Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How Rituals Increase Satisfaction

Would birthday cake taste as good without the lit candles and the song? Probably not.

We use rituals every day: morning rituals, evening rituals, holiday and birthday rituals, anniversary rituals, as well as religious rituals. They increase meaning, significance, and evoke a sense of tradition and family. New research also suggests ritual behaviors increase the satisfaction in behaviors like eating.

A recent story on NPR (June 20, 2013) by their social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, covered a soon to be published article by Harvard University Behavioral Scientist Francesca Gino and colleagues, Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang and Michael Norton, giving evidence to the idea that creating rituals before eating increases the satisfaction of the experience.

Gino's study had volunteers divided into two groups, with each person being given a chocolate bar to eat. Half were instructed to follow a procedure where they carefully unwrapped half the bar, savored it, and ate the second half later. The second group just went ahead and ate their bar all at once. 

Guess which group enjoyed their chocolate bar more? It was the first group who ate their chocolate more mindfully. This process was retested with carrots, and the same effect occurred. Those who ate more mindfully experienced better taste and indicated they would pay more for the experience.

What did the researchers conclude? Performing rituals before eating increases the satisfaction and enjoyment of eating. The ritual must be done each time in the same way, like communion at a church service. 

So, singing happy birthday and blowing out the candles after making wishes before eating the birthday cake will likely increase the enjoyment of the cake. A shared toast or prayer before dinner will add to the meaning and satisfaction of dinner.

The researchers determined that it is not enough to observe a ritual, it is essentially different to participate in it. It's the active participation that seems key.

There are rituals which have existed for thousands of years, traditions we either inherit from our families or create for ourselves, and habits which we develop. Ritualistic behavior can get out of hand and become a problem if it makes us obsessive, but the right amount of ritual in your life can make your life more satisfying, enjoyable, and meaningful. (Not to mention tastier!)

You might reflect on how traditions and rituals in your day and your week make your life better. Perhaps you enjoy a first cup of coffee or tea each morning, bond with your dog through play, water your flowers after work, tuck in your children in bed with stories and cuddling, enjoy a walk in your neighborhood and notice little changes as the seasons pass. Mindfulness in living does create more meaning in the small things of everyday life, including the chocolate.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What Maisie Knew

What does a child go through when their parents break up? What Maisie Knew is a newly released independent film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel that captures the child's eye view perfectly. The film shows us poignantly that good parents put themselves second, and their child or children first, and what happens when parents aren't capable of doing so.

The film is a retelling of the 1897 Henry James novel. It tells the story from the point of view of 7 year old Maisie. Her parents love her, but are almost completely self-absorbed with their work, and their bitter break-up and legal fight for custody. Maisie's mother, Susana, is a aging rock singer,  who is mostly unlikable and broken. She is played by Julianne Moore. Maisie's father is Beale, an aging art dealer who is having trouble getting work. He is played by Steve Coogan.

Many of the shots in the film artfully show things from Maisie's eye level. Just like childhood, Maisie's life is shown in brief fragments: playing with turtles in Central Park in New York where she lives, participating in class with her classmates, waiting for a parent who doesn't show up for drop off or pick up, playing with a toy, hearing her parents berate each other. Onita Aprile is the very special young actress who plays Maisie, simply and without sentimentality. Her big, beautiful brown eyes say it all. No dialogue is needed at times as you can see Maisie trying to make sense of what is happening.

One of the standout scenes involves Maisie hearing a florist delivery person bring flowers for her, and finding that her dad put them in the kitchen trash without telling her they ever arrived. Later she tiptoes into the kitchen, and finds the bouquet and card from her mom. She hides the flowers in her closet. When the nanny finds them there, Maisie explains that her dad must have been allergic to them. She's caught in the pull of loyalty to each of her parents, and they so clearly hate each other. It makes your heart break.

Both of Maisie's parents remarry. Alexander Skarsgard gives a remarkable performance as Lincoln, the young bartender who marries her mother. Lincoln is present and gives his whole attention to Maisie in the time he spends with her that is deeply moving and instructive. Lincoln reminds us how much children need play, and how joining with them in their world to draw, notice turtles, or play Monopoly helps children to cope and heal.

Maisie's dad marries her young Scottish nanny, Margo, played well by Joanna Vanderham. Margo is tender, kind, and reliably present. Both of the stepparents are, ironically, more reliable, caring, and emotionally supportive of Maisie than either of her natural parents, who are caught up with their own careers and their hatred of each other.

What Maisie Knew is a touching film that reminds us that childhood is fleeting, children need our protection, attention, and stability no matter what is happening in our lives. Loving a child is not enough. We must care, ultimately, more about what happens to the children than we do about expressing our anger or sadness over our own adult relationship failure. Transcending self is probably one of the most important aspects of being a good enough parent, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in.

As it turns out, Maisie knew way too much. I hope this film will inspire and educate other parents about not losing the focus in any divorce, which should be getting the children safely through it with protecting as much of their childhood as can possibly be done.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Take Out Your Own Trash

You wouldn't throw all your trash in your living room. It would make your home look messy and smell awful. You would walk it outside to the trash can or recycling bin.

As I counsel individuals, couples, and families through making their lives and relationships more meaningful and more satisfying, I want each person to take out their own trash in their life and relationships, too.

This means everyone needs to be able to identify when they are stressed, and find a way to release that stress safely and productively. Children are included here, and I like their parents to help them find some possible alternative ways to reduce their own stress. As grown-ups, we need to be good role models in the stress management of our daily life. Do we salsa dance, run, meditate, pray, go to the gym, read, clean, garden, push the baby for a walk in the stroller, go for a bike ride, or see a friend? We each need to do something that helps us cope with our own stress.

It is NOT okay to take out your frustrations or stress on the people closest to you. This is what I mean about taking out your own trash. In relationships, we are each responsible for making ourselves happy, fulfilled, and managing our own stress well, and sharing our happiness with those closest to us. It's not a fair expectation of others who are close to you that they manage your stress, provide your life with meaning and purpose, or supply you with happiness. Some of these things are an inside job.

Stress is a regular part of our daily life; both good and bad stress. It's a part of our human experience. Learning some good coping strategies that work for you and are healthy and fun is a smart idea. Stress can be transmitted from one person to another, in a family, a relationship, and a workplace. Doing your part to stop the flow of stress means being aware of what situations and people stress you, setting healthy boundaries when you can, knowing how your body reacts to stress, and actively releasing that stress yourself so that you aren't a part of the stress dance.

So, the bad news is: you can expect stress as long as you are alive here on Earth. The good news: you can get really good at identifying signs that you are stressed, actively releasing it, and being a beneficial presence to others, rather than a part of transferring stress on to others. Load up that trash, and let's take it outside where it belongs.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Tribute to Good Dads

Father's Day is approaching this next week. Sometimes Father's Day doesn't get the same play that Mother's Day does a month earlier, but good dads are very important, and they deserve a tribute all their own.

Good dads aren't afraid to get involved when children are small: they diaper, bathe, feed, soothe, and play with babies. Later, they teach us to play sports, help with school projects, teach us how to drive, give us some rules for dating, and lead us to thinking about the future: college, career, and money. They teach us about men, and the masculine perspective on things. Good dads are solid, supportive, productive, trustworthy, and honorable. Dads help us move out and launch successfully. They listen.

Good dads stay involved even after divorces happen. They understand that parenting is for the rest of your life, no matter what. The very worst thing that can happen to children of divorce is that a parent can go away and not stay involved, emotionally, financially, or in terms of time.

Good grandfathers are worth their weight in gold. They show up and suit up to be involved with their grandchildren, and support their children through difficult and overwhelming phases of parenting. Good grandfathers take time to teach their grandchildren life skills, like how to work on a car, or save or invest money, or plant a garden. A strong relationship with your grandfather gives children roots.

Loving and kind stepfathers can be incredibly important. Just because you're not biologically related doesn't mean you can't be a caring mentor and presence in your partner's children's lives. It can be what you are willing to put into it. If you are a stepfather, then you are choosing to step in where a child has already experienced some loss. It will be important to be patient and understand it may be difficult for this child to trust. Your ability to show love, concern, interest and support of a child that is not your own can be one of the best things that ever happened to both of you. The choice is yours.

Here's a toast to dads, granddads, stepdads, and all the other good men who get outside themselves to reach out and help raise the next generation. We see you, we appreciate you, and we are grateful for you. Happy Father's Day!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Home for the Summer

It's the season for those of us with college students who've been away at school to welcome them home. Our almost 19 year old daughter arrived home last week. At my counseling practice in Newport Beach, California, I've been getting calls and meeting with parents and families about managing the transition well of having an adult son or daughter home for a few months.

About the time school is out in late May or June, students had adjusted nicely to their greater independence, living in dorms or apartments, managing their own schedules, and enjoying the fun of having their friends around all the time. Similarly, by late spring, parents have also let go and adjusted to less regular parenting tasks.

Parents have questions. Here are some I'm fielding:

Should I set a curfew?

What if they want to sleep until 2:00p.m. everyday?

What's fair to ask them to do with their room or household chores?

Can I expect them to earn some of their own spending money, or to save some towards their own fall college expenses?

Entrances and exits from the family system are both situations that take adjustments. Give your son or daughter a few days to get caught up on sleep after their finals and moving home. Then it may be a very good idea to have lunch or dinner with them and talk together about the adjustments that you each need to make while they're home to make it a successful summer for all of you.

I don't recommend giving curfews to college students who have already been living on their own. That would be like going backwards and they'd resent it, and you'd be fighting all summer. However, I do feel it's okay to ask them to be reasonable, not have overnight guests without your permission, and to ask for your son or daughter to be very quiet after the older generation goes to sleep, and about what time that is. It's also okay to ask for no midnight laundry, or showering, blow-drying or loud music after a certain hour. While all those things are probably common at school, you just need to ask for respect for quiet times you need at the house.

It's also perfectly okay to ask your son or daughter about their summer plans. They may already be working on it, but, if not, you can tell them you want them to be productive over the summer and look for work or enroll at your local community college for some summer credits, or both. Don't give them so much money that they don't need to work, or you are a part of the problem of their stagnation.

Make a list of household and outside tasks that you normally do, and ask them if they could please help this summer by picking up a few of them. Set a date each week where those things will be done, without you nagging. It's also reasonable that they do their own laundry, pick up after themselves, make their bed, hang up wet towels, and not leave dishes out for you to do. Perhaps they could care for the dog? Do some gardening? These chores are fair, and make them a better roommate when they return to college. They are not home to be your maid, but you're not there to wait on them either. Think teamwork.

With meals and groceries, communication helps. I have a small whiteboard on an easel on a kitchen counter that updates everyone on which nights I'm serving dinner and at what time, and each person can let me know if they will be gone so I don't waste food. I grocery shop several times a week, and I let our college student know she can write down requests on the list in the kitchen.

If other things bother you, talk it over so you can work it out. Be realistic. Your adult son or daughter is only home for a few months. If they are a night owl, you are unlikely to reform their sleep schedule. It may be a job or early morning class in the future that shifts their schedule.

Make it a wonderful summer. Talking about your expectations and asking for your college student's involvement will help!