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The Virtue of Self-Interested Work

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Giving and helping others are wonderful things. We are appreciated when we give to others through charity, volunteer work, or other acts of kindness; and rightly so. When we can help another person in some way, it creates a spirit of goodwill, and it’s one of the single most important acts we can do for our own happiness.

What’s often overlooked though is how much consciousness, caring, time, money, and energy each one of us already puts into significantly helping other people every day – through the work we do.

Every hour we’ve spent in a classroom, in an internship, and at work is an hour we’ve spent honing and perfecting our skills. Every dollar we’ve spent for tuition, books, seminars, travel – and of course those most expensive of seminars, the cost of failure or loss that have added to our wisdom – is a dollar we’ve spent investing in our ability to do our work well.

And every ounce of energy we’ve spent thinking about, worrying over, creating ideas for, and sweating through hard work and difficult times is an ounce of energy that increases our ability to provide some kind of product or service to another human being.

It’s popular these days to dismiss all this because we’re doing it for the money; as though earning money cheapens our efforts, makes our efforts base, selfish, or materialistic.

But earning a living from what we do makes it possible and reasonable for us to do it. When demagogues lecture young college graduates to forego making money, and instead to do something else that helps people, they are telling them that what we do to make money does not help people.

This, of course, is exactly the opposite of the truth.

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Stress is More Interesting Than You Think

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love or exercise.

  • Hans Selye

It is common knowledge that too much stress is bad for us; yet stress is also a necessary and vital part of living well. Anything that you do that involves challenging yourself, confronting situations that require your best efforts, or pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone will involve a degree of stress.

Happiness is not the absence of stress; it is living with a degree of stress that we can manage. And there’s new research that turns what we thought we knew about stress on its head – what’s most important for our health and well-being is not the stress itself, but what we believe about stress.

When we’re feeling too much stress in our lives, there are two things that we can do:

  • Do less of what causes us stress
  • Learn to manage a higher level of stress

Legendary UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” That one sentence contains great leverage for decreasing stress. A major cause of stress is worrying and spinning our wheels trying to do things that are outside of our control.

When we focus on what we can’t do, we feel both revved up to want to do something, and simultaneously helpless to actually do anything. It’s like having one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake at the same time. To that end, focusing most of our efforts on what we can do will make us more effective, and less stressed out.

Another thing we can do to decrease external stress is to take stock of our environment, and find what increases our stress. Do you spend a lot of time commuting? Are you in an environment that overloads your senses, or in which you feel threatened? If you can change such things you can lower your stress levels.

Here are three simple but effective things we can do to increase our capacity for stress:

Savoring the Micro-Moments of Human Connection

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, Happiness


It’s easy these days to get drawn into a variety of small boxes: computers, televisions, ipads, kindles, smart phones… or occasionally even an actual book. There are a lot of wonderful possibilities within each of these (particularly books, but I’m old fashioned), but they can also deprive us, if we’re not careful, of life’s greatest joys: the treasure of human connection.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to counter this tendency, and enjoy the benefits of a richer emotional life, and a healthier physical life, as a result. I’ll show you how shortly.

One of my favorite researchers is Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of her books is Love 2.0, in which she looks at “love from the body’s perspective.” She has been studying how the experience of the emotion of love affects your physiology, including your physical health.

Now, when we hear the word “love,” the first form that usually comes to mind is romantic love. But this is only one framework within which we feel the emotion of love. The emotion of love requires safety and trust, and a Long-term, committed love relationship can create the opportunity for feeling the emotion of love often – but it is not the only place. We love our children, we love other family members, we love our friends…

We even feel a kind of love in what Fredrickson calls “micro-moments of connection.” The nice conversation we have with the checkout person at the grocery store; the warm greeting of welcome by a new acquaintance at a meeting; even the moment of eye contact with a stranger who holds open a door. That wonderful warm feeling is something that is much more ubiquitous than we might expect.

It turns out that these micro moments of connection are actually filled with stuff that is good for us, emotionally, psychologically, and in terms of our overall health… like a good meal is filled with nutrients.

The more positive emotions we have, the better our “vagal tone” is. Our vagal tone is the strength and health of our vagus nerve, which connects our heart with our brain and our internal organs. Our vagus nerve, among other things, controls our heart rate variability.

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Rituals of Preparation

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Change and growth is, first and foremost, an active, creative process. Charting a new course for ourselves, even if we’re only talking about a specific habit or two, involves envisioning what we would like different, how we would like it to be different, and what steps we need to take to get there.

Then, most importantly, it requires the commitment to take action, which involves creating the structures that will guide us through the steps and keep us on track; the scheduled appointments, the deadlines, the people who will keep us accountable.

Successful people actually use less willpower than less successful people, because they set up effective rituals, appointments, and accountability structures that build into their day what they would otherwise need willpower to achieve.

Twyla Tharp, the great dancer and choreographer, in her book The Creative Habit, talks about “rituals of preparation:” what creative people do that prepares them to work. This is hers:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 am, put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

Such rituals let our entire system know that we are ready, that it is time to work; they shepherd all of our psychological, emotional and physical resources and make them available to us, so we can focus and absorb ourselves in our task.

It’s the daily consistency that makes such rituals so powerful. As Tharp says:

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The Best Mental Exercise is Physical

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.

  • Ellen DeGeneres

It’s no secret that exercise is good for our physical health. But exercise is vital for our mental health as well; and sitting a lot and not exercising is tremendously harmful for our emotional and psychological life.

There has been an upsurge in depression over the past several decades. One major contributor to this is how little physical activity we get. Exercise is just about the best treatment for depression, yet today 50% of men and 60% of women don’t exercise more than ten minutes per week.

Yes, that’s per week.

The most popular treatment for depression is medication. It’s quick to administer, it’s easy to do, but, statistically, for mild to moderate depression it’s actually no better than placebo. It also has side effects that can be pretty unpleasant over time, and when the medication stops, so do its benefits.

Exercise isn’t as easy as medication; it takes work, self-discipline, and perseverance. It requires us to do what we often don’t feel like doing (I’ve probably jumped into a swimming pool tens of thousands of times by now, and to this day I have never liked that moment of entering the water).

But exercise is as much as two and a half times as effective as medication for overcoming depression.

Once we develop the habit of exercise, we can easily overcome the inertia and the discomfort; then the benefits we gain against the depression continue, and the side effects are all positive.

But overcoming the inertia and discomfort – or even the self-concept – that exercise requires can be tricky.

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A Mindset that can Undermine Everything – and How to Change it

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


One of the most harmful ways of thinking of ourselves is as a victim. It can make it nearly impossible to find success, financially or otherwise, and undermines our capacity for relationships.

Yet this mindset is not uncommon, we’ve probably all experienced it to some degree. But for some it can create a more pervasive atmosphere in their lives.

As researchers Rahav Gabay and his colleagues have shown, this mindset has four specific qualities that lead to three specific biases, and one onerous tendency, that can skew our view of the world.

Today we’ll look at how to move away from this kind of mindset, and re-orient toward taking effective, positive action.

Changing a victim mindset is much more complicated than the kind of “get over it” advice that’s so common – and useless. We have reasons for feeling like a victim – sometimes because we have been seriously harmed in some way; sometimes because for some reason at some point it seemed like a good strategy to deal with challenging circumstances, and eventually became a habit.

Whenever looking at our habits or mindsets, it’s essential to start with compassion, to understand that we often build certain habits of action or thought because it’s the best we can do at the time, even if it ends up harming us later.

But if our habits are harming us, it’s well worth looking at them honestly and with courage.

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How to Avoid Unnecessary Crises

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


I’m used to hearing from people in crisis. As a psychotherapist and life coach, it’s part of my job. It may be a crisis in a marriage, a crisis at work, a financial crisis… There are many places for crises to wreak havoc in our lives.

Some crises are unavoidable. We control only so much of what happens in our lives, and sometimes life throws hardship, tragedy, or deeply chaotic circumstances our way. I don’t make light of or gloss over the realities of life; but I do make it my business to help people to avoid unnecessary troubles, and there is one thing that we can do to prevent some of the more predictable crises of life:

Make and hold your positive commitments all the way, without reservation.

It’s no mystery that making solid commitments is central to a happy, successful life. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you.” Pat Riley said, “There are only two options regarding commitment. You’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as life in-between.” And then there are the famous words of Yoda to Luke Skywalker in the movie, “The Empire Strikes Back”: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

There are so many great quotes and sayings about commitment that it’s easy for the profound truth to get lost in the platitudes. Today we’re going to ground this abstract concept into a tangible strategy for real-life results.

We all know – in theory – how important commitment is, and yet one of the biggest problems I confront with my clients on a regular basis is a lack of commitment. This undermines their work, their relationships, their striving towards the life they want to live.

So for all the beautiful sayings and lessons about commitment, something seems to be missing.

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Finding a Compelling Vision for Your Future

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


When we think of what we’ll be like ten years from now, most of us imagine that we’ll be just like we are now. Yet when we look back ten years, we’re usually different than we were then.

We’ve learned from experiences, dealt with some hardship, maybe suffered some loss, triumphed in some things, been delighted by epiphanies, and came to understand some things we had not understood before.

If there is something we won’t do now because we “learned it the hard way,” if we have things that we regret having done that we would never ever do again, we can thank our younger self for learning that lesson for us – so we don’t have to keep re-learning it, and suffering over and over again like some cruel Groundhog Day remake.

Of course we are different today than we were ten years ago – unless we’ve removed ourselves from any experience of living. Life is a continual anti-entropy endeavor. If we don’t expend energy to create order, the natural tendency of things to move toward disorder takes over.

If we don’t mow the lawn, the lawn becomes a growth of weeds; if we don’t use our bodies in some kind of physical activity, our bodies begin to break down; if we don’t use our minds to learn and think about new things, our minds will become less active and effective.

If we don’t grow and learn and change our behavior over time to adapt to what we learn, we will become stuck in a rut, passively holding on to the familiar while the world carries on without us.

We all must succumb to entropy to some degree of course, but we also all experience things, and learn, grow, and change as a result.

We will be different in ten years than we are now. That’s a fact of life. The question is, how will we be different; and will we be different mostly as a result of events, or through conscious choice?

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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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