Experiences that change us

On Monday I completed the 9-day Avatar course in Florida. For anyone who followed along in our Facebook group, you know it was a bit of a roller-coaster for me, but ultimately very worth it.

Since coming home, the biggest shift my family has noticed is that I've slowed down a lot. I'm noticing more, and allowing myself to experience more of life rather than being so quick to label, evaluate and process everything.

I am more present with my family, and listening a lot better, not just to their words but to their energy and affect. I'm not taking everything they do so personally any more, or second-guessing myself so much as a parent or a person.

It's exactly the kind of change I was hoping for, and it feels great.

You can find the schedule of upcoming Avatar courses here, and I am happy to talk to anyone who is curious about the experience.

I'd also like to hear from you: What are some of the experiences (courses or otherwise) that have had the biggest positive impact on you? What was it that made them so powerful? In what ways is your life different because of them?

Murals that matter

As I was pondering what to write about this week, this update arrived in my Inbox from Alex Cook, a local artist who has been travelling all over the country for the past several years painting murals like this one:

YouareLoved Mural2.jpg

They say: You are loved. You are beautiful. You are important.

He creates them in public spaces as well as in schools, churches, homeless shelters, and prisons, and community members themselves do the bulk of the painting. I am so inspired by him, and by all of the people who have seen the potential of this project and found walls for him to transform. (Learn more here.)

You are loved. You are beautiful. You are important. 

It is easy to be cynical about words like these, especially when we're not feeling particularly loved or attractive or important. But that doesn't mean they're not true. We simply have a choice whether to let them in or not.

I think it is important to practice letting in words of kindness because they remind us of our value, which in turn helps us to live up to the best of who we can be. And the world needs that right now from each one of us.

You are loved. You are beautiful. You are important. Remind yourself of this in any way you can. And then go out and be amazing.

Take the Compliment Challenge!

Yesterday I started one of my favorite Facebook threads of all time:

"COMPLIMENT CHALLENGE!  Comment your name and I'll tell you something that I like about you."

I didn't come up with the idea, but was excited to borrow it. And even more excited to find that I had brave friends willing to participate.

Brave, indeed, because so many of us have been taught not to seek out compliments, and have a hard time accepting them even when they are freely offered to us.

Perhaps we are trying to be modest, but does modesty really mean we aren't allowed to acknowledge anything good or valuable about ourselves?

I think this tendency to resist compliments is detrimental to everyone involved.

As human beings, we want to feel valuable. Our sense of meaning and purpose comes from knowing that we matter and can make a positive difference. When we deny ourselves compliments, we thwart that fundamental need.

When we avoid being complimented, we also deny other people the satisfaction of honoring and appreciating us. Can you imagine what it would be like to give someone a heartfelt gift only to have them refuse to open it? That's the feeling we inadvertently leave people with when we're trying to be "modest."

In offering this compliment challenge, I've been having a great time thinking about what I like about people: the characteristics I admire, the ways they make me feel, the things that make them unique. And without any prompting, people have been offering compliments back.

It's like a specialized, interactive gratitude practice that has a much bigger impact than just writing words in a journal.

If you are active on social media, I encourage you to try offering a compliment challenge of your own. Or if not, could you find other opportunities to offer compliments?

I'd love to hear what your experience is like. Or if compliments just don't feel like your "thing", tell me more about that! Different perspectives are so important, and it's always great to learn from you. 

Have a wonderful week.

If you don't enjoy it, you won't change

My 6-week Happiness in Action course wraps up next week.

The final assignment will be for each of us to create a short list of activities that we are excited to do every day for the next two weeks. Things that are life-giving. Things that speak to our current values, needs and priorities. Things we're excited to try, or start doing again. Things that feel good just to think about.

The goal is to start turning these activities into habits, so we will eventually experience more moments of happiness without even consciously trying.

"Make sure it feels good" is not the mantra I've had for self-improvement for most of my life. Rather, it was more like, "listen to the experts and do what they say." But at this point I'm convinced that in any attempt to create new habits, it is essential that those habits are inherently enjoyable. Otherwise, why would we ever go through the hard work of changing?

There's another level to this, too, which is that it's important that the way we think about ourselves in relationship to these new habits also feels good. What am I telling myself about myself as I try doing these new things?

Am I trying to change in order to make up for mistakes or flaws, in hopes that I'll get it "right" this time and finally be acceptable to myself? Or am I trying to change because I love myself and want to do things that will make my life work better?

Am I instituting a set of rules and structures because I don't think I can be trusted to make good choices on my own and feel like I need some kind of external authority to tell me what to do? Or is the structure there to help me practice and get better at doing things that are important to me, because I want to set myself up for success as quickly and efficiently as possible?

The actions I commit to might be exactly the same in both cases, but depending on the perspective I take, the experience will feel entirely different. And how it feels is what will ultimately dictate whether I'm willing to commit to the new habits or not.

What do you think? Does this ring true for you, too? Do you have your own stories of behavior change to share? When have you been successful, and when haven't you? Do you have habits that you're actively trying to add or modify right now? I'd love to hear your experiences.

And if you want a copy of the activity worksheet that I'll be sharing with my class, you can download it here.

Can I tell you what I learned about penguins?

A friend of mine shared a poignant story this week that I've been excited to pass on to you.

In 4th grade, her teacher asked for volunteers to go to the library to find some facts about penguins to share with the class. She raised her hand, and was thrilled when the teacher picked her for this special project! She spent the afternoon diligently learning as much as she could, and came back excited to share her penguin presentation with the class.

But instead, when she came back to the classroom she was met with shouts of "Surprise!" and "Bon voyage!" -- a special party being thrown just for her, to celebrate a multi-week vacation she was about to take with her family. 

"When do I get to tell people about the penguins?" she asked the teacher.

"Oh, you don't have to do that. We just want you to enjoy the party." was the reply.

"But really, I want to share what I learned!" she persisted.

"No, we really don't need you to do that," the well-meaning teacher insisted. And so she never did.

In fact, she never willingly spoke in front of any group, ever again. Because that day she learned a formative lesson: "People don't want to hear what I have to say."

That wasn't really the situation; nevertheless, the belief became so deeply ingrained that it shaped the next several decades of her life. I'm not really a public speaker, she would tell herself. I get too nervous. I'm much better 1-on-1.

Until this week, that is, when she finally decided to face her fear. She shared that 4th grade penguin story as the designated speaker at our monthly networking meeting, and proceeded to give one of the most honest and moving presentations I've seen.

I've been rolling her story around in my mind for days now, seeing it from all sort of different angles.

I've been thinking about how, even if our intent is good-hearted and pure, we can't ever fully predict or control how we impact other people.

I've been thinking of my own core childhood experiences that taught me pernicious things like, "I don't belong" and "I am unwanted by my peers," and wondering what those situations would look like if I went back in time and witnessed them as an adult. Would it free me to see things differently?

I've also been wondering what leads us to learn the lessons we do from our experiences, and whether our strongest gifts and desires are also innately the most vulnerable to being shut down. Is it possible that those areas where we feel the most wounded and afraid are precisely the ones we must lean into if we are going to feel fulfilled?

Later this month, I am launching my first half-day Happiness Adventure Challenge, encouraging people to work as teams to take small actions to create happiness, and challenge beliefs that get in the way.

If this sounds fun to you, I hope you will join us. And if it sounds daunting to you, I especially hope you will join us, because it is in that willingness to stretch ourselves that happiness lives.

Who knows, maybe you'll even find someone to talk to about penguins.

Re-connecting to happiness

In this week's Happiness in Action class, we talked about things that get in the way of happiness.

There are plenty of external circumstances that we humans love to complain about -- whiny children, bad drivers, incompetent leaders, the weather -- but it didn't take long for the group to zero in on the primary barrier to experiencing happiness: what happens in our own minds.

Who among us hasn't created unnecessary misery for ourselves by focusing our attention on things we don't like or want, berating ourselves for our mistakes and shortcomings, or interpreting situations in ways that leave us feeling trapped and helpless?

These habits of mind are often so deeply ingrained that we don't even realize we're doing them, and yet they are constantly shaping our experience.

So what is there to do?

One helpful tool is the serenity prayer, a classic from the 12-step world that I absolutely love. As a business analyst, I used to create a lot of flowcharts, and had this version posted on my bulletin board:

Serenity Prayer Flowchart.jpg

What does the serenity prayer have to do with happiness?

To experience happiness in any given moment, we have to be willing to actually experience that moment -- which can be hard when the moment involves things we don't like. The serenity prayer provides a framework for leaning into those hard experiences and figuring out what we can actually do that will feel good, rather than staying stuck fighting against reality.

I can't change the fact that I made a mistake, or that I just spent half a day beating myself up for it, or that I took my upset out on my family, or that I currently have a raging headache, or that I'm feeling angry and ashamed and just want to sleep. In hindsight, maybe there are things I could have done to prevent these things, but there's nothing I can do now to change the past, so the only thing to do is accept them.

What can I change? I can notice what I'm experiencing, and acknowledge that I don't like it. I can change how I'm breathing. I can pet my puppy. I can reflect on what happened with the intent to see things differently. I can ask for help. I can encourage myself. I can correct the mistake.

Writing it out like this, it seems ridiculously simple -- and it is!  But it's also not automatic, especially compared to some of those negative ingrained thought patterns that run on auto-pilot. Moving from theory into practice, over and over again, makes all the difference. 

What's a situation for you right now in which something is getting in the way of your happiness? What happens when you use the serenity prayer to guide you? What other practices help you re-connect to happiness? I would love to hear.

Are your needs being met?

In this week's Happiness in Action class, we talked about the nine fundamental human needs classified by Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef: sustenance, safety, love, understanding, community, play, creativity, contribution, and freedom.

Admittedly,I'm no scholar of Max-Neef, but I think his list is really helpful for understanding how happiness works, and how we can experience more of it, if we want to.

The way I see it, when we experience ourselves as having these needs met, we are happy. And when we're not feeling great, it's helpful to be able to look down the list to identify what's missing that we're longing for. Then we can start thinking about what we could do to get that need met.

I love Max-Neef's recognition that things like creativity, play and freedom are not selfish, childlike indulgences, but valid, universal human needs for people of all ages. Therefore, when we deny ourselves those things, it is not the mark of maturity, responsibility, or wisdom we might assume, but actually detrimental to our well-being.

I also like that, unlike with Maslow's pyramid, there is no implied hierarchy in these needs, no assumption that some have to be satisfied before others. This is consistent with life as I've experienced it. It is possible to experience love even when feeling unsafe. It is possible to feel good about one's contributions even when hungry. It is possible to be connected to community even when you lack freedom. 

No one area of lack has to be permanently eliminated before you can experience the other joys of life.

In Max-Neef's model, there is also no pinnacle of existence that we can ever reach, once and for all. Once a need is met at one level, it doesn't take long to realize there are other ways it could be met even more fully.

If life is an ever-changing mixture of needs being identified and needs being met, the key to happiness is to pay enough attention so that you can catch and appreciate those "met" moments for what they are.

May we all get better and better at that!

Relationship lessons from a puppy

Last week my family brought home a new puppy. He's a Maltese/Shih Tzu fluffball who is as cute and good-natured as can be.

He is also the first dog I've ever owned.

In addition to being fun and exciting, this week has been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster for me, depending on how the puppy behaves and whether I think I'm doing things right. When the puppy does what he's "supposed" to do, I feel great! When he pees on the floor, not so much.

More experienced dog owners have been chuckling at my emotional drama because they can see that it comes from inexperience and unrealistic expectations. Relax, they say, your puppy is just being a puppy! He hasn't learned yet. They remind me that whatever I'm feeling -- whether it's frustration or elation -- says way more about me than the dog.

It seems to me that the same thing applies in our human relationships, too. We can create all sorts of unnecessary pain and drama for ourselves by holding unrealistic expectations for other people, and reading more meaning into situations than is justified.

Often we expect other people to act in ways that are pleasing to us, and get frustrated when they don't. But who says they're supposed to just because we want them to? What if they haven't yet learned the trick we're asking them to perform, or don't care about the reward we are offering? 

We also often assume that when people do things that cause us pain, they intended to cause us pain. But that's hardly ever the case, any more than a puppy is being mean-spirited when he chews up our favorite shirt. People do what works for them, which often has nothing to do with us at all. 

People, just like puppies, are simply being who they are, given the life circumstances and training they've received so far. We can punish them for that, and try to force them to be another way, damaging our relationship in the process. Or we can appreciate the one actually in front of us -- even if they pee on the floor from time to time.

I think I am going to be learning a lot from this new furry friend of mine.

Maintaining boundaries during conflict

There has been some pretty intense conflict happening in my family lately. Two parents and a teenager, each with different priorities and very strong opinions, trying to influence decisions that will impact all of us. We are all doing our best, but it is a messy process.

How do we respectfully listen to and honor another person's point of view when it feels threatening or plain wrong?

How do we advocate for our own point of view when we're afraid that it won't be heard, or will be outright rejected, by people who really matter to us?

How do we manage our well-being and emotions so we can stay present and not be overrun by fear? 

These are essential questions for anyone who wants to create joy and connection, and the kind of thing I've been talking and writing about for years. It has been both frustrating and exciting to find myself needing to practice what I preach at a higher level than ever before.

I created an exercise for myself this week that I found helpful and wanted to share. It's a series of  prompts to help clarify boundaries and commitments:

  1. What I am willing to offer you right now...
  2. What I am not willing to offer you right now...
  3. What I want from you right now...
  4. What I do not require from you right now...

Number 1 helped me recognize how much I want to give, and am able to give. It helped me connect to my love and commitment.

Number 2 helped me recognize the kinds of things I've done or felt pressured to do that don't feel good or right to me. Writing those down gave me permission to say no to those things in favor of my own values and integrity.

Number 3 made me realize how much I value the things my family members have to offer, and how much their good will matters to me.

Number 4 was a humbling reminder that my family members don't need to give me what I want just because I want it, and that I don't actually want them to sacrifice their own needs in favor of mine.

Overall, going through the exercise made me feel a lot more grounded, and has been helping me maintain a healthy sense of perspective. 

Would going through an exercise like that be helpful for dealing with a current conflict in your life? If you try it, I'd love to hear how it goes. Or if this is something you'd like to be guided through, I'd be delighted to do that. Schedule a free 20-minute consult with me here.

Free hugs for hire

Earlier this week my friend Giulietta Nardone and I were interviewed for a local town cable show by someone who had seen this newspaper article about us giving out free hugs in front of a CVS.

I think our interviewer was disappointed to learn that we don't do this on a regular basis. In fact, as enjoyable as it was, that one well-documented day was our only free hug experience together.

The truth is, I would love to do public outreach like this a lot more than I do. It is fun and fulfilling to me, and I also think it addresses a real need in our society for more authentic human connection. But as an independent volunteer activity, it's neither financially sustainable nor, I believe, as influential or satisfying as it could be.

What I would really love is for leaders in socially-minded organizations to think about how they might use something like free hugs to create a more uplifting experience for the people they serve. Balloon artists and performers get hired to entertain and delight at festivals and store openings. Why not also hire people to give out free hugs at those events, or at the mall during Christmas season, or in hospital waiting rooms? 

I personally think it would be a win-win for everyone involved: great PR for the organization, a heartwarming experience for customers, and an absolute dream gig for someone like me.

If this is something that might benefit your organization, please get in touch!