Wholebeing Institute is an educational organization focusing on research-based courses that help people live life to its fullest—spiritually, physically, intellectually, relationally, and emotionally. To lead a full and fulfilling life, to enjoy a deep and lasting sense of wellbeing, it is necessary to embrace the whole self. Wholebeing Institute’s research-based courses, create learning..
First, here’s Kathy Washburn, describing how the Certificate program helped her during a massive life transition. She had left her corporate job, her 25-year marriage had fallen apart, and she was coping with an empty nest after her two sons started college. She was adrift. The course helped her orient towards what was good and affirming in life, versus what was wrong and broken.
Kathy Washburn - YouTube
Here’s another graduate, Jim, telling the story of how the program helped him see beyond limitations.
Personal and professional development in positive psychology, with Jim McNerney - YouTube
Recently, a participant in one of my positive psychology seminars told a story about doing some housecleaning and noticing that her cat was “helping.” She took a photo and immediately sent it to her parents, who live in another town. They all had a good laugh.
Had she waited for the next time she visited her parents to show them the snapshot of her helpful cat, she would have forgotten the moment, or she wouldn’t care about it anymore. “WhatsApp is really allowing our family to experience more positive emotions together,” she said.
Contrary to the general opinion that social media and other new technologies erode true social bonds and relationships, participants in my seminars testify to the opposite. “Our chat group where we share jokes and photos is my ‘funline’ during my overloaded day,” a CEO of a regional bank shared. “I have a look at a friend’s funny dog and feel cheerful for a while. And most importantly, it allows me to stay emotionally connected to my friends who live abroad.”
Participants tend to object to the assumption that extensive photographing of what they’re doing undermines the authentic experience. Many of them report that taking photographs while hiking in nature or just doing daily activities actually brings more awareness to what they are experiencing. It creates mindfulness. “I noticed when I take photographs in nature, I take a second look at, say, a flower. I enjoy it as it is and then again when I focus my camera on it,” says another participant, who praised her iPhone for helping her to keep depression at bay by being present in the moment.
“It’s not so much about looking for activities that arouse positive emotions in us but rather about noticing the moments we experience and [thereby] prolonging their effect,” Barbara Fredrickson, author of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, explains. Her claim is that in order to grow and be healthy, we need regular infusions of positive emotions, just as we need a regular diet of vegetables and fruits. ‘’Positive emotions are vitamins that help us build a psychological reserve in order to deal with life’s challenges.’’ But positive emotions come and go, and we need to take special care to notice and savor them. That’s where technology can be a helpful tool for cultivating more positivity, if used in a mindful way.
“My iPhone’s Photos section is my happiness well,” says a department director of a bank. “Whenever I want to create a positive emotional state for myself, I just scroll through my photos. The memory is so large that it can accommodate photos from a long period of time. I don’t need to search for a special folder on my computer at home. My best memories are always with me.”
Responding to neuroscience research showing that photography is a powerful means to evoke certain emotional states, positive psychology practitioner Aija Bruvere of the University of Sydney created a special application, called Happiness Jar, where your can store your positive moments in the form of photographs, without having to share them with others or keeping them all on your phone. It provides ways to keep, sort, and enhance your memories, creating a “personal happiness story.” Another app, Bliss, offers a breadth of positive psychology practices, from happiness moments to a daily gratitude journal.
There are certainly those who report having negative emotions when they look at photography from happy times—along these lines: Look, we were so happy on that vacation. When will we get to go on a trip again? Our mortgage is so big, we won’t be able to afford another vacation anytime soon.
The key is to focus on the positive emotion. According to Fredrickson, by meditating about positive moments in our life, we can evoke the same emotion. And when we experience positive emotions, we see more opportunities and are more creative. So by inducing a positive state, you might be inspired to create the conditions that will lead to that next vacation.
Recently, I was looking at old photographs of me and my first boyfriend on our trip to Venice some 15 years ago. That feeling of being in love, the sense that anything is possible, the ease and leisure of Venice on a hot summer day … I was so inspired by the pure positivity of that time in my life that a couple days later, I went online and bought a ticket to another city in Southern Europe.
Yes, technology has negative effects. But we can reap its benefits by using it as a catalyst for savoring positive emotions—which by their very nature help us expand and grow.
Anda Klavina is a positive psychology practicioner and art consultant operating in Riga, Monte-Carlo, Basel, and around the globe. www.leaderswithguts.com.
Who do you long to be? That question—and your ability to live into the answer each day—is the greatest freedom of all. And that big freedom can be overwhelming, especially when we’re looking for the “right” way to live.
Life is not always easy, kind, or clear cut. Life is messy. And I keep trying to neaten it up. I think most of us try to do that … to take the unknown, mixed in with our longings and deep desires, and try to make sense of it all.
That’s why listening to Dr. Michael Steger, founding director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University, was such a relief. You see, very often I spend time trying to figure out life. To create a narrative that is affirming, even when times are tough. To get this life right.
As he spoke at the recent Embodied Positive Psychology Summit, he asked, “What if a meaningful life weren’t a puzzle to figure out? What if it was a mystery to be lived into?”
You can figure out a puzzle if you just gather more information. Where are the edges? What colors go together? How does that piece fit here, or does it go there?
A mystery is a different thing altogether. Information is always missing (we can’t know it all, no matter how long we study). Sometimes we have too much information, and can’t make sense of it all. And other times there just isn’t a neat and tidy answer. How would you possibly describe the color blue to someone who is blind? Blue is a mystery.
Meaning in life is a mystery, not a puzzle. That doesn’t mean that you can’t explore that mystery thoroughly, each and every day. Mystery is not giving up. It’s not throwing up your hands and saying, “Oh well, I can’t know this so why bother exploring?”
The opposite is true.
The great freedom of this day is seeing the mystery of each moment-by-moment experience, opening to it with awe and wonder, like our long-ago ancestors who looked at the vast night stars. On the dark canvas of the universe, they drew pictures of huge warriors, winged horses, and gods and goddesses by connecting the dots. I doubt they asked, “Where are the directions for this constellation-drawing exercise? Am I doing it right?”
The stars were a mystery to them, and they drew meaning out of it.
Steger’s question of looking at purpose in life as a fundamental mystery allows us to relax a bit. The greatest freedom then becomes less intimidating and more playful, as we trust the unknown just a bit more.
Find out about Michael F. Steger’s WBI course, Meaning in Life, beginning August 26.
Megan McDonough is chair of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest.
I attended WBI’s Certificate in Positive Psychology shortly after turning 50. I believed that the program would contribute to my personal development and help me explore what to do with “the second half of my life.” I soon realized I wanted more than to develop myself personally—I wanted to connect the two increasingly important parts of my life: positive psychology and social justice.
I began to develop the idea for B-Change, a podcast offering tools and resources for leaders and emerging leaders, to help them build strong and sustainable movements and organizations. My first interview for the podcast was in 2015, at the International Positive Psychology Conference at Disney World, where I spoke to Joanne Brunn, a fellow student, about creativity.
But before I could release the podcast, on September 12, 2015, I suffered a major stroke, which nearly killed me.
On my journey toward recovery, I found myself using several positive psychology techniques: neuroplasticity, growth mindset, and meditation and mindfulness. I wrote a blog post about my recovery here.
Without the use of my right arm and with other health barriers, the prospect of putting out a podcast seemed remote. But I discovered a new partner in my wife, Marcy, and a community of supporters who were willing to lend their ideas and help—and B-Change came back to life.
As we began to interview social justice leaders who had endured years of difficult struggles, and I reflected on what it took for me to persevere, it only further buoyed my passion for bringing positive psychology and social justice together. It also gave me a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.
Where Social Justice Meets Positive Psychology
We explored new ways in which social justice approaches and positive psychology techniques reinforce each other: For example, positive psychology highlights the need to build on individual character strengths. And many of the social justice leaders we speak with highlight the importance of drawing upon the strengths of communities that have historically been looked upon from a deficit perspective.
When leaders approach their staff, volunteers, and organization as a whole with positive psychology principles and tools—when they believe in the power of their people— it can have a transformative effect on the organization and its impact. Positive psychology also offers tools and techniques to help leaders persevere and renew themselves as they engage in physically and emotionally exhausting work
By moving beyond individual practices to society as a whole, we can expand the impact of positive psychology for the greater well-being.
Warren Goldstein-Gelb is a social justice activist and writer, who has worked in a wide range of nonprofits settings—the Boston environmental justice nonprofit Alternatives for Community and Environment, a collective progressive paper the Somerville Community News and currently at the Welcome Project, a local immigrant rights organization. In 1999, he earned his masters in Tufts Urban and Environmental Policy program. He is a graduate of the Certificate in Positive Psychology.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb has been a social justice organizer for 30 years. From 1999 to 2016, she served as executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), and is currently co-executive director for National COSH. During her years at MassCOSH, Goldstein-Gelb helped establish the organization as a leading statewide voice for worker safety. Marcy teaches leadership at the Harvard Trade Union Program at Harvard Law School, with a focus on practices for leading the nation’s unions in ways that reflect labor’s values.
Great leaders engage and inspire others by creating the right environment or conditions to draw out the specific behaviors needed to achieve the desired results. To do this requires the ability to tap into an employee’s emotions.
There are many different philosophies and methodologies related to the development of effective managers and leaders that for decades have been researched, studied, and packaged into thousands of books and training programs and sold to organizations for billions of dollars.
How can it be then, according to a recent Gallup study, that more than 70 percent of employees are unhappy at work—and at the top of their list of reasons why is their boss? Further, according to a study by the NeuroLeadership Institute, 65 percent of people would prefer a better boss over a raise. Something is clearly not working with how we have been approaching the development of our managers and leaders.
Thankfully, the application of positive psychology and the continuing advances being made in neuroscience are helping organizations move beyond traditional behavior-based management and leadership theory to a more science-based approach, by incorporating the principles and practices of mindfulness into their training programs and culture. Mindfulness and meditation are increasingly earning their place in the performance improvement arena in organizations. Studies are showing that employees, as a result of mindfulness training and practice can increase working memory and perform better under stress; increase self-determination and goal orientation; and improve self-regulation, which reduces stress and improves job satisfaction.
From a leadership perspective, the business case for mindfulness and meditation is that if you are fully present on the job, you will be a more effective leader, you will make better decisions, and you will work better with others. This new generation of leadership theory and practice is spawning numerous books, institutions, and organizational training programs.
“The essence of effective leadership is also the essence of charisma. When you are mindful, you are present. When you are present, people notice it. When people experience you as mindful, they then see you as authentic and trustworthy.”
Authentically leading oneself is a prerequisite to effectively leading others. You can’t effectively lead yourself if you do not have high self-awareness and, contrary to common perception, focusing on yourself first is not selfish, it’s smart. Most traditional management and leadership-development books and training programs approach improving effectiveness by adding—learning and applying some new or different knowledge or skill. But authentic mindful self leadership is an inside job and is more about removing what is getting in the way. We need to identify and remove interference by:
• Understanding and chipping away at the layers that are obstructing our Core Self
• Taking off the “masks” we wear for ourselves and for others
• Replacing the pressure to be perfect with “permission to be human”
• Focusing more on being versus doing
• Focusing more on feeling versus thinking
• Realizing and believing that “letting go” is not giving up.
“Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. Be transparent with your team, even when the truth may be unpopular or inconvenient.”
—Bill George, coauthor of Discover Your True North
Great leaders are authentic people who know themselves—to their core—and live their truths. They are compassionate with themselves, which naturally leads to being more compassionate with others. The list of well-known organizations that are tapping into the value of compassion in the workplace is rapidly growing, including Google, Target, General Mills, Aetna, Intel, and IBM, to just name a few.
Google, one of the earliest adopters, developed and started offering an internal training program called “Search Inside Yourself” back in 2007. The curriculum is grounded in mindfulness, and the ultimate goal is to help the company’s leaders learn how to “pay attention in a particular way on purpose in the present moment” and focus on “being versus doing” in order to bring about calmness, clarity, and self-regulation. This approach, according to Google, helps its leaders become more aware and tuned into their emotions and able to more effectively express themselves and respond to others—with strengthened intuition and better-informed decisions and actions.
Debra Schuler, a CiPP graduate, is founder and owner of ENSO Life by Design, a business dedicated to inspiring others to take bold risks and realize their full potential to achieve success and happiness in their personal and professional lives. Along with her more than 20 years of corporate learning and organizational development experience, she applies evidence-based principles from neuroscience and positive psychology to design and lead empowering workshops and retreats for women, youth and organizations. Debra holds a BS in Management from Rivier University. Find out more at ensolifebydesign.com.
Every once in a while, I am called in for a critical and rewarding assignment: babysitting my granddaughter. We snack, bounce balls, handle toys, read books, climb steps, and jump on the couch or trampoline. But much of our time is spent doing one thing we are all familiar with, but which adults refer to by another name.
You and I call it running—she calls it playing.
Which begs the question, when did we start to think of running as anything other than playing? Even more to the point, what happens to our running when we go back to thinking of it as play?
Little kids like my granddaughter know that few activities are more fun than running, chasing, and stumbling around in a playful state of mind. In fact, this transformation from infant to little runner is so pivotal in our lives that adults literally redefine these adorable little creatures once they start their genetically compelled locomotion at this particular age. Kids who discover how fun it is to propel themselves in an upright manner are no longer babies, they are toddlers. A toddler’s primary job? Play.
Play shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Almost all early learning takes place through play. Research shows that it doesn’t have to stop there. Play is our job, too.
“[Making] play part of our daily lives is probably the most important factor in being a fulfilled human being … We are built to play. We are built through play.”
—Stuart Brown, MD
Stuart Brown has studied the effects of play on human development for decades and concludes that play—for both children and adults—is essential to cognitive, social, and physical health. “Nothing lights up the brain like play,” he explains in his TED Talk called “Serious Play 2008: Play is More Than Just Fun.” Be it imaginative play, solo play, collective play, playing with objects, rough-and-tumble play, the play associated with storytelling, or the kind of play we perform as runners (what Brown calls “body play”), play has been integral to our species, a unique factor that drives our survival and adaptability.
So don’t be misled—play isn’t just a form of childhood training for something else. We play for play’s sake. We play because we are players.
“Play has a biological place, just like sleep and dreams do,” Brown explains. His book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, and his three-part PBS series, The Promise of Play, go even further in making the connection between adult play and a happy, productive life.
So, if we believe my granddaughter that running is play, and we understand what Dr. Brown says about how our brains crave play and flourish when we play, then why don’t we always automatically feel infused with neurotransmissions of joy every time we run?
I’d say it’s because, for most of us, we’ve forgotten how to play. Get this—I lost touch with how to play so much, I had to take a course on it! How grown-up is that? It’s true. I have been a part of Family Week at Omega Institute, where one of the feature courses every year is The Joy of Play with Joe Killian. Every day for a week, a group of very grown-up grownups gathered and played games with both intention and abandon. We not only had fun, but also learned about ourselves, and (at least for me) made lifelong friends.
So why do we need to take courses and study research to do what my granddaughter does naturally, even though she can’t say the alphabet correctly every time?
First, because play is more important to her than the alphabet. Second, grown-ups are good at taking the fun out of everything. Running is the perfect example. When it feels like work, it iswork. When running becomes something we force ourselves to do for exercise, that’s all we get from it. While those benefits may be substantial, they are not the whole story. We only get the full benefits of running when we Run the Whole Way and approach it as play.
The essential principle is simple: It’s not the act itself that makes something fun or playful, it’s our approach and mindset.
Some people (like professional athletes or poker players) play games for a living and it feels like work. Likewise, there are people we know who can take an ordinary or even unpleasant task and make it seem like fun. Playfulness is an attitude we can bring to anything—and it can make all the difference when we are trying to motivate ourselves or others to get something done. Would you rather force yourself to do something boring or let yourself have some fun? Would you have more luck dragging someone to “do some exercise” or inviting them to play?
A run, performed by two different people with two different mindsets, can feel entirely different and generate very different levels of positive emotions. So it’s up to us: We can make our runs feel like work or like play, depending on how we approach them.
When running still feels more like work, try changing your mindset by asking yourself questions like, “If running were fun, what would that look like?” or “What would it feel like for me to have fun running?” Also take a moment to think about when running hasbeen fun for you—what’s been different about those times? Can you replicate aspects of that experience again?
In general, asking yourself these questions can be a starting point for having more fun, by training you to notice and appreciate the times when you find yourself immersed in play, whether it’s in running or other parts of your life.
Inside Track to Happiness Exercise: Playful Running
Look for ways to bring joy and laughter to your runs. Every run isn’t going to be a giggle-fest, but each one offers us the opportunity to bring at least a little play into our lives. Here are a handful of ways I’ve come across to add some fun to the run.
Group Runs: This is the best way to find fun people to run with. The runs can be fun in and of themselves, plus can help you find the right running partners who bring out your own playfulness. Look for Facebook posts from a local running club or running store, or training groups associated with local races. Even bars and apparel stores are now organizing runs that may fit your schedule and introduce you to new people that share your interest. When you do come across someone in a run who makes it fun, reach out to see if there are more chances to schedule runs together.
Outings: Runners who know how to make it fun are often the kinds that like to organize outings—like participating in relay races, special costume or novelty races, or otherwise quirky traditions. You have to look a little to find these people, but if you keep showing up at local running events, they will be there. For example, I happened to find a local group that runs to a secret location on a nearby mountain where one of the leaders stashes champagne for a mid-run toast while looking at the view over the city. I’ve never had more fun running straight uphill for two miles.
Here’s a story I wroteabout accidently joining a running group that was using their route to spell out the initials of their club on their GPS maps.
I’m not a drinker, but if you partake, you may also want to look into this “drinking club with a running problem”that organizes runs in more than a thousand cities worldwide and prides itself on eccentric costumes and social activities (often involving alcohol).
Carryon/Dropoff: If you are running with another person or a small group, you can add an element of fun and cleansing of negativity by bring along something like a tennis ball to pass along between you throughout the run. Just having that little toss-and-catch connection with each other adds a bit of levity to break up a long run. To make it even more engaging, you can set a rule for passing—like, whenever someone brings up a certain subject that should be “dropped off,” like stressful work or ex-husbands or defiant children, they get the ball tossed to them. Or you can pass the ball every time someone laughs.
Scavenger Hunt: Another fun way to spice up a run is to come up with a long list of things you might or might not see on your run: common things like a man eating or a dog drooling, or more unusual things like someone with yellow pants or something stuck in a tree. Put them in a hat and draw the items, then see who finds the most items on your run. It’s kind of like Car Bingo.
What Will We See Next?: A more spontaneous version of Scavenger Hunt, this involves one runner coming up with something you might see on your run—say, a child in a stroller. The second person comes up with something that seems to them just as likely as seeing a child in a stroller—maybe a person smoking outside a restaurant. The first person then gets to choose which you will see first, the child or the smoker. You can try to keep track of multiple “What Will We See Next” spottings or simply wait for the first one to be resolved before coming up with a new one.
Just about any game you’ve played in your car on a long road trip can be adapted to play during a long run. For example, instead of looking for different state license plates, look for types of birds, or brands of running shoes on fellow runners.
Word Games: My favorite word game is Ghost, in which players take turns adding letters to a growing word fragment, trying not to be the one to complete a valid word. There are variations, including my favorite, Superghost. Not every runner may find word play fun or something they can do while running, but those who do will get a little break from the normal routine.
Solo Fun: If you are by yourself, you can still add some play to your run. My favorite approach is to take unusual, spontaneous routes that take me past interesting places and areas where you’ll see people, like Main Street, college campuses, public spaces, and playgrounds, rather than trails or nondescript roads. I will sometimes also intentionally change surfaces as much as possible and keep track every time I shift from a sidewalk to a patch of grass to a few steps on a curb to a paved street. I like to shoot for at least 25 surface changes. You can also do the Scavenger Hunt or What Will I See Next (above) games by yourself.
Skipping: Why not go ahead and skip for a few strides every once in a while? I dare you not to smile!
How do you have fun when you run? Let me know directly or through comments if you have feedback, interest in collaborating, or ideas for me to consider as I continue to develop the WholeRunner model and program. Watch for the next installments in this blog series—and check out my previous posts and series for the blog here.
Louis Cinquino is a writer, Certified Distance Running Coach, life coach, dad, and graduate of CiPP4 and Positive Psychology Coaching Fundamentals. His personal observations, discoveries, and training plan as he prepared for the Fifth Avenue Mile race were featured in “The Mulligan Mile,” (Runners World, September 2013). He is currently developing WholeRunner: Your Inside Track to Happiness, a project to explore and explain the positive psychology of running. You can read more from Louis on his blog, TakingMulligans.com.
When my 18-year-old son returns home from his freshman year at college, the thumping sounds of Fortnite, screams about NY Yankees’ home runs, and over-zealous commands for our dog to chase a tennis ball will stomp out the tranquility that has pervaded my home for the last nine months. Will I ask him to quiet the screens and keep his voice down? Or will I wax nostalgic about how I’ve missed all the noise, and smile lovingly?
Many of you are faced with a college student’s re-entry—not the fleeting spring break or winter recess—but the lengthy three-to-four-month summer holiday. For some, your college kid’s return is a day you’ve been anticipating with excitement. For others, it may be less positive, bringing added stressors, such as the fear of an ”I-can-do-whatever-I-want-at-school” attitude to the home front.
Regardless of how wonderful—or traumatic—the past academic year has been for you without kids at home, it’s now time to prepare, emotionally and physically, for his or her return to the nest.
Adjusting to re-entry can involve a measure of complicated feelings for both parties. For the student, no matter how geographically near or far his school is from home, college has offered a newfound independence, where curfews, piles of dirty clothes, and details like dental hygiene and food choices have no room for parental input.
For parents, there may be anxiety about the disruption of what I call a renovated nest (the nest has not been empty, after all, if we parents are still living in it, as I wrote in another article.) A student’s return can shake up the routines mom and dad have devised while their kid was off discovering himself at school. Freedom to get intimate on the family room floor? That’s over. A spontaneous road trip? Not if your kid needs your car to get to a summer job.
The transition to life without kids at home is tough for some, but research suggests that children coming home can dampen the perfectly happy, newfound freedom many parents experience. A recent study, published last year in the journal Social Science & Medicine, found that adult children who come back to live with their parents after spending time away, often at college, cause a substantial decline in their parents’ wellbeing and quality of life. “When children leave the parental home, marital relationships improve and parents find a new equilibrium,” wrote Dr. Marco Tosi, one of the researchers at the London School of Economics, which conducted the study. “They enjoy this stage in life, finding new hobbies and activities. When adult children move back, it is a violation of that equilibrium.”
As a positive psychology life coach, it is my job to help clients find strategies to lead healthier, happier lives with less stress and greater joy. Here are some tips to help make the re-entry easier for you when your child arrives back in the nest.
Give your child time and space to settle back in.
While it’s meant to be a holiday from school, college students often return home feeling pressure to find the right job or internship, make good money, or work somewhere that will look good on their resume. They actually do need a break—even if just a short one—from school where there are high levels of stress coming from academics, social pressures, and lack of sleep. An alarmingly high number of college students feel anxious and depressed, with one in three college freshmen reporting symptoms of a mental health disorder. According to a 2017 American College Health Association survey of more than 63,000 students, 61 percent “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year, and nearly 40 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
The comforts of home can provide a needed respite—so consider allowing your college student time to sleep in and veg out for a few days. He’ll appreciate it (perhaps silently) and, once rested, will be better prepared to reengage in family life. While it may be challenging to see your child seeming so lazy, offering your emotional support and compassion goes a long way. In fact, new research reveals that parental warmth and acceptance can also lead children to develop a greater sense of compassion themselves.
Remind your child that he is not a guest.
I do not miss picking up my son’s stuff since he’s been away—especially the 20-pound weights that regularly took up residence on the kitchen floor. Once the fatigue has lifted, it’s a good idea to remind your student that while he may only be home for a few months, he’s not actually a visitor. Sitting down to discuss certain boundaries (late night noise level?), reassign some household chores (pick up after yourself and hey, aren’t you savvy at doing your own laundry now?), and discuss schedules if there will be car sharing or rides needed for commuting to a job.
It’s a good idea to let your child know that even though he’s been living on his own for the past nine months, respecting family members and helping out around the house makes for a happier, more peaceful environment for all.
Introduce your college student to any physical changes at home.
I’ll never forget my brother’s shock, and anger, when he returned after his freshman year to find that my father had thrown away his ice hockey equipment to make more room for our dad’s tools. When your student comes home, he may be faced with surprises of his own. Perhaps the basement playroom has morphed into a yoga studio. Or an art studio has replaced the ping-pong table. To avoid any colossal reactions, break the news about household changes that may upset your child before he gets home. It may take some time, but with your explanation and compassion, he’ll come to understand that once kids flee the nest—even temporarily—renovations do happen.
Find ways to reconnect.
Maybe there’s a tradition you’ve had—an annual baseball game or beach day, for example—in the past, or an interest you share, such as playing tennis or going to an art museum, that you can suggest putting on the calendar. If so, this may be a more enticing way to plan some time together to catch up and reconnect.
Spending quality time with the people we care about is the most important predictor of happiness and well-being. As George Vaillant, the Harvard researcher who worked for several decades on the study that confirmed this conclusion, said: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
If your child rejects your invitation, however, don’t take it personally and thank yourself for putting in the effort. You can always keep trying.
Share with your child how life has changed for you.
When my son left for school, I initially missed the late afternoon tumult and noise—especially the shouts and ball-dribbling coming from Simon and his friends playing basketball in our driveway. The house felt eerily quiet and that made me feel lonely. But over time, I learned to embrace the quiet and came to love the serenity of these hours, when I’d work, read or meditate without distractions until my husband came home. I also took up the ukulele, hoping the challenge would bring a different sort of sound—and humor—to my quiet afternoons.
Explaining how you’ve adapted to, and had challenges with, life without children at home is an opportunity to model your own resilience. And if you’re still having difficulty, it’s okay to talk about that too. We all struggle at times, and having that awareness while knowing there are choices you can make to change—and improve—your situation is an empowering lesson worth sharing.
Keep to your schedule and routines.
Life without kids changes many things—particularly how you spend your time at home when there’s no longer anyone to feed, dote on or badger to take out the garbage. Without uprooting your routine, perhaps you can add some flexibility to your schedule to make some time for your student in the first days that he’s back at home. Can you take some time to meet your child for lunch? Or leave work early and take a walk or go to the gym together?
Many employers now offer opportunities to promote work-life balance, particularly because it increases productivity. According to the 2014 National Study of Employers, employees with flexible work options are more likely to have decreased levels of stress, better mental and physical health, and improved sleep patterns. A little flexibility, within reason, can be beneficial for both of you.
Maintain what you’ve built with your partner.
Naturally, you’ll want to include your child in family activities—and I recommend any that may lure him in. When my son comes home, I cook his favorite foods (steak and roasted potatoes) with the hope that he’ll have dinner with us before meeting up with his friends. It’s also healthy, however, for your child to see and understand that you and your partner have nurtured your own relationship as a couple in his absence and that remains sacred—even when your child comes home. So if Wednesdays are your regular date night our, stick to it.
There is also great value in kids seeing their parents expre.ss kindness and gratitude toward one another. “Taking the time to acknowledge and appreciate one another on a daily basis and celebrating the small magical moments, rather than waiting for the momentous, is key to a thriving relationship,” says Pileggi Pawelski.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
When your child arrives home, you may feel an urge to drop everything to tend to his every need and whim. That’s okay, as long as you are not sacrificing the time and energy to take care of yourself.
Nourishing yourself with exercise, sleep, and nutritionis important for your overall wellbeing. You may also want to include any activities that help you cope with changes and transitions—I often recommend time in nature and mindfulness meditation to my clients, as they can be significantly beneficial for increasing positivity.
When clients report they are feeling anxious or stressed about children returning home, I suggest they try self-compassion exercises.“Self-compassion involves treating ourselves kindly, like we would a friend we care about,” says Kristen Neff, PhD, self-compassion researcher, author, and Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Good luck with the re-entry. Ideally, you’ll be generally happy to welcome your student home for the coming months, and just as happy to hug him goodbye at the end of summer when he returns to school. And keep in mind that as the nest continues to shrink and grow at various times, renovations can always be made to maintain a lifestyle of your choosing.
Caren Osten is a positive psychology life coach and freelance writer, covering psychology, education and travel. Her articles have been published in the New York Times, Psychology Today and National Geographic Traveler, among others. Read more about her work at carenosten.com.
After my Scandinavian vacation last summer, I wrote a blog about how one of the Danish secrets to career happiness is biking to work. A few months later, I moved in with my boyfriend, which increased my 15-minute commute via bike into an hour-plus commute by car, metro, and walking—yet I’m happier than ever. How did this happen?
Focus on What You Can Control
While a very long commute by car does increase tension and decrease career happiness, I have chosen to minimize my stress by three simple shifts, regarding route, radio and parking. While it increases my commute slightly, I take a back road with pretty trees and calm roads, rather than the highway, with its rapidly merging cars and honking drivers. And instead of the news, I either listen to a podcast (“Hidden Brain” is one of my favorites as it plays to one of my top VIA Strengths, love of learning) or sing at the top of my lungs to cheesy pop tunes. Finally, although another metro station is slightly closer, I park at the one with the garage to minimize rain/snow/cold annoyance. And it has the added bonus of a newspaper man who greets every commuter with, “Have a good day on purpose!”
What micro-shifts can you make to increase control over your commute?
Focus on What Is Gained
Thanks to my 35-minute metro ride, I have reconnected to my mindfulness practice, doubled my reading time, and reduced work email overload. For me, three to five minutes is my sweet spot for meditation so, as soon as I get on the train, I put on my headphones and find a short meditation from Insight Timer. Then, I take about 15 minutes to read one of those positive psychology books that has been on my list for years. And those last five to 10 minutes I reserve for responding to work emails that don’t require a lot of thought but can bog down my inbox.
What have you overlooked by focusing on what was lost rather than gained from changes in your life?
Focus on What Is Around You
When I get off the train, the mad rush of people is overwhelming and, at first, I got very agitated getting caught up in the pushing swirl of self-importance that justified the mad dash to get on the escalator first. Now, I slow down and remind myself of the Buddhist quote “Be kind to everyone for everyone is fighting a battle.” And then, on my 15-minute walk to work, I try to keep my phone in my purse and turn my attention outward to really observe those around me.
What can shift inside you so you can take a more compassionate view of what’s around you?
Focus on What You Value
By the time I arrive at my office, I feel more present because of the intention I’ve brought to each aspect of my commute. Positive psychology has shown that humans adapt more easily than we expect to life’s circumstances, so by shifting my mindset to what I value (nature, mindfulness, learning, people), I’ve turned my initial disappointment over losing my bike commute into increased career happiness. And, most of all, after a long commute, coming home to a wonderful boyfriend who is always happy to see me, makes my life—and career—all the sweeter.
Denise Riebman is a career development specialist who applies a strength-based, positive psychology framework toward inspiring individuals to find career happiness. She is Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School, and founder of CareerHappinessCoaching.com. Denise holds a Certificate in Positive Psychology and additional certification from Global Career Development Facilitation, Presence-Based Coaching, and The Coaches Institute.
After finishing my residency and fellowship, I was on the typical path of most young doctors. I was excited about my new private practice job and the associated increase in income. I bought a new car, sold our small house in the city, and moved to a larger house in a good suburban school district. All the years of hard work had finally paid off, and I expected to have a dramatic boost in my happiness level.
To everyone around me, I was living the dream. However, I soon became aware of two major problems: my expenses were increasing with my salary, and I wasn’t any happier than I had been during other periods in my life. In many ways, my new lifestyle often caused more anxiety and stress. It was at that point that I realized I needed to change my behaviors. I needed to learn different things in order to live a different life.
Despite humanity’s near-single-minded drive to achieve happiness and contentment, the majority of people on the planet are far from their eudaimonia. A state of fully realized potential, or dharma, requires insight and a deep connection to your true self. Without this self-awareness, you can’t fulfill the fundamental need for meaning and impact. We are all meant to engage in a continuous process of learning, growing, and living well. Unlocking this potential in order to live a more authentic, joyful, and meaningful life can, and must, become our life’s work.
There have been some common themes in the steps that I have taken to move closer to my full potential. Perhaps the most fundamental theme is one of self-awareness. In order to gain this insight, I needed to stop living life on autopilot and ask myself some difficult questions. One of the most important habits that helped me to answer these questions was to begin journaling consistently.
My journal was a sanctuary where I could freely discuss my worries and perceived failings. There were many days when I could feel a deep unrest inside of me. In the past, I would simply push past this feeling, which would eventually go away. By taking the time to write about it, I discovered that the reason for the unrest was often because I had acted in a way that I knew was not optimal. The inner tension could be related to an uncomfortable interaction at work or an anxiety about a future event that was out of my control.
In time, I could occasionally recognize this unrest and resolve it without the need to write about it. Keeping a journal also gave me the space to develop more insight and a broader perspective on important topics that I was learning over the years. I could sketch new ideas and try to put complex concepts into my own words to gain a better understanding of them.
While I wrote extensively on many big-picture questions, there emerged three major questions that helped me explore the gap between my current life and my fully realized potential:
● What am I doing?
● How am I acting?
● Why does it matter?
The first question I asked was “What am I doing?” This has to do with the vision of my place in the world, my unique dharma, my sacred duty. I realized that if we don’t know where we want to go, have a firm vision of what we want to be and how we want to be living, then we will just bounce around reacting to various people and circumstances. This was how I often felt in my own life.
When exploring what I was meant to do in this world and trying to answer the larger question of “What am I doing?” I took time to journal on some deeper questions:
● What did I love to do as a child?
● What do I do that doesn’t feel like work?
● What would I pay to do?
● If I had $10 million in the bank and had already traveled everywhere that I wanted to go, what would I do each day?
This process took a several months. I forced myself to answer these questions in my journal. When I did, I realized that what I really loved to do was to learn about how to live better. I really enjoyed studying concepts at the intersection of philosophy and psychology that gave me more insight on leading an optimal life.
When thinking about my younger years, I had always gravitated toward books that tried to provide answers to the deeper questions of life. I remember reading The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and I’m OK — You’re OK by Thomas Harris in high school. On my visits to India as a child, I picked up several books by the well-known Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti. As I looked around me, I saw many people who had good lives by anyone’s standards but were not living the Good Life, one of flourishing or eudaimonia. Instead, there was a lot of anxiety, stress, depression, and generalized discontent. People were functioning but not flourishing, and this included me.
I knew through my reading and learning that there must be a different way to live, and I was determined to find it. I thought about my kids and how I wanted them to learn these principles earlier in life. That deep desire is what drives me to continue to learn. It drove me to write this book. It drives me to teach these principles to a variety of people from students to doctors.
This leads to the second question on my road to fully realized potential: how am I acting?
I realized that it’s not enough to have a clear vision of what I want to do if I lie, cheat, and treat people poorly in my effort to fulfill this vision. This will not lead to a life of flourishing. Answering this question when I was younger would have been great. Understanding what virtue meant, and how important concepts like integrity, honesty, and compassion contributed to an overall sense of tranquility certainly would have made my youth better. I struggled mightily in these areas. While I have grown into these virtues, it has not been without significant effort.
The first part of learning to act well was to understand the concept of virtue, defined as “excellence of character.” It has become clear to me that there are unshakable principles of effective living that are common across all cultures and time periods. As I read many authors, ranging from Seneca to Stephen Covey, they all preached that living the Good Life is synonymous with developing excellent character traits like integrity, perseverance, gratitude, courage, and service. For me, one very simple way to develop virtue was to adopt the Golden Rule: treat everyone the way I want to be treated. Although this seemed overly simple and even trite, it really worked when I thought about it in the moment of a stressful interaction. If someone interrupted me at work, I could respond more often with patience rather than react with annoyance. Instead of becoming upset at a rude driver, I could empathize that they may be having a bad day.
The second part of acting well was having a clear understanding of what values and behaviors were important to me. What does my ideal self look like?
● Did I want to be calm and patient in the face of stressors, or did I want to overreact at every little inconvenience?
● Did I want to appreciate what I have — health, security, freedom — or did I want to complain about what I didn’t have?
● Did I want to treat others how I want to be treated, or just treat them based on how I felt at that moment?
● Did I want to be authentic and honest with people, or simply act the way I thought would make me more popular?
● Did I want to be optimistic and enthusiastic and focus on what was going well, or did I want to get down on myself at the first sign of struggle?
By having this clear vision of my ideal self, I have been able to answer the question “How am I acting?” Of course, many things still upset me, and I’m often far from perfect in my actions, but at least I know how I should be acting.
The final question that I then asked myself was, “Why does it matter?” What difference did I make? To avoid regret later in life, I wanted to face these difficult questions while I still had time. It’s commonly said that, on your deathbed, only two things matter:
● Who did you become — did you realize your full potential?
● How many people did you serve? How many lives did you improve?
By answering the first two questions— “What am I doing?” and “How am I acting?” —I could get closer to my unique calling in life and try to perform it with excellent character.
There was one final step on the road to an optimal life: applying these efforts to something larger than myself. The concept of service to others is a common theme among most religious and philosophical texts. Modern psychology has scientifically validated service as a key component to happiness. For me, serving others has never come naturally. What I have come to realize is that an optimal (flourishing) life consists of both purpose (fully realized potential) and meaning (service). I believe that we all have the same purpose in life: to fully realize our potential, our highest self, in what we do and how we act. However, it’s not until we use this potential for a cause larger than ourselves that we are able to gain meaning and truly lead an optimal life.
Sanj Katyal holds a bachelor of science with university honors in chemical and biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and a medical degree from New York University School of Medicine, as well as certifications in Positive Psychology and Positive Psychology coaching from Wholebeing Institute. He has published and lectured extensively on well-being and the science of happiness to audiences ranging from college students to physicians. Sanj lives with his family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his hobbies include kayaking, writing, and traveling.
It’s a real dichotomy. On one hand, positive psychology–based coaching is meaningful and connected work; on the other hand, it can be isolating. Training and client time are rich and interactive, but after certification is over, building a business and developing your skills can be a lonely grind. And coaches know it.
In every class I’ve been involved in, whether as student or facilitator, I’ve witnessed calls for collaboration to counteract this challenge. In my experience, the supportive relationships that coaches forge amongst themselves are critical to well-being and success. But what about the days when you don’t have inspirational interactions to generate forward motion?
One strategy that really helped me was to articulate who I am at my best as a coach, and to turn that into a concrete reminder statement (or in my case, three reminder statements relating to my coaching business) that I use to support myself and stay on track.
This idea came to me when I was working with a business coach. I was in the midst of a real struggle: I loved my work but the task of creating a business that allowed me to do the work felt overwhelming. My coach and I had both completed WBI’s year-long Certificate in Positive Psychology (CiPP), the precursor to today’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, and we had both found the “ideal self” tool taught in that course to be particularly useful. In fact, for my final project, I expanded on the tool and developed a workshop to help others create and use daily reminder statements about who they were at their best and how they wanted to be—regardless of the ups and downs of life.
So it made sense to me to turn back to this helpful tool, which I was already using in different variations with clients, and adapt it to my current situation. I knew that having a greater awareness of who I was at my best as a coach and what I was striving for—my ideal self—would boost my confidence as I built my business and coached my clients. The key was to get really clear and concrete. To do this, I boiled down what had been a full-day workshop into three tools we can draw on to articulate our ideal self as coaches and further our self-care.
Best Self Stories
The first step was to tap into something we do in almost all Positive Psychology Coaching sessions: Look for stories of our clients at their best, to reflect the strengths they can draw on to move towards their goals. In my case, I mined memories of when coaching felt good. I asked myself: Who am I at my best as a coach? Even if you are at a very early point in your career, you can recall times when you used your coaching skills to support others. To do this, bring back a very specific memory. What did you do well? What kind of presence did you offer your client? What did you do to achieve that? How did you feel?
After bringing up specific memories around these questions, I wrote a few paragraphs and let myself explore the story without focusing on why I was doing this. Then, I read what I had written. I zeroed in on the words and descriptions that mattered most to me. These were real descriptions of me at my best. Evidence.
Next, I turned to another tool I had first been introduced to in CiPP, and which many clients bring into our coaching sessions unprompted. This involves thinking and writing about a role model to raise our awareness about strengths and traits that we admire in others, which offer insight into characteristics that we want to develop in ourselves. Often our role models have characteristics we already embody, perhaps to a lesser extent. As long as there’s a seed, mindful nourishment can help us grow those characteristics.
When using this tool, as with best self stories, it’s important to get specific. Tell a story with details. In my CiPP program, the instructions went something like this: “Write about a person whom you admire or respect, and include the traits and characteristics that lead you to feel the way you do about the person.” I adapted this to my current goal, which was getting really clear on how I wanted to be as a coach. I chose someone who was a coach, but any leader, facilitator, or person who inspires you will bring insight.
Again, I read through the page or so that I had written about this individual and jotted down the characteristics that most resonated with me, many of which were aspirational, still not thinking too much about where I was going with this.
Future Best Self
And for the icing on the cake … Another tool I use with clients, whichcan enhance and consolidate these elements of best self and ideal self as a coach,is Laura King’s “future best self” prompt: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams. Now write about what you imagined.”
In coaching, I may use it as is, or adapt it to relate to something specific that a client is working on, which applies in this case. For instance, I could tell myself, “Think about your life in five years. Imagine that your coaching work has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your goals relating to your coaching business. Think of this as the realization of your dreams. Now write about what you imagined.”
Choose the time frame that makes sense to you. In King’s original research, subjects did this exercise for 20 minutes on four consecutive days. Researchers have found that writing about your best possible self is an extremely supportive way to think about goals, and helps people prioritize and increase their sense of control. It’s also been associated with a boost in positive emotions and increase in life satisfaction.
Putting It All Together
When I do this work with clients, I walk them through each step with very specific instructions, and coach them around what comes up. If this is something you’d like to try, here’s how I suggest bringing it together. Each step of the way, take time to reflect on what you wrote and note phrases that inspire you and that you believe to be true about how you are at your best—or how you can be with focus and effort, but are not reflective (yet) of how you are regularly. Identify what’s most important. Boil that down to one very clear “I” statement that really gets at the essence of how you want to be as a coach. Follow that with two or three longer phrases that flesh out what that means.
Getting to this point is already an accomplishment. From here, I support my clients as they refine and develop consistent ways to practice their statements—to make them part of their lives. As coaches, we have all sorts of strategies to make using these a habit. I’d love to hear what works for you!
Jennifer Hanawald, a faculty member for WBI’s coaching courses, is a health coach who helps her clients to live their healthiest and best lives. She holds National Board certification as a Health and Wellness Coach, Duke University certification as an Integrative Health Coach, and a Certificate in Positive Psychology from WBI. Find out more about her work at jenniferhanawald.com.