Category Archives: Personal Growth

Looking for happiness in all the wrong places

dancing couple morguefileWhat are you looking for in your life and marriage to make you happy? Researchers have done a lot of work analyzing particular kinds of goals and whether they led people to happiness. They found that those with “intrinsic goals” (i.e. deep relationships, personal growth) tended to be happier than those with “extrinsic goals” (i.e. wealth, fame). It appears Americans are looking for happiness in all the wrong places.

Arthur Brooks detailed multiple studies in his article for the New York Times called “Love People, Not Pleasure.” For example, psychologists have concluded through many studies that people who rate materialistic goals like wealth as a top priority are significantly more likely to be anxious, more depressed, and frequent drug users, as well as to have more physical ailments than those who are seeking intrinsic goals.

A 2009 study by the University of Rochester looked at 147 graduates’ success in reaching their stated goals. They found graduates who were pursuing extrinsic goals experienced more negative emotions, such as shame and fear, as well as more physical maladies. Whether it’s popularity on social media, or to become famous or rich, their goals ended up making the subjects less happy rather than making them feel fulfilled. Career success, power, or self-promotion are other common extrinsic goals. Graduates who were seeking intrinsic goals were associated with happier lives.

After finding that neither fame nor materialistic success fulfilled people and made them happy, Brooks assessed whether lust might do the trick. Does experiencing a variety of sexual pleasure make people happy? Brooks cites a 2004 study in which economists analyzed whether more sexual variety led to greater well-being. Data included 16,000 Americans who were asked confidentially how many sex partners they had in the previous year, as well as their happiness levels. For both women and men, researchers concluded the optimal number of partners to experience happiness is one. In other words, the happiest people had only one sex partner in the previous year. (This is certainly contrary to our culture’s and media’s messages.)

So why do we as a society pursue lust, materialism, power and fame if they don’t lead to happiness? Brooks suggests that just because something feels good doesn’t mean it will fulfill you. Many of those instincts may only be residual desires based on our need to pass on DNA. “If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem,” he says.

“If it feels good, do it,” is bad advice from idiots in society, he adds. It may lead you to pass on your genetic material, but it won’t lead to a feeling of long-term well-being.

But there’s more to our longings. We are dissatisfied; want more from life. We aren’t sure what the problem or the solution may be. “Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers,” says Brooks. But it is never enough.

This leads us to Brooks’ formulas for life: To love things and use people—this is a deadly formula too often attempted in the search for happiness. “You know in your heart that it is morally disordered and a likely road to misery,” says Brooks. An example is using people to find a better job, a bigger house, or greater influence.

Invert that advice to find the virtuous formula: Love people, use things. This means placing love above pride, only denying love to things that are actually objects; condemning materialism; and being skeptical of our own desires. It means using things to express your love rather than to fill an emptiness. It means seeking spiritual and emotional maturity so that we can have mature, meaningful relationships.

Apply this formula to your marriage and your life to find deeper fulfillment.

Lori Lowe has been married to her husband, Ming, for 19 years. She is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.

Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Can you be simultaneously happy and unhappy? Yep.

smile-face-wallpaper morguefileI write a lot about happiness and unhappiness, because many people think if you’re unhappy it may be time for a divorce. But it turns out happiness and unhappiness are complicated, and the blame for unhappiness is often misplaced (on a situation or a person, like your spouse).

A New York Times piece by Arthur Brooks called “Love People, Not Pleasure” sheds more light on the topic of unhappiness and how we often seek it by following our “natural desires”—which paradoxically does not lead to happiness.

“What is unhappiness?” Brooks asks. “Your intuition might be that it is simply the opposite of happiness, just as darkness is the absence of light. That is not correct.” While the two are related, a person can be both happier than average and unhappier than average. It’s not a sum game but rather a collection of feelings (happy feelings and unhappy feelings). You might feel a larger than average amount of both, depending on the day or moment.

Most unhappy people will blame their circumstances, and often they are justified. For example, poverty, physical ailments and feeling oppressed (as with racism) are linked with unhappiness. Twenty percent of Americans blame loneliness as their major source of unhappiness. (I hope that reminds you to reach out to older relatives and neighbors or others who may be lonely.) Regular daily activities can also make you feel unhappy, such as meeting with your boss—the number-one unhappiness-causing event in a typical day.

Sometimes these circumstantial causes of unhappiness (don’t like your job, boss, neighborhood, kids are unruly, etc.) get internalized and may cause you to think you’re unhappy with your relationships as well. Or at a minimum, they can make you feel stressed and tired and looking for a scapegoat. If he/she could just help out a little more you wouldn’t be so unhappy, right?

In the next few posts, I will explore some of the ways Brooks says we go seeking happiness and how they usually backfire. But today, I’m thinking about how when we are feeling unhappy, it doesn’t mean we aren’t also happy. (Weird, huh?) And, yes, we can have a stressful day but also curl up on the couch with our sweetheart and just be glad for the companionship, glad that we are not alone in this world, glad that when we are having a down day, we have someone with whom to commiserate. When you feel the weight of the world pressing against you, think of your spouse as the one on your team rather than another one against you.

How are you feeling right now? Happy? Unhappy? A little bit of both? Chances are you have a certain longing within you and even a certain loneliness inside you. That’s part of our collective human experience and not something to blame on those closest to us. Learning to share those deepest parts of ourselves can deepen our marital intimacy.

Lori Lowe has been married to her husband, Ming, for 19 years. She is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.

Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Words that can make or break your marriage

brain morguefileWhich words do you use in communicating with your spouse that make the discussion worse, and which words cause you both to calm down? Researchers have the answers.

Some words increase your stress level, and can even heighten your risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems. Other words and phrases can actually reduce your stress and calm your body down, allowing your brain to think more rationally instead of in anger.

One study revealed that couples who used the words “think,” “reason,” “because,” “understand,” “why” and other analytical words during an argument lowered the body’s stress. When using these words, they experienced lower levels of proteins that help aid the body’s immune system. Research led by Jennifer Graham, PhD, from Penn State University was published in Health Psychology.

Men experienced a greater benefit than women, but women tended to use more of these analytical words and phrases. (Isn’t that interesting, when women are thought to be the more emotive gender?)

The reason these words can help reduce stress and diffuse anger, is they cause us to think rather than relying on our anger or first response, often the fight-or-flight response.

Experts suggest two other phrases to use during a discussion/argument. The first is “I wonder…” which allows you both to consider the issue or problem rather than placing blame. The second is simply “Hmmm…” which allows you both to be uncritical in that moment. It can often shift the energy to a more positive one, helping you consider possibilities and solutions.

Trigger words to AVOID include: “You always…” or “Your never…” and “There you go again.”

In addition to words, consider your non-verbal communication. Are your arms crossed, are you glaring? Do you use sarcasm or express contempt, or roll your eyes? Do you have aggressive gestures, such as arm waving or raised voice? Or are you calm, sitting next to, maybe touching gently?

When you feel the disagreement escalating, breathe deeply and slowly from your belly. Quicker breaths from the chest are more common when we are upset, and this helps calm you down. And practice better communication. These are skills that can be learned.

Each day, practice gratitude and try to avoid complaining. “Thanks” is always a welcome word to express your spouse.

Are there words you have learned to avoid with your spouse? Or words that help you calm down?

Lori Lowe has been married to her husband, Ming, for 19 years. She is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.
Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Trauma and PTSD’s effect on marriage

sad man morgefileHaving recently celebrated the Fourth of July in the U.S., we remember and honor those in the military. However, in recent years many of those vets are coming home with significant trauma and/or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that can significantly impact their relationships and marriages.

In addition to soldiers, other survivors of trauma, such as survivors of childhood sexual abuse or survivors of disasters, terrible accidents or kidnapping, can also experience PTSD. Even those who suffer grief, particularly sudden and unnatural deaths of a loved one, can experience PTSD. Sufferers can experience great emotional and sometimes physical pain. These after-effects can impact the way the individual functions in everyday life, and they can certainly affect the survivor’s marriage.

Symptoms of PTSD can include nightmares, depression, trouble sleeping, feeling jittery or irritated, dependence on drugs or alcohol, feeling like you’re in danger, and more. Read PTSD symptoms here. The symptoms following trauma are normal; when they last more than three months, they are considered PTSD. Survivors may experience a loss of interest in social activities, hobbies, sex, and relationships. They may feel distanced from others, numbness, or hyper-vigilance and on guard, and unable to relax and be intimate. They may struggle with anger, improper impulses, memories of the trauma (re-experiencing the trauma), decision-making, and concentration. Work and daily activities can become a struggle.

The partner/spouse can feel isolated and alienated and frustrated from the inability to work through the problems together. They may even fear the actions of the survivor. Therefore, the partner may distance him or herself from the survivor, adding to the marital discord. However, a sense of companionship can help alleviate feelings of isolation.

A therapist trained in dealing with PTSD can be a big help to the individual survivor as well as the spouse. If the survivor is not willing to admit problems with PTSD, the spouse may want to insist on marital counseling, because PTSD does increase the rate of divorce. Both therapy and medications have been successful in treating individuals who have PTSD.

For the wellbeing of both partners, a support network of helping professionals and community support can be beneficial. Some individuals feel a sense of guilt or shame or fear in asking for help. According to PsychCentral, PTSD is treatable. “Psychotherapy involves helping the trauma become processed and integrated so that it ultimately functions as other memories do, in the background, rather than with a life of its own.”

Therapy for PTSD initially focuses on coping and comfort, restoring a feeling of safety, calming the nervous system, and educating the person about what they are experiencing and why and – through the process of talking – interrupting the natural cycle of avoidance (which actually perpetuates PTSD symptoms though it is initially adaptive and self-protective).

Therapy provides a safe place for trauma survivors to tell their story, feel less isolated, and tolerate knowing what happened…Through treatment, survivors begin to make sense of what happened and how it affected them, understand themselves and the world again in light of it, and ultimately restore relationships and connections in their lives.” According to PsychCentral, “Successful treatment of PTSD allows the traumatic feelings and memories to become conscious and integrated – or digested – so that the symptoms are no longer needed and eventually go away. This process of integration allows the trauma to become a part of normal memory rather than something to be perpetually feared and avoided, interfering with normal life, and frozen in time. Recovery involves feeling empowered, reestablishing a connection to oneself, feelings, and other people, and finding meaning in life again. Recovery allows patients to heal so that they can resume living.”

According to SheKnows.com, individuals with PTSD can create and maintain successful intimate relationships by: 1.Establishing a personal support network that will help the survivor cope with PTSD while he or she maintains or rebuilds family and friend relationships with dedication, perseverance, hard work, and commitment. 2. Sharing feelings honestly and openly with an attitude of respect and compassion 3. Continually strengthening problem-solving and communication skills 4. Including playfulness, spontaneity, relaxation, and mutual enjoyment in the relationship

Thankfully, trauma doesn’t always have the last word. Many individuals and couples find they experience recovery and even growth after coping with a traumatic experience. The Generous Husband blog recently wrote about the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), which means the changes or growth that occur after an individual or a couple has overcome a traumatic event. “Disaster does not have to ruin you or your marriage,” Paul writes, adding that tragedy can end well. Those who experience PTG experience one or more of the following: 1) Spiritual growth 2) improved relationship with others 3) See new possibilities/goals for life 4) improvement in self-image or 5) a new more positive view on life.

PTSD and trauma can make married life challenging difficult, but help is available. There is hope for a life beyond the trauma–a life that once again includes happiness and joy.

Lori Lowe has been married to her husband, Ming, for more than 18 years. She is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here. Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Is your spouse different from the person you married?

wedding ring moreguefileYou’ve seen it in the movies, and maybe even felt it in real life. “S/he is not the person I married,” which is supposed to excuse you from your wedding vows and cause you to go in search of some one more “in sync” with you. I think that is why my blog post “We all married the wrong person” is still the most popular post to date with many thousands of readers. It’s because at some point, most married people wonder if they chose the right partner.

But unless you married a goldfish, the person you married is a distant reflection of the individual who is living and breathing and changing before you each day. Hopefully you are both growing and changing together, rather than living stagnant lives. It should keep things more interesting knowing you are not coming home to the same person year after year, but a person who is developing new interests, changing roles through various life stages, and adapting to changing circumstances. Even if you are not doing it purposefully, you are both indeed changing, and are different from those younger versions of yourselves that expressed your wedding vows.

Matt Walsh captured these thoughts beautifully in his recent blog post My wife is not the same woman that I married.

We’re still young and we’re still growing, and our experiences might very well pale in comparison to yours, but I have learned at least one thing from all of this: that guy was right — my wife isn’t the same person that I married. When I met her she was a 22-year-old college student. Now she’s a 27-year-old mother of two. Sure she still has the same DNA, the same biological identity, and she’s still the kind of girl who can appreciate a good beer and a fart joke. But she’s not the same. That’s because I married a human being, not a mannequin. I said my vows to a person, not a computer program.

Check out the rest of Matt’s poignant post, and reflect on how your marriage has changed over the years, whether it’s been only a few years or decades down the line. When I think of the naive young lady I was when I married my college sweetheart, I shake my head a little. However, I’m confident that I did make the right choice nearly 20 years ago. The other thing I’m confident about is that we will be quite different in 10 or 20 more years, as our children grow into young adults and leave the nest. Rather than dreaming about a better life with someone different, we dream about our future life together.

Are you sharing your hopes and dreams, reminiscing about your past, and laughing together about the mistakes you made along the way? What is something you were surprised to learn about your spouse?

Lori Lowe has been married to her husband, Ming, for more than 18 years. She is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.

Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Why Kindness Matters in Marriage

Spring is a time for commencement addresses, and I’ve seen a number of good ones recently. This youtube video of professor and NYT best-seller George Saunders’ address on kindness. Of all the lessons to impart on young people starting life, kindness is probably not the most popular idea. Yet, his approach was powerful, and his message is most needed, for those of us who are married or single.

Still, if we are honest, we will admit that living with someone day after day does not always bring out our kindest selves. And so married peeps may benefit from a reminder of the importance of kindness in daily matters.

“Success is like a mountain in front of you that keeps growing. If you’re not careful, it will take up your whole life.” –George Saunders

Saunders shared that looking back on his life, what he regrets most was failures of kindness—the times he responded sensibly and reservedly, but maybe not wholeheartedly. It wasn’t even unkind behavior he regretted but the failure of being kinder than he had been.

The people you remember best are the ones who are kindest to you, he suggests. Maya Angelou, who died recently, has a similar quote:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Why aren’t we kinder, asks Saunders? For three primary reasons:
1. We believe we are central to the universe and our stories are the most important ones.
2. We believe we are separate from the rest of the universe.
3. We believe we are permanent, that death is real for others but not so much for us.

No, we may not really believe these things, but we act as if we do, and it’s only through growing up that we realize none of them are true. I would add that we also fear we will be depleted if we give too much; however, we are often energized by acts of generosity.

If we want to be less selfish, more present, more open, more loving and kinder, Saunders suggests things like education, art, prayer, meditation, spending time with good friends will help in that regard. He says getting older seems to help most people—when we see the uselessness of selfishness and the benefits of love, when we benefit from the help of others, and when we see loved ones pass away and begin to see we are not permanent.

If your goal is to be kinder throughout your life, start now, suggest Saunders. Fight selfishness, and allow it to be replaced by love. He adds that becoming a parent is generally a boost to diminishing the self, as most parents care much more about benefiting their children than themselves.

Married couples who are constantly dividing the work load into two and counting the costs of helping one another will not make it far. Growing in kindness and love should be a goal for all of us. It will take daily effort.

Minimize your future regrets by responding with overwhelming kindnesses, especially to your spouse. How can you make those you love feel cared for and special? How can you be a little kinder to those who cross your path?

Don’t practice random acts of kindness; instead, practice purposeful, routine acts of kindness on a daily basis without waiting for a reward.

Check out the video:

Lori Lowe has been married to her husband, Ming, for more than 18 years. She is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.

Confidence can impact your marital success

confident woman morguefileA growing body of evidence shows how devastating a lack of confidence can be. “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence,” say Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Gap, written for The Atlantic’s April edition.

I believe confidence also has a great deal to do with the success of our marriages. That’s one reason why I don’t like to read the (often false or misleading) divorce statistics. It leads young marrieds to thinking they are so unlikely to succeed that they shouldn’t even believe in themselves and their union.

But you know what it means to have someone believe in you, don’t you? Maybe it was a coach or teacher or parent. You know what it’s like to cheer someone else on even in the face of despair or difficulty. You know the difference that it makes to root someone on and to believe they will succeed.

Kay and Shipman have researched and written about the gap in confidence that has been found between men and women in the work world, to the detriment of women’s advancement. They share their own struggles and doubts with professional confidence (despite their impressive experience and credentials). They conclude that confidence can indeed be gained, and that the “confidence gap” can be closed. And they write about how that lack of confidence fails women in the work world, leading them to not go after promotions, new jobs, raises, and other opportunities. It’s not because they lack the skills, they often don’t go for it. Why? Because they don’t believe they will succeed.

Researchers have shown that being overconfident will aid you in your success more than being very competent or skilled in your area of expertise. We don’t want to believe this! “Overconfidence can get you far in life,” concludes researcher Cameron Anderson from the University of California at Berkeley. However, faking confidence just does not work.

Perfectionism is another confidence killer. In fact, striving for perfection hinders our performance and productivity.

What are some of the causes of lack of confidence? The researchers say women tend to ruminate over what has gone and worry about future consequences, whereas men have been more indoctrinated into the male competitive world of action more than overthinking things. I wonder if these contribute to the fact that two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women.

Our brains are fairly plastic, and we can learn to be more confident. We can even boost one another’s confidence. For example, researchers told random individuals in a group that they did very well on a previous test. The individuals who received that feedback scored much higher on the next test, showing that confidence can be self-perpetuating.

The choice not to try was one of the biggest reasons that researchers found people didn’t succeed at various tasks. How about your marriage? Do you have confidence in your marriage and in your abilities to succeed? Do you encourage and lift your spouse up and believe in him or her? If you have children or know children, you can clearly see how confidence can affect their performance in school or sports.

Now for a taste of realism: Being confident doesn’t mean that you believe all your problems will disappear, any more than women ignoring the glass ceiling will make it disappear. But most marriage problems can be overcome, and you can do challenging things. Be confident. Be hopeful. Take positive actions to keep your marriage growing together.

Do you agree or disagree with this premise? Why or why not? I admit I would rather success be based on skills and effort than on something so nebulous as confidence. Are you a confident person or do you struggle with it?

Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage. It tells the inspiring, true stories of couples who used adversity to improve their marriages–from overcoming drug addiction to cancer, infidelity, religious differences, and infertility, among many others. It’s available at Amazon.com and in various e-book formats here.

Photo courtesy of morguefile.com