Happiness =

land cardThis December I was working on a graduation speech I’ve titled The Secret to Success: Choose Happiness!  It led to my holiday wish for you, which is that you find happiness.  While we think everyone interprets words the same way, I’m aware that we don’t.  For the speech, I defined happiness as “a deep abiding sense of contentment and being able to say, ‘I love my life!’” The graphic above (with an ornament on our tree) came to me as the definition of happiness I wanted to share on my holiday cards.

A few years ago I realized that while I love the winter holidays, I was getting overwhelmed by the tasks I wanted to accomplish. I was a Santa Claus wannabe.  As I raced to finish Christmas shopping, wrapping and shipping (much of my family lives in other parts of the country), I found stress and resentment was overwhelming my joyfulness.  I was sacrificing sleep, getting grumpy, and no longer had time to make cookies.

I used the Path to Happiness process to uncover the story I was telling myself that was causing my unhappiness. I realized my desire to give the perfect gift was my way of trying to let my family know I loved and appreciated them. When I looked deeper, I was hoping that by showing them – through thoughtfully chosen and carefully wrapped gifts – I loved them, they would love me.  However, my growing stress level through the month of December made me aware I had to let go of the belief that my approach to the holidays would buy me love.

This year I wrote about my experiences and it was published at Time Magazine Online as Buying Christmas Gifts Won’t Make You Happier. I had to cut a section about learning that while some people most appreciate receiving thoughtful gifts (which need not be expensive), others prefer words of affirmation, or spending quality time together, and some prefer receiving thoughtful acts of service, or physical touch such as a hug.  You can learn more about what Gary Chapman calls The Five Love Languages so that you can give people more of what truly makes them feel loved (and learn your preferred love language).

As you receive this newsletter, Hanukkah is over, Christmas shopping is mostly completed and the end of the year is approaching. But you may still be feeling stress about creating the perfect holiday for your family, or for guests at a party.  If you find yourself stressed and resentful, stop and ask yourself what you really want people to experience, and what you are seeking.  Do you want them to be impressed by what you accomplished, or do you want them to feel you care about them?

When my perfectionism is triggered, I challenge the story that people will feel most appreciated if I make something perfect for them, and tell myself a different story.  Since other people feel our emotions, my stress can cause the people I love to feel guilty about receiving my gifts!  Another story that helps me let go of my perfectionism is by doing things at my very best (despite the cost to my sleep and mood) I can make others feel jealous and inadequate.  Have you ever felt intimidated about inviting the perfect hostess to your house?

Once I get in touch with what I really want people (including myself) to feel, I ask myself what I can do to create that feeling with the least stress. I use this saying to help me choose what to do next, “If I do the thing that is most important right now, there will be time for everything important.” I let go of everything being perfect so that I can enjoy the moment and say, “I love my life.”

If you are feeling lonely and depressed about the holidays, this newsletter article may not be very useful to you. Being surrounded by other people’s excitement about being with their loved ones can make you feel worse. My family doesn’t get together over holidays, so I try to think of someone who may be alone and invite him or her to share our dinner. The following advice from a previous Path to Happiness Newsletter may help you:

  • If you are feeling lonely, think of someone else who may be lonely, and reach out to him or her, whether it is a friend, neighbor, or going to a nursing home, hospital or homeless shelter.  Ask others about their lives. You will be amazed by how being kind and showing interest in others improves YOUR state of mind!

May you relax and enjoy these last days of the year.  Remember to choose happiness by appreciating what you have and who you are, by cultivating love in your heart and peace of mind.

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Live Like You Are Dying

Inspiration from Those Who Are Dying

Stacy’s advice paired with a photo from Miraval, one of the places she loved, used as a photo-quote at www.facebook.com/pathtohappiness
Stacy’s advice paired with a photo from Miraval, one of the places she loved, used as a photo-quote at www.facebook.com/pathtohappiness

On April 20, my dear friend, Stacy Payne, died at the age of 42 about eleven months after discovering that cancer had invaded her body. Ten days before her death she posted on Facebook what I interpreted as her final thoughts, sharing what she learned in this lifetime. “Live your life with no Regrets. Make choices based in LOVE. Recognize the Blessings.”

Wise words.  When I remember to look for the blessings in life, I find something good in everything that happens to me, even the losses, such as Stacy’s death at such a young age. I believe there is a gift in every unpleasant emotion. The sadness I feel about losing Stacy, and the pain I feel for her husband, Ethan, and their now-turned-three-year-old daughter Gigi, reminds me that none of us is guaranteed an ‘average’ lifespan.

Stacy and her beloved husband Ethan
Stacy and her beloved husband Ethan

It reminds me to tell people what I appreciate about them, and what they mean to me. I savor the moments I have with people I love, and I remind myself of the gifts I received from Stacy including her wisdom, playfulness, honesty and her dedication to learning to be happier along with a desire to help others do the same. When I remember to make my choices based on love rather than based on my fears, I get more of the life I desire. When I experience a regret, I recognize the opportunity to do something different going forward. Sometimes my regret encourages me to apologize for how my behavior impacted someone else, sometimes it leads me to take an action to prevent future regrets. Then once I have learned the lessons from a regret, I let it go.

Learning from Regrets

Book-Cover-200x300Recently I’ve been seeing links on Facebook to an article by Australian palliative care provider and author, Bronnie Ware, who summarized what she has learned from being with people during the last few weeks and months of their lives. There is nothing like awareness of the brevity of life to make one focus on what is most important. Here is my rendition of the regrets Bronnie identified:

  1. I wish I had let myself be happier.
  2. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard, and had spent more time on what was really important to me.
  5. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

When I was in my doctoral program I focused my oral specialty examination on Healing Under the Threat of Death: Critical Illness as a Change Opportunity. I found as people were dying many gave themselves permission to do what they really wanted to, and to be who they really were. It can be a time of great change and emotional healing. I was caught by a desire for all of us to learn from the examples of those who knew they didn’t have much time and lived their remaining time fully, because we all WILL die, no matter how much our fear makes us try to deny it. Knowing this is actually a gift. Accepting the truth that I will die, and I do not know when, inspires me to live each day with an appreciation of its preciousness.

Taken at Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ on June 10, 2014
Taken at Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ on June 10, 2014

Live Like You Were Dying, a song written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman and popularized by Tim McGraw, shares the wisdom of a man faced by the threat of a terminal illness. Included in the chorus are the words, “I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.” Psychological research supports the popular wisdom that these actions lead to greater happiness in life. The song also mentions ‘bucket list’ items – sky diving and bull-riding in the song – for me it is going to and photographing beautiful places. The song reminds me to ask myself what I want to do before I die, and what can I do today to make that happen. How am I willing to deepen my relationships? Can I be kinder, more present and more forgiving?

In her book, The Fun of Dying, Roberta Grimes says the purpose of life is to learn and practice love and forgiveness. Life is also the time to enjoy the things our bodies and our senses give us the opportunity to do. Remembering that I can’t know how long I will inhabit this body reminds me to hug more, laugh more, cry more (because it means my heart is open), smell the roses and the rain on the earth, and to stop to watch the sun set or rise. I will listen to music that makes my heart swell, savor the flavors of my favorite foods in my mouth and the sensations of falling asleep and waking up. I will make time to talk with and be with people I like and I will be honest about what I’m feeling and experiencing. I will let go of my judgments of myself and others and accept our imperfections as reminders that being human means being imperfect.

Try It – Action Steps on the Path to Happiness

0814-4Ask yourself these questions and jot down your answers:

  • If I knew this was going to be my last year of life, what would I do?
  • What would I do less of?
  • What would I do more of?
  • How would I be truer to myself?
  • Who would I want to talk to?
  • What would I do that would make me happier?

Imagine that you know you are dying and ask yourself what you would regret:

  • What things would I be sorry I hadn’t done?
  • Can I make a plan to do those things this year?
  • What is in my way, and can I let go of whatever is in the way?

Whatever is happening to you in the moment, ask yourself these questions:

  • What good can I get out of what I’m experiencing right now?
  • Am I savoring the precious good moments as they happen, whether it is a hug, or a sunset, or something I did well? That takes being present in the moment.
  • When I am unhappy about something that is happening to me, what is the blessing?
  • What is the message I need, the thing I can learn from this experience?

Now take what you have learned about yourself and what you truly want in your life and live more like your life is temporary – because it is. Every day of your life is what YOU make of it.

Choosing Happiness

How happy you are is up to you. Give yourself permission to disappoint other people to stop disappointing yourself. It is your job to choose to live the life you want, and to choose being with the people who make you happiest. No matter your circumstances, even if you are facing death or have lost someone you love, you can choose to be happier. If you want to learn more about choosing happiness, please check out the Path to Happiness and try some of the strategies. I’d love to hear how it works for you, and if you want some help along the path, email me to set up a phone consultation.

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I’d love to hear your reactions to these thoughts. Plus, if you happen to check out our website, this is a great time to give us feedback about what works and doesn’t work for you so we can incorporate your wisdom into the new design.

Wishing you a life you love,
Molly

Inaugural Newsletter – Holidays Amplify Our Stories

Happy family celebrating Christmas dinner with turkeyThe expectations we create around the holidays tend to make us more vulnerable around our most sensitive issues, from wanting things to be perfect to worrying about what other people think of us, or feeling ‘not good enough.’ We are surrounded by Hallmark images of happy family celebrations where everyone is thrilled to see everyone else, the food is perfectly prepared, and the ideal gifts have been gotten for everyone.
If you don’t practice Christian traditions, Christmas can make you feel marginalized as can New Year’s Eve if you don’t have a partner. If you have lost someone you love, times of celebration are painful reminders of that loss. If you are alone, whether through circumstances or your own choice, all the talk of and images of ‘togetherness’ can make you feel more lonely. This time of year can bring into focus that none of us is perfect or has the perfect family.

A young man sits on a bench and drink coffee at Christmas, snowfallThe cultural focus on the holidays brings up the disparity between idealized images and the reality of our lives, which can create disappointment, sadness and longing. In reality, we can’t figure out the right gift, or we can’t afford it without causing financial stress. Someone comes to the party late, holding up dinner, someone else gets drunk, and despite being told many times you have a scent-sensitivity, your sister gives you cologne. Someone re-gifts you with what you gave them last year, and Uncle Joe comes out with a totally insensitive comment. Your mother complains about what a short time you are staying, and the pie you made is burned. You may come away feeling angry because it feels like you do all the work, or disappointed and discouraged because your are ‘not as good as cousin Donna’, or it seems you can never please your partner/parent/child, or you may feel sad and lonely because no one really understands who you are or appreciates all you do.
The difference between idealized holiday images and our reality may be one reason this time of year is known for high levels of depression. I love this quote from addiction circles:
“Expectations are planned disappointments and premeditated resentments.”


Enough about Problems, Let’s Get to Solutions!  

  • Let go of your expectations for the holidays, for other people’s behaviors and for perfection. Then you can’t be disappointed!
  • Accept that being human means being imperfect.
  • Release judgments of good and bad. Be open to whatever happens. Try responding with “How interesting!” rather than with judgments.
  • Look for what you can do to enjoy this moment, even if it is a burned dinner, a snowstorm that interferes with travel, or a fallen Christmas tree.*
  • Focus on what you control – look for what you CAN do, not on what isn’t in your control. (You don’t control what others do, who is missing from your life or table, or the past).
  • Change the stories you are telling yourself if you aren’t happy.
  • Appreciate what is GOOD in your life, right now. If you focus on what you HAVE in your life, you will feel satisfaction and abundance. If you focus on what you WANT or what is missing, you will feel sadness and scarcity.
  • When you feel sorry for yourself, think of people who have a heavier burden than you do.
  • If someone you love isn’t with you for the holidays, remind yourself how lucky you are to have people you love in your life.
  • If you are feeling lonely, think of someone else who may be lonely, and reach out to him or her, whether it is a friend, neighbor, or going to a nursing home, hospital, or homeless shelter. Ask others about their lives. You will be amazed by how being kind and showing interest in others improves YOUR state of mind!
  • Remember that other people’s behavior is more about them than about you. Don’t take it personally!
  • When a should comes up – whether I should invite or call so-and-so, or I should clean up tonight, ask yourself what the consequences will be if you don’t do it. Are you willing to live with those consequences or do they make you WANT to do it?
  • When you get caught up in shoulds, look at what would happen if everyone did what they enjoy doing, rather than trying to please everyone else. Would the total happiness level be increased?
  • Being generous generally makes the giver feel happier. Give – whether time, attention or material things – without expectations about how your gifts will be received.
  • What do you really, really, REALLY want? How will you ask for or create it?
  • How do YOU want to experience this day or this season, given the reality of your situation? What are YOU going to do to create that experience for yourself?
  • We are responsible for our own experiences. Your beliefs, actions and attitudes affect how you feel about your life, so start creating the stories that make you happy!

*My Story

My Christmas goal used to be to make everyone happy. I wanted to give each recipient – from my parents and partner to my siblings, nieces, nephews and friends – the best gift they had ever received. My gifts had to show how well I knew each person and his or her desires, and they had to be the perfect. This led to excess. There were years I averaged 5 gifts per person for 15 – 20 people on my list with another 5 or so people who would get one perfect gift. Then I would carefully wrap each item, with beautiful papers and special ribbons, and write the perfect phrasing on the gift card. My family of origin lives all over the country, so there were stacks of boxes taken to UPS or the post office.
I like putting a personal note on each Christmas card, I have beautiful Christmas tree ornaments I’ve been collecting since I was 15, and I like to send food gifts. I tend to be a procrastinator, so I am always up against mailing deadlines, which leads to late nights, and overspending on shipping – which wouldn’t have been budgeted, leading to financial stress. I would berate myself for finishing things at the last possible minute, and I would enter the celebrations sleep-deprived. I believed the path to feeling worthy of love, and therefore happiness, was to give everyone else just what they wanted for Christmas. Yes, I was a codependent perfectionist.
In 2007 I finally finished decorating the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve (not because of tradition, but because I was busy mailing gifts and cards before that). Around 1 AM Christmas morning there arose such a clatter – a big thump accompanied by the jingle of bells and shattering glass. No, it wasn’t Santa. I knew in a moment it was the sound of a falling Christmas tree. We sprang from our bed and flew downstairs (after pausing to put on shoes, knowing there was broken glass) to make sure the ‘disaster’ wasn’t getting worse due to water sitting on the floor and soaking into the Persian carpet, or the possibility of the tree lights igniting a fire. The stand was still upright, so no water spilled, but the tree had gone horizontal. Deciding the mess could wait until morning, we put a wet towel over the base of the tree to keep it from drying out and went back to bed.
In the morning we reviewed the options as I swept up the broken ornaments while honoring the history of each of them in my life. Righting the tree would require taking everything off the tree, putting the tree back in a stand (always a stressor to our marriage) and redecorating it. I was afraid the tree would fall again (it turns out the trunk was split), so we thought of moving it out to the deck, and just putting lights on it. I finally opted to leave the tree where it was after making sure we had vacuumed up all the broken glass which would put the children and dog coming the next day at risk, and redecorated the tree to look the best it could in its prone position. When my cousins arrived for Christmas dinner, we shared the new look, and because I hadn’t tried to do too much by up-righting the tree, I could enjoy their company and dinner was on time. We even turned the whole episode into our Christmas card for 2008!

tree collage

Lessons

  1. Things don’t always go as you expect them to, so let go of your expectations.
  2. You might have some responsibility for what happened. It is human to make mistakes and is it wise to learn from them.
  3. Accidents happen, and it is fine to cry over your losses, but it doesn’t do any good to wish things were the way they used to be. Accept the new reality.
  4. Look at all your options for going forward. Get creative. Review the consequences of each option. Decide which one will make you happiest.
  5. Choose happiness!

If you ask for what you want,
and accept what you receive,
you will get what you need.