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.


Missing Walter Cronkite

I believe our nation's divisions have been worsened by 24-hour news channels.

I’ve written before about my concerns that the divisions between conservatives and liberals,

Walter Cronkite

Republicans and Democrats have become extreme. I, and others, have noted that we have lost the ability to have civil disagreement and to find middle ground. Unfortunately, my concerns have not lessened, but I do have a theory about one contributing factor. I think our perceptions have been altered by the existence of 24-hour news networks.


When I was growing up, we had three television channels. Each had their own news program, which lasted one hour or less. In that hour, they had time to report the events of the day, but little else. They did occasionally express their views, but commentary was minimal. You heard the facts and formulated your own opinions.


I’ve shared before that on occasion, I will flip channels between CNN and Fox News to compare their coverage of a day’s events. The difference is amazing. In fact, I’ve concluded that they are actually reporting on alternative universes. It couldn’t be the same country.


A 24-hour news network has to fill up, well … 24 hours of programing. There aren’t enough events in a day to do that. Thus, they bring in commentators, analysts and panels of “experts.” They discuss each day’s events at length. They state opinions, and they state them with vigor.


Each 24-hour news network knows its viewer base. They cater to that base in their choice of which stories to cover, which angle to present, and which opinions to express. Every program is carefully crafted to pull their viewers in and say what they want to hear.


We have to remember that news programs, like situation comedies, game and reality shows, are designed to sell advertising. They aren’t donating their resources for free just to keep us informed. They sell advertising minutes, and the more viewers they have, the more they can charge for those minutes. They also know that people pay attention to negative stories more than positive, and that agitated people will stay glued to the screen for longer periods of time.


The more we hear stories that reinforce our pre-existing opinions, the more extreme our opinions become. The opposing side becomes our enemy. We focus on the differences between “us” and “them,” and ignore the similarities. We don’t trust, like or respect the other side. We don’t talk to the other side. We just argue, and we certainly don’t listen. Our divisions deepen. Conservatives become more conservative, and liberals become more liberal.


So, the next time you find yourself ranting about the correctness of your own opinion, and the foolishness or evil of the other side, consider the possibility that you may have been influenced or inflamed by programming actually created simply to sell stuff. Neither side has all the answers. All our perceptions are influenced by our own bias. As Walter Cronkite used to say, “And that’s the way it is.”



Relationship Boundaries

Here's a good technique to establish good relationship boundaries.

People need people. We are hard-wired for relationship. We suffer when we don’t have friends and family. We need romantic relationships. Most of the time, ourrelationship boundaries relationships are positive, but sometimes not.


Often, my counseling focuses on helping my client deal with a difficult relationship. The individual may be suffering because of a relationship, which is hurtful or neglectful. The pain has reached the point where they need assistance.


Sometimes, we find ourselves in a relationship with a person who says or does hurtful things to us. They may be critical or demeaning. Their negative messages can come from their words, facial expressions or body language. Either way, we get the point. We feel inadequate and conclude that we can’t please them.


The hurtful relationship could come in the form of a cold, distance. They become disengaged. They seem to have no interest in spending time with us. They may flirt with others, or even have affairs. We feel alone, even when there is someone else in the house. We conclude that we must be boring or unlovable.


The intensity of negative treatment can reach the point of abuse. The abuse can be emotional, physical or sexual. An abusive relationship severely wounds the self-esteem and creates fear.


All relationships begin positively. We would never voluntarily enter into an abusive, hurtful relationship. At first, the other person treats us well. We enjoy spending time with them, and they seem to enjoy spending time with us. We have all kinds of positive expectations for our future together.


The negative treatment begins subtly, with a slight criticism or a decrease in attention. We shrug it off as the result of a bad day. We assume we deserved it. We don’t notice the slow increase in negativity or distance.


At some point, we are faced with the hurtful nature of the relationship, but still tend to blame ourselves. We wonder what we did wrong to deserve being treated so badly.


When do we say, “enough?” When do we let the other person know that we don’t deserve to be treated badly? Where should we set our boundaries?


You can determine your boundaries by putting a loved one in your shoes. Identify a person that you like very much or love. It could be a same-gender friend or one of your children. Imagine that they were in a relationship with a person, who treated them in exactly the same way you are being treated. Imagine that they had made the same efforts you have made to resolve the situation, but the partner continued to treat them badly. Imagine that their partner said the same negative statements, neglected them to the same degree, or was equally abusive to them.  


How would you feel if your loved one was being treated this way? What would you want them to do? There’s your boundary. Never allow someone to treat you in a way that you would not want someone you love to be treated. It’s a pretty simple guideline, but it works!

King of the Hill

Kids and adults sometimes try to boost their social status by putting others down. It doesn't have to be that way.

In the days before video games, kids spent more time outside. They had to be creative in finding ways to occupy themselves. They sometimes created their own games. One suchchildren teasing another child game was “King of the Hill.”


In this game, kids would gather at the bottom of a hill. Someone would yell “go,” and everyone would race to the top. The goal was to be the one standing at the top of the hill at the end of the game. There were two ways to win the game. You could win by being the fastest one up the hill. Most often, you won by pulling anyone ahead of you backwards.


As you can imagine, the game could get pretty rough. Some kids would be running up the hill, while others were rolling back down. You knew you were in trouble when you felt someone grabbing the back of your shirt.


Unfortunately, this game is still played today, just in a different way. It’s played every day in school. Kids will put other kids down in an attempt to elevate their social standing. They try to look cool or gain popularity by teasing, gossiping, or tearing down another kid.


Kids want to fit in. They are acutely sensitive to their social standing. When they tease another kid, their desire to gain popularity blinds them to the pain felt by the victim. The target of their barb simply becomes collateral damage, at they strive to get further up the social hill.


Of course, not every child plays the game. The child with a good self-esteem doesn’t have to play. In fact, I believe that those children with the deepest self-esteem wounds play the game most viciously.


Some kids avoid the game because of their strong sense of empathy. They imagine the pain of the victim, and refuse to attack, even if their own social standing is compromised. They look for a different way to deal with the social battle.


It would be nice if the game were restricted to childhood. Unfortunately, adults sometimes play their own version. We play through gossip, which serves to make us feel better, through the denigration of another. We also play by comparison. We tend to feel better when our stuff is bigger, newer or more expensive than others. In some settings, people still play through direct teasing, oddly reminiscent of sixth grade dramatics.


It would be nice if the victims of this game could realize that their attackers play out of their own insecurities or self-esteem wounds. It would be great if players could pause the game long enough to feel empathy for their victims, and look for a healthier way to boost their own self-esteem. We would all be better off if we realized that there is room at the top of the hill for everyone.


Stress and Aging

We can't eliminate the losses that come with aging, but we can take steps to lessen the stress.

Stress is defined as an organism’s response to environmental demands or pressures. Negative stress occurs when we perceive our environment as straining or exceeding ourstress and aging adaptive capacities and threatening our well-being. We experience stress when we feel a loss of (a) control over our physical well-being, (b) influence over our circumstances or (c) our social support networks.

As we age, we inevitably experience all these losses. People vary in how early or late the losses occur, but unless we die young, we will all be there. Let’s look at these areas of loss and how they impact stress.

  1. Loss of control of our physical well-being: The loss of physical functioning actually begins in middle age. We may find that we need bifocals. We don’t have the stamina we once had, and we experience new aches and pains. As the aging process progresses, our physical losses increase. We exchange agility and stamina for fatigue and pain. In advanced age, even our day-to-day functioning becomes problematic, such that we need others to take care of our needs. All of this adds to our stress in predictable ways. We lose trust in our bodies. We lose control.


  1. Loss of control over our circumstances: With advanced age, it seems that others begin to make choices for us. We are told that it is no longer safe for us to drive. At some point, we find that we are unable to take care of ourselves and stay in our homes. Even with retirement savings, most of us have to deal with limited income. Many older adults find themselves worrying more about things they would have ignored in their younger years. Uncertainty always leads to increased stress.


  1. Loss of social support networks: Our social support networks consist of our spouse, family members, friends and acquaintances. One disadvantage of living longer than most is that you live longer than most. You experience the deaths of many people you have known and loved. You miss them. Also, as we age, we have fewer opportunities to make new friends. We are more likely to feel alone and lonely. Isolation creates stress.

Unfortunately, we haven’t found a way to eliminate the changes that come with aging. But we can take steps to lessen the stress. First, we can be thankful for the gift of a long life. We could eliminate the stresses of old age by dying young, but I don’t think many would choose that option. Gratitude lessens stress.

When we realize that old age is a gift, we more easily accept the characteristics of an aging body. We find ways to work around our limitations. This attitude also helps us adapt to the realities of our circumstances. We work to maintain independence where we can, but demonstrate a more serene acceptance where we can’t. Finally, we need to do everything we can to maintain our relationships. Call any remaining old friends or acquaintances, stay involved in group activities as long as you can. Look for opportunities to keep your mind active.

And for those of you in the younger years, call or visit an older adult. Let them know you love them. Think of someone who may feel that they are alone, and let the know that they’re not. You just might reduce their stress.