How Bullying Starts at Home

If you’re like most self-respecting parents, your response to the title of this blog was probably, Not in my home, it doesn’t! I am 100 percent against bullying. I would never condone anything that encourages my children to develop those behaviors.

Until fairly recently, I would have been right there with you in voicing a similar protest. However, since bullying is a topic that is very close to my heart (as you know already if you’re a longtime follower of my blog!), I regularly think about what causes it and how we can prevent it from happening. I have come to the conclusion that kids learn bullying behaviors not only from each other, but also from us, their parents! That’s right. I’m not innocent on this count, and you probably aren’t either. Let me explain.

You might not think of yourself or anyone in your family as a bully (or as someone who is being bullied). But consider this: Bullying doesn’t just happen when someone steals your lunch money or calls you names. In my opinion, it happens anytime another person repeatedly and purposefully lowers your self-confidence, maliciously hurts your credibility, intimidates you, ridicules you, puts you down, and more. Do any of these things hit uncomfortably close to home?

In today’s post, I’d like to share with you some of the ways in which I believe our kids are learning bullying behaviors at home. You may object to my analysis or think that I’m overreacting, but I promise you, children are very observant and impressionable. They pick up on our attitudes and behaviors with uncanny ease, and we often see those attitudes and behaviors magnified in their young lives. With back-to-school season upon us, it’s very important to take an honest look at what goes on in your home to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently modeling or condoning bullying behaviors.

*We bully in our marriages. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but in most marriages there’s a dominant spouse—and that partner isn’t always gentle about getting his or her way. Think about the married couples you know. Chances are, with many of them it’s very obvious who “wears the pants,” as the saying goes. On one end of the spectrum is the stereotypical henpecked husband, whose most commonly uttered phrase is “Yes, dear.” On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the timid wife who is intimidated by her husband and who allows him to make all of the decisions.

Most couples fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but the point is, in our marriages we often use our anger and displeasure to influence our spouses. Unfortunately, even uglier things like name calling, threats (e.g., “I’ll leave you if you don’t do this!”), and abuse sometimes happen as well. Even if you and your spouse make a point of having disagreements and fights when your children aren’t around, don’t fool yourselves: The youngest members of your household see the dynamics between you and your husband or wife. And if bullying behaviors are a part of those dynamics, your children are absorbing them.

*We bully our kids. When a parent tells a child, “Just do what I told you. Why? Because I said so! If you don’t, I’ll take your allowance away,” it’s accepted and considered normal. But now, imagine those words coming out of a child’s mouth as he or she is talking to a classmate. Suddenly, they’re much more shocking, and even menacing.

Can you see how kids take our more authoritarian parenting methods and twist them into bullying behaviors? Yes, of course there are times when, for one reason or another, we must issue commands instead of taking the time to explain to our kids what we want them to do and why it’s important. But I would caution all of my fellow parents to be very careful in how and when you give “orders” to your children. Too many commands along the lines of “Go to bed!”; “Don’t argue!”; “Be quiet!”; and “Never do that again!” and your children will assume that that’s how they should relate to their peers.

*Our kids bully each other. Admit it: In most families, siblings can get away with a level of name calling, put-downs, and conflict that would never be allowed on a sports team or in a school. And often, I’ve noticed, we treat our siblings the same way at age 40 as we did when we were 14. Do your kids see you being put down at family gatherings, for example, or hear you talking about how stupid your younger sister is? Whether you allow your kids to strong-arm each other too much or permit them to see nasty behaviors happening between their adult parents, aunts, and uncles, the fact is, poor relationships between siblings often encourage bullying tendencies in our young people.

*Our kids bully us. Kids bullying their parents? It goes against nature…or so we’d like to believe. But in reality, we let our kids bully us all the time. For example, your teenage son comes home in a bad mood, snaps at you when you ask how his day was, and slams the door to his bedroom when you request that he help you set the table for dinner. You know what you should do: Your son’s behavior was unacceptable, and there ought to be consequences. But you just don’t have the energy for that struggle, so you let him stay in his room and set the table yourself. Essentially, he has just used his surliness to bully you into doing what he didn’t want to do himself.

I could give you more examples of how kids use bad behavior, tears, tantrums, and more to bully their parents, but if you’ve been a mother or father for more than a day, you don’t need me to extrapolate. You know that often, it’s just so much easier to “give in to the terrorist” than it is to confront your child and correct her behavior. But if we allow our kids to manipulate us in this way on a regular basis, we’re teaching them that this is how to get what they want with everyone else in their lives, too.

*Our kids are being entertained by bullying. Throughout childhood, but especially as they reach the teenage years, kids watch popular television shows and movies that are full of examples of kids bullying each other, as well as their parents. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes flicking through the channels on your television.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to point fingers or accuse anyone of terrible parenting practices. I’m a dad myself, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that being a parent is the most challenging job in the world. We will all make many mistakes, despite our best intentions, as we try to raise empathetic, values-centered kids.

Here’s the point I want to make: Since you may not be able to influence what your child is exposed to at school, you must be as vigilant as possible regarding what happens in your own house. Make every effort to ensure that aggressive, mean-spirited, controlling, and dominating behaviors aren’t present in your home, even when you’re frustrated or upset. Remember, your kids will adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and habitual responses that they see you and your spouse exhibiting, regardless of what you tell them is right or wrong. Let’s all commit to being more aware of what we do, say, and allow at home as we continue the fight against bullying!

 

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Curing the End-of-Summer Blues

In most areas of the country, the school year will start soon. The red, white, and blue celebrations of the Fourth of July are over a month behind us. Most swimming pools close on Labor Day. What’s my point? Simply this: While the calendar says that summer lasts through September 21st, for all practical intents and purposes, it’s already more than halfway over.

At this point in the season, many people start feeling small flutterings of anxiety. They’re dismayed when they anticipate darker days and colder temperatures. They dread the quickened pace that usually accompanies autumn. (Goodbye, vacations and lazy summer days!) And the thought of the fast-approaching back-to-school hullabaloo is enough to make most parents want to lock themselves in a closet.

I certainly understand the bittersweet feelings that accompany the last weeks of summer, but what a shame it is that we allow anxiety and dread to suck the enjoyment out of this time of year! Maybe one of these scenarios sounds familiar:

  • You obsessively count the number of weekends left until Labor Day. “Only four more relaxing Saturdays spent basking by the pool!”
  • When you’re not making a mental list of new school clothes and supplies you’ll need to buy for your kids (and tallying up how much all of it will cost), you worry about how hectic your family’s schedule will be once school, soccer practice, karate, Girl Scouts, and piano lessons start up once more.
  • Whenever you look at a calendar, you bemoan the fact that you won’t have another vacation until Thanksgiving.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my quest to find happiness is the importance of living in the present, and I think that’s especially important to remind ourselves of as we head further into August. I urge you to make the choice to engage fully with each day and get the most out of what remains of summer 2013. Here are some suggestions:

  • Instead of allowing everyone to flop in front of the TV on the weekends, round up the kids and go for a hike.
  • Focus on how nice the warm sun and cool water feel on your skin the next time you’re at the pool.
  • Invite the neighbors over and fire up the grill.
  • After the kids are in bed, take a few glasses of wine out on the porch and watch the stars come out with your spouse.
  • Grab some extra change the next time you hear an ice cream truck coming down your street and indulge in a sweet treat.
  • Instead of rushing through the grocery store, plan ahead and spend a Saturday morning at a local farmer’s market with your family.

You get my drift! The point is to enjoy the moment and savor all of the good things that summer still has to offer, instead of spending your time ruminating on what you aren’t looking forward to this fall.

In a very important way, spending the last few weeks of summer in a state of dread is representative of how many of us live our lives. We miss out on so many potentially happy moments and ignore so many blessings because we’re constantly focused on negative aspects of the future. If you recognize this tendency in yourself, I encourage you to read my blog post on the importance of living in the present from December 2011. In it, I talk about this topic in a little more detail and offer some advice to help you stop worrying about the future and ruminating on the past.

For now, here’s a quick and easy tactic you can use as summer draws to a close…and throughout the year: Whenever you find yourself dreading something that’s going to happen, pause a moment and identify one thing in the here and now for which you’re thankful. Tapping into the power of gratitude will refocus your attention and brighten your mood.

Here’s to a wonderful end to the summer!

 

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Beauty After Winter

Not too long ago, I posted the following tweet: “Winter is officially past (according to the calendar, anyway) and spring is here. I can’t wait for nature to start blooming!”

After I posted that tweet, I began to think a lot about how the flowers, blooms, and buds of spring are a tangible symbol of hope and new life after months of cold days and long nights. I also thought about how a similar rebirth often happens in our own lives. Now (as you might know from personal experience), Twitter doesn’t let you elaborate too much on your thoughts. Your posts are limited to 140 characters or less. So, since I couldn’t stop thinking about that tweet after I posted it, I thought I’d write some more about it in another forum: my blog!

If you’re familiar with my story, you know that I have experienced a lot of anxiety and some depression in my life, and that I even suffered a total nervous breakdown at age 36. For several months at that point, I was a shell of my former self. Some days I could barely manage to function at all. I had trouble sleeping and eating, and my mind was totally checked out. I didn’t think it was possible for me to ever feel happy again.

For obvious reasons, I would describe that period in my life as my own personal “winter.” Things were cold, dark, and bleak, and I wasn’t experiencing any positive growth. Your experiences may not be the same as mine, but I’m sure you have been through your own winter, too. It might have been the death of a parent, the loss of a job, a divorce, or a mental or physical illness, and you may still be dealing with the aftershocks: guilt, regret, grief, sadness, fear, or anxiety, for example. You might even think that your life will never be as good as it once was, and that your best days are in the past.

Every spring, I am reminded that this isn’t true. Take a moment and think about what a miracle it is that after a freezing, icy, dark winter, nature manages to come to life again and turn into a thing of beauty. The best part is, we humans possess that same resilience. We might need the help and support of others, and it might take some time for our lives to “warm up” again, but I know from experience that it is possible to move in a positive direction after negative experiences.

I wouldn’t have believed it was possible in the midst of my breakdown, but today I am honestly happier than I have ever been. Because of my breakdown, I feel that I have discovered and tapped into my life’s true purpose: helping others learn to build happier and healthier lives.

This week, I encourage you to take a walk or two around your neighborhood or a local park. Look at the bright green grass and the budding trees, and take some time to notice the color and shape of the flowers as you feel the sun on your face. And if you’re living in the shadow of your own winter—whether it has been big or small—please try to tap into the hope that spring represents. Trust that you can and will experience life’s sunshine, warmth, and beauty again.

If you’re not sure how to begin this journey, you might want to visit the Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life tab on my website. Developed based on my own experiences and using small, doable steps, this program is designed to help you move from dissatisfaction, anxiety, sadness, and stress to a more fulfilling, healthy, and happy life. For each of the twelve weeks, you’ll find a video of me explaining a new task or lifestyle change to focus on. And if you’d like even more tactics to help you move out of the winter you may be experiencing, look back through my past blog posts (also on my website). Many of them elaborate on the steps of my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program.

Lastly, if there is ever anything I can do to help make your own winter a little less cold or dark, please reach out and ask. We are all in this together! You can email me anytime at tpatkin@tgpco.org.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part Two

In my last blog post I shared six strategies to help you stop expecting the worst in every situation. I won’t rehash why fixating on negative possibilities is bad for you (look back at my March 6, 2013, post if you want to review), but what I will do is share my final six tips to help you let go of some of your worries.

Yes, I have spent quite a bit of time writing about the topic of expecting the worst. That’s because kicking this habit and rewiring your brain to live more fully in the present is so important! Trust me, friends, what you allow yourself to think about and fixate on plays a tremendous role in determining your quality of life.

I hope you’ll add the following tactics to your building-a-happier-life toolkit:

*Trust the master plan. No, the universe is not out to get you. In fact, things usually have a way of working out. Often, though, it’s impossible to see the “master plan” until you’re viewing it through the lens of hindsight. The next time you find yourself focusing on a future fear, stop and remind yourself that you’re not omniscient. You don’t know for sure how a dreaded event will ultimately impact your life. For instance, maybe the pay cut that has you so worried will force your family to cut out extraneous luxuries and activities, ultimately bringing you all closer together.

When I look back on all of the twists and turns my own life has taken, I see that many of my fears were never validated…and the ones that did come to pass often ended up being positive turning points that helped me to move in a better direction. And often, the opposite is true as well: The things we expect to be wonderful can turn out to be unhealthy and debilitating. Just think of the stereotypical ambitious businessman who is thrilled to start a high-paying and high-powered job, only to look back in ten years and realize that his workaholism has cost him his family and friends.

My point is, realizing that you can’t predict how something will ultimately impact your life—that all you can do is make the best decision possible with the information you have now—really takes the pressure off. In all situations, especially when you’re worried and expecting the worst, I encourage you to use this Susan Jeffers affirmation: “It’s all happening perfectly.” It really is!

*Stop being so unkind to yourself. Beating yourself up, dwelling on how inept you think you are, and engaging in negative self-talk are all unhealthy behaviors in general. What’s more, they encourage you to view the future through a worst-case-scenario lens. For example, if you don’t get the promotion you had hoped for, you might think to yourself, I’m so stupid and incapable. I’m never going to move up in this company because I don’t deserve to. Nothing ever works out well for me. Then, you’ll probably go on to list all of your past failures in order to prove your own point.

If this is how you tend to think, I can’t stress how important it is that you stop. Remember, we are all human, and we will all make mistakes from time to time. In the future, realize that this is just one promotion that you didn’t get at one particular time. That doesn’t mean you won’t be chosen the next time a spot opens up. Don’t generalize your failures, and don’t let your disappointment bleed into the future. Instead, make a point of celebrating your successes and reminding yourself of all the things you do well.

*Try giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you find yourself assuming the worst about other people when it comes to their attitudes and actions, especially toward you? Say, for example, that your spouse is unusually quiet because she has a mild headache and is preoccupied with a work problem. However, you didn’t ask her what was wrong when you both got home for the evening—you “read her mind” and decided that she wasn’t talkative because she was mad at you. As a result, you have needlessly spent the whole night in a state of anxiety.

Unless you actually work for the Psychic Friends Network, remind yourself that you aren’t a mind reader the next time you find yourself assuming the worst about someone else’s thoughts or motivations. Most of the time your guesses will be incorrect and will only be an upsetting waste of your time. Instead, have a conversation with the person in question. If that isn’t possible, put yourself in his or her shoes and list reasons why you might behave in a similar way. Unless you’re mean-spirited, cruel, and selfish, you’ll probably realize that the other individual isn’t out to get you after all.

*Live in the moment… Seriously, take time to smell the roses! While it might be cliché, this old adage is fundamentally solid advice. To put it simply, when you’re engaged in the here and now, you’re focused on a reality that you can control, and you’re in a position to notice and appreciate all of the blessings around you. But if you’re fretting about what might come to pass, you don’t have enough bandwidth left to enjoy other aspects of your life. You’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you can’t change or control.

I used to spend a majority of my time worrying about what might happen in the future, which did nothing for my peace of mind or self-esteem. But now that I’m making a conscious effort to live in the present, I’m actually enjoying all of the great things in my life instead of letting them pass me by unnoticed. Plus, I’m a lot more productive now that all of the mental space that used to be occupied with worries has been freed up!

It may sound simple, but the following exercise has really helped me. Whenever you catch yourself worrying about the future, stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. Concentrate on breathing in and out for a few moments. Then, open your eyes and use all of your senses to anchor you to the present moment. Look out the window and enjoy the view. Smell the scent that’s coming from an air freshener or a candle. Pet your dog and notice the soft feel of her fur. Then, consciously shift your attention to solving a problem or completing a task that you do have control over. Often, that’s all it takes to break out of a debilitating mental rut!

*…but take a mental trip to the future when you find yourself dreading the worst. When we’re expecting the worst, we tend to wear mental blinders. All we can see is the thing we’re dreading. As far as we’re concerned, the world ends with that event or outcome. But…does it really? Take a step back and look again. The truth is, even when things don’t go our way, life goes on. That’s why it’s so helpful to take a mental trip to the future when you’re dreading the worst.

Try this exercise: Imagine that your worst expectations come true. Now, fast-forward six months, a year, or even five or ten years in your mind. Is that dreaded event still impacting your life? Has it made you permanently unhappy, restricted your options, or blown your bank account? In most instances, the answer will be no. In fact, in six months or a year, the thing you fear probably won’t even be on your radar anymore. (And if it is, figure out what you can do now to prevent it or minimize its impact.) “Traveling to the future” is a great tool for putting negative expectations into context…and more importantly, out of your mind!

*Write it out. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. The remedy? Sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this worry come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Is it likely to happen? How will it impact me if it does?

Sometimes the simple act of putting pen to paper can help you to break the vicious cycle of mental worrying. It helps me to make the things I dread seem less overwhelming and more manageable. I recommend recording your fears in a format you can revisit, such as a journal or saved computer document. Once the crisis has passed (or failed to happen), look back at what you wrote and compare your expectations to what actually occurred. This will help you to hone an increasingly balanced perspective as you move into the future.

If there’s one thing my quest to find happiness has taught me, it’s that things really do have a way of working out. It can be hard to accept that truth and choose to let go of your worrying, especially if it’s a long-standing habit. But I promise, when you learn to manage your mind by taking the focus off your fears and by being more productive in the present moment, your life will be so much healthier and happier.

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!

Not-So-Great Expectations

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.”

—John Milton

Have you ever noticed that people often expect things to go badly? Without any conscious prompting, our minds automatically jump to and fixate on the worst possible scenarios. Consider the following two examples and see if either of them sounds familiar:

  • It’s 2 p.m., and your boss still hasn’t responded to the report you sent him this morning. As you check your email obsessively, you conclude that you haven’t received any feedback because the report is terrible and your boss can’t use it. (What really happened: Your boss’s noon call ran unexpectedly long and he hasn’t had a chance to finish reading the report—but he’s pleased so far!)
  • Your spouse has seemed distant the past few days, is being secretive, and is evading your questions. You’re consumed by the thought that he is involved with someone else and is thinking of leaving you. (What really happened: Your fifteenth anniversary is only a month away, and your spouse is trying to plan a surprise getaway without alerting you.)

Recently, something similar happened to me. Working to collaborate with a well-respected professional, I put together a packet of my materials, mailed it, and waited for a response that I expected to be forthcoming in a day or two. By the time nine days had passed with no response, I was completely convinced that this individual was thoroughly unimpressed with my work and had absolutely no desire to be associated with me. This assumption caused me a ton of distress and anxiety, and prevented me from truly enjoying a weekend spent with my family.

Imagine my (very pleasant!) surprise when I received word that my negative conclusion had been incorrect: This person was excited about the materials I had sent and would love to work with me. His recent schedule had simply been packed, and he hadn’t had a chance to immediately look at what I had sent—hence the delayed response. I immediately realized how shortsighted and unhealthy my reaction had been. I resolved anew not to allow myself to waste time I can never get back by wrongly assuming the worst!

The fact is, we all do this sometimes. We all put ourselves through large amounts of stress, anxiety, and mental anguish because we dwell on negative possibilities that aren’t actually happening! It’s a case of an overactive imagination being used for ill, not good. We would save ourselves a lot of suffering if we could stop our minds from dwelling on the most horrible “what ifs” we can come up with.

Clearly, when we expect the worst, we don’t do ourselves any favors. So why do we persist in this unhelpful mental habit? For one thing, I think, expecting the worst is a way to cushion ourselves emotionally—we’re trying to soften the blow if things go wrong. Think of the popular saying, If you expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.

Expecting the worst can also be a symptom of a generally pessimistic, glass half-empty attitude. And some people expect the worst because it often happens to them. They’re caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle of negativity—they don’t even try to make positive outcomes happen anymore.

Before I started my happiness journey, I used to be a master of dwelling on what could go wrong, how I might screw up, and how circumstances could conspire against me. (And, as the story I shared above shows, I still find myself getting caught in this mental trap from time to time, as we all do!) If you’re familiar with my story, you know that I paid a high price for my negative mental habits: a complete lack of peace, an inability to enjoy the present moment, high levels of stress and anxiety, difficulty experiencing quality rest, and more. Constantly expecting the worst can also take a toll on your relationships, your ability to trust and collaborate with others, and even your physical health.

When it comes to thinking about the future, positive thinking is definitely the better and healthier path. Over the years, I have learned a number of tactics that can help you to stop fixating on the worst possibilities your brain can come up with.

As with all major life changes, this shift in thinking will take time. And as my recent experience with anxiously waiting on a response shows, it’s something you’ll need to continuously work on. (When you do slip up and allow a negative outlook to take over, don’t beat yourself up—nobody is perfect! Instead, look for the lesson.) But I promise you, when you make a genuine effort to conquer the suspicion, fear, and worries that are driving you to expect the worst, you’ll become noticeably happier.

In the coming weeks, I will share my tactics to help you stop expecting the worst, including the lesson I learned when I jumped to conclusions after not hearing back from the person with whom I wanted to collaborate. Stay tuned!

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 Your Spouse in 2013

In my last blog post, I offered some suggestions on how to get more real with yourself. To review, I believe that living a life of true authenticity is one of the keys to happiness; after all, if outside influences are determining who you are, what you do, and how you develop, you’ll feel confined, dissatisfied, and stressed, and it’s unlikely that you’ll truly love yourself for who you are right now.

Once you have begun to work on being more real with yourself and feel that you’re making progress, you can begin to inject more authenticity into the most important external relationship in your life: your marriage. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Happy wife, happy life.” It’s true—and if you happen to be a wife instead of a husband, so is the reverse! I promise, making authenticity a priority in your marriage will set the stage for the kind of happiness that will help both of you to create an absolutely unforgettable life together.

Here’s the catch: For most people, building an authentic marriage isn’t easy. It involves going the extra mile, having conversations you’d rather skip, and making changes in your behavior that don’t feel pleasant at the time. Think about it: You might choose to stick with the status quo and avoid the argument that would accompany telling your spouse that you feel taken for granted. Likewise, it can be easier to point a finger at your spouse rather than admit that you’re part of the overspending problem, too.

However, when you commit to working through these areas of your marriage, you’ll find that resolving future conflict becomes easier, you’ll feel less frustration and resentment, and you’ll enjoy being with your partner more. In an authentic marriage, both partners are free to be themselves while abiding by limits, boundaries, and guidelines that are designed to keep the relationship healthy and free of misunderstandings. Each person feels safe and comfortable opening up to and leaning on the other. That’s a gift that money can’t buy, because you can’t fully allow yourself to love and be loved if you aren’t willing to be vulnerable.

Ultimately, an authentic marriage is incredibly freeing, and will give your everyday happiness levels a huge boost. Here are some things to think about if you want to get real about your marriage in 2013:

* Stop burying your feelings. Have you ever bitten your tongue and allowed your spouse to do something that made you angry? Do you tell yourself that it’s worth feeling disappointed and let down if your partner is happy? If so, stop! Your feelings are legitimate, and stuffing them down not only robs you of happiness, it also denies your spouse (and you!) an opportunity to learn about each other and find a solution that makes your relationship better. Of course, I’m not saying that you should scream, shout, rant, rave, and accuse to your heart’s content. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to experience emotions and share your feelings in a gentle but firm way, even if it rocks the boat a little.

* Know what you want. And share it! Just as you shouldn’t bury your feelings, you also shouldn’t keep your desires and needs to yourself. Whether you’d rather go to the mountains instead of the beach on this year’s vacation, you want to redistribute the household chores, or you’d like your spouse to watch the kids so that you can take a break and spend an evening with your friends, be up front. Remember, if you are constantly denying yourself and sacrificing for the good of your family, your happiness—and thus your ability to be a good partner, parent, and friend—will suffer.

* Put away the finger. …the one you use to point with, that is. The blame game can be convenient and satisfying, but it’s rarely honest. Problems that crop up in marriages usually involve dropped balls at both ends of the court. For instance, here’s a common complaint: My spouse doesn’t listen to me. It’s easy to claim that the fault is all your partner’s; that she ignores you out of spite and doesn’t care enough about you to give you her full attention.

But is that the whole story? Do you approach her when she’s preoccupied or in the middle of another activity? Have you explained to her that you think there’s a problem? Do you give her your complete attention when she’s trying to talk? Usually, whatever the issue is, you’ll find that you aren’t completely blameless.

From now on, stop pointing fingers, which can lead to more frustration and conflict. Instead, accept the fact that you are responsible for your own satisfaction within your marriage. No, you may not be able to control everything your spouse does. But you can control how you react, how you handle problems, and what you are willing to tolerate. Rather than playing the blame game, commit to facing facts, taking responsibility, and resolving conflict.

* Let go of the need to always be right. Being honest with your spouse about how you feel and what you want is important. But it doesn’t always mean that you will—or should—get your way. After all, sometimes your spouse will be “right.” Maybe his plan for paying down your debt is more sustainable than yours. Perhaps the loving thing to do would be to order Chinese food, even though you don’t particularly like it, because your spouse had a terrible day at work.

Any relationship involving two people, especially marriage, must involve compromise and sometimes sacrifice in order to stand the test of time. So don’t think of yourself as a doormat, but do get in the habit of asking yourself, Would I rather be right or happy? Is my spouse making a better point than I am? Is this worth fighting about? Will pursuing this issue help our relationship or hurt it?

* Extend the same courtesy. As you strive to live more authentically within your marriage, allow your spouse to do the same. If she makes a good-faith effort to be honest with you, try to be understanding and kind, even if you don’t like what you’ve heard. Be willing to go the extra mile to make sure that her needs are being met. And don’t try to manipulate or force her into being the person you want her to be if the change in question isn’t one she feels good about making. The truth is, when both of you are allowed to be your most authentic selves while still prioritizing the health of your relationship together, you’ll have created a best-odds scenario for a happy and healthy marriage.

* If nothing else works, ask yourself THE question. Is my husband or wife the right person for me…or is he or she only a person to whom I happen to be married? First, let me say that if you are already married, I firmly believe that you should put your best efforts toward constantly improving your relationship. And if you are considering separation or divorce, I strongly suggest talking to a marriage counselor before making a final decision. That said, it’s also the case that sometimes, despite our intentions and desires, marriages don’t work. Maybe you and your spouse have different core values, want different things out of life, or simply aren’t compatible anymore. Or perhaps you have committed to a life of growth, positivity, and authenticity, and your partner refuses to support you and evolve with you.

Ultimately, more than almost anything else, your marriage can make or break the quality of your happiness. So if you genuinely believe that your spouse will not or cannot enhance your life, he or she may not be “right” for you.

Once you have clarified that you want to make your marriage work or that you want to move on, state your intention clearly to your spouse. Then act on your decision. If you have decided to stay married, realize that this is a turning point in the quality of your relationship. If things are unsatisfying or average right now, a commitment to authenticity can turn the tide. And if your marriage is already good, authenticity will make it absolutely fantastic.

Here’s one last piece of advice on how to make your marriage authentic: If you love your spouse (and I certainly hope you do!), verbalize that feeling every chance you get. I can tell you from experience that when your husband or wife knows how much he or she means to you, the obstacles you must face together will seem a lot less daunting. Plus, you’ll both feel more comfortable striving for authenticity because you will each know that you are valued and accepted, just the way you are.

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!