Are You Really Experiencing Your Life?

We live most of our lives mindlessly. We may be doing one thing, but our minds tend to be on other things. We live in the present moment, but our minds are on the past or the future.

I first learned about the technique of “mindfulness” on a PBS television program, called “Healing and the Mind.” The host was the excellent reporter, Bill Moyers, and each episode featured a clinic, somewhere in the world, that specialized in mind/body medicine.

On this particular episode, he featured a clinic at Massachusetts Medical Center, a major teaching hospital where many Harvard medical students do their rotations and internships. People come there from all over the world for assessment and treatment of serious medical disorders.

In that hospital, is a clinic that was originally called “The Center for Catastrophic Illness,” and was founded by a psychologist, named Jon Kabit-Zinn. Patients are referred to this clinic who have any illness that has proven to be a catastrophe in their lives. The clinic has been enormously effective in helping these patients deal with their various illnesses.

The clinic teaches the technique of mindfulness. The technique has been practiced in Asia for about four thousand years, but has only been applied to healthcare in the US for about twenty years. While mindfulness practice cannot directly cure many physical illnesses, it can help patients deal with their difficulties with much less distress and discomfort. It has even been shown to cure some stress-related illnesses.

The technique involves three components, (a) noticing, (b) without judging, (c) in the present moment. To notice means to truly experience, to really be in the moment. Focus your attention on that event. Experience it with your five senses. If you are somewhere, really be there. Focus your mind on what you are doing, rather than something in the past or the future.

For example, if you are driving, notice the experience of driving. What do you see? What do you feel? Notice the unconscious movement of your hand on the steering wheel. Notice the subtle rumble of the road noise. Do the same with any experience. If you are interacting with a loved one, really focus your attention on that person and the interaction. If you are washing dishes, notice the various aspects of the experience, the feel of the water, the feel of the soap or the movements of your hands.

Now, try to recall some of the favorite moments of your life. I would bet that you experienced each of these favorite moments mindfully. You were focused on what you were doing at the time. If you experienced the moment mindlessly, you wouldn’t recall it as a favorite moment. I wonder how many other moments could have been favorites, if we had experienced them mindfully rather than mindlessly.

The second part of mindfulness is to notice “without judging.” This means to not analyze our experience in our minds, but to just experience it. We don’t focus on whether the experience is good or bad. It just is. For example, patients are actually taught to be mindful of their pain. This may seem strange, but we find that, when patients notice pain, without thinking of it as good or bad, the pain lessons, or at least becomes less distressful. We usually try to escape from our pain, and in doing so, make ourselves more tense. This tension actually worsens the discomfort.

The last part of mindfulness is “in the present moment.” This means to focus your attention on the present moment, rather than experiencing the present moment with your mind thinking about something in the past or something in the future.

Let’s think about time for a moment. All time can be divided into three parts; the past, the future, and the present. Everything prior to this moment in time is the past. Nothing in the past actually exists, except in our memories. Everything after this moment is the future, and nothing in the future actually exists except in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists at any moment is that thin slice of time we call the present.

Yet, we live most of our present moments thinking about something in the past or something in the future. We don’t really experience the present moment, because we are analyzing, reminiscing or regretting past events or anticipating, dreading or worrying about future events. We thus miss the experience of the present moment.

Take a moment now to be mindful of the present moment. Notice what your five senses are experiencing. Notice your breathing. The act of noticing the breath can always bring you back to the present moment. Your breath is always with you. Let yourself simply be in the present moment now and experiencing this moment fully. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, it’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the present moment.

Practice this for a few moments at a time. If you can stay in the present moment for a few seconds, that’s good enough at first. After being mindful of the present moment experience for a little while, notice what you feel. Most people report that they feel a sense of calm or peace.

Practice mindfulness several times per day. You don’t have to take time out of your day at first. Just be mindful of whatever you’re doing. Then, if you like, take a few moments out of your day to get in a more extended time of present moment awareness. Give it a try!

Question: If you have tried present-moment mindfulness, what did you experience? Also, report any difficulties you experienced in trying the technique.

The Violin Nobody Wanted

ImageThis post is a little longer than most. I have had several requests to share the following story from my book, “Parables for a Wounded Heart.” I hope you enjoy it!

Once there was a family that bought an old house. The prior owners had moved out of the house some time earlier, so this new family never met them. On the day they moved in, they had some items that they wanted to store in the attic. When they climbed up the attic stairs, they found that the previous owners had left some junk piled in one corner. The new owners didn’t have time to go through the stuff and throw it away, so they just stacked their things around the leftover pile. They didn’t think of it again.

After several years, the family decided to do some spring cleaning. They planned to have a yard sale to get rid of some of the things they had stored in the attic. When they went up to get their items, they saw the pile of things left by the previous owners. They decided they might as well try to sell those things too. Perhaps they could make a little extra money.

As they sorted out the pile, they found several items they could sell including an old violin in a case. The violin looked in pretty good shape, but the case was very dusty and all scratched up. They decided to put a $20.00 price tag on it and see what they could get.

On the day of the yard sale they put all the items on tables, and  people began to stop and browse. They sold many of their items and were about to call it a day. There were a few stragglers milling around the tables checking for any last minute buys. A car pulled over and a tall, thin older man got out. He too browsed the tables for a while.

He came to the table with the violin in the opened case. It seems no one had needed a fiddle this morning, not even for $20.00. He leaned over and studied the dusty violin for a couple of minutes before he spoke to the owner behind the table. He inquired, “Do you mind if I take it out of the case?”

“No”, the owner replied, “Help yourself.”

He picked the violin up very slowly and carefully, as if it were going to fall apart in his hands.

“May I tune it?” the old man asked.

“If you can,” the owner answered.

The old man slowly tuned the violin until he seemed to be satisfied with each string. The owner waited patiently since most of the crowd had dispersed; and this seemed like the most promising chance of getting rid of the instrument.

“May I play it?” the old man asked.

“Sure, see how it sounds,” was the owner’s reply, now feeling that a sale was in the making.

The old man slowly placed the violin under his chin and began to play. The straggling shoppers stopped and stared as the notes drifted across the yard in the spring sunshine. The old man crafted the most beautiful music for several minutes before he stopped. He lowered the violin from his chin and placed it very gently back in its case. The owner moved in to make the sale. “You make that thing sing, mister” he said with a grin. “You can have it for only $20.00.”

The older man’s face was somber. “I can’t give you $20.00 for that violin,” he replied.

“Well, how about $15.00?” said the owner, now thinking a sale was slipping away.

“Sir, you don’t understand.” noted the old man, still serious. “I can’t take that violin from you for $20.00. It wouldn’t be right.” Looking directly into the owner’s eyes, he lowered his voice and smiled slightly, “I don’t know how you came upon that violin, but you don’t know what you have there. You see, that violin is a Stradivarius. You can tell from the markings in the sound hole. It was made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona. His instruments are the best in the world. You see, his mark is there in the sound hole. This violin is worth at least $1,000,000 and probably much more. It’s a very, very special instrument and very precious. You just didn’t realize what you had.”

The violin had always been precious. It was valuable because of its creator. The violin was valuable because its creator only made precious instruments, and it carried the unmistakable mark of that creator. The earlier homeowners who left it in the attic obviously didn’t know what they had and treated it like trash. The new owners didn’t know what they had either and left it in the attic with the trash. The yard sale shoppers who left it on the table didn’t know what they were leaving behind. They treated it as if it was not even worth $20.00. It took the old man to recognize the violin’s value. He didn’t have to play it to recognize that it was precious. The old man knew it was precious because he knew about its creator. He knew that it had the mark of its creator.

You may be like the violin. You may have grown up in a family that wasn’t able to recognize your true value. They may have acted as if you were in the way or just something to be tolerated. Or they may have made you feel that you couldn’t do anything right or were always messing up. Later in life, you may have dealt with others who also acted as you weren’t worth much, who acted as if you were trash.

It’s important to remember that the violin never actually lost its value. It was just as valuable when it was left in a corner of the attic as it would have been in a symphony hall. It was still valuable when it was passed over by the rest of the customers in the yard sale. The creator had left his mark on it, and that made all the difference.

Every child is valuable. Each child is as valuable as any other child. We all know this to be true. There is no defect, deformity, characteristic, or behavior that can make a child less valuable. We also know this to be true. A child’s actual value is not diminished when her family doesn’t recognize or act as if she is valuable. You know this to be true.

The child is hurt, of course. The child learns to believe that she is not valuable. Such lessons are learned deeply. Such beliefs are hard to change. Just because a belief is deeply learned doesn’t mean that it is true.

Question:  Share your thoughts about the meaning or moral of this story. Do you agree that all children are valuable and deserve to be treated as such? Can you apply that truth to yourself? Can you begin to do that now? What do you think?

This story was inspired by the poem, “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” by Myra “Brooks” Welch (1921).

The Loss in Loneliness

Loneliness or feeling disconnected from others can impact your mental and physical health.

We were created for connection. We are naturally social animals. It begins in infancy. From the moment of birth, the infant needs human contact and connection for survival. Years ago, we discovered that babies deprived of humanloneliness hurts mental and physical health connection fail to thrive, and sometimes die.

As humans grow, the impact of isolation continues. Disconnection from peers is a major reason for school dropouts. Teenagers, who identify themselves as outcasts, often slip into delinquency, other forms of antisocial behavior, violence or suicide.

In adults, extended loneliness can lead to depression, alcoholism, and physical illness. Studies show that a lack of social or family support can increase the risk of heart disease. It tends to elevate blood pressure, make the heart muscle work harder, and raise the levels of stress hormones. Loneliness can also heighten our perception of stress and cause insomnia.

So, is loneliness the same as being alone? Not really. Feelings of loneliness are experienced most acutely when other people are around us, but we feel disconnected. In his book, “Traveling Light,” Max Lucado points out that “Loneliness is not the absence of faces. It is the absence of intimacy. Loneliness doesn’t come from being alone; it comes from feeling alone.”

There are many potential causes of loneliness. As we get older, we experience the death of more-and-more relatives and friends. The older we get, the more likely we are to lose our core social connections. The feeling of disconnection is a major cause of depression in the elderly.

Sometimes, loneliness in adulthood can be traced to negative childhood events. Children who experience parental distance or rejection are more likely to feel lonely as adults. They tend to see themselves as less likeable or lovable, making them less likely to approach others. They may reject others before others have a chance to reject them.

Often, we feel lonely because of inaccurate perceptions. We do mind reading, where we assume others are thinking critical or disapproving thoughts about us. We assume they don’t like us or don’t care about us. We may assume we are disconnected, even when others like us or love us. We assume that we are different from others.

So, you were created for connection. Your mental and physical health will benefit from having positive relationships. Put some energy into reconnecting with old friends, strengthening current relationships or creating new ones. Don’t assume that they won’t like you or won’t have time for you. Make a call. Set up a lunch date. Start a conversation. You’ll feel better for the effort.

Holding On To Our Hurts

We worsen the pain and long-term damage when we hold on to our hurts.

What do you do when someone hurts you? Notice that the question is when, not if. Everyone gets hurt at times. It’s unavoidable. The important issue is how we respond to those hurts.holding on to our hurts

Some people strike back. Their hurt quickly turns into anger, frustration or irritation. The transition is usually so fast that they don’t even recognize the hurt. They only feel the anger. They may claim that they don’t feel hurt, just angry. I would argue, however, that underneath all anger is a sense of being hurt.

Some people hold their hurt in. They don’t say anything to the offending party. They just get quiet and withdraw. They protect themselves by distancing. It’s harder for them to hurt you if you distance from them. This distancing can be physical where you stay away from them altogether, or it could be emotional distancing where you just build a wall around your heart. Either way, you distance.

In many situations, the most effective response is an assertive one. An assertive response lets the other person know they their words or actions hurt you, but does so without being aggressive. Your tone and words are direct and serious, but not angry or attacking. An assertive response addresses the hurt without damaging the relationship.

But what about your long-term response to being hurt? Are you able to let the event go, or do you hold on to your hurt? Do you replay the event over-and-over in your mind? Do you continuously analyze what they meant, why they did it, or what you wish you had said to them? Do you find yourself thinking about it as you lie awake in bed?

Holding on to our hurts or anger creates several problems. Here are a few:

  1. Sustained anger or irritation creates harmful chemical changes in our bodies. When we experience resentment, irritation or anger, our bodies release cortisol. This chemical helps our bodies prepare to fight or flee when we are faced with physical danger. However, it is intended to be released as brief bursts, where we defend ourselves and then calm down. Holding on to negative emotions keeps the cortisol elevated, which damages the body over time. For example, research shows a clear connection between sustained anger and heart disease.
  2. Continued ruminating about a hurt can increase our general negativity. When we replay negative events in our minds, we are more likely to anticipate future negative events. We expect the worst. We tend to distrust others more. Our negative expectations of others can hurt other relationships.
  3. Repeatedly replaying hurtful events or analyzing them to death takes up valuable mental space. Our negative thoughts can ruin times we could have enjoyed. When we obsess today about a hurtful act that occurred last year, we give that hurtful person our afternoon. We don’t enjoy the afternoon because of our ruminations about the person who hurt us. And, by the way, that person is probably enjoying their afternoon without think about us at all.

So, the best immediate response to a hurtful act is usually an assertive one, but the best long-term response is always to let it go. It isn’t easy to let go of our hurts, but it’s always best for our well-being.

Making Everyday Tasks Pleasurable

With a little effort, you might be able to make your everyday tasks more enjoyable.

We all do them every day. We do them all day long. Of course, there are some exceptions, but they fill most of our days. They are literally our everyday tasks.
They differ for each of us. You everyday tasks might include driving to work, your actual work activities, preparing meals, doing laundry, yard work or house work. They fill up our “Things to Do” lists.
We usually think of such activities as necessary, but not fun. We complain about having to do these tasks. We may dread them. We certainly don’t think of them as pleasurable.
But what if we could? What if we integrated a bit of enjoyment in our everyday tasks? Since they make up such a significant part of our day, we might as well enjoy them. Here are a few steps to making your everyday tasks more pleasurable.
  1. Change your mindset. Your thinking can make a difference. If you perceive an activity as a chore or a drudgery, it will be unpleasant and seem to last forever. Perceiving the same activity as a blessing or an opportunity, can make it feel much more pleasurable. For example, you can resent having to buy groceries, or feel blessed that you have money to buy groceries and the convenience of a grocery store.
  2. Focus on some positive part of the task. Try to find some pleasant, interesting or beautiful aspect of the activity. For example, you might enjoy the view from your kitchen window, while washing dishes. Or you could focus on the scenery you pass as you drive to work.
  3. Add something positive to the task. Try to think of something nice you could do as you complete the task. Doing housework might be more pleasant if you did it while listening to music. Working on paperwork could be more pleasant while sipping a cup of coffee or a drink. I always listen to audiobooks while commuting to work.
  4. Plan to give yourself a little reward when you finish the task. Of course, these are everyday tasks to the reward can’t be too big, but a little break sitting on the porch can go a long way.
Of course, these are just ideas and may not be feasible in your particular situation. The point is to consider steps you can take to enjoy your everyday task a bit more. If you have to do them every day, you might as well enjoy them.
We all do them every day. We do them all day long. Of course, there are some exceptions, but they fill most of our days. They are literally our everyday tasks.

Choosing To Not Get Upset

By thinking through your options, you can sometimes choose a better response.

“That made me angry.” “Of course, I got mad.” “I just reacted to the situation.” We often assume that our emotionalangry_man responses are dictated by the situation. We believe that we have no choice, but to get upset, when we experience an upsetting event. Any other response seems unnatural, or even impossible. But it is?

We can, at least sometimes, choose to not get upset by a situation that would have usually upset us. To do so, we must think through the situation, recognize that we have a choice, consider the consequences of our response, and then be deliberate about our reaction.

Several years ago, I had an interesting experience that illustrates the ability to choose. I was flying from Charlotte to Bangkok, Thailand to participate in a counseling clinic for American missionaries serving in China. My flight went from Charlotte to Minneapolis, to Tokyo, and finally to Bangkok. After a layover in Minneapolis, I had boarded the plane for the thirteen hour trip to Tokyo. The plane filled and the attendant closed the cabin door. Seated in my “coach” seat, I got out a book to pass the time.

With the plane still at the gate, the pilot came over the intercom, saying, “I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but we have a little problem with the plane. One of the computers isn’t working and we have called in technicians, so we should be under way in about twenty minutes.” I didn’t think this would be a problem because I had a four-hour layover in Tokyo.

About twenty minutes later, the pilot announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry but the problem is a bit more extensive than we thought. We have found that the part we need to fix this computer is not in-stock here at the airport, and we have had to send the technician into the city to purchase the part. We will get under way as soon as he returns and gets the computer fixed, and this is a computer you want to be working when we fly across the Pacific. Unfortunately, because this is an international flight, we can’t allow you to de-board the plane, because of customs laws. Once the cabin door is closed, you are officially no longer in the US. We’ll turn on the air conditioning to make you as comfortable as possible.”

Four hours later, we were still sitting there, and people were not happy. Most were standing in the aisles complaining. I was still sitting in my seat, reading my book. I had noticed that three ladies were standing in the aisle beside me, fussing about the situation. I then noticed that one of the women was speaking to me. She challenged, “And you, why are you not upset? You’re just sitting there reading like this isn’t bothering you!” I responded, “I didn’t know that it would help to get upset.” She wasn’t please with my response and stomped toward the front of the plane.

This woman didn’t know that I had considered the situation fully. I reasoned that, if the pilot says we need that computer to fly across the Pacific, I’ll believe him. My getting upset won’t get the computer fixed any faster. My only choice was to get upset while waiting, or to read my book.

As it turned out, we got under way soon after that, I made my Tokyo to Bangkok flight, and after a complaint letter, I received some free airline miles for my trouble. Oh, and I was also somewhat pleased with my response to the angry woman.

Consider the possibility that you can choose to not get upset. Ask yourself if getting upset will help the situation, or if will just make you miserable. You won’t be able to control your reaction in every situation, but might be able to do so sometimes.

Are You A Fortune Teller?

Your Assumptions About The Future Can Hurt You

This is third and final article in my series on choosing our assumptions wisely. In the first article, we considered thecrystal_ball impact of negative assumptions concerning our abilities or potentials. Many people give up on their dreams because they assume they lack the ability to succeed.

In the second article, we looked at the impact of negative assumptions on relationships. We often assume that we know how others are feeling or what they are thinking, even though we can’t read their minds. When we act on our negative assumptions, we damage the relationship.

Today, we’re considering the impact of our assumptions about the future. We do make assumptions about the future, imagining or predicting certain outcomes, and then living as if our assumptions were true.

Assumptions about the future can take many forms. One common form involves assumptions about physical health. For example, we go to the doctor and get a biopsy. The doctor may even say that she doesn’t think the biopsy will indicate cancer, but just wants to make sure. We then imagine the worst. We imagine cancer, chemo and a funeral. We “pre-live” the worst possible scenario. We spend days-to-weeks living as if we’re dying. It’s painful.

The truth about the biopsy is that we don’t know. We don’t know whether the test will come back as positive or negative. We just assume. The test may indicate cancer. If so, we will have to deal with that. It may indicate a benign cyst. If so, we will be relieved and move on.

Why do we tend to assume the worst? I’ve often heard people say that they think assuming the worst will make them more prepared, if the worst should happen. I don’t think so. If the worst outcomes occurs, we still react with anxiety, fear, confusion or possibly hope. Pre-living a bad outcome doesn’t make us more prepared. It just upsets us while we are waiting.

Choosing the hopeful assumption can be difficult. Most of us have to work very hard to not worry or assume the worst. But, by monitoring our thinking, and reminding ourselves that we actually don’t know, we can decrease our anxiety a bit. Reminding ourselves that we actually don’t know the future can help us experience more peace in the present. And, it is the truth.

 

Comments: How do your assumptions about the future impact your mood, decisions and sense of well-being? How do you maintain an awareness that you actually don’t know the future?

 

You Can Achieve Inner Calm Through Mindfulness Practice

We live most of our lives mindlessly. We may be doing one thing, but our minds tend to be on other things. We live Mindfulnessin the present moment, but our minds are on the past or the future.

I first learned about the technique of “mindfulness” on a PBS television program, called “Healing and the Mind.” The host was the excellent reporter, Bill Moyers, and each episode featured a clinic somewhere in the world, that specialized in mind/body medicine.

On this particular episode, he featured a clinic at Massachusetts Medical Center, a major teaching hospital where many Harvard medical students do their rotations and internships. People come there from all over the world for assessment and treatment of serious medical disorders.

In that hospital, is a clinic that was originally called “The Center for Catastrophic Illness,” and was founded by a psychologist, named Jon Kabit-Zinn, Ph.D.. Patients are referred to this clinic who have any illness that has proven to be a catastrophe in their lives. The clinic has been enormously effective in helping these patients deal with their various illnesses.

The clinic teaches the technique of mindfulness. The technique has been practiced in Asia for about four thousand years, but has only been applied to healthcare in the US for about twenty years. While mindfulness practice cannot directly cure many physical illnesses, it can help patients deal with their difficulties with much less distress and discomfort. It has even been shown to cure some stress-related illnesses.

The technique involves three components, (a) noticing, (b) without judging, (c) in the present moment. To notice means to truly experience, to really be in the moment. Focus your attention on that event. Experience it with your five senses. If you are somewhere, really be there. Focus your mind on what you are doing, rather than something in the past or the future.

For example, if you are driving, notice the experience of driving. What do you see? What do you feel? Notice the unconscious movement of your hand on the steering wheel. Notice the subtle rumble of the road noise. Do the same with any experience. If you are interacting with a loved one, really focus your attention on that person and the interaction. If you are washing dishes, notice the various aspects of the experience, the feel of the water, the feel of the soap or the movements of your hands.

Now, try to recall some of the favorite moments of your life. Your memories of these moments may be like a series of snapshots. I bet that you experienced each of these favorite moments mindfully. You were focused on what you were doing at the time. If you had experienced the moment mindlessly, you wouldn’t have recalled it as a favorite moment. I wonder how many other moments could have been favorites, if you had experienced them mindfully rather than mindlessly.

The second part of mindfulness is to notice “without judging.” This means to not analyze our experience in our minds, but to just experience it. We don’t focus on whether the experience is good or bad. It just is. You try to experience the moment without the chatter in your head, no internal comments, no judgments, just the experience.

For example, in clinical settings patients are actually taught to be mindful of their pain. This may seem strange, but we find that, when patients notice pain, without thinking of it as good or bad, the pain lessons, or at least becomes less distressful. We usually try to escape from our pain, and in doing so make ourselves more tense. This tension actually worsens the discomfort.

The last part of mindfulness is “in the present moment.” This means to focus your attention on the present moment, rather than experiencing the present moment with your mind thinking about something in the past or something in the future.

Let’s think about time for a moment. All time can be divided into three parts; the past, the future, and the present. Everything prior to this moment in time is the past. Nothing in the past actually exists, except in our memories. Everything after this moment is the future, and nothing in the future actually exists except in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists at any moment is that thin slice of time we call the present.

Yet, we live most of our present moments thinking about something in the past or something in the future. We don’t really experience the present moment, because we are analyzing, reminiscing or regretting past events or anticipating, dreading or worrying about future events. We thus miss the experience of the present moment.

Take the time now to be mindful of the present moment. Notice what your five senses are experiencing. Notice what you see, the colors, the shapes, the quality of the light. Notice what you hear, both the louder sounds and the subtle sounds. Notice what your skin feels, the temperature of the air, the clothes you are wearing. Notice how your body feels.

In particular, notice your breathing. The act of noticing the breath can always bring you back to the present moment. Your breath is always with you. Let yourself simply be in the present moment now and experiencing this moment fully. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, it’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the present moment.

Practice this for a few moments at a time. If you can stay in the present moment for a few seconds, that’s good enough at first. After being mindful of your present moment experience for a little while, notice what you feel. Most people report that they feel a sense of calm or peace.

Practice mindfulness several times per day. You don’t have to take time out of your day at first. Just be mindful of whatever you’re doing. Then, if you like, take a few moments out of your day to get in a more extended time of present moment awareness. Give it a try!

Question: If you have tried present-moment mindfulness, what did you experience? Also, report any difficulties you experienced in trying the technique.

The Power of an Attitude of Gratitude

thanksgiving_photoOnce more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already 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 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, 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 an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most 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!

Your Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting Depression (Part 1)

Are you suffering from depression? Is someone you love suffering with depression? Suffering is the operable term here, because depression is trolltruly painful. People with both chronic physical pain and clinical depression have told me that they would rather have the physical pain than the depression. The pain of clinical depression is hard to describe, but you’ll know it if you get it.

The most effective treatment for depression is a combination of medication and cognitive psychotherapy, but sometimes those treatments are unavailable or may not be working well enough for you. Whether or not you are getting professional treatment, there are several do-it-yourself actions you can take to fight your depression.

Sometimes it helps to have a different way of perceiving depression. Think of your depression as a parasitic, mean, ugly troll that has gotten into your body and mind. This troll wants to grow, and it doesn’t care what it does to you. It is truly a parasite. The depression troll grows by making you do the very things that will feed it. It makes you yearn to do the things that make it grow and become stronger. By resisting these tendencies, you can weaken your depression and starve that mean, ugly, parasitic troll and make him go away.

There are four areas where the depression troll influences your behavior. To fight the depression and starve the troll, you have to do the opposite of what he makes you want to do. In order to give each area proper attention, we’re going to consider the four depression fighters in four consecutive blog posts. This is the depression fighter for today:

DEPRESSION FIGHTER NUMBER ONE:

INCREASE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Your depression troll makes you decrease your physical activity. You feel tired all the time. You don’t feel like doing anything. You don’t want to move. You feel heavy and drained of energy. The troll makes you feel this way because it feeds the depression, making it grow. The less you move, the more depressed you become. In contrast, the more you move, the less depressed you become.

Any activity or movement helps. Even getting up from the couch and walking around the house helps some. Any activity that makes your muscles move and speeds up your heart and breathing fights depression. Walking is a very effective depression fighter. A 20-30 minute walk every day would be great, but any amount helps. It seems to help the nervous system’s balance the neurotransmitters (the chemical foundation of depression).

I do realize that getting up off the couch or out of bed can feel like a monumental endeavor. It can feel totally impossible if your depression is severe. You may have to begin with very small increases in physical activity. Take a shower and get dressed. Walk from one room to the next. Step outside for a little while. Try to push yourself, but don’t chastise yourself if you can’t. Just try again later. Keep trying. Persistence is often the key to defeating depression.

You might also recruit a family member or friend to help you increase your physical activity. Tell them to push you, without fussing at you. This can be a fine line, so they will have to be careful, but the benefits of a supportive friend can be enormous.

Next week, we’ll look at the second step in your do-it-yourself guide to fighting depression, but for now try to increase your physical activity as much as you can each day.

Question: Share some actions that have helped you or a loved one fight depression.