her undying sense of adventure. And she can always make me laugh.

Love,

Susie

*****

Negative thought cycles have you trapped? Join Group Coaching next month. Each theme is aimed at helping you live your most joyful, intelligent, productive, and stress-free life. We’re kicking off in August and September with Joyful Productivity. Learn more or enroll now here.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Directions for Handling a Toxic Relationship

Last week, I had lunch with a friend. As we were walking out, she mentioned that she had to see someone who hadn’t always been kind to her, a relationship that caused her more stress and suffering than anything else. She’d been avoiding the meeting, but now it looked inevitable.

“She just makes me so anxious,” she said, gritting her teeth. I’ve been there myself. Lots of times. Seriously toxic relationships call for us to cut off contact altogether; others, though also toxic, seem impossible to avoid. Perhaps you have a constantly criticizing mother-in-law, or a neighbor who seems emotionally stuck in seventh grade. Maybe it’s a boss who belittles you when he’s stressed—or someone who is so under your skin you hold entire conversations with them in your head.

If you, too, have struggled with a toxic relationship, I hope this little instruction manual will help you.

1. Accept that you are in a difficult situation, dealing with a very difficult relationship.

Your choices here are fairly limited, and, strangely, acceptance is always the best choice. You can judge and criticize the other person, but that will probably make you feel tense and lonely. Alternately, you could nurse your anxiety and despair that you’ll never be able to get along with them, which will make you feel stressed and sad. You can definitely deny their existence or pretend that they aren’t bothering you. You can block their texts and emails, and avoid every situation where they’ll turn up.

These are all tactics of resistance, and they won’t protect you. Ironically, these tactics will allow the other person to further embed themselves into your psyche.

What does work is to accept that your relationship with them is super hard, and also that you are trying to make it less hard. This gentle acceptance does not mean that you are resigned to a life of misery, or that the situation will never get better. Maybe it will—and maybe it won’t. Accepting the reality of a difficult relationship allows us to soften. And this softening will open the door to your own compassion and wisdom.

Trust me: You are going to need those things.

2. The other person will probably tell you that you are the cause of all their bad feelings.

This is not true. You are not responsible for their emotions. You never have been, and you never will be. Don’t take responsibility for their suffering; if you do, they will never have the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves.

3. Tell the truth.

When you lie (perhaps to avoid upsetting them), you become complicit in the creation and maintenance of their reality, which is poisonous to you. For example, they might ask you if you forgot to invite them to a party. You can easily say yes, that it was a mistake that they didn’t get the Evite, and did they check their spam folder?

But lying is very stressful for human beings, maybe the most stressful thing. Lie detectors detect not lies, but the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. This will not make the relationship less toxic.

So, instead, tell the truth. Be sure to tell them your truth instead of your judgment, or what you imagine to be true for other people. Don’t say “I didn’t invite you because it would stress Mom out too much to have you there” or “I didn’t invite you because you are a manipulative drama queen who will find some way to make the evening about you.”

Instead, tell them your truth: “When you are in my home, I feel jittery and nervous, and I can’t relax, so I didn’t invite you to the party. I’m sorry that I’ve hurt your feelings.”

It takes courage to tell the truth, because often it makes people angry. But they will probably be mad at you anyway, no matter what you do. They almost certainly won’t like the new, truth-telling you—and that will make them likely to avoid you in the future. This might be a good thing.

[shareable text=”If you have struggled with a toxic relationship, I hope this instruction manual will help you.”]If you have struggled with a toxic relationship, I hope this little instruction manual will help you.[/shareable]

4. If you feel angry or afraid, bring your attention to your breath and do not speak (or write) to the person until you feel calm.

It’s normal to want to defend yourself, but remember that anger and anxiety weaken you. Trust that soothing yourself is the only effective thing you can do right now. If you need to excuse yourself, go ahead and step out. Even if it is embarrassing or it leaves people hanging.

5. Have mercy.

Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness, and it allows us to alter a communication dynamic, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. We do this by offering them a gift from our heart. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you buy them a cup of coffee? Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?

Forgiveness takes this kindness to a whole new level. I used to think I couldn’t really forgive someone who’d hurt me until they’d asked for forgiveness, preferably in the form of a moving and remorseful apology letter.

But I’ve learned that to heal ourselves we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still hurting us. When we do, we feel happier and more peaceful. This means that you might need to forgive the other person at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.

When we find ways to show mercy to even the person who has cost us sleep and love and even our well-being, something miraculous happens. “When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves,” Anne Lamott writes, “we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp.”

Here’s the real miracle: Our mercy boomerangs back to us. When we show radical kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance—and when we tell the truth in even the most difficult relationship—we start to show ourselves those things. We realize that we can love and forgive and accept even the most terrible aspects of our own being, even if it is only for a moment. We start to show ourselves the truth, and this makes us feel free.

And, in my experience, this makes all we have suffered worth it.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Greater Happiness in 5 Minutes a Day

Want a quick hit of happiness?

Research demonstrates the incredible power of loving-kindness meditation; in fact, this simple practice might be more effective than Prozac. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people.

Loving-kindness meditation does far more than produce momentary good feelings. Over a nine week period, research showed that this type of meditation increased people’s experiences of positive emotions. The research shows compellingly that it actually puts people on “trajectories of growth,” leaving them better able to ward off depression and “become ever more satisfied with life.” This is probably because it increases a wide range of those resources that make for a meaningful and successful life, like having an increased sense of purpose, stronger social support, and less illness. Research even shows that loving-kindness meditation “changes the way people approach life” for the better.

[shareable text=”Research even shows that meditation ‘changes the way people approach life’ for the better.”] Research shows that meditation ‘changes the way people approach life’ for the better.[/shareable]

I’ve blogged before about social connections and how important they are for health and happiness. Doing a simple loving-kindness meditation can make us feel less isolated and more connected to those around us: one study showed that a SINGLE SEVEN MINUTE loving-kindness meditation made people feel more connected to and positive about both loved ones and total strangers, and more accepting of themselves. Imagine what a regular practice could do! 

Here’s How to Do It:

The general idea is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed and imagine what you wish for your life. Formulate your desires into three or four phrases. Traditionally they would be something like this:

May I be happy.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be filled with ease.

1. Start by directing the phrases at yourself: “May I be happy.”

2. Next, direct the metta towards someone you feel thankful for or someone who has helped you: “May you be happy.”

3. Now visualize someone you feel neutral about — people you neither like nor dislike–and direct the well-wishes towards them. This one can be harder than you’d think: It makes me realize how quick we can be to judge people as either positive or negative in our lives.

4. Ironically, the next one can be easier: Visualizing the people you don’t like or who you are having a hard time with. Someone irritating you at home? Undermining you at work? We often feel quite empowered when we send love to the people making us miserable. Send loving-kindness towards them.

5. Finally, direct the metta towards everyone universally: “May all beings everywhere be happy.

In this 3-minute video, Sylvia Boorstein, author of Happiness is an Inside Job, teaches how to do this. Another good resource is Sharon Salzberg—she wrote Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. You don’t really need to read books about this: loving-kindness meditation is as simple it seems. People just write books about it because it is so powerful.

[youtube id=”RhsyqeefpXI” height=”353″ width=”574″]

 

.
.
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Confessions of a Bad Meditator

When I was in high school, my advisor, Michael Mulligan, called my parents to recommend a special treatment for my anxiety: Transcendental Meditation (“TM”). I was a high-achieving perfectionist so anxious, at times, that I had stress-induced asthma.

Mr. Mulligan was not then, and is not now, a new-age spiritual seeker. He is a dyed-in-the-wool New England educator who, surprisingly, became a California cowboy. Picture a balding lacrosse preppy in khakis and a cowboy hat.

I dutifully sat with my TM teacher and tried to focus on the mantra he gave me which, truthfully, I never really understood. (Was I supposed to be repeating “eye-ing” silently to myself, or “ah-sing”?) I was too intimidated by the teacher to ask for clarification.

I was told, and I believed, that if I could just practice TM twice daily, as instructed, after six days in a row I would experience a calm so profound I would no longer be stressed or exhausted.

Boy, that sounded good.

Since high school, I’ve learned lots of other kinds of meditation; probably every kind there is. I’ve taken classes with famous Buddhists and studied Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I’ve tested all the hottest meditation apps. I’m even giving a talk at a conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama this summer.

I stay interested in meditation and I keep trying it because scores of studies have shown the benefits to be broad and profound. Meditation lowers our stress and anxiety, helps us focus, and makes us more productive. And it makes us healthier. After meditating daily for eight weeks, research subjects were 76 percent less likely than a non-meditating control group to miss work due to illness. And if they did get a cold or a flu, it lasted only five days on average, compared to eight for everyone else.

I believe in the benefits of meditation. What’s more, I believe that meditation holds the key to my spiritual and personal growth. But I haven’t been able to get myself to really practice it in my daily life.

Here’s the truth: despite all my training, and despite knowing all the the benefits, I have never one single time meditated twice daily for six days in a row, as I was originally instructed. (Actually, I have done that as a part of a long meditation retreat, but never in my regular life.)

This disconnect is driving me crazy. It is a part of my life that, until recently, I had not figured out yet.

Why? This is my new insight: I am, on some deep level, afraid. Whenever we are faced with a behavior that defies both logic and desire (e.g., I both know why it is in my best interest to meditate, and I want a regular practice), the hard truth is that usually fear is the roadblock.

[shareable text=”Whenever we are faced with a behavior that defies both logic and desire…fear is the roadblock.”]Whenever we are faced with a behavior that defies both logic and desire…usually fear is the roadblock.[/shareable]

It’s not that I actually feel actively afraid of meditating, and you might not feel particularly afraid of whatever you are not-doing, either. A fear is a perceived risk or danger — real or not. What’s risky or dangerous about meditation, after all?

It turns out, more than I originally thought. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Just the thought of not working, not accomplishing, not striving feels uncomfortable. And when I really dig deep, I can see that there’s more: I’m a smidge terrified of that void that, for some, is the whole point of meditation. That Stillness. Nothingness.

I might understand intellectually the many benefits of meditation, but in the moment it feels better to me to check my email, to use all the time allotted for meditation skimming news about the latest Trump disaster, or to just plain start working first thing each morning. These things aren’t necessarily the best use of my time, but they are so much easier than giving myself over to the stillness that would be so good for my mental and physical health (and, according to the scientific research, my work, and, according to the enlightened masters, my spiritual growth).

Here’s what I’m afraid of: What if I don’t get enough done today? This might sound shallow, but it’s the tiny tip of a glacial (and fundamental) human fear: What if I am not good enough? What if I am simply not enough?

I can always convince myself (logically) that I am enough; there is a mountain of evidence of this in my achievements. But deep down, as 30 years of avoidance has shown me, there is something more here. Somehow, my achievements are not enough for me to feel inner peace, they are never enough. Hospice caregiver Stephen Levine writes about how many people, sadly, feel this on their deathbed:

“[The dying often] do not recognize that their strong desire for some trophy of their worthiness is a trophy of their feelings of unworthiness born of a deeper disappointment. Having not discovered their own great truth…they have settled for success. Whether their dream was stardom or starshine, their book published, their true love found, or their temper defeated, they believed that their life was incomplete.” [emphasis mine]

Ah. Hmm. Meditation asks me to let go of all tributes to my worthiness, to my ego-based identity. This is more or less the stated goal of every meditation practice I’ve ever learned: To let go of those external and often status-based things that we think make us feel worthy — because they amplify our feelings of unworthiness. Meditation asks me to cease — for 20 minutes, twice each day — being a mom, wife, lover, friend, sociologist, author, speaker, coach, teacher. To give up success, in favor of peace. That’s fucking frightening to people like me.

I have struggled to meditate regularly for the last three decades because my belief that I should meditate is intellectual, cognitive. But my avoidance of it — my fear of not being good enough — is emotional.

And emotions always trump logic. I know that I am not alone here. Many people don’t do the very things they know would make them happier and healthier.

So instead of telling myself a thousand more reasons why I should meditate, I’m going to work with my fear on an emotional level. I know how to tame a fear. Here’s how, if you’d like to follow along with a fear of your own:

1. Name it to tame it. Instead of denying that you’re afraid, look fear in the face. Give it a name. For me: Fear of not being or doing enough.

2. Comfort yourself. Start by exhaling deeply, which is the key to calming the nervous system.

Now, think about what will make you feel safer. What can you do to soothe yourself right now? (I know, a glass of chardonnay sounds good. That’s not the type of comfort we are talking about, friend.) I like to recite to myself this part of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to myself:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.

3. Take a baby step. Break the behavior you are avoiding doing into an action step so small that it no longer feels worth resisting. I’m going to go meditate for three minutes. I know I have three minutes, and that doesn’t feel so scary, after all.

That’s it! That’s what I’m doing — and it’s getting results: Meditation has become more a part of my daily life.

Meditation allows me to practice putting down the heavy trophies that proclaim that I am “enough.” For a few minutes each day, I can leave the world of success and status and go home to who I really am: Love. Acceptance. Connection.

Pico Iyer writes in The Art of Stillness that “getting caught up in the [material] world and expecting to find happiness there [makes] about as much sense as reaching into a fire and hoping not to get burned.”

I’ve come to see that there is no such thing as a bad meditator; there is just a person who either turns to her internal experience to see what is there, or someone who does not. For me, I’ve finally seen that turning inward is not as scary as I thought it was, and it’s a sure way not to get burned.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Happiness Tip: Take Time to Rest

This may be “the happiest time of year” for some, but if it isn’t for you, I think it’s at least in part because we get so darn tired. Let this be your friendly reminder to actually take time to rest between now and January 2nd.

I used to find it hard to rest at this time of the year because I wouldn’t take real vacation time — I’d close my office, but then still check email and keep up with people asking questions in my online classes. I’d be home, so that I can spend time with my kids who are also home from school, but I’d be working from home.

Eventually, I learned that working from home and trying to take some vacation time with the kids home is a terrible strategy for me. What would have been work in a quiet office became work in a busy holiday household of four teenagers, an active dog, and loads of visitors. If I were to accomplish anything at all, it would require Olympic-level multi-tasking and massive interruption management.

Research shows that this sort of multi-tasking tends to result in more errors, and makes us feel more exhausted. We humans need rest in order to be productive. We make better sprinters than marathoners when it comes to work; as much as we might like to be able to keep producing 24/7, our physical reality prevents this.

Take Action: This year, join me in resting more. I’ve changed; I’ll be taking well over a week of actual vacation time. I can’t wait to sit by the fire and read…and let myself fall asleep if I need to! The days are short–nature is helping us out on this one. I’ll be watching to see if this ironically helps me get more done during the week, as productivity experts would predict.

Join the Discussion: What can you cut out of your work or holiday schedule in the next week or so to make a little time for rest and relaxation? Can you clear some time to do nothing but recuperate? Share with us by commenting below!

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone

How to Enjoy the Holidays

My teens are obsessed with Christmas carols this year (and every year).

“It’s the holidays!” they exclaim when I suggest that perhaps we could listen to NPR instead of the Christmas carol station. This is, at least to the kids, is the most wonderful time of the year.

Many adults love the idea of the holidays more than their actual experience of them — mostly because their list of holiday-related tasks and obligations outweighs the joy of it all. So that I can actually enjoy the holidays, I’ve devised the three-part plan below.

Step One: Prioritize connection. ‘Tis the season for reconnecting. We reconnect with our friends and neighbors through a handful of annual parties. We reconnect with our more distant friends through cards and photos. And we reconnect with our extended family consistently throughout the season — our holiday rituals are what help make our family truly our family.

For example, the weekend before Christmas, my cousins always fly in from Massachusetts and Washington and Florida for a big family Christmas party, complete with a funny “white elephant” gift exchange. A few days before Christmas, my mom always makes spritz cookies with the kids, a tradition started in Germany with her mother. We light the candles of the menorah and say prayers each night during Hanukkah, something my husband’s Jewish family has been teaching me and my kids.

All of this is about renewing our sense that we are a part of something larger than ourselves. Let me not mince words here: This sense that we are connected and part of a larger whole is the single strongest predictor of happiness that we have. It is true that the holidays have become depressingly commercial in our culture, with a massive focus what each individual will get and what kids want in terms of material gifts. Soon every news report will include something about how the economy is responding to this year’s wave of massive collective consumption.

But we can choose to focus on relationships instead of individual gift lists this holiday season. Not surprisingly, people who focus on family or religion during the holidays report higher happiness than those who don’t.

Step Two: Schedule the fun, the tasks — and the necessary downtime. There is so much going on at this time of the year, I know that I have to sit down with my calendar and block out time to get a Christmas tree, shop for our Hanukkah meals, take a holiday card photo, etc.

First, I make a simple list of all the things I need and want to do in the next month. Second, I block off time on our family calendar to actually do those things — including the not-so-obvious things, like scheduling time to update my address book so that our holiday cards make it to where they’re supposed to. (Research suggests that telling your brain when you will do something reduces stress.) Third, I actually schedule downtime on my calendar, like weekend mornings when we commit to not going anywhere or doing anything.

Once I do that, I realize that I’m not going to have enough time to do everything on my list. But I can’t skip my downtime, or I won’t actually enjoy the holidays. And so I have to decide: What are the most important things for me to do and events for me to attend?

That leads me back to Step One: Where do we get the most bang for our relationship buck? Everything that doesn’t serve to connect us to each other or something larger than ourselves gets nixed.

It is never easy to stick to the plan. Inevitably, someone will call to see if we can go ice skating on a weekend morning when we’ve scheduled downtime, and we’ll all want to go. But if we can’t easily reschedule the downtime for the next day, we’ll say no.

I’ll get a lot of pushback on this decision from my family, but I’ll remind them that more is not necessarily better, and that I’m actually not that fun to be around when I’m exhausted.

Step Three: Trade in expectations for appreciation. Most of us suffer from what I think of as an abundance paradox: Because we have so much, it becomes easy to take our good fortune for granted; as a result, we are more likely to feel disappointed when we don’t get what we want than to feel grateful when we do.

This tendency can be especially pronounced during the holidays — but we can overcome it by consciously cultivating gratitude.

We can do so in three ways. First, we can create holiday gratitude traditions (see this post for ideas how). Second, we can intentionally expose ourselves to other people’s suffering, and make a real effort to help. An afternoon spent serving the homeless can make most anyone feel instantly, and deeply, grateful. Finally, we can make an effort to notice when our expectations are leading us to desire something different than what we have — a recipe for disappointment. One of the best happiness tips I know of: find something to love in the moment you are in right now.

As the holidays approach, we will likely feel stressed and exhausted, but we need not feel like victims to this time of year. Our exhaustion is not inevitable; how tired or stressed we get is often a result of the choices we make (or fail to make) ahead of time. So while I think it is too early for holiday music, it is not too early to start making the choices that will lead us to a low-stress, high-joy holiday season.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPrint this pageEmail this to someone