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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How To Find Money For Charity

“I would love to give, but there are so many worthy charities out there that I cannot decide.”  “The rich are able to afford to give to charity. I’m not rich.” “We should take care of those in need in our own country before we give to other countries.”  All are common excuses (or even reasons) for not giving up a little bit of what we have to help others who need.  Most of us feel badly for those with less than us, and want to help, but cannot see their way to finding funds within their budgets to reach out.  Yet, each of us in North America, regardless of our incomes, have the capacity to “discover” methods by which we can assist those people who are less fortunate than we may be.  Yes, even the poorest of us can do so, and definitely the wealthy can redirect money to others, if we choose.
Recently, I visited Ocho Rios, Jamaica.  My wife and I took none of the guided tours, ate at none of the tourist attractions, bought nothing from cruise ship-sponsored kiosks.  Instead, we walked two miles back through the town centre, beyond the acceptable tourist spots, through the local farmers market, behind the preparation areas hidden behind the pallets of local foods, among the local garden and “plantation” areas, and into the residences bordering the market.  From there, we were able to see the contrast between the tarpaulin-roofed homes to the mansions of Mick Jagger and other “rich and famous” homeowners.  It was overwhelming.  But how could we, with only a hundred dollars or so, make any difference?  And what right did I have to act so voyeuristically, peering into the desperate lives of these people as if they were zoo animals on display?
This private dissection served a purpose: it made me think, “how can I help?”  I came up with several solutions.
First, I write for a living.  That day, I began a new manuscript, calling on the images and experiences that day in Jamaica.  I will be publishing it within the year, and every penny of revenues will be directed to Ocho Rios.  If I were to simply hand over the cash to a relief agency, much of it might not make it into the hands of those in need.  I expect to earn only a modest amount from this book.  I know a couple from Jamaica who will take the money I earn each year, proceed to the farmers market, and discretely distribute money to several of the vendors.  Every penny.  What difference will it make?  For a brief period, those families will benefit.   And there is one solution, for each of us who cruise or take vacations in countries like Honduras, Belize, Jamaica, etc.  Take half of the money that you had intended to spend on souvenirs, tours and local treats for yourself, and give it away discretely.  Not willing to part with fifty percent?  How about 10%?  Any amount will help immediately.
Currently, I am involved in setting up a charitable housing project for low-income families in my home town.  Habitat builds homes for those with need, as well.  These are worthwhile ventures.  But, how about homes built for those with means, wealth?  As an illustration, Family A plans on having a custom-built home constructed with a budget of $400,000.  Two choices ca be made here that will generate a significant amount of charitable money.  First, add 10% to the budget, to be donated to the charitable cause fund base. Or, insist that the costs be reduced by 10%, and donate that money to the cause.  Now, locate tradesmen that are willing to donate one week of their time, free, to the construction of the home.  Get them to set the fee that they would charge, and that money gets donated to the helping pot.  Approach local lumberyards, and insist that they donate 10% of their costs to the charity.  Be sure that the finances are transparent, so that everyone who has contributed can see that the money is going where it was committed.  No one is out of pocket.  Everyone has done their duty to help others.  And you, the homeowner, has more than a “green” home.  You have a home with a heart, of which you can be proud!
Donating time is one of the easiest ways to give to the world around you, and is as valuable as any money tossed into the pot.  Use your own unique skills to make a difference.
How about our daily budgets?  Start by monitoring, for six months, your food budget, your entertainment budget, your housing  and clothing budget.  Now, commit to trimming 10% of any or all of those budgets, and donating the amount to a charity for only two months of the year.  It makes a difference quickly, and the “leaning out” of your budgetary diet will improve the health of your conscience.
How do we cut housing costs?  Many utilities and local governments offer tips on how to conserve energy.  Follow these guidelines, and part with only half of your savings.  Any grants and rebates available can be similarly forwarded to charity, without cost to you.
How about clothes?  I have a system of cycling my clothes to cut costs.  My clothes start off as “going out on the town” wear.  As they age, they become casual wear.  Soon, they are work wear for doing household chores.  Finally, they become rags, or are donated to thrift shops or recycling depots.
The food budget is the easiest in which to cut costs.  One day a week, substitute high-quality foods for lower-cost items.  Make every second alcoholic beverage a lower-cost item than you will normally drink (it may also lead to drinking less.  Wonderful, isn’t it?). Make and buy meal items in bulk.  Typically, you save between 6-14% in this manner.  There are dozens of other strategies.  But don’t just cut costs and keep the savings.  Be generous to others.
Lastly, a simple change in attitude will help you find an abundances of resources to share.  Instead of looking at giving as an option, and as a task, look at it as an opportunity to play a more involved role in the world.  Like your cup of coffee, embracing the world is addictive.  Unlike tobacco, it is healthy and invigorating.  It is not your duty to help others.  It is your pleasure!  Look differently, not at the world, but at yourself, and how you see the world will change.  Make a difference in yourself, so that you can make a difference in the world.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reduce Stress By Being Prepared

Work-related  stress  most often is cited as the most negative stress that we experience on a regular basis, followed closely by the stress associated with unfamiliar experiences and locations.  The latter commonly is confused with fear, the former with former with job dissatisfaction.  Both have in common the element of control, or, more specifically, a lack of control. 
Job dissatisfaction occurs, however, when we our abilities are not exercised, or where the work environment itself is “toxic.”   Stress becomes involved when we are faced with challenges for which we are not prepared, or situations that have proven to be problematic in the past.  Indeed, anticipation of a stressful situation or experience creates its own stress.  Job dissatisfaction feeds that stress, but often is not stressful in itself.
The stress of unfamiliar experiences can be both positive and negative.  Equate, if you will, excitement with unfamiliar stress, and imagine those athletes that participate in extreme sports (such as helicopter skiing).  These extremely athletic individuals savour the excitement and the stress of the moment.  However, what we fail to factor into these experiences is that each of the participants have spent a great deal of time preparing for the sport, and  manage their risks well.  Certainly, there are those that do leap in, unprepared, but they are the exception, and often mask or submerge their stress by mentally blocking the risk factors.
What separates the good stress of athletic competition from the bad stress of the job, or facing the unknown?  The simple answer is “preparation.” Soldiers are trained and disciplined for many weeks before being thrust into unknown, challenging environments.  They repeat and repeat and repeat drills.  They simulate the confrontations and challenges that they will face, until they almost instinctively react to the unknown, by categorizing it with familiar rituals that they have practised.
Exam stress is a prime example of the benefit of practice and preparation.  Psychological studies have shown that learning  the material thoroughly is the best remedy to avert exam stress.  Yet, that is nothing more than preparation and practice!  A second dimension of exam stress reduction, though, is the principle of state-dependent learning.  As a parent, I used to simulate the exam room at home by setting up desks for my children, at which they studied, and insisted that they do homework in this setting, regularly.  However, I would also provide practical applications for the topics that they were learning, so that they could relate the learned material to a “real-life” experience.  This extra element provided a level of intimate understanding of the material, while the desk environment helped them to recall materials in the test environment as if they were at their desks at home.  They were prepared.
One of my great stressors was the doctor’s office, and, specifically, needles.  Such was my panic at medical exam time that I actually passed out while having my blood pressure taken, and, three times, while having a blood test.  Yet, I have had twenty-seven broken bones and severe injuries requiring medical intervention, have been involved in more than 1,600 fights, and have even eschewed having a broken wrist set and cast, because I had too much work to do!  Clearly, pain was not my problem.  It was a fear of the unknown: specifically, what might be in the needle, and what control was I relinquishing in the situation.  Ultimately, I chose to donate blood, reasoning that I had no right to be selfish, when a simple blood donation was needed by others with medical emergencies.  In other words, I shamed myself into overcoming my fear of needles.  It was my version of preparation.  Having donated blood multiple times, I not longer fear the process (but still don’t particularly care for it).
By preparing for and understanding circumstances and events, we can reduce or eliminate stress.  Lowered stress does not mean lower enjoyment, but it does allow you to more smoothly engage with situations that may otherwise prove too chaotic or disturbing.  In short, organize your chaos, and you will eliminate many of your potentially stressful experiences,.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

It's No Secret: Boozing Is Good!

I hardly need to break a sweat to find abundant evidence that drinking alcohol is good for me.  Wine, beer and even hard liquor can boast as being “healthy” drinks, so long as we ignore the ample downside evidence. 
The latest study to boost our claim to being health-conscious when we consume alcohol comes from that bastion of beer-drinkers and self-proclaimed “hosers” – Canada. The study of 5,404  middle-aged people began with a baseline age of 50 years, and a much later follow-up, to determine the quality of life of moderate drinkers versus non- or heavy drinkers. 
Ignoring the methodology and correlational flaws of the study, and even discounting the definition of “middle-aged” to include people in their late sixties, the study did show conclusively that those people who enjoyed at least one drink per week and up to 3 or 4 drinks per day reported a better quality of life than those who did not indulge. 
Add onto this study the documented benefits of wine on the cardiovascular system, and its ability to raise good cholesterol while also providing a surge of antioxidants fore our system, and one could be tempted to raise a glass in celebration of inebriation!  However, studies also show that overindulgence decreases the gains made by moderate consumption of wine.  Additionally, wine increases triglycerides in the blood.
The belching, beer-bellied, stained tee-shirt wearing Bud or Canadian drinker may wish to gloat, after hearing that beer may be able to ward off Alzheimer’s and diabetes, while supplementing our body’s calcium needs and supply of anti-oxidants.  But instead of gloating, over-consumption of beer may, indeed, be the cause of the ample waistline, since it is full of empty calories.  Light beer won’t save you from the negative impact of drinking, though, since, in the ultra-low calorie beers, the nutrition found in the grains may be reduced.  Regular light beers, on the other hand, are only about 30% lower  in calories than regular (140 versus 100).
That leaves hard alcohol. It, too, can claim to be good at increasing good cholesterol in your blood.  But it carries the reputation of contributing to liver damage, including liver cancer. In middle age, when most of us are more susceptible to heart and blood disorders, the moderate consumption of hard liquor may be more beneficial than harmful, if we set aside the high caloric intake associated with hard liquor and soft drink mixes. 
However, the balancing act between healthy and unhealthy impacts of drinking leads directly back to the study that shows a better quality of life in moderate drinkers than non-drinkers.  Could it be simply that we enjoy a higher quality of life when we socialize and have a network of friends (which is when we consume most of our alcohol)?  If so, could the key to a better quality of life be found more in drinking up friendships and community or family participation than in drinking up our favourite alcoholic beverage?

Friday, August 3, 2012

You Are Nothing More Than A Pebble On The Beach

I admit that I probably am too much of a romantic, given my rough-and-tumble background.  But, walking along the beach near my cottage yesterday, I couldn’t help noticing, not the endless wave-driven layers of pebbles blanketing the sand, but the variety of pebbles in the collage.  Millions of pebbles.  No, more like hundreds of millions.
Our lake is unique.  Lake Winnipeg has been gouged out of the landscape by Ice Age Lake Agassiz.  It left a sizeable depression in the prairie, making it the third-largest Canadian freshwater lake, and the eleventh largest in the world. But Lake Winnipeg is found right along the dividing line between the limestone rubble and bedrock of Manitoba/Saskatchewan and the pre-Cambrian shield granite of Ontario.  Accordingly, on the sandy beaches of this lake, we find an eclectic mix of pure quartz, feldspar, mica, slate, shale, granite and limestone (fossils included).  Each rock type has a different density than the other, and different flaws, strengths, cracks or fissures.
I picked up stone after stone for nearly an hour, examining these rock fragments that had been buffeted by the same water, the same ice and the same wind and rain as every other pebble on the shore.  Not one was the same as the next.  Nor did I expect them to be the same.  Yet, I could not help marvel at two things:  1) How supposedly the same items, in the same environment could be so uniquely different and 2) How we generally look along these lakeshores and see sand, or rock or water, as a conglomerate, but fail to appreciate the differences in each granule, and the beauty in the individualism.
As hard as rocks may be, they are eventually shaped into something special and different.  Yet, as fragile as we humans are, we expect that everyone will think like us, agree with us, and conform to our standards and beliefs, regardless of their backgrounds, the buffeting they took through life and their particular toughness or weakness.  We expect others to be us, but resent it when they usurp our special place in the world.
Anyone in a medium-sized family can attest to the truth that no two children – even those born as identical twins – end up precisely the same.  That is because there are nuances in the way that they experience life, the way they are treated and the information that they absorb.
Don’t believe it?  Step into your living room, and take a picture.  Now go to the other side of that room and take another one.  Upload them to your computer, and examine them.  Do you see precisely the same thing in the same way in each picture, or is everything viewed from a different perspective?
The problem with each of us is that, no matter how close we may be to another, each hears and sees the world from that specific vantage point.  An identical twin talking to her mother in the kitchen may not be heard by her sister in the next room, or the mother’s response may be missing a key inflection of the voice, or the nuanced hand gesture that went with a comment.  So now that twin has a unique experience that impacts uniquely on that person.  It is the proverbial Chinese cliché regarding the beating of a butterfly’s wings.  Everything thereafter has been altered, regardless of how miniscule the change may be.
In our own lives, realization of that impact of minor adjustments to experience is critical to finding our oasis in life.  We all need to seek out, not our neighbour’s dream, but our own.  We are special.  We are unique.  We have ideals and aspirations that we may not have fully understood, yet.  But to attempt to mirror the supposed successes of your friends is only to invite discouragement, when you discover that it is not as fulfilling for you as it seems to be for someone else.
Your co-worker has a Lexus.  So you must need one, too, to be happy.  Your doctor vacations in St Kitts.  So you must go there, too, to be a success. You read about this life of excitement living in the Far East, so off you go, only to find that you are lonely and disheartened, because your family and friends are more critical to your enjoyment than you realized.
You are nothing more than a pebble on a remote beach.  I, too, am nothing more.  But, for me, that is more than enough, because I have learned that, being a pebble, I am unique, individual, marvellous and irreplaceable.  So are you!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Live Life Vivaciously, Not Vicariously

On August 31, 1997, the world wept when Princess Diana died. “Such a tragic loss.”  “She was a great humanitarian.” From children to adults, the response was universal and overwhelming.  Yet, Diana contributed less to the betterment of the world than dozens of other contemporaries.
On September 5, 1997 – less than a week later – Mother Teresa also died.  While devotees and scores of others mourned, there was not the public weeping that was heard when the princess passed away.  Yet, Mother Teresa, had devoted the vast majority of her eighty-seven years to serving the poor of India. 
Why do we identify so strongly with Diana, and not with Mother Teresa?  Part of the reason is the glamour and beauty associated with royalty, and, in particular, this youthful princess.  Furthering the sense of identification is the reported stress and strain that her marriage placed on her, and her apparent devotion to her children.  Many women related to the marital issues, and many men admired her physical attractiveness.  She was public property.
Mother Teresa, on the other hand, had several negatives associated with her, particularly for non-Catholics.  She was far from physically attractive, and toiled in relative obscurity.  Few identified with her.
However, Diana is only a lightning rod for the power of vicarious living.  A whole world of people hang on every word and action of their favourite movie star, sports hero or singer, regardless of the moral failings or negative tales of that person.  Think of Elvis, or Kobe Bryant, Charlie Sheen or Tom Cruise.  The Tom Hanks, James Stewarts and Steve Nashs of the world – positive role models – are admired, but seldom worshipped.
In large measure, we live vicariously through these high-profile characters, and, lacking the excitement and glamour that they seem to exude, we live our lives vicariously through them.  More specifically, we revel in their exploits, as if to say, “Ha, I wish I could do that, too.”
Time and again, locals law enforcement in cities across North America are baffled by the support that outlaw motorcycle gangs receive, even though it is well-documented that many are involved in the most heinous of crimes.  Lives are ruined through drug running, prostitution and other vices – crimes for which many bikers have been committed.  Yet, many people actually admire this so-called rebellious spirit.  It is less rebellious than deviant.  Tens of thousands of middle-aged men can hardly wait for the day when they purchase their own Harley and pretend to be tough renegades.
Social psychologists suggest that we choose this vicarious way of living through others because we want the excitement, but not the risk.  We love the romance of the outlaw life, but wouldn’t dare to think of being part of it.  And we seek this release because we have trapped ourselves in a life that is not inspiring.
At most, we buy the fancy luxury or sports car, or the elaborate technology.  We lavish our attention on it, as if it represents a major release and escape for us.  To some degree, it does. We want freedom and exhilarating experiences, but we are limited in our ability to involve ourselves in such a life.  We follow the same path in our lives each day, but feel frustrated by our powerlessness.
Reading about those superstars or celebrities enables us to imagine, without expending the effort or taking the risk of actually involving ourselves in the world.  So long as we choose to be armchair athletes or recliner risk-takers, we sacrifice little, except our own chance at a fulfilling life.
If we admire Diana, why not get involved in charities, and emulate her?  If we think highly of Eli Manning, why not get involved in coaching a youth football team?  If we love Lady Gaga, why not get together with friends and do a little karaoke?  We don’t have to be superstars in any field, but we become stars in our own lives when we get involved, rather than letting anonymous celebrities live our lives for us. Life should not be lived vicariously.  It should be lived vivaciously, with effervescence. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

When We Forget To Be Nice

More than three decades ago, I met a man who epitomized consideration.  He was, by any standard, a good looking man, in his mid twenties.  He had his flaws, of course, as all of us do.  John Boehn lived his life on the public welfare system, even though he was capable of working.  That path, it seemed, was common in the late 1970s.  John, though, did not take more than what he needed to get by.  In fact, he paid support for a child, without the prod of a court order.  Being on welfare, at that time, he would not have been ordered to pay, anyway, but he did. 
John lived in a rooming house, where he paid $130 per month for rent.  His welfare allotment was $245.  He paid $125 in support, voluntarily.  Had he paid more, his son’s mother, who was also on welfare, would have had the additional amount clawed back. Once each week, he worked at a casual labour site, where he was paid about $25 per day.  After the routine expenses, he was left with $90 for food, clothing and toiletries.  For many of us, that would have been inadequate.  But it was more than enough for John.
Twice each month, on the dates that he received his welfare payments, he did something extraordinary.  John spent $18 on flowers.  Not flowers for a girlfriend.  Not flowers to decorate his Spartan apartment.  Flowers for strange women. 
On those allotment days, John would buy his flowers first thing in the morning, and then would begin walking along the streets, stopping at certain bus stops, or randomly, giving away one rose each time.  His criteria for giving?  The woman had to be elderly, be on her own, and appear to be sad or disheartened.  He would give a rose to that woman, telling her, “This is for you, just because you are special, and important.”  Then he would walk away.
Can you imagine the surge of uplifting joy that recipient would fee?  Twenty-four women each month had their day heartened by John’s unique act.  He was an aberration.
Most of us do just the opposite of John Boehn.  We forget those less fortunate, those weaker, poorer or somehow seemingly inferior to us.  Worse, when we look down on a group in society or an individual, we even forget our manners.
The majority of us still will pause to hold a door open, or smile and acknowledge an equal.  But, it seems, we have inherent elitist tendencies, when it comes to the lower socio-economic classes.  We haven’t time for them.
Similarly, when we expect courteous behaviour, we fail to take the time acknowledge that polite action.  Think of the last time you thanked your waitress, simply because she was courteous to you.  Or your taxi driver. Why should their consideration (even if it is part of their job) be less valuable than when we do not expect polite behaviour?
Study upon study shows that the more of a rush in which we find ourselves, the less likely we are to be courteous.  Worse, the more likely we are to be inconsiderate.  Consider the frequency of the middle finger salute during rush hour traffic.  Or relive the experience of boarding a crowded bus or subway during that same rush hour.  We freely jostle and push, without so much as an “excuse me.”  Manners and courtesy, it seems, are merely a frill, lavished when we have surplus time, or when our day is going absolutely perfectly.
A more sinister explanation may be possible, too.  Think of the bad behaviour we demonstrate when we are anonymous, hurling insults, for example, at our sports figures from the obscurity of a mass audience.  The Vancouver Olympics riots were, in part, a demonstration of how we lose inhibitions and let our more base character emerge when we believe that we will not be held accountable fore our actions.
However, the loss is more personal, and less the loss of the victim than you may expect. Again, psychological studies reveal that when surveyed after an act of selfishness or inconsideration, respondents actually reported a lower feeling of self-worth.  If we sometimes mistreat others, it has been assumed that the act helps us to feel better about ourselves, by putting others down.  These studies seem to contradict that belief.
While doing a good deed made John feel elated, he did not do it to reward himself.  That was a corollary benefit.  We, too, will experience a more positive mood when we take the time, particularly when we are in a foul mood or having a bad day, to be considerate of others.  Instead of perpetuating our bad mood by rudeness, we ameliorate our negative moods, and actually help to make ourselves happier, by making others happier. 
The lesson is simple.  Take the time to be polite and considerate.  It is good for us, and for others.

Finding The Cloud In Front Of Every Silver Lining

I have a family member who can find the cloud in front of every silver lining.  She is a good person, and means well.  For her, though, the fear of running up against obstacles overwhelms her, and she can find even the most obscure reason to be pessimistic.  Before she begins a new task, she can cite the reasons why it will not go well!  Some would brand her as being insecure.
Many people live their lives that way.  To them, negativity is a constant companion.  We would not think of telling a cancer patient to “get over it.”  We are told, therefore, that we should not expect a person who is suffering from clinical depression to just “get over it.”  Yet, we find it difficult to endure those people who see the world, not through rose-coloured glasses, but foggy grey ones.
Clinical psychologist Dr. S. K. Sharma comes close to saying “get over it.”  But Dr. Sharma takes a different perspective.  This lifestyle advisor says that, before you can become a positive person, you must have the desire to be positive.   You can only do that if you are convinced that becoming positive will enhance your quality of life.
That is not the issue with many people who endure their own negativity.  They believe.  They just don’t believe that the option is available to them. Those people need to begin the process gradually, placing themselves in controlled situations where the outcome is most likely to be beneficial.  Positivity breeds positivity, and the person can build on small successes.
Similarly, once the “gloomy Gus” experiences a series of uplifting events, he or she should begin placing himself in situations where the outcome is less certain, but the negative consequences are minimal.  In these environments, the person can control the outcomes, and recover.  Again, success feeds success, and overcoming negative consequences often will stimulate confidence – an essential ingredient lacking in many naysayers. 
Many times, the negative outcomes are fed by our own inputs.  If we have lower expectations, we broadcast those expectations, subtly, in our posture, our mannerisms and our words.  Develop a habit of using positive words, of showing confidence and positivity in our posture and movements.  Those cues will be picked up by others, and, often, negative situations will be averted.
Take an interest in the world around you; particularly, in other people.  Letting others know you find them interesting is a sure-fire way for them to reciprocate with positive actions and words toward you.  Few people enjoy commiserating with someone who perpetually espouses negative opinions, or who talks incessantly about their own issues. 
As a child, I read an anecdote that remains with me five decades later.  Two young women are talking, and the first says to the other, “I’m so happy.  I’m marrying Bill.”
“Bill?” says the second.  “I thought you told me a few months ago that Jim was the most wonderful person in the world.”
“That’s true,” replied the first. “But when I’m with Bill, he makes me feel like I am the most wonderful person.”
Keep the company of positive, uplifting people, and you will develop the endurance to enjoy occasional interactions with those less enthusiastic about life.  After all, birds of a feather …
Be realistic about your expectations.  Die-hard Cleveland Brown and Toronto Maple Leaf fans start each yesar with the unwavering belief that their team will win the championship that year, even when the team finished last the prior year, and no personnel changes have been made.  That optimism is admirable.  But, certainly, even those pessimistic fans are sure to be disappointed when their team fails, once again.  Set goals that are reasonable, but not too low.  Be realistic, too, about your own successful conversion to optimism. 
One of the hallmarks of someone who is depressed is lethargy.  Similarly, those who think negatively often decline to become engaged with life.  By not participating in potentially negative events, one cannot be disappointed, right?  Wrong.  Inactivity leads to more feelings of failure.  Get up.  Get going. Try.  Share a joke.  Read uplifting plots and novels.  Watch uplifting shows.  Get involved with others.  It is difficult to brood about failure when you are engaged wholeheartedly in an activity.
Most of all, be appreciative.  You have life.  You have relative health, relative security, if you compare your situation to others world wide.  Enjoy what you have, instead of being morose about what you do not.
As you move slowly from feelings of negativity to a more uplifting outlook, your attitude, like a locomotive rolling downhill, will pick up steam, become unstoppable.  See?  Even going downhill can be a positive experience!

Friday, July 6, 2012

You've Got To Give Before You Get

One of my mother’s favourite “motivational” sayings – and she had dozens! – was “Think of all those starving children in Africa.”  It popped out of her mouth if we didn’t eat our dinner quickly, if we didn’t appreciate everything she cooked, if we complained about too little food, if we compared what one of us children had with what another had.
My mother also was the ultimate altruistic Canadian.  Regardless of how poor we were (and we did our best to be the poorest in our town), she knew of others less fortunate, finding ways to give a little of herself, or what little tangible assets she had to others.  Her standard is the standard for which I aim, but too often miss.  Yet, she defied the results of recent research, which claims that people are happier when they give to others.  Mom was far from a happy person.
Mom lived by two rules: It is better to give than receive, and Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Yet, she loved giving, and hated having people give to her.  “I’m no charity case” was one of her mantras.
A study out of the University of British Columbia, though, reinforces my optimistic view of the world.  It declares that children are happier giving than receiving. It is a result that is consistent with the teachings of most major religions, including Judaism , which declares, “So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof”).  The Qu’ran states, “The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things). Rivalry in worldly increase distracteth you. Abundance diverts you.”  The Bible says, , “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” All of these religions hold that we should be generous, and think of others.
An interesting corollary of the University of BC research is that the kids tested were happier when they gave away their own valued possessions, as compared to giving away something that the researchers had provided to them with the specific purpose of giving away.
This small study has sizeable implications for the rest of us.  The idea that we can improve our own happiness by making others happy first suggests that a good therapy for depression is to look to helping others, and getting involved.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Canadians consistently are ranked as happier than most people in the world, while also being one of the most generous people and the most involved in volunteerism.  Giving, if not a cure for sadness, certainly is related to not being sad. 
Many of the studies conducted on the topics of depression, happiness, satisfaction and so on show strong relationships between thinking of others and personal wellbeing.  However, a relationship between the two does not mean one causes or resolves the other.  For instance, one recent study  found that happier people were healthier. 
Does that men that we simply need to smile and be happy, and everything will be fine?  No.  Indeed, it may be that we are happier because we have health, not the other way around.  The former seems logical.  Yet, returning to the example that my mother set, if we actually do increase happiness by giving, I certainly am glad she gave a lot.  The consequences of her giving less could have been intolerable!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Unique Solution For Relieving Stress And Anxiety On Tap

We seem to have a tendency to look for simple solutions for complex problems.  While this strategy often pays dividends, too often we look at solutions for mental and emotional dilemmas in a far-too-simplistic way.  “Don’t worry, be happy” is a great catch phrase, but life seldom allows us the luxury of simply flipping a switch and solving our emotional crises.  Yet, unusual solutions often prove effective, and, ultimately, often prove to be simple, as well.
One such solution to a variety of anxieties is known as the “tapping method.” Simply tap away your anxiety!  The formal moniker for this alternative psychotherapy technique is ETF, or the “emotional therapy technique.”  It involves a variation on acupressure techniques, where a patient focuses on the stressors that have stimulated the anxiety, while the therapist applies acupressure to specific areas of the body.  In other words, he taps those pressure points while you are experiencing the simulated stress.  Alternatively and, perhaps most valuable, is that the patient himself may be able to self-administer these techniques at the moments that he or she is undergoing the actual stress.
Dawson Church, PhD Research Director of the Foundation for Epi Genetic Medicine, is quoted in a CBS article published online on June 12, 2012, as saying  of the strategy, “It tells your body that the stressful thought you’re having isn’t a real threat to your survival. And once you break the association in your mind between the stressful thought and the fight or flight response one time, it stays broken.”  
Some professionals question whether it as effective as claimed.  They postulate that it is simply the act of tapping or being tapped that causes the decreased stress.  They point out that tapping other parts of the body, or even tapping a doll decreases stress. 
But analysis of stress hormone levels revealed a 24% drop in those hormones after tapping, but no change in a control group.
These conflicting reports raise some questions, but, regardless of the physiological process involved, anxiety sufferers should be heartened by the potential for improvement in what may be a devastating disorder.  The issue of what causes what, and whether there is an alternative explanation for “why” is moot, since both groups of researchers agree that the end result is a decrease in stress and anxiety, even where these anxieties have become full phobias or  life-altering problems.  Whether the problem is as basic as a fear of going on open water in a boat, or a fear of newspaper ink transmitting horrible diseases, the fears are allayed by the tapping method. 
Thank goodness for alternative thinking, alternative solutions, and simple concepts that actually work.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Drive Your Night Owl Friends Crazy: Become A Morning Person

As if morning people weren’t already the bane – no, the unscratchable irritant – for the rest of the world, and, in particular, night people, new research published in the May issue of the journal, Emotion, suggests that morning people actually are happier than night owls.  That should serve to further inflame that itch!
As an extreme morning person, I can attest to the irritant factor.  Fortunately, my wife, too, is a morning person. 
Not long ago, the two of us were sharing a volcanic flu experience at 4 a.m., when, at our lowest points between rushes to the washroom, I moaned to her, “I think you should take me to the hospital.” With a look of panic, she asked what was wrong.
“I think I’m going to take a turn for the nurse.”
Extremely bad humour, that would upset the stomachs of most people.  The two of us burst into laughter, before continuing our revolving parade to the toilet bowl.
Unfortunately for those members of our family who are not morning people. We also enjoy our evenings, so there is no reprieve from us.
The deck is stacked against night owls, though.  We are expected to be at full output to start our work day.  It seems that our social biological clock is set for the wrong hours for night owls to enjoy the day.  One method to alleviate this problem is to use light therapy early in the morning, or trick ourselves, by going to bed earlier, to reset the clock.
Teenagers are most likely to be night owls, and less likely to be morning people.  As we age, that tendency smoothens itself out, but, by then, parents and children have butted heads for years over the matter of early rising with a smile on one’s face.
The researchers found that early birds reported feeling healthier than non-early birds, and enjoyed healthier emotional reactions.  This correlates to decreased stress, more enjoyment of life, in general.
This news is not intended to exasperate night owls.  Rather, it provides them with a message: take the time to develop, not morning sickness, but morning health. Replacing old habits with new ones slowly will allow you to evolve into a morning person.  The second message is that being happy and positive to start the day can translate into a feeling of wellbeing throughout, and, indeed, congtribute to improved health. 
The best message, though, for those people with a sadistic inclination is that the old cliché about the best revenge is a life well lived.  Undoubtedly, being happy to start your day will frustrate many of those around you, and, maybe even provide the added benefit of having them suspicious of “what got into you.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Is The Stress Of A Clean Car Worth It?

If the average car owner spends an hour a week washing his car, then over 2600 hours over his fifty-year driving lifespan will be consumed simply in the act of washing a vehicle that is going to get dirty again anyway! That’s 108 days, or nearly one third of a year spent washing a machine. 
Although rainfall and snowfall frequency varies from region to region, consider that the state with the most clear days per year – Arizona – sees the sun only half the time: 193 days out of 365.  The average across the USA is slightly more than 110 clear days.   So, assuming moisture (dew, rain, snow, etc) occurs in 1 of 4 cloudy days, 40 days of the year will see precipitation.  In other words, every week that you wash your car, you are likely to see it get dirty as a result of precipitation.  Add in the number of muddy or dusty days, and your likelihood of having a clean car dirtied twice a week is enhanced.
Let’s now factor in the risk of accident, from outright collisions to door dings and minor scratches.  Over six million actual accidents are reported in the USA annually.  Nearly thirty times that number of very minor, non-reported incidents occur. There goes that clean car, again!
Now let us look at the benefit of a clean car.  Feeling of pride, right?  Being able to admire your efforts. But, for the most part, you are inside the vehicle, and it is others who gain the benefit of seeing a clean exterior of your vehicle.  Like owning a rich painting, there’s not a lot of pleasure derived if one must hide the painting in a closet.
The real issue, though, is the stress factor.  Washing and polishing your car may be a pleasure for you, but more likely is a chore.  While not stressful, there is hardly any stress relief occurring.  Now, each minute that you drive your car, you travel with the potential, and the worry about an accident, scrape or scratch on your baby. Every passing cloud offers the threat of mud and dirt.  Particularly in the minutes after cleaning your car, you fret about the next bit of dust, or the next stone chip.  This hardly seems relaxing, let alone therapeutic.
In total, your joy at having a clean car is offset, many times over with angst and stress over it getting dirty again, even though you know it to be inevitable.
What is not inevitable is putting yourself through the anguish of repetitive cleaning.
I owned an old 1977 Malibu, with nearly 220,000 miles on it when it was sideswiped by a newer Ford.  The passenger door was crumpled so badly that the door would not open.  It looked horrible.  However, on the inside, everything still looked fine.  For the next 80,000 miles, I drove the car without giving a second thought to its exterior.  I got plenty of stares, of course.  But inside, where the car was relatively clean and very comfortable, I did not experience a moment of stress over the car’s exterior looks.
The moral of this story?  How much time are you wasting in your life, creating stressful situations and enduring them, when you could simply reorient your priorities to minimize the stress?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Learning How To Live From Those Who Are Dying

We should learn lessons on living from those that have died successfully.  If that sounds convoluted, or even fatalistic, it is not.  Succinctly put, dying successfully involves living even more triumphantly. Many of us neither live well nor die well.  Substantially, that is because we not only have been indoctrinated with false assumptions and values, but also have been conditioned to live comparatively and competitively, in every aspect of our lives.

I want to draw on four people in my life as examples of dealing with the prospect of dying, or, at least, dealing with a life-threatening illness.

The first, diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s, responded by angrily determining to beat the disease, even though radical surgery was required.  Her prognosis was terrible, but she lived another ten years, at last weakened beyond recovery in a serious car accident.

The second died of throat cancer, after denying that his smoking was a contributor and refusing to deal with the growth on his neck for over a year.  When, in the latter stages of cancer, he was told that he might gain a few weeks or months of life if he quit, responded, “It isn’t worth it,” and smoked to his last day.

The third bemoaned his fate, gave up and died quickly.

The fourth person accepted the diagnosis, looked into alternatives, made adjustments in his life and continued on with daily activities, letting the diagnosis have as little impact on the way that he lived as possible.

These people are representative of the world at large, and dealt with their illnesses in typical manner, with varying degrees of success.  Two, of course, decreased the quality and duration of their lives significantly by their inaction. 

Dr.  Fiore, a specialist in issues of dying,  recommends that a person with a fatal illness starts by taking charge of his or her life, asking lots of good questions, and making informed choices regarding doctors, hospitals and treatments. He further suggests that the patient should express his feelings through talking or writing them down, singing or even screaming. He concludes by telling his patients that they should treat the illness, not like a Rocky Balboa fight, but trusting the body to know what to do.

Psychological researcher, Dr. C. Scanlon, in his 1989 article entitled, “Creating a vision of hope: The challenge of palliative care.” (Oncology Nursing Forum, 16(4), 491-496.), itemizes the following as the primary worries of a person with a terminal illness: 1) Further debilitation and dependency, 2) Pain and suffering,  3) Consequences for dependents and arranging affairs, 4) An uncertain future, 5) Lingering, 6) Dying alone, 7) Loss of control, 8) Changing relationships, 9) Existential concerns,  10) Change in mental functioning and 11) Afterlife.

As we examine each of these concerns, we find that, in a nutshell, people facing death primarily focus on issues relating to loss of control.  By placing health management responsibly in the hands of the patient, the stress associated with loss of control is diminished.

This concern over control in death is the same with control in life.  Most of us ride life, instead of steering.  We are not in control, and, in turn, we experience stress.  More stress, less happiness.  Less happiness, less fulfillment. 

Such a simple conclusion seems --- well, too simple!  It is not.  Those people with an external locus of control, who give their lives into the hands of others, are less fulfilled that those who take control of those things that impact on their own lives, and those things over which they can exercise responsible control.  They are less stressed, more vibrant, more explorative, more willing and able to face hurdles, not as insurmountable problems, but as challenges to be faced and overcome.

Death is an insurmountable problem.  Dying is not, and should be approached by seeking to maintain as much control over the process and facts as possible.  Living, equally, is a process that demands that to be successfully navigated and enjoyed we must be involved in and managing the events in our lives.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Live Life As If You Were Already Retired

From the time we begin our adult working life, we are inoculated with the belief that we should plan, save and direct substantial amounts of our energy toward being ready for retirement.  Yet, we live a retired lifestyle for an average of sixteen years, and work for nearly 40. So where is the wisdom of focusing on the future, when it is so distant and such a small portion of our adult life?

The concept of retirement planning is, of course, with merit.  However, living for today also carries merit.  There are extremes of lifestyle focused in each of these directions, with those that indolently absorb the moment, but are totally unprepared for any contingency or emergency that may arise, counting on society to take care of their needs.  On the other hand, there are frugal, obsessive individuals who hoard pennies to be ready for old age, and, when old age arrives, fret over every coin that is spent, even when faced with the truth that they have more than enough set aside to live comfortably.  In the middle is the route to comfort and balance, making the most of each moment without selfish indulgence.

Unfortunately, modern technologies and modern standards blur the lines between responsible work and planning, enjoying one’s life and being a contributing part of the world around us.  Our laptop computers, tablets and smart phones carry our personal lives to work, our business lives home.  Exclusive, valued time spent with close friends has become shared with Facebook and Twitter, email and text friendships at our fingertips.   Quiet time frequently is shattered with the beep, tweet, chirp, ring or jingle that alerts us to incoming communications.  Few of us demonstrate the will power or social awareness to defer answering these devices, regardless of where we are or what we may be doing.  We live, not for the moment, but governed by that moment – a moment owned by whoever is intruding into our time.  There is no exclusivity to our time, whether it be work, play, community personal or family.

We have become a society that has no future, but is directed to save for it.  We have become a culture that has a surfeit of time, but gives it away frivolously, then bemoans the loss.  We have become slaves to the moment, but that moment is defined by others, for the most part.

To embrace the idea that we should live for the moment is as polarizing as to embrace the idea that we should focus exclusively on the future.  However, we do need to value the moment, and anticipate the upcoming life. 

Studies show that we derive more value from small, frequent pleasures than from one large indulgence.  On the other hand, analyses reveal that we are more stressed by frequent minor annoyances beyond our control than by larger, infrequent crises.  The logical corollary to these two conclusions is that, to get the most out of life, we need to take time to embrace the world around us, but to do so in a manner that provides long term satisfaction rather than short term spikes of pleasurable but selfish indulgence.  The future will be shaped by how we view and interact with life today.  If we opt to ride the crests and valleys formed by others around us, we will experience less enjoyment in the moment than if we take a balanced view of our contribution to the environment around us in relation to what we would like to see come back to us.  We should grab each moment, not each day, and look to being the best we can be, not look to grabbing the most we can get.

By snatching at every incoming communication, by mashing work with personal life, by sacrificing friendly personal interaction for electronic jabber, we are ingesting everything, but like the cow in the foxtail patch discovers, everything is not always a pleasure to eat!

Balance, then, is vital.  Enjoy the moments of pleasure, but enjoy, also, the moments of effort and hard work.  Save and plan for the future, but also plan and spend as if the future is today.  Use technology to embrace life, rather than letting gadgets sap life from your fingertips.  Live each moment as if you were already retired!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Roots and routes: Keys To Happiness & Wellbeing

Abraham Maslow identified it as one key level in his hierarchy of needs.  Almost every living thing – from vegetation to Homo sapiens – relies on it for foundation, development or support.  It is our roots.  Each of us craves the sense of belongingness that our roots provide, and, even when those roots are rotted or missing, we seek out alternative routes to connectivity.

The Unabomber – David Kaczynski – was not necessarily seeking aloneness when he retreated to the remote wilderness of Montana.  Rather, he used this base of operations to demand, in pathological fashion, to be noticed and to connect to those that he felt had wronged him.

Wolves and domestic dogs gather in packs, while migrating birds seek connectivity through the flocks they join as they head south for the winter. Social gatherings form voluntary roots to the like-spirited people that we call friends.  Fish school for protection, while whales gather to fish for krill.  And, when “krilling” is completed, those same whales migrate thousands of miles to breeding grounds.

The family may be the most visible and durable of roots, but it is not the sole source of support.  Work cliques and coffee klatches form, impromptu, to exchange ideas and share the workload. 

Many family roots are severed, sometimes through unavoidable tragedy and others through dysfunction.  Yet, the longing for knowing our origins attests to the desire to repair those ruptures. Even those who call adoptive parents “Mom” or “Dad” often seek out biological origins.  It is knowing those foundations that gives us comfort, much like a security blanket.

Part of the problem with breaks in family relationships or friendships derives from a feeling that we are not being embraced “as we are.”  We expect to be accepted, without condition, by blood relatives.  In turn, we may place impediments to acceptance in front of others, as a test of loyalty.  We often are disappointed.

To achieve unconditional acceptance and belonging, we must first accept others and ourselves, as we exist.  Not all bonds will be immutable, though.  Even family members have individual issues and priorities that will preclude strong bonds.  But those roots are essential to our sense of wellbeing and completeness.

“Belonging” is not automatic.  Like well-travelled trails to desert oases, or roads to popular destinations, we need to travel a variety of routes to find belonging. 

The journey often is difficult, but, however long the route, finding a place that we can call home, whether it is a group of friends or a close family connection, when those roots are planted and dig deep, we will thrive.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Labelling Minimalism, Voluntary Simplicity, Simple Living and Frugal Lifestyles

The most significant problem with labels such as minimalist, living simply, voluntary simplicity or frugal living is that the categorizing itself is purely subjective.  A minimalist may eschew all possessions, or focus on a few premium pieces.  Voluntary simplicity suggests that one can acquire anything he wants, but opts for a Spartan existence. Frugal lifestyles seem to imply that the subject lives “on the cheap” with everything.  Living simply, too, evokes images of backwoods, back-to-the-earth survivalism.  Yet, each may describe the same lifestyle.  Rather than attempting to label, it is easier to visualize the concept of selective possession, and view true minimalism as a way of filtering out the excesses.

I, for example, own few material possessions, live in a yurt and often harvest wild plants.  Yet, far from being bereft of money or liquid assets, we own a newer Prius, holiday three or four times each year in exotic or far-flung locales and live a life free of worry about finances.  Our choices are the envy of many friends, yet are options available to anyone who wishes to prioritize his life similarly to us.  We do not measure ourselves by what we own, but how we live.  We own few tangibles, yet also own a library of memories and pleasurable moments.

How many of us, though, are mentally and financially prepared to make the sacrifices that allow us to make choices focused on voluntary simplicity?  A simple test will reveal our capacity to not only adapt, but to embrace this alternative way of living.  Oddly, the first time I tested myself using this simple strategy, I felt significant stress and anxiety – a little like being lost, alone and in a strange country.

 Choose a mid-week day for your trial. Leave home without your cash, credit or debit cards, and no means to access them.  If you take the bus or subway to work, carry the tokens essential for a trip to and from work, nothing more.  No coffee money, no gift cards for restaurants and so on.  If possible, leave your cell phone at home, and, under no circumstance use it to access a friend’s support or make purchases.  Sounds simple, right?  Almost certainly, the minute you are isolated from any means of funds to make spontaneous purchases, you will begin to go through a withdrawal, regardless how minor.  Yet, do we really need that morning latte, the afternoon drink, the chance to make an impulse buy?  A mere day of deprivation will reveal just how essential these comfort buys are to you, and whether you are emotionally ready to embrace a minimalistic lifestyle wholeheartedly.

That one day was tough?  Now set yourself up for three days, or a week. 

My first test, predictably, found me longing for my daily coffee fix, and wondering what I would do if a crisis occurred.  The fact that no such dilemma had confronted me for months (or perhaps years) prior was not material.  The “what ifs” drove my thinking for much of that day.  However, at the end of the day, I discovered that I was not embracing my return to materialism, but was, instead, exhilarated by my newly found freedom.  I have always been a spendthrift or a tightwad, depending upon the moment and the mood.  For years, I carried upwards of four to six thousand dollars cash in my pockets, and my low-limit credit card as backup.  Now, I carry no credit cards, no debit cards, and rarely have more than fifty cents in my pocket.  Do I long for the days of superfluous cash?  Hardly. 

The measure of whether you, too, are suited to involve yourself in a life of voluntary simplicity  really is whether you fear the lack of possessions or love the thrill of attempting to discard all of the excess you own.  In order to adopt this new way of viewing your possessions, you need to adopt a new way of viewing your life.  Is your life defined by the moments of pleasure you get from all of life, or is it defined by the status you feel that you acquire by owning and displaying material items?  Each of us finds our oasis of enjoyment in life uniquely, and the owner of a $450,000 sports car or a $3,000,000 painting is no less entitled to enjoy life his way as you are to choose a more focused yet Spartan way of living.  The labels attached to materialism or minimalism do not define you or your priorities.  You define, by the route you choose.  A minimalist simply chooses to cozy up to fewer possessions, and more moments.  Yet, even each minimalist is uniquely different from the next, regardless of the label attached.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Let’s Not Make A Big Deal Over This

Author Steve Gilbert, in an interview with Harvard Business Review (2011), claims that “when bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it.”  Conversely,  when even hugely significant events happen in our lives, the euphoria rarely lasts for more than a couple of months.  If that is true, then we need to refresh ourselves frequently and focus less on disappointments.

A friend of mine – a recently-married carpenter – and I were having a few drinks just before Christmas, when I asked him what he had purchased for his wife for Christmas.  His response was that he had just built her a brand-new house (true), exactly the way she wanted (also true).  Therefore, he would not have to buy her a present for several years, as the house had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The rest of us, married for a little to a lot longer, enjoyed this joke immensely, knowing how untrue this was.

A common old wives’ tale, perpetuated mostly by men, holds that a woman places as much value on a single rose given as a gift as on a diamond ring.  This is a great philosophy for husbands and partners looking to be cheap with their gift giving, but has the odour of being substantially untrue.  Yet, if Mr. Gilbert is right, it is small, frequent pleasures that uplift us, while monumental events are forgotten quickly.

There are lessons to be taken from this analysis.  First, if we make the most of the little things in life, our feeling of wellbeing will be enhanced and sustained.  And, consequently, since good health is associated with positive emotions, we improve our health by seeking the little things in life.

Second, if we remind ourselves of past successes and pleasures, the same way a pessimist might dwell on prior negative experiences, we are more likely to sustain our pleasurable feelings.

Doing, too, is more beneficial than thinking about doing or procrastinating, as the experience has more retention power than the anticipation.  At the same time, facing problems head on avoids the stressful feelings when one habitually delays.  And, once the problems have passed, we are more able to put them behind us and move on.  That is, rise to he challenge, instead of fleeing from the threat.

Fourth, by developing the habit of mental “mini-vacations,” we are able to stimulate the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, which, in turn, reduces stress.

Of course, reason is critical in everything, and you are urged, strongly, to not try to substitute a popcorn box ring for a quality engagement ring, or a plastic rose as a 25th wedding anniversary gift for your loved one.  While “big deals” often are forgotten or mitigated in months, such a blunder may have greater staying power than you can imagine!

Monday, February 6, 2012

How Envy Harms Our Physical & Mental Health

Is it a coincidence that, in western society, the colour green is associated with money and also with envy?  After all, capitalism is predicated on the assumption that success is defined by doing better than others, and on financial acquisition.  Entrepreneurs are encouraged to reach for that top 1% of earners, in order to realize the American dream.  To be in the top 1%, you must climb over the other 99!  This is not to suggest that striving to succeed is wrong.  Rather, it is trying to rise above others that is the problem, and envy is at the root of that clamour to “earn the green.”

In 2007, Dr. S. H. Kim  and Dr. R. Smith published a paper entitled “Comprehending Envy” in the Psychological Bulletin, which discussed the role of envy in our lives.  Envy, it appears, has a significant impact on our lives in myriad ways, from physical health to motivation to mental wellbeing.  Of the three, the most common association is the negative correlation between envy and happiness and peacefulness.

Envy universally is viewed negatively by all religions.  In Islam, envy can destroy a person’s good deeds.  In Christianity, one must reject envy in order to be saved. In Hinduism, anything, including envy, that leads to an imbalance in life will cause misery, while in Buddhism, taking joy in the good fortune of others is considered the antidote to envy.  Yet, envy is one of the prevailing emotions in all of us.

Advertisers often seek to stimulate feelings of envy, in order to encourage us to buy. Unfortunately, we attach euphemisms to this destructive force: labels such as desire, or drive, or want or need.  We “need” designer label clothes, the fanciest cars, the biggest home, and so on?

Integral to the divorce process is the division of assets, and lawyers prosper when each partner covets objects acquired during the union.  Very often, that desire for a particular item is driven less by an attachment to the item than it is to the need to beat the other former partner.

As a Canadian, I often hear other Canadians bemoan the fact that it is cheaper to buy in the USA, that life is better, that the American across the artificial border has more individual freedom, less tax, greater choice and so on.  Aside from the reality that this is untrue, many of our fellow Canadians envy and long for the life of a US citizen.  Yet, while some things are cheaper (fuel, for example, is about 8-15% cheaper), insurance, health premiums, education, many food items and a host of other acquisitions are priced higher than in Canada.  At the same time, wages generally are lower for the average person in the USA, social safety & wellbeing networks are less vigourous, and so on.

Many of the world’s prejudices and biases are borne out of resentment and envy, often compounded by a lack of true understanding.  How many in the Middle East dislike the USA because of envy and ignorance?  How many of us dislike the Chinese, and envy their perceived economic power due to envy over what we feel are unfair trade advantages? 

Studies have found consistently that envy and jealousy leads to stress and ill health.  Many other studies have concluded that envy and schadenfreude (taking pleasure in someone else’s misery) are components of and contributors to mental health problems, and occasionally manifest themselves in violence and dishonesty against others.  Some develop overwhelming need to gain revenge, destroy others or “bring them down.”

Yet, the desire to achieve and acquire, often associated with greed and power, are not, of themselves, negative.  The desire to achieve, and to be the best person one can be also are at the heart of democracy and capitalism.  The effort to improve the circumstance around us, to be dissatisfied with prevailing conditions is not a negative, either.  Envy is distinct from the need to be better, but draws this ambition close to its heart when that need is to be better than someone else, solely for the purpose of rising above that individual or group.  “Black power” and feminism both sought to improve the lot of those distinct groups, while the Aryan Nations efforts are directed at belittling and tearing down groups that are unlike the white supremists involved in that movement.  Clearly, the desire of the first two is to improve oneself or one’s lot in life, while the latter is intent, not on being better by improving, but by forcing others down.

Some people claim that any ambition is negative.  This, to me, merely is an excuse to be complacent, indifferent or indolent.

Envy is best repelled by taking joy in the success, good fortune and wellbeing of others, and, perhaps, following their examples.  Jealousy is best suppressed or rejected by recognizing and celebrating our own uniqueness, strengths and abilities, but not using those benefits to take advantage of others.  

Inner peace and contentment do not come from failing to rise to challenges, but from embracing those challenges, overcoming them, and savouring the feeling that we have improved ourselves, and have been considerate of others in the process. 

The greatest athlete, after all, does not so much compete against others as she or he competes against and challenges himself to rise to the occasion.  The most telling mark  of a true champion is the way he regards the competition after winning (or losing) the competition.  Few of the best waste energy on envy.  Why should we, then weaken ourselves – our physical health, our mental wellbeing or drive to be the best we can be – by allowing jealousy to govern us?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lead a Life That's Fulfilling, Not Filling

Many of us are dissatisfied with our lives, but have no idea how to change.  Many of us, too, have no idea that we are dissatisfied, but we wake up lethargically, plod through the day, plop ourselves on our couch after doing the mandatory dinner, and fade off to a restless sleep.  We don’t live: we exist.

Of course some of us are driven.  We work hard and long. We strive for material acquisitions – the markers of success.  But they are markers only for external observers.  Inside, we still plod, intent on achieving and acquiring, but not knowing what our target or where our finish line is.  Indeed, the finish line keeps moving, and we are forced to continue the marathon of hopelessness.

It is not reaching the pinnacle that creates dissatisfaction: it is not knowing that we have reached our pinnacle, or, worse, that we are climbing the wrong mountain.

When I was twenty-two, I married for the first time.  For the three years that the marriage lasted, I climbed four rungs in the corporate ladder, built my own house, purchased new vehicles, new RV, new furniture, and so on.  I started my own business, while still working full time.  I went to night school to obtain a diploma in Business Administration.  All this, to prove to my father-in-law and myself that I could be a success, beyond what he had achieved.  And, all that, simply because he had the lack of class to tell his daughter that she could do better, that I would not amount to anything. 

So, I succeeded, financially and materially well beyond what he ever achieved, in less than four years.  But, more importantly, I failed myself, and I failed my wife.  Material success meant no time for any social interaction or family time.  In the end, I learned that money really meant nothing to me, and that the milestones and markers that others set for me were worthless and insignificant.  I needed to find my own route to becoming a whole “me.”  That learning process did not come quickly, cheaply or easily.  It has taken a lifetime, but it has been the most valuable (make that invaluable) acquisition that I could have made.

It is simple, yet difficult to discover and implement the strategies that are most fulfilling in one’s life.  There is a huge difference between fulfilling and filling.  Like an obese man gorging on food, we can fill ourselves and still not feel fulfilled.  Mountains of toys, gadgets and luxurious material possessions can fill our lives, but create a void inside us.  How we define fulfilling may vary, but it rarely is defined by measurable, visible markers.

I live a minimal lifestyle, by choice.  Having built multi-million dollars businesses, I have achieved.  Having hit rock-bottom financially, I have failed.  At the same time, when I owned those successful businesses, I was a failure, and when I had no money, I was a success.  The difference is that, by allowing external forces to determine what we see as success, we give away control of our lives.  When we willingly live a Spartan lifestyle, we may (but not always) take back that control, and that feels like success to me! 

Locus of control: internal versus external.  Pop psychology often defines one as the willingness to blame and give credit to outside forces for events in our lives, from Satan to God, from other people to events themselves controlling us.  Pop psychology defines internal loci of control as taking credit and blame for every thing that impacts on us, from the way we respond to the world to the way our behaviours, in turn, control the world outside. 

How ludicrous is it to suggest that Satan made me kill someone, while God made my favourite team win the big game?  If we believe our religious teachings, we have free choice, so to blame or give credit to God, Allah or the devil is preposterous.  Similarly, to suggest that, because I did something that I shouldn’t have done at work, my wife or child became ill suggests that I overinflate my own significance and power.  In truth, balance in belief is necessary.  We – all of us -- need to see ourselves and the world more dispassionately, and acknowledge that, at times, we control events, and at others, events occur regardless of our impact. 

The very first step in achieving a greater level of true satisfaction in our lives is to recognize that, when it comes to measures of success and greatness, it should not be what others think or see about us that matters, but we see in and think about ourselves that counts.  However, that inner assessment needs to be tempered by understanding that we are a part of, not the centre of the world around us, and that we have a role to play in the outside world, while it has a role to play inside us.  We need balance, and we need to establish equilibrium between internal and external loci of control.

The next step in achieving an enhanced level of true satisfaction is to separate what is needed in our lives, from what is wanted.  That, for most of us, is the hardest step.

Yes, I live a minimalist lifestyle, and drive an eco-friendly Prius.  Yet, I do not begrudge those that drive Hummers and own lavish homes.  Each chooses his own route.  But to own the Hummer because others will think you to be successful is as equally weak-kneed as living as a minimalist because all your friends think better of you for it.  Those choices should be a matter of internal reflection.

In my book, The Last Drop Of Living, I described the steps to living simply.  The methodology by which we de-clutter our living space, enjoy less more fully and simplify the world around us can be applied effectively to increasing our satisfaction levels in life.  It may not be tough, but it likely will be challenging; like giving up all sweets in your diet. However, the key and inaugural step in reaching that level of comfort in your life is straightforward.  Recognize and acknowledge that you can take control of how you see life and the world, while also accepting that many aspects of the world cannot be altered by you. Tackle the areas that are important to your feeling of wholeness, and refuse to be channelled by those outside forces that should not impact on you.  Accept responsibility and gain freedom in the process.