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The Surprisingly Essential Ingredient for Effective Living

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


To live effectively is to aim for behaviors and habits that work for us in the real world. There are lots of tricks and techniques for making changes in our lives: goal setting strategies, arranging priorities, structuring support for new and better habits, to name just a few.

These are important skills, and part of an effective menu of personal growth. But there’s an essential ground to all of these; a quality that can make the difference between fighting against sometimes overwhelming forces, versus leaning into life with the wind at our back. This quality has less to do with what we do, than with how we do it.

Here’s the big idea:

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The Healing Power of Writing

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


When we’re traumatized by something, there are things that we can do to be able to bounce back as best as we can. One of those things is writing. I’ll get to the specific action in a minute, but first let me clarify a few things.

When I say “bounce back,” I don’t mean “just pretend that everything’s okay.” There are experiences that are so horrible that we really never completely bounce back from them. But we can do things that will make our situation worse, and things we can do that can make them better.

Something that can make a trauma – or even just a troubling conflict or major life change – worse is to keep it a secret. We tend to keep secrets of things that we’re ashamed of, and trauma can often be accompanied by a sense of shame. What I’ll be showing you can help you through a part of that.

It’s important to distinguish “keeping a secret” from having appropriate boundaries. There’s a time and a place to share our experience with others; and it matters who those others are. Telling anybody and everybody about our traumatic or troubling experience can be intrusive and presumptuous, and can set us up for an awful experience as well.

That said, one of the most harmful things we can do if we’ve experienced trauma is to hold it completely inside, trying to make believe that it didn’t happen, and keeping it a secret.

Now here’s what we can do instead.

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To Live by Your Deeper Values, Ask This Question

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


There is one quality, more than any other, that leads predictably to greater success and effectiveness in the world: the ability to choose between short term pleasure/avoidance of pain on the one hand, and longer-term goals and values on the other.

People who have a strong capacity for delaying gratification like this are more successful academically and professionally, earn higher incomes, have better relationships, and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior or destructive personal habits.

We can deliberately grow this quality in ourselves.

For most of us, most of the time, this comes down to a question of consistency around more subtle day to day choices: Do I spend this next hour focused on my work project, or scrolling social media? Do I go to a somewhat challenging social event or stay home? Do I get up and do a workout, or sleep in? Do I make the effort to spend time connecting with my spouse or allow myself to get distracted with other things?

I’ve been working with people as a teacher, Marriage and Family therapist, and coach for over 40 years now. I have worked – and continue to work – with people all over the world via phone and video. In all that time, across many different cultures, there’s one question that I’ve found more effective than any other in clarifying these choices, so that the better decision stands in stark relief.

Here is that question:

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Updating Your Ancient Past

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


There are (at least) two major qualities from our ancient past that cause us considerable trouble. Taking conscious control of them and training and updating ourselves for our present environment can make a big difference in our quality of life.

One of these is our attraction to high calorie foods. Starvation and famine were dire threats for our hunter gatherer forebears. Finding enough food was always the mission – and discovering a trove of high calorie foods was generally a cause for celebration and feasting.

When our ancestors came across the wilderness equivalent of a bakery, the best option for their survival was to eat as much as they possibly could.

So today, when high-calorie/low-nutrition snacks are everywhere and inexpensive, our inner hunter gatherer leads us to want to eat as much as we can.

That our rate of obesity and corresponding health hazards such as heart disease and diabetes are through the roof is one consequence of our incredible prosperity. This is not some moral failing or lack of character; we’re doing what our successful forebears selected for us. What worked well for our ancestors is killing us today.

Our challenge is to adapt to our abundance by consciously and purposefully resetting our habits from hunter-gatherer auto-pilot eating, and toward deliberate habits that include knowledge of how our current meals will affect our future health and well-being.

The other leftover from our ancient past is our strong bias toward negativity.

For our hunter-gatherer forebears, their natural inclination when assessing their environment was to be pessimistic and vigilant. They scanned for danger in a way that kept every one of our ancestors from being eaten, poisoned, murdered, drowned, crushed… or otherwise mortally damaged.

Those that didn’t do this… are not our ancestors.

Those cheery optimists of the distant past who weren’t sufficiently on guard, continuously looking for whatever could go wrong… they may have had a very nice time for a short while, but they weren’t likely to survive for long.

This negative bias served us well for millennia, but in our much more peaceful, complex, and abundant world today, we’re better served by understanding this bias, and adapting to the new environment in which most of us, most of the time, now live.

The concrete consequence of this negative bias is that, as Roy Baumeister and John Tierney point out in their book, The Power of Bad, Negative experiences are about four times as strong for us as positive ones.

An easy way to experience this is with two simple questions posed by Amos Tversky to Steven Pinker:

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The Physical Benefits of Happiness

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


We are all familiar with the basic guidelines for good health: exercise, eat right – more fruits and veggies, less red meat, more fish, fewer calories, more fiber, less sugar- don’t smoke, don’t abuse alcohol or drugs.  If we follow these guidelines and maintain an optimal weight, many health problems would be greatly diminished.

But there is another dimension to our health. How we think and feel, how we interact with others, and the kind of activities we spend our time doing can have a huge impact on our physical health.

We can assess these different habits and behaviors by how they affect our happiness, our relationships, and our resilience. Which helps us to function better? Which helps us to enjoy the company of family and friends? Which helps us to be more effective and to live a better life?

Fortunately, over the years there has been a great deal of very good research that is beginning to show some clear and consistent guidelines for how to practice psychological health, and live a happier and more fulfilling life.

It’s also shown some practices that can lead to a physically healthier life.

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An Essential Skill So Easy a Child Can Do It

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics called it akrasia – a weakness of will, acting in a way contrary to our consciously held moral values. It’s the quality that most distinguishes criminals from the rest of us; and the quality that most distinguishes less successful people from those who are more successful.

The ability to resist our short-term impulses and desires, and to focus instead on our long-term values and goals is the most important capacity for living well.

In the late 1960’s, Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University, conducted one of the most important experiments in psychology. It’s now called The Marshmallow Test, but marshmallows were only one of a variety of treats used to tempt young limbic systems to indulge in their immediate desires.

Children from age three on up were left alone in a room with treats – luscious marshmallows, yummy cookies… the children got to decide which treats they’d be tantalized by. They were given two options: ring a bell to call the experimenter back in the room, at which point they could eat one of the indulgences; or wait until the experimenter came back some twenty minutes later, and get to eat two of the treats.

This was a test of the ability to delay gratification. Following up in the decades since, Mischel and his colleagues have found that those children who were able to wait longer also were more successful in many crucial ways as time went on.

As teenagers, they scored an average of 210 points higher on their SAT scores. As adults, they were better able to pursue and reach long term goals, including reaching higher educational levels; they were less likely to use drugs, had a significantly lower body mass index, were better able to deal well with challenges in work and maintain close relationships.

Later, when brain imagery technology was used to study these now grown children, those who had maintained a high level of self-control over the course of their lives showed more activity in their prefrontal cortex – the area that integrates the higher functions of motivation and control.

Those who were less able to delay showed more activity in the more primitive ventral striatum – which involves desire, pleasure, and addiction.

The children who were able to resist the siren song of immediate treats went on to lead more disciplined and successful lives than those who were not. This could lead us to think there’s something inborn, a fixed trait of self-control present from early childhood, that would allow some people to flourish and succeed, while others were doomed to a life of self-indulgence and failure.

That’s the message a lot of people have taken from a superficial look at these experiments, but they’ve missed the point entirely…

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The Quiet Power of Kindness

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


For some, happiness is a word that conjures up visions of selfish people concerned only with their own pleasure; but this sort of hedonistic approach to happiness is a recipe for serial bursts of pleasure at the expense of long-term happiness.

When I speak of happiness, I am describing a much richer concept; more akin to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia or “success at being human.”

One of the central elements for living well is how we relate to other people. In this regard, happiness is literally the opposite of self-centeredness or self-absorption. In fact, contrary to many Las Vegas advertisements or Hollywood-lifestyle fantasies, self-absorption is a key ingredient for depression, and single-minded focus on personal pleasure is a recipe for long-term misery.

So here’s the single most effective thing we can do to get an immediate and significant boost to our genuine happiness – and to set the stage for a deeper, long-term happiness as well. It’s simple. It’s not mysterious. But it is substantial:

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The Most Important Moment

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


A marriage, a friendship, a close family relationship… all of our important relationships are built on countless moments, innumerable interactions that either build qualities of trust, joy, and respect – or undermine those qualities.

Today I want to show you what is arguably the most important moment for building a trusting, satisfying, loving relationship.

We can often think that what makes a difference in a romantic relationship, or our relationship with our kids, or other friends and relatives, are the big things; the romantic getaway for the weekend, or the great gift that we buy.

…but there is a moment that packs more leverage, more meaning, and more potential for doing good – or harm – than almost any other: the moment when someone we care about asks for our attention.

Changing how we respond in that moment can enliven the entire atmosphere of our relationships. To understand why, we must first look at what happens to us when we’re ignored.

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How to Redecorate Your Mind

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Believe it or not, you have a powerful resource inside your head, one that can provide a reservoir of joy, strength and perseverance.   Once you recognize it – and practice tapping into it – you can use it not just to boost your day but to improve the quality of your entire life.  Best of all, it’s as straightforward as hanging a picture on the wall …

Think about the photographs you have displayed in your home.  Are they pictures of the miserable times, the disappointments, the conflicts, the traumas? Did you set things up so you are constantly reminded of the events and people who hurt you most?

Of course not. We’ve all had those times, of course. It’s part of life. But when we put pictures on the wall of our home, we choose pictures of the people we love, the peak moments. We want to be reminded of how adorable our kids were at that age, or the great trip we took that summer, or a favorite quality of someone we love.

We do this because it affects the entire atmosphere of our home. It’s part of what makes our house feel like a home. We may have boxes of pictures stored away that cover a wider range of experience, but what we want to see every day are the images that warm us, comfort us, inspire us.

In a similar way, we have images we reflect on in our mind’s eye; memories of times past, of people and events. We don’t regularly reflect on that many images; probably about as many as the pictures we have hanging on our wall.

And just as the pictures on our wall create a mood in our home, the pictures we reflect on in our minds create an atmosphere within ourselves. What many of us don’t realize is that we have the same ability to choose those internal images as we do to choose the pictures on the wall.

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Making it a Fair Fight

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness

We have a wonderful deli/bakery nearby that has great, healthy food, and very yummy, not-so-healthy treats – cookies, éclairs, pastries… very tempting stuff. Every once in awhile I’m seduced by these delicacies, and when I am, I almost always notice something afterwards: I don’t feel as good as I did before.

It’s not a severely bad feeling, and I can easily ignore it if I want to. But if I pay attention to the sensations in my body, there’s a clearly different feeling from my insides; it’s not as pleasant as it was before I had eaten the sugar and fat filled morsel.

This is the key to making our fight against bad habits a fair fight.

About 80 percent of the nerves connected to our viscera are afferent – meaning they send signals to our brain from our organs. These are sensory nerves, designed to give feedback about what’s happening within our bodies.

Until recently medical texts claimed that there was little or no sensory information coming from our organs. We now know that’s not true; there are well understood pathways from a part of our vagus nerve that send these sensory signals. Interestingly, Charles Darwin wrote about this over 100 years ago, but it never became widely appreciated until now.

But it’s also extremely common for us as we grow and deal with our challenges and goals – and peer pressure, and impatience of our fellow humans – to learn to ignore much of what these signals are telling us.

By ignoring the sensations of our bodies, we effectively deprive ourselves of one of our great strengths to overcome short term temptation…

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