Raising Happiness


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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How to Eliminate “Junk Stimulus”

October 15, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Reigning in clutter adds ease to your life.

We Americans are often overwhelmed and exhausted. Did you know that 235 million people are currently grappling with feelings of time-starvation and moderate to high levels of stress, exhaustion, or burn-out in the United States alone? 1

While many things factor into this collective exhaustion, I’ve found, in my own life, that much of it stems from the sheer amount of stimulus and the build-up of, well, stuff. Here are several ways I filter out what I’ve come to think of as “junk stimulus.”

1) First, rid your environment of physical clutter.

• Clean out one drawer or shelf everyday religiously until everything in your home has a place—and everyone in your household knows where that place is. Commit to five minutes a day, everyday, until the job is done.

• Find a large box for donations or other “give aways,” and put it somewhere accessible until you are finished with this process. Donate or recycle anything that hasn’t been used for a year.* This goes for clothes, dishes, books, furniture (yes, furniture!), games, toys, shelf-stable food and spices, the super-awesome tortilla maker you’ve really wanted to try out since you picked it up in the ‘80s, and that tent you haven’t pitched for three years. Remember that your stuff is for today, not some imagined future. Be ruthless—you will thank me later every time you open a tidy, nearly empty, drawer or cupboard.

2) Now, limit the amount of stuff you let back into your house.

• Cancel all snail mail except things like hand-written thank you notes. Sign up to get your bills online. Cancel ALL catalogs and junk mail. (I like the free app PaperKarma : You take a picture of catalogs, mailers, credit card offers, phone books—and they get you off the mailing list!) You can get everything you need online or in a digital version, including books, magazines, newspapers, season information from your local theatre, information from non-profits you love, concert schedules. You may have to call them to ask them to remove you from the list; I’ve had to plead and beg in the past. Again, be ruthless when you ask to be removed from these lists: All that direct mail is clutter.

• Put a recycling bin right by the door that you walk through with the mail, and don’t open junk mail that comes through—photograph it for PaperKarma, then rip it up and recycle it.

• Don’t go into a store without a list of what you need, and don’t let yourself buy anything that isn’t on the list. (This works wonders with my children, especially in places like Costco.)

3) Next, get rid of all unneeded media and audible stimulus.

• Turn the ringer off on your land line, if you’ve still got one and you still get junk calls (even though you are on the Do Not Call registry ). Have friends call your cell phone, and use your landline to check messages or to dial out only.

• Turn off your TV unless you intend to watch something specific. Don’t expose yourself to advertising—it is junk stimulus in and of itself. Record your shows and fast forward through the ads.

• Identify sources of irritation or unwanted stimulation in your household, like whining, too-loud music, background television, or a pet hamster that runs endlessly on a squeaky wheel (and smells bad, to boot). Make a concrete plan for how you will eliminate this junk stimulus over the next few weeks.

• If your home or workspace is noisy, play soothing music or put white noise on in the background—ironically, it will help filter out noise. This is a proven way to sleep better! (I like the app White Noise .)

4) Finally, prune niggling tasks, because if you feel hassled by a long task list, this too is a source of junk stimulus. So weed that puppy down with gusto until it is a realistic representation of what you actually can accomplish given your current status as a human being (and not a super computer).

• Automate as many of the routine tasks on your list as you can. Set your bills up on auto-pay. Create a standing grocery order (I use planetorganics.com, and they choose seasonal fruits and vegetables for me). Install a timed watering system for potted plants. Get an automatic pet feeder. Note: Don’t automate anything that brings you joy.

• For most people, email is a to-do item that never quits. Rein it in. Which emails do you really have to read? Which must you respond to? Consider boldly deleting everything that you don’t absolutely need. I love gmail’s new tabs—they allow me to batch-delete emails that I don’t have time to read before I get sucked in and read them anyway. And I use a “bypass the inbox” filter for a lot of emails—they just go straight to a file, where they wait for me until I have time for them. Feel free to respond to email on YOUR terms; there is no law in the universe that says that you must sacrifice your sleep, well-being, or other priorities simply so that you can get through your email.

• Prune your to-do list with this question: If it turns out that my life is a lot shorter than I hope it will be, which of the things on my list right now will I wish I hadn’t wasted time on? Pay particular attention to anything you do just for prestige, praise or to feel superior to others, anything that makes you tense or anxious but doesn’t contribute to your growth over the long haul, and anything that involves toxic people or situations.

How do you feel when you’ve pruned all this clutter? What other things do you do to eliminate junk stimulus?

*Warning: this process will probably be derailed if you start trying to sell your stuff—that is a totally different project. Donate it to a good cause; write-off the donation if you’d like.

1. American Psychological Association, “Stress in America,” 2009.

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How to Avoid Burnout—or a Breakdown

October 7, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Three ways working parents can combat exhaustion that don’t require radical social change.

Feeling maxed-out? Like you’d like to lie down so badly you are having “hospital fantasies”?

(Not familiar with that term? Hopefully you aren’t as tired as this woman, who writes about her hospital fantasy: “I stumbled back to work when my son was 6 weeks old. He had colic and chronic ear infections, so I really didn’t sleep for a year. No exaggeration. I would fantasize about having a minor car accident on the way to work. Nothing serious—just enough to lay me up in the hospital for a few days so I could sleep!”)

It’s not that I don’t think we have societal problems  that are causing this kind of exhaustion. I do. But there are things that we can do as individuals to prevent burnout and breakdown.

1. Get enough rest. I know, I know, you don’t have time to sleep. Or you think you are the exception to the rule—you don’t need the seven-to-nine hours of sleep that doctors and experts prescribe. Maybe you wish you could get more sleep, but you just can’t find a way to put sleep above your other priorities.

Ask yourself: What are your other priorities? Your health? Your happiness? Productivity and success at work? Raising happy and healthy children? Here’s the truth: You will not fulfill your potential in any of these realms unless you get the sleep your body, brain, and spirit needs.

But that’s not all: We also need to rest during the day . We are not computers, able to run continuously. This means that we need to rest between periods of productivity. After about 90 to 120 minutes of high output, we need a period of recovery—or stress and exhaustion start to build, and productivity starts to decline. Rest periods needn’t be long (10-15 minutes will do) if you truly take a break: Go for a walk outside, read an article that really interests you (but isn’t on your task list), chat with a coworker or neighbor, eat your lunch outside or near a sunny window. 

In the wild (or, say, kindergarten), human beings naturally take breaks to refuel with a snack or a meal. Don’t squander this natural rest period by wolfing down your lunch while you read your email, or by sipping a latte while driving to work and calling that breakfast. Practice eating mindfully, paying attention to your food and the people you are with. Notice what you are eating and how quickly or slowly. Breathe. Relax.

2. Do only one thing at a time. Multi-tasking talent is nothing to brag about. If we just focused on one task at a time, we’d actually be more productive in the long run, and we’d be less exhausted at the end of the day. This is because multi-tasking exhausts more energy and time than single-tasking does. Take it from productivity experts Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy:

Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an email or take a phone call, for instance—increased the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 percent, a phenomenon known as “switching time.”

It is often harder for me to single-task than it is to multi-task. I have to totally remove all distractions to single-task: I do my best writing at a desk I’ve set up in a large closet that doesn’t get phone reception, with my email disabled. I group my daily tasks into two categories: “Think Work” and “Action Items.” Then I block off time on my calendar for both things. I do my Think Work at the closet desk totally uninterrupted, setting a timer so that I take a break every 60-90 minutes.

My Action Items take less focus, but I still tackle them one at a time in sequence—not parallel. Unless I’m working my way through my email, my email application is closed. I answer the phone only for scheduled calls. I leave my iPhone in do-not-disturb mode (so that I can see if my kids’ school is calling, but that’s about it) and reply to texts when I’m taking a break. Having these “rules” for myself has dramatically increased my productivity.

3. Reduce the amount of “junk stimulus” that you need to deal with.
We are bombarded, day and night, with loads of, pardon my language, CRAP. TV ads (or even news!) we aren’t interested in that we watch anyway, making us anxious. A mailbox full of advertising and other “dead tree marketing.” Emails upon emails, mingling with Facebook posts and Tweets and texts. (I’m having an event this weekend, and I got nearly 100 texts about it yesterday. That might be super exciting for a teenager, but I thought I was going crazy.)

Left unchecked, all this junk stimulus will bleed us dry. It’s exhausting even as it is sometimes entertaining. This week, take notice of all the clutter in your life.

Start with your environment. Where is there “junk stimulus”—stuff that makes you feel tired when you see, hear, or otherwise experience it? Consider visual clutter, like that over-stuffed kitchen drawer you open every day looking for a paper clip. Ponder auditory clutter, like whiney kids who make you tense, or the neighbor who really does need to fix his car alarm. Think about online and media distractions. (You might enjoy them, but for mental health reasons, consider indulging in them only occasionally, as a treat.)

Next week I’m going to give you my three-part plan for eliminating junk stimuli and other crap of all kinds. This week: Get some rest, allow yourself to focus, and start noticing the junk that is cluttering your life.


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