HAPPINESS, CONTENTMENT, AND OPTIMISM

Have you ever said, “All I want is to be happy. Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” Unfortunately, happiness is one of those elusive states; seek it and you’ll probably miss it. Happiness is not a state of being; it is a lifestyle, something subjective that evolves from how you live. Happiness should not be seen as an end in itself, a goal, but more a feeling of contentment that emerges from that lifestyle.

“If I win the lottery I’ll be rich and happy.” Probably not, at least over the long haul. We know that happiness produced by an outcome will likely be transitory. A man was awarded a huge sum of money in a personal injury suit. He said, “I threw it away on dumb things because I felt guilty about receiving ‘dirty money’ that wasn’t earned.” A couple was injured in a car accident, and eventually received a sizeable settlement out of court. They went on a spending spree: a new house, all the latest modern appliances, new furniture….you name it. The money ran out, of course, and stresses on their marriage began. They had regular arguments on who was to blame for the sudden reversal of their “happiness.” They lost the house and filed for divorce.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert notes that in one study, a year after winning the lottery, winners were less happy than were paraplegics one year after their accident. How can that be? If you ask that question you forget that you are considering the lottery winner and the paraplegic from your present perspective, which probably doesn’t include being a lottery winner or a paraplegic. Thus, winning the lottery looks pretty good to you and being confined to a wheelchair looks pretty bad. For those who actually live in such circumstances, however, they make their current estimates of happiness in comparison to their earlier life and to the anticipated future.

The lottery winners learn that the anticipated happiness of winning the lottery was unrealistic; the paraplegics learn that the anticipated impossible challenges imposed by the injury were not overwhelming or impossible. In both cases it was not the outcome (good luck vs. severe injury) that determined their “happiness” a year later; rather, it was the lifestyle they chose following the outcome. Overnight wealth can be squandered and lead to long-term problems; paraplegics can choose to find meaning and purpose in their lives through spiritual, artistic, athletic, and other types of pursuits. Good fortune can lead to frustration; misfortune can lead to contentment over meeting a challenge

You are likely to be “happy” only when you are realistically and optimistically focused on developing a lifestyle consistent with your values, and which brings you a sense of contentment or satisfaction. The search for happiness may be futile, but an optimistic approach to life can enhance your satisfaction and coping. Optimists tend to develop a realistic “can-do” attitude about life’s obstacles, and decide that stress is not all it’s cracked up to be! They are more likely to see problems and difficulties in life as challenges that can be met and overcome, are more likely to be liked by others, and are more likely to look for realistic explanations for negative events. Pessimists habitually blame themselves for “bad luck,” and self-blame translates into stress that compromises coping.

            Good coping also requires focusing on optimistic actions, not words. Thoughts without actions are fantasy. Negative thoughts can also lead to depression. Do you tell yourself, “I’m too much of a pessimist; I need to be more of an optimist”? Before you decide your level of pessimism about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your casual spoken comments. Talk is cheap; actions reveal your essence. Words reveal character when they are accompanied by actions consistent with your values.

IS TRUMPISM THE NEW NORM?

In answer to our title question, Bruce Kelley, Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest says no way! Reader’s Digest has resumed its search, also conducted last year, for the Nicest Places in America. Last year they solicited nominations from readers and received 300. The list was winnowed down to 10 finalists, and Gatlin, TN was the final winner.

Kelley also notes other trends in society that push back from the dark mood engendered by the political world. USA Today has a Humankind section that highlights positive stories submitted by readers. The New York Times has a section called “The Week in Good News.” Some commercials on TV regularly appear that sell a variety of everyday products and services, but fly in the face of hate messages by featuring interracial couples, or convey other themes of inclusion. Student groups at some colleges and universities around the country run RAK days, “Random Acts of Kindness,” which encourage students, faculty, and staff to do just that with people they don’t know. NBC Nightly News always ends with a feel-good story of people helping other people. (No doubt you know of other examples worthy of sharing in a comment at the end of this blog.)

All these things have in common the theme of the importance of doing things that bring you satisfaction. The trends listed illustrate independence, autonomy, optimism, and disengaging from a dark side of humanity that stresses insults, disparagement, bullying, and intimidation. The trends show how easy it can be to resist the mudslinging and take the high road.

Digging a little deeper, the trends noted also show that when you feel lost, angry, frustrated, and without values or moral compass, you have options beyond simply falling under the spell of the hate mongers. There is no single human imperative wired into your genes. You do not need to join a cult and subjugate yourself to the leader because you feel inadequate to find your own way through life. You do not need to look for scapegoats to blame for personal shortcomings, and on whom to displace your anger and frustration. And you should not choose those options because spewing hatred or surrendering your autonomy to others will likely fail. These lifestyles compromise self-acceptance, feeling satisfied and productive, and enjoying a spiritual bond with humanity. When you fall victim to these impulses you will suffer because as you sit along the roadside criticizing, insulting, and pouring out blame on others for your travails, society will continue to evolve and leave you behind.

Psychologists know that reaching beyond yourself and acting within a circle of actions that you can control, brings personal contentment and inspiration to continue, not because “I feel happy,” but because “I feel a part of humanity, something bigger than myself.” Such service in a spirit of treating others as you would like them to treat you, will foster good coping with everyday life. Is this not why some choose to build homes for Habitat for Humanity, or volunteer to help victims of natural disasters, instead of wallowing in cult-like dependency or displacing all they dislike about themselves on others?

So here’s a thought for all of us. Don’t give in to the vitriol, distrust, abuse, profanity, insults, ego-centricity, and condescension; don’t give this dark side validity by emotionally and impulsively lashing back. Of course, stand up for your beliefs and strive to make them consistent with the evidence and with logical, critical thinking. But also vow to fight indecency with decency. You will be coping effectively, you will feel more satisfied and productive, and you will be energized to reach out to your fellow humans in need.

COPING LESSONS FROM THE BOY SCOUTS

I saw a Facebook post about the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) dropping the word “Boy.” The usual Pavlovian knee-jerk comments about political correctness (PC) followed, decrying how we can’t even say “boy scouts” anymore without offending women. Actually, according to other reports, membership in the Boy Scouts is declining, and removing “boy” is a strategic move by the organization to bolster membership by encouraging girls to join. There is no government or liberal plot to force the sexist boy scouts to put aside their evil ways.

Isn’t it a shame how the PC card is often played out of desperation by defensive, insecure, paranoid, and dependent folks who know they’re holding a losing hand? For them, “PC” is code that means, “Change is coming that takes me out of my comfort zone.” In our coping context, obsessing and screaming about PC suggests poor coping skills in the screamer. Change is a threat to their psychological security so they play the PC card with regularity. For some reason, they have trouble seeing that for the most part, PC is simply a plea for common courtesy and respect in our interactions with others. Yes, PC can be overdone, but those instances are usually easily recognizable by their absurdity. The point is, for those secure in their own skin, the change implied by PC is not a threat to their psychological welfare.

But, back to the Boy Scouts. What about their strategic decision to drop “Boys”? Listen to what Kristina Hernandez, a media consultant and freelance writer, has to say about this issue in an Op-Ed piece. Hernandez talks about her 7-year old daughter who joined a Cub Scout pack that previously was open only to boys. She says, “I have watched my daughter’s confidence bloom in the short amount of time she has been a Cub Scout. She has been able to do everything the boys do, from learning how to shoot a bow and arrow, to starting a fire, to racing her own derby car, and shooting a BB gun.” Hernandez, a self-described conservative who believes that “genders do matter,” says she is grateful to BSA for opening their ranks. “I want my daughter to have every opportunity that boys have, to be empowered as a woman and know that she is capable of doing what boys do, but in her own, female way. Femininity, or masculinity, need not be lost because the BSA allows girls and changed their name.”

In the context of effective coping, these comments are a rational, thoughtful breath of fresh air when contrasted with the petty, infantile, self-serving PC ravings that obscure the true essence of what BSA has done. The PC crowd wants to perpetuate their safe, comfy world where girls learn to be sensitive, emotional, caring, supportive, and domestic. If boys develop such traits they are sissies and sacrifice their masculinity. This world says boys must learn to be aggressive, assertive, dominant, and independent. If girls show these characteristics, however, they have lost their femininity and become man-haters. Ah, the secure clarity of how it was for the PC crowd a time long past.

Welcome to the 21st century, guys! Psychologists have long known that the key to effective coping is having a wide range of options when choosing actions to confront challenges. The modern woman has the traditional feminine traits, and has no problem raising children, cleaning house, or cooking; but if the situation requires her to be assertive, competitive, and forceful, she can do so without feeling less of a woman. By the same token, a man today might have no problem “being a man,” standing his ground firmly and decisively, and initiating forceful action; but he can also show emotion and sensitivity, dust the living room, change a diaper, and support his spouse’s career without any threat to his manhood. The breadth of traits shown by today’s women and men makes them far better able to cope with life compared to those who are secure only in traditional roles. Is it not a coping tragedy when a woman is confronted with a situation that requires assertiveness, but she withdraws so she won’t appear less feminine? Is it not equally tragic when a man is confronted with a situation calling for warmth and emotionality, but withdraws out of fear of appearing less masculine?

Hernandez notes that her daughter’s uniform shirt reads, “Boy Scouts of America,” but she adds, “That name will be altered soon but the ingrained character, independence, and honor of the Boy Scouts will not be changed. It will only look different, with strong women of character emerging from the program, right along with the boys.”

We might add that our society will also be strengthened by a new generation of Americans, men and women of all backgrounds and persuasions, better equipped to cope with everyday life, and thereby ready to “participate in humanity” with values, morality, and honor. What we are seeing almost daily — whether it be in the noble crusades of high-school students tired of being shot at, young athletes tired of being sexually abused by a perverse physician, or women tired of being subjugated to the whims of powerful men – is a movement reasserting the can-do spirit of two-and-a-half centuries ago, a spirit that joined the Declaration of Independence with The Constitution and gave birth to our country. It’s a spirit that offers to put “United” back in what “USA” means, and it gives an old bird like me a needed jolt of hope for tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

CONVERSATIONS WITH LIFE

In Psychology, it’s called “coping.” That’s fine, but we like to think of people who are trying to deal with the stress in their lives as, “Having conversations with life.” You don’t realize it, but every day you chat with life. Sometimes you’re mad as hell, and shout out, “I’ve had it with you; you stink!” Other times you’re on top of the world and exclaim, “Life, you’re fantastic!” Even though these extreme reactions capture the moment, they’re lousy for having a conversation because they don’t last.

What makes conversations productive and satisfying? First of all, you need to listen. Very often comments from others include qualifications, conditions, limits, and complications. If you’re not listening, what you hear as simple may be more involved. And so it is with what life tells you.

Second, you need to accept that you are not playing on a perfectly level field. That is, life is probably in a more dominant position, which means you are not in total control even though you want to be. In fact, the only things you can control are your thoughts about what is said, and how you respond. Just as in a conversation with an acquaintance, you must accept the fact that the conversation is not always about you; life has other perspectives to offer. If you attempt to control what others say or think, you will alienate and anger them, and experience frustration when the conversation ends without resolution.

Third, conversations are more likely to be productive if you are positive and respectful to your listeners, as opposed to taking an adversarial approach. The latter puts others in “enemy” mode and will make your comments confrontational and threatening to them. Life will respond similarly; put life on the defensive and you will be disenchanted with the conversation.

We could list other things, but the point is, if you do not follow the rules for good conversations, things will fall apart quickly. Conversations with life are no different. When you get “curveballs” and the unexpected from life, do you listen to the life message being conveyed? Do you have trouble accepting the reality that life, not you, is in charge of your conversations, and that you need to focus only on those things under your control? Do you treat life as your enemy, always being unfair and mistreating you?

The secret to coping with everyday life is quite simple: you need to learn how to carry on conversations with life. Nothing complex here, no rocket science, no intricate psychological theories or pronouncements – you simply need to be able to talk productively with life. Sometimes, the best lessons can be found in the simplest things.

ASSESS YOUR COPING STYLE

How do you cope? Here’s a quick and unscientific test to take. Assign each statement a number from 1 to 4, with 1 meaning strongly disagree, 2 slightly disagree, 3 slightly agree, and 4 strongly agree.

 

(1)I’m OK about my insecurities.

(2)I trust people most of the time.

(3)The world is frustrating and unpredictable to me.

(4)I am tolerant of the views of others even when they differ from mine.

(5)I do not confide in people.

(6)I have a reliable, supportive, and trustworthy social support system.

(7)Very few things in my life bring me pleasure.

(8)I tend to dwell a lot on painful events in my life.

(9)I follow through with promises I make to others.

(10)I try not to blame others when things go wrong.

(11)I don’t handle criticism from others very well.

(12)I am self-conscious and lack confidence.

(13)I tend to feel guilty about certain impulses, thoughts, and actions.

(14)I feel comfortable accepting help from others.

(15)I take unnecessary risks that most people won’t take.

(16)I have no problem confronting people who mistreat me.

 

Score A: Add your scores for items 1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 10, 14, and 16

Score B: Add your scores for items 3, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, and 15

Subtract Score B from Score A. Evaluate your final score using the scale below.

 

Minus 24                     Minus 8                                   Plus 8                          Plus 24

Extremely poor           Moderately poor                     Moderately good        Extremely high

coping skills               coping skills                           coping skills               coping skills

 

We should note that scores at or very near either extreme of minus or plus 24 probably represent an unrealistic self-assessment. At the plus end you may have a strong need to present yourself in a socially-desirable way, or you may be a narcissist. An extremely high negative score could indicate difficulties with helplessness or depression, or reflect a strong cynicism about life.

Some people find it useful to take the test twice, first answering the questions as your “real self,” who you are, and then answering the questions as your “ideal self,” who you would like to be. Some moderate discrepancy (such as +10 for real and +17 for ideal) between the two scores would be expected, and would give you an indication of coping areas you might want to improve. If, however, the discrepancy is large (such as -12 for real and +15 for ideal), well, you have some serious coping work to do! If the discrepancy is minuscule at the high end (such as +22 for real and +24 for ideal), you might be unrealistic and pretty full of yourself!

If you’re particularly adventurous, you might want to have a friend, family member, or whomever, fill out the form giving their assessment of you. Then you can compare their evaluation of you with your self-evaluation. The danger here, of course, is that you could damage the good relationship you have with the other person!

 

 

DOGS AND COPING

“Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies.” I don’t know who uttered that cynical phrase, but it certainly seems to fly in the face of positive aspects of owning a dog (I won’t venture into the aspects of managing teenagers!). When a dog is young and rambunctious, every morning when you leave for the day, you might have to lock it in a crate that the CIA would consider an excellent torture chamber. Eight hours later you return and there is your loyal companion, lunging at the bars separating the two of you, anxious for you to unlock the door so it can leap into your arms, loving and forgiving and in no way blaming you for the imprisonment agony you have inflicted. Talk about unconditional love!

You may have read anecdotal stories about the wonderful effect dogs can have on owners. In fact, you may even be familiar with programs that send a pooch to a local nursing home on a regular basis because its presence, even if only for a couple of hours, seems to have such a positive effect on the mood of the residents. Many of these anecdotal reports have been verified in correlational research on owning pets in general, not just dogs. Elderly folks who have pets, for instance, appear to make fewer physician visits; pet owners show better survival rates following heart attacks; and the presence of pets lowers blood pressure and other measures of cardiac stress. Many hospitals have “comfort dogs” on duty, and patients are often eager to schedule time with and enjoy the beneficial effects of the dog while recovering.

These findings are interesting and seem to establish a link between pet contact and good health. A link, however, does not establish causation. With this limitation in mind, Karen Allen and her colleagues at the State University of New York at Buffalo conducted a study that helps establish that having pets causes health benefits, and not simply that healthier people are more likely to take on the responsibility of pet ownership.

Allen and her colleagues chose as subjects stockbrokers with high blood pressure (at least 160/100 as measured by their physicians) who were willing to adopt a pet. From this group, they randomly selected half of them to adopt a dog or cat for the duration of the study. The other half did not do the adoption. The results showed that for those who adopted, there was a clear positive effect when the brokers reported they were under considerable stress: their blood pressure increase was less than half that of the brokers who had no pet. Notice that pressure increased under stress for all the subjects, but the increase was significantly smaller for the pet owners.

Pets can be great but how do they stack up against friends? You can’t call the pet on the phone when you need someone to talk to; the pet can’t offer you advice on which course of action to take; pets can’t encourage you to keep going when the odds seem against you. Indeed, those needs are usually fulfilled by friends.

For this experiment, Allen chose women as subjects. During the actual procedure, Allen measured the women’s blood pressure while they performed difficult mental calculations. Each woman was randomly assigned to one of three conditions: alone; in the presence of a female friend; or in the presence of their dog. Compared to blood pressure in the alone condition, when friends were present the women had higher blood pressure when doing the task; when the dog was present, however, there was no such increase.

In a follow-up study, Allen used the same procedure, but this time they pitted the dog against a spouse-present condition. In the study, when men and women worked on math problems in the presence of their spouse, blood pressure went from 120/80 to 155/100. However, when they worked in the presence of their pet, the math task took blood pressure to an average of only 125/83.

The math studies are interesting and lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. One simple explanation is that the subjects felt a lot of pressure when doing the math problems, and maybe they didn’t want a friend or their spouse to get the impression that they were struggling, unable to do some of the problems, and thinking, “Wow, [he’s/she’s] really pretty bad at this task.” The dog? He’s licking their leg saying, “You’re wondering whether to give me the chicken or beef dinner tonight, right?” The situation is probably like trying to make a basketball shot in the presence of your friend, spouse, or your dog. Miss the shot and those humans will know you’re lousy (even though they’ll give you the old “good try” comment). The dog? He’ll run after the ball yelling “Throw it to me again! This is fun!”

Are we saying that the key to good physical and psychological health is to run out and get a dog or cat? Absolutely not. Remember, when it comes to effective coping, one size rarely fits all. But if having a pet fits your lifestyle, and if you’re willing to invest your time and effort toward its welfare, the benefits may well be worth your time. Only you can decide.

 

WRITING AS A COPING TOOL

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the US, diligently kept a daily diary. He began in 1779 when he was 12, and made his final entry three days before his death in 1848. This remarkable enterprise, a gold mine for historians and biographers, was also an activity that brought Adams a lot of personal satisfaction. In the diary, he not only recorded daily events and adventures, but also reflections and analyses about his emotions, needs, frustrations, and insights.

Perhaps you keep a diary, or maybe you know someone who does. Usually, we don’t think much about diaries because they typically involve just reporting on a day’s activities and events. We bet, however, there have been times when you felt hurt or angry, sat down and wrote about it, and almost miraculously felt better about things, if not immediately at least within a day or two.

As with Quincy Adams, diaries are often much more than a simple recording of events of the day. That is, the writing often lays out how you feel as the result of some event. Examples might include the breakup of a relationship, death of a loved one, being in an accident, being a victim of crime, etc. There is interesting research showing that this more analytical personal writing can have positive effects by giving the writer a feeling of dealing better with the challenges of stress. Writing about personal crises seems to allow the writer to feel psychologically stronger and more empowered.

What’s going on here? Does putting your thoughts on paper function like some sort of energy release of negative thoughts and feelings, “getting it off your chest,” and cleansing yourself of negative emotions? Most psychologists think probably not. In fact, researchers in this area stress writing as a process that allows you to restructure your thinking about troublesome issues. That is, as you write about your reaction to events and evaluate how you feel, you’re actually dealing with your emotions at some intellectual and cognitive level, and allowing yourself to see things in a new perspective while thinking them through. Sounds like some sort of self-therapy, doesn’t it?

As an example, consider this entry in John Quincy Adams’ diary, related by biographer Fred Kaplan. Adams and his wife, Louisa, had just lost their infant daughter, who succumbed to dysentery after only 11 months of life. Adams noted the “keen and severe” pain they suffered upon her death. “She was precisely at the age when every gesture was a charm, every look delight; every imperfect but improving accent, at once rapture and promise. To all this we have been called to bid adieu, stung by the memory of what we already enjoyed.” Yes, these are the heavy words of sorrow, but they also convey gratitude for the beautiful time they enjoyed with this child. Adams’ words clearly show him taking the first tentative steps toward dealing with grief and taking something positive from their daughter’s brief life.

A bonus positive consequence from diary writing is that the subject matter does not have to be about things bothering you. In fact, research shows that when people write “to themselves” about a committed relationship they’re in, and describe their deepest thoughts and feelings concerning this relationship, their subsequent email communication with their partner contains more positive expressive phrases. These words tend to elicit similar positive replies. The lesson here is that putting positive thoughts and feelings about a relationship down on paper can actually improve communication with your partner.

These findings are pretty impressive. Write down how you feel about emotional issues in your life, how you deal with them, and how you react to them. Doing so can potentially bring you psychological benefits, and can even enhance communication in your interpersonal relationships. How’s that for effective coping!

If you’re in a committed relationship, now might be a good time to take a break and email or text your significant other. Share some positive emotions and what they mean to you. And at the end of each day, try and take a little time for yourself; reflect on your day and the emotions you experienced. What do those reactions tell you about yourself? Use your reflections to allow yourself to engage in some self-awareness and assessment about where you are with respect to meeting challenges in your life.