A Good Cause Can Cause a Good Mood

>> Monday

GOALS PUT YOU in a causal position rather than a victim position and that's good for your psychological well-being. And what's good for you psychological well-being is good for your mood. And you are more capable in a good mood.

If you want to be in a good mood more often, striving mightily for a good cause is the most powerful way to do it.

In the book, Survive the Savage Sea — the true story of a family who survived a shipwreck — the author and father of the family, Dougal Robertson, says that mmediately after his family was shipwrecked, he started adding up their stock. He discovered they had enough food and water to last them ten days. They were two hundred miles downwind and downcurrent from the Galapagos Islands, making it impossible to get there. They were 2800 miles from the Marquesas Islands, but without a compass or means of finding their position, their chance of missing the islands was enormous. The Central American coast was a thousand miles away, but they had to make it through the windless Doldrums. They wouldn't be missed by anyone for five weeks, and nobody would have the slightest idea of where to start looking anyway, so waiting for rescue would have been suicide.

There were two possible places to be rescued by shipping vessels. One four hundred miles south; the other three hundred miles north.

Having roused himself enough to assess his situation accurately, his heart sank again. Their true and accurate situation wasn't very hopeful. His wife, Lyn, saw the look on his face and put her hand on his. She said simply, "We must get these boys to land."

This singular, clear purpose focused his mind the whole journey. The thought kept coming back to him, spurring him on, making him try when it seemed hopeless. This is the power of a definite, heartfelt purpose.

Purpose has an almost magical quality. It can imbue you with extraordinary ability. It can make you almost superhuman — more capable than humans in an ordinary state.

Ulysses S. Grant was writing his biography near the end of his life. His publisher was Mark Twain. Even though Grant was famous and had been President, he was broke. Twain had assured him there was a market for his memoirs book if he could finish it. Grant had cancer and was dying. But as far as Grant was concerned, he couldn't die. He had something to accomplish. It was very important to him to finish this book and do a good job because his wife would be penniless and destitute otherwise.

So he persisted. When he could no longer write, he dictated. Doctors said he might not live more than two or three weeks, but like I said, purpose has a mysterious power, and Grant continued dictating until he finished. He died five days after he completed his manuscript. And, by the way, Twain was right: The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was very successful and is even to this day considered one of the best military memoirs ever written. Because of that book, Grant's wife was set for life.

I think most of us underestimate the power of purpose. Charles Schulz declared many months ahead of time when he was going to end his comic strip. His last strip was published on a Sunday. The night before, Schulz died in his sleep. His work was done.

When Dougal Robertson and his family first started out, they were hoping for rescue, but something happened that changed their attitude to a determination to get themselves to shore. Their attitude went from helpless victims to causing their own rescue. They went from hoping to causing. That's a big shift. Here's what happened:

Seven days after their boat sank, they had made it successfully to the shipping lanes. And then they spotted a ship on the horizon. They lit off flares and yelled at the top of their lungs and waved their shirts in the air, but the ship went right on by. They yelled themselves hoarse. They waved until they were exhausted. But the ship disappeared in the distance. And then they were all heartbroken and demoralized.

Dougal looked at his empty flare cartons bitterly and, "something happened to me in that instant, that for me changed the whole aspect of our predicament," he wrote. "If these poor bloody seamen couldn't rescue us, then we would have to make it on our own and to hell with them. We would survive without them, yes, and that was the word from now on, 'survival' not 'rescue' or 'help' or dependence of any kind, just survival. I felt the strength flooding through me, lifting me from the depression of disappointment to a state of almost cheerful abandon."

Combined with the very clear mission his wife gave him (get these boys to land), his attitude changed completely. His mood changed completely. And he became much more capable. He did, in fact, get those boys to land. Everybody made it.


Purpose gives meaning to your life. In many ways, your purpose is the meaning of your life. That gives this subject a superimposing importance.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Germany when Hitler took power, and he spent many years struggling to stay alive in concentration camps. During that time, he lost his wife, his brother, and both his parents — they either died in the camps or were sent to the gas chambers. He lost every possession he ever owned. He already knew a lot about psychology and then he experienced these extreme circumstances — and even managed to find meaning in his struggle — so the small book he wrote after his ordeal, Man's Search for Meaning, has a kind of depth you find almost nowhere else. His perspective on finding meaning in life is different from any other I have encountered. He writes:

"The meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, "Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment."

I love that line: "…to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment."

And Frankl gives many good examples of what he means. For example, he tried to keep his fellow prisoners from committing suicide. The Nazi camps strictly forbade prisoners from stopping someone who was killing himself. If you cut down a fellow prisoner who was in the process of hanging himself, you (and probably everyone in your bunkhouse) would be severely punished. So Frankl had to catch people before they attempted suicide. This, he felt, was a concrete assignment which demanded fulfillment. He was a psychiatrist and was the most qualified to answer this call from life.

The men would often confide in Frankl, since he was a psychiatrist. At two different times, two men told him they had decided to commit suicide. Both of them offered the same reason: They had nothing more to expect from life. All they could expect was endless suffering, starvation, torture, and in the end, probably the gas chamber.

"In both cases," wrote Frankl, "it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them." After talking with the men, he found one of them was a scientist who had written several volumes of a book, but the project was incomplete. It couldn't be finished by anyone else. The other man had a child in another country waiting for him.

Each of our lives is unique. The concrete assignment needing to be fulfilled is different for every person. And Frankl found that a person would not commit suicide once they realized their specific obligation to life — that life expected something of them.

He helped these men find a purpose. And the purpose gave their lives meaning. Do you want to have good moods more often? Live a life full of purpose and meaning, and you will not only feel good more often, but you'll accomplish things you never thought possible.

Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of Superdog: Raising the Perfect Canine Companion, was a lover of animals, as most kids are. One day he was walking home from school when he looked through a fence and saw a ghastly sight. It was the backyard of a veterinary clinic, and there was a large trash bin overflowing with dead dogs and cats.

"I never knew the reason for this mass extermination," Fox said, "but I was, from that time on, committed to doing all I could to help animals, deciding at age nine that I had to be a veterinarian."

Here was a concrete assignment life had presented to Fox, and he answered the call. He became a veterinarian and has done what he could to reduce the suffering of animals. He has spent his life educating people, writing books, and lobbying to create new legislation that reflects more respect for animals. His life is filled with purpose and meaning, and it is almost a trivial side-effect that he's in a great mood often.

We don't often find out about the heartfelt purposes behind great successes, but many people who do great things have a personal reason for it, and they may not have even had a goal to get rich. Dr. Seuss became world-famous. But many people don't know he had a very personal mission that drove him on and gave him purpose.

When he first started, his goal was to turn children on to reading, and that became his guiding light for his whole career. "Before Seuss," wrote Peter Bernstein, "too many children's writers seemed locked into plots that ended with a heavy-handed call to obey one's elders. By the 1950s, educators were warning that America was losing a whole generation of readers."

Dr. Seuss wanted to do something about that. And he did. He wrote books kids wanted to read. The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and forty-six others which have sold over two hundred million copies worldwide.

And the whole time, because of his personal, heartfelt goal, his concrete assignment that demanded fulfillment, he lived a life full of meaning and purpose. And you can too. As a side-effect, it will raise your mood to a whole new level.


Bringing Extended Family Relationships Closer

>> Friday

IN TIMES PAST, and even now in some parts of the world, each member of a family had their fate tied up with the other members of the family. They all had to pull together or the survival of all of them was in danger. They shared a purpose. They all shared a very concrete, in-your-face-from-dawn-to-dusk purpose: Survival. And they shared the purpose with each other but not with "outsiders" because the family was husband, wife and kids, and maybe also parents of husband or wife. Sometimes siblings. They all lived together and relied on each other and so shared the same fate.

There were things to do. Urgent, necessary things. And of course, while human beings are accomplishing necessary things, they will also talk to each other and form relationships. And unified, coordinated effort often creates a bond between people.

This historical reality is where we get our reverence for "family." Why is family so sacred? The reverence we have for family is a remnant from the past when conditions were different. The realities have changed, but our underlying belief system hasn't been updated.

You'll often see two people who survived an ordeal or fought in a war or even went through boot camp together forty years ago still treat each other like good friends. For a short time they shared a real purpose, and that experience is so rare in our modern world, it shines like a beacon through the years, brighter and clearer than all the comparatively superficial relationships those people have had in the last forty years.

Purpose is essential. It is the core of a relationship. Without it, there is no real bond. There may be superficial interaction, there may be social intercourse, there may be mutual entertainment. But that is nowhere near a real relationship — a relationship based on, centered around, and springing from a shared purpose.

Times have changed. Most families don't have to pull together to survive. In fact, most families couldn't think of a unifying purpose if they had to. I don't mean "carrying on the family name." That's not a real purpose. A purpose is something you have to strive for. It isn't something that happens as a matter of course. These days, the purposes of the individual members of families tend to be diverse and unrelated. Their purposes are unrelated.

But a real relationship with someone means your purposes are related.

Politicians and preachers are always complaining gravely about the "disintegration of the family" in America. Probably the greatest cause is our affluence, which hardly seems like something to whine about. There are no necessities that bind us with our blood relations — no urgent, concrete things that need to be accomplished together. That's what relationships are made of at the root, and so we don't really have relationships with our relatives. We go through the motions of relating, but it's empty. We can tell there's something wrong with it, but can't quite put our finger on it.

During the Great Depression, many families were put back into a survival situation, and they bonded closely. Their fates were tied together. People who lived through those times recalled later that their family was closer than it had ever been before or after.

When a group of people put out effort for the day and it all adds together to make mutual survival, you can eat dinner together and socialize and there will be relationships, because your purposes are related. But when you just eat together without the tied-together purpose, something is missing. Something is lacking: No joined effort toward a shared purpose. What's missing is the real basis of true relationship.

Often in today's world, people sometimes feel closer to the people they work with than they do their own spouses. They share purpose with their workmates. If spouses aren't working together to accomplish a shared goal they both feel is important, they don't really have much of a relationship, and they usually don't know what's missing. The relationship itself (its health, its well-being) cannot be the shared purpose, because its health and well-being depend on a purpose outside the relationship.

So if you want to feel closer to the people in your family, find (or create) important purposes you hold in common with them, and make those purposes the central focus of your relationships.


Talking to Family Members About Controversial Subjects

>> Saturday

If family gatherings mean political arguments with a family member and bitter hard feelings that last for months (or if you have upsetting disagreements over any controversial subject with a family member), this article is for you.

YOU HAVE a point of view or a set of facts you want your family member to accept or agree with — or she (or he) has a position she wants you to accept. If you engage in an argument about it, you risk a riff between you, hard feelings, anger, upset, even a complete severing of your communication and a destruction of your affection for each other. This is not good for your mood.

You may have known this family member for a long time — maybe your whole life. So perhaps you believe you should be able to talk about anything with each other. But you might be mistaken about this.

Here's the problem: The more controversial the topic, the deeper the connection between you must be. The "depth" of your communication is measured in recent hours of talking to each other. In other words, if in the last year, you have averaged about twenty minutes a week talking with a family member — on the phone or face to face — your relationship can handle very little controversy. Most of your communication had better be pleasant or neutral (not controversial).

But if in the last year you have spent, on average, many hours a week talking with your family member, your relationship can handle talking about a much more controversial topic.

Think of it this way: Any given power line can only handle so much electricity at once. If more power tries to surge down the line than the line can handle, the line will melt or circuit breakers will melt. A bigger line could handle the surge. A smaller line will fry. In other words, your communication channel is only as big as your amount of communication has made it.

More non-upsetting communication creates a bigger line, a stronger bond, a more robust relationship. A stronger bond can handle controversy better than a weaker bond.

The researcher, John Gottman, looking at what it takes for a marriage to stay together, discovered a minimum ratio: Five to one. A marriage needs at least five times more enjoyable interactions as unenjoyable interactions to prevent divorce. It is possible a similar ratio is required for any relationship.

It is a good rule of thumb anyway to consider that you need at least five times more hours talking about enjoyable topics as controversial. Just to be on the safe side, try keeping it at ten times more. Having a history with your family member is unfortunately not enough. The "power line" between you shrinks with time and lack of communication. A strong bond requires recent communication.

If you're already engaged in a controversy with a family member and already feel angry or hurt by your conversations about it, realize right now that you have been mistaken about each other. You are not in the wrong and neither is the other person. The problem is: The communication channel between you is too small. The problem is not your family member — it is a puny, atrophied communication channel created by a long period of neglect. That's a better way to think about your disagreements because it leads to clarity about what you can do that will effectively improve your feelings about each other. You're suffering the inevitable consequences of a lack of bandwidth. The more you communicate about non-controversial topics, the bigger your bandwidth grows.

If your family member lives in another town or state and you don't see her or him much (or talk much on the phone), you should probably avoid controversy completely. Maybe some day you'll live closer or spend more time talking on the phone. If that happens and you still want to talk about a controversial topic, your bond will be able to withstand it.

In the meantime, reserve those topics only for people you do talk to regularly.

Install this as your personal policy and you will prevent a lot of bad moods and hard feelings. You will find holidays and election years a lot more enjoyable in the long run. And you will both be happier.

One last thing: If controversial political conversations come up between you and anyone on a regular basis, I recommend you read the book, Righteous Mind, and when those conversations come up, start talking about the content of the book. I promise you, it will raise your mood in those conversations. 


How to Prevent Negativity in Your Workplace

>> Tuesday

You've heard people complain. Everybody does it at least some of the time, and many people do it a lot. A person who is complaining usually thinks he is perfectly justified because everybody knows how healthy it is to express one’s anger (or annoyance or disgruntlement). It’s called “venting.” It is a very common and widespread belief that venting is healthy.

But psychological research has shown that the expression of anger actually makes people angrier. The idea that somehow people store up anger in their bodies that then needs to be released is an inaccurate theory. It is a “common sense” idea based on a Freudian theory and seemingly backed up by the everyday observation that some things do seem to get rid of anger: exercise and airing grievances. And it’s true. Airing a grievance makes anger disappear. But complaining does not.

“But,” you might be saying, “isn’t airing a grievance and complaining the same thing?” The answer is that they are almost the same thing. The only difference is who you’re talking to. If you have a grievance with George and you tell it to me, you are complaining and it won’t help to dissipate your anger. In fact, it has a very good chance of making your anger worse. But if you tell your grievance to George, your anger or feelings of annoyance are likely to vanish.

If the person who is “venting” really wants to feel better, he needs to communicate with a person who can do something about his complaint.

Therefore, I heartily recommend that you instigate this as your personal policy: All complaints should go to the person who can do something about it. That means when someone is complaining to you about someone else, you can kindly direct them to the person who can do something about it. This may seem a rather rough thing to do, and you can surely be as courteous and friendly about it as you are able, but it is the most sane and productive way to deal with those complaints. And if you have a complaint, turn it into a request and then talk to the person who can fulfill that request.


Write that statement on a card and hang it on the wall. Post it at work. Memorize it. Print it on business cards to hand to people who complain to you. Tattoo it on your back. Perhaps I’m getting carried away.

But I’ll tell you why that statement makes a good personal policy. If you have to listen to Alice complaining about Sam, you are forced by social pressure to side with Alice against Sam, sympathizing with her. This will weaken your relationship with Sam (or make you two-faced). Another option you have is to defend Sam, thereby perhaps straining your relationship with Alice.

A third alternative is to say, “I think Sam is the one you ought to be talking to about this.”

People will naturally complain to someone who isn’t involved because it’s easier than complaining to someone who can do something about it. But it doesn’t improve anything.

If the complaint isn’t important enough to take it to someone who can do something about it, then it isn’t important enough to bother you with, either. If it is important, it should probably be said—to the person who can do something about it.

This simple policy can take a negative, unproductive expression and turn it into a force for positive change.

This is a chapter from the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works.


Come Home: A Song That Could End the LRA

>> Friday

Last week, I suggested the movie, Machine Gun Preacher (read the article here). It's the true story of former biker-gang member, Sam Childers, who built and runs the largest orphanage in Southern Sudan. Childers is still there, and still protecting those orphans from Joseph Kony.

Now I'd like to share two things with you: A video made in 2012, and a song released last week. The video details what Joseph Kony has done and shows the growth of a popular worldwide movement pushing policy makers to find Kony and stop him. Here's the video: Kony 2012.

A follow-up video was made this year: What Happened to Kony 2012?

And the most popular singer in Uganda — Jose Chameleone — just released a song entitled "Come Home." It's a direct communication to the LRA soldiers, asking them to come home (most of them were abducted as children) and letting them know they will be welcomed home (most of them feel so bad about what they were forced to do, they're not so sure). The LRA is Kony's army, the "Lord's Resistance Army." The song could help bring those boys home — the song will be played on the radio in LRA territory. Jose Chameleone's wife is from the area where the LRA originates, so this is personal.

The song is on iTunes here: Come Home. Please buy it and share it. It's a beautiful song with a mighty purpose. If the song becomes popular internationally, it could help generate more political pressure to stop Kony and end the LRA (watch the Kony 2012 video above to see how that might work).

The singers on Come Home sing in three different languages: English, Bugandan and Acholi. Acholi is the tribe that has been most affected by the LRA. Most of those abducted boys speak Acholi. Since songs on the radio are never sung in Acholi, this will emotionally connect with those boys.

Let's stop the atrocities and help those boys find their way home. Watch the videos, buy the song, and share it all with everyone you know. This is the true joy in life.

The song on iTunes.

Jose Chameleone's Facebook page.

The web site for the creators of the Kony 2012 movement.

An article (in English) in Uganda Online about Chameleone's goal to end the LRA.

Lots of articles in Uganda Online about Jose Chameleone.


The True Joy In Life

My favorite quote of all time is by George Bernard Shaw. In the quote, Shaw refers to a "brief candle," which is a reference to a famous Shakespeare passage (from Macbeth), so I will give you the Shakespeare quote first, and then Shaw's "answer" to it:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That is one way to look at life. I first heard Shaw's alternative perspective in a speech when I was 20 years old, and it changed my life. Here it is:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.


Making the Most of What You Are

>> Thursday

In a previous article, I wrote about Saint Patrick's journey from a slave to the leader of a movement (you can read it here). Saint Patrick got a "raw deal" in life, but he made the most of it.

I just saw a true story of another man — Sam Childers — who made the most of what he was. In Childers' case, he was a brutal criminal and a member of an outlaw motorcycle club. But he turned over a new leaf and found a purpose he felt strongly about: Building an orphanage in Southern Sudan.

For years now, a group called the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) has been roaming through Uganda and Sudan, killing parents, taking their young boys, and forcing the boys to become members of their gang-army. The group operates with intense cruelty, and forces these boys to do terrible things.

The LRA's swath of destruction leaves orphans in its wake, and these orphans are not safe. Many of them are boys that the LRA would love to add to their army. Sam Childers built an orphanage (now the largest orphanage in Southern Sudan), and then defended it against LRA raids, using what he had (knowledge about brutal criminals and skill with guns) to keep these kids safe.

This true story was made into an excellent movie starring Gerard Butler: Machine Gun Preacher. I recommend it. His story personifies one of my favorite quotes. It's by George Bernard Shaw. Read it here: The True Joy in Life.


Why Does Listening Help?

>> Friday

LISTENING HELPS. If you've ever been upset or had a problem and talked it over with a good listener, you know you end up clearer-headed and emotionally stronger. Why? What is it about listening that helps? The researcher, Brant Burleson has done a lifetime's worth of research on listening. He has discovered what kind of listening helps, and what doesn't (read more about that here). And he also has some ideas about why listening works.

Burleson thinks one of the main reasons good listening helps a person feel less upset is it gives your mate a chance to think about her situation differently. There are basically two ways to help someone with a problem: Actually help her solve the problem, or help her interpret her problem differently (so the problem, even though it hasn't changed, becomes less upsetting because of the new interpretation).

By following the findings above, your mate is able to talk openly about the problem and her feelings about it, making it easier for her to think about it (because you aren't interrupting, you're making her feel okay about talking about it, you're not trying to control her expression, etc.).

Because you're listening, as she struggles to tell you about her situation and her feelings about it, she understands the situation better. She's able to start making sense of it.

As she thinks about it without any persuasive efforts on your part, she can begin to change her mind about some of the conclusions she originally jumped to. She begins to change how she interprets her situation. When she changes her interpretation, her feelings will change.

As she calms down, her thoughts become even more rational and practical, and her understanding of her problem improves even more, and her understanding evolves toward something more constructive than her first take on it.

The kind of conversation that really helps has three main characteristics:

1. Safe environment. You make a safe place to talk. You let her know you accept and have affection for her, and that you care about her, and that your intentions are good. You encourage her expressions of her feelings and then encourage her to go into detail about them, never invalidating any of her feelings, always helping her know it is safe for her to speak honestly. And you keep the environment conducive to communication by minimizing interruptions and distractions.

2. Encourage feelings. You encourage her to talk about her emotions. You keep an ear out for any expressions of emotions she has about the problem, and then follow up on every one of them, helping those feelings come out in the open and inviting her to express the emotions in detail — not for any therapeutic-venting purposes (which research has shown to be ineffective), but to help her learn what her real feelings are about the situation. You ask questions about the problem and her feelings and the way she is interpreting the situation, and you assure her it is okay to talk about her feelings.

3. Get the whole story. You encourage her to talk at length. Most conversations are two-way, with each person taking a turn, more or less equally. But you can help a person more by helping her get a longer turn, asking good questions, and then more questions about the answers she gave you. You let her know you want to hear the full story — you don't want her to make a long story short. You encourage her to go on. You don't interrupt. You don't let the conversation get sidetracked by you talking too much. You avoid giving advice. You avoid evaluating the situation or interpreting it for her, because that stops her from talking. You try to extend the narration, not cut it off.

Sometimes you can help your friend deal with the problem itself, but that best comes after she has had time to fully express it and after she asks you for advice. Then you can help through brainstorming or discussing possible solutions to the problem and alternatives and the consequences, actually taking some actions that help, etc. Any information and opinions you have about the problem should always be given in a way that never makes her feel wrong or not enough. Never communicate advice in a way that comes across commanding, domineering, or holier-than-thou.

You truly want to help your mate, and if you do the things that work and avoid the things that don't, you will help her. Your mate will become less upset and she will be able to figure out good solutions to her problems. You may not get any glory because she probably won't even notice how skillfully you've helped her, but you will know in your heart you've done some good, and that is reward enough.

Learn more about how to be a good listener.


Raise Your Mood With An Easy Question

I SOMETIMES get discouraged in this publishing business. Like any other business, it has its ups and downs, and sometimes my emotions go up and down with it. My wife, Klassy Evans, gave me a very simple suggestion awhile back that really helps. She said, "Whenever you feel discouraged, think of something you're grateful for."

I've done it many times now, and every time it is surprisingly easy to think of something I'm grateful for, and it makes me feel better every time.

I've read the studies on gratitude, but I've always thought of it as a project. It seems like work. I feel like I "should" sit down and write in a journal for a specified length of time, or try to write down a specified number of things I feel grateful for. That's how they do it in the experiments, but of course that's because it's an experiment. They have to test quantifiable, measurable tasks in an experiment. That doesn't mean I have to.

And as I found out, generating a little gratitude works well on the fly and in my head just as well as it does writing it down in a journal. It's not a chore at all — just a simple question to ask myself. It only takes a few moments (just long enough to think of something). And as soon as I think of something, I feel noticeably better.

I've found that if the first thing I think of doesn't raise my mood enough, I can easily ask myself what else I'm grateful for.

You and I naturally have our attention on our goals and what we'd like to attain in the future, and the mind naturally compares our goals to what we have now. It compares what we have with what we want to have. That's motivating sometimes, but it can also make you feel demoralized or frustrated.

It is equally legitimate — and ought to get equal billing — to think about what you have (compared to others or compared to your past), or what you have gained, or what you are just plain glad about.

Try it the next time you feel discouraged or frustrated. Ask yourself, "What one thing am I grateful for?" And see what happens. It's a simple, all-purpose moodraiser you can keep in your back pocket and use the hell out of.

When you do, you'll be happier.

Learn more about how comparisons alter how you feel: Change The Way You Feel By Changing One Simple Thing You Already Do In Your Mind.


How to Feel Good With an Unreasonable Thought

>> Sunday

I AM NOT A DEVOTEE of yoga, but I was reading something Swami Satchidananda (the dude in the throne here) said and it struck me as interesting and potentially useful for those of us who want to feel good more often.

If you have no other basis for knowledge (as you wouldn't a few thousand years ago when yoga was invented), what would be the sanest criteria for what to believe? Whatever makes you feel better or get more done, right? If it leads to a better mood, let us declare it true. If it leads to sadness, anger, or fear, let us declare it false.

Even today, that's not a bad criteria for judging the merit of a proposition. Of course, now it's probably not a good idea to use that as the only criteria. It should also (and most importantly) be tested against real evidence.

But if it doesn't contradict any scientific knowledge, and if it doesn't hurt anyone or yourself, and it leads to a better emotional state, what would be the harm in accepting it (assuming you're not going to then make war against those who don't accept it)?

Here's what Satchidananda wrote that got me thinking: "You are not even breathing by yourself. Try stopping the air coming into the lungs again for awhile. No, it is being forced into you. That means, Somebody is interested in keeping you alive, to do Somebody's job. So you are living to serve."

That's a different way of looking at things, isn't it? It really doesn't contradict anything known in science. A scientist may explain the phenomenon differently, but this doesn't contradict it, and the point of view doesn't hurt anyone.

And it may lead to better moods more often to think that the great Ocean (of which we are all a wave) is making you breathe, keeping you alive to fulfill its mission.

I think if you consider that just entertain the idea as a possibility you will feel yourself relax. You will feel better.

It's kind of a silly belief, and you don't have to become a believer or try to get others to believe it. That wouldn't help you feel good anyway.

But to think of it that way, even once in awhile, leads to a feeling of calm and open contentment, and that's definitely worth something. What do you think?


What To Do About News

>> Saturday

The Center for Media and Public Affairs did a study on network coverage of murder. Between 1990 and 1995, the murder rate in the U.S. went down 13 percent. But during that same period, network coverage of murders increased 300 percent. If you happened to watch a lot of news during that period, you would have gotten the impression that murders in America were escalating out of control, when in fact that situation was improving.

A research team edited news programs into three categories: Negative, neutral, or upbeat. People were randomly assigned to watch one category of news. The ones who watched the negative news became more depressed, more anxious about the world in general, and they had a greater tendency to exaggerate the magnitude or importance of their own personal worries.

It is a fact that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness cause depression and the health problems related to depression. And studies have shown that the greater majority of network news is about people with no control over their tragedy. "What the evening news is telling you," said Christopher Peterson, one of the first researchers to show that pessimism negatively affects health, "is that bad things happen, they hit at random, and there's nothing you can do about it." That is a formula for pessimism, cynicism, and a generally negative attitude toward the world and the future.

In one study of network news, 71 percent of news stories were about people who had very little control over their fate. This is neither an accurate or a helpful perspective on the world. Highly trained professionals scour the world to find stories like that and the way the stories are presented gives the impression that those kinds of events are more common than they really are.

Professor of psychiatry Redford Williams suggests asking yourself these two questions when you're watching or reading the news:

1. Is this important to me?
2. Is there anything useful I can do about it?

If you answer no to either of those questions, change the channel or find something better to read.


Someone Makes You Feel Bad Fairly Often? Here's What to Do About It

>> Friday

DOES SOMEONE'S negative attitude ruin your mood often? You can do something about it but it may not be what you think. Let's look at an example and see how it works.

John’s wife sometimes gets grumpy, and her bad mood makes him unhappy. He thinks she shouldn't be in a bad mood so often. She “allows herself” to be irritated by things that are really no big deal.

A few times John has been angry enough to tell Darleen to quit being such a negative person, but it didn’t go well.

What can he do? How can John change Darleen’s attitude? If he did, John is sure he would be happier.

This is a fairly common situation, but there is an inherent flaw in the whole thing. Let's think about this for a second. Something is happening that puts Darleen in a bad mood. Darleen’s bad mood puts John in a bad mood. Darleen would like the circumstances to change so she isn’t in a bad mood. John would like Darleen to change so he is not in a bad mood.

In other words, John is doing exactly what Darleen is doing, and then he is self-righteously condemning her for what they are both doing.

If John can’t get himself into a better mood regardless of what Darleen is doing, what right does he have to ask Darleen to do so? And if John can get himself into a good mood regardless of what Darleen is doing, he no longer needs Darleen to change her mood to suit him.

Either way, if you find yourself in the same position as John, you need only to focus on one thing: Improve your own mood regardless of what the other person is doing.

If you can do that, you won’t need to change the other person. At that point, however, you would be in a position to help the other person by telling her what you’ve done that works. And your showing and telling wouldn’t be done in self-righteous anger or impatience. It would only be done out of caring because you no longer need her to change. You no longer have any urgency or a demanding demeanor. And you also understand how challenging it can be. That will make your suggestions much easier to accept.

And you’re in a position where whether she accepts your help or not, you’re okay either way because you know how to improve your own mood regardless of what she does.


A Practical (and Somewhat Spiritual) Technique to Improve Your Mood

>> Sunday

I WAS WATCHING the movie Kundun, the true story of the 14th Dalai Lama. One of the things that struck me was how peaceful he was. The actor radiated a deep calm. I understand the real Dalai Lama does too, even under catastrophic circumstances such as those portrayed in the movie.

As part of their spiritual practice, the Buddhists in Tibet say prayers to bring enlightenment to all beings. They wish others well and pray that people find happiness and peace.

I have tried this and found it feels good. Wishing others well — only in my head, now, I'm not talking about saying anything aloud — feels soothing and calming. One of the most distressing experiences is being angry at people and feeling hurt by them.

The habit of wishing others well counteracts those feelings very directly. It makes sense that the practice would lead to peace and calm.

If you were in almost continual prayer or meditation, you could probably remain as tranquil as a holy person, no matter what happened. I know, I know, that's crazy, right? You've got a life to live, and you're not about to meditate your life away. But I'm thinking more along these lines: What if when you met with someone, you occasionally said something like this to yourself, "May you find happiness." (Buddhists believe the most fundamental desire of all people is to be happy.)

What would that do to your state of mind? What if while you were walking to your car to go to work, you said a silent prayer for all beings? What state would that put you in? Would you be calmer or more tolerant if someone tailgated you? I think you would. And why not? Most of the negative thoughts we think about other people are worse than worthless. Why not replace those thoughts with blessings for people?

Now when I say "blessing," I don't necessarily mean anything religious. I'm not a religious person at all. You've probably guessed that already. I just mean wishing others well. If you want to think of it as asking God for it, or directing some kind of cosmic energy, or using "mind power" or simply wishing it or intending it (and perhaps imagining or believing that your intentions have a magical effect on reality), the effect on your own body would probably the same no matter how you did it.

I've been trying out this idea, and it has some very good effects. I haven't ascended yet, but I'm working on it.

Last night a friend of mine really got on my back. We were working on a project together, but she was all over me, overseeing me and questioning me to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything or to make sure I was doing it right, and she was very intense about it.

When I got up this morning, I thought about last night and I was mad at her. And resentful. But I tried this method — I made a wish that she find happiness in her life — and immediately it changed my feelings toward her. It changed the way I saw her behavior last night.

To wish her well, I had to shift myself to a different point of view and from the new perspective, it was clear to me she meant well and that reminded me that she's a decent, kind person who has been very good to me.

It is as if the act of blessing her disengaged me or unhooked me from my self-righteousness, and I became more of the kind of person I want to be. My emphasis here is in how wishing someone well impacts the well-wisher. But it might influence the other person too. Read more about that here.

I invite you to try it. Give a silent prayer of good wishes — happiness, well-being, peace — for someone. This is good for you and it might be good for them too.

Sometimes praying for others' well-being feels like a job and you just don't feel like it. When that's the case, wish yourself well. You probably need it.


Be Good To Yourself Too

>> Monday

A while ago, a woman wrote to me and asked a question. She wrote:

My mother had a massive stroke 4 years ago. She is now 91. She is right side paralyzed and cannot speak. Her prognosis is that her dementia will only get worse. My husband and I have her at home with us with caregivers. My problem is I get angry with her for not trying to do anything at all for herself. I have come to realize that maybe she cannot do anything for herself, so I need to learn to solve that problem of anger.

Secondly, I feel guilty for not taking care of her myself, but she requires 24 hour care as she is totally dependent and if I did take care of her I would have no life at all.

The third problem is the stress I feel in trying to manage the caregivers. I never wanted to be a manager and have been forced into the situation of managing 5 people who work 9-5 in our house every day. Our house is not our own.

I guess my question is how do I handle the stress of my mother dying right in front of my eyes everyday and the stress of having to manage 5 caregivers, schedules, payroll, training, quitting, hiring etc. The stress of it is causing me to feel very tired. My husband and I are 60 years old. I know there are other people going through this, but what are your hints for handling chronic/terminal illness of a close relative in your home for a long period of time. My only thought is that I am keeping her out of a nursing home and she is getting good care in our home. That is the ONLY positive thing about all of this...all the rest is negative.
Thanks for your website.

This is how I answered her:

I've come up with a few things that might make your life easier or more pleasant or less stressful. But before I get into that, I just want to say that I think you're demonstrating incredible commitment doing what you're doing instead of taking the easy way out and sending your mother to a nursing home.

Okay, here are my suggestions:

1. That you take one day completely off every week, no matter what you have to do to make that happen. Any hospice worker can tell you this: If you don't, you will eventually burn out, and that is bad for everyone.

2. Read the The One Minute Manager. It will help you with your managing task. It is available to listen to on audio if you don't have time to read it. Good stuff. Very practical, very simple.

3. Every morning re-make your commitment that you will conduct yourself in such a way that for the rest of your life you will feel proud of what you did. You're sacrificing a lot here, and you should at least get the benefit of personal pride out of it, and if you conduct yourself with that in mind, you'll be able to honestly look back on what you did and feel proud of yourself and glad you did it.

4. Meditate, even ten minutes every day. It removes some of the stress hormones (especially cortisol and lactate) from your blood, and that will give you some relief from the stress. You can learn to meditate if you don't already know how.

Let me know how it goes, okay?


Editor's note: An article in InteliHealth has some more good suggestions on this subject:

Caregivers Cope With Stress

Her reply:

Hi Adam,

Thank you for your reply. I printed off a copy of your suggestions and have them sitting on my dresser in my bedroom. I will give it a try. I think your website is great and maybe you can add your suggestions to me to your site. I am sure there are a lot of people out there stressing out taking care of chronically ill loved ones in their homes. Thank you again for your kind response.


How To Feel More Energetic

>> Thursday

Energy is a beautiful thing. A person with a lot of energy can accomplish twice what someone without much energy can and have more fun doing it. You get more life with more energy. And here’s a way to crank up your engine: Act more energetic. That sounds like shallow, positive-thinking hype, but it’s actually based on solid evidence: It works.

When you act more energetic, it stimulates your body. Lying down is relaxing. Moving around is more stimulating. Moving around quickly is even more stimulating. It gets the heart pumping. It puts the mind in gear.

Our biology has evolved to fit a different kind of world than the one in which we now find ourselves. There were plenty of times in our prehistory when food was scarce. People who wantonly used up energy would be the first to die, leaving no offspring. The bodies following the prime directive CONSERVE ENERGY passed their genes to us.

But times have changed. It’s no longer difficult to find food. If anything, food is difficult to avoid. Calories are everywhere, hugely and abundantly available. As a matter of fact, now a major concern for people in America is being overweight. Times have changed dramatically. There’s no longer any need to conserve energy, but your genes don’t know it. They’ve still got their orders, like a soldier in a jungle who was never told the war is over.

You can be more energetic, but you’ll have to override your feelings. And you can do this. You’ll have to essentially ignore the natural laziness we all share.

The way to override your body’s prime directive is to act energetic whether you feel like it or not.

The truth is, you are energetic when you act that way, regardless of how you feel. Listen to what I’m saying here. You want to be more energetic? By simply acting more energetic, you immediately become more energetic in reality, in the same way that when you act ethical, you are ethical, regardless of whether or not you were tempted to do the wrong thing.

You can become more energetic in ten seconds. Simply start acting more energetic.

You don’t have to feel energetic to be energetic. A nice bonus, however, is that often when you act energetic, it will rev you up and make you feel energetic too.

Experiments show that when people walk quickly, it speeds up their metabolism, making them feel more energetic, and this energetic feeling lasts for several hours after the activity. Acting energetic physically changes your body into a more energetic body.

So don’t wait until you feel energetic before you act. Act first. The feelings will follow.

This is a chapter from the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works.


A Compelling Source of Bad Moods You Can Easily Avoid

IT STARTED OUT innocently enough. I asked a friend of mine whether he thought the world would be a better or a worse place 100 years from now. Worse, he said.

We had a little discussion about his answer and then went on about our business. A few days later, he said he wanted me to look at a magazine called Colors. Published in Italy, it illustrated some of our global problems graphically. For example, on the back cover were two pictures: One was a man in a polyester jump suit standing on a well-manicured lawn with a nice house in the background, and he was feeding a tidbit to his well-groomed poodle.

The other picture was five or six young boys, dirty and ragged, living in a hole in the street.

The magazine did a good job contrasting how wealthy many of us are in industrialized countries with how horribly many people live in developing countries.

Later, my friend asked me how I liked the magazine.

I replied, It was disturbing.

It's REAL! he said with a self-righteous tone that said "I'm not a person who is afraid of facing the truth."

And that was the beginning of my crusade against bad news. What disturbed me was not the reality of it. I'm well aware of how miserably much of the world lives compared to how even a poor American lives. What bothered me was that the "information" in the magazine was delivered in a context of hopelessness. There wasn't one tiny scrap of any indication anywhere in the magazine that you, the reader, can do anything about it. The world is a horrible place, it seemed to say, and you are helpless to influence it.

If the information had been delivered in the spirit of Here's some bad news, but here's what you can do about it, the same information would have been motivating rather than demoralizing.

But if the reader feels helpless about it or thinks the situation is hopeless, the magazine did harm, and the reader would have been better off without it. Studies have shown that most television news leaves the viewer depressed because it is primarily bad news that the viewer can do nothing about. The problems are too big or too far away or too permanent to be able to change. This sort of news encourages a pessimistic view of the world.

Pessimism produces a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. In other words, pessimism can lead to depression. This is not just an opinion. Lots of research has been done on this subject. A tremendous amount of evidence exists and it all points in the same direction. Pessimism makes people less capable of acting effectively, even in their own best interests. It produces apathy and lethargy. It makes people give up.

Pessimism is bad for your health, bad for your relationships, and bad for the planet (because pessimism not only stops constructive action, but IT IS CONTAGIOUS).

Raw, in-your-face reality is good, but only halfway there. The other half is what can be done about it? If nothing can be done about it, why tell anyone? If something can be done about it, why not give that news too? It is a crime against humanity to do otherwise.

Because of the shock value and attention-getting power of tragedy, horror, and cruel irony, a pessimistic, unconstructive attitude is infecting the minds of more and more people.

It must be stopped. And you can help. Here's how:

1. Stop tuning into any news that makes you feel helpless, distrusting, fearful, hopeless, and that doesn't give you the sense that you can do something about it. If you want to "stay up on the events of the world," try to find sources that don't create pessimism.

2. Pick the global problem that most bothers you and do something about it. If you think there's nothing you can do, then first cure yourself of your own pessimism.

3. Share this article with people you know. And if someone tells you some bad news, tell the person about this information.

4. Read some good news.

5. If a friend of yours seems pessimistic, help her or him become more optimistic. Optimism does not include burying your head in the sand or in the clouds. It is a balanced look at reality. It is practical and effective. As I say in the second chapter of Self-Help Stuff That Works:

In a study by Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, at the University of Maryland, subjects read health-related information on cancer and other topics. She discovered that optimists spent more time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and they remembered more of it.

“These are people,” says Aspinwall, “who aren’t sitting around wishing things were different. They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures they take will help them to heal.” In other words, instead of having their heads in the clouds, optimistic people look. They do more than look, they seek. They aren’t afraid to look into the situation because they’re optimistic.

Optimism will give you the strength to confront difficult realities with open eyes. Optimism has the potential to be even more contagious than pessimism. If nothing else, optimists tend to have more energy. Optimism is very good for your mood.

But there is something else: Optimism is more ethical. It is more life-giving, more enjoyable. It is more right. Pay more attention to the news you bring into your mind and you will enjoy a healthy good mood more often.


Is It a Good Idea to Vent Your Anger?

He looked at me with a smile that obviously lacked any positive feeling. "I hate this job," he said, "I'm getting to the place where I can't stand these customers!" He was no longer smiling. "There's no place for me to vent. I can't tell the customers anything. I'd lose my job!"

"John," I said, "Let me tell you a story — a true story. Once upon a time (a few years ago), a team of researchers wanted to find the best way to deal with anger. They experimented with children at school. In one group, whenever a child got mad at another child, they had him act out his anger with toy guns and stuff. With another group, they had an angry child express his anger verbally. In the third group, all the researchers did was give the angry child a rational explanation for why the other child did what she did. And you know what? The method that worked the best was the last one."

"The rational explanation?" asks John, obviously needing a rational explanation.

"Yes. There's been a lot of research showing that anger isn't really something that 'bottles up' inside you, and 'venting' increases your feelings of anger. Isn't that surprising? I didn't believe it at first. But you watch yourself next time you get angry and 'vent.' It makes you more angry. Anger is caused by the way you're thinking at the moment you're angry, and it seems like it's building up because you're running those thoughts through your head over and over, getting madder and madder. But it's the thoughts that are making you mad.

"Imagine you're in a restaurant with a friend," I continued, "and you order dinner. Your waiter takes your order and goes on about his business. You wait for a long time. You look for your waiter but don't see him. You're getting angry. By the time your waiter walks up (empty handed), you're really mad. 'Where have you been!' you demand, 'And what happened to our dinner?' The waiter says, 'I'm sorry. I forgot to give the cooks your order until only a few minutes ago. I'm really sorry. I am not doing well tonight. I just got the news that my brother and my nephew were killed in a car accident this afternoon.'

"On hearing this, what happens to you emotionally? Your anger disappears — almost instantly. Where did it go? If it was bottling up, it would still be there, right? You've had no way to 'vent it.' But you are suddenly not the least bit angry. The idea that anger builds up and needs to be released is just another commonsense idea that's been proven wrong.

"The reason you're suddenly not angry is that your anger was being produced by the thoughts you were thinking, and you are now no longer thinking those thoughts, so the anger is no longer being produced."

"So what am I supposed to do?" asks John. He isn't smiling, and he isn't frowning, "What do I do with my thoughts? Say my customer is being a jerk. Do I think to myself, 'My customer is a nice person; I love my customer?'"

"Good question," I said. "No, it won't help to think positive, because saying things to yourself you don't believe has no impact. If you've ever tried it, you know that's true. What you need to do is argue with your negative thoughts. Don't think positive; tear apart the negative. When you're angry, you take your thoughts for granted, as if you believed that because you think it, it must be true. But if someone else came up and said exactly the same thing out loud, you could take the statement apart no problem. But you said it, so you just accept it.

"You should treat the thoughts in your head with as much skepticism as you would the words of a fast-talking salesman. 'Hold on there, buddy,' you might say, 'Slow down and say that again...(he says one sentence)...Can you prove that? Who says? Has a study been done? Who conducted the study?' You don't take everything at face-value. You question it.

"As soon as you start arguing with your own thoughts, you'll find it pretty easy to tear them to shreds because the thoughts you think when you're angry are almost always exaggerations and distortions and unsubstantiated claims. Almost always. Like 99 percent of the time. And when you take your thoughts apart, your anger disappears."

John looked unconvinced.

"Give me one," I say, "Tell me something you were thinking awhile ago — some thought you were thinking about your customer."

"Let's see..." John recalls, "This lady was being really condescending and the other people..."

"Wait," I interrupt, "Let's take one at a time. You can't argue with several thoughts at once. 'The lady was being condescending.' That's a good one. Do you think you could argue with that?"

"Well, maybe she wasn't being condescending."

"Good. Are there other possible explanations for the way she was talking to you?"

"Yeah. Maybe she was in a bad mood when she came in and I had nothing to do with it."

"That's a good one. Give me another one."

"Uh...I remind her of her son, and she's in the habit of being condescending to him."

"Good. You're good at this. Both of those explanations have nothing to do with you. In other words, with either of those explanations, you wouldn't have to take it personally. And if you're not taking it personally, you're not going to get as angry. Come up with another one."

"Okay. Let's see...How about: She was actually having strong sexual fantasies about me and had a hard time controlling herself and her effort to control herself looked like 'condescension.'"

"Okay. Good. Now which explanation do you settle for?"

"I don't know."

"None!!!" I say, a little too loudly. "You have effectively destroyed the thought. You have proven to yourself that there are other theories to explain what you experienced besides 'She is being condescending.' Since you don't know what is the 'real' explanation, just leave it at that. It is unknown. And when there are several possible theories to explain things, and they all explain them just as well, you won't be too upset by any one of them. You have become more rational. You will act more effectively because of it. And you will feel better.

"Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy, two of the very few kinds of therapies that have been proven effective, both use this technique of arguing with yourself. As you can imagine, though, it takes a little practice."

"Yeah," says John, "You'd probably have to go to a therapist."

"You wouldn't, not for everyday stuff like this. You're verbally competent and not out of control. You could learn to do this on your own. Just argue with your own thoughts when you get angry (or depressed or nervous). Argue on the basis of facts and logic. Argue simply and pragmatically. Nothing fancy is required. Argue like you would if somebody else was saying to you what you're saying to yourself."

"I can do that. This is good," he says, looking a little hopeful.

"It works really well. How do you feel now."

"What do you mean?

"Do you feel angry?"


"See, it's working already!"

The Cause of Anger

When someone makes you angry, it seems that the cause of your anger is the person's actions. But what really makes you angry is what you think the action means. If you look closely at the meaning of an event, your certainty about it will fade. You'll realize it doesn't necessarily mean what you assume it means. This uncertainty will make your anger diminish.

Let's say I interrupt you while you're talking and it makes you mad. You "know" I am being disrespectful. Let's look at this closely: 1) an event happens, 2) you figure out what it means, and then, 3) you feel an emotion in response to the meaning. Step number 2 happens very fast so it seems the event directly caused your feelings. But that isn't so. And you can prove it to yourself.

Wait until the next time you get mad at someone. Then try to discover one thought you have about what they did. Since the meaning of an event occurs to you so quickly, it's very hard to see. So you have to backtrack. You have to do a slow-motion replay. Ask yourself, "Why am I mad?" Your answer is probably, "Because he did such-and-such." Ask yourself another question: "Why would that make me angry?" Your answer to this second question is probably a statement about the meaning of the action. Now you have something to work with.

Take your statement and look at it skeptically. In our above example, I interrupted you. You thought, "He doesn't respect me." Looking at that thought skeptically, you realize it's only a theory to explain why I interrupted you. Once you look at it, you also realize it isn't the only possible explanation. Try to come up with other explanations. Maybe I've never thought much about interrupting, and no one ever said anything to me about it, so I'm in the habit of interrupting people — those I respect and those I don't. Or maybe I interrupted you because I have a poor memory and didn't want to forget my thought, so I blurted it out. You can never really be sure why another person does something. Sometimes the person himself doesn't know why he's doing it.

After you create two or three good theories (this will only take a few minutes; you'll be surprised how easy it is), your anger will fade, you'll feel better, and you'll deal with the situation more rationally. Argue with yourself this way and everyone wins.


"Explanatory Style" Explained

>> Saturday

Your explanatory style determines whether you will be defeated by a setback or will bounce back, regain your determination, and potentially succeed. To understand what an explanatory style is, you must be clear about what I mean by "setback."

A setback is anything you wanted to happen that didn't happen or anything you didn't want to happen that happened. That means you experience setbacks several times a day. It is a rare day that everything goes exactly the way you want.

When a setback occurs, you explain it to yourself. That is a natural and unintentional result of any setback. You explain what caused it. You don't explain events deliberately; usually you attribute the causes of events automatically. The automatic, natural, habitual way you explain events is called your explanatory style.

For example, if Jim and Sue lost their jobs from the same company on the same day, they may have two entirely different explanations for why they were laid off, even if the company gave them exactly the same reason. Jim might think, "The economy is bad. That's why they laid me off." Sue might think, "They didn't lay off everyone. They must have chosen me because they noticed I didn't try very hard." Same circumstance, different explanation. And the explanation each person made was according to their explanatory style.

Look at those explanations again. Which one is better? Which explanation will dishearten the person and which will not? The answer will not be obvious to most people.

The consequences of Jim's and Sue's explanations are significantly different. Jim may feel defeated by his explanation and lack motivation to try to find another job. His explanation says the cause of his setback is widespread and out of his control. Sue's explanation, however, may cause her to decide to get a job she really wants and to put her heart into it. Her explanation was more specific and the cause is under her control.

Explanatory style will determine whether a person is demoralized by a setback or unaffected by it or even motivated by it. And this difference, as it accumulates momentum with the daily setbacks we all experience, greatly alters the trajectory of a person's life. It will also have an impact on health. Read more about it in Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism, David Burns' Feeling Good, and Adam Khan's Antivirus For Your Mind.

The approach is scientific and effective. It isn't positive thinking. There is no need (or desire) to try to believe something you don't actually believe. The approach is to think more accurately. The aim is to reduce the number of mistakes we all naturally make in our thinking, and thereby reduce the amount of helplessness we feel. When we stop making ourselves feel so helpless and hopeless, our natural determination and fighting spirit begin to rise, and success in the long run becomes more probable.


What Can You Do Instead of Worry?

>> Friday

Noelle came to work worried about her roommate, Jana, who didn’t come home the night before and didn’t call. That wasn’t like Jana, and Noelle was worried.

But Noelle’s worry did not benefit Jana, and it harmed Noelle. Worry put stress hormones into her bloodstream, which isn’t healthy. It suppressed her immune system. If she worries a lot, it will damage the inside of her arteries, which can end in a heart attack or stroke many years hence. Needless worry is a cost without a benefit. And it’s not pleasant.

If you are worrying and want to stop, first ask yourself if there’s anything you’re going to do about the situation. If not, then start wondering what good things might be happening. Do not try to stop worrying.

Research by Daniel Wegner, PhD, of the University of Virginia and author of the book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, has repeatedly shown that trying to suppress thoughts only results in thinking the thought more. If you try to suppress a thought hard enough, that thought can become an obsession.

Try to stop worrying and you’ll worry even more. What you want to do is give your mind a bone to chew on, but a different bone. Worrying is imagining something bad happening. Simply imagine something good happening, and there will be less room in your mind for imagining something bad happening. Your mind has its limits, like the RAM of a computer. Give it enough to do, and it won’t have the free space to do anything else.

If worrying is a habit for you, it won’t go away immediately. Every time you start to worry, ask yourself what good might be happening. And keep asking and wondering and then leave it at that—an open-ended possibility. Do this and something good will be happening to you: You’ll feel better and you’ll be healthier.

By the way, Jana had a wonderful time.

This is a chapter from Self-Help Stuff That Works.


Exercise and Your Mood

>> Sunday

WHEN I WAS A KID, my dad used a very effective method when my brother and I were fighting. He made us run a lap around the block, and it was a pretty big block! After becoming winded, we didn't have the inclination to argue any more. We felt more relaxed.

Exercise — especially exercise that gets you breathing hard — has a relaxing, mood-elevating effect. It feels as if you accumulate "stress particles" in your blood, which make you feel tense or nervous or on edge or stressed out or in a bad mood, and it feels like exercise burns off those particles as fuel, leaving your system clean.

I don't know much about cars, but I have heard that it's bad for a classic car to only be driven around town. Lots of slow driving makes the carburetor accumulate gunk. Once in awhile you need to get on the freeway and open it up, get that engine really hot and it burns out all the gunk.

When you get an adrenaline jolt — a worry that passes through your mind or something that makes you a little upset — adrenaline, cortisol, lactate and assorted chemicals are released into your blood stream. Including extra fatty acids. Exercise forces your body to burn all these stress byproducts. So rather than taking several hours or all day for this gunk to slowly get filtered out of your blood, exercise burns it all off in twenty minutes, leaving you feeling refreshed and relaxed. It also burns off the extra fatty acids cortisol has released into your blood stream, removing the health risk associated with triglycerides.

If you go too long or too hard, however, your body will start producing excessive stress hormones, defeating your purpose. You want to exercise so you're breathing hard, but still able to get plenty of air and keep going. And you want to stay at it long enough to have an effect (twenty to forty minutes) but not so long it taxes your body to the point of stress.

If you aren't accustomed to exercising, start slowly, learn how to do it, how much to rest in between, how to prevent injuries, and if you have any medical conditions, talk to a physician who knows something about exercise before you start.

For a method of improving your mood in the long run, regular aerobic exercise is one of the best.

Research has proven that twenty to forty minutes of aerobic exercise reliably reduces anxiety and improves mood, not just while you're doing it, but for hours afterwards.

In a study of rats, they had one group of rats exercise on an exercise wheel, and another group that didn't exercise. When the rats were exposed to stress, the exercising rats released measurably less norepinephrine into their brains. Norepinephrine is a hormone that produces adrenaline. In other words, the exercising rats had a healthier response to the stressful event.

At the University of Wisconsin, and then again in a Canadian study, exercise was shown to significantly decrease anxiety levels in the participants.

British researchers found that exercise not only improved the subjects' moods, but it improved their creative thinking (assessed using the Torrance test). Specifically, it significantly increased their flexibility score: They were able to come up with a greater variety of responses. This would ultimately lower anxiety because it is easier to solve your problems if you can come up with better solutions. In the study, the participants did twenty to twenty-five minutes of aerobic exercise. High-impact and low-impact both worked. When the researchers posed a problem, the people who had exercised thought up a greater range of strategies to solve it.

In another study at Baruch College, after twenty minutes of aerobic exercise, the participants' measures of creative problem-solving "increased significantly."

Researchers at Scripps College tested people between the ages of fifty-five and ninety-one years old for mental ability and physical activity. They compared sixty-two of them who were physically active (exercising regularly) with sixty-two people were relatively sedentary. The exercisers scored significantly better on all mental abilities: reasoning, vocabulary skills, reaction time, and memory.

In a study at Stanford University, healthy but sedentary adults who had trouble sleeping (taking longer than twenty-five minutes to fall asleep, for example, and sleeping an average of only six hours per night) were put on an exercise program for three months. By the end of the study, the exercisers were sleeping about forty-five minutes longer and falling asleep fifteen minutes faster, on average. The ones who didn't exercise hadn't improved.

It was once believed that the brain did not generate any new brain cells. But that has now been proven a false assumption. New brain cells form throughout your life. Trying to determine if anything can stimulate the brain to produce more brain cells, neurologists at the Salk Institute found that mice who exercised regularly on a spinning wheel had far more new brain cells after six weeks than the mice who hadn't been exercising.


What if you feel anxious and try to relax but it just makes you feel more agitated? And then you try to figure out what's bothering you and work on it, but that doesn't work either? When you seem agitated for no reason and nothing seems to work, consider the possibility that you need exercise.

A need for exercise can often pass for nervousness, restlessness, or impatience in the same way that being thirsty can often be mistaken as hunger. They are similar feelings or have similar sensations.

If you feel agitated, get some exercise. If you're feeling stiff or sore, and not up to exercising, try yoga or simple calisthenics. In other words, start to get in shape for exercising. I'm not talking about starting an "Exercise Program." Just do something light and see if you feel better. Do a few pushups, a few sit-ups, maybe some jumping jacks, and see how you feel. When you stretch, stretch very gently, more gently than you think will do any good, hold the position for fifteen to twenty seconds, and slowly release it. I recommend Judy Altar's book, Stretch and Strengthen for more about stretching.

Our bodies have clearly evolved to get quite a bit of activity, and the body rebels when we don't get enough. It's as much of a need as protein. We would feel bad and physically deteriorate if we didn't eat enough protein. Without exercise, we deteriorate and feel bad too. It's a need, not a bonus or a thing you might do if you like.

And, one final fact for you to consider: Psychologist Robert Dustman, one of the top researchers into the effect of aging on the brain, found that when people exercise, it keeps their brain producing more alpha brain waves. The alpha rhythm is associated with the ability to stay calm under pressure.

One of the all-time best methods for improving your mood is to exercise regularly.


Raise Your Mood By Relaxing Your Mind

>> Friday

Work and relaxation make music together. They are the up and the down, the yin and the yang, the rhythm of a good life.

Relaxation is good for you. Over the past 40 years, a tremendous amount of research has been done on relaxation and meditation, and the findings are truly amazing. Relaxation can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, help prevent heart disease, relieve or even prevent headaches, reduce pain, help control hypertension, help you sleep better and cure insomnia, alleviate panic attacks, improve your ability to come up with creative solutions to problems, increase your memory and ability to learn, improve your energy level, improve your self-esteem, reduce depression, improve your relationships and your health, and make you feel better in general.

But the kind of relaxation these folks studied was not what most of us mean when we say, “Yeah, I had a relaxing weekend.” They were studying a more concentrated, more profound form of relaxation, and you cannot get it watching TV.

The relaxation that produces those results requires you to relax your mind as well as your body.

One of the major players in that research is a medical doctor named Herbert Benson. He coined the term “relaxation response,” which is what he calls the natural, physical changes that take place when people meditate or relax profoundly. It’s the antidote and flip-side of the “fight-or-flight response” — the adrenaline-pumping reaction we get to dangerous, threatening or stressful situations.

Benson’s first experiments were on practitioners of TM (Transcendental Meditation), a form of “mantra” meditation. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated over and over to oneself. If this is done with a passive, non-forcing attitude, it changes your body. Heartbeat and metabolism slow down, the level of blood-lactate goes down, and the electrical pulsing of your brain slows down and becomes more rhythmic.

Benson found you can repeat other words besides the Indian mantra given to students of TM and it produces the same changes. Some forms of Yogic and Zen meditation also produce the same changes. So do Autogenic Training and Progressive Relaxation.

And when you relax like that for twenty minutes once or twice a day, all kinds of good things happen to your body. It’s extremely healthy and it feels good. It’s psychologically healthy. It’s the antidote to stress.

People who relax like that have a less intense reaction to stressful situations, and they recover from them faster than people who don’t. In other words, instead of a person’s heartbeat going from, say, 70 to 120 beats per minute during an argument and returning to 70 in an hour, it might go from 70 to only 100 beats per minute, and return to 70 in a half hour. That kind of change is healthy for your body and good for your relationships and gosh darn it, it’s just more fun! Stress is unpleasant.

When blood-lactate levels drop during relaxation, it stays down afterwards. This is one reason you feel so good afterwards. Blood-lactate has something to do with anxiety. When you measure the blood-lactate level of someone who feels anxious, you’ll find a lot of it. When you give someone a shot of lactate intravenously, they suddenly feel anxious. A certain percentage of people will have an immediate panic attack.

I could go on and on — the amount of research on this subject is extensive — but I’m going to give you a technique you can use to produce the relaxation response for yourself. It works very well, and it’s all you need.

But keep in mind there are hundreds of ways to produce the relaxation response, and if you don’t like this one, there are plenty more to choose from. This one is basic, however, and will produce the relaxation response we’re looking for. Here it is:

How to Relax

1. Get into a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax.

2. Repeat some word or short phrase over and over to yourself.

3. When you notice yourself thinking about something else, gently start repeating your word or phrase again.

4. When you think your time is up, open your eyes and look at the clock. If you aren’t done yet, close your eyes and keep repeating.

Repeat your word or phrase fast or slow — whatever is best for you. You can repeat it to the rhythm of your breath or not — whatever you like.

The most important part of the process is Step 3. Biofeedback research has confirmed peoples’ personal experience: Trying doesn't help. People in biofeedback training who try to lower their blood pressure are the only ones who can’t do it. When you try to concentrate or try to relax, you won’t be able to. You need a passive, let-it-happen kind of attitude.

Your mind will often wander from your repeated word or phrase. No need to be bothered by that. Just bring your mind back to your repeated word or phrase. Over and over again.

It’s the process of doing this that’s good for you — not some end state or goal you reach.

Drifting off and noticing it and bringing your mind back to your repeated phrase is the process. And it’s this process that gives you all the benefits.

The attitude to have is a combination of persistence and acceptance. You persist in repeating your word and you accept it when your mind wanders, but you still persist in repeating your word again, while accepting that you wander off.

Most of the studies were done on people who did this kind of relaxation 15-20 minutes, once or twice a day, so that’s what I recommend. Put a clock where you can see it.

By the time the 15 or 20 minutes are over, you’re usually going to feel very relaxed, which is why I don’t recommend you set an alarm or buzzer to tell you your time is up. It can jar you, and that’s the opposite of the relaxation response.

Don’t expect anything. Sometimes you’ll feel deeply relaxed and almost blissful afterwards, sometimes you won’t. It’s a good session either way. Sometimes your mind will drift, sometimes it won’t. It’s a good session either way. And sometimes you’ll just fall asleep, and that just means you probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Even that’s okay: naps are good for you too.

Since you can pretty much repeat anything you want and it will work, I suggest you repeat something that has some meaning for you. The shorter, the better. Soft sounds — M’s and N’s and Sh’s — work better (are more relaxing) than hard sounds: K’s and P’s and Q’s.

During the relaxation response, your brainwaves slow down and become more steady and rhythmic. These are called “alpha” and “theta” brainwaves. There’s a good deal of evidence that we are more suggestible in those states than in our normal waking state (a “beta” brainwave pattern). Since you’re already in this suggestible state when you relax, you can (and might as well) make use of it by giving yourself suggestions.

The word or phrase you repeat can be a suggestion, and/or at the end, when you’re still relaxed with your eyes closed and your time is up, you can take a minute or two and give yourself some positive suggestions. For example: “When I open my eyes, I’ll feel refreshed and alert,” or, “Tonight I will have a dream that will give me an idea for a solution to a problem.”

You might as well take advantage of your suggestibility while you have it.

That’s all there is to it. It takes a little time, but it’s worth it. This is something that not only has long-term benefits, but also feels good in the short-term.

If you'd like to read more, I recommend Benson's book, The Relaxation Response.

But that's not all. Relaxing yourself makes the world a better place. You make a scientifically-verifiable difference to your family, friends, and the world at large by relaxing yourself regularly.

Experiments by psychologist Gary Schwartz showed that people who relax regularly have lower anxiety levels and fewer psychological problems.

Regular relaxation also improves your ability to pick up subtle perceptual cues and increases your empathy. And research by Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., proved what our everyday experience tells us: moods and attitudes are contagious.

Add these findings together and it means that if you relaxed regularly you would be better at resolving conflict with people; you’d be able to come together with people more harmoniously to reach compromises that are good for everyone. The world needs more people like that.

And since moods are contagious and since relaxing regularly puts you in a better mood and makes you more calm and relaxed, the people around you will also be in a better mood and be more calm and relaxed, which is good for them like it’s good for you.

You can help your children and your spouse and your friends and your co-workers be healthier, happier and have better relationships just by relaxing yourself.

Everything goes better with relaxation. Work. Relationships. Sex. Social interaction. Talking with children. Relaxation is good.

It’s an old Chinese saying that if you want to change the world, change your government, and if you want to change your government, change your family, and if you want to change your family, change yourself. You can make a step in that direction by relaxing.



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