Category Archives: Personal Development

Good Friends Promote Good Health

I can’t imagine going through the journey of life without having wonderful friends with whom to share it. I’m fortunate to have people in my life around whom I feel seen, heard, and valued. I am comforted in knowing that we give and receive without judgment, expectations, or scorekeeping. Their love and support is a source of sustenance, and I trust that mine is nurturing for them. I’m especially blessed to have married a man who is as great a friend as he is a life partner.

friends

Good friends make me feel good. But until recently, I didn’t realize the extent to which they are as much a contributor to my health as my happiness.

In The Healing Self, Drs. Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi tell us that the heart is responsive to how we feel physically and emotionally. Being loved and supported by others results in lower arterial blockage. It also affects the immune system. As a case in point, they ask their readers to assign one point to each relationship in which there is direct contact (face-to-face or phone) at least every other week. Those whose scores fall within the 1-3 range are four times more likely to exhibit cold symptoms than those with six or more. Moreover, the number and diversity of relationships exert greater influence on health than their intimacy.

In Mind Over Medicine, Dr. Lissa Rankin emphasizes the importance of having healthy, judgment-free relationships that give us the freedom to be our authentic selves. Love, nurturing, compassion, and feelings of belonging soothe the mind, halt the stress response, induce the relaxation response, and heal the body. They also bring out our best selves while elevating our moods.

Studies show that positive psychological states, such as joy, happiness, and positive energy, as well as characteristics such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism, and a sense of humor result in lower mortality rates and extend longevity.
– Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD

Friendship also exerts an influence at the cellular level. Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel explore this connection in The Telomere Effect. Telomeres are a repeating segment of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of our chromosomes. Much like the plastic or metal aglets placed on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres keep our DNA strands intact. It turns out that good friends are like trusted guardians of these essential genetic building blocks. When they’re around, our telomeres are protected. By contrast, unhealthy relationships are a telomere risk factor. Situations that consistently mix positive qualities with unhelpful or disturbing interactions engender a kind of stress that produces shorter telomeres. When telomeres become critically short, our cells can no longer reproduce.

Finally, I recall a discussion with my father’s neurologist when Dad first exhibited signs of geriatric dementia. The doctor told us that four things were essential to maintaining one’s mental faculties for as long as possible. The first three were not surprising: a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. The fourth was socialization. While sudoku and crossword puzzles are fine diversions, they can’t compete with sustained, positive contact with other human beings. The more we engage with others, the more we exercise our brains and the better we feel.

Man’s Search for Meaning

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

If you’ve never had the chance to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s time that this best-selling book finds its way onto your reading list. It may not change your life, but it will certainly give you a new lens through which to view it.

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was transported and processed at the Auschwitz concentration camp in October 1994 alongside his wife. He survived months of slave labor at a camp affiliated with Dachau before his liberation by American soldiers the following year. Sadly, his mother Elsa and brother Walter died in Auschwitz; his wife Tilly died in Bergen-Belsen.

How does someone find meaning in such dire circumstances?

concentration campConfinement in the camps bought harsh working conditions, insufficient nourishment, lack of sleep, and a host of psychological pressures. Yet through it all, there were prisoners who devoted their energies to comforting others and sharing their meager scraps of food. They’d lost everything, but they retained the ability to choose how they’d respond to their circumstances. They exercised control over their mental and spiritual well-being.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation,… we are challenged to change ourselves.”
– Viktor Frankel

Pain and suffering find a way into every person’s life. How we face these challenges determines the quality of our character. The extreme conditions in the camps forced the prisoners to adjust their core attitudes toward life. They stopped asking life what it would do for them; they started asking what life expected of them.

Each of us comes into this life with a purpose to be served. Our distinctiveness has a bearing on the work that we’ll do as well as the lives we’ll touch. If we accept these responsibilities, we can learn to bear almost any hardship. This awareness gives us a sense for the unfinished (or unrealized) work that awaits completion through our efforts. It helps us see the faces of loved ones whose happiness and well-being demand our presence and participation in their lives. No other person can walk in our footsteps; no one can be replaced. As Frankl says:

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets oneself – by giving himself a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

To that end, Frankl cautions against aiming at success. The more we set our sights on it, the less likely we’ll attain it. Success ensues as an unintended side effect of dedication to a cause greater than oneself. He asks us to listen to our conscience and carry out its directives to the best of our ability.

I’ve certainly never experienced any trauma or tragedy comparable to the Holocaust. Yet I draw comfort and inspiration from Frankl’s words at a time when our country seems to be in such turmoil and armed conflicts abound. Even Mother Nature seems to be lashing out in response to our questionable stewardship of her bounty. It’s easy enough to feel discouraged. Here again, Frankl cuts through all the noise with a clear and compelling message:

“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become worse unless each of us does his best.”
– Viktor Frankel

Seriously – read the book!

21 Ways to Sustain Inner Peace

I’ve had an especially rough week. Too much to do, too much stress, and too little sleep alongside a substantive family emergency. I decided to revisit a set of practices that Mary Lynn Hendrix derived from The Work of Katie Byron.

inner peace

  1. Take responsibility for your beliefs and judgments. Avoid the temptation to judge others; focus on cleaning up your own stuff. Be compassionate and forgiving.
  2. Notice when you’re minding other people’s business. Did they ask your advice? Could you apply that advice to your own life?
  3. Hold lightly what you think you know about yourself. Challenge your beliefs. Consider the payoffs (and the costs) of hanging on to them.
  4. Practice “detaching” from your body and your story. Experiment with a third person narrative of your life and events to see what new insights this practice yields.
  5. Speak in the present tense. Experience life in the moment. Avoid the temptation to ruminate about the past or worry about the future.
  6. Learn to love the work that’s right in front of you. Love doing dishes. Love the laundry. Love writing that 1-page memo on which you’ve been procrastinating all day.
  7. Listen to your body. Practice stillness to give it space to speak. Explore what’s really going on when it twitches, tingles, aches, tenses up, etc.
  8. Practice narrating event as if you were a roving reporter. Focus on the facts: What is happening right now? What’s drawing my attention? Where are my hands, feet, arms, legs, etc., and what are they doing? What do I see? Don’t get caught up in the interpretation of the facts or fear of what’s coming in the next moment.
  9. Practice taking what others say at face value. Resist the temptation to assign deep meaning or hidden motivation. Let them finish uninterrupted while giving them your full attention. Once you’ve really listened, then you can consider how you might respond.
  10. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t fret excessively about what they’ll think. Don’t use words to manipulate others.
  11. Watch life’s recurring dramas as if they’re theatrical plays. Take heart in knowing that you can leave your seat, exit the playhouse, and step outside at any time. The play will still be there later.
  12. Rewrite the drama. Consider how it would play out through the mind and eyes other playwrights. Notice how your experience of it changes.
  13. Exercise polarity. When ruminating on a negative thought, take yourself to the opposite pole to experience something positive. Come back to the positive pole every time you feel yourself slipping.
  14. Awaken self-love. Make a list of everything you love about someone else and share it with them. Now look at the list and see how many of those things are also true of you.
  15. Live your truth. Move, respond, and speak with genuine intention and interest. Don’t compromise your integrity with false excuses or explanations.
  16. Ask for what you want. People don’t know what you want unless you tell them. If they are unwilling or unable to give it to you, find ways to give it to yourself.
  17. Be open to life’s lessons. Recognize that the people and circumstances that come into your life are there to teach you about who you are.
  18. Practice self-gratitude. Stop looking outside yourself for validation.
  19. Use vanity mirrors sparingly. Don’t get caught up in a reflection that doesn’t tell the story of who you are.
  20. Stop justifying yourself. Notice how often you provide explanations for yourself and your words, actions, decisions, etc. Who are you trying to convince? Practice right thoughts, decision-making, and action, and stand firm.
  21. Be grateful for criticism. Say (or think) “thank you” to the slings and arrows, even though it hurts. That attitude enables you to hear the feedback and use the information in a way that serves you.

The Power of Onlyness

“I believe that at the root of our humanity is a passion to create value with heart, to work alongside others who care, and to make a difference.”
– Nilofer Merchant

Ranked #22 on the 2017 Thinkers50 global ranking of management gurus, Nilofer Merchant has launched over 100 products that have generated nearly $2 billion in sales. She’s a published author who thinks deeply about strategies, frameworks, and cultural values. Her latest book is a clarion call to identify, embrace, and actuate our distinctiveness in a way that promotes the common good. She titled it The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.

Ms. Merchant shares her perspective on onlyness within the context of inspirational narratives (including her own). The successes generally adhere to the following story arc:

Individuals tap into ideas or issues that prove deeply meaningful. Their histories, backgrounds, and surroundings influence what they notice and what evokes their response. When an idea or issue comes to the fore and ignites passion, it gives clarity of purpose going forward.

Individuals bring their distinct gifts, skills, experiences, passions, and insights to the enterprise. They value themselves for who they are, just as they are, without getting tripped up by what other people think. They simply focus on doing what they can. This orientation toward action confers its own reward. As Ms. Merchant says, “discovering yourself is a function of being yourself.”

the power of onlynessThey align with others who share their passions, purpose, goals, and values. Ms. Merchant argues that onlyness does NOT result in loneliness. Quite the contrary! Cultivating community transforms the individual from being the “only one” who gives voice to an idea or issue into a powerful force for change based on the scale and strength of the collective. Finding community may take time and effort. Social media helps! It may also mean letting loose the bonds with other communities for which the pressure to conform has proven stifling. Yet it promises the freedom to feel deeply attached to the world and others while standing firm in one’s own beliefs and ideas.

They invest the time and energy to forge trusted, cohesive communities. Such communities balance the distinctive ideas and contributions of the individuals with the overarching mission and goals of the collective. They forge trust. Ms. Merchant writes:

“To move an idea into reality, everyone involved with it needs to know how to be curious enough to discover the right problems to solve. They need to listen to one another as options are explored, and be vulnerable enough to accept help from one another. Also, they need to tussle together on tough decisions so that, ultimately, they can lean on one another as they prepare to move into action.”

They commit to taking effective action. They build frameworks that enable individuals to contribute based on what they see while ensuring that the end results contribute responsibly to the overarching purpose. They foster collaboration using all relevant technology and make sure there’s ample room for in-person gatherings. They give ideas room to grow without suffocating them with unrealistic expectations or a mandate to be “successful.” To that end, side projects and extracurricular activities can provide relatively low-risk testing grounds.

Mr. Merchant warns that the road ahead may not be clear, and the journey may take a number of twists and turns. That’s OK! As she says: “Until you do the actual work, the strength and specificity of your goal will not become clear – to you or to others.”

While Ms. Merchant’s book contemplates making a dent in the world, I find the concepts germane to crafting one’s life plan. It argues for spirited and intentional exploration rather than adhering to a conventional road map. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

How the Healthiest, Longest-Lived People Live

In 2009, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner published findings from his quest to find the world’s longest-lived, healthiest human beings and identify common threads that unite them. Dubbed the Blue Zones®, he found these exemplary communities in California (a Seventh Day Adventist community), Costa Rica, Greece, Sardinia, and Japan.

blue zone communities

In The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, he shares nine secrets to their success:

  1. Sustained movement through acts of daily living – walking, preparing meals using whole foods, doing chores, gardening
  2. Purpose – a reason outside of work that makes life worth living
  3. Daily routines through which they relax and relieve stress
  4. Leisurely meals during which they eat to ~80% capacity (leaving ample room for digestion)
  5. One or two glasses of wine daily with good friends
  6. Primarily plant-based diets with small, intermittent servings of meat, poultry, and fish
  7. Social circles that encourage and reinforce their healthy behaviors
  8. Participation in faith-based communities
  9. Focus on family as witnessed by committed marriages, attentive parenting, care and concern for the elderly

Unlike the average American, these folks do not obsess over the latest health fad. They don’t count calories or worry about the optimal ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. They simply live the way their parents and parents’ parents lived without the specter of heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and dementia looming in their advanced years.

In The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Buettner takes a closer look at food choices in the 5 communities. While the composition of their diets vary according to tradition and available raw materials, all 5 communities place little emphasis on fish, meat, poultry, and eggs. Here are their average daily intakes by food group:

CA CR GR IT JP
Vegetables 33% 14% 46% 12% 32%
Fruits 27% 9% 16% 1%
Legumes 12% 7% 11% 4% 16%
Grains, Rice, Pasta 7% 26% 6% 47% 23%
Fish, Meat, Poultry, Eggs 6% 7% 11% 5% 15%
Dairy (e.g., goat’s milk) 10% 24% 26% 8%
Oils 2% 2% 6% 2%
Sweets 1% 11% 4% 3%
Other 2% 6%

Based on his research, Buettner suggests the following practices:

  • Make your first meal of the day the largest, lunch the second largest, and dinner the smallest; add one light snack, as needed.
  • Cook at home using fresh, high quality ingredients (e.g., organic produce, free range poultry, grass fed meats).
  • Don’t eat while standing, driving, watching TV, reading, or using electronic devices. Rather, invite family and friends to dine with you.
  • Stop eating when you are 80% full. Either pre-plate the food, or eat slowly enough that the body can register its food consumption and signal when full.
  • Make meal time a celebration!

He also recommends food choices for longevity. Based on his experience and a confluence of nutritional research, 95% of the diet should come from a whole plant. Meat, poultry, and fish should make occasional appearances in small portions – i.e., servings roughly the size of a deck of cards. Eat at least one-half cup beans daily as they’re high in protein and fiber. Minimize dairy as we don’t digest it well (although fermented goat’s milk seems to be OK). Replace common bread with sourdough or whole wheat. Snack on nuts. Slash sugar.

Note: Blue Zones® is a registered trademark of Blue Zones, LLC. Blue Zones is dedicated to creating healthy communities across the United States. Visit their website at https://bluezones.com/.

How to Form Good Habits

“Habits are the behaviors that I want to follow forever, without decisions, without debate, no stopping, no finish lines.”
– Gretchen Rubin

build good habitsThe books that I’ve been reading lately provide roadmaps for living a healthier, happier life. While it’s easy to get my head wrapped around all the good advice, it can be hard to get my body and spirit on board. Inertia and procrastination often rule the day. So I was understandably intrigued when I read the title for Gretchen Rubin’s book – Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits – to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life.

According to Rubin, habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. It takes work to forge good habits. Once they’re set, it becomes second nature to integrate them into our daily routine. Moreover, a consistent practice alleviates the energy drain of exercising will power in the face of indecision. Just do it!

I can bear witness to the psychic energy drain tied to a lack of daily rituals. I’ve worked from a home office for over 20 years, so I have the freedom to tackle projects any time of the day or night. When I have a thin backlog and extended due dates, it’s easy for me to procrastinate. Unfortunately, I don’t really enjoy the “free time” because I know I should go to my office and knock the work out. It takes real effort to force myself to get rolling, yet I feel so much better when I’m fully engaged and making progress. It would be so much easier for me to simply set aside regular office hours and stick to them!

A cornerstone in habit formation lies in understanding one’s “tendency” with respect to honoring commitments. Rubin characterizes the four major personality types as follows:

  • UPHOLDERS honor commitments to themselves and others.
  • QUESTIONERS honor commitments to themselves and question commitments to others.
  • OBLIGERS honor commitments made to others but waiver in their commitments to themselves.
  • REBELS have an uneasy relationship with commitments whether made to themselves or others.

the four tendencies

Apparently, most folks tend to be Questioners or Obligers. Questioners need to learn how to translate external commitments into something that resonates internally. Obligers (like yours truly) need to create some form of external accountability to help meet internal goals and deadlines.

Better Than Before is filled with guiding principles and recommendations to aide in habit formation. Here are ones that I found especially useful:

When we’re clear on our values, our goals, and the reasons behind the choices we make, it’s easier to institute habits to support them. Clarity calls for us to sort through and resolve conflicting goals. It requires that we get real about what we’re doing (and not doing). It asks that we take note of bad habits that we hide from others; it’s a sign that we may be out of integrity with our values and/or goals.

The best time to start a new habit is NOW. It doesn’t need to be perfectly conceived or executed. It just needs to get off the ground and put into practice one day at a time.

We manage what we monitor. If we create specific, measurable goals and create a system for tracking progress, we’re far more likely to stay the course. For the Obligers among us, the experience of following through on internal commitments increases confidence in our ability to sustain good habits.

When we schedule specific, regular times for recurring activities, it’s more likely that we’ll do them. Scheduling helps make the activities automatic, thereby eliminating the bandwidth it takes to debate whether or not to take action. For example, I’m much more consistent with exercise when I’ve given myself a “fitness appointment” on my calendar. Scheduling also helps us confront the natural limits of a 24-hour day.

Accountability increases the likelihood that we’ll meet our commitments. I’ve been experimenting with this strategy to help me achieve personal goals. For example, I’ve improved my eating habits by declaring my intention to prepare all of the recipes in health-promoting cookbooks and documenting my efforts on a website. I also engage the services of a wonderful coach with whom I have monthly check-ins. Because I’m investing time, effort, and money in this relationship, I make good use of his wise counsel and make positive changes.

Good habits are more likely to stick when they’re convenient and pleasurable. Bad habits are easier to break when taking action proves inconvenient. The harder it is to do something, the harder it is to do it impulsively.

When we anticipate and minimize temptation, we’re less likely to get derailed. This approach calls for eliminating triggers and developing plans to address stumbling blocks when they arise (e.g., schedule disruption, social pressure, loneliness, boredom). For example, a few calisthenics or a short walk works for me when I’m bored and tempted to snack. It perks me up and provides a distraction while my cravings subside. (Ah – if only I craved dark, leafy greens!)

Habits work best if the rewards are intrinsic – e.g., challenge, curiosity, skill development, mastery. Rewards should encourage and support good habits. For example, a reward for healthy eating and weight loss might be a new outfit that accentuates progress. A pint of delicious ice cream derails progress.

In conclusion, Rubin notes: “We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature. When we understand clearly the internal and external levers that move habits, we can make change much more effectively.”