The Better Angels of Our Nature

We must learn to listen to each other with respect and civility.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  Abraham Lincolnkindness


These words were spoken by Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address on March 4th, 1861. In just over one month, the Civil War would begin. The country would be torn apart. Four years of intense combat would follow, with 620,000 to 750,000 people being killed. Neighbors would fight neighbors, brothers would kill brothers, Americans would destroy other Americans.

Though it would take years, America did reunite and heal from the Civil War. Our common goals and purposes became more important than our differences. Divisive labels lost their meaning. Our forefather’s wonderful experiment of Democracy thrived once again.

While the most dramatic, the Civil War wasn’t the only time our country and our people have been divided. We have had other times of separation, times when the distinctions between “us” and “them” seemed clear. We have had other times when our goals, our cultures and our purposes were at odds.

I believe we are in such a time now. The divide between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, right wing and left wing has consistently widened. It seems to me that we’ve lost our ability to disagree with civility and remain neighbors and friends after the discussion. Like many, I have felt a deep concern about where we are heading.

Recently, however, I have been reading “The Soul of America” by Jon Meacham and feeling more hopeful because of it. In this book, released May, 2018, Meacham provides a historical perspective for our current social climate. He points out that we have seen many times of strife, but that each was followed by healing and even strengthening of our country. He notes that our Democratic form of government serves to facilitate such healing. I really appreciate his hopeful perspective.

On the first day of his presidency, Lincoln appealed, “We must not be enemies.”  But, it’s up to us. We have to begin by listening to each other with respect and calm. We must remember that our differences are far outweighed by our similarities. We have to look for common ground. Those on the “other side” are, after all, our neighbors. In this time, we can work together for the common good, but to do so, we must depend on “the better angels of our nature.

The Medicine of Laughter

A good laugh can do much to improve our mental and physical health.

We all laugh. In fact, laughter is universal. Regardless of culture or native language, all humanslaughter laugh. It is a hardwired response, involving the brain centers of emotion and memory; the amygdala and the hippocampus. It activates the pleasure systems of the brain.

A baby’s first laugh will delight her parents at about 14 to 18 weeks of age. At about eight months of age, infants begin doing things to make others laugh. Without words, they begin clowning to make others laugh. They may try to put their toes into their caregiver’s mouth or expose their naked tummy, while shaking back and forth. At this early age, they seem to understand humor.

Comedians make us laugh by exploiting our expectations. They set us up, then surprise us with the punch line. We laugh at the unexpected or the absurd.

So, why do we laugh? Other than the fact that it feels good, are there benefits to a good belly laugh. Research indicates that laughter serves us well. Here are a few ways that laughter is good medicine.

  1. Laughter is good for your heart. It gives us a good cardiovascular workout, much like going for a walk. A good laugh will strengthen your heart muscle.


  1. It is a natural pain killer. Laughter makes us produce endorphins, which increase comfort, decrease pain, and just make us feel good.


  1. It protects us from disease. Studies show that people who laugh regularly have lower incidence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension. Laughter also boosts our immune system, helping us ward off infections.


  1. Laughter decreases our blood pressure. People who laugh frequently tend to have lower blood pressure, which decreases the risk of heart attack or stroke.


  1. It decreases stress and anxiety. We increase our relaxation response when we laugh. Our stress hormones go down, and we become less anxious. Genuine laughter calms an anxious mind.


  1. Laughter helps depression. Studies have shown that watching funny television shows or movies improves one’s outlook on life. While it may be more difficult to laugh when depressed, the research suggests that watching comedy significantly decreases the emotional pain of the disease.


  1. It strengthens relationship bonds. Laughing with others increases our feelings of connection. Sharing a funny moment makes us feel closer to each other. A non-threatening humorous comment can often ease a tense discussion.


  1. It can shift our perspective. When dealing with a problem, a little laughter can help us distance ourselves from the seriousness of the difficulty, helping us feel less overwhelmed.


These are just a few of the benefits of laughter. So, let yourself laugh a little. Look for things that make you laugh. The best laughter is when you spontaneously laugh with a friend or loved one. But, you can also find humor on the internet. Just google “clean comedy” or “clean jokes.” Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’ll feel better for it.

But, It’s Not Fair!

We tend to have the mistaken belief that life should be fair.

It seems to begin early in childhood. Every parent has heard the complaint, “But, that’s not Life is Unfairfair.” We seem to have this instinctual expectation that the world should be fair, and that expectation often continues into adulthood.


When we perceive that we have not been treated fairly, we complain. To ourselves, or to anyone who will listen, we complain about our unfair treatment. Our protests reflect our inner expectation that life should be fair. Even though we intellectually know better, our complaints also indicate that we assume life has been fair to everyone else.


So, what do we mean by fairness? Arthur Dobrin, DSW, teacher of applied ethics at Hofstra University, points out that there are three different perceptions of fairness. These are as follows:


  1. Sameness: This is the expectation that everyone will be treated equally. Everyone pays the same thing, and everyone gets the same thing. Regardless of need and circumstances, everything is equal. Everyone eats, or no one does. Senior citizens pay the same as younger adults and children. No one gets more than another. Dr. Dobrin calls this perception of fairness, equality of outcome.


  1. Deservedness: This is the expectation that you get what you deserve. If you work hard, you get everything you earn, and you keep it. You get only what you earn, and you get nothing if you don’t earn it. Those who are smarter, more talented and harder working will have more, and the inept, unmotivated or less diligent will have less. Dobrin says this is fairness as individual freedom.


  1. Need: This is the perception that those who have more should give more to help those who are unable to contribute as much. This is based on the belief that we all have obligations to one another, and that we should show compassion to those who have less. Here we see fairness linked with responsibility. Dr. Dobrin notes that this is fairness as social justice.


As you read through these, I suspect you agreed with some elements of all three. Most of us adhere to each perception, depending on the circumstances. We may also apply one concept to the world, and a different one to ourselves.


However, the truth is that life is not fair. A tornado will rip through a neighborhood, completely destroying one house, while not touching the one next door. One person gets cancer, while another remains healthy. It’s hard to understand. It’s not fair.


I certainly don’t pretend to understand why things happen the way they do. I do know, however, that obsessing or moaning about the unfairness of life accomplishes nothing. It just intensifies our pain. Once we accept that life isn’t fair, once we accept that life is difficult, we can begin to move on and live again. It may be hard, but it’s the reality of this life.

One Key to Happiness

An attitude of gratitude can do wonders for your mood.

Once more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents gratitudealready knew; that counting our blessings will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.


In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.


We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do so with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.


First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, research indicates that we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.


The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.


The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share characteristic; an attitude of gratitude. They report that exceptionally positive people pay more attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. They report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.


We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!

Making Yourself Happy

There are steps we can take to make ourselves happier.

Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.making yourself happy

                                                                       Abraham Lincoln


How happy are you today? How happy are you most days? Do you tend to go through your days with a sense of well-being or joy, or do you tend to move from one problem to another in your mind?


Research, and common sense, suggest that we have more influence over our happiness than we think. We can increase our feelings of happiness if we are deliberate about it. Most of the time, we can improve our mood if we make the effort.


Now, I want to be clear that I’m not referring to clinical depression here. The disease of depression is a physical and mental disorder, which requires treatment. You can’t just snap out of depression. Even in depression, however, you can sometimes improve your mood with effort. You can’t just decide to make it go away.


I’m referring to our day-to-day moods when depression is not a factor. In these situations, we can shift our mood if we try.  We don’t have perfect control over our mood, but we do have more control than we think.


Have you ever noticed that your mood one day might be pretty positive, and another day be down and out. Did you notice that your life situation might have been exactly the same on both days? It wasn’t your circumstances that determined your mood, it was your thinking, your perspective or your outlook. One day you thought negatively about yourself or your life, and the other day your thoughts were more positive.


So let’s imagine that you listened to the quote from Abraham Lincoln above, and made up your mind to be happy today. You determined this morning to make it a good day. How would you do it? What thoughts would you generate? What thoughts would you avoid? What would you want to notice or focus on?


Most likely, you already know the answers to these questions. You would want to deliberately notice or focus on the positive aspects of your life. You would try to avoid obsessing about your problems. You would remind yourself of the things you have to be thankful for. You would make efforts to cheer others up, or make them feel better. You would look for humor. You would get engaged in life activities. You would take the time to notice the beauty of nature. You would remind yourself of the positive traits of those around you, rather than their deficits. You would take the time to do something nice for yourself, or give yourself a little treat, without guilt. You would try to smile more.


The problem is not that we don’t know what to do. We just forget to do it. We focus our attention on the negative circumstances in our lives and believe strongly that we can’t feel better as long as those circumstances exist. We believe that we have no choice. We exclaim, “How could I possibly be happier in this situation?”


You may be right. Some circumstances are so negative that they do dictate your mood but most are not.  Everyone has negative and positive circumstances in their lives. If you’re waiting for all your negative circumstances to disappear before you can experience happiness, you will be waiting a long time.


What would it take for you to improve your happiness level just one or two notches? Why not give it a try. Be deliberate today about improving your mood. Make up your mind to feel better today. See if Lincoln was on to something.

Seeing the Truth About Suicide

Suicide is always devastating to those left behind. Our depression often hides this fact.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. On average, there are 123suicide suicides each day. There were more than twice as many suicides as there were homicides.


I treat many people in my practice who are clinically depressed, and most of those report some suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thinking or urges is one of the primary symptoms of the disease. While not every depressed person is suicidal, the risk should always be assessed.


Suicidal risk can be categorized according to severity. I try to determine which of the following descriptions best fit the person’s current state.


  1. The depressed person has had some suicidal thoughts but has no plan for how he would do it. He just wishes he wasn’t here. He denies any intentions and can provide clear reasons as to why he wouldn’t do anything to himself.
  2. The person denies any intention to act on it but has determined a plan of how she would do it if she actually made an attempt. The more lethal the plan, the more severe the risk. Plans involving firearms or hanging represent greater risk, especially if the person has such means available.
  3. The person expresses uncertainty about his intentions. He can’t make a clear and believable no-suicide commitment. He often believes that his loved ones would be better off without him. He often sees suicide as a viable, and often the only, solution to the pain of his depression.


When I encounter a depressed person who expresses the belief that his suicide would have minimal impact on his loved ones, I ask him to do a little thought experiment. First, I have him think of someone he loves. I ask him to imagine that his cell phone rang at that moment in the session. I ask him to imagine that the caller was crying and having difficulty speaking. I then have him imagine that the caller told him that this loved one had committed suicide. I ask him how he would be impacted. I ask him how long it would take to get over that person’s suicide. I ask if he would have questions about what he could have done, or whether he might blame himself. I ask him if his life could ever be the same.


The response to the thought experiment is clear and often emotional. When we consider how a loved one’s suicide would impact us, we can see more accurately how our suicide would impact those we leave behind.


Suicide is always devastating to those left behind. Grief is compounded by questions, doubts, self-blame and often anger. Their lives are never the same. That’s the truth about suicide. Next week we’ll look at “The Lies of Suicide.”



Reminiscing Into Relationship

Reminiscing about positive moments can strengthen relationship bonds.

Even the best relationships require work. We have to communicate, support, encourage, reminiscing into relationshipnegotiate, compromise and occasionally apologize to keep a relationship positive. Like an infant, long-term relationships require care and feeding. There is no auto-pilot for a relationship. Unfortunately, we often forget this.


Think of your relationship as a ship sailing across the Atlantic. When you left the dock, you were excited. You looked forward to the journey. You imagined many days of smooth sailing. You set your course and marked it with a long, straight line from one port to the next. The skies were clear and blue. The sea looked calm. The future looked good.


Before long, however, the winds changed direction. The ocean’s currents pushed you North or South. Your ship drifted off course. Every relationship drifts off-course at times. If you were paying attention, you noticed this and made a correction. If you noticed it quickly, the correction was easy.


But what if you weren’t paying attention? By the time you discovered it, your ship may have been well off-course. In that case, it would be much harder, and take much longer, to get back on course.


Sometimes life brings a storm. When you’re doing everything you can just to survive the storm, you can’t focus very well on staying on-course. You figure you’ll just have to work on that after the winds die down.


In the early stages of marital or relationship counseling, I often ask the couple to recall the best time in their relationship. Their “best” times don’t have to agree. For one, it may be when they were dating. For the other, it may be the years when their children were born. I just ask them to identify the time that seemed best for each person.


I then ask them to talk about what it was about that time that made it feel like the best for them. How did they feel? How did the other person make them feel about themselves? What did they do back then that made it the best time? How did they behave differently back then?


The exercise leads them to reminisce about their good times. Often, their moods change a bit. They sometimes connect a little in that moment. It’s such a simple thing, but reminiscing can be a powerful tool to initiate change.


Of course, it doesn’t fix all the problems, but it does remind you that there were better times. When your ship is off-course, it helps to remember the reason you set sail in the first place. It helps to remind yourself that that line drawn across that map still exists. With work, you still have a chance of getting back on course.


Reading People

We constantly read other people. Our assumptions are often incorrect.

Because I am a psychologist, people often ask me if I analyze people when I’m not working. Iguess the answer is yes and no. I don’t consciously make an attempt to analyze others on my days off. But, I have to admit that I often notice cues that suggest what others are feeling. I do read people, but the fact is, we all do. We all make assumptions about others.


Whether or not we are conscious of it, we constantly read other people. We notice their voice tone, body position, gestures, and facial expressions. We pay attention to the way they are dressed and groomed. We attend to the way they walk or stand. We form impressions or opinions about them before they open their mouths.


As humans, our social relationships are important. An ability to relate well to others is essential to our success and happiness. In ancient tribal days, it was a matter of life and death. If you didn’t get along with the tribe, you might get kicked out, and you didn’t survive very long in the jungle alone. This may also be the reason we tend to worry about what other’s think about us.


While we consciously pay attention to the words others are saying, research shows that the majority of our communication is non-verbal. UCLA professor, Albert Merhrabian, indicated that 55 percent of what we convey comes from body language, 38 percent from our tone of voice, and only 7 percent from our words.


Since our observations of non-verbal cues are usually unconscious, we tend to react without consciously understanding why. We may say that we have a feeling about a person or have a gut impression. Our assumptions sometimes dictate the future course of the relationship.


Unfortunately, sometimes our unconscious impressions are wrong. We may misread the non-verbal cues and take the relationship in the wrong direction. We may damage, or even end, otherwise good relationships based on mistaken assumptions of the other person’s feelings or intentions.


We sometimes misread people because of our biases or prejudices. Impressions formed from one’s clothing or physical appearance are often misleading. Assumptions that a certain type person always thinks or acts in a particular way should be avoided. Well-known body language interpretations may also be inaccurate. A person may cross their arms because they are cold, not because they are shutting you out.


We also misread people because of own self-esteem issues. If as children, we learned to see ourselves as unlikeable or unlovable, we will read others as rejecting, even when they aren’t. If we believe we are inadequate and tend to mess up, we will misread others as judging or disapproving of us, even when they aren’t judging us at all. Unfortunately, these mistaken impressions only serve to strengthen our pre-existing negative beliefs.


I’m not going to suggest that you stop reading people. You can’t help yourself. You’re going to do it, whether or not you are conscious of it. I will suggest that you make an attempt to be skeptical of your impressions. Remind yourself that your assumptions are just assumptions. Give yourself the opportunity to find out that you are wrong. You might preserve a healthy relationship.



Mental Health Services in Schools

Mental health programs offered in schools could offer much needed help for our children.

One in five children has a diagnosable mental health problem, but nearly two-thirds get little or no help. An estimated 13% of children and adolescents worldwide have significant mentalmental health programs in schools health problems, such as anxiety or depression. Over 15% of high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide. These statistics, plus the many school shootings make it clear that our children and adolescents have mental health needs. Since most children spend much of their time at school, it offers an excellent opportunity to reach many of them with mental health education, prevention and treatment.


There have been attempts to provide mental health services in the schools. For many years, schools have had school counselors on-site. Unfortunately, they have often been given administrative duties that limited their time to do actual counseling. At times, schools have contracted with clinical mental health professionals so that students with identified diagnoses could be seen on the school campus during the school day. This service does increase the availability of treatment, but many students can slip through the cracks, and insurance or Medicaid has to be billed for the treatment.


There have been several examples of more comprehensive school-based mental health programs. A recent review in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry evaluated the effectiveness of eight such programs. The research linked those programs to benefits such as reducing anxiety, improving reading scores, reducing bullying in school, and lowering rates of substance abuse in young adults. Altogether, the programs reached over 27 million students over the last ten years.


These comprehensive programs provide a combination of mental health education, social skills building, small-group activities and when needed, individual therapy. The education components are sometimes taught by specially trained teachers, and sometimes by mental health professionals. Services are made available to all students, regardless of insurance coverage.


The Harvard Review authors concluded that school-based programs continue to be one of the most promising types of preventive mental health interventions for children. Of course, such programs will cost money, but considering the prevalence of mental health programs in our children and adolescents, and the recent incidents of school violence, we may not have a choice.

The Anatomy of a Bully

Bullying behaviors should not be tolerated at any age.

We’ve always had them with us. Every child in every school has felt the pain of being bullied.bullying behavior Every child has also watched as the bully tortures another victim. About one-in-four students in the US are bullied on a regular basis.


Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior, in which someone repeatedly and intentionally causes another person discomfort or injury. Bullying can take the form of verbal attacks, subtle gestures or physical aggression. The victim usually does nothing to cause the bullying and can do nothing to defend himself or herself.


The bully often performs the aggressive actions in front of others in order to create a “mob” mentality. Others will sometimes join in on the bullying to boost their own social position or at least divert any attacks from themselves. Bullying behaviors can often boost popularity. In fact, research shows that bullies are often perceived as the “cool kids.”


About 77 percent of bullying is verbal. It can take the form of spreading rumors, making derogatory remarks, calling names or teasing. About 14 percent of victims have more severe reactions to being bullied, including lowered self-esteem, depression, anxiety about going to school, and suicidal thoughts. Bullying victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. A British study found that at least half of suicides among young people were related to having been bullied.


So, why do some people become bullies? For years, the prevailing belief was that bullies really suffered from a low self-esteem. More recent research concludes that most bullies actually have a high self-esteem, seeing themselves as superior to their victims. They do, however, seem to have a higher vulnerability to feeling shame, or being shame-prone. A person can have problems with shame and still have a high self-esteem, and this is what makes the person act like a bully. These kids disown their own shame and try to place that shame on other kids. These kids are also skilled at triggering the emotion of shame in others.


Research shows that the frequency of bullying behaviors decreases as children grow up, with most bullying incidents occurring between sixth and tenth grades. As we mature, most of us learn more healthy ways to interact, and finally realize the destructive power of bullying.


Unfortunately, not all bullies grow out of the behavior. We see, all too often, bullying behaviors in adults. We see adults spreading rumors, making derogatory remarks, name calling or teasing. We see adults exhibiting aggressive behaviors toward people who have lesser power, and have trouble defending themselves. We see adults exhibiting bullying behaviors in public, apparently trying to generate the mob mentality noted above.


Regardless of age, bullying is wrong. It is destructive and damaging and has no redeeming value. It reflects our most primitive nature. When we ignore, tolerate, or worse, praise the bully, we risk sinking to the same level. When bullying behaviors are recognized for what they are and are no longer tolerated, they lose their power. In schools, as in adult life, we need to demonstrate an attitude of intolerance for all forms of bullying behavior.