One simple step toward happiness every day for a year. Doesn't everyone want to be happy?
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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Believe in Miracles

The pioneers are pinned down, surrounded by hostile forces, and it looks pretty grim.

Then the bugle sounds, and out of the pass, the cavalry comes charging down. The hostiles scatter and the pioneers are saved!

That's a miracle.

Here's another: You woke up this morning. That's a miracle.

Are you breathing? And not even thinking about it? There's another. (How does that work, anyway?)

Touch your nose. Go ahead, I'll wait. How did you do that? It really is a miracle.

Seriously, there are little miracles underlying the simplest acts.

Now, I can hear the objection: The cavalry's arrival was just a coincidence. And that other stuff? Not miracles, merely science.

So, who's the greatest scientist of all time? Maybe Albert Einstein?

Listen to what he said about miracles: "There are two ways to live your life - one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle."

If you know anything about Einstein, you'll probably bet that he wouldn't go for the first option. That leaves only the second:

Everything is.

Do you believe it? I do. And if you do too, you'll be happier.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Learn to Relax (Even Under Pressure)

It's fairly easy to be happy when everything's good. The real pro is the one who can feel that way under pressure.

Once (ages ago) I was driving a friend to his classes. His car was in the shop--and mine should have been. As luck would have it, we broke down on the freeway when we were still miles from his school. We called the Auto Club, and waited. And waited. And...

Now here's a guy, a conscientious student, a real go-getter, and because of me, he's missing an important class.

So what did he do while we waited? Fret? pace? Glare at me?

Nope.

Off the side of the freeway, at the base of the ramp, was a huge pond of water. My friend took a chunk of wood that was lying nearby, and heaved it into the pond. Then he picked up two rocks, handed one to me, and said, "See who can hit the wood first."

Can you believe that? He should have been stressed, and he wanted to play a game.

Now, I know there are two ways to look at this. Maybe he wanted to play because he was fine. Or maybe he wanted to play because it would make him fine.

But either way, he was relaxed under pressure. And because of that, he was happier.

How about you? When life hits the fan, do you have strategies to stay calm? If not, learn to relax under pressure.

You'll be happier.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Choose Your Mental Environment

One of the joys of living in South China is the easy availability of TV shows and movies on DVD. My wife and I will watch several seasons of something in a matter of a week or two.

Lately, it's been 30 Rock. And the character that makes me laugh the most is always Kenneth, the NBC page.

Everyone thinks he has the worst job in the place. But not Kenneth! It's his "dream job," and he can't imagine doing anything else.

His over-the-top optimism is laughable. And yet...

In one telling scene, we see the world through various characters' eyes. And everyone Kenneth sees looks like a Muppet!

Philosophy 101 question: Do people look like Muppets because Kenneth is happy? Or is Kenneth happy because people look like Muppets?

Anyway, Kenneth is my hero for one simple reason: he creates the world he lives in. This may not change external circumstance, but it certainly changes the way we feel about what happens.

Try it. Choose your mental environment. Mold events to suit you (even though you can't change "what happens").

When you live in a world of your choosing, guess what will happen?

You'll be happier.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Get Off That Pincushion

Do you know the story of "The Princess and the Pea"?

A young prince is looking for a royal girl worthy of his love. As a test of true royalty, the prince's mother places a candidate in a bed with "20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds"--all placed over one pea.

Sure enough, in the morning, the princess complains that she couldn't sleep at all, because something hard in the bed had bruised her.

A question: Why didn't the princess just get out of the bed? Drag a mattress onto the floor? Find the source of the trouble?

So what about you? What's your "pea," princess?

And what are you doing about it?

Why sit on a pincushion? Get off of it!

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Remember Your First Love (with Love)

Once again, from the "Familiarity breeds contempt" file.

I am very happily married. For reasons of employment, we live apart Monday through Friday, and perhaps that keeps our relationship "fresh" in a way that might require more work otherwise.

Nevertheless, I'm "getting used to being in love." That seems odd.

So take a walk into the past with me.

Can you remember the first time you fell in love? Was it a preschool puppy love? Or something from your teens? Or were you a really late bloomer?

Remember the feeling of sheer rapture, of ecstasy?

Even if it didn't end so well (assuming it has ended), it's still something to be cherished.

That first holding of hands. The first kiss. Looking into each others' eyes.

Wow.

So bring all that back, and be revivified by it. If you’re alone now, be warmed by the memory. If you're with another, see that your current relationship is every bit as "wow" as the first one, but that you've just "gotten used to it," acclimated.

Feel love's first thrill again, and let it light up your life.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Give Time Time

Have you ever thought about the "truth value" of cliches?

I have to believe that a saying that has stood the test of time must have had some value or it wouldn't have survived.

So why don't we give them the honor they deserve? Maybe because, as one saying goes, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Maybe what we have to do is look at old sayings with new eyes.

Think about this one: "Time heals all wounds."

Believe me, I have been in some bad places in my life. I won't bore you with my sad story, but suffice to say I have suffered physical, emotional, social, and financial breakdowns at various times in my life (and, once, several of those simultaneously).

And now here I am, healthy, happy, well-loved, and secure.

To what do I attribute my success?

Time.

Everything changes; the Wheel of Fortune goes around. And, in time, chances are whatever is causing distress will pass, and the wounds will heal.

Just hang on. Give time time.

You'll be happier (in time).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pack a (Healthy) Lunch

Here's another one of those catchy little "wisdom-bites": "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."

As a vegetarian, I can tell you: sometimes when I'm out in the boondocks of China tracking down temples, I end up eating poorly because good vegetarian choices are just unavailable (or at least, unavailable to me, with my crummy language skills).

The solution would be to pack a lunch.

The truth is, back in my usual routine, the choices aren't much better. My school cafeteria uses lots of oil, and I suspect there is animal matter in virtually every dish. So I either take lunch with me, or get home as quickly as possible to cook in my own kitchen.

Now, you may not be a vegetarian (and why not?). But the principle is the same: You'll eat healthier (and probably cheaper) if you pack a lunch.

Furthermore, you can choose where to eat. Maybe in a park or garden, by a lake or river, instead of in a noisy (and, here in China, inevitably smoky) restaurant.

So think about it. Take control over what you eat, even when away from home. Pack a lunch.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

See Things As They Are

Back in 1997, just before moving to Japan, I was blessed to be able to spend a few hours in a discussion led by Dr. Huston Smith. Author of a book once titled The Religions of Man (now known as The World's Religions), he is perhaps the best-known popular spokesperson for my personal worldview, generally called the "Perennial Philosophy."

In his opening remarks, Dr. Smith gave a list of three virtues as being of "primary importance." These were: humility, charity, and veracity.

Humility, he said, was "to see oneself as one and fully one, but not more than one." Charity was "to look upon one's neighbors as one, and as much a one as oneself, putting their concerns on par with one's own."

Although the language here is meticulously scientific, the ideas are not far from the everyday use of these words.

The third usage, however, seems a bit unusual. Veracity, he said, was "learning to see things as they are, without injecting my fears and desires into my perceptions."

He went on to compare these three to Buddhism's "three poisons." Humility was meant to counter greed (or desire); charity (in the Biblical sense of "compassion") was the antidote for hatred; and veracity is the opposite of delusion.

As delusion (or ignorance) lies at the root of the entire problem, so veracity is a sort of universal panacea.

I don't have space to go into the implications of this virtue, so let me just state it again, and you can explore its application to your life:

"See things as they are, without injecting your fears and desires into your perceptions."

You'll be happier.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Remember, It's a Game

Imagine this. You and your best friend are playing some kind of one-on-one game: ping pong, maybe, or hoops, or Stratego.

During the progress of the game, your entire focus is on winning. You still play by the rules, but within those parameters, you are brutal in your drive for victory.

Then, the game is over. After the winner does a little taunting, the game is forgotten, and you relax back into the easy rhythm of your friendship.

That, my friends, is an excellent metaphor for what I have come to think of as "the metaphorical way of living."

Expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, extolled by C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, the idea is that we put everything we have into our effort, without being invested in the results. Jung somewhere described it as living "as if." There are few certainties in life, but we live "as if" truth is available, and love never dies.

So get out there and play the Game of Life. Play to win, but remember that when the game is over, it doesn't really matter who wins, but rather that the game was well-played.

You'll be happier.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Celebrate the Success of Others

Here's one of those pesky little moral questions teachers like to use to trip us up:

You’re driving into your neighborhood when fire engines race past you. Scanning the skies, you notice smoke coming from the general direction of your house.

Now, do you say, "Oh, I hope it's not my house"? Because if you do, you've just wished ill on your neighbor!

Let's turn this old conundrum upside down. You see the " Publishers Clearing House" Sweepstakes Van driving into your neighborhood. Do you wish your neighbor will win?

If you gave the "right" answer to both of the above, you’re a better person than I am (by far).

But let's take a smaller step. Forget the "competition." Can you rejoice in the success of others? Can you hear of someone's good fortune without begrudging it, without a tinge of jealousy, without thinking "why not me"?

That's a step in the right direction.

So let go of "me-ism," and learn to celebrate the good things that happen to the people around you (even people you don't like).

You'll be happier.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Speak for Yourself

My dad went to school in the 1920s and 30s, when the textbooks were more "classical" than they are today. One series, the McGuffey Readers, dated back to the 19th century. By the time I came along, elementary schooling in California had devolved, and often my Dad used lines that I wouldn't learn until college (if then).

One of these would come up when an opinion was asserted with which Dad disagreed. "Strawberry ice cream is the best!" one of us might claim. "Speak for yourself, John Alden," Dad would reply. "I like chocolate."

Who the heck was John Alden?

Years later I learned that this referred to a legend of the pilgrims, propagated in Longfellow's poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish. It seems Standish and Alden were roommates in the Plymouth Colony, and both were in love with the only available girl, Priscilla Mullens. Somehow Standish convinced Alden to go to Priscilla and propose marriage to her on Standish's behalf!

Once Alden presented Standish's case, the bold girl replied: "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" Ultimately, he did, and they married. Priscilla's reply has come down to us in the more popular form, "Speak for yourself, John Alden."

All of this is a round about way to say, speak for yourself. Don't let others speak for you. And don't share others' opinions (unless that's your job). Speak for yourself, and let others do the same.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sleep In

What is it we love about weekends?

Is it the luxury of time to do whatever we want? The absence of demands? Being with family and friends?

Or is it simply the fact that we get to sleep in?

It's a well-known secret ('cause I brag about it) that, in my current position, I only work about 34 weeks a year (and even in those weeks, I usually have one day off). I can't tell you how wonderful it is to wake up at 7 a.m. on those many free mornings (I have a fierce internal alarm clock) and then go, "Ahhh, I don't have to get up!" and then drift pleasantly back to sleep...

The men in my family are bears; nine to ten hours a night isn't unusual for us. But with class preparations, my writing projects, and so on, I often get only six or seven the night before a class day (though I do often sneak in an afternoon nap).

So on "days off" I like to catch up.

I know others who are "Type A," unable to stay down for any great length of time.

Thank Morpheus (the sleep god, not the Matrix character), I can sleep anywhere, anytime. Planes, trains, taxis, empty classrooms, park benches--anywhere.

But the best is when I'm snug in my bed and, after a good night's sleep, I get a chance to steal that extra little bit.

So lie in the lap of luxury. Sleep in sometime soon.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Remember That What Other People Think of You Is None of Your Business

For a short while I attended a "metaphysical" church in Pasadena.

The people were great, the leadership excellent. But the "ministers" (the threshold for ordination was rather low, as I recall) were prone to use expressions that were so corny they made Al Franken's character Stuart Smalley look sage. (Two "Smalleyisms" I remember: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it! People like me!" and "You’re 'shoulding' all over me!")

Nevertheless, corny though they were, there was truth in some of the sayings slung at me at that church.

The main purveyor (one wants to say "perpetrator") was a portly fellow, a little older than me, who for compassion's sake shall remain nameless.

The first time I got wise to his corn quotient was when he asked me, "Ya know how ta spell 'guru,' dontcha?" And rube that I am, I asked, "How?" Pointing at me, he intoned sagaciously, "Gee, you are you." See what I mean?

But one of the bits of cornpone wisdom that I brought away from there is this little gem, which has served me well: "What other people think of you is none of your business."

This idea has come up again and again. I recently heard it put another way: "People's reactions to you have more to do with them than they do with you."

I like that too (though it lacks the cleverness of "none of your business").

Anyway, when you're feeling judged and found wanting, and miserable as a result, just remember the "kernel" of this corny idea.

You'll be happier.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Take a Break

Once, in Pasadena City Hall, I saw a sign on a staff bulletin board. It said: "TO ALL EMPLOYEES: Due to cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off until further notice."

But we need the "light at the end of the tunnel" (unless, as another joke has it, it's on the front of an oncoming train).

Any task is easier when we break it into smaller parts. Overweight walkers (like me) know the trick of saying "just go to that next phone pole," then "the bus stop," then "the Krispy Kreme" (just kidding) and pretty soon we're "there."

So, whether you're painting the living room or sitting in a cubicle, schedule some breaks. Give yourself the chance to say, "Just xx more minutes."

And be sure your breaks are breaks. If you're painting the living room, go out and sit on the porch. At work, don't take breaks (or--horrors!--eat lunch) at your desk. Put some distance between you and the phone and the computer, and relax.

Even a short break can rejuvenate, if it's done right. And don't waste the chance to rest on weekends and vacations. Don't spend "me time" as "their time."

So give yourself a break. Chop your work into chunks, and give yourself something to look forward to.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Spread the Good News

Some people think complaining is a sport (and I'm sometimes one of them). As the old expression goes, they'd complain if they were hanged with a new rope.

But there's another way to use our words.

Once I was standing with the coach on the sidelines of a football game at a school where I taught. At the end of a play, one of the smaller guys (with the heart of a lion) got piled on. When the dust cleared, he walked up to us and, with a big grin, told my friend, "Geez, Coach, I got creamed!" He took joy in what many would have found an unpleasant experience.

So that's one way to verbalize what's good. Put some "spin" on the bad.

But what about all the actually good stuff that happens?

It seems like newspapers and TV news thrive on the bad news. And when something good does happen (a kid helps an older person, a town gets together to paint the local school) it's usually reported kind of mockingly, like "Gosh, these folks are just so darned cute, ain't they?"

Really good news is hard to find!

So be a purveyor of the positive, a giver of good news, a "bluebird of happiness."

You'll be happier. (And so will the people around you.)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Learn to Juggle

When I was in high school, my favorite book (practically my "Bible") was Joseph Heller's Catch 22. It's a tale of the absurdity of war. The "Catch" in the title was a reference to impossibly conflicting bureaucratic policies.

We could all cite examples.

Recently my school told me that a report was due in the middle of Week 19. It was an evaluation of each class, and 25% of the weight of the evaluation was assigned to the average performance of each class on their final exams.

The catch? Week 19 was final exam week! The report couldn't possibly be completed until after the tests were administered and scored.

But it's not just bureaucracy that creates these "catches." Life is full of conflicting, even mutually exclusive priorities.

Balancing these is one of the secrets of happiness.

Can you do it? Can you be a parent and an employee and a volunteer and a contemplative? Or must you "rob Peter to pay Paul"?

Learn to juggle your priorities. Perhaps something can be eliminated. Something else might be postponed. Or perhaps you can kill two birds with one stone. (Take your kid to your volunteer activity, for example.)

Learn to weave your way through the complexities of life.

You'll be happier.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Write It Out

This week my wife suffered an injustice at the hands of a taxi driver, who switched bad money for good in making change. She wrote a letter about it and sent it to a few close friends.

That's therapy.

Notice that the letter wasn't to the offending party; if it had been, it probably wouldn't be such a good idea to send it.

The point is to write your anger, hurt, upset out of your system. Get it out. Express it.

There's a story about Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, secretary of war. Insulted by one of his generals, Stanton complained to Lincoln, who suggested that he write the offender a letter. Stanton wrote (with some heat!) and showed the letter to Lincoln.

Lincoln, after commending Stanton for the peppery tone of the letter, then recommended that Stanton not send it. The letter, he said, had served its purpose. Stanton felt better, didn't he? Now he should burn it, and write another, more diplomatic.

Next time you're fit to be tied, take it out on a piece of paper (or a keyboard). To send or not to send? Probably better if you don't. But in any case, better to take it out on a piece of paper than to (or on) someone's face.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Forgive

Call this "Let It Go II."

The story is well known. Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on a muddy road, encountered a well-dressed girl who couldn't cross the street for fear of getting her silk kimono dirty.

Without hesitation, Tanzan lifted her up, carried her across the road, and set her down on the other side.

Ekido held his tongue until that evening, then scolded Tanzan for touching any woman, let alone a young, beautiful one.

"I left her back there," replied Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"

The girl isn't all that Ekido was carrying. One imagines he also bore a sense of superiority, some judgment, and perhaps--just perhaps--a hint of jealousy.

What a load!

I can tell you from personal experience, a grudge can be a terrible weight on one's shoulders. What freedom when we let it go!

So who are you bearing a grudge against? Set it down. Forgive. Clear the slate.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Let It Go

I'm told that monkey hunters use a sly technique to catch monkeys. (Though the story sounds apocryphal, I like the point; just go with me here.)

They say the hunters will take a coconut and hollow it out. They make a hole just big enough for a monkey's hand to slip through, and put something shiny inside--something that just fits through the hole.

Leaving the rigged coconut somewhere on a monkey trail (I guess), the hunter waits. The curious monkey comes along, plays with the coconut, espies the bauble, reaches in, and grabs it.

But then, he can't get his hand out again.

Now, here's the tricky part. They say the monkey won't let go. Even when the hunters show up in pursuit, the monkey will try to run away, and even climb trees, with one hand wrapped in a coconut.

Unless he lets go of his "treasure," he's doomed.

What are you hanging onto? What are you grasping so fervently that it keeps you from running free, from escaping the clutches of unhappiness?

Let it go. Lighten your load. Be free

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Use a Higher Standard

Long ago, in another life, I was on the board of a very nice little church in Ventura County, CA.

We had a huge property, but no proper church building. We were holding services in a converted house, and the "parish hall" was an extended garage.

For years, we had "fund raisers" to build a church building. Suppers, car washes, rummage sales--all the usual ploys.

And every time, at the next board meeting, there'd be general lamentation that we hadn't made enough money.

After this went on for quite some time, even hours, I, being somewhat of a contrarian, would raise my hand and say, "Excuse me. I had a good time there. Did you?" General harrumphing and "wells" and "yeahbuts" would follow.

Then I'd go for the kill. "Isn't a church activity supposed to be about fellowship, about learning, about something other than money?"

They came to hate me.

By the way, if you visit that church today, there's a beautiful edifice on the property, built largely by the vibrancy of the community, rather than mere "fundraising."

Now, in my current phase of life, I'm not making much money. But I'm healthy; I'm loved; I'm secure; my life is serene.

I lack for nothing.

So stop measuring happiness in terms of the size of your paycheck, or how much you have in the bank. Start using a "higher standard."

You'll be happier.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Rock Out (or Mellow Out)

Way back in 1697, William Congreve wrote: "Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak..." Note that he didn't write "beast," a common misquote, but "breast," seat of the heart.

A savage, wild heart--perhaps a not-uncommon result of living in the modern world.

And music, Congreve says, can soothe that savagery, and bring us peace.

How can we make this work for us? Call it "intensive listening."

Or maybe we could say, "When you listen, just listen."

Clear your schedule. Get some headphones. Sit in a quiet place, where you won't be disturbed.

And let the music take you away.

Whether it's heavy metal or Mantovani, Megadeath or Mozart, immerse yourself in a sound environment. Close your eyes. Open your heart. Allow the music to infuse you.

And see if it doesn't soothe that wild heart of yours.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Un-Bell the Cat

A "pet peeve": When I'm talking with someone, having a great conversation, rolling along like a lazy river, and "ring ring" goes their cell phone, and suddenly I'm sitting there twiddling my thumbs.

The phone, like any modern "convenience," can work for us or against us.

For years, I resisted even having one. When asked why, I would say that having a phone was like the old story of "belling the cat," where the mice wanted to put a bell on the cat's neck so they'd always know where he was.

The project, by the way, was deemed impossible. No mouse was brave enough to attempt it.

Not so the mobile phone. In early 2009, according to The Guardian (UK), the U.N. reported that there were 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide. Given that there were only 1 billion subscriptions in 2002, by now that number must be much larger.

Of course, some people hold multiple subscriptions. Still, the U.N., estimated that over half the world's population had a cell phone.

And I estimate that at least half of those are slaves to their phones.

Here's an idea: Set it to "silent." Use it like a mobile answering machine, and simply check it periodically to see if there's someone you need to (or want to) call back.

Make your phone work for you, not vice versa. Don't be a slave to your phone. Un-bell the cat.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Embrace Right Livelihood

I've heard it said that the happiest people are those who find value in their work.

So what about the one whose work happily creates value for others, and especially whose work doesn't harm others?

The Buddha called it "Right Livelihood, " and considered it one point in the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.

So what does it mean, exactly?

Definitions vary. Perhaps the best thing would be, first, to define one's "core values." Then see if one's work enhances these, or denies them.

For example, these days I'm starting a four-point practice, focusing on certain values at each time of day: Morning, Mindfulness; Midday, Compassion; Evening, Gratitude; and Bedtime, Peace.

Mindfulness, Compassion, Gratitude, Peace. To the extent that my work promotes these values, in myself and in the world, I can say that that work is "Right Livelihood" for me. To the extent that it inhibits these, it's "wrong."

As a school teacher in South China, I can pretty much say "mission accomplished."

Can you? Hold your job up to the mirror of your values and see how it looks. If it looks good, good. If not, consider how you might make adjustments.

Align your work with your values, and embrace Right Livelihood.

You'll be happier.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Choose Life

I wasn't sure what to call this one.

The expression "Choose Life" is loaded with associations political, religious, philosophical, and even medical.

There are lots of ways I could have said this. "Wake up!" or "Pay attention" maybe.

But perhaps some fictional characters can help clarify my meaning.

The addict Renton in Trainspotting rejects choosing life, and recommends choosing heroin instead. I mean the opposite of that.

Or how about this: When Elmore Leonard's character Chili Palmer wants to say something important, he looks at the person in question and says, "So-and-so, look at me," and So-and-so inevitably says, "I am looking at you," and Chili says, "No, I mean really look at me."

That's what I mean.

Really live. Consciously approach your life with all your senses.

Sri Ramakrishna reportedly recommended that the only way to seek enlightenment is to do it as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond. My friend Robert Urich used to delightfully misquote this: "Face every day like your hair was on fire."

Not quite the picture he wanted, I think, but it still does get across what I want to say here.

Perhaps the word I'm groping for is "passion"? Anyway, try to see beyond my poor words and grasp the essence of the idea, then do it.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Get Clarity

"But I thought you said..."

"Didn't you tell me...?"

"I'm sure you asked for..."

Over and over and over again, we get into trouble because we thought we knew what someone wanted, but instead we leapt to conclusions based on preconceived notions.

The other person starts to tell us what he wants, and we interrupt: "I know, I know..." or "Yeah, yeah, I got it..."

But to rip off Poor Richard, "An ounce of clarification is worth a pound of confusion."

Try this:

Step One: Listen to what is actually said.

Step Two: Reflect back what we heard.

Step Three: Only go ahead when confirmation is received.

It takes longer to give these instructions than to actually do it.

So take a couple of seconds to get clarity, whether for a "direct order" at work or instructions to pick up something from the grocery store.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Blow Up Gently

Here I am again, talking about anger. I guess it's a "biggie."
Everyone, even the Dalai Lama, gets angry.

But how do we get angry? In Buddhist terminology, we might talk about "Right Anger" and "Wrong Anger."

The key is this: anger should be expressed, reasonably, so that my needs are addressed without tromping on the needs of others.

Consider anger, then, to be a kind of warning system, like pain, or numbness.

But instead of letting it be the precursor to a damaging defense mechanism (shouting, accusations, fisticuffs), why not let it signal the need for some communication?

When we feel angry, it may mean that "something needs to be said," but that doesn't require starting an argument. Why not, "Excuse me, I'm feeling a little concerned about... Can we talk about this for a minute?"

Of course, we should use all the tricks we have to in order to prevent communication from becoming confrontation. We've discussed counting to ten, getting distance, etc. Don't engage until you can do so calmly.

But neither should we "sandbag," piling up resentments until a dam burst of damaging anger breaks through.

Better, then, to let it out, but gently. Let your needs be known, but with consideration for the other person. Hopefully, you'll arrive at a place where you'll both be happier.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When You Eat, Just Eat

When I was a kid, certain phrases were repeated constantly at the dinner table: "Don't play with your food." "Chew with your mouth closed." "Don't talk with your mouth full." "Chew your food, don't just wolf it down."

Good advice, common sense. And yet it's surprising to me how many people I meet whose parents apparently didn't harp on these phrases.

This last one, "chew your food," is an interesting one. Google the phrase and you'll find lots of articles extolling the virtue of chewing. It enhances digestion, cuts down on food costs, helps with weight loss--the list is extensive.

But the Zen practitioner would bring it all down to one expression: "When you eat, just eat."

When I lived in Japan, I noticed several interesting cultural taboos related to this concept.

For example, it's considered poor manners to waver one's chopsticks over the communal plates. One should decide what one wants, reach out, retrieve it, and eat it.

Likewise, it is considered unseemly to eat while walking down the street (or, I suppose, in modern times, driving). Food is to be appreciated, as indicated by the exclamation "Itadakimasu!" said before eating, meaning "I humbly receive," and expressing appreciation for the food. It's meant to focus one mindfully on the act of eating.

Try it. Focus on eating, without reading, watching TV, or perhaps even talking. You'll appreciate your food more.

And you'll be happier.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Develop Tunnel Vision

Is this any way to study?

Gather your books and papers, sit down at your desk, get up to sharpen your pencil, sit down again, imagine that having a glass of water would help, get distracted by the TV on the way back from the kitchen, sit down again, open a book, realize that it would help if you asked a friend what you were supposed to do, talk on the phone for 20 minutes, decide that you've studied long enough, and go to bed.

Sound familiar?

According to Parkinson's Law, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." I can vouch for that; these brief pieces can take me an hour to write, if I have little else to do. I just spent 20 minutes reading about the fascinating life of C. Northcote Parkinson, author of the above-stated law, simply because I could.

Later, I'll be complaining that there "just wasn't enough time to do all the things I wanted to do today."

By failing to stay on-task, we lose tremendous amounts of time. Am I happy to know about C. Northcote Parkinson? Yes. Will I feel pressed for time later? Probably.

With all the media available to us, it's a wonder we ever get anything done. (Thank you, Facebook, Twitter, etc., for improving my life--and shortening my day.) These days, I can't write anything without reference to the Internet. I pay for that in wasted time.

So, develop tunnel vision. Set time limits. "Git 'er done." Then choose how you want to spend all the time left over (even if that's surfing the net).

You'll be happier.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Remember, It's Only a Job

Many of us will be ending a short break, just a few days off, and going back to work tomorrow. At times like this, it's easy to remember that "it's only a job," keeping the role of our "work-life" in perspective, knowing that we are more than just a cog in a machine.

For the past few days, we've been friends, parents, siblings, sons or daughters, mates. It's easy right now to remember that we are more than our jobs, that we are not simply doctors, foremen, sales reps, teachers, editors, paper pushers, laborers.

But starting on Monday, it will be a long, long haul to summer, with only a day off here and there. Then it becomes easy to get caught up in the illusion that somehow work is everything.

Of course we should do our best at whatever we do. But the danger is that we will start to identify with our jobs, become what we do. Ask the adult child of a schoolteacher what it was like to grow up with the dinner table being run like a classroom!

How can we transcend our profession, remembering that we are not what we do, that that is just one part of our whole self?

Leave the office at the office. Have a hobby. Volunteer. Take long walks. Be with family.

Consciously focus on the totality of who you are, not mistaking it for what you do. Remember, it's only a job.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Learn to Entertain Yourself

Everyone who hangs around with me has heard about My Friend Wayne.

A confirmed bachelor who has visited over half the world's countries (and, I think, every state in the U.S.), he's also a highly competent pianist, piano teacher, voice coach, etc.

And he has more friends on Facebook than anyone I know.

We've traveled together in the American Southwest, and he stayed with me a few days in Tokyo.

Like any seasoned traveler, he has devised little games to pass the time during long hops between destinations, or those dismal times in departure lobbies.

One of them goes like this: find two people--from any time in history--with the same last name, as incongruous a pairing as possible, and marry them. His prime example is: "Dinah and George Washington." George and Kate Bush, Norah and John Paul Jones, O.J. and Marge Simpson (to slip into fictional characters), Sarah and Maynard Ferguson. You get the idea.

Another of his recurrent sillinesses is a variation on the famous palindrome (apocryphally attributed to Napoleon): "Able was I ere I saw Elba." A palindrome, you probably know, reads the same forward and backward, like the name "Otto."

So Wayne would take the name of a city on our itinerary and insert it--first backward, then properly--into the saying, like this: "Okyot was I ere I saw Tokyo."

The point is, Wayne knows how to entertain himself. This skill is one step in becoming "your own best friend," as my Aunt Til (another life-long single person) used to call herself.

So develop some little games that make you laugh. Learn to entertain yourself.

You'll be happier.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Practice the "Five Year" Plan

The term "five year plan" is often used to refer to the economic policy of a country (including the one where I now reside).

That's not at all what I'm talking about.

This "five year" plan is the cheap but effective technique of getting perspective on life's little glitches. When things don't go our way, we simply ask: "In five years, will this matter?"

Now, in truth, sometimes it will. Things do happen that can change the course of a life.

But those turning points are rare. Usually, the answer will be "no," and with that assurance firmly in hand, you can go on about your business, knowing that this was not a "fatal error" but just a "redirect."

So, try this cliched-but-useful technique for getting perspective on the bumps in the road.

You'll be happier.