Does Your Family Push Your Buttons?

Heading home for the holidays? We’ll all do well to heed @Elizabeth Gilbert’s great advice!

Thursday Thought


“Happiness depends on conditions being perceived as positive.

Inner peace does not.”

–Eckhart Tolle

The Easiest Way to Deal with a Difficult Person

Photo by Jessica Ondrejicka

How come your family knows how to push your buttons? Because they installed them… I had a great teacher in India who said to me, “If you think you’re spiritual and evolved and enlightened, go home for Christmas.”Elizabeth Gilbert

When I was little, I had a controversial grandmother. She was the woman my grandfather remarried after my father’s mom’s premature death. We pretty much only saw her twice a year: once for a family reunion, and once for a Christmas party. I adored her (except that she always smelled like cigarettes and had a lot of rules). But my parents and aunt and uncle were very tense around her.

Fights rarely broke out at the parties—I think my grandma was too dignified for that—but I do remember a lot of stress surrounding this difficult person in our lives. She knew how to push people’s buttons.

Do you have someone difficult to deal with this holiday season? Here are three strategies that work well for me.

1. Make sure the difficult person has a job to do, and then let them do it their own way. Things were always better when my grandma had a job in the kitchen. For a lot of people, conflict is born from an unfulfilled desire to feel useful and to be a part of something larger than themselves. Start by giving the difficult person a way to focus on something besides themselves.

Tip: When you ask someone for his or her help, provide a rationale–any rationale–for the favor. One study showed that the word “because” tends to trigger automatic compliance. For instance, you might say brightly, “It would be great if you could peel the carrots, because we need the carrots peeled for dinner.” As bizarrely repetitive as that may sound, it should work better than, “Would you peel the carrots for me?”

2. Take care of your own needs first. This one is about taking precautions to keep yourself balanced and prevent your fight-or-flight response from kicking in. It’s harder to regulate your emotions when you’re tired, for example, so if you’re at a party with the difficult person and you start to feel spent, consider leaving early, lest you get sucked into a confrontation. You might risk insulting your host, but that’s generally better than ruining the party by making a scene.Similarly, research shows that keeping your blood sugar stable will make you less aggressive if you get angry, so don’t skip a meal if you are headed into a difficult situation. If you need to leave the room and do some deep breathing, do it–even if the difficult person needs you to talk about politics right now. If we can stay calm, we are more likely to engage the brain circuits that make us better problem-solvers in challenging situations. (Also, we have more fun.)

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s advice can help us take this even further:

Also see how taking care of yourself has good ripple effects for others. Deliberately do a small thing that feeds you—a little rest, some exercise, some time for yourself—and then notice how this affects your relationships. Notice how healthy boundaries in relationships helps prevent you from getting used up or angry and eventually needing to withdraw.”

The exception: When our “need” is to be right. Often we feel a strong desire to show the difficult person the error in his or her ways. But this won’t make the situation easier, and it won’t make us feel better in the long run. Find a different (and more positive) way to feel powerful; for example, turn your attention to helping someone in need, perhaps even the difficult person him- or herself.

3. Give up on trying to fix him or her. This means accepting the difficult person for who he or she is, including the discomfort (or even pain) that they are creating.Practicing this sort of acceptance is about dropping the fantasy of how we think things ought to be. You might have a fantasy of a sweet, close relationship with your daughter-in-law, for example, and so you feel angry and disappointed every time she does something that doesn’t live up to this fantasy.But be aware that she likely feels your disappointment, and feels judged. She knows you are trying to change or “fix” her, and that doesn’t feel good–it hurts her, in fact, and hurting someone, however unintentionally, does not make her easier to deal with.

An alternate approach is one of empathy. Rather than judging what the person does or says, just try to listen and understand where he or she is coming from. This doesn’t mean that you need to agree with the person, just that you’re showing him or her a basic level of respect as a human being. Research suggests that engaging with a person this way–acknowledging his or her point of view without judging it–can make him or her feel more understood… and, as a result, less defensive or difficult.

Here’s how to practice acceptance and empathy: Take a deep breath.Look at the difficult person with kindness and compassion, and say to yourself, I see you, and I see that you are suffering. I accept that you are anxious and scared, even if I don’t understand why. I accept that you are making all of us anxious, too. I accept that your trouble has become my trouble for the time being. When we acknowledge and accept difficulty as something that just is, we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension. There is a lot of truth to the adage that “What we resists, persists.”

When this person is speaking, try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or even with attempts to try to get him or her to see things from a different, perhaps more positive point of view. Instead, try to paraphrase back to the person the points you think he or she is making, and acknowledge the emotions he or she seems to be expressing. For instance, if he seems ticked off about something, you might say, “It sounds like that really makes you angry.” In this way, you let them know that their experience matters.

We are all just looking for love and approval. This holiday season, the greatest gift we can give a difficult person–and ourselves–is to accept them fully, with love.

If you liked this post, you’ll love this printable page, 7 Ways to Feel More Loved and Connected. And my new book,The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work has a whole section dedicated to improving our relationships — I hope you’ll consider ordering it now.

There is Still Time to Order This Gift!

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How to give The Sweet Spot as a gift:

(1) Pre-order the book.

(2) Fill out the form below to get a gift card and/or a signed bookplate (we’ll mail them to you).

You’re done! 

Thank you SO MUCH for your enthusiasm and support. Pre-orders are VERY MEANINGFUL for authors, and I am very grateful for yours!

Warmest regards,


Happiness Tip: Enjoy Every Sandwich

Photo by Adrian Dressler

Imagine you’ve just been told that you have less than six months to live.

What do you need to do? 

Who do you need to talk to? 

Where do you need to visit? 

How will you spend your remaining time? 

These are all questions that Lee Lipsenthal, author of Enjoy Every Sandwich, asked me and some friends after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As he led us through a visualization of our own deaths, I felt my life slow way down. All the hustle and busy-ness no longer seemed very important.

My life, and everything wonderful about it, was put into stark perspective. I felt deep gratitude where only moments before, I’d felt stressed and exhausted. Sometimes we get trapped in a way of thinking that curbs our happiness; often a dramatic change in perspective can help. Lee wrote:

Some cures require a radical intervention of the soul: a change in our mindset and our way of being. These cures require us to stop racing through our busy lives, working, providing, and consuming. Some cures require that we stop and enjoy every sandwich.

Are the holidays starting to exhaust you? If so, try radically shifting your perspective.

Take Action: What if this was your last holiday season? Who would you spend your time with? What would you be sure to really savor?

Join the Discussion: What will you do today to “enjoy every sandwich”? Inspire others in the comments or on Facebook.

If this Happiness Tip intrigues or inspires you, I think you’d like my new book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and WorkYou might also like my manifesto for enjoying life more–read it, or download it free here.


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I Can’t Breathe

A skillful, artful protest.

Thursday Thought

Thinking a lot about recent deaths of innocent young men. What meaning will we give their lives, and their deaths?

The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.

They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.

Archibald MacLeish

Why Happiness is the Wrong Pursuit

Photo by Patrick

Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” –Helen Keller

Money doesn’t buy happiness. Obvious, right?

On some abstract level, we know that money and other outward signs of success won’t ultimately make us happy—perhaps because we know wealthy or famous or powerful people who are deeply unhappy—but on another level, we don’t really believe it… or at least we don’t believe it applies to us. Money might not buy other people happiness, we think, but I know I’d be happier living in a bigger house in a better neighborhood, driving a different car.

Why do we experience such a disconnect between what we know to be true in the abstract and what we believe is true for us? I think a big part of the answer is that our choices are driven not by fame or fortune but by the pursuit of happiness itself–and we’re going about it in the wrong way, because we’re not sure what better alternatives exist. We buy things and experiences that might bring us some momentary feelings of delight and cheer. But will they truly bring us deeper feelings of happiness and satisfaction with our lives–the feeling that our life is, in the end, meaningful?

Psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have tried to distinguish between lives high on happiness and lives full of meaning. By their definition, happiness is a positive feeling or emotion. We say we are happy when things are going well for us, when we are feeling more positive emotions than negative ones, when we feel satisfied with our lives. The time span of happiness is typically short: a good day, a stellar semester, a great year. A wedding can bring us happiness in a moment or a weekend, for example, because of the fun and love involved, because of the good food and good music and good company.

But a wedding can also bring meaning to our lives. More than a balance sheet between positive and negative feelings, meaning is the symbolic value of a given activity or situation; it is our belief about what is happening. Our weddings are meaningful because they represent a life-long commitment to love and to nourishing someone else through thick and thin, sickness and health, happiness and sadness. The time frame of meaning is much longer than that of happiness—typically something is meaningful in the context of a life stage or lifetime.

Things really get interesting when we start to consider lives that are meaningful but not happy, and lives that are happy but not meaningful. Though only a tiny percentage of people experience one without the other (typically, meaning and happiness overlap), Baumeister and his colleagues’ study found that some people’s lives are filled with happiness but are low in meaning: These folks tend to feel good, at least for a limited amount of time. Conflicts with others are rare, as is adversity. They don’t worry about much. They tend to get what they want in life, but they give little, if anything, to others. They don’t think much about the past or the future, and they don’t tend to think deeply. They are often, as the researchers note, “shallow,” “self-absorbed,” and “selfish.” Perhaps some people would choose this state, but because no life is free from adversity—much of life’s difficulty and pain is not under our control—a happy life without meaning will not last.

In contrast, while some people leading deeply meaningful lives might, at any snapshot in time, be quite unhappy, unhappiness does not usually last in the presence of meaning. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela or Ghandi as prisoners, probably at best extremely uncomfortable and at worse in profound physical and psychological pain. Researchers would certainly not find their lives happy: Their balance of positive to negative emotions would probably weigh heavily to the negative. Their satisfaction with life? Probably nil.

But great people make it clear that however unpleasant their lives might be in a given moment, their beliefs about their respective situations imbue their lives with profound meaning. When researchers look at unhappy people leading meaningful lives, they observe that often bad things have happened to them. Unhappy but fulfilled people tend to do a lot of deep thinking, and they spend a good deal of time reflecting on their struggles and stresses and challenges.

Compelling research indicates that the pursuit of happiness—when our definition of happiness is synonymous with pleasure and easy gratification—won’t ultimately bring us deeper feelings of fulfillment; it won’t allow us to live in our sweet spot. Although we claim that the “pursuit of happiness” is our inalienable right and the primary driver of the human race, we humans do better pursuing fulfillment and meaning—creating lives that generate the feeling that we matter.

And how do we do that? How, exactly do we pursue meaning rather than happiness? We establish our connection to something larger than ourselves; we give ourselves to others.

Fortunately, happiness tends to follow meaning. Meaningful activities generate positive emotions and deepen social connections, both of which increase our satisfaction with life. Indeed, much research shows an undeniable connection between happiness and generosity; the happiest people also tend to be the most altruistic.

When we help others in a meaningful way, for example, we are likely to feel compassion and love. We also often feel gratitude for our own situation, and maybe even pride in our ability to help. Perhaps most importantly, our connections to those we help get stronger, and strong social ties are the best predictor of happiness that we have.

In the end, the way to lead a joyful life is not to pursue happiness for ourselves, but to pursue it for others. The good life is not about getting what we want; it’s about having what it takes to give to others.

This holiday season, and in this coming New Year, what can you do that will bring joy to others? Pursue that, and happiness will follow.

Happiness Tip: 9 Ways to Ease Overwhelm

A lot of my new book is about easing the overwhelm that comes from the busy world we live in. Here are 9 of my favorite ways:

  1. Make your bed. There is something true about the adage that the state of your bed is the state of your head.
  2. Set your phone to automatically go into silent mode an hour before your bedtime. Enjoy the peace and quiet.
  3. Develop a way to “give good no.” As in: “Thank you so much for asking, but that isn’t going to work out for me right now.”
  4. Turn off your TV unless you intend to watch something specific. Never watch commercials — record your show and skip through them.
  5. Eat at least one meal a day without doing anything else at the same time. No driving, reading, or responding to email.
  6. Make decisions about routine things once. Buy the same brands at the grocery store every time; get the same outfit in different colors so you don’t have to decide what to wear every morning; prepare the same basic meals most week days.
  7. Clean out one drawer or shelf a day. Eventually, everything in your home will have a place, and this will make it easy to find what you need when you need it.
  8. Establish “predictable time off” with your colleagues and family. When will you commit to not working? Start with dinnertime, work up to weekends.
  9. Stop multi-tasking. It makes you error prone, and even though you think you’re getting more done, it’s actually quite inefficient.

SS_EaseOverwhelm_thumb Sign up to receive my weekly Happiness Tips emails and we’ll send along a link to download a beautiful printable version of my 9 Ways to Ease Overwhelm list, pictured here.

If this list resonates with you, I hope you’ll consider pre-ordering my new book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. In it, I go into a great deal more detail about overcoming overwhelm and other stress.

May you be happy,