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Dr. Joel Wade

AN EARNED LIFE: NATHANIEL BRANDEN 1930-2014

I've lost a mentor and a dear friend; Nathaniel Branden passed away on Wednesday, Dec. 3rd. Playful, brilliant, mischievous, incisive, inspiring... He was the best ally a young soul striving for strength and self-possession could have. When someone we care about passes, we long for stories that remind us of them; stories that help us feel like we can still know them better, as though they're somehow still here, and we can continue to feel closer to them, if only for a little while longer; while we get used to the jarring truth that they're gone. There are stories that are public knowledge - and they are big stories. Nathaniel was instrumental in creating a systematic philosophy and organized school of thought from the novels and thought of Ayn Rand. I'd like to give a brief introduction to the man for those who may not know him or his work. Then what I have to say is more personal.

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A PATH TO WISDOM: DO THE OPPOSITE OF ROUSSEAU

I've written often about Thomas Paine (1736-1809), one of my favorite historical figures. I thought this week as a counterpoint I'd write about one of my least favorite figures... his 18th century contemporary, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).   Being against reason, science, civilization, individual liberty, and self-discipline, Rousseau's thinking has been at the root of much of the psychological, political, and cultural trouble of our time.  It has specifically popularized a philosophy of emotions that has done and continues to do great harm. While ideals of individual liberty, natural rights, representative democracy, and private property were growing in influence throughout the west, Rousseau argued against them. When Rousseau sent his friend Voltaire a copy of his second Discourse, Voltaire began his brilliant reply, "I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race."   Which is why one clear path to wisdom is to ignore his baneful influence completely.

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THE ILLUSION OF PERFECT HAPPINESS

There is a great misunderstanding about what it means to live a happy life, and it can be summed up in the popular symbol of the smiley face. Now, I like to smile. I love feeling that kind of glowing, delighted state of emotional bliss. It's wonderful to be full of joy and love and laughter. But feeling those things doesn't in and of itself make for a happy life; and just because we don't happen to feel them in the moment doesn't mean we are unhappy. In fact, if simply feeling those emotions all the time was what constituted happiness, and if Aristotle was correct in saying that, "Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence," then it would be a simple matter to find the right combination of drugs that would perpetually bathe our neurons with joyful chemicals, and we could all be perpetually happy and fulfill the aim and end of our existence. But this smiley face view of happiness is a mistake. Here's why.

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HOW TO WORRY EFFECTIVELY

All of us think about what's going to happen in the future.  The more accurately we can estimate what is likely to happen, the more effective we can be in navigating the course ahead. There is a downside, however. Since we can anticipate what may happen in the future, this also allows us to worry about the future. And we tend to give our imaginations more credit than they deserve. Anticipating events to come so that we can take effective action is invaluable. But worry is a different animal; worry is what we do when we don't know what to do, when we don't have enough information, or when events are outside of our control.  Here's how to worry more effectively.

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THE BEST WAY TO CHANGE OUR LIVES

There are lots of tricks and techniques for making changes in our lives: having goal-setting strategies, setting priorities, and structuring support for new and better habits, to name just a few. But one of the most important elements has less to do with what we do, and much more to do with how we do it. Think of the people who have had the greatest positive influence on you. Did they spend a lot of time nagging, berating, insulting, or shaming you? I suspect not. Shame has its place. But once that feedback is received, and we have taken the steps to correct what we feel ashamed of, that emotion has done its job. For example, researchers have found that among alcoholics who have become sober, those who continue to actively feel ashamed of themselves, to criticize and castigate themselves for their previous behavior, are the ones who go back to drinking.  On the other hand, it turns out that the most effective way to change things for the better is...

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SUCCESS REQUIRES FAILURE

A friend of mine built a very successful company, sold it for a substantial amount, then took some time off to get his MBA at Harvard Business School. Ironically, for years after getting that degree, he wasn't able to make a penny in business. He had become too careful, too wary of failure. Who likes to fail? I don't. Failure can feel humiliating. But if we're not willing to risk failure, we won't be able to make the bold moves necessary to really succeed, either. Learning to deal well with failure is a skill. It's something that we can learn, practice, and master. Not that anyone wants to become a master at failure; we want to become masters at dealing with failure... and masters at learning from our failures. Our failures can be more effective teachers than our successes; and with understanding and practice, we can learn to make the most of them, even turning those failures into triumphs.

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THE SECRET TO IMPROVING YOUR LIFE

For decades, psychologists and social scientists have looked for ways to improve our abilities; our mental health, success, well-being, and happiness. They have explored the possibility of raising IQ in individuals. They have sought to understand and transform unconscious processes - or change the external "stimuli" of a person's world for the better. For a time, it was also believed that raising self-esteem would support success and personal growth across the board. None of this has panned out very well. IQ seems to be fairly constant over an individual person's lifetime.  Unconscious processes are, well, unconscious. Criminals, it turns out, have very high self-esteem. But there is one quality that we can improve significantly, on purpose, as individuals, that leads to positive consequences across the spectrum of our life experiences.  It is...

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THE SIMPLEST THING YOU CAN DO TO BE HAPPY

For some, happiness is a word that conjures up visions of selfish people concerned only with their own pleasure; but this sort of hedonistic approach to happiness is a recipe for serial bursts of pleasure at the expense of long-term happiness. As you know, when I speak of happiness, I am describing a much richer concept; more akin to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia or "success at being human." One of the central elements for living well is how you relate to other people. In this regard, happiness is literally the opposite of self-centeredness or self-absorption. In fact, contrary to many Las Vegas advertisements or Hollywood-lifestyle fantasies, self-absorption is a key ingredient for depression, and single-minded focus on personal pleasure is a recipe for long-term misery. So here's the single most effective thing you can do to get an immediate and significant boost to your genuine happiness - and to set the stage for a deeper, long-term happiness as well. It's simple. It's not mysterious. But it is substantial:

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LIFE’S GREATEST JOY

It's easy these days to get drawn into a variety of small boxes: computers, televisions, iPads, Kindles, smartphones... or occasionally even an actual book. There are a lot of wonderful possibilities within each of these (particularly books, but I'm old-fashioned), but they can deprive us, if we're not careful, of life's greatest joy: the treasure of human connection. Fortunately, it's fairly easy to counter this tendency, and enjoy the benefits of a richer emotional life and a healthier physical life as a result. One of my favorite researchers is Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her new book is Love 2.0, in which she looks at "love from the body's perspective." She has been studying how the experience of the emotion of love affects your physiology, including your physical health. Now, when we hear the word "love," the first form that usually comes to mind is romantic love. But this is only one framework within which we feel the emotion of love. We even feel a kind of love in what Fredrickson calls "micro-moments of connection." The nice conversation we have with the checkout person at the grocery store; the warm greeting of welcome by a new acquaintance at a meeting; even the moment of eye contact with a stranger who holds open a door - that wonderful warm feeling is something that is much more ubiquitous than we might expect. It turns out that these micromoments of connection are actually filled with stuff that is good for us, emotionally, psychologically and in terms of our overall health... just as a good meal is filled with nutrients.  Here's how and why.

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DON’T OBSESS ABOUT THE LIFE YOU THINK YOUR KIDS HAVE TO HAVE

It's natural to want good things for our kids. We want them to grow into strong, good people; we want them to have work they love that enables them to live well; we want them to find good friends and a wonderful mate with whom they can grow a wonderful, loving life. We want them to succeed. There is an expression of this natural sentiment, though, that I'm seeing more of and it troubles me.  I have talked with people who are freaking out because their 5 year old isn't measuring up, or their 10 year old might not be able to get into the top preparatory Jr. High School that will feed into the top preparatory High School that will get them into the top university. It's not that these parents see certain talents in their kids, and support them to do their best and to flourish. It's different than that.  This is not about flourishing, or living a happy, successful life; it's obsessing about getting into a club. And, I fear, more accurately, that this club is a particularly seductive and dangerous one.  Here's why.

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HAPPINESS AND BEING A GREAT TEAMMATE

I've played water polo for most of my life, and still do. I've had the privilege of playing on some truly excellent teams, and I've also played on some, well... not so excellent teams. I've also been involved with groups of psychologists who thought they knew how to be part of a team or build teams. I was always surprised at the lack of understanding among them. Today I want to talk about some of the things I've found over the years that make for an excellent team... and a not so excellent team, whether it's for work, play, or marriage. This is by no means exhaustive. There is so much that goes into team building that I can't put it all in one article. But I want to focus mostly on doing away with one great big flawed cliché: "There is no I in ‘team'." The truth is, an excellent team has excellent players, each one of whom is there for his personal achievement and for the team's collective achievement. There is no contradiction between the two. When either of these two elements is missing, the magic just won't happen.  A perfect example of this happened at the World Cup on Tuesday (7/01).

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EVERYBODY HAS SOMETHING

One of the most consistent pieces of truth that I've come to understand in the course of over three decades of working with people as a therapist and Life Coach is this: Everybody has something that they struggle with, have struggled with, or will struggle with. We are very complex beings, all of us. The image of some kind of perfect, untroubled, constantly joyful and serene and bold and perfect life is an image from Hollywood; we are much more complex and magnificent than that. My point is that if you are struggling with something; if you sometimes get depressed, or anxious, or obsessive, or scared, or confused, or distracted, or lazy, or feel overwhelmed... there is nothing unusual about you. These are all well within the normal range of human functioning, and they represent challenges to master, not failures to feel ashamed of. The issues are not the issue. How you deal with them is.  Here's how to start doing so.

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TIME WELL SPENT

Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. - T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"
Time is a continuous, objectively measurable forward movement. We measure it with the rotation of the earth, the orbit of the earth about the sun, and the tilt of her axis relative to that sun as we make our way about it, seen through the changing seasons. While the mechanics of time in a basic way are well understood, our experience of time and our relationship to time is complex, and can hold the key to our experience of life itself. Phil Zimbardo, professor emeritus of Stanford and author of The Time Cure, (famous also for the Stanford Prison Experiment, a classic study in our susceptibility to the abuse of power), describes six different time orientations.  Our happiness is dependent to a large degree on our relationship to them.

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TIME FOR HAPPINESS

Time is a continuous, objectively measurable forward movement. We measure it with the rising and setting of the sun, the orbit of the earth about the sun, and the tilt of her axis relative to that sun as we make our way about it, giving us the changing seasons. While the mechanics of time in a basic way are well understood, our experience of time and our relationship to time is complex, and can hold the key to our experience of life itself. It turns out that we all have a  relationship with time and our life that is very personal, and over which we have a good deal of control, which can change our experience of life and our level of happiness dramatically.

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OH WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE…

Lying takes a huge toll on our relationships, our physical health, and our mental health. But sometimes we’re not so clear about what it means to be honest. Does it mean we say everything that we think or feel?

There are very strong benefits to honesty; and also some common sense guidelines as to what’s appropriate to express.

Let’s start with outright lying. Americans lie an average of...

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HOW TO APOLOGIZE

We all make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes let other people down, or hurt them. What's the best way to deal with the people we've disappointed or hurt? It matters how you apologize, and Heidi Grant Halverson, author of Focus, has some great advice about this. It's personally useful, but can also help us understand a dynamic that affects political differences with friends and neighbors. The most important thing to remember is that when you have let somebody down, or done them harm, they don't care very much about how this affected you. When you start by explaining why you did or didn't do the act that you're apologizing for, you're telling them about yourself, and not addressing the effect you've had on them. The best way to apologize is to start with the other person in mind, based on realizing that person will have different expectations depending on your relationship with them.  Here's how.

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ALTRUISM OR SELFISHNESS?

Ayn Rand famously titled one of her non-fiction books, "The Virtue of Selfishness." This was a combative and provocative title, which reflects her own personality as well as the intellectual environment in which she lived. The problem with this title, though, is that it creates a polarity in many people's minds between owning and honoring one's own life, dreams, and actions, and the kind of loving, compassionate, and empathic human connection which is central to a good and happy life. That polarity need not exist; there is no contradiction - most of the time - between caring for others and honoring your own life. They are deeply interconnected. There are moments in life when you have to choose whether to take care of your own needs or to give up those needs for the good of others, but they are not all that common, and such circumstances have their own unique dynamics.  Let's talk about how this works in real life.

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THE BETRAYAL OF TRUST

Trust is at the same time a fundamental necessity and by-product of a free society. A free society requires trust to function, and there are incentives to act in trustworthy ways in a free society. Without trust our way of life would be impossible. The breakdown of trust is the most troublesome effect of the continual growth and intrusion of our government into our businesses, our beliefs, and our personal lives. There are always corrupt politicians and rotten people in government. And there is an acceptance of a certain degree of waste and abuse of power - it's just inevitable with government. But up until now, there has been a basic human trust that has been a part of America's moral fabric, that includes all people - even those in government. Today we are losing it, and fast.  Is there any way to get it -- a government we can trust -- back?

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FINISHING THE UNFINISHED

One day in the 1920s Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in a café in Vienna waiting for her coffee refill. It never came. She noticed that her waiter had an excellent memory for all of his customers' orders, but somehow had forgotten her coffee. Bluma set herself to the task of investigating this phenomenon further. What she found in her subsequent studies was this: People tend to remember the details of things exceptionally well when those things are unfinished. She had already paid her waiter, so he had forgotten about her because he was finished with her as a customer. What is unfinished haunts us. It stays with us, nagging us to bring it to completion. Benjamin Franklin once said that houseguests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. What is unfinished has an uncanny ability to stink up our lives.  Here are some tips on how to unstink them.

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A MARRIAGE IS A TEAM

Is a happy marriage about compromise? On the surface, I’d say yes, compromise is certainly part of two different people sharing a life together. You can’t do everything you want whenever you want it, etc. But looking at this question a little more closely, I’d have to say an emphatic, “no.” Compromise is not really the key. Compromise is when one person wants a room painted yellow, the other wants it painted blue, and so you compromise and get green. Compromise is sometimes win/win, sometimes not. There are certainly times when you have to compromise, but that isn’t the driving force of a great relationship. What is the driving force of a great relationship? A winning premise; a conception of what your relationship is all about that includes a shared vision of the two of you together. A great relationship is founded on the premise that you and your mate are allies; that you are a team together.

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IT’S THE BELIEF THAT STRESS IS BAD FOR YOU THAT’S BAD FOR YOU

In a great TED talk, Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University revealed a new finding about stress. We used to think that too much stress could be very bad for you. In fact, people with high levels of stress have a 43% higher probability of dying than those with lower levels of stress. That sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? But it turns out that it's not the stress itself that'll kill you. Those with high levels of stress who believed that stress is bad for you indeed have a 43% higher probability of dying than those with lower levels of stress, but those with just as high levels of stress who believed that stress was a normal and healthy response of their body to the challenges of life were actually healthier than those with lower levels of stress. In other words, it's not stress, but the belief that stress is bad for you that will kill you.

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YOUR FIGHT AGAINST ENTROPY IS YOUR LIFE’S CREATION

Entropy is a term from physics that describes the tendency for matter to move from order into disorder. Life can be seen as deliberately working against entropy. With our minds, we train our own brains to hold the structure of our lives. The habits that we practice daily, weekly, monthly; they are all based on neural pathways that we have established in our brain that make it easy and natural for us to follow these routines. These habits – if they are good ones - help us to resist entropy and have a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. When you have a plan, and you are persistent with that plan, your habits become your allies. They work for you to reach your goals, so that you don’t have to work against your habits. What you create through your own fight against entropy is the masterpiece of your life.

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SLEEP FOR YOUR LIFE

Try to live a less stressful life, and you will sleep better.  Be willing to lose some sleep once in awhile; it's not a life-threatening problem, and if your mind keeps racing it is probably telling you to slow down.  --- Ernest Callenbach, from Living Cheaply with Style Last week I lost a friend and a teammate. We played together in college, and more recently at the Masters level this summer. He had been having severe problems sleeping well for nearly a year, and it was hurting him badly. Finally he came to the point where he couldn't take it anymore, and he took his own life. He was a good man, a monster of a water polo player, and a well-loved husband and father. I don't know what kind of help he had for this. I didn't have any idea what he was going through until after it was too late. Unfortunately he didn't feel that he had any options left. I'm writing this week's column in his honor, and in the hopes that maybe what I say here might save somebody else the kind of torment he went through - and the kind of grief and agony his family will be going through for a long, long time to come. There are some nutritional things that I'm sure somebody could suggest here in the forum (or see the note by Jack below), but that is not my expertise. If you're not sleeping well, here are some things that you can do behaviorally that can help:

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SHAME, STAGNATION, AND RELAPSE

Emotions like anger, fear, and grief serve a function. Shame, too, serves a function. When we do something that violates our own values, we feel shame. Shame is a particularly excruciating emotion, and it lets us know that whatever it is that we did that we’re ashamed of is something that we never, ever want to do again. But once the event that causes us to feel a particular emotion has passed, and we have changed our behavior to cope with the situation effectively, it’s important to let that feeling dissipate. Shame is no different. To actively, purposefully swim around in negative feelings is more than an indulgence, or a bad habit; it can actually be dangerous. With shame, this has been shown to lead to a greater likelihood of repeating the shameful behavior itself.

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A HAPPY LIFE IS NOT PERFECT HAPPINESS

There is a great misunderstanding about what it means to live a happy life, and it can be summed up in the popular symbol of the smiley face.

joel-smiley.png
Now, I like to smile. I love feeling that kind of glowing, delighted state of emotional bliss. It's wonderful to be full of joy and love and laughter. But feeling those things doesn't in and of itself make for a happy life; and just because you don't happen to feel them in the moment doesn't mean you are unhappy. This smiley face view of happiness is not the whole story, and we know it..  So let's talk about the whole story.

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CHANNEL THE FLOW OF YOUR EMOTIONS

Emotions have a very liquid quality; they move, they flow, they take on the form of their container. Like water in a stream, when they are in active motion they have a clear purpose and direction; when they get stuck they can become stagnant and even putrid. Ignoring negative feelings doesn't make them go away, it just makes us unaware of them; but dwelling on negative feelings after they have already served their purpose can keep us stuck in them, stagnant in emotions that should have long since run downstream. Every emotion has a function. Anger is a response to trespass; when somebody crosses a line or a boundary, we get angry in response, and that anger provides us with the energy and motivation to get them to stop. Fear is a signal that there is danger, and it narrows our focus on that danger, and can give us the incentive and energy to escape that danger. Grief is a response to loss and it can allow us to feel and mourn the loss, and to appreciate what we had. Our emotions are not always accurate, though...

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MAKE SURE IT MATTERS

I've written about how willpower takes energy, and when our reserves get depleted - through fatigue, hunger, or overuse - our willpower can weaken. But what if you have to take care of things anyway? What if you're tired, you're hungry, you've been overworking all day, and you still need to take care of something that's very important? I think we've all been in that situation, and we've all found that somehow we take care of things. How can this be? What makes the difference? It has to matter enough to us.  Here's how to tell the difference.

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MICHELLE OBAMA’S MESSAGE FOR US

"Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed." This statement by Michelle Obama on Feb. 18, 2008, at an appearance at UCLA, initially struck me as supremely arrogant and frightening... because it is supremely arrogant and frightening; and it is an honest expression -except for the putting-down-divisions part - of what Obama has tried to do as President. It is an expression of progressive presumptuousness: trying to make people better; thinking the right leaders can mold us into the kind of people that the progressives think that we should be. But let's look at it from a different angle; perhaps we should be thanking Michelle Obama for her challenge that we start living up to and acting upon the principles of America's founding.

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THE TREASURE OF HUMAN CONNECTION

One of my favorite researchers is Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her new book is Love 2.0, in which she looks at "love from the body's perspective" -- meaning that she has been studying how the experience of the emotion of love affects your physiology, including your physical health. Now, when we hear the word "love," we think of romantic love, or how we love our kids, other family members, and friends. We even feel it in what Fredrickson calls "micro-moments of connection." The nice conversation you have with the checkout person at the grocery store; the warm greeting of welcome by a new acquaintance at a meeting; even the moment of eye contact with a stranger who holds open a door. It turns out that these micro-moments of connection are actually filled with stuff that is good for you, like a good meal is filled with nutrients; emotionally, psychologically, and in terms of your overall health.

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WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A TEAM

[Note from Jack Wheeler:  TTP would like to congratulate Joel and his team, the Santa Barbara Masters (Joel's the goalie) for winning the Silver Medal in the National Water Polo Masters Championships (50 and over, Joel's an old guy) held in Riverside CA last Sunday, June 9!] Brand New Mastering Happiness Audio Course! See below! I've played water polo for most of my life, and still do. I've had the privilege of playing on some excellent teams, and I've also played on some, well... not so excellent teams. I've also been involved with some psychology groups who thought they knew how to be part of a team, or to build teams. I was always surprised at the lack of understanding among them. Today I want to talk about some of the things I've found over the years that make for an excellent team - and a not so excellent team, whether it's for work, play, family or marriage. This is by no means exhaustive. There is so much that goes into team building that it would be more than I could put into an article. But I want to focus mostly on doing away with one great big flawed cliché: "There is no I in team." That's baloney. joel_061413.png

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DO YOU THINK YOU’LL BE DIFFERENT IN TEN YEARS?

When you think of what you'll be like ten years from now, if you're like most people, you probably imagine that you'll be just like you are now. Yet when you look back ten years, aren't you different than you were then? Of course you are different today than you were ten years ago - unless you've removed yourself from any experience of living. Life is a continual anti-entropy endeavor. If we don't expend energy to create order, the natural tendency of things to move toward disorder takes over. If you don't mow the lawn, the lawn becomes a growth of weeds; if you don't use your body in some kind of physical activity, your body begins to break down; if you don't use your mind to learn and think about new things, your mind will become less active and effective. You will be different than you are now in ten years. That's a fact of life. The question is, how will you be different; and will you be different mostly as a result of events, or through conscious choice?

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DON’T FORGET YOUR PLAN A

It's good to have a back-up plan, or a Plan B, especially in uncertain times; but it's also important to remember that this is only for when your plan A is threatened. Often the best thing you can do is to fully commit to your primary vision; sometimes the best defense is a good offense. It's excellent to have a plan that you can fall back on if things don't work out; but today I want to talk about some elements of committing to your plan A that can be easily neglected... because we take them for granted. If you're thinking of moving away from your home, be it out of state or out of the country, before you do so, consider what you will be leaving behind.  Be very careful before you abandon your Plan A.

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PRESSING THE PAUSE BUTTON

When you're in a situation and you feel like reacting with anger, or fear, or hurt feelings - anything that feels like it's an automatic, purely emotional response - you have a choice as to what to do about it. You can react, or you can choose to do something different. This choice is our capacity for self-regulation and self-control, and it is fundamental to what makes us human. Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, talks about this as the "pause button." If you feel yourself swept up into a tide of emotion, in reaction to something somebody has said or done, you may want to express your feelings, or you may not. The pause button is our conscious awareness; it is our capacity to feel something, to feel a reaction coming on, and to think about it before we act on it. One of the common features of criminals is that they do not use this very well. They tend to think in terms of short term, immediate gratification. They are tuned in to basic reactions of pleasure and pain, and have not developed their capacity to stop before they act, and consider what they really want to do; what would really make their life better over the long term. Liberals can be like this too.

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GETTING TO THE CARNEGIE HALL OF YOUR LIFE

The legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) was strolling down 57th Street in Manhattan one spring morning when a young man, looking lost, approached him.  "Excuse me, sir," he said to the virtuoso not knowing who he was, "could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"  Heifetz smiled gently, nodded sagely, and answered, "Practice, my son, practice." It's a famous joke - Jack Benny was fond of telling it - that points to an eternal truth.  One of the principles of living a happy life is that it takes willpower, it takes discipline, and it takes practice in order to live well. This may seem strange if your vision of happiness is ease and momentary pleasure. But ease and momentary pleasure are not what make for a happy life, any more than ice cream is what makes for a healthy diet. In my work I talk about and teach a lot of different skills that can make for a happier life - if you practice them. Knowing about them, understanding them, thinking about them are fine intellectual exercises, but they will not improve your life. What improves your life is practicing the skills of a good life; or, if you're more ambitious, practicing the skills of a great life.

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HOW POLITICAL AND PERSONAL SERENITY IS POSSIBLE

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
This is the famous Serenity Prayer. There are things you can control, and things you can't. If you're spending time on things you can't control, and not much time on things you can, you will become depressed and miserable.  It's almost guaranteed. This is a recipe for helplessness, and depression is a symptom of a sense of helplessness. This is one reason why we feel so miserable when we look at the political situation. The same applies to our personal lives. Identifying what you can and cannot control makes you much more effective, much more happy and satisfied - and successful. So let's start identifying.

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WHAT IS THE REPUTATION YOU’D LIKE TO EARN WITH YOURSELF?

When you get to know people, you are, in part, building a reputation with each other. "What kind of person is he?" "How does she handle a difficult situation?" "What kind of attitude does he bring to his work?" "How does she respond to confrontation or adversity?" Over time, we learn whether a given person is honest, whether they can be relied upon, how playful they are, to what degree their actions reflect what they say. We get a sense of their style, their likes, and their dislikes. Here is a piece that is often missing: We watch ourselves just like we watch others, and we develop a reputation with ourselves accordingly.   This is the essence of earned self-esteem.  Here's how to increase yours.

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PHONY SELF-ESTEEM HURTS CHILDREN, EARNED SELF-ESTEEM HELPS THEM

There is a study by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University that is getting a lot of news this week, in which she found that college kids today are more likely to call themselves gifted and driven to succeed, while their test scores and hours spent studying are decreasing. Their tendency toward narcissism has also increased  over the last 30 years. Some reports get a bit more frenzied than I prefer ("We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists!" just gets us scared, I prefer to be effective); but Twenge has been studying this trend for several years, has accumulated some impressive research, and has written several books. Today I want to look at what I consider one of the sources of this trend: the phony self-esteem movement, and how it feeds the fixed trait mindset - and thus the need to see oneself as just fantastic. This also shows what can be done to remedy the situation, by contrasting phony self-esteem with the genuine article -- earned self-esteem.

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IDEALISM IS A POOR STRATEGY FOR LIBERTY

We want to live in freedom. We want this country that was founded on individual liberty to once again become a country that champions individual liberty. America was founded on an this ideal; an ideal that holds tremendous meaning for most everybody reading this column. But while an ideal is great for offering direction, there are dangers to holding too tightly or dwelling too deeply upon the image of what you would like to see fulfilled. Researchers have found that when you are aiming for a personal goal, the practice of visualizing the end product can actually have a negative effect on your ability to achieve it.  This finding runs counter to decades of self-help advice. If you are holding in your mind an image of what a totally free society would look like; if you are measuring the political system in which you live, and comparing everything about it to that ideal, you will succeed in being eternally disappointed, dissatisfied, and even bitter. The truth is...

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CULTURE, INTEGRITY, AND QUESTIONING AUTHORITY

If you want to have your strongest and most positive impact on your culture, the way to do it is to live with integrity - meaning that you know your principles, and you live by them and speak from them. There are solitary creatures like pandas and bumblebees; there are social animals like wolves and wildebeests; but we are the only living creatures on earth who have culture. Culture is created when your knowledge, wisdom, and innovations can be transmitted and have an impact over time and space, beyond your immediate influence. With culture, when a problem is solved by one person, it has the possibility of being solved forever, and throughout the entire culture; which means that the culture can change in significant ways over time. Let's talk about how you can have an impact on it.

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INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION

Have you noticed this? Are there situations where years ago you would never have thought, "I wonder whether this is allowed?" but now you do?  This can lead to what I call "internalized oppression" - and it requires our conscious awareness to avoid it. "The cost of liberty is eternal vigilance," goes the saying. But this vigilance is not only external. It's one thing when the rules on the outside become oppressive - which they have - but you also play a personal role in this: your internal acceptance of an oppressive mindset is necessary for allowing an oppressive government to continue to intrude further into our lives. It is this internal acceptance and adaptation that allows people to continue to obey an authority that is out of control.  Our Founding Fathers knew this clearly.  As the oldest and wisest among them put it:

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