I would love to say that I am an optimistic person by nature. I would love to say that–but I would be lying. Unlike some of my friends who always seem to see the bright side, I would usually plan for the worst case scenarios. Optimism is not something that comes easy to me, but over the years I have discovered that optimism is a key factor in achieving happiness.
Optimism plays an important role in determining how resilient we are when facing stressful situations. Without an optimistic perspective, it can be very difficult and at times almost impossible to navigate some of life’s challenges and bounce back quickly . The good news is that while we may not all be born optimists, we can train ourselves to be more optimistic.
There are good reasons to cultivate optimism if it isn’t one of your premier strengths. The first one is simple–no one likes to be around a pessimistic person. If someone is constantly expecting the worst, their attitude will begin to affect those around them. No one likes to be around a Gloomy Gus, so pessimism has an adverse affect on support networks, both personally and professionally. Also, when someone is optimistic they tend to be more flexible and creative in their thinking.
This flexibility comes in very handy when coping with stress. Mental flexibility helps people look at stressful situations from various perspectives. It helps them reframe a situation in a positive manner. Flexible people can explore multiple solutions to a problem, and they can also find a positive meaning in difficult events. These techniques sound relatively simple, but they can be very difficult, especially during stressful times.
So how can you develop an optimistic outlook? Just like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice. Here are some steps you can take when something bad happens.
- Remember that difficulties won’t last forever. The only thing that is constant is change. Sometimes it is almost impossible to believe that problems won’t last forever, but they won’t. Eventually the good times will come back.
- Keep a problem in perspective–don’t let it spread into other aspects of your life.
- Explore ways and resources available to solve the problem. Take responsibility for your actions and don’t expect a problem to solve itself.
- Be grateful for your support network and those around you who appreciate your struggle.
On the other hand, these are some things to do when something good happens (because good things do happen).
- Accept responsibility for whatever part you played in the event. As the old adage says–take credit where credit is due.
- Feel gratitude for what happened, whether it came by design or just good luck.
- Think of ways to expand on the positive event.
These are a few ways to increase optimism, but are certainly not the only ones. There are a lot of factors that determine how optimistic a person is. Some are genetic and some are developmental, but it is possible to increase a positive outlook. A few years ago, I decided to explore ways to increase my happiness and overall satisfaction with my life. Stress seemed to be taking over, and I had trouble finding enjoyment in even the simple things. It certainly wasn’t the way I wanted to live. In a nutshell, I just wanted to be happier.
After practicing these steps during both good and bad times I can now proudly say I am a realistic optimist (and much happier). Building optimism and a positive outlook helped me to neutralize stress and find enjoyment in daily life. I am not saying that optimism eliminates stress–that would be foolish. But keeping an optimistic outlook helps to deal with bad times and minimize their consequences while enhancing the good times. Maintaining an optimistic attitude may not always be easy, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, but it is certainly worth the effort.
Suggested Reading: Resilience, The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick, M.D. and Dennis S.Charney, M.D., 2012
How many times have you been in a meeting at work and suddenly realized you have no idea what has just been said? Or you have a deadline looming but every time you sit down to finish up the project something else suddenly seems more important? It happens time and time again. As soon as we try to concentrate on one particular issue, our mind is flooded with a thousand other things we could or should be doing. It’s as if our mind is purposely trying to sabotage us and distract us from what we need to do.
The bad news is that it’s true–our minds continually try to distract us. The good news is that we can control that. To some degree we learn to control our thought processes as we age. It is a natural progression. But like any skill set, concentration can be improved and strengthened with use and training. After all, an olympic runner may naturally be pretty fast and beat the other local runners, but she isn’t going to make it to the top of podium without major practice and training.
What are some of the benefits of enhanced concentration? One of the most popular benefits is improved work performance. When you can focus on one topic and give it your full and undivided attention, the resulting product will undoubtedly be of a higher quality, completed in less time.
Another benefit of concentration is peace of mind. If we can train our minds to remain on the situation in the present moment, there is less chance to let our minds wander to the future and the “what if” possible scenarios. These scenarios are the basis for a lot manufactured stress in today’s world. We spend too much time thinking about what may happen, or what could happen. These thoughts tend to generate anxiety about situations that may not even occur.
Improving concentration and focus in the present moment is a great way reduce stress, but many people are at a loss when asked just how to do that. Some feel they have no problem concentrating. Here is an exercise to see just how distracted your mind may be. Set a timer for three or five minutes. Without a given subject in mind, begin to write down whatever comes into your head. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t even think about what you are writing, just let it flow as a stream of consciousness. When the timer goes off, take a look at what you’ve written. Chances are that you will see a variety of subjects, and many thoughts or ideas which are only half-finished before switching to another topic. It is a fascinating exercise to see how quickly the mind can jump from subject to subject.
In mindfulness circles, this behavior is often referred to as monkey-mind. Swinging from one idea to another, the mind is like a monkey in the trees swinging from vine to vine. This is the monkey that worries about the future and keeps us up at night. Even when we are enjoying ourselves, that monkey is swinging around and trying to distract us. I also like to think of it as the squirrel syndrome. Picture a cartoon dog who stops mid-sentence because he is more interested in the squirrel or shiny object that just saw rushed by. Not only is it hard to concentrate or enjoy any activities at hand, quite frankly chasing those squirrels can be downright exhausting.
So when the mind is misbehaving and running amuck, treat it like the preschooler that it is and give it a time out. For just a few minutes, stop what you are doing and concentrate on nothing. Now, most people will find when they try to clear their minds, it only allows space for more thoughts to rush in, so finding a starting point is good. Instead of nothing, concentrate on your breath. Breathe in, count for three counts and out for five counts. Think about how it feels as you breath in and out through your nose. Here’s a tip–you will probably think about other things as you do this. That’s perfectly normal. Just acknowledge the thought and move on. Let it go out as easily as it came in. Like the writing exercise, try this for three to five minutes.
The good thing is that you can do this anywhere (except possibly behind the wheel). Steal a few minutes at work and give yourself a mini-vacation. Try it while taking a bath and create a spa-like experience. Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you will become at it. You will be able to focus for longer periods of time. You may start to see improved concentration in areas you didn’t expect. Anxiety levels may decrease. Enjoyment of the present moment may increase.
Just like a monkey or a toddler, training the mind to behave is never easy. However, you can train your mind to focus on one item at a time (or nothing at all). When you do that, you eliminate trips into the past or the future and thus reduce feelings of regret or anxiety. Aside from boosting self-confidence from mastering a new skill, you can’t help but improve your quality of life. And that, I think, is definitely worth the effort.
So when the monkey is swinging in the trees, give your mind a time out. Put it in a corner and let it rest. You’ll be glad you did.
I was lucky enough to spend some of the holidays this year in sunny Palm Springs. We welcomed in the New Year in the desert with visits from both family and friends. It was a great way to set the tone and intention for 2013.
While in the desert we snagged some tickets to the Palm Springs Follies. If you have ever been to Palm Springs you have probably seen this show. It has been running for twenty-two seasons and is a revue-type show featuring beautiful women and handsome men, all singing and dancing in the Ziegfeld style. There is only one little difference–no one in the show is under fifty years of age.
Now, having been an actor, I love the theatre and watching any live performance is always a treat for me. But there was something very special about watching these performers singing, tapping, and generally strutting their stuff that was truly inspiring. Several of the women are in their fifties and sixties, while one of them is seventy-seven. The oldest cast member is a song and dance man who recently celebrated his eightieth birthday. The show runs for about three hours with one production number after another. I can tell you from experience that keeping the energy filling a stage for that length of time is no easy feat. And no, there is not a single walker on the stage.
Aside from providing a great evening of unique entertainment, the show got me thinking about self-imposed limitations. I have heard so many people say they would love to do something, but well, they are over fifty (or sixty, or…), and it isn’t likely to happen. It’s as if hitting a certain age precludes anyone from following a dream. I know people who would love to start a new career, but they feel that at their age they should just hang in until retirement. My answer to that is usually–Really? Why should a number stop you from doing something you want to do? In today’s world where the average life span continues to increase it seems almost self-destructive to allow something as benign as a number to limit your possibilities.
Age is not the only limitation we place on ourselves, but it is one of the most convenient. If we say we are too old to do something, then we can excuse ourselves from even trying, thus saving us from the possibility of failure. I know people who would love to take ballroom dance lessons after years of watching Dancing With the Stars but well, they are too old. Again I say–Really? No one said you had to enter a competition, but if you want to learn to dance, age shouldn’t keep you from your first Foxtrot.
My partner was a professional dancer in his twenties. A couple of decades (more or less) later, he knows that a grand jete may not be in his wheelhouse anymore, but it doesn’t stop him from taking a class when he feels the need. He may not do it all the time, but I am always glad when he decides to hit the floor because it is something he loves and he doesn’t let a number keep him from one of his passions.
We all put up our own limitations in one way or another. Many times we do it because it maintains the status quo. A friend of mine would love to change jobs, but she has only known one industry in her life and doesn’t feel her experience would outweigh any learning curve if she changed fields. So she stays where she is. Not particularly happy, but she knows what to expect. Self-imposed limitations keep her in an unpleasant situation and prevent her from seeking out new and challenging experiences. It’s sad, but not that unusual.
A second thought came to mind during the show. Why are these performers still working at their ages? The answer is pretty simple–they love what they do. They have spent a lifetime pursuing their dreams and it shows. At an age where many people are considering which assisted living facility to move to, these people are thinking about kick-lines and time-steps. When you love what you do, it is easy to keep doing it. In fact, it is usually easier to keep doing it than to stop doing it. And they don’t let something as trivial as age keep them from doing what they love.
The Palm Springs Follies was an inspiring show and a great choice for starting out the New Year. Coming out of the theatre I decided that one of my intentions for 2013 would be to challenge my own self-imposed limitations when I see them. I won’t let the fact that my fiftieth birthday has already passed keep me from new adventures. I will demand an explanation from myself when I hear the words “can’t” or “won’t work” in my own inner dialogues. Is the limitation valid or am I simply making it up? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will usually be.
How about you? What limitations keep you from pursuing your dreams? Have you ever questioned those ideas and beliefs? If you do, you may find that many of those limitation are self-imposed roadblocks that keep us from moving forward toward fulfillment and happiness. Next time you hear yourself say you can’t do something–ask yourself why. Then ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t accept that limitation.
You may be surprised at the possibilities that present themselves when you remove your own roadblocks.
There are a few spots left for my new boot camp beginning January 15, 2013. Transform your life From Surviving to Thriving in Six Weeks or Less! Participation is limited so don’t be disappointed. Reserve your space today and make this your best year ever.
Welcome to 2013 and the first full work week of the new year! I have to admit that I love the holidays, but I am always glad when they are over. It seems that I am not alone in that thought. Whenever I talk to someone around this time of year they seem to feel the same way. It is great to have the downtime and the time with family or friends, but it is also nice to get back into the normal routines of daily life. After all, that is where we are the most comfortable and feel the most secure. And depending on what you consider a routine or what you chose to focus on, it can also be the most exciting and challenging place to be.
Now that most of us are back at work, I’m going to guess that the buzz of the new year has pretty much faded into memory. When I worked on the corporate playground, it only took about two hours for the relaxation and glow of vacation time to wear off, leaving me wondering if I had really had any downtime. It seems to be true for many people. And as the next deadline looms, the joy of the holiday fades, as do the resolutions we promised ourselves were going to make stick this year.
It’s not really an unusual scenario. We get caught up in the moment and make resolutions to change things we don’t particularly like about ourselves. We share them at the holiday parties to show we are in the spirit of the occasion. The problem is that most of us don’t really prepare for making those changes. They may be important–and we may make progress for a week or so–but then real life comes back into the picture and those changes that were so important seem to lose priority little by little. Pretty soon it is February and we decide to try again next year with the same set of resolutions. It may not be true for everyone, but I know I spent many years vowing to lose the same twenty pounds every December 31st.
Instead of resolutions, why not try a theme for 2013? Resolutions focus on things we want to change. Losing weight, getting out of debt, getting in shape–whatever the change may be it usually has a negative bias. These are things we don’t like about ourselves and our situation, and we criticize ourselves for them. By focusing on the negative we unintentionally reinforce it. And it takes a lot more energy to change a negative situation than to create a positive situation.
Choosing a theme for 2013 allows you to focus on positive changes you would like to make in the coming year. Instead of losing weight, chose a theme of health. Instead of getting out of debt, chose a theme of abundance. Yes, weight loss plays a part in the theme, but it is not the focus. Instead, decide what a healthy life means to you and what you can do to create that lifestyle. Picture yourself throughout the year making what you feel to be healthy choices for meals, exercise, and overall wellbeing. When you approach changes from a positive bias, it is much easier to make those decisions to move forward and create your vision. Focusing only on losing weight forces you to think about what you have to give up. When you focus on a theme of healthy living for 2013, you can focus on all the positive things you will gain, such as increased energy and better mobility.
I think we can all agree that positive reinforcement is a better option than negative reinforcement, so why not give it a shot when planning 2013. Don’t focus on what you need to change–instead, laser in on what you would like to create. Take some time a paint a picture of what your life will look like when you integrate your new theme. What are the major shifts in focus, and where might you feel changes that you didn’t expect? Because you are creating it, how your theme affects your life is up to you. It can be as wide-reaching or as specific as you choose. But it will always involve changes invoked from a positive bias, and that is a very good thing.
So why not choose a personal theme this year and see what happens. It may be just what you need to create your best year ever.
There are a few spots left for my new bootcamp beginning January 15, 2013. Transform your life From Surviving to Thriving in Six Weeks or Less! Participation is limited so don’t be disappointed. Reserve your space today and make this your best year ever.
Here is a stress-test scenario for you. Are you doing what you love to do? Whether at work or at home, are you engaged in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment? Simple questions, really. Unfortunately, when I ask these questions many people respond with a negative answer. Most people say they are doing what they have to do to make a living, pay the mortgage and the bills, and work toward retirement. Or they have to make dinner because the kids have to eat and if they don’t do it everyone starves. Very few people say they are following their dream and that they find satisfaction and happiness in their daily activities.
Doing something that you do not want to do is one of the major ways to increase stress in your daily life. It can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness, especially if the act is continually repeated. A good example is going to a job you hate everyday because you need to pay the bills. If you do it long enough, you may not even notice that your stress symptoms are off the charts. After a while, we just accept it as a part of life.
So here is one way to fix that and lower the stress levels. If you are doing something you do not want to do–don’t do it. Seriously, it is that simple. Think of the old joke about the man who goes to the doctor because it hurts when he raises his arm. The doctor’s answer is also simple–if it hurts, don’t do it.
Of course, there is a catch. It may be a simple fix, but no one said that simple was easy. I am not advocating that you walk away from your job and responsibilities because you don’t like going to office. What I am suggesting is that you have a choice. You may choose to do something or not, but you need to be clear on why you are doing it if you want to lower stress and increase happiness. In most cases, we do things we don’t like to do because we are not clear on what is motivating our actions.
Very often we do things because we think we should. We chase the high paying job because we should–it proves we are successful. We marry and have children because it is what we are supposed to do–everyone else does it. We need to go to work everyday to pay for the car, the house, and all the stuff we have acquired. We use that stuff to define ourselves and we need to maintain the definition.
Ultimately, motivation for our actions falls into three categories: want to, have to, or should. Not surprisingly, stress levels increase across each category. Doing something because we love it involves almost no stress at all. We do it because it is in alignment with our core values, it feels right, and it is inspiring and fulfilling. At the opposite end of the spectrum is doing something because we feel we should. It usually has something to do with self-image, but is not in alignment with values, and doesn’t sit right with us when we do it. Acting out of “should” can only increase stress levels correspondingly. In the middle is doing things because we have to. This is a means to an end or necessary to achieve something. Feeling that we have to do something increases pressure and stress. The good news is that we have the choice to find other means to that end we are looking for. We can always do something else to get where we want to go.
Once we define motivation and realize that we have a choice in all our actions, it becomes easier to change those actions–if we want to.
Another option is changing perspective. Perhaps the job isn’t perfect but we go because we love our family and want to provide for them. Working then becomes a positive action with a positive outcome. Some of the stress is automatically lessened when we view the situation in that light. The job may not be perfect, but it is better. Again, the viewpoint is our choice.
One final thought on this simple fix: not doing what you don’t want to do is not easy. Especially if society and your inner critic is telling you that you should be doing exactly that. However, it is worth the effort. Remember, choices have consequences. If you can align your actions with your core values and draw motivation from there, it doesn’t matter what others say. Doing what you love can only increase your happiness and reduce stress.
And that is a pretty delicious way to live.
Check out my new group coaching program beginning January 15, 2013. Transform your life From Surviving to Thriving in Six Weeks or Less! Participation is limited so don’t be disappointed. Reserve your space today.
Around this time of year, many people begin to think about starting some sort of wellness program as part of their New Year’s resolutions. Find a way to get healthy, lose weight, reduce stress, and improve overall well-being. Seems like a pretty simple laundry list, really. It’s also true that this is the same list that gets repeated every New Year’s Eve. Why? Because multi-tasking is a way of life and we are used to focusing on a million things at once. We live in a society of instant gratification. We want immediate results. Many of us are Type-A personalities and we expect to check off everything our list as soon as it goes on. Unfortunately, that type of mindset often turns that exciting new list of resolutions into a recipe for failure.
As a wellness coach, I have a question about planning New Year’s resolutions. What would happen if you focused on only one resolution at a time? Would you be able to give that goal your complete attention and thereby increase the possibility of success? And if you are successful in one area, might there be a ripple effect in other areas of your life you would like to change? After that one change becomes a habit, would your self-efficacy improve so other changes don’t seem quite as improbable?
If you truly want to keep your resolutions this year, try tackling one item at a time. Instead of declaring you will become an icon of healthy living in January, break the project down into pieces, and decide which piece seems to be the most important to you. For example, we know that wellness is defined as the integration of mind, body, and spirit. Which piece of that equation seems to be the most out-of-balance when you look at your life?
List the areas where you would like to see change, then prioritize which of those changes is most important to you. If you want to have a healthier body, is changing your diet the most important, or do you feel there would be more benefit to starting an exercise program? You can tackle both, but if you focus on one item at a time so that each change becomes a habit, your odds of accomplishing both items increases. Both are important to reach the overall goal of a healthier body, but let’s be real–we are busy. There are only so many hours in a day and only so much energy we can dedicate to making changes. If you get a regular, moderate exercise program in your wheelhouse, you can use that as a base and turn your attention to making healthier eating choices. Put the two together and you get a healthier body.
The truth is if we focus on making too many changes at once, we can easily become overwhelmed. Trying to accomplish too much at one time only leads to frustration. Remember, you can do it all–you just can’t do it all at one time.
The other half of this formula is to allow enough time for the change to become a habit. As a rule, changes take about twelve weeks to become solidified in our minds. Once that happens, they become fixed in our psyches and are no longer considered changes, simply new habits. Since habits take less mental energy to maintain, at this point you can turn your focus to the next priority on your list. Lather, rinse, repeat, all the while building on the success of your first accomplishment. Before you know it, you will have managed a series of changes that not only support your resolutions, but create a new lifestyle as well.
This method can help you conquer any change, whether it be physical health, financial health, career issues, or relationship goals. So why not give it a try for 2013?
Just be careful. You may find that you have to find new resolutions for 2014 instead of recycling the familiar ones. But is that really such a bad problem to have? I’m guessing not.
Check out my new group coaching program beginning January 15, 2013. Transform your life From Surviving to Thriving in Six Weeks or Less! Participation is limited so don’t be disappointed. Reserve your space today.
I was talking with a friend who was wanted to discuss a problem he had been facing recently. He is in the second half of his life, and has been reading that people are living longer than ever before. While many people would see this a good thing, he was concerned about it. He felt he didn’t just want to live longer. He wanted to live better. In his view, living longer was not worth doing if it just meant eroding health and loss of independence were all he had to look forward to.
When I asked him what his definition of living better was, he hesitated. It turns out he couldn’t really articulate his vision of better living, but he could tell me what it wasn’t. This isn’t an unusual situation and he certainly is not alone. He is just one of the later baby boomers who is trying to figure out which next steps are important in his future.
At first glance, it doesn’t really seem like he should have any problems. He is a successful professional who has followed his career to senior management in his organization. He has authority and influence and lives a very comfortable lifestyle. There is a stable family support network, a loving spouse, and few financial concerns. So what could possibly be wrong?
The problem is that he is not clear about what he truly wants. He has followed all the rules, created the lifestyle he thought would provide happiness, health, and security, but still feels that something is missing. He has focused so much on creating his external circumstances that he has neglected to nurture his own health and well-being. He is lacking clarity when trying to envision what a longer, better life would be.
One thing I’ve realized over the years is that many of the guidelines for success in business and success in life are very similar. In order to flourish as a business, you need a crystal clear vision of the product or service you provide and its benefit to your customers. You also need a plan to guide you where you want to go. Without either of these things, chances are you won’t reach the level of success you hope to achieve.
The same holds true in life. You need to put some time and effort into figuring out what is important to you. What kind of lifestyle do you really want? How much do you need–or don’t need, as the case may be? When are you the happiest? Is health a prime concern for you? If so, are you willing to put in the work to make sure that your body serves you to its best ability as you age?
The truth of the matter is that baby boomers (and near boomers) expect a lot out of life. We are an active generation and are used to getting what we want. The idea of aging as our parents and grandparents did is simply not acceptable to us. Spending a lifetime working at a career, however satisfying, in order to retire, receive a gold watch, and recede from the world just isn’t in the cards. Many boomers don’t even consider retirement as an option–they want to remain engaged and participating in the world around them as long as possible.
After our discussion, a few things became clearer for my friend. He realized that most of his energy was spent dealing with the stress of his job (true of many boomers), which left him little time or energy to focus on himself. His health had suffered, but his energy had been so outwardly directed that he hadn’t had time to notice. He realized that he had to take as active an interest in his own health as he had been taking in the health of his organization. Once he made that decision, a new path opened and he could start planning steps to make that happen.
LIving longer should not be viewed as a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. My friend is now exploring ways to integrate exercise, healthy eating habits, and stress management into his lifestyle. Improving his health has become a concrete goal, and he is committed to success. He says he is actually looking forward to his next chapter now, not dreading it.
Once you have a clear picture of what you would like to accomplish, the chances of achievement become much greater. Gaining clarity is not always easy–it can take a long time. Sometimes we try too hard to figure out what we want. In many cases it is simpler than we think. In the case of my friend, improving his health was a key to improving his enjoyment and quality of life. A very basic idea, but one that many people overlook.
One thing is pretty clear. Without clarity, it’s hard to get where you would like to go. It’s simple in concept but can be very difficult in practice.
However, if you make the effort it can yield amazing rewards.
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