Life Giving Love

bimba“What if everything you know about love is wrong?” asks Dr. Barbara Fredrickson. Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, and author of Love 2.0, Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, doesn’t want to rain on your Valentine’s Day parade. Nor do I. But like Fredrickson, I’d like to upgrade your definition of love, especially if you’re feeling heartbroken or lonely, discouraged or in despair.

To begin with, let’s consider the rapture of “romantic love”. Most people I know (or see as a therapist) want to experience this exquisite kind of love. It’s understandable. Romantic love feels insanely delicious. Pleasure hormones surge when we fall head-over-heals. Dopamine pulses through our bodies, producing ecstatic feelings. Norepinephrine, like adrenaline, revs up our heart rate and makes our palms sweat.

This chemical process convinces us that we must have romance in our life to feel alive. The highs are just too good to think otherwise; at least that’s what our body says. And according to science, this makes perfect sense, given that the chemical high of love is the exact same chemical process that takes place with addiction.

But what if romantic love is just a daydream for you right now? Or what if you’re feeling brokenhearted after a break-up or in an age-old marriage that doesn’t cause your heart to melt like it did long ago? Should you turn to drugs and alcohol to get a quick fix, have an elicit affair to spice things up, or hook up on Tinder for a meaningless tryst? Hell no! You know you’re better than that. So what can you do that is emotionally healthy?

Connect with a caring person who wants to truly connect with you. Infuse your interaction with warmth and openness. Look at each other; really see each other. Feel each others’ presence and then notice the positive feelings that begin to arise.

PBcover_tiltedThis experience, what Barbara Fredrickson defines as Love 2.0, is a connection characterized by a flood of positive emotions that you share with another person – any person – friend or lover, sibling or spouse, child or parent who cares for you and you for them. Dr. Fredrickson’s research has shown that we experience “micro-moments of positivity” that ooze life-giving love hormones when we invest in each others’ well being and extend mutual care. But here’s the catch: we have to connect in person. Phone calls or Skype won’t do it; nor will Tinder or text messages. Feelings don’t compute in technology. The magic only happens when we meet face-to-face.

Grant it, Love 2.0 is less potent or alluring than rapturous kind of love, yet the chemicals that our bodies produce are exactly the same as what you get when you “fall”. So what do you have to lose by upgrading to 2.0? The whoa-is-me attitude. A burden of grief. Complaints and compromises that keep you stuck in misery. And think what you’ll gain. Happiness. Health. Vitality. And a really cool vibe that just might get you noticed by an extra-special someone who might one day be your Valentine 🙂 So give it a try, why don’t you? To learn more, check out Chapter I from Love 2.0.

 

 

 

 

Dogged Humor

During a recent therapy session, I asked a client what made him laugh. “My kitty!” he beamed. “Ah yes,” I a97dd50e3b659423d0a7a5d04bbab79dchuckled, remembering a video he once showed me of his adorable cat. It was great to see my client light up; truly satisfying to watch his stress melt away.

Cats (and dogs) are masters at striking our funny bones, but more than that, they actually help us reduce stress, fight depression, curb anxiety, and lessen the risk of heart disease. Studies prove it. Now I don’t want the cats to feel slighted in any way, but I have to tell you, the dogs even have a special health report published by Harvard Medical School — Get Healthy, Get a Dog. (Did I just hear a cat hiss? Yikes!)

Now even if the cats don’t like it, you’ve got to watch this YouTube. The dogs are such a motley crew, determined to make us laugh. They’re definitely not dignified like the cat at the head of the table. (Have I redeemed myself, kitties?) I hope this video brings a smile to your face and maybe a chuckle or two. Happy Holidays!

P.S. I’m not endorsing the pet food, just the video and maybe a trip to the pound 🙂

Today: A Gift

Today is not just another day. It’s the one day given to you today. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness.

–Brother David Steindl-Rast

“Bear! See them?” shouted my friends. “Two of them!” I jumped up in grizzly_bear04my seat, excited, yet slightly rattled, given I had just dozed off to sleep. We had just left the city limits and were winding our way up a mountain road in the safe confines of a truck. I knew bears lived on this mountain, yet seeing them up close and personal—OMG! What an incredible surprise.

Surprises! However could we exist without them, for surprise, according to Brother David Steindl-Rast, is a beginning of that fullness we call gratefulness. Surprise stops us from taking things for granted. Moments of surprise, writes Steindl-Rath, want to teach us: everything is a gratuitous, everything a gift.

How often do we fail to remember this profound truth and fall asleep to the gifts of life? It’s so easy to forget in our hectic 24/7 world. We rush through our days or get caught up in routine until an unexpected surprise wakes us up.

This past year I’ve had the privilege to walk beside a beautiful man who faced an unexpected surprise—a diagnosis of male breast cancer (yes, men can get it too.) Talk about a wake-up call! So many people are surprised when they receive a diagnosis of cancer, yet half of all men and one-third of all women in the U.S. will develop cancer during their lifetimes.

Cancer, like a bear who shows up on a mountain road, can come and go given the wonders of modern medicine. But what I hope never leaves us, all of us, not only those who survive cancer, is the realization that every day we’re given is a gift.

In the following video, Brother David inspires us with his wisdom, as Louie Schwartzberg graces us with his breathtaking time-lapse nature photography.  Now pay attention: if you stumbled across my post today, then surely, you were meant to receive gifts from these two phenomenal men.

For more on “Surprise and Gratefulness,” read an excerpt from one of Steindl-Rast’s inspirational books, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to the Fullness of Life.

Emotional Honesty

The final regret of the dying, according to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, is “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many of her patients suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Ware writes, They settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

What might their lives have been like if they chose to be emotionally honest? How might your life be different if you told others how you truly felt?

Recently, I worked with a client who was a breast cancer survivor. She was a highly intelligent woman, yet deeply disconnected from her feelings. She talked about locking her emotions away in a “Pandora’s Box.” She was acutely aware of how this choice fueled her passive-aggressive behavior and caused her to drink too much. Still, she didn’t know how to change her ways. She was terrified of opening up what was hidden deep inside.

I gently probed to help her discover why she continued to stuff her feelings. While sharing her childhood history, she told me that she never saw her mother cry until two years prior to our meeting (this woman was 51 yrs of age.) Interestingly, her mother had lost one son in an automobile accident and another to a chronic illness years before (my client’s brothers) and lost nearly all of her possessions in Hurricane Katrina.

Hmm! Such tragedy, yet my client’s mother hadn’t shed a single tear over the death of her children or loss of her worldly possessions, at least not in public. Hmm? Nor did my client cry while recounting this story or talking about her emotionally abusive marriage.

I don’t know about you, but I would have been boohooing for days. Crying for me is cleansing, a salve to heal my soul. Still, many individual have difficulty expressing their feelings, especially the “negative” kind, like sadness, fear, and grief. Like my client, many people were taught that being emotional means being weak, overly sensitive, or disrespectful. Buck up and stop being a crybaby. There’s nothing to be afraid of (you wimp). Don’t you raise your voice young lady! That’s no way for a nice girl to act.

Thankfully, times are changing. Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has changed our minds and begun to change our hearts. Yet still, EQ only scratches the surface. It doesn’t address what’s tucked away in Pandora’s Box. That’s why my client, and millions of people all over the globe, continue to numb their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food and other addictive pastimes; distract themselves with work, shopping, and other compulsive activities; or dissociate from painful memories for fear that overwhelming emotions will take them down.

Being aware of your feelings IS the first step, but it’s insufficient in creating a healthy life. Renowned neuroscientist, Candance Pert, has proven that emotions reside in every cell of our bodies, and that when we stifle the flow of our emotional energy, sorrow can turn into depression, anger into aggression, and fear into phobias or panic attacks. And it’s not only our mental health that is negatively affected. Neuroscience is proving that bottled up emotions can contribute to systemic inflammation in our bodies which results in cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

To live our best lives and die with little regret, I believe it’s essential to let out our feelings in a constructive manner. According to author and psychotherapist, Miriam Greenspan…

Goleman’s focus on the need to control potentially destructive impulses neglects the value of free-flowing emotional energy when it’s mindfully tolerated. The free flow of the dark emotions can’t happen in a contain-and-manage kind of process. What Goleman wants control to accomplish is better accomplished through emotional tolerance and mindfulness. These skills prevent the dark emotions from becoming destructive. When we can tolerate emotional energy mindfully, we can control our impulses without suppressing our emotions. Strictly speaking, it’s not our emotions that we control, but our actions. The emotional intelligence of the dark emotions moves us not to management but to transformation.

Learning to be emotionally honest can be scary. Expressing your feelings to those that matter does take courage. But remember, if you learned to suppress you can learn to express.

If you need a helping hand in opening up your Pandora’s Box, I highly recommend Greenspan’s book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions. But don’t stop there. Spend some time with a trusted therapist or a caring friend who can comfort you along the way.

Choose Happiness

The third regret of the nearly departed, according Bronnie Ware, author of The Five Regrets of the Dying, is not choosing to live a happier life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of life, that the dying people Ware cared for realized that the fear of change kept them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content. They settled for the “so-called” comfort of familiarity, and in doing so, they remained stuck in old patterns and habits. Pretense trumped happiness.

Thankfully, happiness is becoming a hot topic these days, not only in the popular press, but more surprisingly, with policy makers around the world. Just last month, the United Nations published the first ever World Happiness Report and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio shared the stage at an international symposium with a Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who has been dubbed the “happiest person in the world.”  Even though Ryan and Ricard spend the majority of their time in vastly different worlds, Washington vs. Tibet, both men share a common reality that holds the promise of increasing happiness for people all over the globe.

According to Ricard, right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, and author of Happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, achieving durable happiness is a skill that requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love. Ryan, in his recently published book, A Mindful Nation, writes about the key elements needed to take on the challenges we face in our country—inner strength, resilience, and awareness of who we really are.  These two men share a similar philosophy and practice a skill that has contributed to human happiness throughout the ages—mindfulness meditation.

Neuroscience is proving that mindfulness plays a key role in creating well-being and reducing negativity, not only in individuals, but in society at large.  Now you may be thinking, I’d be happier having more cash in the bank and a new car in the garage. Mindfulness! How in the world will this make me happy?  Just hear me out.

The pursuit of happiness, a key principle of our democracy, has come under increased scrutiny since the economic meltdown–and rightly so. Many of us have fallen into a state of depression or grown anxious over how to pay our bills. I understand completely, and I empathize. But I also know that happiness isn’t simply achieved by making more money. Research shows a weak correlation between income and global happiness.

Personal wealth definitely impacts our level of “life satisfaction,” a subjective measure used in Hedonic Psychology, but it has little or no impact on our “eudaimonism,” a state of well-being that results from living in accordance with our daimon, or true self. This ideal may sound New Age-y, but it’s not. It’s older than dirt, a philosophy birthed by Aristotle.

Eudaimonic well-being occurs when people’s life activities mesh with deeply held values; when people are fully engaged and feel intensively alive and authentic. Maybe that’s why Ricard, a monk who lives in a monastery and donates his book profits to charity, is considered the happiest man in the world. His brain, like that of other long-term practitioners of meditation, has developed the capacity to disengage from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions. Research now proves that meditating strengthens the centers of the brain that contribute to good feelings and compassion.

Food for thought, or “non-thought”, don’t you think? Yesterday, Congressman Ryan encouraged a generation of future leaders at UC-Berkeley on the merits of mindfulness meditation. He’s advocating that schools across America teach the skill of mindfulness to our kids. I never could have imagined that the U.N. would produce a report that contained the word   “happiness” in its title during my lifetime. Nor would I have thought that U.S. economists would be questioning the merits of GDP and considering GNH—Gross National Happiness— following the lead of Bhutan, a nation whose Gross National Income is 18,491 times smaller than ours.

I’m happy to be living at a time when the world is breaking old patterns; I’m grateful to be witnessing the vision of mindful leaders taking root before my eyes.

“Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” –Robert F. Kennedy