Eight Tips for Salvaging Your “Get in Shape” Resolution

“This is the year I’m going to get fit/lose weight/exercise more.” If you made any version of this common New Year’s resolution, you probably meant every word you said. It’s likely that you stuck to your gym schedule through the first week of January, and maybe even through the second. But by this point, you may be finding pressing reasons why you can’t work out, why other things on your to-do list need to take precedence. And soon, you’ll stop trying to fool yourself at all. Another year, another failed resolution, huh?

Believe me, I get it. Making big lifestyle changes is tough. And it’s not like you don’t have five thousand other responsibilities to focus on, right? Between your job, your kids, your house, and the million other chaotic details of everyday life, how did you ever expect to find the time to sweat off those extra 20 or 30 pounds?

Well, don’t throw in the towel just yet. Even if your exercise regimen is starting to slip, you don’t have to join the 92 percent of people who typically fail at achieving their resolutions. There’s still time to salvage your “get in shape” resolution—trust me! I’ve been down this particular road a few times myself, and as a result, I’ve learned a few things about staying on track—and about getting back on the wagon when you’ve fallen off! In this blog post, I’d like to share a few tips that may help you to breathe new life into your New Year’s resolution:

*Get rid of the excuses. The number one excuse that people use to not keep an exercise resolution is that they simply don’t have the time. But consider this: If you don’t take or make the time to take care of yourself, the stark fact is that you’ll probably have less time to spend on this earth. Also, it doesn’t take an expert to confirm that if you don’t care for your physical and mental well-being, you’re going to spend more time feeling sick and tired. So think of taking care of yourself physically as an investment—because that’s exactly what it is. Looking at exercise through this lens, weigh it against other activities and obligations in your life, and see which one comes out on top.

*Ditch your gym membership. Yes, seriously! That’s because the key to instilling a habit into your life is to make it doable. If you’re not exercising at all now, realistically, you probably won’t become a gym rat overnight. (And you’ll feel bad about yourself when you don’t get your money’s worth out of the membership fee.) So for now, put the running clubs, spin classes, and personal trainers on hold. Those can come into play later if you choose. At this point, all you need is a pair of walking shoes and the willingness to get off the couch for 15 to 20 minutes every other day.

*Start small. To start, try taking just a 20-minute walk every other day. That’s it. For example, you might walk around your neighborhood first thing in the morning (it’s a great way to start the day!), or maybe take a few laps around your office building at lunch. You could even go to a track or use a treadmill. I’ve found that the earlier you take your walk the better, because if you wait till evening “life” tends to get in the way. (Oh, and if you’re so busy that you don’t have 20 minutes to spare every other day, two 10-minute walks will work, too!) Over time, you can consider increasing the pace, duration, and frequency of your walks.

*Find some company. Consider exercising with friends or family members. Knowing that you have someone to whom you’re accountable will prevent you from slacking off too much, and the company will make your walks, workouts, or whatever else you choose to do more enjoyable. Especially if you have kids, I suggest making exercise a priority for the whole family. Being active together will instill a healthy habit in all of your lives, and it will also bring you closer together. Even if you don’t exercise together, though, make sure that your family understands and supports your own quest to become healthier. This is very important. You’ll need their support and understanding to make this big change.

*Schedule your exercise. If you leave your exercise up to chance, it probably won’t happen. “I’ll get around to it” is not a strategy for success. But if your workouts are on your calendar, they’re one step closer to becoming reality. When you know beforehand what time you plan to work out, and for how long, other excuses are much less likely to take precedence. And guess what? If you consistently schedule your exercise for long enough, it will become a habit.

*Make it easy to get started. After a lifetime of exercising, I’ve learned that the most difficult part of a workout isn’t pushing through to the finish when you start to get tired. It’s taking that first step out the door! Seriously, the comfort of your couch (or your bed) is the number one enemy of your New Year’s resolution. I recommend taking a good look at your particular routine and figuring out how to make that “first step out the door” easier. If you exercise first thing in the morning, for instance, maybe you lay out your workout clothes the night before—or even sleep in them! Or if you want to get in a walk after work, bring your athletic shoes to work with you so that you don’t have to stop by your house—and risk falling prey to your easy chair—first.

*Plan on making some mistakes. If you manage to salvage your exercise resolution mid-January, you’re doing great—better than many of your peers. But that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing from now till December 31st. Actually, I can pretty much guarantee you that you will fall off the wagon at some point this year. Probably multiple times—and that’s okay. Slip-ups are what make us human. But you know what? One of the other great things about being human is that what the future looks like is our choice. Even if you failed to lace up your athletic shoes for a week…or two…or three (or more!), you can still choose to put them on today.

*Remember that it’s not just about getting in shape. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Exercise is the single most important thing you can do to improve your life and your happiness level right now. That’s because physical activity is a fantastic energizer (mentally and physically!). It will make you feel more relaxed and less stressed. In fact, it can be just as effective as taking an antidepressant medication…without the potential side effects. Just imagine the effects a consistently improved attitude might have on your 2014!

If your goal is to have a healthier, fitter 2014, know that I’m in your corner—and that I’ll be exercising right along with you. Remember, you don’t have to run a marathon or work off all of your body fat to consider your New Year’s resolution a success. All you have to do is get out there and move.

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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Calling All Graduates: Tips for Taking on the World

’Tis the season…for graduation! All across the country, students are throwing their caps into the air and basking in the glow of their newly acquired diplomas. If you’re one of them, let me first extend my heartfelt congratulations. Whether you’ve just finished high school or have a technical, four-year, or graduate degree, you have put in years of hard work to get to where you are today, and you should feel incredibly proud of yourself.

So, what’s next? If you’re like most graduates, you’ll probably be filling out as many job applications as you can get your hands on—or maybe you’re planning on staying in school and applying for a higher degree. Whatever your goals are, I assume you’re aiming to be as successful as possible. That’s great—but as you shoot for the moon, don’t become so focused on your achievements and career that you neglect other important areas of your life.

Trust me, you don’t want to reach retirement only to look back and wish that you had spent more time with family and friends, or that you had focused less on making money and more on doing things you enjoyed. And you don’t want to spend decades in the workforce living a life of unhappiness, boredom, and constant stress while feeling that nothing you do is ever good enough.

To help you build a future that’s both successful and fulfilling, here are some of my tips for taking on the world while staying happy and balanced:

Live in your strengths. After graduation, focus on choosing a major (if you’re going to college) or finding a job (if you’ll be entering the workforce) that plays to your strengths. Take your time and consider all of your options instead of committing to the first opportunity that comes your way. The decisions you make today can have a very real impact on your long-term quality of life. Trust me, you don’t want to wake up 20 years from now stuck in a job that doesn’t inspire you and that may even make you miserable! Whenever possible, choose to do things that you’re good at and that you enjoy. You’ll be happier andhigher performing. (Plus, trying to shore up your weaknesses only causes you stress while yielding mediocre results.)

Always remember that you are good enough. In fact, you’re perfect and worthy of love just as you are! However, you might not always feel that way, especially when a job application is denied, when you’re passed over for a promotion, or when a future boss describes your errors and shortcomings in detail. Never make the mistake of believing that your worth comes from your achievements, paycheck, or even what others think about you.

Sweat the small stuff—but not too much. When you get the small things right—at work, in relationships, during home-improvement projects, and just about anywhere—the big things tend to take care of themselves. (Plus, baby steps are much less daunting!) Be aware, though, that one of the biggest causes of stress in our society is perfectionism. So while it’s important to get the small things right, keep in mind that 95 percent right is usually plenty. Don’t beat yourself up over that last 5 percent. We’re all human, and no one is perfect!

Be a team player. It’s a dog-eat-dog world only if you allow it to be. The truth is, you’ll accomplish more and be happier if you support others and allow them to support you.

Remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated, whether you’re having a good day, a bad day, or anything in between. Being kind will help you to develop a reputation you can be proud of, and it will attract positive opportunities into your life. Best of all, it will make you and other people feel good!

Hang out with the right crowd. Leave frenemies, mean girls, bullies, and Negative Nancies behind. If you spend a significant amount of time around other people who are negative, your own outlook will begin to mirror theirs. Instead, gravitate toward people who refresh, energize, encourage, and support you. Remember that in terms of your attitude, habits, behaviors, relationships, and more, you’ll be the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So choose wisely!

Say—and write—thank you. Don’t forget the manners your mother taught you when you were young. A timely thank-you—or better yet, a handwritten note conveying appreciation—will have a powerful effect on others and help you cement and improve relationships. Plus, it’s always smart to give credit where credit is due: to your boss, to a trusted mentor, to a supportive friend, or even to your parents for the lessons they taught you!

Make good choices. Happiness isn’t winning the lottery or driving your dream car or dating a gorgeous celebrity. Happiness is the sum of all of the daily decisions you make: how you react to setbacks, who you spend time with, whether or not you allow yourself to dwell on mistakes, what you allow to influence you, how you see the world, and so (so!) much more. In other words, it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you look at and react to what happens to you that matters. And the choice is yours!

Feed your mind a positive diet every day. There’s more than enough bad news in the world. You’ll see it on TV and hear it from others every day. Keep things in perspective by reading, listening to, or watching something positive every day. Exposing yourself to new, constructive ideas dispels unnecessary stress and keeps you from becoming stuck in a self-destructive rut. (And even though they may sound hokey, motivational materials can change your life—it happened to me!)

Don’t leave home without a smile. In other words, be friendly! You never know—a smile and a “hello” could introduce you to a new friend, a future employer, or even Mr. or Mrs. Right. Plus, when you make friendliness a habit, you’ll attract smiles and goodwill in return.

Exercise. Exercise is one of the easiest, least expensive, and most effective ways to improve your physical, mental, and emotional health. When you’re active, you’ll feel more powerful, creative, energized, and balanced. You’ll sleep better, you’ll feel more relaxed, and you’ll be better equipped to deal with stress. Exercise has even been scientifically proven to be as effective as medication when combating depression! In a nutshell, it’s the best thing you can do right now—and throughout your life—to experience a quick boost in your happiness levels. So get rid of the excuses and make physical activity a permanent part of your routine.

Most of all, as you go out into the world, I implore you to really think about the differences between “success” and “happiness.” They aren’t always the same thing! Do what’s healthiest for you—not for your parents, your coworkers, or your friends. And whenever you have to choose between your close relationships and work, choose the former. Nobody looks back at age 80 and says, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office and less time with my friends and family!”

Good luck, graduates! I can’t wait to see the wonderful impact you have on our world.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part One

In my last post, I talked about a problem that plagues a whole lot of us: constantly expecting the worst. Instead of feeling hopeful, optimistic, or even neutral about the future, we assume that bad things are going to happen.

  • Your husband has been coming home late from work all week? He’s having an affair with a coworker!
  • Your family is preparing for a move? You just know that half of your dishes are going to get broken…and the movers will probably scratch up your antique pie safe, too.
  • Your boss is putting together a “dream team” to woo a big client? She’ll pick your showboating coworker, even though you’re better qualified.

Enough examples—you know what I’m talking about. And if you read my last post, you also know that expecting the worst is detrimental to your emotional, mental, and even physical health. Here are six ways to help yourself break this bad habit:

*Acknowledge how busy people are. When you don’t see results or receive a response from someone else in (what you think should be) a timely manner, it’s easy to get upset and jump to the worst possible conclusion. He doesn’t want to work with me. She isn’t interested in going out on another date. I didn’t get the job. And so on and so forth. But wait a second. Maybe the current radio silence doesn’t mean “no”—it might simply mean that the other person is busy.

The next time you’re waiting on a response and find yourself worrying, think through your own schedule and remind yourself how busy you often are. In this day and age, almost everybody is overscheduled and overstressed. Maybe the other person hasn’t had time to decide, your suggestion dropped off their immediate radar, or they haven’t read your email yet. No news doesn’t necessarily mean bad news—it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!

*Stay busy yourself. You can’t always control how long you have to wait on an outcome, or even what that outcome is. But you can control how you wait. As I see it, you can torture yourself by dwelling on negative possibilities…or you can distract yourself by staying focused on and engaged in other things. Preferably, occupy yourself with tasks that use your strengths and that will bolster your positive attitude and self-esteem. Whatever you do, don’t torture yourself by sitting by the phone or computer while you fret! Watching the metaphorical pot won’t make it boil any faster. All you’re accomplishing is worsening your own mood and mental state.

*Take a dose of muscle medicine…or meditate! Have you ever heard of “a runner’s high”? It’s a real feeling—and it can help you to stop expecting the worst. That’s because exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also decrease the amount of stress hormones—like cortisol—in your body. In fact, various studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as taking prescription antidepressant medications…without the potential side effects. In other words, pumping iron or going on a run can literally melt away some of your apprehension.

If you’re familiar with my message, you know that I’m a longtime proponent of exercise because it makes you feel more powerful, relaxes you, and enables you to sleep better, all of which can help you to worry less. I always head to the gym whenever I can’t shake a particular worry. After my workout, I feel much more at peace, and sometimes, my unconscious mind even “solves” my problem by coming up with a new idea or a more balanced perspective while my body has been occupied with vigorous activity. If you don’t have an hour or so to devote to concentrated exercise, simply get outside and walk around the block a few times—it can still effectively change your mood.

I also recommend meditating when you’re fixated on a negative possibility. You might be surprised to learn that meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. I used to think exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this! I can tell you from recent personal experience that meditation can help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, help you to feel content, and make you more mindful in the present moment…all of which are helpful tools when it comes to not worrying so much about the future.

*Take steps toward a solution. When you find yourself expecting a particular negative event (however likely or unlikely it might be), ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prepare for or even prevent it. In many cases, you’ll be able to take concrete steps toward a solution. Not only will you be keeping yourself busy, you’ll also be moving from helplessness to empowerment.

To use a work analogy, imagine that you’ve heard rumors that your company will be downsizing. Your worst expectation is that you’ll be laid off. Instead of fretting every day about losing your job, take steps to make yourself more valuable. Ask for feedback from your boss and incorporate her suggestions into your work. Always go the extra mile. Help your colleagues to succeed and improve. Take continuing education classes, if possible. All of these actions will distract you from worrying, and hopefully, they’ll highlight to your supervisors just how essential you are. And if you are laid off, you’ll have made yourself into a more valuable candidate for another organization to hire.

*Phone a friend. This “lifeline” can really help! The next time you catch yourself ruminating on just how bad things are going to get, pick up the phone and call someone you trust: your spouse or a friend, for example. Specifically, ask this person to help you think of several alternative outcomes (which, by definition, can’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario you were envisioning). A more neutral third party will have more perspective and will probably find it much easier to come up with not-as-bad, and even good, alternatives to help you stop thinking in extremes.

When you expect the worst, you’re essentially discounting thousands of other possibilities that could occur. In other words, you’re mentally thinking in black and white. But the truth is, life is made up of many shades of color. Asking a friend to help you see more of those shades will talk you down from the emotional ledge you’re standing on and will help to break you out of your mental rut.

*Retrain yourself to look for the positive. Numerous positive thinking masters and even scientists agree: The things you think about and center your attention on shape the way you experience life. In other words, if your focus is on all of the horrible, negative, crippling things that might happen to you in the future, you’ll be calling more of them into your life. How? You’re engaging in self-sabotage. Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks. At the very least, you’ll be so fixated on the worst possibilities that you might miss positive opportunities that are right under your nose.

Some people call this the law of attraction. But whatever you want to call it, I know from experience that if you train yourself to look for the positive, you’ll attract more positive things into your life. You’ll be happier, friendlier, kinder, and more optimistic…and that will bring better people and better opportunities into your orbit.

One of the best ways I’ve found to help myself focus more on the positive is by developing an attitude of gratitude. (Again, if you’re familiar with me, this advice won’t come as a surprise!) When you’re actively being thankful for things in your life, it’s harder to let yourself spiral downward into negativity and have a doomsday mindset about what’s to come. Every evening, I look back on my day and identify several things I am thankful for. If something bad or disappointing happened that day—or if I’m worried about something in the future—I challenge myself to find the silver lining. For example, if I didn’t get a speaking engagement I was hoping for, I remind myself that I won’t have to spend that evening or weekend away from my family.

Without a doubt, these six tools have helped me to retrain my brain to look for the positive when I consider the future. This week, if you find yourself dwelling on a doomsday scenario—no matter how large or small it may be—try to employ one of these tactics to help yourself let go of your bad expectations and refocus yourself on the here and now. And stay tuned—to close out this topic, I’m going to share my last six how-not-to-expect-the-worst tips in my next post!

Getting Real with Your Friends in 2013

In my last two blog posts, I have written about being authentic with yourself and with your spouse. For the last post in my “Getting Real” series, I’m going to talk about what you can do to cultivate authentic friendships.

I think that it’s very easy to go through life surrounded by less-than-authentic friendships. For example, you keep spending time with someone because it’s convenient, not because you particularly enjoy that person’s company. You stay in touch with an old friend because you feel that it would be a shame to “throw away” a relationship that has lasted 30 years, despite the fact you really don’t have much in common. You pretend that So-and-So criticizes you because she wants to help you improve, even though you know she really does it because she gets a kick out of putting you down. You don’t particularly like What’s-His-Face, but for some reason you still want to impress him. You tolerate good-enough friendships because you aren’t sure how to make them great, or if you really want to put forth the effort.

My friends, putting forth the effort is worth it! Trust me—I spent many years of my life investing in friendships that weren’t genuine. In my case, the lack of authenticity could usually be traced back to the fact that I didn’t love myself. I wasn’t secure enough with who I was to feel comfortable telling other people what I wanted, what I deserved, and when I wasn’t happy. Instead of being the real me and allowing the right people to find their way into my life, I behaved how I thought others wanted me to.

As a result, many of my friendships made me feel just plain bad. When I forced myself to spend time with someone who wasn’t really right for me, I knew I was being fake and came away feeling frustrated, irritated, and disappointed. I would chastise myself for “wasting” time that I could have spent with my family or doing something that I enjoyed. And eventually, even though I wanted my so-called friends to like me, I’d nevertheless develop a bad attitude toward them that caused me to be snarky, judgmental, and nasty. But—like most people—I continued to spend time with them.

Since I have embarked on my quest to find happiness, I have become much more intentional about choosing the friendships I invest myself in, and about how I cultivate those relationships. I have learned that some friendships will remain casual, some will involve you and/or the other person purposefully holding back aspects of yourselves, and some will be situational. In this day and age, some will be conducted almost entirely online! (Don’t worry; that’s all normal.)

Here’s the most important part: If you strive to be consistently authentic, the friendships that aren’t meant to last won’t be drug out artificially. And some friendships—the ones you develop with people who share your values and interests—will become much more meaningful. Genuine friends, I have found, are refreshing and therapeutic. They give you an energy boost instead of draining you.

Don’t overcomplicate things. Just remember: The more real you are, the more real your relationships will be. Here are my tips on developing and maintaining authentic friendships:

*Evaluate your circle. The obvious first step in getting real with your friendships is evaluating who, exactly, makes up your circle of friends. Think about each person and ask yourself, Is this individual enhancing my life and making me happy? Am I doing the same thing for him or her? Does this friend give as well as take? While it may sound harsh, if a particular relationship isn’t fulfilling, it’s time to move on. If you don’t create space, true “kindred spirits” won’t be able to enter your life.

If after a little consideration you determine that you’d like to develop more meaningful friendships, be intentional about seeking those out. Spend more time with casual friends you’d like to get to know better. Maybe even join a book club, a fitness class, or a community garden group so that you can get to know like-minded people. And keep in mind—you never know when a conversation with the person next to you on a plane, for instance, can develop into something special. (It’s happened to me!)

*Say yes… Just like any other relationship, you have to invest time, energy, and caring into an authentic friendship if you want it to stay meaningful. Your friends need to know that you value spending time with them. So when the opportunity to do so arises, say yes! “Yes, I’d love to have dinner with you tonight!” And vacuuming the bedrooms can wait. “Yes, going to the high school football game with you on Friday night sounds great.” I’ll make a point to leave work on time so that I won’t be late. Obviously, you can’t say yes every time, but remember, the quality of your relationships can make or break the quality of your life. Before you choose another activity over spending time with a friend, pause and ask yourself which will have more long-term value to you.

*…and say no, too. The flip side of saying yes is saying no. Sometimes you can’t say yes, even if you want to. Other times you just don’t want to do something. And, of course, you may know that you shouldn’t commit yourself because you’re already overscheduled. It can be a hard lesson to learn, but believe me, an authentic “no”—even to people you really care about—is better than a “yes” under duress. Otherwise, your friendships will be characterized by resentment, incorrect assumptions, and insincerity…which is the opposite of getting and staying real.

*Tell the truth. Authentic friends tell the truth. Sometimes that truth is good: “Your accomplishment is amazing. Your commitment and work ethic are truly awe-inspiring.” Other times, as the saying goes, the truth hurts: “I’m concerned about you—I don’t think the person you’ve been dating has your best interests at heart. The relationship seems unhealthy to me.” Or even, “I feel that you’ve been brushing me off a lot lately. Is anything wrong?”

It saddens me to admit that sometimes speaking the truth—however gentle and heartfelt you may be—will cause other people to turn away from you. Yes, losing a friend or an acquaintance hurts, but remember, you’re at a crossroads. You must ask yourself, Do I want to diminish my own value by staying silent and burying my feelings, or is being in an open, authentic relationship more important to me? In my experience, friends who also value real-ness will appreciate, and even expect, honesty from you.

*Open up. Authentic friends don’t just share the good in their lives; they share the bad, the sad, and the difficult, too. No, I’m not saying that you need to be a completely open book with everyone in your life. Some things, like money problems, marital troubles, and health concerns, you may feel comfortable discussing with only your best friends. That’s okay. My point is, don’t act like everything in your life is perfect when it’s not. Don’t pretend that something doesn’t bother you when it does.

The truth is, vulnerability implies trust. Trust is an essential component of a meaningful friendship. And when you show that you trust someone else, that person will usually return the favor.

*Really listen. Being a good listener—someone who makes a sincere effort to understand, and if necessary, help out—is very important if you want to keep your friendships real. If you’re opening up to your pals, extend the same courtesy to them. Don’t tell them how they should feel. Don’t try to dominate the conversation or constantly turn it back to you. Don’t downplay their opinions. Instead, make it your goal to learn more about your friend and her perspective each time you talk to her—especially when the “important stuff” is at stake.

* Remember the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a good rule of thumb when it comes to friendships…or any type of relationship, for that matter. If you can lighten a friend’s load without harming yourself, do so. If you see a way to compliment him, share your praise in front of as many people as possible. And, of course, take every opportunity to say, “I love you. You’re special to me. I’m so glad you’re in my life!”

Yes, you may find that truly authentic friendships can be few and far between, because many people don’t want truth, aren’t comfortable with vulnerability, and are interested in spending time only with people who always say “yes.” But working to keep your friendships genuine is worth the effort, because these relationships will go much deeper and last much longer.

These friends will allow you to be real, whether that involves laughing, crying, vegging out, venting, or just about anything else. I won’t say that they’ll never judge you and that they’ll always accept you, because that’s not true. Authentic friends will speak up when they think you’re making a wrong move, and they won’t condone bad behavior. But it’s not because they don’t love you enough or because they’re trying to manipulate or control you—it’s because they do love you and want the best for you…and they know that you feel the same way.

Getting Real with Yourself in 2013

In our society, “authentic” is a positive buzzword. If you’re authentic, you’re honoring your own values, desires, and goals. You’re honest with yourself and with others, and you aren’t being deceptive or fake. Most notably, you are comfortable in your own skin.

Yes, this definition of authenticity sounds nice. But here’s the problem: I don’t think most of us come anywhere close to being as authentic as we think we are. From our mannerisms to our career choices to the cars we drive and the places we vacation—and everything in between—our choices are often influenced (or dictated outright) by others. And we don’t consciously realize it’s happening!

That was the story of my life before my quest to find happiness. I was so concerned with fitting in, being liked, and becoming the man I thought I “should” be that I wasn’t very authentic at all. I had convinced myself that I had chosen the life I wanted, but in many ways, it was really the life that my society, my community, and even my (well-meaning) family and friends wanted for me. If you are familiar with my story, you know how that turned out: my workaholic lifestyle and the compulsion I felt to do, be, and achieve more drove me to the brink. And—newsflash!—when you have a breakdown, you are not living a very authentic life.

In the following years, my mindset, beliefs, habits, and choices have evolved quite a bit. Some of these changes have been met with approval; others have raised a few eyebrows. But the point is, I am constantly learning more about what it really means to be true to myself, and I am a happier person because the expectations of others no longer play such a large role in my decision-making.

For my next three blog posts, I am going to look at the concept of authenticity in more detail by sharing what I’ve learned about getting real with yourself, your spouse or partner, and your friends. I hope that what I have to say will help you to make 2013 the Year of Authenticity, and to take a major step toward living a happier life.

First up is being authentic with yourself. Yes, the relationship you have with the person in the mirror does matter. Either you know who you are, what’s important to you, and what makes you happy—and choose to honor those things—or you don’t. And the difference between those two paths is profound.

When you choose authenticity, you’ll learn to accept yourself as you are—warts and all. You won’t feel compelled to be, think, or do things a certain way, and the expectations of others will merely inform you, not control you. You’ll feel freer, more confident, and more empowered, and you’ll also find that the amount of stress in your life diminishes. What’s more, being authentic in your own decisions and actions will attract more positive relationships into your life. Those who love and value you will seek you out, and those who don’t will drift away. Overall, “getting real” with yourself will help you to reach your fullest potential.

Here are my tips on being authentic with yourself:

*Redefine your priorities. Stop using other people as a template to determine how your own life should be. Balance and happiness look different for everyone! If you’ve never done so before, sit down and think about what would bring you the most contentment and fulfillment. Maybe you’re okay with living in a small home if it means you’ll have more money to travel, for example. Remember, as long as you aren’t harming anyone or breaking the law, it’s okay not to “fit in.” But when you shift your priorities because of what other people think of your choices, you’re veering away from authenticity.

*Be honest about your capabilities. Living within a reasonable timeline is just as important as making choices that make you happy. So whenever you identify a change that you need to make, pat yourself on the back…then figure out a realistic way to reach it. Remember, you know yourself better than anyone else. You know when you’re pushing yourself too hard, taking on too many responsibilities, and crossing the line from “challenged” to “stressed.”

Even for the sake of healthy progress, moving too fast isn’t an authentic way to live. So if your coworker lost 20 pounds in two months, for example, don’t hold yourself to that deadline. It’s okay if your own weight loss takes much longer, as long as you’re shedding pounds in a healthy and sustainable way. The same thing goes for money. You know how much you can comfortably spend, so don’t go into debt in order to keep up with the Joneses!

*Stop hiding. Even though I’m an extraordinarily open person, there are still things about me I’m sure I’d rather the world not know about. Whether it’s an episode in your past, a somewhat-taboo desire you’re harboring, or your reasoning for making a particular choice, I’m sure that you also have “secrets.” I’m not saying that you need to shout these closely guarded tidbits from the rooftops, but you should be honest with yourself that they exist. You may want to write about them in a journal, or even share them with your partner or a trusted friend. If you are ignoring or rejecting any aspects of yourself, you aren’t being authentic.

*Get in touch with your emotions. We all bury emotions we think we “shouldn’t” have and fake feeling things that we believe we “should.” You know what I mean: My coworker is doing her best—I shouldn’t be angry that she’s slowing me down. Or, I hope she doesn’t get that promotion—she’ll gloat about it forever. Or, It’s been three months since my mom died—I shouldn’t be crying this much. Better paste a smile on my face. Hello—that’s not being authentic! I’m not saying you should give yourself a free pass to act on all of your emotions (especially the negative ones), but you should acknowledge that they exist and allow yourself to experience them without the need for apology.

Also, when you know you’re not at your best, remember that it’s okay to take a step back from the situation you’re in. If you can feel your blood pressure rising exponentially, tell your spouse that you need to wait a few hours to discuss the monthly bills, for example. In my experience, ignoring what you really feel and faking a different attitude usually doesn’t end well anyway!

*Own up. When life doesn’t go your way, it’s tempting to dodge the blame. Often, it’s very easy to point the finger at another person, at the status quo, etc. But authentic people don’t place themselves in the role of the victim. Realizing that you, and only you, ultimately hold the key to your own happiness and success can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. And it is the key to turning your whole life around. For as long as you dodge the responsibility to create your own reality, other people will do it for you…and you may not like the results.

*Put yourself first. Putting ourselves last and ignoring our own needs is a common American malady. But the fact is, taking a half-hour to soak in the tub before bed is not selfish. Admitting to your spouse that you need more help with the house and the kids is not a sign of weakness. And letting yourself splurge on that new jacket does not mean you’re irresponsible.

Honoring your needs and acknowledging your desires is an important component of authentic living. And giving yourself permission to stop doing all the time so that you can simply be is crucial. Personally, spending quiet time in meditation and staying connected to my Higher Power help me to identify the things I really need and want.

*Do some deep cleaning. From beliefs to belongings to relationships, we tend to keep things around long after they’ve served their purpose or become unhealthy. It can be painful and will definitely take some brutal honesty, but it’s important to declutter your life. Do you really think you’ll fit into those old jeans anytime soon? If not, donate them to charity. Do you enjoy looking at the giant painting in your living room? If not, take it down. Does the friend you’ve known since childhood build you up or criticize you? If it’s usually the latter, allow the relationship to drift away. Holding on to things that no longer enhance your life also holds you back from authenticity.

Until you learn to get real in these ways, you won’t be able to make much progress in being authentic with others in your life, and you definitely won’t experience true happiness. Ultimately, being authentic with yourself comes down to one thing: really loving yourself and accepting yourself for the unique, one-of-a-kind human being you are. When you believe that you don’t have to change yourself to be worthy and valuable, you’ll begin treating yourself with much more kindness, honesty, and yes, authenticity.

The Year of the Quitter: Twelve Habits to Drop in 2013

The Times Square ball has dropped, champagne has been sipped, and 2013 has begun. Are you feeling energized and excited to embark on a new year…or (more likely) are you just plain exhausted?

If you barely have the energy to think up a list of resolutions that you know you won’t end up keeping, you’re not alone. So many Americans are desperate to perform to a certain standard, look a certain way, weigh a certain number, make a certain amount of money, and much more…despite the fact that nobody can do it all, all of the time. So when you inevitably take on too much and allow one of the plates you’re juggling to drop, you end up disappointed, tired, and miserable.

Well, if you ask me, enough is enough. A big part of my own happiness journey has centered around the realization that for decades, I set myself up for disappointment by having unrealistic and unsustainable expectations. And I promise that if you’re currently caught in this trap, you’ll be best served by making 2013 the year you stop doing things that aren’t adding to your happiness.

In this post, I will share twelve behavior habits that you might want to consider quitting. And some of them will probably surprise you, because on the surface, they’re success-oriented. But trust me: More isn’t always better. This year, resolve to stop pushing yourself too hard, prioritizing the wrong things, and working toward success for the wrong reasons. Here’s how you can do it…and make 2013 your greatest year yet:

*Give up on relationships. …The ones that aren’t working, that is. Whether it’s a coworker who hands out backhanded compliments like they’re candy or a “frenemy” who always tries to one-up your accomplishments, there are people in your life who drain your energy and make your attitude dip into murky territory. No matter how much you may want to make these relationships work, forcing yourself to spend time with negative people won’t do you any favors. It’s okay—and actually healthy—to distance yourself from so-called “toxic” individuals. Of course I advocate doing everything you can to eliminate strain with family members. Realize, though, that maybe this is the year to finally admit that you and your partner have irreconcilable differences that are making both of you unhappy, or it is the year to finally tell your mother that her controlling behavior needs to stop.

*Stop being so darn nice. …And start being real. Chances are, you sometimes swallow blunt comments or constructive criticism in favor of a more diplomatic response. You might even allow yourself to be taken advantage of from time to time in order to please another person. Guess what: It’s time to stop! Dishonest politeness doesn’t develop authentic relationships. No, it’s not appropriate to go on reality show-worthy rants whenever you feel upset, but at the same time, masking your real opinions and feelings isn’t helpful in the long term. Remember, having a smaller number of true friends is healthier than denying your own happiness in order to make everyone else like you.

*Stop working so hard. Don’t become a total slacker, but do think about the b-word: balance. The fact is, every year we try to reach new heights in our careers. However, everyone has physical and mental limits. And more to the point—despite the fact that our society often confuses the two—achievement doesn’t equal happiness. No matter how good your intentions are, overloading on work will cause your relationships, mindset, and even health to suffer. For me, 70- and 80-hour weeks actually caused a breakdown, not happiness! Please, don’t follow in my footsteps. Even if you don’t drive yourself over the edge, living the life of a workaholic can still bury you in stress, anxiety, and depression. This year, really think about what a healthy balance looks like. And remember, no one looks back on their lives at age eighty and says, “Gee, I wish I’d spent less time with my family and friends and more time at the office.”

*Lower the bar. This may come as a shock, but you probably expect too much from yourself. Whether the issue is your appearance, your house, your family, or your job, you want to achieve as much perfection as is humanly possible. And on top of that, you most likely focus on what you do wrong and rarely celebrate what you do right. Well, guess what? Setting the bar so impossibly high is a recipe for feeling miserable. This year, it’s time to really realize that you’re human, so it’s inevitable that you will mess up—or even just put in an “adequate” performance—every now and then. That doesn’t mean that you’re in any way unworthy or undeserving of love. This year, consciously lower your expectations to more realistic standards, celebrate your many successes, and stop beating yourself up so much.

*Ignore the Joneses. Keeping up with the Joneses seems to be the American way of life. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, and even people whose lives we see displayed on reality TV. I know that Bob’s salary is the same as mine, you might think. How come he’s driving a new SUV and I can’t even scrape together a down payment? No matter what the situation is, thoughts like these only leave you feeling jealous, less-than, and unhappy. The most ironic part is, the friend whose life seems perfect on the outside probably doesn’t feel that way in the privacy of his own home. For years, I was the guy whose career and bank account others would have killed to have, but the truth was, I was stressed out of my mind and unable to relax for even a second! Yes, it will be hard to change your habitual thought processes. But you need to understand the fundamental truth that “happy” for you won’t look the same as it does for anyone else—and that’s okay! Focus primarily on your own feelings and fulfillment—don’t use another person’s life as a measuring stick to determine how good your own is.

*Don’t focus on your spouse. …To the point where you forget to take responsibility for yourself, that is! Yes, conventional relationship wisdom tells you to focus on your spouse and to put his or her needs first. To a point, that advice is accurate: As a partner in life and in love, you should be your spouse’s biggest supporter and coach. Just don’t allow tunnel vision to blind you to your own needs and responsibilities. While you should never take advantage of or ignore your partner, putting yourself second all of the time can breed frustration and resentment. This year, look inward more often, and figure out what will make you happy. Remember that when you do things that make you happy, it’s good for your husband or wife too.

*Stop giving so much. If you don’t, you’ll eventually run dry! The fact is, there are a lot of people in our lives who depend on us and who want our help, our time, our advice, etc. But it can be all too easy to keep giving and giving and giving to others to the point where there’s nothing left for you. So if spending all of your time and energy on others is the norm, and doing something for yourself is extremely rare—watch it. Figure out what is important to you and what fulfills you, and prioritize those things more. Stop putting others and their needs first all the time! In order to be happy, you have to know what your strengths are, and you have to play to them on a regular basis. You can’t live your life primarily to please other people.

*Stop pushing your kids so hard! As parents, we really care about our kids, and we want them to have the best possible futures. But that doesn’t mean you need to turn into a so-called “Tiger Parent.” Too much pressure to perform can cause children of any age to burn out and make self-destructive decisions. It’s crucial to remember that success and happiness aren’t the same thing. Your kids will be much happier, healthier, more creative, and more motivated throughout their lives if you prioritize balance and love them for who they are, not for how many As they get on their report cards.

*Forget quality time with your kids. …And start focusing on quantity! Please believe me, if you are simply home more and allow your children to seek you out in their time and on their own terms, you will be amazed how much they come to you. This one change in your scheduling can make all the difference in the world in your relationship with your children. It’s easy to use the words “quality time with my kids” as a free pass to focus on other aspects of your life 95 percent of the time. In other words, we want to believe that we can make up for working 70-hour weeks by taking a trip to Disney World, or catch up on all of the week’s events while going out for ice cream. But the fact is, life is found in the everyday moments, not in the big blowout trips. And kids themselves are perceptive—they can tell if they always take second place in your life. I also know from experience that doing “normal” things with your kids on a regular basis will mean more to them—and to you—long-term than the occasional extraordinary event. So this year, as much as possible, build regular “parent time” into your schedule, and try to be present for as many day-to-day activities as you can.

*Cancel your gym membership. No, I’m not saying that you should give up on exercising, and of course, if you’re already a gym lover, continue going. But if you’re a fitness newbie, begin with something that’s sustainable. You don’t want to purchase a gym membership only to have real life get in the way and derail your big plan. Then, not going to the gym will become just one more thing to beat yourself up about. So start small. Take a 20-minute walk every other day around your neighborhood—that’s it! You can work up from there if you want to. Also, try not to make physical activity all about weight—it has many other benefits. Exercise will make you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges. It will also improve your sleep, and it’s a natural anti-depressant that will help your attitude and outlook.

*Stop obsessing over your health. Everywhere we look, there’s a new medical threat to worry about. Sure, you can spend a lot of your time worrying about BPA in your water bottles, drug-resistant bacteria, or the likelihood of whether swine flu will overrun your community. Likewise, you can make appointments with specialist after specialist whenever you feel sick, and try every new vitamin, supplement, and protein shake on the market. But it probably won’t help as much as you hope! At the end of the day, you’ll never have ultimate control over everything you touch, breathe, and eat. And if you allow yourself to fret over every health threat you hear about on the news or see on the Internet, you’ll be afraid to leave your house without a hazmat suit on. Just focus on eating right, going to the doctor, and fitting in as much exercise and relaxation as you can. If you don’t, all the worry and stress will be what ends up killing you!

*Trash your goals. …Except for this one: Be happier! Much like striving for perfection, being too goal-oriented can harm more than it helps. When you’re always focused on the “next big thing,” you’re perpetually anxious, you often forget to live in the present, and you’re never able to enjoy all of the blessings you already have. Plus, taking a step back from “the plan” can bring some much-needed clarity. You may find that the direction you’ve been heading isn’t what you want after all! My breakdown—at the time—was horrible. But it really was the best thing that ever happened to me in the long run, because it forced me to literally drop all of the things I’d been working on and to reevaluate how I was living my life. I promise you, when you prioritize your own happiness and well-being, you’ll be truly amazed by how smoothly everything else falls into place!

Believe me, being a “quitter” can be a very smart move, as long as you’re leaving behind activities, habits, people, and responsibilities that aren’t enriching your life. Above all else, as you move through 2013, take it from me that a successful life without happiness really isn’t successful at all!

 

 

Going Deeper: Why We Shouldn’t Stop at Small Talk

Recently, a friend forwarded me a New York Times article titled “Talk Deeply, Be Happy?” As this person had suspected, it was right up my alley. It reported the results of a study on conversation. Turns out, the more meaningful conversations you have, the happier you tend to be. (And on the other hand, people who engage in more small talk are generally less happy.)

For me (and I suspect for many of you as well), these findings didn’t come as a surprise. After all, decades of experience have taught me that I feel much more alive and engaged when I’m having a meaningful conversation than when I’m chatting about the weather or something equally mundane. However, the article did get me thinking: Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good? And if our conversations might directly correlate to our happiness levels, how can we infuse more of the meaningful kind into our lives?

Well, I think the answer to my first question—Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good?—is pretty simple: Our lives are driven by and centered around relationships. Whether you’re an extrovert who thrives in a crowd or an introvert who prefers small-group settings, that statement remains true. So any time you have a meaningful conversation, you’re getting to know another human being better. You’re learning about his or her opinions, motivations, and plans. You’re forging a deeper connection.

The fact is, everybody wants to feel valued and appreciated. And when someone encourages you to go beyond the facts and share your very own emotions, views, and beliefs, you get that feeling (and vice versa). It’s like your subconscious is thinking, Wow, out of all the things this person could be doing, he or she is choosing to hear my take on the world. I must be pretty special. Plus, by hearing from someone else, you’re learning new things and expanding your worldview.

Now, on to my second question: How can we infuse more meaningful conversations into our lives? Here are a few of my ideas:

*Seek out people who like to go deeper. This tip is pretty obvious—if you want to have more meaningful conversations, spend more time with people who feel the same way. For instance, you probably know “that” coworker or friend who is always willing to get into a good-natured debate, no matter the subject. Set up a weekly lunch or coffee date! And on the flip side, you probably know someone who, despite your best efforts, insists on sticking to sports scores and celebrity gossip. I’m not saying you should avoid all contact with people in this last group—just don’t beat your head against the wall in a fruitless attempt to delve into their emotions and motivations.

*Let others know you enjoy their conversations. If you think someone else is particularly insightful, entertaining, engaging, authentic, etc., let them know! In my experience, “I honestly enjoy talking to you” is one of those compliments people don’t give or receive very often. However, that one simple sentence might be all it takes to draw someone even further out of his or her shell and into more frequent discussions.

*Join groups of interesting people. I have noticed that often, our relationships with the people we love and spend the most time with can fall into ruts. It’s not that you don’t want to engage more meaningfully; it’s just that (to give one example) you and your spouse get into the habit of only going through the next day’s schedule and reporting any significant news before falling into an exhausted sleep each evening. A good way to break this pattern is to expose yourself to new individuals and situations. If you have time, think about joining a book club, taking a woodworking class, or even gathering a group of neighbors to walk around the block in the mornings. Getting to know others will give you the opportunity to introduce new subjects into your conversational repertoire—which will, in turn, give you new stories to tell and new subjects to talk about with your close friends and family.

*Be interested, not interesting. No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to talk about things that other people will find informative and entertaining. Rather, I mean that your number one goal when you talk to someone else should be to find out as much as possible about him or her. When you try to dominate the conversation, you’ll all too often end up looking selfish and arrogant. But when you show a genuine curiosity in others, you’ll encourage them to go deeper, to open up, and to be honest. And you’ll probably also find that they, in turn, want to know about your thoughts and opinions—giving you the opportunity to tell that story you wanted to share in the first place. So the bottom line is, if you want to encourage a meaningful conversation, start by asking thoughtful questions and truly listening to the answers you receive.

 

 

 

Let the Sunshine In

Summer is a time of warm temperatures, sunny skies, green leaves, neighborhood cookouts, family vacations, ice cream cones, and more. You’d think that summer and all it entails would boost the happiness that most of us feel. But instead, I’ve noticed that a lot of people drift through these warm weeks in the same hum-drum fog they’re lost in during the other three seasons…and I think I know why.

If you’re anything like I was before I had my happiness breakthrough, you’ve probably become numbed by life. You might feel like a victim of circumstance who is simply trying to survive each day. So while a refreshing dip in the swimming pool might put a smile on your face as long as you’re submerged, your positive mood usually doesn’t last long.

Now, here’s the good news: As I have said time and time again, happiness is a choice because you can always decide to think and act more positively. The best news of all is that summer is an ideal time to start changing your focus. That’s because for many families, the daily pace is less hectic, and you’re more likely to spend time relaxing. Plus, since summer is a time of warmth, light, and growth, it’s naturally uplifting. Put together, that all means that over the next few months, you’ll have more time and (hopefully) energy to devote to making meaningful lifestyle changes.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, chances are you’re already familiar with some of the concepts I’m about to introduce. Whether this post is “review” or brand-new to you, I hope you’ll take the following suggestions to heart this summer.

*Enjoy the weather: Exercise. Take advantage of the wonderful weather and up your activity level! (Summer is perfect for walking, biking, swimming, sports, and much more.) Exercise will relax you, make you feel stronger, and improve your sleep. It’s also a natural anti-depressant that will boost your attitude and outlook. And as time passes, you’ll gain the added bonus of being happier with your physical appearance as well. Take your kids along too—you’ll be instilling exercise in them as a great habit that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

*Get some new sunglasses: Be easier on yourself. Most people tend to go through life as though they’re wearing glasses with prescriptions that allow them to focus only on the negative things: their failures, mistakes, worries, etc. This summer, put on a new pair of shades with a more positive prescription that enables you to focus on all of the good things in your life, too! The fact is, we’re all human—and thus fallible—so it’s normal to make mistakes. However, it’s not healthy or beneficial to dwell only on them. As you’re out and about this summer, let yourself bask in your family’s compliments when you grill a great meal, for instance, or savor your neighbor’s praise of your backyard garden. You’ll be surprised by how much better you feel when you celebrate your many successes more often and focus less on your weaknesses.

*Plan some fun activities: Play to your strengths. The days are longer, schedules are more relaxed, there are several holidays to look forward to, and you’ll probably be taking some vacation days. Resolve to spend some of that time developing your special abilities and talents! If you want to be happy, you need to recognize, use, and share your gifts. Each of us has been given special, unique strengths, and when we are using them, we’re happier and feel much better about ourselves—and the world at large is better off, too! Think about it this way: Your kids get to go to special-interest activities and camps during the summer…so why shouldn’t you get in on the action, too?

*Smell the roses: Live in the present. There are so many moments to treasure throughout our lives, and they’re often especially vivid in the summer: the sound of your kids playing outside, the scent of the herbs in your garden, the feeling of sand between your toes and sun on your skin. The question is, are you really experiencing and enjoying these moments…or is your mind obsessing over the past or worrying about the future while only your body is physically present? I can’t stress enough how important it is to truly appreciate the present moment. Try to be aware of what your thoughts are “doing” over the summer, and by autumn, you’ll be closer to living the adventurous, wonderful life you were always meant to. And remember, your kids know when you are with them only in body (while your mind is elsewhere) and this can make them feel very bad.

*Break out the barbeque: Strengthen close relationships. Summer is known for cookouts, pool parties, and front-porch sittin’. Don’t be “that family” who always keep to themselves—try to host at least one or two events between now and September and invite the people you love over for some fun. The truth is, it’s worth putting work into improving your relationships with your family and friends all year round, because the quality of your bonds with the people closest to you can make or break the quality of your life. And (this won’t come as a surprise to my loyal blog readers) be sure to spend some one-on-one time with your spouse or significant other. Summer is a great time to pick a bouquet of wildflowers, plan a romantic getaway, or purchase tickets to an outdoor concert that you’ll both enjoy, for starters.

*Smile and say hello: Be friendlier. You’re not the only one who ventures outside your front door more often in the summer—so make a conscious effort to be friendlier to others you encounter, too. Introduce yourself to the family next to you at the pool or beach, for example, and say hello to folks you pass while walking in the park. (You’ll also be setting a great example for your kids.) I have found that extending simple human kindness to others can make a huge difference in their lives…and in yours. When you make friendliness a habit, you’ll attract kindness and smiles in return…and you’ll feel great about yourself for making a positive difference in the world!

My hope is that you’ll incorporate these habits into your life and experience a more sunshine-y summer…and that you’ll remember this season as the beginning of your journey toward more happiness. It’s true—what may seem like small changes in your actions and attitudes today really can make a huge difference in how you experience the rest of your life!

How NOT to Raise a Bully

In my last post, I explained why I think bullying is “the” problem of our day, and I concluded with the following assertion: We must all make it clear immediately that bullying is simply no longer acceptable. So this week I want to follow up by sharing more thoughts on how not to raise a bully.

*Encourage empathy. Sometimes bullies—kids and adults—don’t always intend to be mean. They just don’t think about the impact their words and actions will have. So, get your kids into the habit of considering how others feel when they’re as young as two or three years old. You can use books, movies, and even real-world situations as tools. For example, if you’re watching a movie in which a character is taunted, press “pause” and ask your children how they think he’s feeling. Also, I’ve seen many wonderful children’s books that talk about sharing, feelings, and kind behavior.

*Help them understand “different.” Kids who are different (from a different culture, a different socioeconomic group, handicapped, etc.) are easy targets for bullies. Teach your kids that “different” doesn’t mean “less than,” and give them the tools to step outside of the box to help them gain understanding and perspective. That might mean checking out a library book about a different culture or encouraging them to attend a religious holiday celebration with a friend who has different beliefs, for example. If you have younger kids, simply go on a walk and point out all the birds you see: red, blue, brown, black, big, small, etc. Explain to your children that all of those differences are beautiful and that the same thing is true when it comes to their classmates.

*Take every opportunity to build their confidence. Many bullies put others down to boost their own low self-confidence and to make themselves feel more powerful. So by letting your kids know that they are valued, loved, and important, you’ll reduce the chances that they’ll try to validate themselves at the expense of others.

*Have “the bullying talk” with your kids and stick to your guns. Make sure that your kids understand the definition of bullying. It’s any action—verbal, physical, or online—that makes someone else feel bad and that happens more than once. Be sure to also point out that bullying can even include “just” passing on a note or text that says something nasty about a classmate. Then, let your children know that just like lying, cheating, or stealing, bullying will not be tolerated in your home. Set up pre-determined consequences, and don’t let anything slide. And when you do get that first call about your child, which you almost certainly will (because kids are kids, and this stuff begins young with just name-calling), be very, very strong! You must nip this behavior in the bud, because the consequences can be far too serious! The fact is, none of us can know what sort of drastic and tragic action a young person may already be considering when our child’s behavior just happens to be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back.

*Share statistics with them. If you feel it’s age appropriate, take a few minutes to research bullying statistics with your child. A quick internet search will reveal a large number of disturbing facts. For instance, here are some statistics from www.bullyingstatistics.org that I also included in my last blog post:

  •  Almost 30 percent of young people participate in bullying behaviors or are bullying victims.
  •  Every day, around 160,000 students do not attend school because they are afraid of being bullied.
  •  Young people who have been bullied are two to nine times likelier than their non-bullied peers to consider suicide. Most worryingly, the actual suicide rate as a result of bullying is on the rise because technology allows hurtful and cruel behaviors to continue 24/7, long after the school day is over.

Seeing these statistics can prove to your child that bullying isn’t just something that Mom and Dad are needlessly worried about—it’s real, and it’s happening at their schools and to their peers. Reading that their actions might make a peer skip school, for instance (or even worse, kill him or herself), can have a real impact. At this point, it might also be a good idea to explain that we never know what other issues—for example, a parent’s illness—kids might be dealing with on top of being bullied.

*Be involved every day. It’s tempting to think that the best thing we can do for our children is to provide a good life for them. No, I’m not saying you should discount the material things entirely, just that you should also keep in mind that nothing can take the place of what’s truly the most important thing in a child’s development: his parents. Being involved in your kids’ lives on a daily, nitty-gritty basis will allow them to stand the best chance when it comes to making all the right choices (not just avoiding bullying). Also, when you’re involved you can keep an eye on who your children’s friends are. Remember that in terms of our attitude, outlook, and behaviors, we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. So no, you aren’t being too mean or controlling if you don’t allow your child to spend time with a peer who seems to be a negative influence. Instead, encourage your kids to seek out friends who exhibit positive behaviors and healthy attitudes.

*Teach them to intervene when possible. This is essential to fighting bullying today, according to teachers, counselors, and school administrators. Since bullies tend to victimize their peers when adults aren’t around, other young people who see these behaviors happening are the key to making sure that they stop. Encourage your children to step in if they see another child being treated badly—if they are comfortable doing so. If not, make sure your child knows to talk to a teacher or other authority figure when another child is being bullied. Even an anonymous note on a teacher’s desk can open an adult’s eyes to a bad situation. If you learn that your child has helped to stop a bully, treat her like the hero she really is.

*Be a good example. And finally, as I’ve said in several other posts, our kids learn how to live by watching us. So when you tell your kids to always be polite but are rude to a waiter at a restaurant, you’re sending majorly mixed signals. Talk the talk and walk the walk.

Ultimately, there’s no foolproof strategy for raising a child who isn’t a bully. But I do think that these strategies will give you some useful and effective starting points. And most of all, remember that nobody knows your child better—or is more influential in his or her development—than you.