Build Yourself a Happiness Kit

The Declaration of Independence asserts that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right.  In spite of this as well as the mounting data from the fields of Applied Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, and Medicine extoling its benefits, few of us consciously and intentionally commit to our own happiness.  Sure, we love it when it happens; but for the most part I think we tend to be at its effect instead of the other way around.  Let’s start by distinguishing what happiness is not.  It is not a flat, homogeneous emotional state.  Happiness is not pleasure or comfort, though neither is necessarily antithetical to it.  The pursuit of happiness is not hedonism.  It is fuller, richer, and deeper than that.  In fact, happiness often requires that we stretch, that we lean into pain and discomfort in service of a goal.  Happiness enables perspective.  Indeed, when I am happy I sense that even though there are a lot of things wrong in the world, at some level it and my place in it all make sense.

Happiness is both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable.  Though the benefits that are born of happiness are too many to list, here are a few: happiness fuels the will to live, creativity, inspiration, generosity, ingenuity, and general wellbeing.  Happy people can see more opportunity, are healthier, and more productive.  Given all this, it is surprising that more people don’t truly commit to their own happiness—sometimes myself included. Perhaps we equate happiness with selfishness.  And no one wants to be thought of as selfish (which is an interesting topic in and of itself).  Perhaps we believe happiness is beyond our control.  Whatever the reason, it is clearly worth having a look.

I don’t advocate that we should always be happy or that it is wrong not to be.  Experiencing the full range of human emotion (both those considered positive and those considered negative) enriches, inspires, motivates, and makes genuine empathy possible.  What I do advocate is that we own and take responsibility for all of ourselves (including and especially all of our emotions) and that we exercise our freedom to choose our emotional states.

So what can we do to choose happiness for ourselves?  With all its benefits, choosing happiness should be among the most worthy of endeavors.  How do we create happiness when our current circumstances make it feel difficult (or maybe even a little crazy) to choose?

How about putting together a Happiness Kit?  Is there a piece of music that reliably lifts your spirits when you hear it?  Put that in your kit.  Is there a photograph that warms your heart?  Is there a scent that brings you delight?  What about that video that you received in email that had you laughing out loud?  That letter or card someone sent you?  Your list of wins?  That friend whose presence is like a balm to your heart?  That favorite walk you take?   You get the picture.

Just as we are often least likely to take vitamins when we need them, we are often less inclined to engage in happy-making activities when feeling low.  To address the vitamin situation we might do something like laying them out ahead of time or dispensing them using a special container that makes taking them easier.  To address the absence of happy-making activities, we can create a Happiness Kit.  Below are the steps to putting together your custom Happiness Kit. Do these when you are not experiencing a happiness deficit.

1)    Make a list of all the things that you know make you happy.  Incorporate as many senses as you can.

2)    Gather and co-locate physical and digital objects, making sure that they are noted on your list.

3)    Now make it a practice to notice more things that make you happy and add them to the list and/or appropriate location (in step 2).  Notice the times when you seem to be happy for no reason and open yourself up to what it could be that has you feeling that way.

4)    Start working out your happy-making muscles.  When you are in a neutral emotional space, reach into your Happiness Kit and see how quickly you can change your emotional state to one of happiness.

What’s belongs in your Happiness Kit?

The Treasure Hunt That Is You

Have you ever found yourself paralyzed by indecision, lack of clarity, and/or overwhelm?  Do you feel that you have to have a perfectly defined and detailed goal with a well-defined path before you can make progress?  You’re certainly not alone.  I’ve been there too; best case, it’s draining.  In chronic cases this paralysis can even turn in on itself, imploding into angst and depression.  What a waste of life energy — all in the name of the “noble” quest of getting it right!  Or is it more the fear of getting it wrong? 

Having had my fill of wrestling with this, I decided to try something different; and that something has made all the difference.  I discovered that letting go of the need for certainty and allowing myself to hear, heed, and trust the sometimes hazy, but always steadfast calling of my heart makes it possible to take steps in the general direction.   Some steps gradually reveal useful information; others unearth major epiphanies.   In any case, with each step it becomes more evident that this process has a trial and error flavor and is akin to conducting a series of experiments, the conclusions of which point to the next step or steps to take.   Moving forward at the behest of intuition and reaching deep within for courage and faith, it becomes abundantly clear that this journey is less like a trip with itineraries and predetermined destinations than it is a treasure hunt. A treasure hunt that can access the unknown and serve up gifts that far surpass anything heretofore desired, imagined, or dreamed.

So check in with yourself.  Is there something calling you that you are squelching out of fear?  These calls are not impulses; they are patient and persistent.  Though they can be ignored, they don’t go away.  You can tell the difference when you really listen.  Treasure hunts are fun!  So what are you waiting for?

From Strengths To Super Powers

Most of us are hyper-focused on our weaknesses.  Why? I think it’s a combination of things.  We’re hardwired to give far more weight to sticks than to carrots.  All else equal, protecting ourselves against loss (pain) is naturally more motivating than the promise of potential gain (pleasure).  This served us well as a species at a time when wild animals, etc. threatened us on a regular basis – but not so much these days.  Media messages take advantage of and contribute to this negativity bias.  They tend to boil down to something like:  “You’re not okay as you are.  Buy our product and you will be.”

Throughout life we receive feedback.  But even if the overwhelming majority of that feedback is positive, we tend to ruminate over that one piece of feedback that is negative.  Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism and striving to improve.  But magnifying, distorting, and obsessing over shortcomings isn’t particularly helpful.  In spite of that fact, doing so tends to be our default as we perpetuate the struggle against our weaknesses, expending a lot of energy and not necessarily making much progress.

Fortunately, we can consciously mitigate our propensity for negativity and weakness obsession by identifying, honing, and leveraging our strengths.  Data incontrovertibly show that using our strengths is part of the key to both happiness and contribution.  Some of our strengths are obvious, but for many of us identifying our greatest ones are not.  Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that we take them for granted; we are too close to see them.  We see a number of the results of our strengths in action and can try to extrapolate what they are from there.  But these extrapolations often reveal peripheral strengths instead of distilling our essential, fundamental ones – again, probably because we are just too close to them.  Since our greatest strengths tend to come relatively easily, we assume that everyone possesses them and we fail to distinguish them as such.  By distinguishing, acknowledging, and owning them we are empowered to choose, empowered to develop them into super powers.
This is where good, research-based assessment tools – like Strengths Finders –come into play.  Again, the first step in transforming strengths into super powers is identifying them using such a tool and then embracing and growing them through practice and challenge.   Using my Strengths Finder results has made and continues to make a huge difference for me.  It guides my choices, showing me where my energies would be best spent, where I can make my highest contributions and experience the fullness of the satisfaction that flows from that.  I encourage you to explore this for yourselves.

Align Your Life

Is your life aligned with what you say you value?  What do you value?  What are your priorities? Are you allocating your resources in a way that reflects what you say you value?  In other words, if a reporter looked at how you spent your time and energy, what would he or she conclude about what you value?
As a person who is committed to living in alignment with my values, I ask these questions of myself.  Here’s what I came up with for my values:
1.       Health.
This is so foundational to everything else.  And yet it is what I take most for granted and think I can get away with short changing.  Without my health I am no good to anyone – neither to others or to myself.  Au contraire, I actually am a drain.  This is not to say that getting sick is something to be ashamed of.   It can help us empathize with others and show compassion when they get sick.  Getting sick can also give others an opportunity to practice their empathy and compassion as well.  But these “benefits” are really silver linings of situations over which we and others have no control.  Since my health is essential to my life and a pre-requisite for my other values,  I need to make sleep, nutrition, and movement high priorities.
2.       Earning a living by making a valuable contribution.
I value my economic independence and meeting my financial obligations; and it is important that I make a valuable contribution that is at least commensurate with compensation I receive.
3.       Connection.
1. Husband
2. Dogs (I really don’t value dogs more than people –well, most people anyway.  But    I’m the guardian of Stella and Clarice and take this responsibility seriously.  Besides, they’re good for my health!)
3. Other family
4. Friends and colleagues
I needed to make some adjustments in this area, since I wasn’t giving enough time to my husband or to my parents.  So I penciled in quality time for my husband into my calendar.  Then I put in a recurring weekly phone call to my parents, a quarterly lunch with my sister, and a quarterly attempt to connect with my brother.  I decided to make sure I saw my parents in person at least every two months.  I then made the following lists for my friends that I don’t see at work: Monthly, Bi-Monthly, Quarterly, Semi-annually, and Annually.  A friend on my Monthly list isn’t necessarily more important to me than one on my Quarterly or other list.  Geography and their availability also play roles.  The question is how often is required to feed a healthy connection with each one.  There are a variety of factors that determine this.
Categorizing friends this way may seem a bit odd.  However, it’s my way of ensuring that no one with whom I want to say connected falls through the cracks.  So far, so good.
4.       Self-Actualization (this is almost on par with Connection, which in fact helps me actualize).
Once survival needs are met, this is quintessential to being human.  To quote Abraham Maslow: “What one can be, one must be.”
I encourage everyone to have a look at their own lives and see if they are allocating their resources in alignment with their values.

Creating and Conducting Purpose-Driven Meetings

Although I have also attended a number of worthwhile ones, my frequent experience of meetings is that they are disjointed, unfocused, and fragmented; and have questionable value.  During these meetings I often ask myself things like: “Haven’t we had this discussion many times before? ”  “Didn’t we already decide on what to do? ”   I feel like we keep starting over.  And starting over (or feeling like we’re starting over) takes energy – a lot of energy.  We’re talking major inertia – think Newton’s First Law of Motion here.  I think it’s common for a lot of us to feel like just getting started can be the hardest part of an endeavor.  Granted, starting over has its place; but as a modus operandi it is draining and sometimes demoralizing.  Plus we don’t get to reap the benefits of traction, momentum, and the feeling of being on a roll when we’re constantly starting over.  It’s almost like a strange version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”  Informal polling of my colleagues confirms that I am not alone in these feelings and opinions.
I contend that we spend too much time attending and not enough time preparing for meetings, too much time trying to figure out agenda items for recurring meetings (kind of a tail-wagging-the-dog phenomenon) and not enough time leveraging any value that we garner from them afterwards.  How can we hope to take the time to prepare and leverage when our calendars are stuffed with back-to-back meetings?  I’ve gone so far as to ask for a weekly full- or half-day meeting moratorium.  Everyone I mentioned this idea to – managers and individual contributors alike – thought it was a good idea; they also thought it wouldn’t likely fly.  I’ve since decided to drop this idea for the time being in favor of a new strategy: lower the supply of meetings by lowering the demand; lower the demand by making the meetings we do have more effective; and fuel a series of meetings with momentum and continuity by implementing the few practices I recommend below.
The practices I recommend:
1.       All meetings should have explicit objectives.
Objectives should be articulated such that we should be able to determine whether those objectives were met.  Now some objectives can be things like: To get attendees’ feedback about something, or to foster esprit de corps within a team.  The idea here is to be intentional about the purpose or purposes of a meeting.
2.       Meetings should have a facilitator to keep things on track and to capture parking lot items so they are not dismissed or lost.
There can be more than facilitator for a meeting, though not more than one simultaneously.  I can well imagine a meeting having different sections with different facilitators.  What is critical is that someone be empowered to keep things on track.
3.       Time should be allocated at the end of each meeting to identify next action steps and the person(s) responsible for carrying out each of the steps.
4.       In the spirit of Lean and Kaizen attendees should have a systematic way to rate meetings.
5.       Someone should write up a summary of the meeting that is sent to attendees for verification and modification.   The final draft of the summary should be published to a location that conforms to the standards of the group.
Let’s take the time, institute and consistently adhere to these practices.  Let’s commit to getting the biggest bang for our meeting buck!

Requests and Demands

The difference between a request and a demand is not a trivial one. When a person makes a request it is okay with the person making the request for the response to the request to be “No.” In contrast, when a person makes a demand a “No” response is not okay with the demander.  This distinction is useful because it fosters self-awareness (an essential element of Emotional Intelligence) and affords opportunities to improve the effectiveness and spirit of communication.   One can use this distinction to intentionally notice when it is being blurred.  We can clean up our communication by wholly owning and clearly articulating our requests and demands as such; and we can request clarification when the distinction seems to be blurred by others.
There are a variety of ways blurring this distinction wreaks havoc with our lives.  I’ve listed a few below.
  1. A request can be interpreted as a demand when it is in reality a genuine request
  2. A demand can masquerade as a request and be interpreted as a request.
  3. Both requests and demands can go unspoken.
As a recovering people pleaser, I have definitely interpreted requests as demands, sometimes spinning destructive narratives of resentment or righteous indignation based on those misinterpretations. Now armed with an awareness of the request/demand distinction, I can choose to say “No,” or candidly say that the request felt like a demand and ask for confirmation or clarification.  However clarified or confirmed, asking would disarm the time and energy consumed and wasted by my rumination.
People rarely clearly make demands.  They rarely say something to the tune of “I demand that you …(fill in the blank).”  Since often demands do insidiously masquerade as requests, it is easy to overgeneralize and interpret all requests as demands.  If you’ve been around people who habitually ‘hide’ demands in requests, you don’t have to be a people pleaser to feel that you can’t say “No.”  Again, it is useful to get clarification, especially since the person making the demand in the guise of a request may not be aware they are doing it.  So ask and help all involved take responsibility for their communication by modeling it.
Finally, there are the unspoken requests and demands.  Do you ever experience someone’s unspoken request or demand?  I find that it is pretty common for people to complain about not getting things they never asked for or demanded.  Often people have expectations of one another that are based on nothing tangible, no meeting of minds or agreement.  When asked about it they tend to say things like “I shouldn’t have to ask.  He should know I need that.   She should know what I want to hear.”  One of the problems of unspoken requests and demands is that nobody really wins.  There’s just confusion and opportunity for hedging and passive aggressiveness, neither of which yields win-win interactions.
In closing I encourage you (I’m talking to myself here too.) to use your words.  Clearly make your requests and demands by calling them out.  Don’t assume that others somehow know without your saying something.  If you’re not clear whether a request or demand is being made of you, ask for clarification.
Awareness empowers. Responsibility liberates.

Love Your Job!

Reading Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People back in the early nineties continues to have a profound impact on me and the way I look at things.  As different situations, especially challenging ones, present themselves I often think of a new way to apply some of the book’s principles and examples.
In The 7 Habits Covey recounts an interaction between him and a married couple at one of his seminars where the asks for his advice.  The interaction goes something like this .
Couple:  “We no longer feel love for each other.  What should we do?”
Covey:  “Love each other.”
Couple:  “You don’t understand.  We no longer feel love.”
Covey:   “Yes.  I understand.  My advice stands.  Love each other. “Love” is a verb.  Do and say those things that people who love one another do and say.”
This is wise counsel.  Emotion and state can and do follow action.  This counsel and observation can be applied to other areas of our lives too.  I wonder how many people used to love their jobs, but now view them as drudgery; they’ve “lost that loving feeling.” If this is you, I encourage you to ask yourself how your behavior would change if you did have that feeling.  Use your imagination.   If you were an impartial observer watching you on the job, what kind of things would you need to observe to come to the conclusion:  Wow! This person really loves what they do!  I challenge you to ask yourself this and then to start behaving in a way that would compellingly convince an observer of this.  This doesn’t mean that you passively and completely accept things just as they are or that you think that everything is perfect.  You can strive for growth, advocate for change, and still love; just as you can in a relationship with a person whom you love.  Your feelings will change when your actions do.  After all, “love” is a verb.
Finally, consider the words of another great teacher of our time, the late Wayne Dyer:  If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Perspectives of a Philosopher/Coach: Introduction

Happy New Year!  Welcome to the launch of my bi-weekly blog: Perspectives of a Philosopher/Coach
In this blog I share some of the fruits of my exploration in
◦Wellbeing and Happiness;
◦Full Engagement, Productivity, and Peak Performance;
◦Motivation, Goals, and Self-Actualization;
◦Culture; as well as
◦How these are all integrally connected.
Pretty compelling topics, right?  The basis for my writings includes my rigorous training and experience as a Life Coach; formal education in philosophy; decades of study and avid reading of topics from the fields of Applied Positive Psychology, Personal Development, Neuroscience, and Organizational Development; and my continuing voracious consumption of information from these disciplines.  My focus will be on how to apply what I’ve gleaned to every aspect of our lives, with particular emphasis on our professional lives.  I am committed to imparting my perspectives to readers in a way that delivers value, inspiration, food for thought, and insight.
  • You are invited to Follow Me.  Stay tuned!