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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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.

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!

 

 

Let the Sunshine In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How NOT to Raise a Bully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of Being Friendly

Supposedly, we live in a completely connected world. We can call anyone who has a phone, 24/7. We can watch events as they happen on the other side of the world, thanks to television. We can also email, video chat, text, and more.

Yes, all of this technology is absolutely amazing. But ultimately, it really doesn’t make me feel any more personally connected to other people than I was before. I hope this doesn’t make me sound like “an old fogey” (because I certainly don’t feel old), but I think that our wired lifestyles are actually causing us to become more isolated. We’re not interacting person-to-person with other people as much as we used to. We’re forgetting how to be neighborly and pleasant. Our kids are actually losing the ability to converse with others the way human beings have almost since the dawn of time. And that’s a shame, because in my mind there simply isn’t, and never will be, any substitute for good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations.

In fact, I actually decided to make “Being Friendly” Step Nine in my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program because I think it’s a vital part of being a positive, fulfilled, and, yes, happy person. And I even consider being friendly to everyone I meet with a big hello and smile—and often even with a pat on the back and a hug, too—to be my own secret energy booster, keeping me rocking throughout my day, as each of these fun new interactions gets my own juices flowing as well. You simply can’t put a value on a heartfelt smile or a genuine “Hi, how are you doing?” Think about it: Thanking a bank teller or grocery store cashier for her great help can change her entire day for the better. And saying hello to the traveler next to you can spark a fun conversation, and maybe even a new friendship.

I know from years of experience that even if you can’t see it, everyone on Earth is carrying some sort of burden. It could be that your neighbor’s mother just died, that your coworker was diagnosed with a chronic disease, or even that your niece just went through a break-up with her high-school boyfriend. Always remember, while you can’t take another person’s pain away, you can be what I call a lamp-lighter: someone who makes small positive differences in other people’s lives by making them feel just a little bit happier and lighter along their journeys.

And what about those inevitable difficult days when all you can muster is gritted teeth instead of even a half-hearted smile? Well, just make every effort not to take out your frustration on others around you. It’ll take some self-control, but remember, it doesn’t help anyone when you snap at the sales representative whose hands are tied by company policy, for example.

As you go through life, make an effort to reach out in some friendly way to the people you see. Even if you’re reserved or just not a natural “connector,” it’s still easy to smile and say a quick hello to your neighbors, your coworkers, your bus driver, and your child’s teacher, for instance. They won’t be the only beneficiaries, either. I guarantee you, as you begin to be sunnier to others, you’ll start to feel your own mood brighten, too. (That’s the power of positive connection!) Plus, if you make friendliness a habit, I think you’ll find that others will begin to respond to you differently because they will find you more approachable.

Ultimately, you’ll be surprised by how rewarding simple friendliness can be. You’ll bring more happiness to others’ days and to your own, too. I promise!

The Importance of Improving Close Relationships

Recently, I blogged about how important it is to seek out positive people and also to avoid putting yourself needlessly into situations that drain you or are harmful to your attitude. That’s easy to do when we’re talking about, say, Pessimistic Peter in the accounting department. He’s not an integral part of your life, and it’s realistic to avoid his rants in the break room.

What’s not realistic is to avoid, say, a brother (who might always think he’s a victim), or a best friend (who has a tendency to dwell on how nasty her ex-husband is), or a mother-in-law (who constantly nitpicks), or even a spouse or significant other (who likes to point out everything that’s going wrong in your lives).

Obviously, I think it would be irresponsible, unwise, and even cruel to cut these relationships out of your life without a second thought. You see, while I stand by the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people, I also think that it’s always a good idea to put work into improving and strengthening your closest relationships. Think about it this way: Relationships are a two-way street. You can’t write them off without doing your part to make them work!

In my book, I recommend making a list of all of the people who are important to you. It might include friends, colleagues, neighbors, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and of course, most importantly, your own immediate family. Over the next six months to a year, make it your goal to reach out to each of these individuals, whether it’s through a phone call, a visit, or plans to go putt-putting together. Tell these people why they’re important to you and how they make your life better, and that you appreciate them or even love them.

And if there are any points of contention, anger, or unresolved grudges, make a sincere effort to resolve them. In most cases, you won’t significantly strengthen or improve these relationships in just one conversation. But you’ll have made a start. And if you regularly keep in mind why each of the people on your list is important to you, you’ll be motivated to reach out to them more regularly and to work through any negativity that might be keeping you from growing closer.

Now, I want to mention a few groups of people who should always be at the top of your relationship-strengthening list. One group is your parents. If you, like me, are blessed to still have spry, loving parents in your life, don’t take them for granted. (A friend who has lost his mother and father constantly reminds me of this.) There is no substitute for learning from your parents and letting them know how important they have been—and continue to be—in your life.

And those of you who know me well won’t be surprised by what I’m going to say next: The people on your list whom you must absolutely prioritize the most are your children (if you have any) and your spouse or significant other. First, you must realize that your children need to feel your love unconditionally and at all times, not only when they get a great report card and score goals on the soccer field. Also, it is devastating to children when their parents are clearly with them only in body and not in mind. (You know what I mean: You’re eating a bowl of ice cream with your kids, but you’re really thinking about the office, for instance.)

As for your spouse or significant other, it’s crucial to realize that this is the person who sees you every day at your best and at your worst, who is a partner in raising your kids, whose support can make or break your success, and whose attitude is integral to your own happiness (and vice versa!).

To put it bluntly, you must make your marriage your number one priority each and every day; otherwise, it will deteriorate just as surely as your car would without maintenance. In fact, I often think that marriage vows should be changed to something like this: “I promise to love you for better or for worse, in sickness and in health…so long as you continue to make me feel special and appreciated.” This new vow might sound funny at first, I know—but it’s also something that must be non-negotiable if you want to have a strong, successful relationship. Too many of us forget that we all need to feel special, appreciated, and good about ourselves, especially in the comfort of our own homes.

My best advice is to celebrate your spouse every day. In my case, I tell Yadira how beautiful she is and how much I love her many, many times each day. I even bring her flowers on occasion “just because.” We plan special nights out and we constantly show affection. I have found that when your spouse knows how much she (or he!) means to you, your marriage won’t be problem free…but it will be based on much more positive interactions and on increasing amounts of love. And trust me—that can make all the difference!

Remember, life is all about people. And the stronger your relationships are with your friends and loved ones, the happier you will be.