Not-So-Great Expectations

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

—John Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Real with Your Friends in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Real with Your Spouse in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Real with Yourself in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my tips on being authentic with yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Portrait of a Great Coach

Everyone who knows me personally is aware that I am a huge sports fan. I love to support all of my local Boston professional teams. But without a doubt, my favorite sports events of all are those in which my son, Josh, is a player. (This may be a father’s pride talking, but he is a whiz on the basketball court!)

I know I’m not the only parent who wants his or her child to succeed athletically. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as fall sports start up, about what a huge difference coaches can make in young people’s lives—for good or ill. While my own son has always been fortunate enough to work with supportive, uplifting coaches, sadly that’s not the case for all young players. In fact, it is amazing to me how often I am asked by “struggling” parents how they should handle their son’s or daughter’s upsetting coach.

With that in mind, I think it’s very important for parents to first understand that most coaches are doing their best, are not paid, and are giving of their time and energy very unselfishly. But you should also protect your kids by staying aware of how coaches interact with your children and what type of influence they’re having, and most importantly, to hold them accountable. While I don’t advocate becoming a so-called “helicopter parent,” I do think that as a parent you should always be vigilant when your child’s well-being is at stake. Don’t hesitate to step in if you feel that a coach’s attitude or actions are harmful to your child. If possible, discuss the situation with your child before approaching the coach so that your child doesn’t feel blindsided or betrayed by your involvement. And yes, the older your child is—especially if he or she is in high school—you might want to think twice about taking on a coach unless actual harm is being inflicted. Ultimately, though, always remember that no sport or tournament or trophy is worth sacrificing your child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.

So, as this athletic season gets underway, take some time to think about how your child’s coach interacts with athletes. Here are some things to consider when evaluating a coach, as well as some qualities I think great coaches possess:

*Realize that harsh coaching methods do cause damage. There’s no question that harsh coaching methods, such as calling players out, getting in their faces, and “motivating” them through fear, do more harm than good. In the short term, these tactics cause anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem. Over time, a bullied athlete’s weakened confidence and sense of self-worth can eradicate motivation and love for the game. And worst of all, it can transfer to other areas of the young person’s life, making him or her less confident socially and academically. After all, it’s a short step from believing I’m not good enough on the field to I don’t have what it takes to succeed at all.

*Think about what a coach’s job really is. Your child does not play on a professional team. His coach’s goal should not be to build a career, but to teach and guide young people who are in the midst of their mental, emotional, and physical development. Ideally, what a coach teaches during practice will also help kids develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in many other areas for the rest of their lives. When you look at it that way, coaching is as much about growing children through positive motivation and attitude as it is about imparting the mechanics of swinging a bat or kicking a ball. So in addition to making sure that your child is learning the rules of the game, make sure he also feels special, valued, and encouraged.

*Watch a replay of the coach’s motivations. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, make sure that your child’s coach does not use her position primarily to brag about her successful seasons and coaching record. Also, to some extent, a coach’s goals should match the level of athletics in which your child is engaged. For instance, if he is doing YMCA coach-pitch baseball, his coach’s main motivation should definitely be centered around having fun and helping kids. But if your son is a high school baseball player and his team has a legitimate chance to go all the way to the state championship, it’s okay for the coach to put more of an emphasis on winning vs. losing…as long as the players’ physical and psychological well-being are still a firm first priority.

*Has the coach done some emotional intelligence warm-ups? If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional intelligence is a quality that enables you to be empathetic, an effective communicator, to navigate conflict, etc. If you’re emotionally intelligent, you’re better able to manage your own emotions, pick up on what others are feeling, and react constructively to setbacks—all of which are qualities that coaches should strive to have. Remember, everyone, but especially the young, can be made or broken by others’ words. A coach has the responsibility to make sure that he or she is setting kids up for present and future success, not filling them with self-doubt and hurting their self-esteem. So if you’re watching a practice or cheering at a game, try to gauge what the coach’s emotional intelligence quotient might be, based on his behavior. If you come to believe that it is really hurting the players, don’t be afraid to act, whether you speak to the coach or even try to find a different team for your child.

*Does the coach score points through caring? People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And in sports, it’s crucial that coaches care about athletes as people, not just as players. Watch to see if your child’s coach gets to know her on an individual basis and incorporates that knowledge into their regular interactions. It’s always a good sign if, for instance, a coach keeps tabs on your daughter’s academic achievements and compliments her for doing well on a test, or asks her, “I know your family was going to go hiking over the weekend. Did you enjoy it?” Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know of because people, kids included, will do anything to keep getting those things. And when players know that they mean more to their coaches than the numbers on their jerseys, they’ll naturally have a greater desire to excel.

*Does the coach strike out through criticism? Many famous coaches in sports history are known for berating players and shaming them in front of the team. Unfortunately, these approaches tend to only alienate players and make coaches an object of fear rather than respect. In my opinion, a good coach should criticize only in private, not in public, by pulling a player aside for a one-on-one discussion rather than yelling at him in front of the whole team. Also, a good coach should make sure the player knows he cares about more than just the mistake. Ideally, he’ll try to accompany each criticism with a few compliments. Remember, we all tend to be our own worst critics—even kids. Many young athletes will tend to focus on what they’ve done wrong, not the many things they’ve done well. The ratio of compliments to criticism they receive from their coaches can shape their self-perception for a long time to come.

*Does the coach scout each practice for all-stars? On the sports field, compliments act as confidence—and thus performance—boosters, and they also improve motivation, team spirit, determination, and more. With that in mind, a good coach will always start each practice with the intention of catching as many players as possible doing well, then praise them in public and in private whenever the opportunity arises. If she wants to go the extra mile, a great coach might even send out a team newsletter that includes short write-ups of players who improve, who are team players, who give their all in practice, etc. Again, kids will work hard to keep getting recognized because it simply feels good.

*Has the coach added “positive thinking” to his or her paraphernalia? With few exceptions, players will develop their attitudes, outlooks, and expectations based on what they see from their leaders. Coaches should be proactive about getting their teams in a winning mindset by saying things like, “We’re going to have a great practice today,” or, “I know everyone will do their best during the game,” etc. Here’s a great saying I’ve found to be true: People generally perform at the level that is expected of them. So without putting negative pressure on the athletes, your child’s coach should let them know that she believes in their ability to accomplish great things. I can’t help but think of Lou Holtz, the legendary college football coach whose philosophy of positive thinking was instrumental in inspiring his teams to achieve many amazing successes, often against the odds.

In conclusion, I hope everyone has fun and stays positive during this fall sports season. I know I’m looking forward to cheering for all of my son’s teams!

 

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!

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.