Monday, July 28, 2014

Pursuing Happiness

Each person has a set point for happiness. It is impacted by genetics, family and life experiences. Your happiness level is also greatly influenced by daily thoughts and behaviors, perhaps even more profoundly than any other influence. What you think about, and what you choose to do each day makes a big difference in both your own life and every life you touch.

Positive psychology is a field of inquiry that began to be identified in 1998 by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, writer and researcher Martin Seligman. He's the author of Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism. It is based on the idea that psychology shouldn't just focus on mental illness and pathology, but also lead in the pursuit and understanding of what helps people create meaning, contentment, joy, resiliency and wellness.

Shawn Achor, M.A. is a Harvard scholar, educator, business consultant and writer who has spent over 12 years studying what makes people happy. His TED talk about happiness is one of their 20 most viewed lessons. He is a big advocate of positive psychology, and wrote The Happiness Advantage. Achor is interested in how happiness improves work success.

It's not like people who are happy don't feel unhappiness. They do, and it's important. Sometimes unhappiness is a key indicator that you need to change something in your life. You may need to assert yourself more, change jobs, or upgrade or end a relationship that's not working well. The opposite of happiness is actually apathy, when one doesn't care and doesn't believe what you do matters. Positive psychology strives to help people see that what they think, feel, and do does matter a great deal.

Here are some positive psychology strategies for feeling happier:

1. Each day, identify 3 different things you are grateful for. It helps build appreciation.

2. Send a thank you email, note, or give an in person thank you every day. It helps build connection.

3. Reflect each day, and either visualize or write down a little about one meaningful experience you have had recently. Rerun the experience through your mind as if it was happening now.

4. Still your mind for 20 minutes a day. Sit quietly. No distractions. Usher thoughts out as they pop up.

5. Move every day for at least 30 minutes.

6. Notice emotional pain and address it; don't numb it with alcohol, substances or addictive behavior.

7. Reach out to others. Say 'hi" and smile to others you meet throughout the day. Break the self-absorption cycle that many people are caught in.

8. Help someone else, whether officially through volunteering or informally when you are aware of other people's needs and do what you can to lift others up.

Your thoughts, feelings and behaviors matter. Connecting with others and staying focused on your own true north helps. Think of these happiness habits as happiness hygiene. Just like you shower and brush your teeth daily, these behaviors are most effective in lifting your mood if you do them every day. Let's be intentional about doing the things that make us happier and more aware of our impact on each other.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Are There Late Night Creatures at Your House?

Parents of teenagers beware. Most teens are not getting enough sleep. The recommended number of hours per night for teens is nine. A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that over 50% of teens ages 15 to 17 only get seven hours a night. That's two hours short for many teens, which makes them overly tired and moodier. Being a teen is already hard, and full of stress and changes. Being exhausted doesn't help. Are you a savvy parent who knows why?

Most teens are heavily scheduled during hours when their parents are up, with school, activities, lessons, sports and homework. When we go to bed, guess who stays up late to have some downtime and freedom? Yes, that would be our teenagers.

The drawing power of connection through social media is luring teens in to quietly snap-chatting, texting, instagramming, tweeting, face-timing, youtube surfing, downloading music and more in the dark of their bedrooms after parents think they are asleep. It's a trend the New York Times covered in a story on July 6 about the trend to "vampire" or "vamp" by being up late in the night. Some teens find it cool to see posts timed in the middle of the night, as it can represent freedom.

Parents need to communicate with teens about the need for sleep, and setting some reasonable limits to protect their sleep habits. Does your teen have a time when their smart phone, laptop, ipad, etc. is turned off and plugged in for recharging somewhere they can't get to it again before morning? As a family counselor, I am more concerned about this for younger teens than older ones. If your teen has disappointing or declining grades, this possibility is something it's smart to consider and do some surprise check-ins that all is dark and quiet in their room.

Danah Boyd, a writer/researcher with Microsoft Research recently published her book, "It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens". She considers social media sort of the new mall for this generation of teens to hang out together and have social contact. Many teens are so structured by day that late nights are the only downtime.

What's a parent to do? Stay in conversation with your teen about these issues of sleep, downtime, the need for social contact and the importance of setting some limits and boundaries. We also need to watch what we role model, and put our own technology to bed at a reasonable hour, have good sleep patterns and lifestyle habits.

Watch out for the vampires at your house. Check your teen's bedrooms first for the faint glow of a smartphone under the covers.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Life Itself: The Life of Roger Ebert

Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert died last year at age 70, but just last week filmmaker Steve James released his new documentary about Ebert's life called Life Itself. The film was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who is interviewed in the documentary, as well as Chaz Ebert, Marlene Iglitzen Siskel and other friends, producers, writers and directors. It's a meaningful but poignant film, based on the book of the same title. It's well worth seeing and discussing.

In Life Itself, Ebert notes that what he loves about film is it's ability to help us all learn empathy for other people: people in other places and circumstances than ourselves.

Ebert fought for years with his frenemy, Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel. Together they hosted the movie review television shows Sneak Previews and Siskel and Ebert at the Movies. Their egos clashed. They were quite different, they fought for screen time and often bickered endlessly as they taped their shows. Siskel died after surgery from brain cancer in 1999 at age 53, and never told Ebert he was terminally ill or said goodbye.

Ebert's biggest battle was against thyroid and jaw cancer, which required multiple surgeries and left him unable to speak, eat or drink. It was a long journey, and his wife Chaz who he married at age 50 was with him every step of the way. Her family embraced him, despite their differences. (She's black, he was white). They met at AA. They loved each other dearly and she was his advocate and caregiver throughout his illness.

After Ebert won the Pulitzer at the Chicago Sun Times, he received offers to move to newspapers in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York. He turned them all down to stay in his hometown. The movie is a kind of love story to Chicago, with some beautiful photography of the city, and snippets about what he loved about his city.

Partially due to what he experienced with the secrecy Gene Siskel's death, Ebert decided to be open and disclose his stuggle with cancer. He still appeared in public even after his disfiguring facial surgery. He was brave and open with his journey. In the movie, he even allowed the director to film him being suctioned by nurses. When they started the movie, Ebert and the director didn't realize that Ebert was in the last few months of his life.

One of the most profound lessons from Ebert's life was the way he adapted to the changes that came with his cancer. He intended to return to television, but when it became impossible he embraced blogging on his website, and blogged until the day before he died. He loved to write. Continuing to write and review films helped keep him alive longer. He realized communicating with the public was still possible. His last blog entry was called, "A Leave of Presence". He was grateful for a great and interesting life.

Director Steve James does a fine, insightful portrait of Ebert, often developed through email exchanges between the film critic and the director about his life, his parents, his career, his foibles. and his personal life. There are a number of important lessons in his life about courage, getting past ego, openness in the face of life threatening illness, adapting to health changes, finding true love late in life, and being loyal to your hometown.

Thumbs up for the brave Roger Ebert, and the film Life Itself. Sometimes it's the things that we don't expect in life, and how we choose to respond to them, that define us.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Importance of Play

Over the last 50 years, children have lost a great deal of their free time for self-directed play and free time. Psychology researcher Peter Gray from Boston College has studied this cultural shift in the U.S., and is an advocate for the benefits of play. Gray has written, "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life".

I can remember spending many summers swimming, playing with my neighborhood friends, and riding my bike until dark. Those are some of my fondest memories. In the 1960's, most American neighborhoods were full of children outside, engaged happily playing. Over the last 50 years, fewer children are outside, and more parents have children involved in structured after school activities, sports, and lessons.

The school day and school year is longer. Homework is more intense, even in the very early grades. There is pressure on children and teens to build their resumes, rather than "waste" time with friends.

Many parents are fearful about having children play in the neighborhood. Safety concerns have trumped the need for free play. Most American children have lost the chance to play at something creative that doesn't involve adults or uniforms.

Play, according to Gray's research, is a biological and evolutionary need. Most animals play as babies. They learn about the world this way, as well as develop muscle strength and agility, social skills, and risk taking ability.

Virtually all cultures have their young learn and develop through play.

Gray has identified higher levels of anxiety and depression in children who don't get enough free play. I have a number of children I've seen for child counseling who long for more unstructured free time. Children and teens can get stressed. They need to relax with play frequently for optimum mental health.

Parents need to not over plan and over schedule. While some structure is good for children, such as bedtime and meal times, too much structure is overkill. Remember that for most children, the amount of time they have during the school day to free play--- recesses and lunch--- have been cut way back from what we experienced growing up.

Adults also need to play. Having a hobby that you can lose yourself in is good for us. There is a natural, hypnotic state that our mind goes to when we are playing with gardening, art, hiking, baking, or any other activity we love.

I like to see couples cultivate joint play activities into their relationship also. It's important for couples and families to play together. With couples, playing together elevated the relationship from all business and task-sharing, and helps you associate your partner with play and joy.

When I am counseling families who are healing from loss or trauma, I often want them to begin to play again. This signals to the children that life is not over, and that there will be happier times ahead, despite the death of a family member or the loss of divorce.

Play needs to be taken more seriously. Summer is a perfect time to start building some free time for play in your life, and seeing that the young people in your life get time to create self-directed play as well. Play helps us be happier, more relaxed, self-directed, and less moody. Let's play!