Happiness Myths…Busted!

Have you ever seen the popular Discovery Channel show MythBusters? I love watching the hosts set up scenarios where movie scenes, popular assumptions, and more are tested and proven to be valid…or not.

Recently, I read about a scientific study that did something similar: It “busted” many of the myths our culture believes about happiness. Begun in 1938, the Grant Study followed 268 young male Harvard students throughout their lives. (In fact, it’s still ongoing!) The study’s goal is both simple and incredibly profound: to identify the factors that enable us to live happy, healthy lives. As the study’s published findings show, many of those factors aren’t what scientists thought they would be.

Here are six happiness myths the Grant Study busted, along with my own thoughts about them. I’ll be quoting this article written by George E. Vaillant, who was the study’s director from 1972 to 2004:

Myth # 1: Coming from a privileged background gives people a leg up in life. Vaillant writes: “We found that measures of family socioeconomic status had no significant correlation at all with later success in any of these areas [economic success, mental and physical health, and social supports and relationships].”

If you’re familiar with my story, you know that this busted myth is no surprise to me. I grew up in a very comfortable home and went on to become extremely financially successful. And I also suffered a nervous breakdown! No, I certainly won’t deny that financial security is a great blessing. But at the end of the day, all it allows you to do is suffer in comfort. Being bullied, suffering from perfectionism, living an out-of-balance life, coping with loss, and more aren’t any easier because you drive a nice car and have money in the bank.

Myth # 2: Being a people person will help me to be successful. Vaillant writes: “The sociability and extraversion that were so highly valued in the initial process of selecting the men did not correlate with later flourishing.”

Our society really values being a “people person”—and so, it seems, did the researchers who set up this study! The more friends and acquaintances we have, the thinking goes, the more socially satisfied we’ll be, and the more opportunities we’ll have. Here’s the problem: Very often, “sociability” is simply good acting. For a relationship to truly impact your happiness, it has to go deeper and be more meaningful than successful small talk. Whether you are an extrovert, an introvert, or somewhere in between, it’s the quality—not the quantity—of your relationships that counts.

Myth # 3: I don’t need a great social life to flourish in other areas. Vaillant writes: “…success in relationships was very highly correlated with both economic success and strong mental and physical health.”

This busted myth piggybacks on # 2, demonstrating further that quality relationships are “where it’s at” because they have a ripple effect throughout other areas of our lives. When you cultivate authentic, mutually supportive, positive relationships with others, you’ll feel less anxious and lonely, and more empowered. You’ll also have a reliable safety net to fall back on when something goes wrong. This is an ideal scenario for attracting opportunity, building professional success, and avoiding stress-related ailments like high blood pressure, depression, and more.

Myth # 4: People with natural intelligence are most successful. Vaillant writes: “We found… that there was no significant difference between the maximum earned incomes of the men with IQs of 110-115 and the incomes of the men with IQs of 150-plus.”

Vaillant goes on to report that men with “warm relationships” made an average of $141,000 more per year (yes, you read that right!) than their peers with the “worst scores for relationships.” Are you seeing a pattern here? I am. Once again, quality relationships have a much bigger impact on success than something our society assumes should be a big driver. Here, the takeaway is that natural intelligence will get you only so far on its own. People don’t care how smart you are if you’re cold, rude, dismissive, unsupportive, etc. So often in business (and in life), it’s not what you know so much as how you make people feel.

Myth # 5: I can’t help that I’m not a happy person. It’s just not my nature, and I can’t change that. Vaillant writes: “If you follow lives long enough, people adapt and they change, and so do the factors that affect healthy adjustment.”

In his article, Vaillant tells the story of study participant Godfrey Minot Camille, who was initially “a disaster as a young man”: Camille was unhappy, a hypochondriac, had few meaningful connections with others, and even attempted suicide. But when he died, Camille was one of the most successful participants in the study in terms of his professional success, health, fulfillment, relationships, and more. Over time, Camille learned to forge and develop meaningful relationships. He had a spiritual awakening. And he replaced unhealthy coping mechanisms with more productive ones.

I can relate! Over the course of my own happiness journey, I’ve become a very different person from the man I used to be prior to my breakdown. I have learned that happiness isn’t something you’re born with; it’s something you choose. Yes, people can change. Everyone can learn skills, attitudes, coping mechanisms, etc. that radically change how they experience life.

Myth # 6: Physical attractiveness contributes to happiness. Vaillant writes: “At the outset of the Study in 1939, it was thought that men with masculine body types—broad shoulders and a slender waist—would succeed the most in life. That turned out to be one of many theories demolished by the Study as it has followed the lives of these men.”

It’s easy to assume that being good-looking makes you happier. But in my experience, “beautiful” people struggle with self-esteem issues just like the rest of us (sometimes to much greater degrees). And who cares how attractive a face is if the personality behind it is ugly? How you treat other people is much more impactful than how you look.

These are certainly not all of the myths that the Grant Study busts. But I do think they illustrate an important point: True happiness comes from positive relationships, a healthy perspective, and the willingness to change. No matter what society tells us, good looks, money, and even our own pasts don’t define and fulfill us.

 

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Living a Life of Purpose: John Dowd Jr. and Heroes, Mentors, and Friends

In my last blog post, I told you about a friend of mine, Gary Marino, who defied the odds and succeeded in accomplishing what he sees as his life’s purpose: educating Americans about obesity (especially childhood obesity), as well as how to prevent and overcome it. If you checked out the film I helped Gary make, Million Calorie March: The Movie, I hope you were inspired.

Today, I want to tell you about another person who took a risk to pursue his purpose. Like Gary, John Dowd Jr. is a good personal friend of mine. If you have Sirius XM radio, you might be familiar with John’s voice: You can hear him weekdays on Sirius’s “’70s on 7” station (where he’s known as “Jaybeau”) from noon to 6:00 p.m.

John is fond of saying that at age 50, he got what might be the best gift anyone could ever receive: He got fired. (Yes, you read that right!) Let me explain. After losing his job, John initially did what most of us would do: He agonized about what steps he should take next. A 25-year veteran of the broadcast and radio industries with numerous awards under his belt, John felt a strong pull to find another job as soon as possible. A little voice in his mind told him that the most important thing was to keep the money coming in, no matter how much personal fulfillment he might or might not get from his career.

John now calls that little voice “The Outside Me.” It’s the voice of fear, he says. It lives in the external world and measures success by external things like money, accomplishments, and “stuff.” Fortunately, John had another mental voice, “The Inside Me.” It encouraged him to let go of fear and do something really meaningful: work on the book he’d been wanting to write for years—a book that would help other people move toward spiritual enlightenment and create more positive lives for themselves.

At that point, John did something truly difficult: He took a leap of faith and listened to “The Inside Me.” He didn’t accept the next job that came along; he began working on his book. Soon, a series of so-called “coincidences” (what Carl Jung calls “synchronistic events”) began to take place. To John, they were clear signs that he was on the right path.

Today, John is the author of Heroes, Mentors, and Friends. In this book, John uses his own experiences to share lessons he has learned about finding and following inspiration from special people in our lives. But he didn’t stop there: He also hosts a weekly inspirational radio show (you can listen to episodes here) and sends out regular positive messages to his email club. (If you enjoy reading my blog posts, you’ll love John’s material too—you can sign up here.)

So, is John glad he listened to “The Inside Me”? You bet! Here’s what he has to say:

“The voice of ‘The Inside Me’ is our soul. It is the higher part of us. It is the Universe, Nature, God, whatever name you want to give it, speaking through us. Today I’m LIVING my life and no longer living as a spectator of it. ‘The Inside Me’ was right. What is your inside voice telling you today?”

Indeed! Take some quiet time to really listen to your inner voice. What do you think your purpose might be? How can you use your experiences, abilities, and passions to make the world a better place? Remember, we all have something unique and valuable to offer—and nobody is too small to make a difference!

It’s time to go on a (mental) diet!

In my last post, I took a look at the reasons why there is so much bad news in the world. But while the “whys” may be interesting, they don’t change the fact that feeding your mind negative material is bad for you. Through personal experience, I know that what you put into your mind has a huge impact on your attitude and outlook—and thus on the quality of your life.

Over time, I have consciously weeded out most of the mental “foods” that once brought me down and replaced them with a more empowering diet that challenges me in a healthy way. (If you’re curious about what sparked that quest, you can read the story here, in one of my earliest blog posts.) Being purposeful about what I feed my mind has transformed me from a stressed, insecure, self-absorbed, and perpetually anxious perfectionist into a more balanced, positive, and healthy guy. And the same thing can happen to you!

It’s really quite simple: If you’re surrounding yourself with positive, educational, and encouraging things, you’ll be happier and feel more balanced. But if you’re mainly exposed to concerning headlines, social media statuses that make you feel “less than,” and complaints from your coworkers, you’ll remain mired in negativity. Here’s how to break out of it and hardwire a more positive mental diet into your life.

*Cut out the “junk.” The first step in improving your outlook and mood is to cut out the “junk” in your mental diet. Be more mindful of how conversations, TV shows, books, etc. make you feel. If something makes you feel pessimistic, fearful, anxious, or just generally bad, then change the subject, turn off the TV, or close the book. (Honestly, turning your attitude’s tide is often just that simple: walking away from the problem!)

If it’s not feasible or desirable to totally remove yourself from something that’s flooding your mind with negativity, limit your exposure. For example, show up to staff meetings on time—but not significantly early—if you know that your boss likes to complain about how the “big guys in the corner offices” screw over everyone below them. Likewise, there’s no need to live in a current events-less bubble; just don’t leave the news channel on in the background all day.

*Choose some better “snacks.” Cutting out the junk is a great first step, but it’s not enough. If you really want to rewire your brain, you also have to actively feed it material that will help your inner optimist grow. Yes, I’m talking about motivational material, and, yes, I also understand that you may think it’s not for you. But bear with me and give this a shot. As I’ve said before, these resources changed my life, and they can change yours as well. (Click here for a list of some of my favorite things to read and listen to!)

Start by identifying an area in which you need or want the most help. For instance, would you like to be more optimistic? Do you spend a lot of your energy holding on to anger, resentment, and grudges? Are you often fearful of the future? Would you like to manage your stress more effectively? Whatever you think your most pressing “problem spot” might be, try to find a book, CD, or DVD that addresses it directly. Over time, you can branch out and add other topics to your new mental “diet.” That’s the great thing about self-improvement—there’s always room to make your mindset better!

*Plan regular “meals.” Everybody knows that to be healthy you have to eat foods that are good for you, and you have to eat them on a regular basis. It’s the same with your “mind food”—to really benefit from it, it has to be a regular part of your life. And the good news is, an investment of only 20 minutes a day will make a big difference.

If possible, I’d advise you to start your mornings with some sort of motivational material, because it can put you in a positive place for the rest of the day. The “how” is up to you. If you have an MP3 player, you could combine your listening with your morning walk. Or you might want to listen to a motivational CD in the car on your way to work (that’s what I do). You could also play a segment of a DVD while you’re getting ready at home, or read a section in a motivational book as you sip your coffee. If you like the benefits you experience due to your morning “brain breakfast,” don’t stop there! Build other chunks of time devoted to feeding your mind into your day. Personally, I find it helpful and relaxing to read a few pages of inspiration each night before bed, too.

Yes, it may take some effort to change your long-standing habits and routines as you make room for more positive material. But the results are worth it. Your attitude will transform, you’ll be in better control of your thoughts and emotions, and you’ll more naturally be able to focus on the many wonderful things about yourself, other people, and life in general.

 

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Defining Close Relationships

It’s pretty common to hear advice along the lines of, Work on your close relationships if you want to be happier. Heck, I’ve given that advice myself numerous times, and I’ve even written about it on this blog! And yes, I still stand behind it. But I’ve been thinking, What, exactly, defines a “close relationship”? What if many of us are missing out on fulfilling connections with others because we have a skewed view of what they should look like?

The fact is, at various points throughout our lives, all of us (myself definitely included) have maintained close ties with people who just weren’t good for our self-esteem, well-being, and happiness. Or maybe you fall on the other end of the spectrum and tend to back away from any relationship that isn’t comfortable, reasoning that fulfilling relationships should be effortless.

I know it might not be easy, but it’s important to come to grips with the fact that if you want to be happy, your close relationships might not end up being the ones you think they should be. I encourage you to take a little time to think about which relationships are best for your happiness and for your emotional and mental well-being. Here are some things to consider when making your list:

*Are you expecting it to be too easy? I think a lot of us buy into the myth that our close relationships should be easy. If they take a lot of work or become uncomfortable, we tell ourselves that they’re just not right for our lives. He’s my father, you might say. It shouldn’t be hard. I’m going to stop calling him so often. You may question if there’s something wrong with you or the other party, and soon you’re caught up in feelings of blame and resentment. Sadly, this frustration can make us write off relationships too soon. But the truth is, no two people are ever going to be on exactly the same page on a constant basis. All relationships—even healthy ones—take constant work.

*Is reciprocity present? Depending on your personality type, you might dedicate yourself to pleasing your loved ones. But do they put forth the same effort on your behalf? For a relationship to be worthy of being “close,” both parties need to genuinely value the other’s well-being. For instance, if you’re constantly giving and your brother is constantly taking, you’re not close in a meaningful sense. And to be clear, when I refer to reciprocity, I’m not talking about keeping a scorecard. An “I did that favor for him recently, so he owes me this favor right now” mentality will primarily cause frustration and resentment. Reciprocity “works” long-term only when unconditional love is present. And remember, you, as well as all other human beings, are valuable, important, and worthy of respect from the people in your life.

*Does the relationship make you happy right now? Often, we maintain close ties with other people out of habit—especially when it comes to friendships. But it’s important to realize that human beings evolve and change over time. So every once in awhile, take the temperature of your relationships. For instance, Sally and Samantha may have been inseparable in high school, but that doesn’t mean they will have as much in common 20 years down the road. It’s okay to allow some relationships to move to the background of your life. If you hang onto them too tightly, you won’t be able to make room for new, more fulfilling people to enter your life.

*Is this a tie that’s important to you? Maybe your relationship with your spouse or teenager isn’t bringing you much joy right now. But giving up on that person just doesn’t feel right to you. Pay attention to that instinct. Depending on your circumstances, there will be certain relationships in your life that are inherently worth greater amounts of stress, anxiety, and hard work. For many people, spouses, children, and parents will fall into these categories. In-laws, friends, and maybe even certain coworkers might (or might not) be included as well. Make sure you have consciously indentified the people you want to stay in your life and for whom you’re willing to go the extra mile.

Remember, the quality of your relationships—particularly those into which you pour your heart—can make or break the quality of your life. Loving, supportive relationships will majorly enhance your happiness levels. But fractious, unstable, or even distant relationships with your family members and historically close friends can leave you feeling unappreciated, angry, alone, and anxious.

What’s more, the stress and unhappiness that stem from less-than-healthy close relationships don’t stop with you. You’ve probably heard me say (or write) that we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. If you’re putting a lot of time into relationships that zap your mood and drain your energy, not only will your own happiness levels suffer; you’ll pass that negative vibe onto other family members, friends, etc. (This is especially important to pay attention to if you have children, because they’ll grow up with the attitudes and outlooks—good or bad—they see you displaying.)

So, to review, make sure you aren’t forcing yourself to stay close to people who just aren’t good for you any longer. It’s a mistake to channel a lot of your energy, time, and emotions toward a particular person out of a sense of obligation, just as it’s unwise to throw all less-than-easy relationships out the window. Consciously distancing yourself from some people while making others a more prominent part of your life doesn’t make you a bad person—it means that you value your emotional health, your quality of life, and your happiness.

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Why I’m Grateful for America the Great

America’s “birthday,” July Fourth, is coming up soon. All across the United States, this holiday is a chance to grill out, watch parades, admire fireworks, and hang flags on our front porches. I would venture to say that most of us feel a swell of patriotic pride as we look at all of the red, white, and blue surrounding us. Yes, even though we all have our personal beefs with aspects of American life (just turn on a political talk show if you’re skeptical), I think that overall we know we’re fortunate to live in this great land.

In honor of July Fourth, I have written down seven reasons why I’m grateful to live in the United States of America. My list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it does represent aspects of our country that we often take for granted. This Fourth, in addition to enjoying a holiday with your community, I encourage you to reflect on how living in America has shaped your life specifically.

As an American, I’m grateful for:

  • Our security. While attacks from terrorists (both foreign and domestic) have proven that the United States is not completely invulnerable, we do live very secure lives compared to many of our brothers and sisters around the world. Wars are not being fought on our soil, and our neighbors are friendly. Can you imagine what it would be like to not feel safe walking out of your own front door, or to live in a city that has been literally and figuratively torn apart by conflict? Furthermore, our fabulous law enforcement professionals are constantly on duty to make sure that our communities are safe, fair, and just places to live.
  • Our standard of living. Compared to so many other people on this planet, Americans live comfortable, secure, and even luxurious lives. Most of us live in our own homes, drive our own cars, have plenty to eat, and enjoy amenities ranging from smartphones to laptops to grocery stores to movie theaters. However, I think our high standard of living can be difficult to fully appreciate unless you have traveled to other parts of the world and seen what “normal” is like in various other countries.
  • The American Dream. It’s still alive and well! This is a country where you can do what you want, build a comfortable life, and even rise to impressive heights if you are positive, honest, and work hard. You do not have to be confined to a certain place or profession if you do not want to be.
  • Diversity. America continues to be The Great Melting Pot, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier about it. Even in my own community, and especially around the country as a whole, there is so much variety in terms of culture, food, background, beliefs, etc. Every person and family is different, and each lives a unique life. I truly wouldn’t want to live in a place where everyone looked, behaved, and thought similarly. Over the course of my life, I have grown so much as a person because I have been exposed to new viewpoints, traditions, ideas, and experiences thanks to people around me.
  • Medical care and education. Again, you may have your complaints about medical care and the education system in the United States, but comparatively, both are very high quality. People come to our country from all around the world specifically to take advantage of them. I am glad that there are professionals ready to safeguard my health around the clock, and that we are guaranteed a top-notch education at least through age 17 or 18—and longer if we choose to pursue a higher-education degree.
  • Water. You can drink it whenever you want without worrying about getting sick. You can buy it bottled and by the case in many stores. You can take long, hot showers and baths. You can even immerse yourself in it if you go to a pool, river, or lake. By comparison, many countries around the world have contaminated, non-potable water and/or have to deal with major water shortages.
  • The postal service. Talk about something we really take for granted but still rely heavily on even in the digital age. When you think about it, it’s amazing that you can put a letter in your mailbox and be pretty sure it will end up where you want it to go in a short period of time. I want to extend my thanks to all postal service workers who help ensure that this process remains reliable and quick.

So, who can we thank for all of these things (and many more)? Well, the America we know today is here because our ancestors came to this land—often with nothing—and worked hard to build better lives for themselves and their children. From our Founding Fathers to America’s great businessmen and inventors to the millions of individuals who crossed oceans to become citizens, we owe those who came before and paved the way for us to enjoy the comfortable lives we know today.

We should also thank America’s military, past and present. Since before the United States was officially a nation, soldiers have fought and died for our freedom, security, and national interests, and their families have borne the heavy burden of sending loved ones to war.

Lastly, we can all thank the individuals who, in large or small ways, make our own corners of America a great place to live. Teachers, medical professionals, government employees, and many, many more provide essential services without which our lives would be very different.

So, Happy Birthday, America! On July Fourth and every other day, here’s to the U.S.A.!

 

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