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Rules: More important than you realize

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on January 28, 2015 at 3:40 PM Comments comments (0)

When you were a child in school, you had rules to follow: no gum chewing in class, no copying from your neighbor. At home you were not allowed to hit, use foul language or throw food. As an adult you might feel that you have few rules — one of the privileges of being an adult. After all, if you want to eat a pint of ice cream, there’s no one to stop you. But a closer look reveals that you do have rules — self-imposed rules. And the rules you establish for your life are critical to your well-being.

For example, in determining the quality of a marriage here’s a rule that is strikingly important: no name-calling. Sounds straight out of childhood, doesn’t it? According to John Gottman, psychologist and author of The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work, breaking or not having this rule is one the most harmful things a spouse can do. Why? Because negative names and labels leave emotional scars. They create lasting memories. They damage trust, an element at the heart of any good relationship. Breaking this rule brings natural negative consequences.

No name-calling is just one of dozens of rules you might make for yourself. Most people don’t think about them unless pushed. Rules are said to oneself, so often they because automatic and are unspoken. Some can determine both our character and our well-being; others are minor. A minor rule might be “I don’t honk at other drivers.” A favorite of mine from a near-vegetarian is, “I don’t eat anything that can look me directly in the eyes,” thereby allowing chicken and fish to be consumed since their eyes are on the sides of their heads. Technically debatable, but it works for him.

A man who views himself as a gentleman might have a rule that he never swears in public or in front of women. Another might have rules about his sexual behavior or how he dresses. We may believe that our rules are untouchable, never to be altered. Some of us are proud of our rules. You may have heard of the two centenarians philosophizing about their longevity and really speaking about personal rules. One says that she never smoked or drank a day in her life. The other, just as proudly, professes that his longevity is a result of a stiff drink and a good cigar every day.

Some rules may be controversial to others but work for the individual. A couple I knew had an arrangement — a rule — that most couples would find unacceptable. Their rule allowed the husband to have affairs while on his many business trips but never to stray at home. Nor was he ever allowed to discuss his trysts. By all external signs the couple had a deep loving relationship. When the wife suffered a prolonged battle with cancer at the end of her life, he was there every moment, lovingly giving his all.

Most rules are less controversial but can still cause enormous distress. Here are examples taken from clients. Each one was considered inviolate and each created emotional chaos. “I must have two million dollars in order to be secure.” “I must love my children no matter what.” “My house must always be immaculate.” “I must meet my father’s standards in order to be loveable.” Each one of these self-imposed rules was an underlying cause of great distress for the individual or their spouse and ultimately brought them to therapy. You may find some of them reasonable, yet when followed rigidly, each wrecked havoc.

Modifying a rule is difficult. We can all find evidence that confirms our rules even when the rules do not serve us well. It’s worthwhile to identify your rules and examine them. Consider whether any of them diminish the quality of your life today. Rules have the power to enhance or damage a life. Take them seriously and be sure that yours enhance your well-being.

Old Messages

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on December 19, 2014 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (0)



My wife, Gail, recently had a bad episode in the kitchen and called me to come to the rescue. She was making a pecan pie, had placed it on a cookie sheet that didn’t quite fit our oven and had spilled it on the floor — quite a mess. Now Gail is a very strong, independent and self-assured woman who, on this occasion, suffered a temporary loss of confidence.



I should note that I do almost all the cooking in our house and Gail, as a general rule, does not like to cook. I, on the other hand, love to cook but am a miserable soul when it comes to fixing things around the house. When I attempt to repair anything mechanical, it often turns into a disaster and Gail is the one to the rescue. On those occasions, it is not only self-doubt that comes to mind but foul words to my mouth along with an increase in blood pressure.



Why these reactions? As Gail wailed during her pie disaster, “Every woman in the world can make a pie except me!” Remember this is coming from an accomplished MBA who handles many challenging projects comfortably. And the implicit message somewhere in the back of my mind when I am facing the overflowing toilet — “What kind of idiot male can’t do a simple thing like fix a toilet? And here I am with a Ph.D.”



To me these reactions are the result of cultural sex-role indoctrination that has been imbedded in our psyche and has nothing to do with our intelligence or level of education. Somewhere in Gail’s mind, whether she would openly recognize or admit it, is the message, “I’m a woman. I should be able to cook well.” And comparably my brain is pulsating with a message that argues, “You’re a man. You should be able to repair things.”



Interestingly, our respective cross-sex-role abilities have carried us far. Gail receives praise for her mechanical skills and I am often the recipient of admiration for my culinary talents. But that doesn’t stop each of us from replaying those silly messages from our childhoods.



Of course, everyone can cite many current examples of cross-sex-role exceptions (e.g., male nurses and female pilots) but the dominant cultural message is still macho and Eros. Just look in toy stores or at magazines racks to see if sex-role typing is a thing of the past. No, the old messages are still receiving a great deal of modern repetition. So we continue — bright, capable adults — self-flagellating with unwarranted criticism.



You might be interested to know that today’s teen-agers continue to be influenced by the same messages we received when we were children. How can that be, you might argue. After all, don’t today’s youth know about the feminist movement and gender equality? Well, yes — sort of. It turns out that high school boys score high on sensitivity to feminine issues but, at the same time, they also score extremely high on macho measures. Apparently the boys know the right thing to say regarding female issues but simultaneously hold very high traditional male attitudes, thus having self-denigrating thoughts if they act too feminine. Similar inconsistencies hold for the girls as well.



I’ve highlighted some gender role self-messages, but I could easily cite non-gender role messages that are instrumental in causing angst. Here are a few I’ve heard from clients that have created many emotional problems: “I need to be perfect,” “My home should always be neat,” “I should never offend anyone with what I say,” “It’s awful if I am ever late,” and “I must never get angry.”



These old self-critical messages are likely well embedded. Consequently, removing these, often outdated and silly messages, can be a challenge. It is a battle worth fighting. Even your parents would probably agree that they can be carried too far.

Not All Things Long Ago Were Wonderful

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on November 16, 2014 at 11:50 AM Comments comments (0)

I recently finished teaching a class entitled, The Male Experience: Past and Present. I’ve taught it about eight times. It’s one of my favorites. The nature of masculinity in America has changed so dramatically during the last century that it boggles the mind. Personally, I find it fascinating. But this is a column on happiness so let me direct my attention to one of the more dynamic aspects of change within our lifetime: men, childrearing and well-being.

If you were a boy born 100 or 150 years ago, you would likely have grown up in a home where fathers barely had contact with their children and even more rarely expressed any warmth toward them. The adage that children were to be seen and not heard was a practiced principle, children viewed by party guests and then dismissed. Contrast that picture with the common sight of a father today pushing a stroller (or a baby carriage as they used to be called) or walking hand in hand with a toddler. Unimaginable just a few generations back. The contrast between the two parenting styles is striking.

It’s important to clearly state that a poor upbringing does not dictate personal destiny. Many a child reared by emotionally distant parents grow into a mature adult. However, poor home experiences do create an obstacle to overcome. And a cold parenting style, in particular, appears to impair a child’s ability to understand, interpret and understand the emotions of others. The inability to “read” another’s emotions is at the heart of what psychologists call emotional intelligence — a strength that is invaluable in forming intimate relationships.

The importance of forming close relationships, a central ingredient of happiness, is illustrated in the results of a study that began in 1938 and followed 238 students for life. The students were tested and interviewed every few years for the remainder of their lives, continuing to this day. Study director, Harvard psychology professor, George Valliant, recently reported a critical finding. Of the 31 men in the study who were incapable of forming intimate relationships only four are still alive. Of those who were better at forming relationships, more than one-third still live. His study confirms that the effect of having even one intimate relationship can lessen the challenges of life and strongly contribute to living longer.

Among the many consistent findings in the well-being research literature is the understanding that strong relationships breed happiness. There is, of course, much to fret about in our society. But it is important for our well being to recognize that, within our lifetime, there has been social progress unimaginable a century ago. In my opinion, the extraordinary evolution from an emotionally distant dad to one who clearly expresses his warmth and caring is a change to recognize and celebrate. So the next time you see that father toting his infant on his shoulders, reading a story to his child or pushing a carriage, give yourself an emotional lift by mentally noting that yes, indeed, some marvelous changes have occurred and are occurring — much better to be alert to the good things than wallow in the negative.

Powerful, Miserable Virginia

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on October 21, 2014 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)

The science of positive psychology teaches us actions to promote happiness, but the patterns of the miserable can teach us as well — if we pay attention to how the terribly unhappy often perpetuate their own sad state. In my clinical life Virginia was one of the most miserable, powerful yet weak, people I have ever known. Many lessons can be learned from her.

A tall woman of about 35, Virginia could dominate a room in seconds, riveting everyone’s attention no matter their previous conversation. Her focus was her tongue pain.

To have a conversation with Virginia was to tap into a raging volcano. You might begin innocently enough with the question, “How are you?” A high-pitched verbal assault followed. “How do you expect me to be? I have tongue pain. Pain that is with me every second of every day, every second! Pain that has caused me to have my teeth removed, seven operations, spend every moment of my god-forsaken life with idiot doctors!” Every point would be stated loudly with anger-filled eyes, raised eyebrows and thrusting body. In a matter of seconds every other conversation would abruptly stop and attention be redirected to you and Virginia. This onslaught, mind you, to a total stranger. If you were unfortunate enough to be in the health profession, the barrage would not be so gentle. It would be filled with profanities, finger pointing, and threats.

When teaching in medical school, I often used my own imitation of Virginia as a teaching tool for medical students, residents and psychology interns — expanding their image of a difficult patient to a new level and challenging any perception of omnipotence they might harbor. Imitating Virginia, I would stand before them and field any question, always turning the topic to my pain. Even the most innocuous question such as “How do you think the local sports team is doing?” would elicit a lecture on what did those indulged players know of life. I, Virginia, had experienced the brutality of life — each point stated with indignity and fury. Questions attempting to divert me, in my role as Virginia, would be treated with special derision. “What do you do for fun?” would be met with contempt, followed by a harangue detailing the questioner’s lack of compassion, insensitivity and professional inadequacy.

Virginia was as weak as she was strong. Her life was limited, stymied and anger-filled. She had no joy, laughter, compassion, sensitivity, serenity, quiet, tranquility, empathy, or bliss. Relationships eluded her. Every connection in her life degenerated into hostility and alienation. And when a relationship fell apart, Virginia was consumed with blame and recriminations. Living in her body meant endless faulting of others, precluding all other life experiences. It’s as if Virginia never left her house of anger, never ventured into the range of experiences that the rest of us take for granted.

The anger, so evident to those encountering Virginia, covered a deep, pervasive depression. For Virginia, depression meant malaise, constant physical and psychological pain, lack of energy and dysfunctional sleep. It meant unending doctors with all the associated consumption of time and energy. Power came at an enormous price.

Changing Virginia was beyond the capability of any single individual. Her thoughts and determination were well honed and reinforced. Think for a moment what you might do in her presence — retreat? Sounds reasonable. It certainly is what all of Virginia’s relatives did, thereby providing her with additional ammunition for her martyred syndrome. Understandable as their actions might be, Virginia merely took their withdrawal from her life as another example of how she was victim of an uncaring world. But if you’re a health care worker responsible for the welfare of any patient that walks through your door, you cannot withdraw — especially not if you think you can help the patient. You have a moral obligation to try.

I could write pages on Virginia’s self-defeating behavior, but there is one central theme that fuels most of her self-destruction: her belief that everyone else was responsible for her misery. As a team we did rehabilitate Virginia, but that’s a story for another time. I can tell you that it began by not responding to her anger and then reinforcing any action that even faintly hinted of healthy behavior.

Even in the depths of the most challenging problems, ferreting out what you can control and acting on those behaviors is dynamically different than blame and victimhood — a lesson that can be used for problems much smaller than Virginia’s.

My Father Died

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on September 27, 2014 at 1:05 PM Comments comments (0)

You can’t tell someone’s feelings by just knowing his or her outward circumstances. Oh, there might be some relationship between happy surroundings and feeling good or very difficult surroundings and feeling sad — but the correlation is low. A prime example of this surfaced when a patient of mine was absolutely euphoric after his beloved father died.

I had been seeing Howard for about two months and making little progress. It was obvious that he was severely depressed and his medications were not making much difference. He expressed most of the classical signs of depression: poor sleep, loss of appetite, low energy, some cognitive impairment, irritability, lack of concentration, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Particularly challenging for our interactions was his unwillingness to discuss what was bothering him. His one saving grace was his interest in continuing to meet every week, always arriving on time and seemingly pleased to be there.

So I was surprised when Howard unexpectedly missed two weeks running. Even more amazing was his demeanor when he showed up — alive and energetic. Still more shocking was Howard’s reply to my inquiry as to what had happened to him. “My father died,” was his reply.

Ordinarily such a reply would, of course, elicit an expression of sympathy for the grieving that one assumed was present. But Howard wasn’t grieving. He was happy, happier than he had been for years. It seems that his earlier depression stemmed in large part from an estrangement from his father, his only living relative. The conflict that caused the estrangement had occurred over a decade earlier for reasons that Howard didn’t fully understand, but that he felt were intractable and could be his fault. He claimed to have attempted to reconcile with his father on many occasions only to be sternly rebuffed, and ultimately he had lost all hope of ever seeing his father again.

Shortly after his previous visit to the clinic, Howard received a call from a local hospital that his father was there, dying, and wanted to see him. What he found when he arrived was a frail man filled with contrition and sorrow. With the two of them falling over one another in apologies and regrets, they then settled down to reminisce about good times together. This went on for over a week until Howard’s father succumbed to his illness. In the process, Howard lost the tremendous guilt that had racked his mind and left him feeling hopeless. He no longer shouldered the full responsibility for the issues that separated him and his father and even came to recognize that his assumptions concerning how his father perceived him were wrong. New memories replaced old distorted ones and left him with a positive feeling of closure.

Anyone seeing Howard after his father died would not see a depressed man — the stooping shoulders and lethargy were gone. But to fully appreciate the transition from depression to euphoria, it is important to recognize that we humans are not stimulus-response beings. “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” said John Milton in one of my favorite quotes. It refers to the fact that our feelings are not directly a function of circumstance. How we process the situation determines our emotional experience and the subsequent feelings and behavior that follow. Between the input we receive and our feeling is our interpretation of events. It is there where we make our interpretations that determine how we function, and our happiness.

For those many years before his father’s death Howard chose to blame himself, based upon partial information as well as his own distortions. The guilt that engulfed him and subsequently caused a deep depression is not something Howard would say he intentionally chose, but he did, in the fashion that our mind and habits are ultimately responsible for the perceptions we experience.

It doesn’t feel like a choice because it seems so automatic but it is a choice. Shakespeare, too, had it right, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

Preparing for Life's Trials and Tribulations

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on August 15, 2014 at 5:20 PM Comments comments (0)

You may recall the opening lines from the book, The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” The author, Scott Peck, goes on to say that once you accept this fact you’ve taken a major step in managing life’s challenges. But I’d like to suggest an additional consideration in combating life’s challenges — actively pursuing happiness. Those who regularly engage in practices that increase happiness are actually preparing themselves to manage life’s trials.

Our own individual list of struggles will vary, but all of us will experience a few of the following: serious illness, loss of loved ones, financial difficulties and tragedy to those around us. And no one escapes the end of life.

Since these difficulties inevitably confront us, is there anything we can do to prepare ourselves for these challenges? After much consideration I believe that the very same attitudes and practices that increase our happiness are actually preparations for the management of the darker side of life. Let me list some of the major recommendations often highlighted for increasing happiness and consider how these same attitudes and practices are valuable in confronting life’s difficulties:

1. “I have so much to be thankful for.” Practicing gratefulness: Anecdotally and empirically it has been shown that those who are consistently grateful are happier than those who do not. When life’s difficulties appear, the grateful habit expresses itself in the manner in which we focus our attention on the positives, as well as compare our difficulties with those worse off — a major tool in grappling with life’s challenges.

2. “I’m so fortunate to have so many good friends.” Expanding and deepening friendships: The relationship between the number of friends we have, particularly close friendships, and happiness is strong. The same bonds play a critical role in how well we heal when tragedy hits. Those who are more alone and keep all of their sorrows inside tend to suffer longer, while those who have friends who can listen, empathize and care are more able to move on.

3. “I’m not perfect but I am a loveable person.” Letting love in: We’re constantly told to love others but just as crucial is the ability to be compassionate with ourselves, forgive our shortcomings and appreciate our strengths — wonderful skills for maintaining a strong sense of well being. When clouds cover the horizon, those who maintain greater self-compassion are less prone to blame themselves. They are more likely to understand that things beyond their control are part of the vagaries of life. Such a perspective allows constructive problem solving.

4. “I’m ultimately responsible for my own happiness and I’ve gone through some pretty tough times.” Personal responsibility and perspective: People who believe that their well being is their own responsibility tend to be happy, while those who believe there is little they can do to control their fate are far less likely to be so. When life’s problems appear, individuals who consistently blame others become victims, and lose the very leverage they need to work through problems. Alternatively, those who view their problems in the larger perspective tend to do a better job of managing life’s inevitable difficulties.

5. “I do my best to be kind.” Practicing kindness: Those who consistently go out of their way to be kind immediately gain by their action and are likely to receive reciprocal acts of caring. Such behavior deepens the very network of friendship that most of us crave which, in turn, supports us during times of stress. Kindness also strengthens our self-image and confidence, valuable assets when problems appear.

6. “I can only manage what’s under my control, nothing more.” Controlling what you can control: Indeed separating what you can control from what you cannot is a fundamental aspect of good mental health and happiness. Likewise such a personal practice again sets the stage for effective management of life’s greatest puzzles. Those who become bogged down with things beyond their control are limited in their capability to experience happiness and restricted in their ability to manage suffering.

The list goes on: listening well, forgiving, volunteering, focusing on healthy internal dialog and exercising, are good practices to enhance happiness. All contribute to minimizing the emotional pain that accompanies life’s challenges. I have often suggested that happiness takes work and, of course, it does. Ingredients that build a lifetime of general well being take time, energy and attention. Practice of those same attitudes and behaviors help protect and heal us during the troubling side of life as well.

Playing Well in the Sandbox

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on July 20, 2014 at 4:10 PM Comments comments (0)


"You never pay attention to me. You're just like your father — a cold fish." "Oh yeah, if you weren't such a blabbermouth, maybe I'd be able to get a word in edgewise."

This might be the opening salvo in a marital therapy session. Each side, often filled with venom, responding to each verbal assault with a counter of their own — like a grudge match, each hit filled with emotional baggage designed to do the utmost damage.

If left to its own momentum, this emotional intensity may continue unabated until one or the other explodes in disgust, turning to the therapist for support or relief. At home the same escalation often advances to a slammed door, sullen withdrawal or, in the worse case, physical violence.

The comparison between couples who "argue well" and those that don't is highly predictive of the quality of a marriage. Those relationships that engage in destructive exchanges have a low likelihood of success since many of their actions, such as name-calling, and certainly physical abuse, leave long-term scars. Resentment piled up like dried kindling makes future arguments burn hotter and retards healing. Mental recycling builds layers of blame and ironclad certainty makes reconciliation that much more difficult. The resulting hurt fuels distrust and fear, limiting closeness. Given such conditions it seems surprising that peace can ever be restored.

The techniques used by marital therapists to facilitate healing can be helpful in understanding how to build good relationships and avoid the problems in the first place. The goal, of course, is to learn to “play well in the sandbox” — a metaphor for getting along and even arguing well — something we try to teach our children at early age. We all have differences with those that we care for and it's smart to keep differences from degenerating into heated and destructive arguments.

One of the most effective styles that expert marital therapist John Gottman details is the use humor to interrupt an escalating argument. Such an approach requires both parties to deescalate once an agreed upon signal is expressed. Gottman cites one couple that abbreviates an argument when one or the other puts their tongue between their lips and blows hard making a silly noise. The meta message here is that "Our argument is getting too heated. Let's cool it and get back to it when we're not so agitated." It may sound absurd, and that particular gesture may not be the right one for you, but such a habit has saved many a marriage.

Marital therapists often require each party to patiently listen to the other's perception so closely that they can summarize it to the first person's satisfaction. Often in heated exchanges each party is likely to be gearing up their response, not putting their energy into listening, but preparing to counter instead. Requiring listening, to the point that satisfies the other person, accomplishes two goals; it tells the other that their point of view is actually being heard and secondly it increases the likelihood that the viewpoint is understood not just at the surface, but reaching underlying feelings and motives as well.

A third technique used to keep each party on track, is to disallow past history detours from sabotaging the problem solving efforts. "Oh yeah, you're a slob" doesn't help to resolve a financial dispute. Thus most therapists will regularly set a rule that participants must stick to the primary topic and the therapist will interrupt to maintain on-track exchanges.

Of course this is just a sampling of techniques used by marriage therapists and they are not magic. They sometimes take many, many, many hours of effort. Nevertheless the approaches can teach us something.

First, when arguments have continued and escalated to a damaging level, they are very difficult to resolve. The scars and hurt can be tremendously difficult to overcome in the future. Therefore, make every effort to interrupt an escalating argument before it gets out of hand.

Secondly, listen carefully not just to the other person's argument but see if you can restate it to be sure you understand their feelings and motives.

Third, do your best to stay on topic. If a disagreement can be transformed into problem solving, you're on the right track.

Difference of opinions and arguments are a part of life. Those who know how to get along in spite of those differences are likely to smile a lot more often than those who don't.

A Sure Fire Way to Increase Your Happiness

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on June 19, 2014 at 9:20 AM Comments comments (0)

Cleaning up the trash on a beach or roadside, joining a committee or board of a non profit organization, acting as a child advocate, serving food at a homeless shelter, listening to families at Hospice, being a greeter at a church — the list goes on and on. The areas in which my friends volunteer could fill a page, some tasks requiring skill and talent, others simply time and a good heart.

When you search the literature for behaviors that strongly promote happiness, volunteering jumps out. About a quarter of Americans do just that — volunteer on a regular basis. No wonder. The common refrain “I get so much more than I give” is authentically felt. In just one confirmation, neuroscientist David Linden detailed how the brain’s pleasure center is activated by generous behaviors towards others. But that’s just the beginning. Volunteering benefits physical health and is associated with reduced mortality risk, especially for people age 60 and over. Then there’s the sense of purpose, improved social support, reinforcement of a positive self-image and a greater degree of overall happiness. It’s no wonder that so many people volunteer.

At the heart of volunteering is reaching out to others, but it can do much more. There is a story of a grieving woman who goes to a wise man for advice. It seems that her husband died tragically the previous year and she continued to be deep in mourning. The wise man tells her that he has no magic potions or pills for her grief but that her recovery can come about if she finds someone who is very happy and without any sorrow of their own. He counsels her that she must listen very carefully to what they say if she is to move past her grief.

The woman began her quest in her rural village by going to the top of a nearby hill where the wealthy people lived. However, as soon as she inquired about the happiest person in the household, she was immediately told of the problems and sorrow present. She listened carefully but found nothing that soothed her grief and she continued on to the next house. In each home she found the same. Every home was a mixture of happiness and sorrow or mostly problems. After many homes, however, she noticed that her own sadness began to lessen.

Variations of this story exist in many cultures. Grieving and sorrow are appropriate. They tend to overstay their welcome, however, if kept totally inside. The woman in the story gave to others by listening and they, unknowingly, helped to distract her from her own troubles. Moreover, she began to gain meaning in her life as well as increase her contact with other people. Most everyone feels happier when they are with other people and even more so when they feel a sense of connection.

The story also illustrates two other features embedded in volunteer activity —kindness and perspective — features that contribute mightily to a strong sense of well being. Acts of kindness bolster happiness by activating the brain’s pleasure center mentioned above. It also generates a feeling of accomplishment. There’s the added attraction of fostering reciprocal acts of kindness and certainly gratitude from others — valuable happiness assets.

If that were not enough, most volunteering is provided to others less fortunate and thus likely to stimulate a sense of perspective, awareness that we have much to be grateful for.

There is one other observation I have about my friends who volunteer as a part of their life — they tend to be very happy people.

Your Own Little Study

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on April 19, 2014 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (0)

The world of positive psychology has unleashed an avalanche of surveys and studies examining the happiest people in the world. To me, the results are intriguing but sometimes contradictory. For example, authoritarian countries tend to have very low levels of happiness, but one of the happiest turns out to be the very authoritarian Singapore, a stunning exception.

There are other surprising findings as well; the senior population is, on the whole, surprisingly happy. Disabled people are happier than most people would suspect and while more money makes the very poor happier there is an upper limit where additional income appears to have little additional happiness benefit.

I find these surveys and studies gripping because I am immersed in the study of well being but wonder if most people couldn’t learn a great deal just by systematically examining the people they know. When I look around at my friends and relatives, there definitely are those who seem to generally be very, very happy. And likewise, there are others who are miserable. Interestingly, the unhappy ones are more rare. In our society, Gallop and other pollsters report that roughly 80% of the population professes to be happy most of the time and within that group a smaller percentage, roughly 33%, very happy. That leaves only 20% who are unhappy or very unhappy.

So as you look around, you might have a more difficult time coming up with the unhappy ones. But I believe the effort is worthwhile. Here’s what I’m suggesting: Think of the two happiest people that you know, people that you know well enough to describe their habits, life-style and attitudes. Now think of two others what are quite unhappy. As I say, you may have a harder time listing unhappy people, but I bet at least one will quickly come to mind and with a little more mental searching you may be able to come up with a second. Then detail as much as you can about each of your four people. Write out your observations with particular attention to thinking styles and habits. The exercise, by the way, is likely to be especially enlightening if done in partnership with a spouse or a very close friend.

I did find differences between my two groups: My unhappy people tend to be more moody and much more distrustful of others and institutions. The other thing that jumped out of my very unscientific and extremely limited sample was the frequent blaming of others by my two unhappy acquaintances.

My happy people, on the other hand, are more upbeat, optimistic, more likely to find the silver lining in every cloud and certainly appreciative of their good fortune.

But do your own little study. See if you can find distinguishing habits and attitudes that separate those who are happy and unhappy. We tend to associate with people who share our general economic, racial and even political background so the differences we are likely to observe are those of personality and attitude. That turns out to be fortunate. For it is personality and attitude that are most under our control and therefore the difference where we can gain the most. I wonder what differences you can find and would love to have you share your findings with me.

To some extant my observations confirm my suspicions as to what is important. They also made me think about what lessons I can learn and what I need to do in order to maximize my own happiness. It took me about forty minutes to write it out. It made me think. It was worth the effort.

You Can Handle More Than You Realize

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on March 15, 2014 at 1:35 PM Comments comments (0)

I complimented a friend yesterday on how well she is handling a life threatening illness. Her reply is well worth remembering.

She downplayed her own admirable management of a serious health issue for the last two years and quickly identified a mutual friend who was dealing with something even more severe. In doing so, she reminded me that those who cope well express empathy for others who are in an even more challenging place.

Those who wallow in “Why did this happen to me?” or a “This is so unfair” mentality have a steep mountain to climb. My friend stays away from that trap. Instead, she compares her problems with someone less well off. In doing so she puts her problem in perspective and implicitly expresses gratitude that her situation isn’t any worse than it is.

She also turned the table and complimented me on my handling of a lifetime issue. I realized that, while I questioned my own ability to manage her serious problem, she, in turn, wondered if she could manage mine. How typical of her and, I think, of many of us. When we think of facing serious challenges such as dealing with the loss of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, or a sudden disability, we are terrified. In the abstract we often believe that we are totally incapable of surviving such tragedies. And yet in reality, overwhelmingly, we do.

If you were a clinical psychologist 30 years ago, your focus on a new patient would undoubtedly be exclusively on their problems. Your training would have taught you to look for patterns, family history and factors that influenced their concerns. What would be absent, or at least underemphasized, in your analysis would be the patient’s strengths. That omission is significant. Modern clinicians don’t overlook the strengths that each of us brings to a crisis.

Many of us make the mistake of forgetting that we have a repertoire of mental health coping skills that need to be unearthed when a crisis arises. The problem stems from the fact that we bury certain fears, like the potential loss of a loved one, so deeply that we forget our strengths as well. There is much to be said for living in the present. But not if, in stifling our fears, we fail to remember that we have managed pain before and are capable of handling it again.

If you were to survey 20 people regarding the tragedies suffered during their lives, you would amass an astonishing list: abandonment, physical and psychological abuse, divorce, family alcoholism, and deaths of close relatives and friends. The list would go on and on. Most of these situations leave scars of varying degrees. Yet people survive and learn. The resilience of humans is remarkable. Our survival skills emerge and are mostly enhanced by living through life’s trials.

My recommendation is not to obsess over potential disasters. But do recognize that you bring strengths to problems that you will confront. You have already faced extraordinary difficulties and have survived. Some may have taken time to overcome, but you have. Recognize what you’ve already been through and have confidence that you can manage future challenges. It may not be easy, but with those skills in hand you’ll manage again when the time comes.


robert pawlicki