How Bullying Starts at Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Getting Real with Your Spouse in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Real with Yourself in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my tips on being authentic with yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Men, Let’s Talk about Depression.

For men especially, depression is something that’s uncomfortable to talk about. Unfortunately, our society tends to believe that “real” men shouldn’t get depressed. Men are supposed to be tough, the thinking goes, and not let their emotions “get the better of them.”

Please understand: If that’s how you tend to think about depression, you’re making a dangerous mistake. The truth is, over six million men are affected by depression each year in the U.S. alone, but many don’t seek treatment because they don’t want to be seen as weak or defective. Believe me, I understand. It took a complete nervous breakdown at the age of 36 for me to directly address the feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, and stress that I had been dealing with for much of my life.

Now, I have gotten the medical help I needed for some time leading up to my breakdown. I’ve also revised my outlook on my life in general and on my mental health in particular. Because of my experiences, I believe that it is vitally important for men to educate themselves about depression so that they can recognize its symptoms and be prepared to seek help if necessary. Above all, I want all men in America to understand that depression is not and never has been something you can overcome through willpower—it is a medical illness. This week, please read these seven facts about depression as it relates to men and share them with the men you love.

*Depression is more prevalent than ever. Increasing numbers of Americans are being diagnosed with depression—and that includes men. Studies show that each generation is more likely to become depressed than the one that came before it—and more likely to become so at an earlier age, too. Not surprisingly, antidepressant use in our country continues to grow. Since my breakdown, I’ve learned that you can be prone to depression because of your genetics, but also due to life circumstances. I’ve thought for years that the way we live and work in America is unhealthy. And I know that the recent economic downturn, and the fact that it caused a lot of people to lose their savings and jobs, hasn’t helped our outlooks and mental health.

*Men experience different symptoms from women. This is a “biggie”! Because most people don’t realize that depression manifests differently between the sexes, many men fail to even suspect the true nature of what is bothering them. According to my friend Dr. Howard Rankin (who is a clinical psychologist), women are likely to internalize their negative feelings and blame themselves for their problems, while men more commonly act out on their emotions. Depression manifests itself differently in men because their emotional circuits and brains are designed differently. So instead of getting tearful, a man who is depressed might become irritable, hostile, and fatigued. Like I did, he might dive into his work or a hobby until he literally can’t carry on. He’s also likely to blame other people or other circumstances for his problems, rather than admit that he is experiencing troubling symptoms.

*There’s a connection between depression and stress. Stress is so prevalent that we tend to ignore it and write it off as normal, despite the fact that we’ve all heard the statistics about how chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health problems. But did you know that long-term stress can also increase your risk of becoming depressed? While depression can be related to genetics, it can also be caused by long-term stress—especially if you’re not handling it well. When you’re constantly worn down, anxious, and unhappy, you’re essentially training your brain to be that way—and eventually, your brain’s biochemistry becomes locked into this pattern. While I’m no doctor, my personal experience has been that exercise is the best way to alleviate stress—and by extension help stave off depression—because it naturally releases endorphins and manages your mood.

*Depression can damage your physical health. Depression is a disorder that’s rooted in the brain, but it can affect your body, too. Depression is accompanied by a loss of energy. It can also cause muscle pain, joint pain, digestive problems, headaches, reduced sex drive, and more—and it’s easy to see how those symptoms can disrupt your life. Consider the following statement from Dr. Rankin:

“If you’re depressed, it’s very possible that you’ll feel exhausted and in pain all of the time. It’s actually not uncommon for patients to be misdiagnosed at first because they and their doctors think that the unpleasant symptoms have another cause. That’s why it’s very important to understand that depression isn’t just ‘in your head,’ and to be completely open with your doctor.”

*Depression can also hurt your family. Don’t make the mistake of believing that depression affects only you. If you’re lacking energy or if you’re anxious, irritable, or in pain, your family will notice. And their daily lives—in fact, their basic well-being—will be impacted, too. Your spouse and children might feel that they have to walk on eggshells around you, for example, and might become anxious themselves because they can’t ease your burden. You won’t be able to give them the attention, support, and love that you used to, either. In hindsight, one of the worst things about my depression and breakdown was that I simply couldn’t be the dad and husband I wanted to be. Please, if you’re reluctant to get help for your own sake, do it for the people you love. And remember that if your kids see you moping around every day, they will be much more likely to grow up the same way, thinking that an unhappy life is simply the norm. That’s not something any father wants to leave as a legacy for his children…and then for their children after them as well.

*Depression is not a cause for stigma. This is something I’m VERY adamant about: Depression is not something to be ashamed of. While clinical depression is very different from a disease like cancer, they have one major thing in common: No one chooses to suffer from either, and no one can power through these ailments unaided. Yes, I do understand why men feel it is their job as the head of the household to ignore their depression and just continue on. But doing so can ruin your life and even lead to suicide. I’m very glad to see that our society’s view of depression is finally changing, albeit much too slowly for my liking. I’m passionate about bringing the reality of depression into the public conversation, and I’m not the only one. Well-known figures including Terry Bradshaw, George Stephanopoulos, and Mike Wallace, to name a few, have also opened up about their own struggles with this illness in order to raise awareness and dispel myths.

*Depression is treatable. Many people suffer from debilitating depression for months or even years, and if you’re one of them, you may believe that a “normal” life is—and always will be—beyond your grasp. Depression is treatable, though—and with a combination of counseling and medication, most people are able to completely regain their quality of life. Once you and your doctor do find the combination of medication and/or counseling that works for you, I promise you’ll be astounded by the results. It’s possible that just one pill a day can make you feel like a whole new man again! When my doctor and I found a medication that restored my brain chemistry, I felt like my old self in just six weeks’ time.

If you think that you (or a man you love) might be suffering from depression—or even heading toward it—please, please talk with a medical professional. Being aware of your mental health is just as important as being aware of your physical health. Above all, remember that getting help for depression is not—let me repeat that, is not—a cause for shame or stigma. In fact, it’s the best thing you can do for your health, your family, and your future.

 

 

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!

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.

Prioritize Your Marriage Every Day

If there’s ever a time when we make focusing on our spouse or significant other a priority, it’s Valentine’s Day. After all, February 14th is all about romance, fancy dinners, thoughtful gifts, and expressions of love. In that sort of candy-coated situation, it’s very easy to feel a spark as you gaze into your partner’s eyes.

But what about the other 364 days of the year? If you’ve been married (or in a committed relationship) for much time at all, you know that champagne and chocolates are only a small part of what makes up a partnership. You also have to deal with things like shared bills, housework, busy schedules, kids, the occasional argument, and more. And in the midst of all of that chaos, well, it can be all too easy for the “love” part of your relationship to take a hit.

If you have read my book or heard me speak, you’ve probably heard me say that your marriage is like anything else in this life. If it is not growing and expanding, it is slowly dying. If you don’t put regular work into maintaining your marriage and repairing any problems that crop up, it will eventually break down, or even worse. Furthermore, if you’re unhappy at home you’ll find it more difficult to succeed in other areas of your life as well because you will constantly be stressed out about your number-one relationship. And you’ll also lack your partner’s full support. That being the case, we all must start to put even more effort into our marriages than we do into succeeding professionally or trying to keep our homes, lawns, and/or cars looking great.

Essentially, the real secret to maintaining a fabulous, loving relationship with your spouse boils down to this: Every day, it must be your number-one priority to make your husband or wife feel as special, loved, and valued as he or she did when you first got married.

Here are a few things I do to keep my own wife (I hope!) feeling amazing and special throughout the whole year. I use the terms wife, she, and her, but I promise, all of these strategies work just as well with men!:

  • Celebrate your spouse every day. Tell her how wonderful, beautiful, and talented she is. Tell her you love her every chance you get, and how incredibly fortunate you feel to be married to her.
  • Be sure to compliment your spouse whenever you can. By and large, we can’t count on hearing praise from our bosses and coworkers, or even from our friends and kids. And most certainly, we don’t make ourselves feel very good with compliments directed at ourselves, either. So over time, it’s all too easy to feel small, unhappy, and dissatisfied. As a spouse, though, you have the power and responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen to your wife. You can light up her world every day with love, affection, and yes, glowing praise!
  • Learn, and do, what makes your spouse feel most loved. Some of us need to be touched to feel love. Others need to hear it, and still others need to be shown through gifts and nights out on the town that we are loved and appreciated. Don’t assume your way of feeling loved is the same as hers. Simply ask your spouse directly what you do for her that makes her feel the most loved, and then incorporate her answer more frequently into your daily lives.
  • Don’t let resentments build. Always keep the lines of communication open, even if you need to take a walk and clear your head before broaching a touchy subject.
  • Look at yourself before trying to fix your partner. Instead of nagging, complaining, and accusing, ask yourself—honestly—where you might be dropping the ball and/or causing the problem. When you start changing your behavior for the better, you’ll probably be surprised by how quickly your spouse will do the same for you!

Obviously, these are only a handful of the many habits that can keep your marriage great. Overall, just remember that when you are committed to loving, respecting, and celebrating your spouse every day, she’ll smile more, feel better, and experience more of that romantic “spark” (and so will you, I promise!).

So, go on that fun, romantic Valentine’s Day date…and then prioritize and enjoy your marriage every day thereafter. You won’t regret it—I know I haven’t!