Tag Archives: Personal Growth

2 Controversial Beliefs Author Says are Necessary for Happiness

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

If you think your spouse makes you happy or unhappy, experts would disagree, saying your key relationships are only a small element of your overall happiness. This is a continuing series looking at the underlying contributors to happiness in our lives and marriages.

“Happiness can be attained under virtually any circumstances provided you believe that your life has meaning and purpose,” says Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem. In fact, the need for meaning and purpose is one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of being human, he says.

People derive meaning from two beliefs—the belief that their life has meaning and belief that life itself has meaning. Prager maintains that both beliefs are necessary for happiness, but that some people have both beliefs and others who believe in only one (for example, that their life has meaning but that life itself is essentially meaningless). They may view life and the creation of life as random but have found meaning in their own lives. Prager explains, “On purely logical grounds, I do not see how a meaningless universe can produce meaningful lives, but I well understand why most people who believe in a meaningless universe do not wish to view their own lives in this way.”

This position may be more controversial to those who are secular in their thinking. I know many of the readers here are of various viewpoints, but I didn’t want to censor these points because they are a key element in his advice for finding greater happiness.  I agree with Prager that in my life, both beliefs are important to my happiness. Others may disagree. In any case, he provides advice on how we derive meaning—personal meaning and transcendent meaning.

Personal meaning. We extract meaning from relationships (family and friends), work and causes.

  1. Relationships—Your marriage relationship will likely create a great sense of meaning for you, particularly if you have children or a spouse who relies on you. Whatever relationships we have in life, it is in loving and being loved and needed that we add to our sense of belonging and purpose.
  2. Work—Work that provides a sense of purpose and importance unrelated to compensation tends to add to our personal meaning. When work is not particularly meaningful, it doesn’t contribute much to our happiness.
  3. A Cause—Attachment to a cause can be very powerful, both for good and for bad. Some people dedicate themselves to a cause because they lack personal relationships and other sources of meaning. A cause that is noble can lead to increased happiness and meaning. A cause that is less than noble can be harmful. (Think of all the people who chose to join Hitler’s cause.)

Prager says the cause that has given more people meaning and happiness than any other is religion, which can be the most powerful force for both good and evil, but that most religions have done more good than harm. He adds that the decline of religion in our era means that millions of people are looking elsewhere for causes to provide meaning, including racism, Communism, and Nazism. “Causes are great meaning-givers, but they are best for the world when the people who attach themselves to those causes derive essential meaning in their lives from human relationships, not from the cause itself. The biographies of human monsters…are virtually all biographies of loners.”

Transcendent meaning. Does the modern secular world undermine our sense of happiness?

Prager doesn’t argue that he can prove one way of viewing the world is correct (a purposeful universe vs. a random one), but does point out the consequences of the two views. “As much as we may find our work, family, friends, and social causes a source of meaning, a secular universe means that there is no ultimate meaning to any of these things…While the dominant intellectual view of our time posits that the less thoughtful individuals are those who most need religion, in fact it is the thinker who most needs religion. For at least in theory, the nonthinker can be happy solely by experiencing life’s pleasures and personal meaning, but the thinker knows that pleasures and personal meaning alone do not answer the human yearning for a meaningful universe.”

In sum, Prager advises if we want to be a happy person, before acting, we must ask ourselves, “Is it meaningful?” The struggle is often within ourselves—knowing the right choice but choosing the more enticing one.

What do you think about the two beliefs? Do you share one or both of them? Do you think they are necessary for your happiness?

Traits of Happy (and Happily Married) People

Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series

Unhappy people are less happy after marriage than happy people who marry. It’s not marriage that makes us happy or unhappy. What inner traits lead to increased happiness?

David Myers, PhD, author of The Pursuit of Happiness, says there are four inner traits (based on dozens of studies) that predispose positive mental attitudes and lead to more happiness and feelings of wellbeing. These traits are self-esteem, sense of personal control, optimism, and extraversion.

  1. Self-Esteem. Prisons are full of individuals who have high self-esteem, as the saying goes, and many of us have focused too much on building self-esteem in children at the expense of helping them build character. However, one’s level of self-esteem is important to wellbeing. Importantly, having low self-esteem is linked with psychological disorders, such as depression. Individuals with low self-esteem may feel unlovable, untalented, or unworthy of a great life. Clearly these feelings will not assist us on our road to happy lives and happy marriages. Having high self-esteem is linked with wellbeing. A University of Michigan study showed “the best predictor of general life satisfaction is not satisfaction with family life, or income, but satisfaction with self.

Too much self-esteem or self-bias can be a problem. Myers says experiments show must of us accept more responsibility for our good deeds than for bad, and for successes more than failures. We credit outside forces to our failures and our own merits for our successes. This is also true for marital successes and failures. “Compared to happily married people, unhappy couples exhibit far greater self-serving bias by blaming the partner when problems arise.” Divorcing people are 10 times more likely to blame the spouse for the breakup than to blame themselves.

We all have insecurities. As spouses, we have great power to either build our partners up or make them feel weak and insecure. Still, most people have a reasonably high opinion of themselves. The healthiest self-esteem is “positive, yet realistic” and includes feeling accepted.

  1. Personal Control. When people feel more in control of their destiny, they tend to be happier and more satisfied with life, and vice versa. Those who feel they influence the direction of their lives tend to achieve more in school, cope better with stress, and live more happily. Increasing people’s control, for example, making decisions about health care, environment or personal decisions, can improve their health and wellbeing, says Myers.  

Within our marriages, it’s important that both spouses understand we influence the relationship quality through how we act and react. It’s when people decide they have no power to make things better that they give up on the marriage. Setting personal and professional goals and using our time effectively helps give us a sense of control and accomplishment.

  1. Optimism. Optimists are healthier and have stronger immune defenses. They are happier, too. If we internalize bad events and display pessimism, we are more prone to illness. Studies have shown that those who are most pessimistic are more prone to colds, sore throats and flu, and that optimists recover more quickly from cancer and heart surgery.

When optimists have setbacks, they try another approach to find success. I would guess that married optimists are more successful, then, if they are using new approaches rather than blaming themselves or their partner. Optimistic people have hope that things will improve. However, with too-high expectations, optimists can be disappointed while pessimists with too-low expectations can be pleasantly surprised. Complicated? Not really.

Pollyannaish optimism goes too far, with people feeling invulnerable and taking too many risks. In addition, we must avoid blaming people for getting sick or having failures “because they weren’t thinking positively enough.” The best combination, says Myers, is to have “ample optimism to provide hope, with a dash of pessimism to prevent complacency, and enough realism to discriminate those things we can control from those we cannot.” (Think: Serenity Prayer)

  1. Extraversion. As an introverted person married to an extrovert, I wanted to learn more about this one. Studies show sociable, outgoing people report greater happiness and satisfaction with life. They are more likely to get married, find good jobs, make close friends, and have more social ties.

I know from reading other research that social ties are a key to wellness as we age. So whether we are married or single, outgoing or introverted, we need improve and increase our ties to others if we want to be happier and healthier. Joining a book club or a church group or socializing with other married people can improve our personal and marital happiness.

You may be wondering if you can control these four internal traits or if you are primarily born the way you are. Researchers find we do tend to have basic dispositions that we carry through our lives. Angry children are more likely to become angry adults, for example. But there are plenty of examples of unhappy, troubled children who grow into successful, conscientious, happy adults.

“We may be products of our past, but we also are architects of our future,” says Myers, who adds that personality is NOT programmed like eye color. We can even use behavior to help change our attitudes if we are proactive and thoughtful. “Don’t worry that you don’t feel like it. Fake it. Pretend self-esteem. Feign optimism. Simulate outgoingness,” he says. It sounds like being phony, but research shows the phoniness subsides and the new behaviors and attitudes become more comfortable and internalized.

When you’re in a sour mood and the phone rings, you often fake a cheerful greeting and talk to your friend. After the call, you actually feel better. Act as if you’re wildly in love with your spouse, and you just might start feeling that way.

Which of these traits do you possess? Do you think they influence your happiness level?

Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.com

How Brains are Boosted by Love and Sex

It turns out that love and sex may have important benefits in terms of creativity and problem-solving. Our brains process love and lust differently, and provide unique benefits to our thought processes, according to Helen Fisher, PhD, editor of the Web site sciencebasedmedicine.org. In an article titled, “Sex, Love, and Creativity,” she described a study in the Netherlands in which volunteers either focused on taking a walk with their ideal mate (loving feelings) or a casual sexual encounter with someone whom they did not love (sexual feelings). Both groups were given a battery of tests before and after to examine their creative and analytical abilities.

The study concluded that romantic, loving feelings stimulated “global processing” mechanisms in the brain, which improved creativity and increased long-term focus. Those who had sexual thoughts stimulated “local processing” mechanisms in the brain, which increased focus on the present and heightened their analytical thinking.

Possible reasons for these results: Romantic love can increase levels of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with creativity. Feelings of sexual desire may increase testosterone levels, known to promote analytical skills.

If you are looking for a creative or analytical solution to a challenge you are facing, turning to your mate may help in more ways than one. Fisher concludes that, ”Daydreaming about your sweetheart may boost inventiveness and help you come up with creative ideas, while sexual thoughts could help you solve an analytical puzzle.”

Do you find that romance helps boost your creativity, or that sex helps you problem solve? Perhaps it helps just to know that love and sex offer important benefits to our thinking and are worthy of our attention, even when—maybe especially when—life seems difficult or complicated.

Don’t forget to download my gift to you, the free e-book on my home page, Marriage Gems: 10 Secrets to Marital Happiness. Subscribe to future posts by email or RSS feed.

Photo Credit: ©Marem/PhotoXpress.com

How Can You Make an Impact?

Do you sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to make a significant impact on the world, or even on your own family? Do you feel like a grain of sand on the beach in the scheme of life? I’ve certainly felt that way, but have been buoyed by several concepts that show how broad each person’s reach really is.

  1. You’ve all heard of the “Six Degrees of Separation,” meaning six or fewer people separate us from anyone else in the world. As we become more connected virtually, I think it’s clear there is even less and less separation between us and anyone else. It takes literally no time at all to connect with people of common interest around the world. Your voice, your ideas, your money—they all travel faster and further than ever.
  2. Second, think about the happiness research that underscores that friends—and even friends of friends—are quickly impacted by your happiness. Happiness spreads faster than sadness, and close physical contact has more impact that distant communication. People are attracted to positive energy, a light in the darkness, a kind word or a friendly smile.
  3. Finally, I chuckled when I read a quote by business philosopher Jim Rohn, which states that you are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. Better start paying attention to who you are with the most. Hopefully, you are spending enough time with your children to have a significant positive impact on their development.

What kind of impact do you want to have in life? Take the time to reach out to someone—across the globe, across the street, or in your own family. Be aware that others may have a larger impact on your attitudes and behavior than you realize, just as you may have a large impact on others. Who and what is surrounding you, your spouse and your children?

How do you want to be thought of or remembered? How you live is how you will be remembered.

What is Your True Path? How Can You Achieve Your Goal?

Several times a year, particularly at each New Year, I think it’s helpful to reevaluate where you’ve been recently and where you are going in your life. A few different people recently provided me with tidbits of wisdom about their chosen paths and how to achieve their goals, and together they provided an “aha” moment.

The first friend noted that even if you are “on the right path” it doesn’t help if you are just sitting on it, not moving. How true. Just imagine yourself sitting and having a snack on your true golden path and not moving an inch. What do you need to give yourself a kick in the pants to get moving? Do you need to remove an obstacle in front of you?

During another discussion, I realized that we should visualize our path being on water, not on land. What could be more appropriate since many people view water as a symbol of life? Picture yourself in a lovely sail boat. If you are in your boat and on the right path but not moving, you are actually drifting and will end up farther and farther from your goal.

The final piece of wisdom came from a teacher friend. She used the boat analogy in the context of learning. We rarely learn in a linear fashion, but more with fits and starts, as with sailing in different conditions. To reach an objective, we need to continue to navigate with a series of tacks (as any sailor knows), rather than sail in a straight line, as a result of outside influences (wind, waves). This analogy applies well to learning something new or working toward a goal. The winds are the outside pressures of the world.  Some days the winds will be with you, and sometimes against you. The waves are the obstacles of life. Rarely is there a perfectly calm day, and some days there are tremendous storms that you must weather. Many people find family, friends, prayer and faith in God sustains them during these turbulent times. Sustained effort is required to make it through.

I recently finished reading a book my brother sent me called Sailing Grace by John Otterbacher, in which a young and seemingly healthy man suffers extreme heart trouble over several years. After too many heart surgeries to recount, his options were limited to heart transplant or go on living in hopes another traumatic heart episode did not occur. Even this dire health situation didn’t keep him from his dream of sailing the world with his wife and two daughters. They eventually spent more than five years at sea and in various harbors along the way, despite his chest pain. They encountered frightening and life-threatening storms and saw amazing sights. While I myself can’t imagine taking such a risk, they kept their focus on their dream, made continual adjustments, and achieved it. It puts our smaller obstacles in perspective.

What’s your dream? What are your goals this year–for your relationships, spiritual growth, career, children and family? What’s standing in your way? If you’re on the right path, are you moving in the right direction? Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and keep your eye on the goal. I hope the winds are blowing in your favor.

Love Is Important, but Not the Main Reason People Stay Together

What can be more important than love in keeping a couple together? It’s not a rhetorical question. In fact, a couple of other factors are more important, according to a study of premarital relationship development by the American Psychological Association.

With the passage of time, love does indeed grow in relationships. However, love is not enough to keep many couples from breaking up. The study, lead by psychologist Susan Sprecher, PhD, of Illinois State University, concludes, “Couples break up because of decreased levels of satisfaction in the relationship—not because they stop loving each other. “

Sprecher says in her four-year study of 101 Midwestern, heterosexual couples, satisfaction and commitment were as important–or more important—than love in deciding whether to stay together.  For couples who remained together, love, satisfaction and commitment levels all increased. The largest increase was in commitment levels.

For couples who ended their relationship, love was unchanged (did not grow or decline), but satisfaction and commitment both declined. The researcher suggests dissatisfaction may cause love to stop growing.

What do I think we learn from this?

1)      It’s not enough to keep the status quo. If your love is not growing, you are moving backward in your relationship, putting it at risk. Complacency can be a relationship killer.

2)      Perhaps more importantly, both partners need to recommit themselves and work toward meeting the needs of one another. Is your partner satisfied? Why or why not? (If one or both of you is not satisfied or has unrealistic expectations, counseling is recommended.)

Commitment, satisfaction and love are three critical factors in your relationship. What are you doing to encourage their growth? Are you putting your hobbies, job demands or child rearing responsibilities above your spouses’ needs? Or are you working daily to cultivate these important traits?

10 Steps to Make 2009 Less Busy, More Productive

Are you busy or fruitful? I heard this question recently, and it caused me to think about how the busyness of life can keep us from the important things, the goals we want to achieve in our families, relationships and professional lives. I’m not one to make resolutions each year, but I am one to evaluate what is working and what isn’t. Look back at your 2008—was it very productive? Or were you frequently overwhelmed by your to-do list?


Here are some strategies I’ve tried to use to make my life less busy and more fruitful. (I’m a work in progress.)

1.      Set goals based on your talents and true calling. What is your passion? Write down some smaller steps to help you reach your goal.

2.      Spend more time thinking (or in prayer/meditation) and reading good books and less time watching TV. These activities boost creativity and energy and help us focus.

3.      Reduce your intake of negative news. As a Journalism major, this was tough for me, but I’ve gained more than an hour a day of time and reduced my anxiety level.

4.      Consolidate errands, go online or do without. Do you really need a new outfit or another car wash, or can you spend the time/money elsewhere?

5.      Delegate, ask for help or just say no to things you do not want on your to-do list.

6.      Stop complaining to those who cannot correct a situation. Address problems with the appropriate sources, but don’t waste everyone else’s time over it.

7.      Make peace. Resolve conflicts with people in your life; you’ll spend too much time and energy stewing over unresolved conflicts.

8.      Encourage and help others, especially the less fortunate.

9.      At the beginning of each day, think about what you’d like to accomplish (write it down) and the attitude you would like to project to others.

10.  At the end of each day, evaluate how you did on #9, and consider what changes you may need to make.

So, what are your goals for ‘09? Please share the time-saving tips that have worked for you. And best wishes for a happy and most productive new year!

Do You Make a Difference to Someone?

Do you ever lament that you didn’t live up to a certain ideal or potential in life? Do you wish you could have a big impact on the world? Do you ever dream you could be great at something? I have, especially when I watch a great musical performer. I wonder what it’s like to have such a huge talent, but I’ve learned to just appreciate each person’s gifts. I used to think I should be responsible for something great in life, but I have changed my perspective. That is not to say I believe anyone should be mediocre, but I think small things are a great place to put our attention.

Have you heard someone say “I’m no Mother Theresa,” meaning they’re not perfect? In fact, she was a most humble woman and never attributed any great act to herself.  She is often quoted as saying, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”

When you think about how you impact the world on a daily basis, people probably don’t judge your career success or accomplishments or whether your house is perfectly clean each day. But the grocery clerk will notice if you remembered her name. Your child will notice if you made her favorite meal or took a few minutes to listen. Your coworkers will notice if you help un-jam the copy machine and try to be a pleasant person with whom to work.

A November Redbook Magazine article shares small gestures that couples use to show their love. A wife sneaks a dog toy into her husband’s suitcase to remind him of home. A husband surprises his wife with freshly ironed clothes. One man is excited that his wife listens to details about his basketball game. Several of them regularly leave little love notes around for their spouse, either text messages, love letters or sticky notes. These are the little things that keep love alive and relationships strong.

Not to be outdone by the love birds, acts by strangers are highlighted in a recent Woman’s Day article. A mother of three secretly paid for a soldier’s coffee and muffin, and felt good all day. Another was blessed when a stranger gave her and her son an umbrella and jacket while in the rain. One person even gave away a piano he wasn’t using to a child who was learning to play and was visiting a church each day to practice because he didn’t have one.

If you’ve ever been to a funeral, these are the stories that get told, the acts of kindness, generosity and love.  The great presentations given to management won’t be remembered.

Once you feel like you have the hang of doing small things with great love, you might consider upping the ante. CNN recently highlighted the top 10 everyday heroes who made a big difference in seemingly small ways, from rebuilding houses in New Orleans to educating children in extreme poverty or crossing the border each day to feed hungry children in Mexico. Many of them used very small amounts of money to make a great big difference. Go to www.cnn.com for inspiration, or consider supporting a charity close to your own heart.

How will your children remember you? Your spouse? Your friends? What do you hope they will say about you?