Tag happiness

Manufacture Joy: Perform Acts of Kindness

This series of blog posts is reviewing what we parents can do to instill more happiness and meaning in our lives. This installment regards performing acts of kindness.

Pick a day of the week–your personal kindness day–and perform three acts of kindness. There are an endless number of possibilities. But, here are two dozen ideas to get you started:

• Leave extra money at a drive through for the person behind  you

• Donate to your local library

• Give blood

• Volunteer time at a local soup kitchen

• Donate clothes you don’t need

• Write a thank you note to the person or people who clean your office

• Send a warming e-card to someone who could use a pick-me-up (a sample free service is here)

• Write a letter of support to a soldier serving overseas (a sample way to do so is  here)

• Leave some money in a book, at a retail store, that regards helping a child with a chronic medical condition;  add a note stating “you’re not alone”

• Let someone who has a hurried look about him or her go ahead of you in a line

• Leave a few bucks at a gas pump with a note: “I’m lowering your price of gas today, a friend”

• Leave a larger than normal tip for some good service you received, with an affirming note

• Point out something someone did with excellence at a group office meeting

• Nominate a teacher for an award, copying the nomination to his or her principal and superintendent (for an example of one opportunity, and there are many, click here)

• Send a letter of thanks to a coach who did well by your child, citing specifics

• Sponsor a child whose family or circumstance is stressful (e.g., for example, click here)

• Volunteer or make a donation to your local animal shelter

• Buy some car wash coupons and stick them in a few random cars at the next sporting event your kid is playing at; attach a note stating “we parents can sometimes use a little support too sometimes.”

• Look for opportunities to put change in people’s meters (just make sure that such isn’t illegal where you are)

• Send a donation to an organization that helps kids with cancer (one such opportunity is here)

• Offer to round trip car pool some kids who are going to the same event you need to take your kid to.

• Offer your partner a foot massage

• Shovel a neighbor’s driveway

• Get up before your partner and make her or him a fresh cup of coffee

Research suggests that the helpers high is real. But, you can do your own research study with yourself by trying this practice. Good luck and, if you get a moment, I’d love hearing your kindness ideas.

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Manufacture Joy: Write a Gratitude Letter

I thought it might be a good time of year to review a set of strategies that we parents can use to manufacture happiness. I’m drawing these strategies from the science of positive psychology. The first of these is to write a gratitude letter. I first learned about this strategy from a video presentation by psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman years ago and have since garnered a good amount of professional and personal experience with it. There are five steps:

Step #1: Identify a person towards whom you feel a significant amount of unexpressed gratitude. This might be a person who knows about some of the gratitude you feel but not all of it. This gratitude can be recent or ancient. You can also rotate writing a gratitude letter within a family: week #1 is moms turn, then eldest son’s, then dad’s, etc. Then everyone writes a gratitude letter for the person whose turn it is.

Step #2: Hand write a legible letter of about 300 words. Don’t worry about a precise word count, just land somewhere in that ballpark. (The handwritten nature of the letter produces a more personal feel and indicates more effort on your part.)

Step #3: Schedule a meeting with the person, but don’t tell her or him about your letter. The surprise tends to be more impactful.

Step #4: Read your letter to the person. You typically would not want to chicken out and hand it over for the person to read as that stands to significantly weakens the experience. Don’t worry if you get misty or cry as such usually adds meaning for the other person; plus you probably won’t be the only one.

Step #5: Give your letter to the person.

I’ve done this myself, had families do it in my office and offered graduate students extra credit for doing it. I find that just about everyone (myself included) is surprised by how powerful of an emotional experience it proves to be. The research also suggests that the writer of the letter can experience a bump in happiness for three to four weeks afterwards. So, give it a try it and see how much power you have to manufacture happiness in your life and the life of another.

Stay tuned as I’m going to do a series of these strategies and will end with a list of books where you can learn more.

51 Truths (as I see things anyway)

I recently saw a blogger use the occasion of his birthday to write a list of tips that equaled his years. I thought that such a good idea that I didn’t want to wait until my birthday to do something similar. So, this is my top 51 truths. One caveat–which I feel somewhat apologetic for and which will be obvious as you read on: while the large majority of these statements are supported by research findings, others are merely personal beliefs that are not testable by science.

1. Self-care is an act of love towards one’s children.

2. Effective discipline = effective teaching.

3. Self-entitlement has many faces, but two common ones are expecting others to protect one from the consequences of one’s choices and expecting that others, if they are fair, will give one the outcome that one wants because one is a good person who tried hard.

4. Behind just about any action of abuse or neglect is pain.

5. At the end of everything, how well we love is what matters the most.

6. Avoiding avoidance is generally advisable when the avoided thing, person or situation is not truly dangerous.

7. More determinative of mood is what we think about what has happened, not what has actually happened.

8. Being kind to others is a great mood enhancer.

9. We loose IQ points when we get angry.

10. Show me someone who is not engaged in an internal battle and I will show you someone whose life is in shambles.

11. Being in a successful long-term marriage is one of the most difficult things a human can try to do.

12. The greatest pain is having one’s child die.

13. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s fear.

14. We get use to just about anything. One of the many things this teaches us is that we need to mix things up lest our sex life become mundane.

15. Single parenting in a two-parent household is a symptom.

16. Becoming physiologically and psychologically calm on a daily basis promotes many health and psychological benefits.

17. “Physical activity” is a much more effective term than “exercise.”

18. Fast food is generally poisonous, though it may take a long time for the effects to become obvious.

19. We are suffering from an epidemic of sleep deprivation, across the lifespan.

20. The large majority of kids, teens and adults who could benefit from evidence-based mental health services do not get it. This truth is even harsher for minorities and the poor.

21. We parents love our kids so much it makes us lunatics some of the time.

22. The practice of a spirituality correlates strongly (and positively) with multiple physical and psychological benefits.

23. If Heaven exists (and I believe it does), there are no institutions there.

24. When we don’t know what is motivating another person’s irritating behavior, our own mental health is nurtured when we assume she or he has good cause.

25. Adaptive rituals produce positive illusions.

26. Men are generally simpler creatures than women.

27. There are many more ways to promote misery than there are to promote happiness.

28. Corporal punishment can usually be aptly labelled “undisciplined discipline.”

29. Willpower, when used in isolation, is not a very reliable tool for changing harmful habits.

30. The more we learn the more nuanced we become.

31. Understanding how well a person can do things when he or she doesn’t feel like it can tell you a great deal about his or her success in both vocational and personal arenas. This is why teaching such skills to our children is a top parenting activity.

32. Heaven exists outside of space and time, which makes it very difficult for us to think and talk about what it is like.

33. Crisis = (pain/2) + (≥ opportunity/2).

34. Using addiction to deal with pain is like drinking ocean water when on a life raft: certainly understandable but it makes things worse.

35. We parents are shepherds, not sculptors.

36. Having kids quadruples the importance of having a good maintenance schedule for a committed relationship. (I’d write something higher than quadruples but I had a hard enough time spelling quadruples.)

37. If swimming is the activity that uses the most physical muscles forgiveness is the activity that uses the most psychological muscles.

38. What an apple is to a pediatrician, positive one-on-one attention is to a child psychologist.

39. Simultaneously pursuing self-interest and effective political service is like trying to iron clothing underwater.

40. Addiction is a jealous, cunning and harsh mistress that isn’t satisfied until its victim is left with nothing else.

41. An important mistake we make in thinking about race is to suppose that being impacted by someone’s race is the same thing as being racist.

42. Show me someone who is critical and unloving towards others and I will show you someone who is critical and unloving towards himself or herself.

43. Though they vary, we all have our limitations and when we exceed them we break.

44. No engaged parent can be generally happier than his or her least happy child.

45. Improving someone else’s life, without them knowing one did so, is glorious.

46. Well-conceived mission statements can help one to make many decisions about how to spend one’s time and resources.

47. Considering a difficult decision from the context of one’s deathbed can promote clarity.

48. That which is loving is of God. That which is not loving is not of God.

49. Empathy tends to soften anger.

50. Going through an effective psychotherapy is like being reborn.

51. Show me a spiritual person who is generally physically active, getting enough sleep, eating a good diet, executing his or her top talents in service to others, and being loving in his or her personal relationships and I will show you someone who is wise.

I enjoy receiving all comments, but would especially  welcome others sharing truths I have left out. Also, if anyone would like me to do a subsequent blog post on any of these assertions, I’d enjoy hearing about that as well.

Top 10 Funny Parenting Videos

When setting out to start this blog I meant to include regular doses of humor. However, I’ve fallen behind, having only written two articles thus far with a humorous slant. So, I thought I’d try to make up some ground by sharing my top 10 funny youtube videos with a parenting or child theme (they are ordered by how much they amuse me, from least to most).

#10 Baby laughing (it gets old but the first few moments are cute) www.youtube.com/watch?v=5P6UU6m3cqk

#9 Star wars according to a three year old (the funny line comes at the end) www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBM854BTGL0

#8 Irish girl Becky makes a prank call www.youtube.com/watch?v=qa7why6CCyo

#7 Babies and fathers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1glBETaSvc

#6 Smarty pants dance: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Nn9dd6FfE8

#5 Tim Hawkins on parenting www.youtube.com/watch?v=crQ7Y2alDxI

#4 David after the dentist: www.youtube.com/watch?v=txqiwrbYGrs

#3 Mark Scharenbroic on hobby parents: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfjH1Rk5hj4

#2 My nominee for best commercial with a parenting theme (touching with the laugh at the end): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGVm8fdYEGU

#1 (drum roll)

William Tell Overture mom:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0ZpuA8_YYk

I’d enjoy learning about other funny videos with a child or parenting theme.

Happy People Live Longer & Have Better Health

Earlier this year researchers Drs. Ed Diener and Micaela Chan published a comprehensive review of the scientific literature examining the association between subjective well being (SWB; the research term for happiness), longevity (as in length of time someone is alive) and health. To get an electronic reprint of the study click here. In this blog entry I will summarize some of their findings and suggest one evidence based strategy to promote happiness.

In considering the positive and significant association between longevity and SWB the researchers reviewed 26 longitudinal studies (a study that follows subjects over an extended period of time, usually decades). These studies cumulatively examined 316,911 individuals. In the “Take-Home Message” portion of the article the researchers write: “If high SWB adds 4 to 10 years to life compared to low SWB, this is an outcome worthy of national attention.”

In considering the positive and significant association between health and SWB the researchers reviewed 17 longitudinal studies; these studies cumulatively studied 121,096 people. Quoting the researchers: “…moods and emotions are consistently…associated with…blood pressure, cortisol, and inflammation, as well as indicators of disease such as artery wall thickening…(this) occurs in addition to the effects of negative feelings and depression, suggesting that positive affect may have distinctive biological correlates that can benefit health.”

There are many things adults can do to promote happiness. For instance, in an earlier blog entry I described a family exercise involving writing gratitude letters. Another strategy is to practice acts of kindness as the “helper’s high” is scientifically validated phenomenon. To do this make one day a week your kindness day (maybe one that has traditionally been a struggle). Here are 10 ideas to get you started:

• Write a thank you note to a person who cleans a space that you routinely traverse.

• Leave some money at a drive through for the customer behind you.

• Take out an add in a local newspaper recognizing a teacher’s excellent service.

• Stick a couple of movie passes in a package of diapers at your local grocery store with a note “I know it’s tiring to take care of a baby. Please use these to lighten the load some night. A friend who has been there.”

• Spend an hour volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

• Put coins in strangers’ meter that looks like it could use it.

• Give blood.

• Invite someone with young kids with her or him to cut you in line at the grocery store.

• Leave a note of appreciation for your mail carrier’s service.

• Bring a box of baked goods in for the office at your child’s school.

I review other ideas for acts of kindness in my book Working Parents,
Thriving Families: 10 Strategies that Make a Difference
. I’d also very much like to hear ideas from you, my reader 😉

Where Are Your Wells of Wisdom?

I’ve been doing psychotherapy continuously for the past 24 years. In this time I’ve come to think of each person’s psyche as a cottage in a forest. My client–which can be a family or an individual–and I initially collaborate on an assessment of whether the cottage needs repairs or remodeling. If so, we partner, guided by science, and do that. This kind of work on cottages has characterized the lion’s share of my career. However, it has recently dawned on me that most people (and perhaps even all) have wells of wisdom located around their cottages. When they access these wells they can usually figure out how to proceed when life gets complicated, stressed or confusing.

Some clients know where their wells are without my help. I can see the paths they’ve worn from their cottage to their wells. When thirsty, they go to their wells without much thought, just like someone might make a daily commute without much thought; such people make many decisions in a way that promotes love and self-actualization. However, I find that most of my clients do not know about the existence of their wells, never mind how to access them. Therefore, one of my jobs, as their therapist, is to help them both to find their wisdom and to get in the habit of accessing it.

Let me give a few examples, keeping in mind that people differ regarding where their wells are located.

One person I knew could access her wisdom by imagining how she would look upon a given decision from the context of her deathbed. The gift of death to the living is perspective. Realizing this my client would wonder how her deathbed self would wish for her to proceed when she was facing a difficult decision or a complicated situation. This allowed her to be wise, even if her chosen course sometimes brought her into conflict with other here-and-now agenda (e.g., keeping a clean house, defeating someone with whom she was arguing, purchasing a new car).

Another person I knew could access his wisdom by imagining what advice he would give his son if his son, some years later on as an adult, came to face the same dilemma or problem. It was fun watching him go from complete confusion to complete clarity as he traveled from his cottage to this particular well of wisdom.

Another person I knew would imagine what her therapist would say about a particular problem. She had worked with this therapist for about 18 months and found his Buddhist/mindfulness perspective wise and enlightening. As she had internalized his voice, she only had to envision what he would say to find the right course of action when life became difficult.

I now have woven this principle into my practice. Yes, many cottages need repair and remodeling and, as a therapist, I have a valuable role to play in that regard. (I’ve also subjected my own cottage to such work on two occasions.) But, I’ve learned to assume that many people have more wisdom hidden inside themselves than they realize. It only takes finding the well and then remembering to go to it enough so that the journey becomes automatic when thirst arises.

Do you know where your well is? Do you realize how much wisdom you have inside of you? If not, maybe a therapist can help you to discover it. For a referral click here.

A Happiness Ritual: Practice Acts of Kindness

Want a new ritual for 2011? Consider developing a kindness practice.  Those who develop such a practice have been found to experience multiple benefits:

√ Perceiving others in a more positive and empathic light.

√Experiencing fewer negative thoughts.

√ Viewing oneself more favorably.

√ Establishing deeper social connections.

√ Experiencing a “helper’s high.”

One way to start a kindness practice to establish one day a week as your kindness day. This can be done as a family or individually. Here are some ideas to get you started:

• Leave extra money in the coffee line to pay for the person behind you.

• Shovel a neighbor’s driveway.

• Volunteer at a local soup kitchen.

• Hand write a thank you note.

• Send an e-card to lift someone’s spirits (e.g., www.123greetings.com).

• Give a cleaning person at your job or school a thank you gift for his or her service.

• Let someone ahead of you in the line at the grocery store.

• Befriend and visit someone who lives in a nursing home.

• Befriend and support a child who is struggling financially (e.g., www.childrensinternational.com).

• Adopt a soldier as a pen pal (i.e., www.adoptaussoldier.org).

• Cut coupons and leave them on top of the related product at the grocery store.

• Put extra change in a vending machine that you use.

• Put a full load of coins in the meter before you leave your parking spot.

While there are just a few ideas listed here, there are many Internet resources available to support a kindness practice (e.g., www.helpothers.org, www.randomactsofkindness.org and www.daretobeanangel.com), as well as books (e.g.,  The How of Happiness by  Sonja Lyubomirsky and The Power of Kindness by Piero Ferrucci).  Finally, please see my previous blog entry on how to make and keep New Years Resolutions.

Good luck to you as you develop a kindness practice. Also, if you think of some creative ideas for practicing kindness please consider posting them here.

Gratitude Letters

Gratitude letters can promote closeness and happiness in families. Let me describe what such a letter is and then describe how such might be used within a family.

Gratitude letters are usually around 300 words in length, but can be as long as you’d like. The letter is written directly to a family member (i.e., in the first person). To be more personal, write it out by hand. The letter should express only positive thoughts and feelings that you have regarding the person and should not include direct or indirect statements regarding how the person may have let you or someone else down or how the other person might improve as a person. Try to include examples of specific things the person has done or said that cause you to feel gratitude; these examples can be recent or from a long time ago. When it’s time to share the letter do so by reading it to the family member; don’t chicken out and hand it over for the other person to read. You may start to tear up or get emotional. That’s okay (you’ll probably find you’re not the only one). When you’re finished give it to the other person. Allow the positive moment to linger as long as the other person likes (i.e., some of us, though we enjoy it, may start to feel a little uncomfortable with the intimacy that can emerge); in other words, the other person decides when to end the moment or change the topic.

There are a number of ways such letters can be introduced into your family. The first way is for you to start doing the exercise unilaterally for any and all members of your family. If you chose this method don’t announce your agenda in advance; just spring it on the other person. It is also important to not do this with the hope or expectation that the other person will reciprocate.

Another method is to agree, as a family, that you will all do this exercise. The first step is to pick the person who will be the first “victim” (i.e., the one who everyone will write about first) and pick a day and time by which the letters are to be completed and read. You may need to stay after some kids to make sure they do their part; the recipient of the letter should not be the one to do this reminding (if you’re a single parent, ask a relative or friend to do this for you). If a given child is in 4th grade or younger, or has some interfering disability, you can be flexible regarding the length. For children who cannot write, but who are old enough to understand the concept, ask for a gratitude picture instead (if a given child needs it, it’s okay to provide a little help, but do this as sparingly as possible lest the recipient conclude it’s more your work). When the assigned day and time comes around, take turns reading your letters (/showing your pictures) all-together as a family. After everyone is finished, go with any urges to hug and cry and express love and joy. After the first recipient’s turn is finished, assign who the next recipient will be and so on and so forth. When I’ve helped families to do this, we’ve usually spaced the turns one week apart, though you can do it at whatever pace feels right for you.

This experience is usually very positive for families, and often to a surprising degree. (If this is not the case for you and your family, I would wonder if this is a symptom worthy of attention.) You can also find a lot of satisfaction in writing gratitude letters for others towards whom you have unexpressed gratitude, be it ancient or recent. If you’d like to make this a regular self-improvement project, write and execute one a month, at least until you run out of people. You might also encourage others in your family to try writing letters for people outside of your family. Such a practice focuses our minds on positive truths and stands to promote happiness.

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