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How to Find the Strength in Your Temperament

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


People who are extroverts – people who are more sociable, who like to be out, talk, and interact with other people, and who gladly put themselves out into new situations – tend to be happier than people who are not.

That’s great for those who, by temperament, happen to be extroverts. But what if we’re not naturally extroverted? We can still improve our overall happiness by doing extroverted things.

The delightful truth is that, from simply taking more extroverted actions, our overall happiness grows about the same as if we were naturally extroverted.

If you tend to be an introvert, if your natural comfort is to be more solitary, shy, or quietly inward, I’m not suggesting that you deny your nature, or pretend to be someone that you’re not. There are significant strengths to introversion that I’ll discuss in a moment.

But you can get some of the benefits of an extrovert as well by practicing certain skills; then you can have the best of both worlds.

Try doing something each day that challenges you to be more outgoing. Don’t worry about doing the world’s most socially engaging activity – you don’t have to become some social thrill-seeker. What matters is the direction, not the mileage.

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Making Good Enough Choices

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Having choices is wonderful. Today we have more options in terms of goods and services to choose from than any time in the history of the human race, and the options for spending money are nearly endless. This is part of the Great Enrichment I’ve written about earlier, and when we manage it well, it can contribute to our quality of life.

When we don’t manage it well, it can ruin our quality of life – even in the midst of incredible abundance.

On one end of the spectrum, we can get into trouble with our money when we don’t think enough – we spend too much on things we don’t really like once we have them. On the other end, we can devote too much time and emotional energy on making absolutely sure that we’ve bought the very best thing, at the very best price, with everything we buy.

This is where it’s essential for our happiness that we aim for making choices that are good enough, rather than trying to maximize every single purchase we make.

This is the message of Barry Schwartz’s excellent book, The Paradox of Choice.

When we habitually obsess over our purchases, it can undermine our well-being, drain the pleasure from what we buy, and even drop us into depression.

It’s important to put the time and energy into research and comparisons for some purchases. But if you spend hours deciding between one pair of shoes or another, or days fretting over whether you’re getting the best deal on a coffee maker, you might just be overdoing it.

Doing this with one or two choices won’t cause much trouble, but cumulatively, over time, this kind of painstaking deliberation can seriously erode our sense of joy and satisfaction.

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How to Overcome Our Old, Limiting Beliefs

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


Have you ever felt that in striving toward a goal of some kind, that there’s something holding you back? Something that you can’t see or grasp clearly, but you feel it’s there, slowing you down – like you just can’t get traction?

This is something that most of us have experienced to one degree or another.

Maybe we find we hit a wall with how much income we earn; or we find a pattern in our relationships that limits our sense of closeness; or we feel there’s some obstacle in our work that we can’t seem to overcome.

It can feel like there’s a threshold that we can’t seem to cross, no matter how hard we try. We struggle to improve whatever it is, but it’s as though there’s something working against us, like a gravitational pull that keeps drawing us back within a certain range.

When this happens, what we may be experiencing is the effect of a rotten belief.

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If You Want to be Miserable, Compare Yourself to Others

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


We have a unique capacity to envision an immense variety of possible future states. This allows us have ideals and strive for them, to plan, to learn and grow… and to want things.

In an essential way this orientation toward the future is what makes us human. We can imagine something we want to achieve, something we want to avoid, something we want to have, and then we can plan and aim ourselves toward achieving, avoiding, or gaining possession of whatever it is.

But there’s a downside.

What if I want something that other people have, and I don’t?

What if I want something that I had in the past but no longer have?

What if I expect to have something, but don’t end up getting it?

What if I want something I can’t have?

That gap, between what we have and what we want, can inspire us to strive, to persevere, to lean into our lives more… but it can also make us miserable.

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Mastering Emotions Through Sensing Your Body

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


Learning to feel, understand, and use our emotions is central to mastering the complexity of life. Our emotions become much clearer and easier to use the more we pay attention to the physical sensations that go with them.

For many of us, emotions are something of a mystery. On the one hand, they can be delightful; they give life meaning and depth that would be impossible without them. On the other hand, they can be uncomfortable; they can hinder and disturb us; and anger in particular can sometimes cause a whole lot of very big trouble.

How do you know you feel afraid? Is your breath more shallow, your chest tight, your belly vibrating?

For many of us, the first sense we have of fear is when we’re already overtaken by the emotion, uncomfortable with the need to avoid or endure something that feels threatening.

In the case of panic attacks, the physical process leading to the emotion of panic can start much earlier than the panic itself. A tightening of our chest, a constriction in our breathing, can lead to a change in CO2 levels in our blood as early as 40 minutes before we feel anything! By the time we’re actually panicking we’re already in trouble, with an intensity of emotion that can be genuinely disabling.

Often, panic is not about an external fear at all, it’s a physical response to feeling like we’re suffocating – because the CO2 levels in our blood are telling us that we are.

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A Strategy for Quieting Painful Memories

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


About a hundred years ago, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in a café in Vienna waiting for her coffee refill. It never came. She noticed that her waiter had an excellent memory for all of his customers’ orders, but somehow had forgotten her coffee.

Bluma set herself to the task of investigating this phenomenon further. What she found in her subsequent studies was this: People tend to remember the details of things exceptionally well when those things are unfinished. She had already paid her waiter, so he had forgotten about her because he was finished with her as a customer.

What is unfinished haunts us. It stays with us, nagging us to bring it to completion. There is something immensely useful to understand here.

Bluma theorized that incomplete tasks create psychic tension within a person, which motivates them to complete those tasks. Painful memories of the past often have a quality of regret. Regret for having had to endure some sort of trauma; for having missed out on a relationship we might have had; for having done something that went against our values… or having not done something that mattered to us.

What is fascinating is that these painful memories seem to lose their energy as soon as we do something in the present, so that we are no longer perpetuating what was painful in the past. If we are lonely, and have been lonely for a long time, the emotional energy of our loneliness dissolves as soon as we begin having the kind of social interactions we have been longing for.

The reality of our past loneliness doesn’t disappear, but the sadness and the draw to ruminate on the memory of it does.

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The Healing Power of Playfulness

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


A relationship can have complex and unique needs at any given time, so there isn’t really a one size fits all panacea for troubles. But of all the specific actions we can take to improve our relationships, I have found none that apply as often or as effectively as this:

Be playful.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s more challenging than meets the eye, and there are clear guidelines for it to work:

We have to approach play as allies, as a member of the same team; we have to be for our spouse, our child, our friend, our co-worker; and the play must have a spirit of love, kindness and optimism, as opposed to cynicism or sarcasm. There cannot be bitterness or resentment clouding the play; it’s the combination of creative, interactive flow and positive emotions that elevates us.

If you’re up for the challenge, you’re in for some pleasant surprises.

In over four decades of working with couples, families, individuals, and teams, I’ve found that playfulness is one of the clearest indicators of how things are going. When I meet a couple who are playful with each other in this way, even if their troubles are big ones, I know that the chances that they’ll prevail through whatever they’re struggling with are extremely good.

On the other hand, without playfulness, even small troubles can be overwhelming.

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What Lying Does to Us

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Lying takes a huge toll on our relationships, our physical health, and our mental health. But sometimes we’re not so clear about what it means to be honest. Does it mean we say everything that we think or feel?

There are very strong benefits to honesty; and also some common sense guidelines as to what’s appropriate to express.

Let’s start with outright lying. Americans lie an average of 11 times per week.

In one study, two groups were asked each week over a ten-week period how many lies they told while they were given a lie detector test. One of these groups was also encouraged to stop telling major and minor lies for the ten weeks.

Both groups ended up lying less, which is not surprising. When we focus our attention on something specific we are much more likely to improve our behavior around it – if we weigh ourselves regularly, we are more likely to lose weight; if we carry a pedometer to measure the number of steps we take, we are likely to exercise more – if you want to change something, measure it.

Not surprisingly, those who were encouraged not to lie, lied less than those who weren’t.

In any given week, when people lied less, they also reported that their physical health and mental health was better. But those in the group who were encouraged not to lie also reported that their relationships were better.

This is not shocking. Honesty is one of the foundations of trust, and trust is essential to good relationships. Lying leads to greater distrust. When we lie, we’re not as sneaky as we may think. People figure it out eventually, and they trust us less. Our relationships suffer dearly for it.

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How to Apologize

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness

In 399 BC, Socrates defended himself in the court of Athens against charges that he had corrupted the young and did not believe in the gods of the city. Though his attempt was unsuccessful, and he was shortly put to death, Plato recorded his great teacher’s performance that day as his Apology.

The title of this account uses the original definition of the word apology: the Greek apologia (apo – away from or off; logia from logos, words or speech), that is, “A defense especially of one’s opinions, position, or actions.”

Though the modern definition of the word apology is quite different, “an expression of regret for having done or said something wrong;” in some ways, I think we have culturally reverted to this older definition of apology – at least when it comes to politicians and other public figures.

We rarely hear publicly a genuine acceptance of responsibility for hurtful acts. It’s more common to hear either a defense of one’s actions, a displacement of responsibility onto the listener such as, “I’m sorry you feel badly about this,” or a diffusion of responsibility into the ether through the use of the passive voice such as, “I’m sorry that happened.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to behave like these public dissimulators…

We all make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes let other people down, or hurt them. The first step in repairing the mistakes we’ve made is to acknowledge that we’ve done something hurtful. Then the question becomes: “What’s the best way to apologize to the people we’ve disappointed or hurt?”

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How to Worry Effectively

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Worry is a troublesome activity. And we can find ourselves practicing this ancient ritual at the least opportune times: getting ready for an important presentation, anticipating the response of other people to something we want or need, hoping for a positive outcome in a complex situation… and all too often at two or three in the morning.

We tend to worry about the things we can’t control. Money is often at the top of the list. We can’t control how our investments will do. We also can’t control politics, the weather, or future events.

We can’t control the response to our presentation, the receptiveness of others to what we want or need, or the outcomes of many situations… and we certainly can’t control much of anything in the middle of the night, when we should be sleeping soundly.

When we’re dealing with things we can control, we don’t usually worry about them, we just do them. We prepare diligently for our presentation, we ask for what we want as clearly and respectfully as possible, and we bring our very best to what we do, giving us the best chance at a positive outcome – but the outcome itself is often not in our hands.

Ideally, like the stoics recommended thousands of years ago, we would spend all our time focusing on only those things that we can control, and none of our time worrying about the things we can’t control. But anyone with ambitions, dreams for the future, or children knows that’s just not possible.

So let’s look instead at how we can worry more effectively:

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