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.


THE MEANING OF LIFE

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.

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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.

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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. 

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