What do you want to do?

Don't do it because you have to; do it because you want to. And if you don't want to, don't do it.

I've met a lot of people who think that sounds like dangerous and irresponsible advice. If people actually followed it, they think, it would lead to mass laziness, ignorance, and social breakdown.

I disagree. 

I don't think people want to be lazy or ignorant. Nor do they want to sit idly by while their society breaks down. Those things don't actually feel good! 

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to know what our real desires are. What we want is mixed in with things we think we should want, that other people want, and that we've wanted in the past but don't actually serve us any more. Not to mention, powerful memories of those times when we did what we wanted and got punished, teased or rejected for it.

It's often a lot easier to just do what we're "supposed" to do and avoid asking what we want altogether.

That said, I find for myself that when I do take the time to sift through all the noise in my head, I am heartened by what I discover. What I really want to do isn't just good for me, but tends to be good for other people too.

I want to tell the truth with kindness and listen with humility. I want to take good care of my body and my environment. I want to follow through on my commitments. These things aren't always easy or comfortable, but they are aligned with my deepest values, and when I act on them, good things happen.

Following the "do what you want" advice is only a problem when I don't sit with the question long enough to find an action that would really feel good, and instead act on the first idea that pops into my head (e.g., yell at the person I'm mad at, eat yet another slice of cake, renege on a challenging commitment, etc.). In those cases I'm not actually doing what I want to do, but rather running on auto-pilot. It's not a problem of bad advice, but bad execution.

What do you think? Do you have a good sense of what you want to do? What would happen if you did those things more consistently?

What's your word for the year?

My word for 2017 was trust.

I'm not sure exactly when I realized it -- it was well after January 1st -- but once I did, it kept showing up for me again and again. No matter what I needed guidance on, the answer involved trust: trusting myself, trusting other people, trusting the process, trusting Life. It served me well, and helped me do things that were new and exciting and scary.

In the past couple of weeks, my word for 2018 has emerged: teamwork.

It started in the context of my family, where I realized a sense of teamwork was sorely lacking, and that there was a lot I could do to change that. But I'm craving more teamwork in my Gift of Happiness activities, too. As much fun as it's been to develop my own ideas and offerings, there is only so much that one person can do alone.

In 2018, I want to find more people with their own ideas for how to inspire joy and connection in the world, and who are eager to co-create and collaborate. Maybe you know people like that. Maybe you are one of those people. If so, I look forward to talking with you more, and hope you will reach out.

I also hope that you will tell me your word for 2018.

What are you craving? What are you ready for? What would you like to guide your year? It is always good to hear from you. You can comment below, or join the (free) Gift of Happiness Facebook group and post there.

Is all diversity equally wonderful?

I recently read this interview with Ali Rizvi in The Sun magazine about his experience as an atheist Muslim trying to reform Islam so that (among other things) he does not have to risk his life to maintain his beliefs.

One thing that powerfully stood out to me was the theme of Muslim reformers like Rizvi being accused by Western liberals of being "Islamophobic" -- prejudiced against Muslims -- when they speak out against Islamic violence and fundamentalism.

This got me thinking about the whole social movement to honor and celebrate diversity, religious and otherwise, that I consider myself part of.

It's an interesting side effect of our desire to honor diversity that we can, without thinking, assume that diversity is more important than other human values, like respect and freedom.

Diversity is important to me because it leads me to new knowledge and insights, helps me make better decisions, and allows me to do things that I couldn't do on my own. But the article was a reminder to me that promoting diversity for diversity's sake is stupid.

Honestly, some kinds of diversity I like more than others, and I think it's important to be able to say so, as well as for my left-leaning, diversity-valuing mind to admit it.

(Just one of many possible examples: Donald Trump is bringing a certain kind of "diversity" into the slate of U.S. Presidents, but there are a lot of other unique qualities I would prefer.)

My liking or disliking different kinds of diversity doesn't threaten diversity itself -- diversity simply IS, regardless -- but being clear about my preferences is very important for guiding my life and choices.

If am going to bring a certain diversity to this world no matter what (which some people will like and some people won't), I might as well embody the particular kind of diversity that feels best to me. Not only will it make me happier, but it's the best way I know to contribute to the greater good.

I hope you will choose do the same.

The Shopping Mall Challenge

Everyone knows that going to the mall after Christmas is a recipe for pain and frustration, right?

Wrong!

Or at least, it doesn’t have to be. Instead of going to the mall this week to get something, I challenge you to go with the intention to give.

INSTRUCTIONS: Go to a mall, set a timer, and see how many of these activities you can complete in an hour:

  1. Enter a store (or section of a store) you’ve never been in before, and notice something you like about it.
  2. Give someone an authentic compliment.
  3. Give an authentic smile to someone you don’t know (and didn’t smile at you first).
  4. Put some quarters in an envelope that says, “If you’re reading this, this is for you” and tape it to a gumball machine or kiddie ride or massage chair.
  5. Let someone else go ahead of you.
  6. Thank a clerk for working today.
  7. Put back a mis-shelved or fallen item.
  8. Pick up litter and put it in a trash can.
  9. Offer a small gift, like a balloon or sticker, to a child (get permission from their parent first)
  10. Leave a note on someone’s car with the intent of making them feel good.
  11. BONUS: If you see other opportunities to offer kindness, by all means, do them!

I highly recommend inviting a friend of family member along, as you can be a source of courage and encouragement for each other.

If you don’t have a mall nearby, a grocery store or big box store would work perfectly well too.

When you are done, I would love to hear what it was like. How many items did you check off the list in an hour? What was the easiest? What was the hardest? Post your comments below, or send me an email.

Is suffering necessary?

A friend recently pointed out to me that I was creating a lot of unnecessary drama for myself in certain parts of my life. Like being upset about things I have no control over, and using the upset as a reason to put off taking action to make the situation better.

“I actually kind of like the drama,” I told her at the time. There is something exhilarating about having a problem, experiencing intensity and struggle, and then working through it until there’s a breakthrough: some kind of insight that gives me both relief and clarity about what to do next. The breakthrough feels like an accomplishment, and it gives my life a sense of richness and growth.

When I think about it, though, my breakthroughs pretty much always come down to the same things: Remember what’s important to me. Share the gifts that I have to offer. Receive the gifts that are being offered to me. Is a dramatic struggle required? Maybe not.

I don’t need to have a fight with my husband in order to commit to listening better and contributing more. I don’t need to feel ashamed about a failed event before getting the help necessary to create a successful one. I don’t need to get offended about someone else’s bad behavior in order to act in ways that I feel proud of.

What complicates things is that breakthroughs often do come after periods of pain and struggle, and it’s easy to assume that the struggle is necessary. But suffering itself doesn’t create breakthroughs. The breakthrough happens when we decide we no longer want to suffer, and are willing to do something about it.

What if I simply decided I don’t want to suffer in the first place? What if I stayed focused on what’s important to me, and just kept moving toward it? Would my life be boring? Would I lose the ability to connect and relate to people? Would I stop learning and growing? I don’t think so. But I do think I’d get more done, and have a lot more fun in the process.

Rethinking "helpless"

A friend of mine has been going through a scary time, preparing for a medical procedure.

I know the "right thing to do" is to call her. To reach out. To be present. To listen. To let her know I love her. This is what I would advise anyone else to do.

And yet earlier this week I found myself resisting those things, because I didn't feel confident in my ability to help. I have had very few medical problems of my own, and really don't know what a person in her situation needs or wants. I don't have any special wisdom or healing technique to offer. I was afraid I'd call her up and feel awkward and not know what to do.

Yeah, best to avoid that discomfort, a voice inside me said. Leave the reaching out to other people who can do a better job than you. There is absolutely nothing you can do to help. You shouldn't even try. 

But helplessness is a great big lie.

Just because some circumstances are out of my control -- i.e., my friend is sick, and I can't heal her -- doesn't mean that everything is out of my control.

Just because I can't help in ways I wish I could help, or think I should be able to help, doesn't mean I am helpless. 

What if I interpreted my feelings of helplessness not as proof that there's nothing I can do, but as a signal that I don't yet know what there is to do?

What if, instead of shutting me down, helplessness prompted me to open up and get curious: Given the limitations that exist, what could I do to be helpful? What would feel good to do? Who or what could help me figure it out?

The truth is, there is always something we can do to help, and when we truly want to know what it is, it doesn't take long to find it.

I did end up calling my friend this week, just like I knew I should. But I didn't do it until after I'd shifted from helpless passivity into a place of hope and empowerment. I was ready to offer her love not because it was the "right thing to do," but because it felt like the best way I could help. I believe that shift made all the difference.

To "be the change," ask for help

I really love the quote from Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

To me, this is the ultimate statement of empowerment. Don't wait for someone else to solve the problem for you, or expect other people to do things that you yourself aren't willing to do. Be a leader. Go first. You have everything you need.

Gandhi may have been talking about large-scale social change, but the same principles apply in personal relationships, too:

  • If you want your partner to appreciate you, start noticing what you appreciate about them. 
  • If you want your kids to honor your needs, start getting curious about theirs.
  • If you want your superiors to respect your ideas, make sure you respect them. 
  • If you want people in general to share the best of themselves, then generously offer them the best of you.

When you go first, it makes it easy for other people to reciprocate.

Of course it's hard to conjure up authentic warm feelings when we are feeling unappreciated, ignored, and disrespected ourselves. Which is why, in these situations, it is important to ask for help. Ask a friend, or a counselor, or God, or wherever else you tend to go when you need wise answers and a good sounding board.

How you define the problem is important. If you see the other person's behavior as the problem to solve, you might ask questions like this:

  • "How can I get them to ____?"
  • "How can I help them understand ____?"
  • "Why don't they ___?"

The thinking there is, if they would just change their behavior, then you could start feeling and acting differently toward them. But getting people to change is practically impossible. No one wants to be manipulated or told what to do -- especially if they are also feeling unappreciated, ignored and disrespected by you.

Instead, I suggest seeing the problem as you, and your current inability to treat people the way you want to be treated. This leads to different kinds of questions:

  • "What do I need right now, and how can I get those needs met?"
  • "What might I not understand about this person or situation, that could help me shift my perspective?"
  • "What could I do that would feel like a step in the right direction?"

Questions like that are great because the answers are actionable, and don't require any cooperation from the other person for your situation to start improving. Usually cooperation happens eventually, though. Be the change, and change will happen.

That's been my experience, at least. Does it ring true for you, too? If not, what's missing? I would love to hear, as always.

From self-pity to empowerment

I recently found myself caught in a rut of self-pity, resentment, and frustration. I needed help and I wasn't getting it. I wasn't even asking for much, but no one came through for me the way I wanted them to. 

People are stingy! I started thinking. Don't they get how much of a difference they could make? How dare they sit back and do nothing, assuming that someone else will be the one to step forward?

Have you ever noticed that when you get angry at other people, the words you start using to criticize them could just as easily describe you?

After ranting to myself a while, that's exactly what I realized: It's not "other people" I'm mad at for being stingy with me. I'm mad at myself for being stingy with other people.

I see requests for food and clothing donations, and pretend not to see them. I tell myself things like, "That's just not my thing. I contribute in other ways."

I see people's invitations to events, or opportunities to volunteer my time for a good cause, and immediately look for excuses not to go. I tell myself, "I'm just too busy. I have more important things to do."

I see opportunities all around me to contribute to people: to write them a testimonial, help promote their event, to support their fundraising effort, or even simply to "like" their Facebook page. And yet so often I don't do it. I tell myself, "I'll let someone else do that. I'm sure they'll be fine without me." 

Over and over, I choose not to give, and then tell myself it doesn't matter. They don't matter. I don't matter.

It's a tricky situation, because of course, if I automatically said yes to every opportunity to give and serve, I would quickly become overwhelmed.

But automatically saying no has its own repercussions, too. It makes me feel small and selfish. It reinforces my fears of not having, doing, or being enough. And it makes me feel like I live in a world where people don't support each other -- which I know because *I* don't support them! 

What's interesting is that when I look back over the past several weeks more objectively, I see that I've actually been offered a ton of love, encouragement and opportunities. I was just so focused on what was missing that I barely even noticed. 

It can be hard to reach out to other people when I'm feeling empty, but I don't want to love people only when it's easy. I want to practice loving them when it's hard, too. I want to be proud of the way I treat people, not just when I feel like it, but every single day. It is one of the best self-help techniques I know.

To help me get back into this practice, I'm committing to doing -- and sharing -- one small thing that I feel good about every day throughout the month of December. Would you like to participate too? If so, come join me in the Gift of Happiness Facebook group, where all of the sharing will be happening. I hope to see you there!

When NOT to send a thank you card

As a general rule, I'm a big fan of gratitude. Not just making lists of things I'm grateful for, but sharing that gratitude with others, and letting people know when something they've done has made a positive difference for me.

There is tons of research on how gratitude enhances our happiness and well-being, but I also want to offer a caveat: It is important not to fake it. If you do, it will backfire.

Or at least that's been my experience.

There have been many times in my life when people have done wonderful, amazing things for me, and honestly, I didn't feel grateful. Instead, I felt resentful.

I was resentful to be in a situation where I needed help in the first place. Resentful that other people could do things that I couldn't. Resentful that what I had to offer in return felt so inadequate. Resentful that my problems didn't go away, even after receiving help. And resentful that I felt so resentful!

But at the time, I couldn't even acknowledge the resentment, because my mind was telling me I should feel grateful. It created a huge bind.

At times like those, I would argue that gratitude is not the most helpful thing to express. Instead, if you want to reach out, find people who are struggling and send cards to them. 

You don't have to fake anything with people going through hard times. You don't even have to know them. Even if you've never met, you already understand something about their experience. Just put in writing some words that you might like to hear, and trust that they will be perfect.

Not sure where to find people in need of love? Take a few minutes to scroll your favorite social media feed. Despite the conventional wisdom that people only publicly share the shiny happy parts of their lives, I haven't found that to be true at all. People share about loss and illness and disappointment, too. And when they do, you can send them real cards.

Or if it would be easier to send a card to someone you don't know personally, check out the website for The World Needs More Love Letters. This organization collects stories of individuals around the world who could use some extra love, and invites strangers to write to them. On the list right now are a housebound centenarian, a sophomore in college, and people of all ages struggling with their mental health. You could also nominate someone to receive their own bundle of love letters.

You might not know what impact your words will have on the other person, but it almost doesn't matter. Reaching out to someone with love when you've been feeling like the needy one is a powerful and important statement, in and of itself. And it can be the thing that helps you turn the corner and head back toward the light.

Then, once you've started experiencing that light again and actually feel grateful, go ahead and send thank you cards to anyone and everyone you can think of! No matter how much time has passed, the people who love you will be overjoyed to celebrate with you. 

Your comments and stories are welcome as always. I look forward to hearing your perspective.

My newest obsession: Human libraries

On my very first day offering free listening this spring, someone told me about a library he'd heard about, where instead of checking out books, you could check out people. People with unique life experiences who are willing to talk about what it's like to be them.

Then last week I learned that there's a whole organization dedicated to helping people create these "human libraries" all across the world, with a huge variety of human books: People with unusual bodies and minds. People with nontraditional jobs and lifestyles. People of different ages, races, and sexual orientations. People who have had uncommon experiences of all sorts -- or common experiences that don't get talked about much.

The idea began in Denmark in response to an act of violence, with the explicit intention of breaking down stereotypes and building more cohesive communities. When I heard about it, I had the same response as I did when I learned about the Urban Confessional's free listening project: I have to do this. 

I love it because it solves the problem of wanting to get to know different kinds of people, but not having an obvious or socially acceptable way to do it. It solves the problem, too, of wanting to share one's own story, but not knowing who would be interested. And it seems way more efficient and immediately gratifying than writing or reading a traditional book.

What do you think?

If you were a human book, what parts of your life might people benefit from knowing about?

If you were to check out a human book, what kinds of experiences would interest you most? 

Would you be interested in helping organize a human library event in your area? If so, please get in touch with me. I would love to talk to you!

Intentions, impact, and expertise

I am so sick of experts.

No, scratch that. What's more accurate is that I am frustrated with how I sometimes relate to experts -- especially experts who specialize in fields similar to mine.

I dislike how quickly I can discount my own wisdom, experience and insights around people I deem to be more experienced and successful than I am. It's like I'm back in school, the eager-to-please student looking to the older, wiser teacher for the answers. 

Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of some really powerful women: two bestselling authors, an international speaker, founders of nonprofits, and others who have earned top accolades in their fields.

One of them, a motivational speaker, gave a short talk about how it's important to prioritize our own happiness and well-being. Yes! I was thinking. That's exactly right. But the truth is, even as I was nodding at the content, I was actually doing the opposite.

Rather than loving and appreciating myself, I was anxiously comparing myself to her -- and of course, falling short. Which I'm sure is the opposite of what she intended.

As I write and teach more, I sometimes worry about being put into that "expert" category myself. Will some people look at me and think their lives should be more like mine? Or assume I have better answers for them than they do? Or feel bad about themselves because they aren't as [fill-in-the-blank] as I appear to be?

I hope not. I want people to feel wonderful around me, and to come away feeling confident, peaceful, inspired, and blessed. But that isn't always going to be the case.

That's the risk, I suppose, of putting ourselves "out there" in any capacity, expert or otherwise. We can give our very best, and not get the outcome that we want. And the impact we have on others can be very different than we intend. It is simply not under our control.

How do you deal with all of this in your own life? Do you compare yourself to people that you envy or admire? If so, who do those people tend to be? What kind of impact do you want to have on the people around you, and what is it like when it doesn't work out that way? What else does all of this make you think about?

As always, I would love to hear. 

How do you inspire gratitude?

This past week, I submitted a proposal in response to this OpenIDEO challenge question: How might we inspire experiences and expressions of gratitude in the workplace? (If you want to read it and like or comment, you can do so here.)

My particular idea centered around connection cards, and their usefulness not only in helping express gratitude, but also helping express care for people in general, which then leads to gratitude.

But really, there are so many ways.

One of my favorites lately is from a friend of mine who has been posting to Facebook something she enjoys each day, and inviting other people to share what they're enjoying, too. A beautiful object, a pleasing smell, recalling a fond memory, watching people play: It's all such simple stuff, and yet visualizing these sweet moments from people's lives makes me smile every time.

I also love adding my own appreciations to the list. To me there is something very freeing and empowering about it, because I am the only one who can say what and who I actually enjoy. Other people may disagree, but they can't tell me I'm wrong. :)

Some of the proposals I saw for inspiring gratitude at work were quite complicated, with special "thank you" apps, and tracking methods, and incentives for who can appreciate the most. But to me, that misses something fundamental, which is that gratitude is inherently rewarding. If you're truly grateful for something, it feels good! No external motivators necessary.

The only kind of gratitude that doesn't feel good is the fake kind, where you pretend to be grateful because you think you should be, or because you don't want someone else to feel bad -- or because you're trying to meet your workplace quota. Who wants to be the recipient of that?

This week I enjoyed leaving cards for neighbors with awesome Halloween decorations. I enjoyed how easy it was to get an appointment to get my car repaired. I enjoyed making a favorite dinner recipe that I hadn't made in a while. And I have been enjoying my warm, comfortable bed.

What about you? What have you been enjoying? What have you been enjoying at work? I would love to hear.

The payoff of being with discomfort

I just read this short newsletter piece from Dan Leven, who teaches expressive movement at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Western MA.

The skill he describes, this ability to be with uncomfortable experiences without being overwhelmed by them, is such an important one. It's something we get to practice each time we gather to listen and share with one another during an Alive & Connected conversation.

It can be uncomfortable to hear viewpoints that are different than ours. It can be uncomfortable to share our own experiences when we're not sure others will appreciate them. It can be uncomfortable not to offer help and advice to people who are trying to find their own answers. But the payoff for being willing to sit with that discomfort is huge. It opens up new insights, deeper connections, and a sense of vitality that is often missing in day-to-day life. 

I know I'm not the only one who craves those things. If you do, too, perhaps you'd like to join me at an upcoming Meetup event. Or if you live outside the Metrowest Boston area, how might you bring more conversations like this into your own part of the world?

I guarantee you have something valuable to offer in one of these groups, and something important to receive as well.

What is love, anyway?

Last week I led a conversation around the question, "What does it mean to love someone?"

It is such an interesting question to me, with many possible answers. Here are some of my thoughts:

I think to love someone is to experience a desire for them to be happy.

I think wanting happiness for someone and seeing them not happy -- or fearing that they won't be happy in the future -- is one of the hardest things there is to experience.

And I think the discomfort of that experience leads us to try to "fix" things for other people: We give them unsolicited advice. We tell them how we would handle things. We offer subtle rewards and punishments to get them to behave differently. We do things "for their own good."

In short, we overstep our boundaries and act in ways that don't feel very loving at all.

I think a willingness to sit with the gap between our desire for people's happiness and the uncertain and often painful realities of life is one of the most important skills we can develop if we want to love well.

This is something we practice in our Alive & Connected conversations each month, where the most fundamental ground rule is that participants aren't allowed to offer each other suggestions or advice about anything that gets shared. We aren't there to "fix" each other's lives (which aren't broken in the first place!), but to honor each other, listen to each other, share with each other, and wish each other well.

To me, that is what love feels like: the freedom to be fully me, knowing that I will be supported and included, even when my life doesn't match up to other people's desires for me.

What about you? What does it mean to you to love someone? What else does this question make you think about? I would love to hear.

Who are those strangers, really?

I used to think that if I had a negative judgment about someone I didn't know, it meant I was a rotten person.

This felt especially true if my judgment was toward a person of color, or a non-English speaker, or someone with a disability, or anyone else who tends to get discriminated against in our society.

I was scared of people finding out about all these judgments for fear of being labeled a racist, or a xenophobe, or simply a jerk.

But the truth is, I have a lot of judgments, about all sorts of people I don't know, on a regular basis. People at the grocery store. People walking around town. People with their kids on the playground. People in the news. Sometimes I do link the judgments to race or class, but it might also be the expression on their face, or the way they talk, or the kind of shirt they're wearing, or something even pettier than that.

What's striking to me is how automatic the process is:

  1. I encounter someone unknown
  2. I feel some fear (because unknown = potentially scary!)
  3. I justify my fear with a negative judgment

Those negative judgments can be enticing when I feel afraid, because they offer a sort of safety through certainty. (If I know there's a potential enemy out there, then I can protect myself, right?)  But the problem is, they're usually wrong! Or at the very least, based on very incomplete information. And they can easily magnify and globalize my original fear, so it's not just this particular person I have to protect myself against, but a whole category of people.

Holding on to negative judgments like that creates a scary world in which I feel vulnerable to people who are unknown and different from me. 

I don't know about you, but I really dislike feeling that way about the people around me. And so lately I've been trying to add step 4: reminding myself that the fear and judgment simply mean I don't know the person yet (or don't know enough).

I love that 4th step because it helps me let go of the false certainty of my judgment, and find some peace and humility in remembering how much I don't know. Who is that person, anyway? What is their life like? What might they be experiencing right now? Curiosity helps me expand my perspective and maybe even learn something new about a person.

As a human being, I'm not sure there's much I can do to avoid steps 1-3. I will always be encountering new people who are different from me, fear is a natural adaptive response to that novelty, and there are practically unlimited judgments and stereotypes I can draw on to turn someone unknown into a scary "other." But that's not where it has to end, for any of us.

I'm curious how you relate to the experience of judging and stereotyping strangers. What happens when you catch yourself doing it?  

And what about those people you struggle with whom you have known a long time? In what ways could you get curious about them?

It's never too late to say thank you

This week I received a text message from someone thanking me for a card I sent him over a year ago when a good friend of his had died. I'd mailed him a short note with three connection cards inside: You are loved. You are appreciated. You are not alone.

I know it was those three cards because he sent me a photo of them. They have been taped to his front door for months.

How cool is that?!

I don't think I will ever get tired of the way it feels to reach out to people with small gestures like that, not just because it feels good to do, but because there is always a chance that it will have a much larger impact than I imagine.

If you feel a tug to write to someone today, I highly recommend giving in to the urge. 

And by all means, if you have been avoiding telling someone "thank you" because you think too much time has passed, just go do it!  Sometimes "late" thank you's are the most powerful ones of all.

How to connect in an instant

I used to be scared to connect with strangers.

I know this because for a college psychology class one week I had an assignment to smile at people I didn't know. I remember trying it exactly one time, and it feeling so awkward and embarrassing that I couldn't bring myself to do it again.

What cured me of my fear was an activity during a personal growth seminar that got repeated several times over the course of a long weekend. We would break up into pairs, sit knee-to-knee, look into the other person's eyes, and take turns listening to each other's experiences, fears, and desires.

As far as I could tell, it was awkward for everybody. But it was the assignment, and we did it, and it actually ended up feeling really good.

I learned that weekend that it is possible to experience a sense of deep connection with a perfect stranger in a matter of minutes. And it doesn't take much longer to experience that same level of connection with a whole room full of them.

We know this, of course. It happens after natural disasters, for instance, when diverse communities naturally come together to support one another.

But it doesn't require a tragedy.

At the end of my personal growth weekend, it was clear to me that anyone could have been in that seminar with me, and I would have left feeling love and compassion toward them. Since then, I've realized it doesn't even take sharing a seminar to feel that way about someone. All it takes is a positive intention and a few moments of eye contact.

Last weekend, I had the joy of participating in the World's Biggest Eye Contact Experiment on Boston Common (see the news story here and more event details here), and got to witness that same magical connection happen over and over. In a time when there is so much fear and blame in the air, it was a great reminder of how powerful, and possible, it is to create something different.

I don't need to know the specifics of your joys and struggles to know that you have them, just like I do. And the ability to remember that connects me not only to you, but to everyone else on the planet.

If you've never taken a minute to just look into someone's eyes -- and allow them to look into yours -- I highly recommend it. I would love to hear what it's like for you.

How hard does work need to be?

Have you ever made something harder for yourself than it needed to be?

I caught myself doing it recently.

Last week, I set an explicit goal to arrange six separate conversations with people on a particular topic, and within an hour of doing that, an opportunity for the first of those conversations practically fell into my lap.

"What luck!" I might have said. "I'm off to a great start already, and I hardly had to do a thing!"

That would have been a great happiness-inducing response.

But instead, I found myself automatically thinking, "That didn't count."

It wasn't fair! It was too easy! Shouldn't I have to muster up courage and overcome obstacles to reach my goals? Shouldn't I have to work hard, and experience struggle and sacrifice?

It made me wonder what I was actually committed to. Was I just committed to achieving my goal, or was I also committed to doing it in a particular way (namely, the hard way)?

Apparently, I was committed to both. I did end up reaching my goal, but the process didn't feel good. All week, I was anxious about it, wondering what "counted" and what didn't, whether I was working hard enough. I created extra work and struggle for myself, despite the grace that was there right from the beginning.

The more I reflect on it, the more sad and ridiculous that mindset seems. Why would I want to make things harder than they need to be? How does that serve anyone? It just means spending more time stuck in my head, and less time out actually connecting to and caring for other people.

What if, instead, I were simply grateful for those things that come easily? Not only would I be happier, but I think I'd get a lot more meaningful and useful work done, too.

I wonder, of course: Can you relate to any of this in your own life? Do you ever feel guilty for receiving things that feel unearned? How do you respond to life's unfairness in general? How do your thoughts about all of this affect your happiness?

The gift of asking for help

Today was jam-packed with back-to-back meetings and activities, including an important evening event at my son's school. It is now late, past 9 p.m., and the kitchen is still a mess from dinner. And I have a blog post and newsletter to prepare for tomorrow morning.

I turn on some calming music and start emptying the dishwasher, preparing myself for potentially a very long night. In this particular moment, I'm not resentful, but I am feeling kind of sad, and a little afraid for what tomorrow will look like on just a few hours of sleep.

Then I remember I can ask for help -- even for this job that I have voluntarily claimed as my responsibility.

I go upstairs and ask my husband if he can do the dishes tonight. He is happy to. And so here I am, writing, as the kitchen magically gets cleaned up around me.

It is a gift I wouldn't have received unless I'd asked. My husband wouldn't have even known I needed it. 

This is such a tiny example, but still it makes me wonder: How many gifts do we rob ourselves of, simply by not asking for them?

How many times to do we rob other people of the joy of making us happy because we don't let them know what we would actually like?

How often do we assume we have to suffer and sacrifice, when it's really not true? Does that suffering and sacrificing serve anyone?

What if we didn't feel like we had to be totally overwhelmed before asking for help? What if we remembered how much people want to contribute to each other? What if we helped make it easy for them?

I also wonder, as always: How does this resonate with you?

What is your relationship like with asking for help? Is it easier in some circumstances than others? Is there help could you use right now? Who might be delighted to give it to you, if you gave them the chance?

How do you deal with people who offend you?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who sends my kid to martial arts classes for more than just the exercise.

We are blessed to have a number of great dojos in my town, including the one where my son goes. In yesterday's "mat chat" at the end of class, the sensei talked about a good way to disarm someone who criticizes you: simply disagree.

For example, if someone tells you your hair looks stupid, you can say, "I don't think so. I actually really like my hair!" And it takes all the fun out of picking on you.

Notice that you're not telling the other person they are wrong. You are not criticizing them for being mean. In fact, you're not turning the focus toward them at all. You're just sharing what's true for you, because your perspective is valid.

The trick, of course, is to know what is true for you -- what you believe, what you care about, how you want to see yourself, and how you want to be in the world. Otherwise, it's all too easy for other people to knock you off balance and distract you with their agenda.

All of this is part of the skill of setting boundaries, and it is something we adults need to practice, too.

By now, most of us have learned not to directly criticize people to their faces, but that hardly keeps us from saying things that can be taken as offensive or threatening. And we can easily find ourselves in conversations where we feel offended -- by someone's political views, religious beliefs, parenting style, or anything else that just feels different and wrong to us.

How, in those situations, do you disarm potential conflict without hiding what's true for you?

How do you maintain your boundaries?

How do you simply disagree?

I would love to hear what you've learned about this in your own life. What kinds of approaches have worked for you? How have you become more skillful over time? Where are you still challenged? What else might help?

Thanks, as always, for sharing.