Author Archives: Maren

Happiness = Good Friends + Good Experiences

whiskey and cigars
There’s nothing like cool summer nights in Beaverton for creating wonderful experiences in our own backyard. And we created some wonderful experiences this weekend!

My dear friend opted to use our outdoor space for her piano studio recital. The event was the first of its kind in 2 years, courtesy of COVID. Her students were well-rehearsed, excited, and real pros as they introduced their selections and performed them. Oh, how I love encouraging budding musicians! A group of friends stayed after to enjoy spirits, delicious food, and fellowship. I absolutely loved it!

We spent all day Saturday getting ready for an even bigger party on Sunday during which friends gathered for a visit by an out-of-town chum. To mark the occasion, we had a live band, more spirits, more food, and more wonderful fellowship. Yet again, we stayed out late talking while a gentle breeze kept us cool and relaxed on the patio. Sheer heaven!

According to Dr. Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD of Amherst College, my experience of weekend bliss accords with what researchers have learned about happiness. The quality of our relationships is the single greatest predictor of happiness. It takes a bit of effort to find the folks with whom we feel a sense of kinship. (It took me ~5 years after our move here.) One found, it takes time, energy, and effort to nurture those cherished relationships.

Some may think: But what a minute? What if I got that big promotion? Or won the lottery? Wouldn’t such events be bigger determinants of happiness than friends?

It turns out that we aren’t terribly impacted by big life events – even winning millions of dollars! After the initial thrill, we tend to adapt and return to our previous set point. We can, however, increase our set point through right action. In particular:

Take care of ourselves by eating properly, exercising, and getting the right quantity and quality of sleep.

Spend our money wisely by investing in experiences rather than things. As with those big life events, the thrill of a new thing wears off once we become acclimated to it. But a great experience shared with good friends bring anticipation during the planning phase, joy in the moment, and wonderful memories that can be revisited time and again.

Avoid comparisons with others. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” To that end, Dr. Sanderson tells us to be wary of social media. It can make us feel as though everyone else is living a more vibrant life than we are. We forgot that most people only post their “best of” moments, not the full range of their everyday experiences.

Give to others; volunteer. When we are generous with our time, talents, and resources, we feel better about ourselves and the difference our lives’ make in the world.

Express gratitude. As the bookend to avoiding comparisons, practicing thankfulness helps us focus on everything that is going right in our lives and will have a ripple effect on the way we feel about ourselves.

Think good thoughts. A positive attitude carries the day for sustaining happiness through the ups and down of our lives.

How To Be – And Age – Well

exercise class

“There’s no magic pill for health and immunity. There’s a lifestyle that makes your immune system – and all other systems in the body – stronger.” – Dr. Frank Lipman, MD

My latest reads on well-being came courtesy of Dr. Frank Lipman, MD in three books: The New Health Rules, How to Be Well, and The New Rules of Aging Well.

Lipman characterizes the three major goals of medicine in terms of proper organ and systems function, synergy among organs and systems, and resiliency in the face of adversity. To that end, he looks at six areas in which we can all contribute to attaining these goals.

EAT: Prior posts document what to eat to produce good health outcomes. In a nutshell: Eat lots of fresh, organic fruit and vegetables. Boost gut health with prebiotics (garlic, onions, leeks) and probiotics (fermented food). Cut out sugar and processed foods. Drink alcohol sparingly (if at all). Lipman also talks about when to eat. In particular, he advocates consuming the largest meal at mid-day, when the body’s temperature and metabolic rate are at their peak. He further advocates confining one’s daily consumption to an 8-hour period, thereby giving our bodies a full 16 hours without outside sustenance. (While the absolute minimum daily fast should be 12 hours, Lipman says we can work our way up to 16 hours per day.) This schedule boosts a cellular process referred to as autophagy, from the Greek meaning self-devouring. It’s the means by which the body recycles useful cellular material to create new, healthy cells and disposes of dysfunctional elements and toxic waste. When we boost autophagy, we optimize mitochondrial function, dampen inflammation, retard aging, and stave off disease (e.g., cancer).

SLEEP: Adult human beings need high quality sleep every night – i.e., sufficient time in the sack during which we experience the full range of sleep cycles. When we shortchange sleep, the glymphatic system has insufficient time to clear neurological byproducts that accumulate in the brain. Toxic build-up sets the stage for loss of function and, eventually, dementia. One way to promote restorative sleep calls for aligning our schedules with our natural biorhythms. In particular, we should look for exposure to bright sunlight during the day and relative darkness at night. While most of us are unlikely to opt for candle lit evenings, we can minimize our exposure to the energizing blue rays in artificial light by wearing blue blocker glasses after hours.

MOVE: Our bodies are made for movement. We need stretching to maintain good skeletal alignment and prevent injury. We need aerobic exercise to promote a healthy heart and lungs. And we need strength training to build healthy bones. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) followed by a hot shower and cold rinse can be especially beneficial, invigorating, and fun! Lipman also encourages us to identify opportunities to move in the natural course of the day. For example: Alternate between sitting and standing at a desk. Walk around during phone calls. Sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair to improve fine muscle movement and balance. Take 5-10 minute workout breaks every hour. Cook. Garden. Dance!

PROTECT: Beyond following a healthy diet, we minimize inflammation and improve mitochondrial function by steering clear of toxins. Drink filtered water as the beverage of choice. Use glass (not plastic) storage containers. Avoid toxic cleaners for the home. Stay away from pesticides and herbicides for the garden. Work up a sweat to help the body get rid of its toxins.

UNWIND: Give yourself permission to be unproductive. Carve out time to clear your mind and simply rest and relax. Just say “no” to would-be intrusions on your space. Practice meditation or mindfulness. Listen to southing music. Take a walk in nature. Get a massage. Smile. Laugh. Repeat.

CONNECT: Community consistently proves healthy for body and soul. Live purposefully in service of others. Find your tribe and invest in friendship. Gathering great experiences matters far more than accumulating things! Consider forging relationship with a pet. It has been associated with elevated oxytocin (the “love” hormone), improved household feng shui (positive energy), and longer lives.

The Love Lab

happily marriedThe Good Life Project podcast recently featured a segment on marriage with Drs. John and Judy Gottman, PhDs. They’ve spent decades unearthing the “science of relationship” by placing thousands of couples under a proverbial microscope and seeing how they interact with one another and how they respond physiologically to one another. Dubbed The Love Lab, their research center has been in operation since 1986 at the University of Washington. Its sophisticated mathematical models can predict reliably the future course of a relationship based on observed behavior. You can read all about it in John Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail… And How You Can Make Yours Last.

Love and respect provide the foundation for every healthy marriage. Partners model these qualities by consistently serving up at least five times as many positive feelings toward the other as negative. These feelings include showing interest, expressing affection, being thoughtful, being appreciative, showing concern, demonstrating empathy, being accepting, joking around, and sharing joy.

Healthy marriages navigate conflict successfully. The Gottmans identified three models that work in stable marriages:

  • Validating: These partners choose their battles carefully and remain calm while listening attentively to one another’s perspectives. Each acknowledges that the other has made valid points and gives them due consideration. They see themselves as a team and look for middle ground on which they can both comfortably stand.
  • Volatile: These partners hear each other’s viewpoints in the heat of the argument. They don’t try to understand as much as persuade. They see themselves as equal, independent sorts who revel in the intensity. Their battles may be epic, but their make-ups are even grander. They live and love passionately.
  • Avoidant: These partners are conflict minimizers who dodge and hedge to avoid confrontation. They value individuality in union and do not attempt to persuade or compromise. They agree to disagree and trust that their bond is strong enough to overcome stand-offs. They don’t press the issue under the assumption that it’s not worth working through.

In addition to embodying a functional style for disagreement, healthy couples use “repair mechanisms” in the midst of disagreements to ensure that they do not spiral out of control. They include:

  • Reminding one another of their mutual love and respect
  • Defining or commenting on the process and where things currently stand
  • Taking note of when the discussion goes off topic
  • Requesting space to finish one’s thought
  • Letting the other know when a comment or attitude has caused pain

Gottman defined unhealthy styles of disagreement as either Hostile/Engaged or Hostile/Detached. In the former, the partners argue hotly, often using insults, name-calling, put-downs, and sarcasm. They don’t communicate with the intent to forge understanding. Hostile/Detached approach conflict by being emotionally uninvolved.

Unhealthy marriages manifest toxic negativity that proves corrosive over time. The Gottmans deem these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Criticism constitutes attacking the other party’s character or personality as a means of assigning blame. For example: “You didn’t take the garbage out again. You are so lazy.” Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to lodge a complaint when one’s partner chronically foregoes a previously negotiated responsibility. However, the complaint shouldn’t mutate beyond the specific behavior into a global attack. A complaint is specific and begins with an “I” statement rather than a “You” statement. It also provides a way for the person on the receiving end to be a hero. Revised example: “I am frustrated about the garbage situation. It would take a load off my mind if you could remember to take care of it every Monday night.”

Defensiveness occurs when one feels victimized or attacked and chooses to take up a defensive position. It can manifest as denying responsibility, making excuses, lodging a cross-complaint, yes-butting, whining, and displaying agitated or closed body language (crossing arms and/or legs, shifting weight from one foot to the other, grimacing).

Contempt suggests an intention to insult and psychologically abuse one’s partner. It comes from a place of moral superiority and manifests in insults, name-calling, hostile humor, mockery, and body language (curled lip, rolled eyes). It elicits shame in the other person and weakens their immune system. Contempt may be the most damaging of the Four Horsemen.

Stonewalling provides no communication, no eye contact, no response. It conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness. While suggesting detachment, physiological measurements suggest that the stonewaller experiences a heightened state of arousal (“fight or flight”) and may use it to combat the feeling of being overwhelmed.

When these four behaviors take root, the relationship may experience a downward spiraling of discord. Fortunately, there are strategies that all couples can leverage to strengthen their partnerships and avoid suffering.

  • Schedule discussion of contentious topics when both have the time and energy to address them with civility. Focus on one issue at a time; don’t try to process a backlog of issues all at once.
  • Structure disagreements – e.g., stay on topic, hear one another out, validate the other’s perspective by “walking in his or her shoes,” persuade, negotiate, and then resolve.
  • Communicate nondefensively. Choose a positive mindset toward your partner. Give voice to your thoughts with the intention of being heard and understood (without walls going up!) Be an engaged listener. Exhibit open and loving body language.
  • Stay calm. Keep breathing. Check your heart rate. Notice tension-inducing negative thoughts and replace them with positive, validating, soothing ones. Take time outs as needed to settle down.
  • Practice, practice, practice. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Keep honing behaviors that work until they become automatic.

While all of the foregoing insights came to fruition in the context of marriage, they apply equally well to family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Understanding Psychotherapy

psychotherapy

“I want to capture the process by which humans, struggling to evolve, push against their shells until they crack open.” – Lori Gottlieb

It’s rare that I pick up a health-related book and get so I can’t put it down until I reach the end. But Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone fit that bill.

I was introduced to the author via the podcast Go Ask Ali. As part of a series on relationships, host Ali Wentworth dedicated a few episodes to creating a better relationship with yourself. She’s a proponent of therapy for the simple reason that we can open up the possibly for substantive personal growth by just talking to a skilled professional. To that end, Ali’s guest,  psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, provided guidance about what to look for in a therapist, what to expect out of the relationship, how it can help, and why it matters to anyone seeking to create a better present and future for themselves.

Unfortunately, our culture stigmatizes psychotherapy. We consider those who seek out this level of support as being somehow weak, or not having their acts together. Because we fear being exposed for our less-than-perfect selves, we “armor up” and put on public faces to mask our struggles. That strategy may render us stuck in a mode where we’re constantly trying to change our pasts or control our futures. It may disconnect us from who we truly are. We need help to get unstuck. As Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Lori’s book takes the reader inside the therapeutic relationship through the aegis of four case studies as well as Lori’s direct experience of treatment. (Yep, therapists need therapists, too!) While drawing you in to each of the patient’s story, she provides commentary about how a skilled therapist deftly navigates the terrain to build trust, get to the heart of the individual’s challenges and pain points, and discern a healthy path forward. For the therapeutic relationship to bear fruit, the patient must have the ability to “accept feedback, tolerate discomfort, become aware of blind spots, and discover the impact of their histories and behaviors on themselves and others.” It’s a process that unfolds over time – when the patient is ready to “go there.”

Therapists don’t fix our problems. Lori tells us: “They ask light questions until something happens – internally or externally – that leads [patients] to do their own persuading.” Even when we gain the insights and discover a new way of being, we will not experience a perpetual state of bliss. Life will still bring challenge and heart ache. But as the Buddha said:

“Peace, it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. Peace comes from within.”

If you’ve ever considered talking with a therapist and want some sense for how that scenario plays out, this book would be a good starting point. It’s deeply personal, forthright, poignant, at times humorous, and and all-around good read.

Busting the Myth of Willpower and Dieting

does dieting just take willpower?If you’ve ever been on a diet (or several of them), you’ve probably been told by some well-meaning bystander that all you need do is exercise a little willpower. You know, just push yourself away from the table. It seems simple enough. Yet even folks with superior self-control in others areas of their lives often fail to regulate their eating habits to produce weight loss. Think Oprah Winfrey. Staggering success achieved through extraordinary talent and discipline. Lots of help in the form of a personal trainer, chef, nutritionist, counsellor, and assistants. And yet the struggle remains.

Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney tackle this conundrum in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. They remind us that the body has a will of its own and reacts viscerally to what we do. It’ll go along with a diet once or twice. But then it’ll adapt, hoarding excess body weight even with reduced caloric intake. After all, evolution favors those who survive famines. If the body thinks that food might be scarce, it’ll do what it needs to do to address a projected shortfall. It doesn’t understand dieting for weight loss.

Dieting depletes willpower, even if we’re endowed with tons of it. Every time we go through the mental process of resisting foods that we’d like to eat, we draw down our reservoir of self-control. To resupply that energy, we need glucose. The body knows that the fastest way to produce glucose is sweets. So we crave sweets, causing a further drain on our willpower if we resist them. Talk about a Catch-22!

Baumeister and Tierney also shed light on the what-the-hell effect – a phenomena I know all too well! It says that when we’re watching what we eat, we make a mental note of the total calories that will pass our lips each day. When we blow the plan, we classify the day as a failure, eat whatever we want for the remaining waking hours, and vow to regain our virtue in the morning. Unfortunately, our overindulgence disrupts our biochemistry, messes with our sleep, and makes the next day’s task all the more difficult… which could well precipitate another what-the-hell effect.

Finally, our artificially regulated diets make it difficult for the body’s hormones to give us accurate clues on when we’re hungry and when we’re sated. Most of us simply eat at preset times during the day according to work and household schedules. So, we don’t know what it feels like to live in harmony with our body’s natural rhythm. We eat because it’s time to eat. We eat because the food is there. We eat because we’re bored. We eat because we eat.

What do Baumeister and Tierney suggest we do?

Focus on lifestyle changes that yield gradual weight loss and support long-term weight maintenance. Don’t shock the system into thinking it has been thrown back in time to the mid-19th century Potato Famine. Establish realistic goals, and eat sensibly and sustainably to attain them.

Weigh daily. Folks who take to the scales every day are more successful keeping weight off than those who don’t. They accept tiny fluctuations as a function of water retention without discouragement and nip the larger swings in the bud. Wearing fitted clothing also helps monitor the battle of the bulge!

Make highly specific plans to address high temptation circumstances. Use IF-THEN rules: “If I’ve had a bad day at work, then I will go to the gym before I go home.” “If I go to a restaurant, then I will order____.” If I go to a party, then I will _____.” Don’t waste brain cycles making decisions in the moment. Just follow the rules.

Postpone pleasure, don’t deny it. As Mark Twain said: “To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.” Rather, when craving sweets, tell yourself that you can have it later. Eat or drink something healthy in the meantime while savoring the prospect. If you still want sweets, offer yourself a small taste, not a big chunk!

Get back on the wagon immediately when/if you fall off. A momentary lapse doesn’t have to become a major setback. If you are tempted to succumb to the overeating abyss, find an enjoyable activity to distract you – e.g., walk the dog, put on music and dance around the living room, get fresh air while reading a book.

Work with your body’s natural rhythms. Plan meals around times when you are most likely to be hungry. Drink a glass of water roughly 20 minutes before mealtime to start filling up your stomach. Serve yourself modest portions and then eat slowly to give your body time to register that it’s getting full. Stop eating when you are sated. Don’t feel compelled to finish everything on your plate.

Brush your teeth early for bed to create an obstacle for late night snacking.

Ten Tips for Mastering Self-Control

Having discussed Baumeister and Tierney’s findings on self-control, I now turn to proven strategies to win the game of willpower. The short answer: Structure your life such that you minimize temptation and inner conflict. In other words, avoid situations that will drain this finite resource. Here are their recommended strategies:

willpower improvement planDon’t procrastinate. When you put off a difficult task or give in to boredom over a mundane task, you are more likely to substitute an activity with the potential for immediate gratification – e.g., raiding the refrigerator. Procrastinators tend to perform worse and exhibit poorer health outcomes than doers while still (eventually) having to get the dreaded job done.

Watch for symptoms of ebbing willpower. Are you feeling increasingly agitated? Are you anxious about making decisions? Are you uncharacteristically making mistakes? Do you snap at others? If yes to any of these questions, push the pause button. Relax and breathe deeply. Get healthy food in your body. Then get back to whatever you were doing.

Pick your battles. Set aside a day each year to reflect on your life and create a rough 5-year plan with monthly goals. Then plan to make important changes during periods with relatively low demand on your internal resources. Huge, quick, ill-timed attempts at transformation tend to backfire. Instead, budget your willpower and use it wisely.

Create rules that dictate what you will (and won’t) do – e.g., “I will exercise every morning right when I get out of bed.” “I won’t have more than 2 glasses of wine during the course of an extended dinner party.” Once you’ve made these decisions and take action on them, you won’t waste brainpower on them. They’ll become automatic mental processes.

Beware of planning optimism. Human beings consistently underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to complete a project. Set realistic expectations by using your history as a guide and/or getting input from others who’ve gone before you. Try to chunk big projects into small pieces and set priorities for how you’ll proceed.

Attend to the basics – diet, exercise, sleep, hygiene. A healthy, rested will is a strong will. An orderly environment creates a well-disciplined mind. Cultivate good habits and get rid of bad ones. Habits are strengthened by routine.

Postpone with a plan. If you really can’t motivate yourself to tackle a must-do project but can’t stop thinking about it, set it up as the #1 thing on the following day’s to-do list. Add pleasurable tasks as items 2, 3, 4… as incentives to knock out the top priority. This strategy frees the mind to do something else in the present moment while providing assurance that the task is not left unattended.

Set aside time daily to attend to your most important priorities. Do not allow for alternate activities to intrude upon that time. Scheduled time prepares the mind to focus on that activity and stops the internal debate about competing uses of time.

Track your time. The more carefully you monitor your time, the better you’ll get at using it wisely. (There are lots of tools to help you do it!)

Give yourself rewards. Acknowledge your accomplishments and the willpower necessary to achieve them. Use little rewards for little things, and big rewards for big things.

Willpower

What is the most reliable predictor of accelerated performance? Intelligence? Good genes? Great coaching? According to Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the answer is self-control.

self-controlIn the famed “marshmallow test,” psychologist Walter Mischel placed very young children in a room with one marshmallow. The children were told that if they left the marshmallow alone while the researcher exited the room, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow upon the researcher’s return. Later in life, children who successfully delayed gratification were found to be more popular, earn higher salaries, have lower body mass index (BMI), be prone to less substance abuse, and have more stable relationships.

Because self-mastery is such a critical life skill, it’s useful to understand the mechanics of how it plays out in the human body. In particular, we each have a finite amount of willpower. It gets depleted when:

  1. Managing thoughts: It takes effort to focus our minds on the task at hand (and shut out other thoughts), to process and store information, to evaluate data when making decisions, and any other mindful event.
  2. Exercising emotional control: It is effortful to process anger, frustration, disappointment, stress, etc. and stay on task and/or work ourselves into pleasant companionship. Even just “being nice” can be effortful when we’re placed in unfamiliar territory.
  3. Navigating impulses: We spend upwards of 25% of our waking hours resisting temptation – specifically, the urge to eat, the urge to sleep, and the urge to seek pleasure. While we can’t control the impulses, we can determine how we’ll respond to them.
  4. Managing performance: In addition to focusing on the task at hand, we need to attend to the speed, accuracy, and quality of our work, manage external and internal pressure, and prioritize competing demands on our time.

The more we use up our willpower, the less able we are to make good decisions. We’ll postpone, procrastinate, look for an easy out, or simply go with the status quo. We’re also more likely to fail in our efforts to resist temptation, especially sugary foods. With glucose depleted through exercise of willpower, the body starts to crave sweet things to eat. Even an expectation of elevated demands on willpower can trigger a raging sweet tooth. While we can’t get around the fact that we have a human mind that exists in a biological body, we can learn to “feed the beast” in a way that wards off unhealthy cravings:

  • Focus on foods with a low glycemic index. They’ll provide a slow burn that will maintain a steady supply of glucose for the brain.
  • Get adequate rest. Sleep reduces the body’s demand for glucose and creates the space for our willpower reservoir to replenish.
  • When sick, give the immune system first dibs on glucose. We can mitigate the overall demand for glucose by resting, minimizing stress, letting others take care of us, and deferring major decisions.

Beyond simply taking good care of ourselves, we improve self-control by establishing goals, setting clear boundaries, and sticking with them. When we’re juggling competing demands on our time, we worry too much, get less done, feel bad ourselves, and get less sleep. It drains our reservoir of willpower and introduces needless mental drag. We need to decide which goals and behaviors will do us the most good, create reasonable action plans, and then commit to doing them with focused attention. A mind at peace can get more done and be less reactive to the unexpected.

“Stuff” will crop up – i.e., things that show up in our physical or psychological world for which we haven’t determined an outcome or next step. Such things are best handled by the 4 D’s – Do it, Delegate it, Drop it, or Defer it. The latter can be placed in a folder corresponding to the day of the month during which you’ll give it further consideration. By using this system, you de-clutter your mind while creating the means to address important matters at the right time with the right level of attention.

What To Do When Cooking Feels Like a Chore

“Cooking involves an enormously rich coming together of the fruits of the earth with the inventive genius of the human being.” – Carol Flinders, co-author of Laurels’ Kitchen

sharing a mealThis week marks 15 months since we went into quarantine. For our household, that’s 15 months since we’ve taken a break from home cooking and eaten a meal at a restaurant (excluding a few guilty-pleasure pizza runs!) As one who typically enjoys cooking, I’ve found the extended stretch without the occasional break to be burdensome, especially since we’ve not had the pleasure of external company to share meals.

I’m not alone. For those working full-time jobs and raising families, it’s hard to keep up with household chores (including grocery shopping and cooking), spend quality time with family and friends, and squeeze in a little “me time.” The food industry’s hefty marketing budget plays right into our overburdened sensibilities by encouraging us to go easy on home cooked meals in favor of quick-fix processed foods and take-out. And by stimulating our taste buds and reward centers with sugar, salt, and fat, the food industry makes sure that we’re happy to go along with their program.

I understand completely how we’ve become a nation characterized by unhealthy eating habits and the associated poor health outcomes. We’ve “drunk the Kool Aid” (literally) and bought into taking short-cuts in the kitchen with an expectation that the medical establishment will take care of our health woes when they arise. Given the latter may take years to show up, why not enjoy life now?

Having tended to my parents’ health needs in their final years, I have a clear sense of how disease robs a vibrant person of life. While modern medicine did the best it could for my dad and mom, it still fell short of remediating their conditions. As a result, I’ve opted to change our household’s eating habits before they result in a turning point for the worse. The payoff thus far has been remarkable. Both my husband and I have dropped nearly 30 points each on total cholesterol through natural means. Our weight has stayed within the “normal” range, and we feel great!

So how do you stay the course when so many influences conspire to thwart your best efforts?

FIRST: I’ve set up a chopping/slicing/dicing station in front of my TV. As that’s the most time-consuming aspect of meal preparation, I’ve found a way to entertain myself while doing it. Most of the shows I watch do just fine with a continuous audio track and regular peaks at the screen. And as a side benefit, I’m not tempted to snack out of boredom while my hands are busy preparing food.

SECOND: I cooked my way through 10 healthy cookbooks and taught myself how to make delicious meals using whole foods and very little fat, salt, or sugar. I use lots of spices and generally make each dish stretch out to two or three meals. (Leftovers generally taste better than the original meals!) I balance more time-consuming entrées with easy-peesy ones so that I’m not spending an inordinate amount of time cooking.

THIRD: I don’t keep junk food around the house. If it isn’t there, I can’t eat it. And if it takes effort to go get it, I’ll make do with a readily-available healthy alternative in my cupboards or refrigerator. The only exceptions to this rule are bags of corn chips which we open occasionally with Mexican-themed meals. We LOVE corn chips!

FOURTH: We’re in our third season of purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). As I’m not one to waste food or money, I always figure out how to use all of the fresh food that we purchased, which keeps us eating healthfully. I feel good about supporting local farmers and honor the work that they’ve chosen to do. It also feels good knowing that the food was prepared without chemicals and traveled a few miles instead of hundreds of them to get to our table.

FIFTH: We savor the taste of good food and the wonderful aromas that waft through our home. They’re the rewards for prioritizing kitchen work and treating that part of our lives as sacred. And now that we have a growing circle of COVID-vaccinated friends, we’re enjoying the fellowship that comes from feeding body and soul together.

Lasting Marriage

On the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary, Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas co-authored What Makes a Marriage Last: 40 Celebrated Couples Share with Us the Secrets of a Happy Life. It’s a charming book filled with stories and commentary that’s worthwhile reading for anyone considering the matrimonial adventure… and for those of us in the thick of it.

Here are themes that found resonance throughout the book:

lasting marriageThe initial spark of attraction finds durability in a shared outlook, shared values, and friendship. Each partner shows up emotionally available and provides the space where truth, trust, respect, decency, loyalty, and intimacy flourish.

“Looks fade, abilities come and go. So does money. But the character of a person is what you hitch your wagon to.” – Bryan Cranston, actor, director, producer, and screenwriter

“I don’t trust anybody more than I trust Rebecca to have my best interests at heart. And I have respect – genuine respect for her, too.” – Dr. Sanjay Gupta, journalist, medical correspondent, and neurosurgeon

Both partners keep marriage and family at the forefront of their busy lives. They step up, contribute, and feed the good of the whole. They’re “in the foxhole” together no matter what life sends their way.

“You deal with whatever they’re dealing with. Their issues become your issues.” – Tracy Pollan, actress and wife of Michael J. Fox

“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” – The Reverend Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist

“There is no Plan B. No matter what, we want to work it out.” – Kyra Sedgwick, actress

Each partner values and appreciates the other without expectation of change. Each provides space for the other to pursue passionate interests and continue growing as an individual. Each is a source of sound advice, encouragement, and support. Each takes genuine interest in the well-being and happiness of the other and allows shortcomings to be revealed without judgment.

“Judy’s position is that there are three things involved: the two spouses and the marriage itself. They’re all separate and they all have to be addressed.” – Milton Viorst, journalist

“You’ll be the comedian who I know you can be. I trust you with this.” – Janice Crystal in the early days of Billy Crystal’s stand-up career

“We’re a team, professionally and personally. There’s probably been no other person who comes anywhere close to him [Bob Woodward] as being my advisor and my encourager, who says to me, ‘Take a leap, do that thing you want to do, try something hard,’ or ‘even if you don’t want to do anything at all, that’s fine, too.’” – Elsa Walsh, journalist and author

“I told myself, no matter what he says, do not have any expression on your face. If you have an expression, he might clam up and feel ashamed or judged in some way.” – Kelly Ripa, actress and talk show host

Even after years of togetherness, they are still excited to see one another and really enjoy each other’s company. They keep the romance alive through love notes, date nights, doing things (large and small) the other really values, and giving each other full attention when together.

“Keep shaving your legs.” – Gloria Estefen, singer/songwriter

They’ve learned to communicate effectively; they get the big things right and let the little things take care of themselves. When differing in opinion, they remember that their partners are people they love who proceed with good intentions. They are sensitive to what their partners might be going through and bide their time before attempting resolution.

“If you have the zinger, don’t say it. Especially when you remember you’re the one who lives deepest in the other person’s heart, and that you can hurt them the most.” – Peter Hermann, actor, producer, writer

“We would never say anything in the heat of an argument that we could not live with after.” – Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author, journalist, and social activist

“The secret to a long marriage is a short memory.” – Arlene Alda, photographer and writer

They keep a sense of humor!

The book ends with these final thoughts:

“There is no one secret to a lasting marriage, there are a million secrets. So keep looing for them. Because the longer you look, the more you’ll discover reasons to stay in it. As Jamie Lee Curtis so perfectly said: ‘What’s the secret to a long marriage? Don’t leave.”’

Love Languages

As a marriage counselor, Gary Chapman has worked with scores of couples for whom the joy of partnership had faded and faced the looming prospect of separation. These folks did not lack concern for one another, but simply felt as though their emotional love tanks were perpetually dry. Through these encounters, Chapman discovered a fundamental truth: people speak different love languages. If we want our relationships to last, we need to identify – and learn to speak – the language that most resonates with our partners.

five love languagesChapman characterizes these emotional dialects in The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Mastery of a given dialect presumes the sincere intention of building others up and demonstrating commitment to their well-being. It is not to be used to manipulate behavior for personal gain.

Love Language #1 – Words of Affirmation – expresses appreciation for other’s good qualities or behaviors and demonstrates belief in their potential. It provides encouragement to pursue initiatives that we know to be deeply meaning to our partners without pressure to take action. It’s our vote of confidence. When making requests of our partners, we express our needs in a way that affirms our partners’ worth, abilities, and free exercise of choice. We give them the opportunity to do something meaningful for us, and acknowledge their contribution once completed. We also make a point of sharing our heartfelt appreciation for our partners with others. It fosters an aura of positivity that lifts up our partners in the retelling.

Love Language #2 – Quality Time – calls for giving our undivided attention to doing things with our partners that they enjoy. If the time spent focuses on quality conversation, we engage in sympathetic dialog where both parties share experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly and open manner. We commit to really listening. If it’s a shared activity, we dive in wholeheartedly knowing that we’re creating a memory bank of shared experiences on which we can both draw in the future.

Love Language #3 – Gifts – provides a tangible expression that our partners know what lights us up and invested the time and energy to get it. It says: “I was thinking about you.” Unless this token of appreciation is wildly mismatched with the giver’s means, it usually isn’t about the amount spent. It’s the thought, intention, and effort that went behind it.

Love Language #4 – Acts of Service – entails doing things your partner would like you to do. These acts must be things that genuinely matter to one’s partner and given freely as an expression of love. They typically require some thought, planning, time, effort, and energy. They may entail examining – and abandoning – stereotypes about the roles that men and women have assumed historically in partnership.

Love Language #5 – Physical Touch – entails holding hands, kissing, embracing, caressing, and sexual intercourse. It may show up as highly charged moments of encounter or casual gestures that manifest in small ways throughout the day. For those for whom this is their love language, to touch their bodies is to touch their hearts. It’s a powerful communicator of love.

If we ignore our partner’s love language, it’s akin to ignoring the needs of a garden. If we don’t weed, water, and fertilize, the garden will die a slow death. Even if our partner’s love language does not come naturally to us, make the choice to learn it anyway. It’s an even more profound expression of love.

How do we identify our love language? The author suggests contemplating answers to the following questions:

  • In what way do your regularly express your love to your spouse? (You may be doing for them what you hope they’ll do for you.)
  • What does your spouse do or fail to do that hurts you most deeply? (You may equate that action – or inaction – as a love barometer.)
  • What have you most often requested of your spouse? (You may be giving your spouse hints about what makes you feel loved.)

Finally, don’t expect your partner to have E.S.P. (If you find it challenging to identify your love language, imagine how challenging it would be for your partner!) Do the work to figure out what fills your emotional tank, and then have a forwarding dialog with your partner about it.

As the Beatles famously sang, “All we need is love.”