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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Summer Goal: Happy Kids (and How to Instill the Happy Habit)

One of the best things about summer is the fact that most of us get to spend more time with our kids. They’re home from school for a few months, and while our time off doesn’t generally mirror theirs, we adults still tend to take more vacation time during these lazy, hazy, crazy days than we do at other times throughout the year.

That being the case, this is the perfect time to teach your children some important life lessons. Specifically, I’m referring to lessons about happiness. If you’re familiar with my message, you already know that I believe happiness and success are not the same thing, and that our society tends to prioritize achievement over things like contentment, balance, and well-being. All too often, this state of affairs causes us to become overstressed, overscheduled, and overwhelmed—a lifestyle that doesn’t really leave very much room for “happy.”

The good news is, semi-constant stress and dissatisfaction aren’t inevitable. In fact, the root of much of our unhappiness can be traced back to our childhoods—which means that as a parent, you’re faced with a very important responsibility. More than sending your kids to a deluxe sleepaway camp or supervising their summer reading, the absolute best thing you can do for your children this season is to instill habits that will cultivate lifelong happiness.

Now, don’t panic. I’m not saying that you need to forgo pool trips and ice cream runs for lectures on the power of positive thinking—far from it! I’m simply suggesting that you take advantage of summer’s slower pace (and the increased amount of family time that goes with it) to help your kids develop healthy habits that will contribute to their happiness now and throughout the year. Here are eight suggestions to help you get started:

*Show your kids what happiness looks like. Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do. If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are good that your kids will grow up to do the same. When it comes to instilling happiness habits, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt. So if you feel that your own priorities are out of whack, that your coping mechanisms are unhealthy, or that your outlook could use improving, do what you need to do in order to make the necessary adjustments. (Viewing my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program at www.toddpatkin.com or reading some of my previous blog posts will give you some good tactics to begin with!) Be sure you’re modeling all of the behaviors I’m about to describe. Remember, you’re not being selfish in the least—you’re guaranteeing a brighter future for yourself and your kids…and their kids after them.

*Teach your kids to love themselves. Despite what you may tell yourself as you tuck your children in at night, the love you feel for them—as boundless and unconditional as it might be—won’t be enough to sustain them throughout their lifetimes. It’s crucial that you teach them from a very early age to love themselves as well. The confidence that comes from loving yourself helps to guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression. Overall, always be your kids’ biggest cheerleaders. Teach them to focus on all of the unique, positive aspects of themselves instead of dwelling on what they can improve and what they’ve done wrong. And always, always let them know they are loved unconditionally. So many children believe that they are only as good as their grades, their ability to entertain others, or who their friends are. Teaching them that they have intrinsic value starts at home with you.

*Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children, and many kids—especially those whose personalities predispose them to it—get the (incorrect) idea that anything short of perfection is failure. Always think about how your expectations and reactions might affect your child. Releasing him from the grip of perfectionism has to start with you—it won’t happen on its own. Tell him on a regular basis that you love him—not his grades or his sports trophies, but him. Help him to believe that he is adequate and successful no matter what. It’s important to realize that when young people go to college at age 18 (often their first extended time away from home), an unattainable compulsion to be perfect is extremely dangerous, and can lead to serious anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Again, do everything you can now to make sure your children enter the adult world with a healthy perspective on success and achievements.

*Teach your kids to play to their strengths. It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids—and their parents—feel a compulsion to be good at everything. As a parent, don’t support this notion. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human! Also, help your child to identify what her strengths and talents are and encourage her to pursue those things, rather than activities that make her feel less-than-great. Summer, with its increased amount of free time, is a great time to do this!

*Help your kids develop the power of perspective. Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. (Case in point: Mom, I didn’t get to play on the same kickball team as Jimmy today at day camp!) And as you know from experience, the problems you encounter in elementary school don’t compare to the ones you encounter in high school…which don’t even begin to compare to the ones you face as an adult. That’s why one of the best things you can do to instill the happiness habit in your kids is to help them to develop perspective. From now on, when your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket amidst all of his other successes. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder in the future! Remember, when your child is able to accept failure, move forward, and keep a positive outlook, then he will have developed a crucial skill for his adult life.

*Raise your kids to be helpers. As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults. So sit down and talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important and discuss all the ways to do it. Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Then, make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Maybe they’d like to help out with a food drive or a bake sale, or perhaps they’d rather volunteer at a local animal shelter or nursing home. Again, because of the relatively large amount of free time your kids have, summer is a perfect time for these activities. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.

*Give your kids the gift of gratitude. An attitude of gratitude might be a clichéd concept, but I know from experience that having one can change the way you look at and interact with the world. When you realize on a daily basis how fortunate you are—from being born in this country to having food on your table to having a family who loves you—you’ll develop perspective and compassion. You’ll have stronger, more genuine relationships, and you’ll look at the world with a healthy perspective instead of believing it revolves around you. That’s true for kids as well as adults! There are so many things you can do to instill gratitude in your kids. Verbally identifying and naming your blessings as a family is one, and making thank-you card writing a “rule” after birthdays and holidays is another. Another more subtle method is to deny your kids every once in a while. Of course I’m not advocating compromising their well-being, but the truth is, they don’t need every toy they ask for or ice cream for dessert every night. Not getting what they want, when they want it, every time, will help them to value what they do have, and it will protect against entitlement. Making your kids chip in to pay for what they want (whether it’s with money or by doing chores) will have the same effect.

*Make happiness a priority for your family. For many families, things like academics, sports, or other activities are in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Make no mistake: What you prioritize in your family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize too, well into adulthood. So sit down with your kids and talk about the things that make them happy. Try to get a feel for whether or not their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, “Does playing softball make you feel good?” or, “What were you doing today when you felt the best?” If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis throughout the year to talk about how to reprioritize will make a happier family and will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.

In a very real way, the attitudes and outlooks you instill in your children today will impact the rest of their lives—for good or ill. It’s not too late to make summer 2013 the season your family took a positive turn toward happiness. I promise, you won’t regret it!

 

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Defining Close Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I’m Grateful for America the Great

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

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

As an American, I’m grateful for:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“Thank-Yous” Every Father Should Hear

On Sunday, June 16th—otherwise known as Father’s Day—dads across America will receive ties, tools, and other “toys” from their children. Sure, those gifts (as well as cards, visits, and family meals) are a great way to let Pops know that you love him and that you’re glad he’s part of your life. Like many of you, I am hoping to spend the day with my father and with my son, probably at the beach with Josh and maybe a nice meal later with my dad.

But this year, in addition to the “traditional” Father’s Day activities, I thought about what I could do to really honor my dad in a way he’ll remember and cherish. It didn’t take me very long to think of an answer: Tell Dad thank you and mean it.

I know that stereotypically speaking men aren’t supposed to be very “touchy-feely.” But I promise you—speaking as a father myself—when it comes to your kids, all of those rules go out the window. I cherish every “I love you,” “thanks,” and genuine smile I’ve ever gotten from my son, Josh. It’s incredibly heartwarming and fulfilling to hear directly from your child that he or she thinks you’ve done a good job as a parent.

Unfortunately, because our parents tend to be such constant presences in our lives, we often take them—and everything they’ve done for us—for granted. No, your dad probably wasn’t perfect (no parent is!), but chances are, he helped you become a capable, responsible, and fulfilled adult, and he always wanted the best for you. Father’s Day is the perfect time to think about all of the specific ways in which your dad has impacted your life. As I plan to do, I hope you’ll also spend some time reflecting on your relationship with your father and give him the gift of heartfelt thanks.

To help you get started, here are eleven “thank-yous” that might just make your dad’s Father’s Day perfect:

  • Thank you for almost always making time to come to my games, concerts, and awards ceremonies. I know you were under pressure and busy a lot of the time, so your priorities taught me that family and relationships are always more important than work and outside achievements.
  • Thank you for supporting me when I decided I’d rather be in the school band than play basketball. The fact that you clapped loudest at our concert let me know unequivocally that you love me for who I am—especially since you were the star point guard during your own high school days!
  • Thank you for making me help with yard work and home improvement projects on the weekends. I may not have enjoyed it at the time, but you taught me the value of hard work. Because of you, I take pride in a job well done, no matter how large or small!
  • Thank you for teaching me to ride a bike, and especially for encouraging me to get back up and try again when I fell. I learned that persistence and practice pay off, and that the results can be fantastic!
  • Thank you for coaching my YMCA sports teams. You showed me what good sportsmanship looks like and taught me why it’s important to shake hands after every game, even if we lost! In all aspects of my adult life, I know how to lose (and win!) with grace because of you, Dad. And even though I’ve aged out of Little League, I also exercise on a regular basis and try to stay physically fit.
  • Thank you for disciplining me and telling me why you were disappointed. I certainly didn’t enjoy being punished, but now I have a strong set of core values and a firm sense of right and wrong.
  • Thank you for teaching me how to drive and for remaining patient throughout the process—I know I wasn’t always the nicest student. Now I can merge, parallel park, and back like a pro. (But I’m still trying to beat your least-number-of-stops-on-the-way-to-the-beach record!)
  • Thank you for showing me that there’s a difference between being aggressively confrontational and being politely firm. Because of you I stick to my convictions and don’t let others take advantage of me while remaining respectful.
  • Thank you for making executive decisions on everything from where to eat dinner to when to leave the neighbors’ holiday party to which movie to watch on family night. These examples may seem insignificant, but over the years you taught me the value of knowing your mind and acting decisively. You saved me a lot of waffling, hemming, and hawing!
  • Thank you for always treating Mom with respect, patience, love, and sometimes a little mischievousness. You taught me how to treat someone you love and what a strong marriage looks like. Now I have a great relationship—and a lot of fun—with my own partner.

And for men specifically, I also suggest some version of this acknowledgment:

  • Thank you for teaching me the “essentials” like how to tie a tie, iron a crease into slacks, shine my shoes, and shave. While I might not put all of those skills to use every day, I always take pride in my appearance…and I think I do “clean up” nicely!

Whether you write your own personalized thank-yous in a card or share them with your dad in person, you can rest assured that this will be a Father’s Day he’ll remember forever. Here’s to you, Dad!

 

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.

Mental Health Stigma: Fast Facts and How to Help

Since May is Mental Health Month, I decided to write about what I see as the biggest issue facing people who struggle with mental health issues today: stigma.

It’s true that we’re learning more every year about mental health issues and how to treat them. And well-known personalities including Larry King, George Stephanopoulos, Brooke Shields, Terry Bradshaw, J.K. Rowling, and Sheryl Crow (to name just a few) have opened up about their own experiences with illnesses like anxiety and depression, and have urged that this topic be brought further into the light.

However, there’s still a definite stigma attached to mental health—one that usually isn’t present with more “physical” illnesses like cancer or diabetes. And that stigma has been hurting many, many Americans for decades. Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds aren’t getting the help they need and are living lives overshadowed by fear, anxiety, sadness, low self-esteem, and much more. (And in extreme cases, they’re even committing suicide.) With one in four adults suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder each year, the importance of addressing, reducing, and eventually erasing mental health stigma shouldn’t be ignored.

Here, I’d like to share my thoughts on why people don’t get help and what can be done to lift the stigma.

Why people don’t get help:

  • I think I’m alone. Because it isn’t common for people who are being treated for issues like depression and anxiety to “go public” with their stories, sufferers often mistakenly believe that they are one of only a small group of people who have felt this way.
  • I don’t want to be judged. It’s no surprise that people would want to avoid attracting hurtful labels, including: crazy, lunatic, nut job, wacko, psycho, etc. Our society’s tendency to describe sufferers of mental illnesses in negative terms like these is extremely destructive because it creates shame where there should be none.
  • I don’t want to admit that something is wrong. Trust me, it’s incredibly hard to admit to yourself—let alone others—that you aren’t in control and that you can’t “handle” things on your own. Making this admission can be a huge blow to your pride and self-esteem.
  • I honestly don’t realize that I need help. Diseases like depression and anxiety don’t just pop up overnight. Often, they are the result of months, years, or even decades of stress and negative circumstances. For instance, if someone has a high-pressure job, he or she might write off mounting anxiety as “normal.” People often don’t realize that the scale has tipped from “normal” to “needing help.”
  • I just don’t feel up to it. Unfortunately, the very nature of mental health disorders can often make it difficult for sufferers to reach out for the help they need. For instance, since depression affects your energy levels, patients might literally not have the will to call the doctor, make an appointment, and go.
  • I don’t want to take medication. Many people are either fearful of taking medication or too proud to do so (e.g., “I can handle this on my own.”). Alternatively, many prospective patients may be reluctant to take medication because of other health implications, such as a desire to avoid negative side effects. Furthermore, many young people especially are resistant to medication because they don’t want to be teased, labeled, or bullied by their peers. (I’m sure the same thing happens among some groups of adults, too.)

What we can do to lift the stigma:

  • If you have a success story, share it! It is one of my greatest hopes that more people who have experienced issues like depression and anxiety will become less reluctant—even eager!—to share their stories. In a perfect world, I envision our society congratulating and honoring people who have battled and conquered these mental illnesses, just as we currently (and rightly!) celebrate those who have survived cancer. If there’s one thing I have learned from sharing my own story with others, it’s that there are so many other people “like me”—people who have felt absolutely sick, miserable, and hopeless due to depression and anxiety, have gotten the help they needed, and have gone on to live successful and happy lives. I believe that if more people talked about their success stories, the truth about mental health issues would quickly come to the forefront, and the stigma would begin to recede. Most importantly, all of these “success stories” could serve as a vital source of hope to those who might currently feel hopeless.
  • Learn the truth about mental illness. If you don’t have personal experience with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, learn more about them. Make sure that you, personally, are not buying into myths such as “if you’re feeling depressed, you should be able to tough it out.” Also, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that you will understand how these diseases affect the body, and so that you’ll be more likely to recognize them in yourself and in your loved ones.
  • Be supportive and nonjudgmental of others. If someone in your life is suffering from a mental health issue, do everything you can to be helpful. Let the other person know that you’re on his or her side and that you want to help. Depending on the relationship, you might offer physical help—such as running errands or cooking meals on a bad day, or accompanying the person to medical appointments—or emotional support. At the very least, always strive to be sympathetic and reassuring. Remember, no one chooses to be depressed or anxious.
  • Turn the conversation in a positive direction. In some ways, this step is the most important of all. Whenever you have the opportunity, turn the conversation about mental illness in a positive direction. When appropriate, correct misconceptions about these issues. Always do your best to share truthful information. And even if it’s uncomfortable, I urge you not to shy away from this topic. As long as people don’t talk about it, the stigma won’t go away.
  • Get help if you need it. Yes, this can be incredibly scary. But I promise, you are not alone. And you can experience a positive future no matter how you are feeling right now. For your own sake, as well as for your friends and family, don’t let fears of being seen as “weak” or “sick” hold you back. I promise, addressing this illness is one of the healthiest things you can possibly do for yourself. And please, please—if you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out as soon as possible. You can call hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help.
  • Don’t forget your medication. …when it comes to destigmatizing mental illness, that is! Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are essential tools for recovery in most cases. Yes, it’s true that some individuals overuse and abuse them, but the same thing can be said of any medication. Make sure to never, ever belittle a particular drug or those who take it. In my opinion, doing so is every bit as insensitive and judgmental as making fun of or criticizing someone with cancer or heart disease for taking the required and/or recommended medications.

I truly do believe that it’s possible for people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more illnesses to feel comfortable sharing their stories and getting the help they need. But that will happen only through a grassroots movement. So please, make an effort to learn the truth about mental health issues so that you’re part of the stigma solution instead of the problem.

Making Mother’s Day Meaningful

In case you haven’t checked your calendar recently, Mother’s Day is coming up: Sunday, May 12th, to be exact. What are your plans? Are you going to send some flowers or a card, chat with your mom on the phone, and congratulate yourself on doing your duty as a child? Assuming you live close enough, will you stop by for a special visit?

If so, you’re in good company. Thousands of other Americans will be doing the same thing. And no, of course there’s nothing wrong with flowers, greeting cards, calls, or visits. They’ll all let your mother know that you appreciate her enough to put prior thought and energy into making her feel special.

But this year, I encourage you to go beyond a canned card. As you probably know if you’re familiar with my message, I believe that it is incredibly important to put sincere and consistent work into improving your closest relationships. Hopefully, your mother falls into that category! If, like me, you are blessed to still have your mom, don’t take her for granted. The fact is, the future isn’t guaranteed to us—we can count on only the present moment. So don’t lose any time—accompany that bouquet of flowers with something your mom will remember and cherish long after the blooms have faded.

Especially if you’re a parent yourself, think about the things you’d like to hear most from your own kids, now and in the future. Perhaps they might include: I have always known that I’m loved. You have given me the tools I need to build a fulfilling life. I know that you always did your best to be a good parent. Allow me to share some of the most important life lessons I have learned from you. And so on! Then, share these important truths with your mother—maybe even consider writing them down in that greeting card. Often, they’re the types of things we deeply feel but rarely verbalize.

Another meaningful way to spend Mother’s Day is to look through old photo albums with your mom (and with your dad too, if he’s still around), reliving good memories, telling funny stories, and explaining how your mother’s influence earlier in your life has shaped who you are today (and maybe even how you have decided to raise your own family). It’s not universally true, of course, but mothers often act as the glue that holds families together—they dry tears, they mediate when quarrels happen, they make sure that homework is done and that baths are taken, they motivate, encourage, advise, and so much more. What a blessing it would be for your mother to hear that you remember these things and that you see them as invaluable gifts she gave you growing up!

On the other hand, what if your relationship with your mother isn’t that smooth? What if the two of you aren’t very close? If you’re on speaking terms, I encourage you to take a step toward mending any rifts that may exist. No, you might not want to spend Mother’s Day rehashing old arguments or disagreements, but you can tell your mom that you’d like to work on these problems in the future because you love her and value your relationship.

And what if you don’t plan on talking to your mom on May 12th? Or any other day, for that matter? Sadly, I know that this is the case for too many people. Well, at Oneness University, which I recently attended in India, I learned that the most important relationships we have are with our parents. In fact, Oneness teaches that if you have a bad relationship with your mother in your heart, your life will always be filled with troubles. Thus, the best step you can take is to try to forgive her in your own mind, for your own well-being. Do your best to take a step forward and understand what your estranged mother might have been dealing with in her life when she treated you in a negative way—what might have caused her to behave the way she did.

At the end of the day, think about what you want to feel on Mother’s Day and determine how you can achieve that desired outcome. You may find yourself rejoicing in having the world’s greatest mother, or you may be at peace knowing that a potentially volatile situation is being handled in a way that honors your physical health and mental well-being. Remember, celebrating your mother is important—but the most important thing of all is being authentic and showing love to yourself first.

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.