Raising Happiness


Is Your Marriage Losing its Luster?

January 28, 2014 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Three easy ways to make it feel like new love

One of the greatest things about our long-term romantic relationships is that they can provide comfort and predictability in this wild world we live in.

But let’s face it: Long-term relationships can get a little boring. Within nine to eighteen months, research suggests, 87 percent of couples lose that knee-quaking excitement they felt when they first fell madly in love. It isn’t that these relationships are bad, necessarily; they are just stale. Still edible, but not nearly as delectable as they were fresh out of the oven.

It isn’t just in our romantic relationships: In most aspects of our lives, we get used to the surroundings and circumstances that stay the same; researchers call this “hedonic adaptation.” What was once new and exciting—be it a lover, a new pair of shoes, a new neighborhood, or a new job—nearly always loses its luster over time.

The key word there, though, is nearly: 13 to 20 percent of people in long-term marriages successfully keep the fires of passion alive. (This doesn’t mean that 80 percent of couples are unhappy, it just means that their relationships aren’t particularly sexy or passionate.) And although we adapt to most things in life, we tend not to adapt to circumstances and situations that involve “variable, dynamic, and effortful engagement”—as when we take an engaging hike or class or while we are learning a new sport, according to researcher Ken Sheldon, who studies hedonic adaptation.

All this means that the very predictability that makes our long-term relationships comforting can also make us feel bored and uninterested in our spouses—which, of course, causes disconnection and even conflict. The destructive way to deal with relationship boredom is to seek excitement and novelty outside of the relationship—we all know people who’ve done that. Fortunately, there are better solutions to this common problem.

The antidote: Shake things up. Maybe a lot.

The good news is that its fun to stoke the fires of your relationship. The bad news is that you’ll have to give up some of the comfort (or if not that, the complacency) that has settled into your relationship. Here’s how:

Make yourself vulnerable (just like you probably were on that first date!). Vulnerability can be uncomfortable because it involves, by definition, emotional exposure, uncertainty, and risk. (Remember: Vulnerability is not weakness!) Vulnerability allows trust and intimacy to develop and deepen.

A simple (if not always easy) way to make ourselves vulnerable in our relationships is to bare ourselves emotionally. What can you reveal to your long-term love that he or she doesn’t already know about you? Ask your beloved intimate questions to which you aren’t sure you know the answer (I carry a little rubber-banded pile of Table Topics for Couples in my purse for just this purpose).

Or do something mildly risky. Go on an adventure for your next vacation, to an unknown place that feels a little daunting. Visit a karaoke bar for your next date night, and actually sing. Try a new sport (where you risk feeling silly or uncoordinated). Do something thrilling, like zip-lining or bungee-jumping.

Vulnerability works in part because it creates a similar biochemistry and physiology as when you and your beloved were first falling in love. Researchers think it is likely that we tend to conflate the high-arousal induced by doing something risky with the high-arousal of intense attraction—the two states feel similar. Either way, an adrenaline rush is good for a relationship that is losing its luster.

Upgrade your routines. If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know that I’m a HUGE fan of productive routines and positive habits, and I advocate them in relationships as well, with one caveat: Your relationship habits routinely need to introduce variety, or you’ll start feeling entitled and bored. Making variety a habit—think that’s an oxymoron?

It isn’t. You may have a gratitude ritual at bedtime, where you tell your love something you appreciate about them before sleep; challenge yourself to come up with something new every day. Or perhaps you have a weekly date night—it might be cozy and comfortable to always go to the same Italian restaurant on the corner, but you’re gonna need to shake it up a little bit. Keep the date night, but always do something different. Vary the restaurant, vary the activity. Pretend you are trying to impress a new date.

Even if you aren’t up for the risk of an adventure or the intensity of emotional exposure, make sure there is a little excitement in your relationship routines. When researchers have couples create lists of things that they find exciting to do (maybe skiing, or trying a new restaurant, or going to a part of the city they rarely visit) couples who did something exciting together were more likely to agree with statements like “I feel happy when I am doing something to make my partner happy” and “I feel ‘tingling’ and ‘an increased heartbeat’ when I think of my partner.”

Surprise your significant other (and maybe yourself at the same time). This is no more complicated than making an effort not to be so predictable. Throw them off their game a bit by blindfolding them on the way to your date-night. Similarly, a good friend and her husband trade off date-night planning, and don’t tell the other anything about the date. They might not end up doing anything outlandish, but the element of surprise makes the situation novel and exciting. Research shows that when ambiguity is introduced into something positive, the uncertainty in and of itself tends to increase our pleasure.

While you’re at it, look for unintended surprises in your significant other. You might be doing something you’ve done with her 1,001 times, but challenge yourself to find something new about the way that she is doing it. Our brains are pattern-finders, and they often see only what they expect to see. We find new people and situations more interesting and exciting because we don’t know yet what patterns we’ll find in their behavior (researchers call this the “lure of ambiguity”). When we find something new about a familiar person, we’ll tend to find him or her more interesting.

In romantic relationships, all of these strategies can (and should) be tried in the bedroom, of course. Lovemaking is one of the most significant ways most couples stay connected, but like the relationship itself, it can get stale over time. Shake things up in your sex life by making yourself vulnerable, taking risks, changing up your routines, and adding elements of surprise.

Finally, do these things as a way to deepen your connection and closeness in your relationship rather than to avoid conflict or rejection. When our relationship goals are positive (e.g., we want to have fun) rather than negative (e.g., we’re trying to avoid a fight), we tend to be much more satisfied with our relationships and to feel less lonely and insecure. And there’s nothing boring about that.

What do you do to add spark back into your relationship?

Interested in learning more about the science behind hedonic adaptation in relationships? I highly recommend Sonja Lubermirsky’s book The Myths of Happiness. There’s a whole chapter on taking your relationship from so-so to exciting!


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Tablet and Smartphone Boot Camp for Middle School Parents

November 26, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

‘Tis the season for electronic gifts. But these days, parents need to provide their kids with much more than batteries for all their devices.

Everyday I read something that leads me to believe that tech devices are dramatically affecting our kids’ normal social, sexual, intellectual, and emotional development. What I’m most amazed by, frankly, is how uninvolved we parents tend to be in the online lives of our middle schoolers. Our tweeners tend to seem much more savvy than they actually are: They may have technical skills, but usually they don’t have the social skills they need to navigate the sophisticated online and social media world.

Smartphones, tablets, and computers are powerful, wonderful devices that I can hardly imagine living without. But our kids get addicted to them easily, and they often use them inappropriately.

Middle schoolers are not old enough (or developmentally ready) to have as much freedom online as they often do these days. Think of these devices like cars: Before kids can drive them alone, they need to know the rules. They need clear roads with bright lines painted for them to show them where—and where not—to go.

In order for parents to teach these rules to our kids, many of us need a crash course in them ourselves—consider it a new technologies boot camp. If your middle schooler seems to be spending more time on Facebook or texting than she is in-person with her friends, this boot camp is for you.

Step 1: Make it clear which SPACES are appropriate for device and computer use.

Just because we can take a laptop into the bathroom does not mean that this is an appropriate thing to do. These are the places where it is typically NOT OKAY to use a computer, tablet, or smartphone:

● The car, unless it is planned for a long road trip. If your kids are used to being on their devices while you shuttle them around town, re-introduce them to the car window. Encourage them to learn the names of the streets you are driving on. Talk to them. If they complain about being bored, remind them that boredom is not a health hazard, but technology overuse is.

● Bedrooms and bathrooms. If you think your middle schooler is mature enough to have a computer in his or her bedroom, read Catherine Steriner-Adair’s book The Big Disconnect. Believe me, it can forever change their development. Laptops, phones, and tablets get charged in the kitchen at our house.* (I do let my daughter take a smartphone into her room after school and before dinnertime, where she uses it to talk and text. She is not allowed to use it for Internet access in her bedroom. This means that kids do homework in our house in public spaces, not in their bedrooms.)

● Public spaces where others can overhear a conversation, like restaurants, school, or any place where someone is helping you, like in a check-out line at a store. Remind kids that when we are texting or talking on the phone, we are ignoring the people around us, which is especially rude when they are helping us with something.

Step 2: Identify appropriate TIMES to be on a device.

For example, here are some times when it is NOT appropriate in our household to be texting, snapchatting, Facebooking,** playing an electronic game, emailing, etc:

● While they are doing homework. I am aware that most middle-schoolers chat while doing homework and are better at multitasking than us middle-agers. But the ability to FOCUS (you know, do just one thing at a time) is a core life-skill that more and more of our kids are failing to develop.

● During meals. There is usually nothing so important that it can’t wait 20 minutes. Daily family meals actually ARE important to kids’ development, and need to be accorded that importance.

● During bedtime routines. In the evening all devices can be set to their “do not disturb” setting and put in their chargers (iPhones and iPads can be set to do this automatically) a half hour before bedtime.

Why 30 minutes? Because the low-energy blue light emitted by our tablets and smartphones stimulates chemical messengers in our brains that make us more alert, and suppresses others (like melatonin) that help us fall asleep. Changing electronic reader settings to have a black background may help if your kids like to read before bed on a tablet or electronic reader.

Step 3: Make it clear what is private, and what is not.

Here is the biggest ever newsflash for most seventh and eighth graders: They are not entitled to privacy in their texts, emails, Facebook or Instagram posts, etc. The computers, phones, and tablets they use are, in fact, owned by their school or their parents.

As such, schools and parents are accountable for everything that happens on them. This means parents have a responsibility to control all of the passwords on the devices they own, and they have the right to read all posts created or received on said devices.

Why? Two reasons. First, because everything that kids do online is much more public and permanent than they typically think. If they want to write a private love note, they should use a pen and the US Mail. If they want to have a private conversation, they should do it in person. Make it clear what is private (their journal, for example, or their bedroom) and what is not: all online communications.

The second reason that middle-schoolers are not entitled to privacy online is that kids usually behave differently—and by that I mean better—when they know that they are being watched by adults. They are emboldened by independence, and once they do something risky or against the rules online and get away with it, they are likely to do it again.

So collect your middle-schooler’s passwords, and USE THEM. Log in and read their posts and texts. (See Step 4 if you see something you don’t like.) Insist that they accept any and all requests to connect via social media with relatives and trusted adults: This can be a part of the village that helps keep an eye on your kids.

Step 4: Teach kids to seek help when things go awry—and have a plan yourself as a parent when they do.

Inevitably, our kids will be spammed, flamed, and even bullied online or via email. And they may make major mistakes themselves that have deep consequences. First, be clear about what you see as bad online behavior, and establish clear consequences should that bad behavior come from your child.

Second, teach them that their how they respond when something goes wrong usually matters a lot, so their first response should be to get help from you or their school. Establish an “amnesty” policy with them so that should they realize they (or one of their close friends) has made a mistake, they feel they can seek adult help repairing any damage.

If you aren’t sure how you’ll respond when things go wrong, or what situations middle-schoolers typically deal with online that you might need to help them with, take the time to read the last couple of chapters of Steiner-Adair’s The Big Disconnect

Step 5: Actively teach kids to use their devices and social media accounts as a force for good.

On balance these technologies are good. They represent progress, not the death and destruction of our youth. But kids need to be taught how to use these sophisticated tools to make them happier, and to make the world a better place. (For ideas about how to do that, see this post about How to use Facebook to Increase Your Happiness.)

Perhaps this goes without saying, but kids will do what we do, not what we tell them to do, so the most important part of this boot camp is probably modeling these behaviors. When we text our work colleagues during dinner, we teach our family that work is more important than them. When we check Facebook during a red light in the car, we teach our kids that boredom is intolerable, and that it is safe to be online while driving.

But here’s the thing: We can also model positive behavior. We can turn our devices off, and keep them off at significant moments in our day. When we are online, we can post inspiring quotations and send our friends gratitude emails. We can text pictures of the kids to grandparents. And these technologies can make us more efficient (rather than just more distracted), and that efficiency can buy us more time with our middle-schoolers—who are readying themselves to leave our nest at any moment.


*A tangent that will make me seem like a luddite, but I can’t help throwing in: My kids use old-fashioned alarm clocks to wake up in the morning. One of them uses the “clock-radio” that I got for Christmas one year when I was in grade school. This in and of itself is amazing: My kids can’t believe something electronic was ever designed to last more than a couple of years and is still operable 30 years later.

**Note: My kids are not allowed to have Facebook accounts until it is legal for them to do so, at age 13. They have tons of friends and are somehow surviving socially being the “only kids in their entire school” who don’t have Facebook accounts. (Perhaps because many of their friends actually don’t have active Facebook accounts.)


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How to Help Kids Adjust to College

October 28, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Four ways to support new college students who are experiencing a rocky transition.

In the last few weeks I’ve received dozens of tearful calls and panicky emails from parents whose children are off at college for the first time—and aren’t adjusting particularly well.

“He calls home several times a day, and feels like he doesn’t have any friends even though he’s playing lacrosse and has joined a fraternity,” one parent lamented. “Even though she’s doing everything right, she just texted me that she wakes up every morning feeling like she wants to cry,” wrote another.

Here’s the thing: It is totally normal for this major transition to be VERY DIFFICULT, especially if you’ve never been on your own before. Navigating making friends and living without family for the first time can be very hard. And that is okay. Kids usually survive the difficulty and discomfort; most grow dramatically because of it.

Tempted to go visit? Bring them home for a weekend?

Think twice before rescuing college students from the difficult emotions that they are facing (anxiety, homesickness, loneliness, etc.). Although their pain often becomes our pain, and we want to do anything that we can to eliminate it, we can actually prolong their pain when we don’t let them struggle through it. Kids learn three things when we try to take away their pain and discomfort:

1) It must be really awful to feel difficult things (i.e., homesickness). This isn’t true. Life is full of difficult emotions; most pass uneventfully. Difficult emotions are not necessarily traumatic, scarring, unnatural—or even to be avoided.

2) They must not be able to handle their difficult emotions on their own. This probably is true if they’ve never handled them independently in the past. Kids who always have problems solved for them don’t know how to solve problems themselves.

3) They are entitled to a life free from pain or difficulty. This is a pernicious (if unconscious) learned belief. No one is entitled to a life free from adversity. Kids need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable transitions, challenges, boredom and the like because life is full of them.

What to do instead of trying to rescue them

Instead of trying to mask or take away kids’ pain, we can help them feel more comfortable with discomfort by encouraging them to ACCEPT their difficult feelings. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Recognize that their emotions are real—then coach them through them. The key is not to deny what they are feeling (e.g., by saying something like, “But you have so many new friends!” when they say that they are lonely). Instead, encourage kids to lean into their feelings, even if they are painful. Ask them to narrate what they are going through, without exaggerating or sugar-coating it. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I’m not sure why I feel stressed and nervous.” Encourage them to hang in there with unpleasant emotions. See if they can objectify their feelings. Ask, “Where in your body do you feel anxious/lonely/homesick/sad? Does the feeling have a color? A texture? A shape?”

2. Don’t encourage kids to distract themselves from their difficult emotions before they’ve acknowledged them. Leaning on numbing behaviors (drinking, going home, spending hours on Facebook, eating junk food) tends to prolong both the transition and the difficult emotions.

3. Practice self-compassion and kindness. A new study shows that college students who are kind to themselves and accept that their difficult feelings are part of the universal experience of leaving home fare better than those who are critical of themselves. Self-compassionate students are less prone to homesickness and depression, and they tend to me more satisfied with their social lives and choice of college.

4. Finally, encourage kids not to compare themselves to other people! Everyone makes transitions differently. If they spend time on Facebook, they will likely end up feeling like everyone else is having more fun than them. I’ve never seen anyone post a selfie on FB or Instagram looking miserable with the update “I spent the last hour crying because I miss my mom so much.” Remind kids that social media is, for most people, a giant performance where they posture to make themselves look better than they actually feel.

While it’s true that a happy life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools we need to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. Like it or not, we tend to develop the skills we need to cope with homesickness only when we need them: when we’re away from home for the first time.

Are your kids away at college? What has helped them adjust?

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