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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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″]

 

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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.

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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!

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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.

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How to Buy Happiness

Even though we say we can’t buy happiness, we often behave as though we can. Why else would we spend so much time shopping? What if I told you that you actually can buy happiness, for yourself, or for someone else? Well, you can! Here’s how.

For starters, remember that there is a huge difference between real joy — or any other positive emotion, like gratitude, or love, or hope — and the gratification that can come from buying something (or receiving a gift). Positive emotions like awe and compassion have different effects on our nervous system than material rewards, like gifts, do.

Positive emotions function to reverse stress — to put the breaks on any lingering fight-or-flight response that might be making us feel anxious or unsettled. In contrast, material purchases and gifts trigger the reward center in our brain, which usually delivers a nice hit of pleasure… and then leaves us wanting more. The lingering feeling that more would be better can be blamed on a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Though dopamine does deliver that initial pleasurable feeling, its main purpose is to create desire, or craving, in the brain, which acts as a motivating force. This is why when we treat ourselves with food or a shopping trip we are often soon left wishing for more (rather than satisfied with what we already have).

So here’s how to buy happiness: Make purchases that foster real positive emotions, either in yourself or others.

Here are some ideas for your happiness gift list:

  • Buy experiences like a trip, concert, movie, or dinner out — especially those that foster connections between friends and family members. This gives people a chance to feel emotions like love, excitement, anticipation (and maybe awe, elevation, or inspiration, depending on the activity). The feeling of connection we get when we do something fun with people we love is one of our most powerful sources of happiness.
  • Don’t buy gifts from a list or registry. One of the reasons that we love opening presents so much is that people find surprises exciting. Excitement is a positive emotion. This means that a gift has the potential to bring happiness mostly through the joyful anticipation it brings…not the actual gift itself, which might be gratifying but will often leave us wanting more. If a receiver chooses a gift themselves and knows what they are getting, the joyful anticipation won’t be there.
  • Give something that enables the receiver to give to others. (I’m a fan of ‘Tis Best gift cards, for example.) Believe it or not, giving brings far more happiness than receiving, and so when we want to give happiness, the best thing we can do is enable someone else to be a giver. When they are able to give to people or causes they feel passionately about, gift receivers are likely to feel generosity, awe, compassion, love, gratitude, or engagement — all big and powerful positive emotions.

Looking for ways to give yourself a little pressy? Spend your money on your health. Really! Although happiness does lead toEstablish an Exercise Habit Mini-Course - Christine Carterbetter health (primarily by reducing stress), health is also a major predictor of happiness — on average, healthy people are 20% happier. So buy yourself some vitamins, and those Zumba classes you love so much.

Here’s a no-brainer present for yourself: my new Establish an Exercise Habit Mini-Course, designed to teach you how to establish a lifelong exercise habit for yourself. This class is only $9.99, and I promise it will pave the way for you to be healthier AND happier in the coming year.

Happy Holidays!

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Why Being a Stepmom Makes Me a Better Parent

Though you probably didn’t realize that today is a national holiday celebrating blended families (who knew?), I’m taking a moment to relish being a stepmom. I absolutely adore my stepchildren, and I’m grateful that they’ve given me the opportunity to become a much better mother.

Imagine, if you’ll indulge me for a minute, what it must be like to be one of my children. As a  professional advice giver, I’m — let’s just be honest — bossy. I have an opinion (science-based) about everything. When people (not my children) seek out my coaching, wanting guidance for improving their happiness, their effectiveness at work, or their parenting, I’m more than happy to tell them not just what I think but what, specifically, to do.

So it hasn’t been easy to be Molly or Fiona, the guinea pigs on which I’ve tested all of my science-based parenting advice since not long after I gave birth to them. I’ve done my best to arm them with instructions for every possible situation. Once, dropping my kids off at sleepaway camp for the first time, I found myself suggesting to a very nervous Fiona a specific way to breathe and specific things she might think about to distract her from her anxiety. I had become so controlling that I was telling her how to breathe and exactly what to think.

The irony, of course, is that trying to control your children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive.

That’s the clear conclusion psychologist Wendy Grolnick has reached over two decades of watching parents talk to their children. Here’s the gist of her research: The children of controlling parents — those who tell their children exactly what to do, and when to do it — don’t do as well as kids whose parents are involved and supportive without being bossy. Children of “directive” parents, like me, tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.

Enter my awesome stepchildren. They’ve been in my life for seven years. I’ve loved and supported them, but from a distance — we didn’t really live together until a few years ago. It isn’t that I haven’t disciplined them, or asked them to help out around the house, or offered an unpopular opinion. I have. I’ve taken away devices, made and enforced rules, helped them address thank-you notes, just like I do with Molly and Fiona.

But there is a major difference between the way that I parent my stepchildren and the way that I parent Molly and Fiona. Mainly, I’m just not as bossy. I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue when they do something that I find irritating.

I can more easily be supportive of them without being attached to the outcome; I can make a suggestion without caring whether or not it is taken. Instead of bossing my stepchildren around, expecting them to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it, I choose my requests carefully and try to voice them respectfully.

For example, I recently had an opportunity to teach both my stepdaughter, Macie, who is in 11th grade, and my 8th-grader, Molly, some new study skills. Unconsciously, I approached the kids differently. I was very directive with Molly, basically telling her what she had to do and then sitting next to her while she tried out my suggestions, correcting her every move. The following day, she was supposed to study on her own (using the new technique I’d given her). She tried, for a little while. And then, just like the kids in Grolnick’s studies, she got frustrated and gave up.

I didn’t realize my error with Molly until a few days later when Macie needed help studying for a test. I offered to teach her some study skills but was clear that I wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t want my help. I was delighted when she took me up on my offer. But I wasn’t as intent on having her put my tips to use.

My emotional stance in these two situations was completely different. With Molly, I was an anxious mom, worried about her school performance. With Macie, I was just there, loving the opportunity to teach her something that might be useful.

It dawned on me that I have been much more respectful of my stepchildren’s autonomy. I can support them without mistakenly thinking that their competence is my competence. I don’t worry (or even think) about how their successes or failures might reflect on me.

It is totally normal for parents to feel like they have more skin in the game with their biological children than stepchildren; psychologists call this tendency “ego-involvement.” In her wonderful book Pressured Parents, Stressed Out Kids, Grolnick writes,

Ego-involvement occurs when our protective and loving hardwiring collides with the competition in our children’s lives, prompting us wrap our own self-esteem around our children’s achievement. That gives us our own stake in how well our child performs.

However normal it may be, my “ego-involvement” wasn’t helping anyone; it may have actually been making Molly and Fiona less successful in their endeavors. Noticing how differently I was behaving with my stepchildren was a giant wake-up call. I needed to be more supportive of Molly and Fiona without being intrusive, to make requests without being so bossy.

After the study skills incident, I resolved to coach my children more like I coach my clients: gently, and without ego-attachment. Instead of dictating what I want when I want it (“Put that freaking device down! You should be helping me with dinner! Start peeling the carrots NOW!”), I’ve returned to the “ERN” approach I devised in Raising Happiness:

  1. Empathize. “I know you’d rather be looking at Instagram than helping in the kitchen right now. I’m dying to know what is cracking you up.”
  2. Provide Rationale. “But I need some help with dinner or we are going to be late for your performance.”
  3. Use Non-controlling language. This one is hard for me. Asking questions helps, as in: “Would you rather peel carrots or set the table? Either would be super helpful right now.” I don’t let myself say “should,” “have to,” or “I want you to,” which is what Grolnick sees as the epitome of controlling language.

None of this is about lowering my standards or relaxing rules; my children will still tell you that I’m the strictest parent on the block. But providing kids with high expectations and lots of structure is very different than being bossy and dictatorial.

As I’ve made an effort to be less controlling, my connections with my children have instantly deepened. Why? Jess Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, recently explained to me that “parental control kills connection.”

So on this Step Family Day, I’m grateful for my connections to my four children, all of whom I love with all my heart. And right now I’m especially grateful for my beautiful stepchildren. They have given me the opportunity to experience what it is like to love without the sticky attachment of my ego, and that is truly the sweet spot of motherhood.

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Happiness Tip: Go Easy on Yourself

Fun fact: Most people are starting to falter at their New Year’s Resolutions by now.

If you are anything like me, setbacks, lapses, and mistakes can come with a fair amount of self-flagellation. Somehow I think that if I’m really hard on myself, I’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or I’ll motivate myself towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.

Here’s why: Self-criticism doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.

Self-compassion — being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves–does help matters when we make a mistake or the going gets rough. It leads to less anxiety and depression, greater peace of mind, and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

Take Action: The next time you flub-up, take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a small child: use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response (which will only make matters worse).

Photo courtesy of Matty Ring.

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