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Category: Living Your Best Life

Welcome, Susie! (And our new website!)

Friends! I want you to meet Susie! She and I have been friends since 1995, when we were both hired out of college to mentor teenagers at The Thacher School in Ojai, California. Susie claims that we have been on similar life adventures ever since, but I need to be straight with you: Susie’s life has been a lot more outwardly adventurous than mine. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Susie has lived in Cameroon, France, and Mexico. A beloved teacher and school leader for over two decades, she has directed an education organization whose classrooms included the steppes of Mongolia and the Amazon river. She’s also a champion ultrarunner–which means she’s run, and often won, several acclaimed 50 km races.

At age 45, Susie discovered she had an enormous tumor growing around her brain stem that could kill her in as soon as three months. Needless to say, her running and world travel was put on hold. The idea that she might die young and without a voice focused her writing. Now, Susie writes about her inward travels to face fear and set herself free:

“I’ve spent too much time in life trying to be good, to get it right, to please others, and to keep pain and struggle at bay. Could I live differently, and parent differently, if I let go of my perception of control? If I could see that I already have everything I need?”

You’ll see, on this blog, that her writing is a powerful meditation about what it means to face discomfort and the unknown.

Good news: After two massive craniotomies, and months of daily, proton-beam radiation therapy, Susie’s tumor is now inactive and she is thriving. She is living her dream of being a full time writer. Susie lives with her husband, Kurt, a wildlife biologist, and her two adorable and amazing children in Boulder, CO.

What will this mean for ChristineCarter.com and SusieRinehart.com?

Our websites both have a new name: Brave Over Perfect — this is also the working title for Susie’s forthcoming book. Susie will be posting her blog here. We know that you don’t want yet another email, so I am actually going to reduce the amount of email I send you. If you’re signed up to get email updates, which I hope you are, you’ll now just get one monthly email with links to all our posts (instead of the biweekly “Tuesday Tips”).

Collectively, Susie and I have devoted more than 48 years to coaching people in the art and science of a meaningful life. We are thrilled to be working together again, and we hope you find joy and inspiration here for your Brave Over Perfect life.

Lots of love,

A Day Lived in the Sweet Spot (Infographic) - Christine Carter

Eight Ways to Achieve More While Working Less

I spend about five hours a day slacking off. Really: I spend that much time doing stuff I enjoy, that isn’t on a task list anywhere. I walk through the beautiful university campus near my house – during the workday. I cook for pleasure. I lay around on my daughter’s bed reading while she does her homework.

You’re probably thinking, “I could never do that!! Because I have to [insert 500 good reasons]!” Maybe you now believe that I am lazier and more pampered than you previously imagined.

Here’s the truth: I slack off not because I’m lazy or don’t care about being productive. In fact, I’ve found that slacking off makes me more productive because I slack strategically – meaning that I take breaks at designated times, for regular intervals, in ways that sharpen my focus when I sit back down to work.

Strategic slacking has enabled me to dramatically increase both the quality of my work and the amount I get done in a given day. It increases productivity because we don’t think or work or create at the same rate throughout the day.

How fast we work doesn’t just depend on the difficulty of what we are working on; it also depends on how well our brain is functioning. Is it well-nourished? Free from stress? Rested and ready to go? To a large extent, how we answer those questions is within our control.

Here are eight ways to achieve more while working less.

(1) Designate time for “THINK WORK.” Late morning is an excellent time for most people to tackle their most difficult work, as alertness tends to be high and willpower is not yet depleted.

I do work that takes a lot of focus at a standing desk that has a small treadmill under it, on a computer that doesn’t have an email application. Walking slowly while I work has a lot of positive outcomes; one of them is that it more or less chains me to my desk. I put my phone in do-not-disturb mode and close any unnecessary applications or windows that are open on my computer. I put on my noise-canceling headphones and put on brain.fm, a website that broadcasts a type of white noise that supposedly helps you focus.

(2) Take “recess” throughout the day. One survey discovered that very productive employees tend to take 17 minutes of break time for every 52 minutes of work. Feel free to do something fun during your break, like watch a funny video or eat a piece of chocolate (research shows that these activities boost productivity by 10-12 percent). Have a snack and drink a glass of water – both things also increase focus.

On my breaks I’ll often read an interesting article, but not one that will be hard to put down after 10-15 minutes. Doing something of interest energizes people for both the current task and whatever it is that they work on next. And taking a real lunch break (away from a computer!) decreases fatigue and increases afternoon productivity. I try to eat mindfully for a few minutes, really paying attention to the texture and taste of the food in my mouth. After about five minutes, I let my mind wander (rather than trying to keep it focused on my food). Staring into space enhances creativity; boredom is often the precursor for brilliance.

Staring into space enhances creativity; boredom is often the precursor for brilliance. #thesweetspot Click To TweetStaring into space enhances creativity; boredom is often the precursor for brilliance.” username=”raisinghappines”]

(3) Change things up in the afternoon. Our self-discipline and ability to focus is like a muscle in that it fatigues over the course of a day. This makes afternoons an ideal time to catch up with colleagues or schedule meetings and appointments.

But afternoons are also a great time to brainstorm solutions to problems or do other creative work. That’s because we are often most innovative when our intellect is fatigued. So when we’re running out of steam for focused work, and we don’t have the energy to censor our thoughts too closely, it’s an opportune time to shift gears. (Think you do your most innovative work late at night? Perhaps it is because you are too tired to focus. Mind-wandering often leads to creative insight.)

(4) Don’t forget to take recess! Repeat after me: Taking breaks increases productivity.

In the afternoon, my recess is an exercise break. Usually, I take my dog, Buster, for a hike. Getting out into nature is key. (This can be a patch of grass or a few trees – it doesn’t have to be Walden Pond.) When we are sick, a view of nature can help us heal faster. When we are distracted, the sight of nature can help us regain our focus. And when we are stressed, images of a natural landscape can slow our heart rates, relax our muscles, and help us feel calm again. Moreover, natural light in the afternoon delays melatonin production, which can keep us feeling alert for longer.

As a bonus, pet a dog while you are hiking, if you have one (or see one): Petting a dog increases serotonin and dopamine levels (in humans), hormones that improve happiness and fight depression.

(5) Have a really good game plan. Here’s the key to an effective task list: Tell your brain WHEN you will complete a task. Scheduling an unfinished task can make a huge difference in our ability to focus. When we don’t know when we will do something on our list, our thoughts will typically wander from whatever it is we are doing to our undone tasks. Our unconscious isn’t nagging us to do the task at hand, but rather to make a plan to get it done. Once we have a plan, we can stop worrying about how much we have to do.

One of the lesser known precursors to getting into “flow” at work is knowing where you are in your workflow. “That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience told Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s where the engagement comes from.”

Before I leave my desk each day, I clean up my task list and schedule the next day’s tasks.

(6) Eat dinner with your clan. Research suggests that this predictable time together can help protect kids from the perils of modern society (drugs and alcohol, risky sexual behavior, eating disorders). Fortunately, it is good for adults, too – it is the glue that keeps my husband and I connected and laughing together, and that connection is key to staying in the sweet spot.

(7) Establish a predictable – and technology-free – bedtime routine. You might think that bedtime routines are for toddlers, but sleep experts recommend them for adults, too, to cue our minds that we are shifting into sleep mode.

I make myself a cup of herbal tea to drink in the evening while I read. While the water brews, I take my vitamins, including Omega-3s, which lubricate the brain, reduce inflammation, and generally contribute to our health and happiness.

At 8:30 or 9:00 pm, I shut off my email, social media, and cell phone for the evening. My bedtime routine includes listening to an entertaining audiobook or podcast while I put clothes away and neaten up the house. Even though I only listen for 10 or 15 minutes, pairing cleaning up with “reading” motivates me to actually clean up. I also make sure everything I need for the morning is in its place.

At 9:15 pm, I make a quick pit stop in the hot tub and have a little downtime with my hubby. Our body temperature naturally dips before we go to sleep, and when we soak in a hot tub, our temperature rises – but the rapid cool-down immediately afterward signals to our body that we are headed to sleepy town. I stay in the tub for just 10-15 minutes, and get out before I break a sweat. Bonus: One study showed that taking a hot bath daily for eight weeks was more effective than an anti-depressant at fighting anxiety!

(8) Get enough sleep! I know, I know, you don’t have time to get seven or eight hours. Maybe you wish you could get more sleep, but you just can’t find a way to put sleep above your other priorities.

So what are your other priorities? Your health? Your happiness? Productivity and success at work? Raising happy and healthy children? Here’s the truth: You will not fulfill your potential in any of these realms unless you get the sleep your body, brain, and spirit need.

A mountain of research shows that sleep affects virtually every aspect of our lives, including our intelligence, our satisfaction with our relationships, our moods, our athletic performance, and our ability to learn and retain information. Even 20 minutes of sleep deprivation three days in a row can dramatically lower your IQ.

Now, it’s your turn. Go ahead: Be a slacker! Let us know in the comments your favorite (and most productive) ways to slack.

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Do you want more information about my daily routine? Check out Chapter 4 of The Sweet Spot, launching TOMORROW in paperback, for the blow-by-blow. As thanks for ordering the book now, I’d love to offer you FREE ENROLLMENT in my 21-Day Exercise Mini-Course! AND my 40+ page “Gain an Extra Day Each Week” eBook! AND the “Cracking the Habit Code” Workbook that will walk you, step-by-step, through the formation of any new habit you are looking to create.

But wait: There’s more! I’m so grateful for your enthusiasm and support that I’ve got 7 thank-you gifts that I want to send to you. Please check out the gifts I’m offering here.

Directions for Handling a Toxic Relationship

Last week, I had lunch with a friend. As we were walking out, she mentioned that she had to see someone who hadn’t always been kind to her, a relationship that caused her more stress and suffering than anything else. She’d been avoiding the meeting, but now it looked inevitable.

“She just makes me so anxious,” she said, gritting her teeth. I’ve been there myself. Lots of times. Seriously toxic relationships call for us to cut off contact altogether; others, though also toxic, seem impossible to avoid. Perhaps you have a constantly criticizing mother-in-law, or a neighbor who seems emotionally stuck in seventh grade. Maybe it’s a boss who belittles you when he’s stressed—or someone who is so under your skin you hold entire conversations with them in your head.

If you, too, have struggled with a toxic relationship, I hope this little instruction manual will help you.

1. Accept that you are in a difficult situation, dealing with a very difficult relationship.

Your choices here are fairly limited, and, strangely, acceptance is always the best choice. You can judge and criticize the other person, but that will probably make you feel tense and lonely. Alternately, you could nurse your anxiety and despair that you’ll never be able to get along with them, which will make you feel stressed and sad. You can definitely deny their existence or pretend that they aren’t bothering you. You can block their texts and emails, and avoid every situation where they’ll turn up.

These are all tactics of resistance, and they won’t protect you. Ironically, these tactics will allow the other person to further embed themselves into your psyche.

What does work is to accept that your relationship with them is super hard, and also that you are trying to make it less hard. This gentle acceptance does not mean that you are resigned to a life of misery, or that the situation will never get better. Maybe it will—and maybe it won’t. Accepting the reality of a difficult relationship allows us to soften. And this softening will open the door to your own compassion and wisdom.

Trust me: You are going to need those things.

2. The other person will probably tell you that you are the cause of all their bad feelings.

This is not true. You are not responsible for their emotions. You never have been, and you never will be. Don’t take responsibility for their suffering; if you do, they will never have the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves.

3. Tell the truth.

When you lie (perhaps to avoid upsetting them), you become complicit in the creation and maintenance of their reality, which is poisonous to you. For example, they might ask you if you forgot to invite them to a party. You can easily say yes, that it was a mistake that they didn’t get the Evite, and did they check their spam folder?

But lying is very stressful for human beings, maybe the most stressful thing. Lie detectors detect not lies, but the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. This will not make the relationship less toxic.

So, instead, tell the truth. Be sure to tell them your truth instead of your judgment, or what you imagine to be true for other people. Don’t say “I didn’t invite you because it would stress Mom out too much to have you there” or “I didn’t invite you because you are a manipulative drama queen who will find some way to make the evening about you.”

Instead, tell them your truth: “When you are in my home, I feel jittery and nervous, and I can’t relax, so I didn’t invite you to the party. I’m sorry that I’ve hurt your feelings.”

It takes courage to tell the truth, because often it makes people angry. But they will probably be mad at you anyway, no matter what you do. They almost certainly won’t like the new, truth-telling you—and that will make them likely to avoid you in the future. This might be a good thing.

If you have struggled with a toxic relationship, I hope this instruction manual will help you. Click To Tweet

4. If you feel angry or afraid, bring your attention to your breath and do not speak (or write) to the person until you feel calm.

It’s normal to want to defend yourself, but remember that anger and anxiety weaken you. Trust that soothing yourself is the only effective thing you can do right now. If you need to excuse yourself, go ahead and step out. Even if it is embarrassing or it leaves people hanging.

5. Have mercy.

Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness, and it allows us to alter a communication dynamic, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. We do this by offering them a gift from our heart. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you buy them a cup of coffee? Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?

Forgiveness takes this kindness to a whole new level. I used to think I couldn’t really forgive someone who’d hurt me until they’d asked for forgiveness, preferably in the form of a moving and remorseful apology letter.

But I’ve learned that to heal ourselves we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still hurting us. When we do, we feel happier and more peaceful. This means that you might need to forgive the other person at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.

When we find ways to show mercy to even the person who has cost us sleep and love and even our well-being, something miraculous happens. “When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves,” Anne Lamott writes, “we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp.”

Here’s the real miracle: Our mercy boomerangs back to us. When we show radical kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance—and when we tell the truth in even the most difficult relationship—we start to show ourselves those things. We realize that we can love and forgive and accept even the most terrible aspects of our own being, even if it is only for a moment. We start to show ourselves the truth, and this makes us feel free.

And, in my experience, this makes all we have suffered worth it.

three-brain-traps-that-make-you-wasteful-christine-carter

Why We Aren’t as Good at Saving the Earth as We Want to Be

A little while ago at a birthday soiree, I got to sit across from one of UC Berkeley’s cutting-edge ocean researchers.

I asked him to explain to me how climate change is affecting fish populations, and he responded by saying that “climate change is happening too slowly.” He lamented that while it is true that marine life as we know it will effectively be “dead by 2050,” the die-outs are happening too gradually for most folks to care enough to change.

Uh, I don’t know about you, but 2050 doesn’t seem that far away. That doesn’t seem like slow change to me; it seems dramatic, and tragic.

This really lit a fire under my tuna-eating self*. But seeing an oncoming train and actually stopping it are two entirely different matters. I could list a hundred — no, a thousand — small things that we could all do today to stop the climate change train-wreck from happening…but will we actually do them?

For most of us, changing our habits — reducing our reliance on disposable water-bottles, for example — is a lot like intending to lose weight or exercise more. We may have a very strong desire to be thinner, or a deep conviction to hit the gym regularly, but most people don’t actually succeed in eating less or working out more often over the long term.

Why is it so hard to change, despite our good intentions?

Because change takes willpower, and our willpower is limited. Our brains are more or less hard-wired in a way that makes it difficult to change our wasteful ways.

Sometimes the best thing that we can do for the environment is to reduce our own stress. Click To Tweet

Thankfully, research has been shedding light on many of the brain mechanisms that tend to foil us, so we CAN outsmart our brains. Here’s how:

1.) Beware of moral licensing. Moral licensing occurs when we behave virtuously and then “cancel out” our good deeds by doing something naughty. When we behave inline with our goals and values — whether it’s as large as trading in our truck for a Prius or as small as not taking a plastic bag at the grocery store — ironically, we risk back-sliding.

Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to feel that healthy or virtuous activities entitle us to partake in less-good (for us or for the earth) activities. Smokers will smoke more, for example, when they believe they’ve just taken a vitamin C pill. Similarly, philanthropists tend to give away less money after they’ve been reminded of their humanitarian attributes. One study even found that after people buy eco-friendly products, they’re more likely to cheat and steal! (New research suggests that some of us are more prone to moral licensing than others. My GGSC colleague Emiliana Simon-Thomas explains here.)

Instead of giving yourself a pat on the back for your own good behavior, avoid the “licensing effect” by reflecting on your goals and values rather than your accomplishment. Why did you ride your bike instead of drive? What larger mission are you trying to fulfill? Questions like these can help us stay focused on what we are trying to achieve instead of sabotaging our own efforts.

2.) Structure your environment to minimize the number of decisions you need to make. Every little decision we make takes a little out of our willpower reserve. Low willpower means that you are likely to do what is familiar rather than something more earth-saving.

Outsmart this brain boobie-trap three ways: First, pre-decide as much as you possibly can (where you will go, how you will get there, what you’ll bring with you, etc.). So instead of deciding whether to drive or walk to work in the morning right before you leave, commit to the decision to walk the night before.

Second, and this is the critical part: Structure your environment to support your decision. Put your work shoes deep in your backpack and your walking shoes by the door. Knowing that you are going to be tempted to drive, put your car keys in an inconvenient place you won’t want to venture to in the morning. (Have access to a dusty attic? That’d be perfect.)

Finally, make a specific plan for what you will do when challenges arise (and they will). If you wake up to find it raining, pre-decide that you’ll wear your blue rain jacket and take that huge golf umbrella your dad left in the closet. If you wake up late, pre-decide that you’ll ride your bike instead of drive. Etc.

3.) Reduce your stress. To boost follow-through on our good intentions, we need to relax. When we are stressed, our brains (kindly) try to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. A dopamine rush makes temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item… like that easy taxi to work rather than the less-than-comforting subway commute.

As Kelly McGonigal writes, “Stress points us in the wrong direction, away from clear-headed wisdom toward our least-helpful instincts.” When we’re relaxed, we’ll choose the locally grown organic apple. When we’re stressed? Whatever is most convenient, even if it doesn’t fit our environmental goals.

The takeaway: Sometimes the best thing that we can do for the environment is to reduce our own stress (read this post for more stress-reduction tips).

*For the record: I try to eat wild-caught tuna when possible. But I’m not patting myself on the back, because that might lead to moral licensing (see tip #1).

Confessions of a Bad Meditator

When I was in high school, my advisor, Michael Mulligan, called my parents to recommend a special treatment for my anxiety: Transcendental Meditation (“TM”). I was a high-achieving perfectionist so anxious, at times, that I had stress-induced asthma.

Mr. Mulligan was not then, and is not now, a new-age spiritual seeker. He is a dyed-in-the-wool New England educator who, surprisingly, became a California cowboy. Picture a balding lacrosse preppy in khakis and a cowboy hat.

I dutifully sat with my TM teacher and tried to focus on the mantra he gave me which, truthfully, I never really understood. (Was I supposed to be repeating “eye-ing” silently to myself, or “ah-sing”?) I was too intimidated by the teacher to ask for clarification.

I was told, and I believed, that if I could just practice TM twice daily, as instructed, after six days in a row I would experience a calm so profound I would no longer be stressed or exhausted.

Boy, that sounded good.

Since high school, I’ve learned lots of other kinds of meditation; probably every kind there is. I’ve taken classes with famous Buddhists and studied Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I’ve tested all the hottest meditation apps. I’m even giving a talk at a conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama this summer.

I stay interested in meditation and I keep trying it because scores of studies have shown the benefits to be broad and profound. Meditation lowers our stress and anxiety, helps us focus, and makes us more productive. And it makes us healthier. After meditating daily for eight weeks, research subjects were 76 percent less likely than a non-meditating control group to miss work due to illness. And if they did get a cold or a flu, it lasted only five days on average, compared to eight for everyone else.

I believe in the benefits of meditation. What’s more, I believe that meditation holds the key to my spiritual and personal growth. But I haven’t been able to get myself to really practice it in my daily life.

Here’s the truth: despite all my training, and despite knowing all the the benefits, I have never one single time meditated twice daily for six days in a row, as I was originally instructed. (Actually, I have done that as a part of a long meditation retreat, but never in my regular life.)

This disconnect is driving me crazy. It is a part of my life that, until recently, I had not figured out yet.

Why? This is my new insight: I am, on some deep level, afraid. Whenever we are faced with a behavior that defies both logic and desire (e.g., I both know why it is in my best interest to meditate, and I want a regular practice), the hard truth is that usually fear is the roadblock.

Whenever we are faced with a behavior that defies both logic and desire…fear is the roadblock. Click To Tweet

It’s not that I actually feel actively afraid of meditating, and you might not feel particularly afraid of whatever you are not-doing, either. A fear is a perceived risk or danger — real or not. What’s risky or dangerous about meditation, after all?

It turns out, more than I originally thought. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Just the thought of not working, not accomplishing, not striving feels uncomfortable. And when I really dig deep, I can see that there’s more: I’m a smidge terrified of that void that, for some, is the whole point of meditation. That Stillness. Nothingness.

I might understand intellectually the many benefits of meditation, but in the moment it feels better to me to check my email, to use all the time allotted for meditation skimming news about the latest Trump disaster, or to just plain start working first thing each morning. These things aren’t necessarily the best use of my time, but they are so much easier than giving myself over to the stillness that would be so good for my mental and physical health (and, according to the scientific research, my work, and, according to the enlightened masters, my spiritual growth).

Here’s what I’m afraid of: What if I don’t get enough done today? This might sound shallow, but it’s the tiny tip of a glacial (and fundamental) human fear: What if I am not good enough? What if I am simply not enough?

I can always convince myself (logically) that I am enough; there is a mountain of evidence of this in my achievements. But deep down, as 30 years of avoidance has shown me, there is something more here. Somehow, my achievements are not enough for me to feel inner peace, they are never enough. Hospice caregiver Stephen Levine writes about how many people, sadly, feel this on their deathbed:

“[The dying often] do not recognize that their strong desire for some trophy of their worthiness is a trophy of their feelings of unworthiness born of a deeper disappointment. Having not discovered their own great truth…they have settled for success. Whether their dream was stardom or starshine, their book published, their true love found, or their temper defeated, they believed that their life was incomplete.” [emphasis mine]

Ah. Hmm. Meditation asks me to let go of all tributes to my worthiness, to my ego-based identity. This is more or less the stated goal of every meditation practice I’ve ever learned: To let go of those external and often status-based things that we think make us feel worthy — because they amplify our feelings of unworthiness. Meditation asks me to cease — for 20 minutes, twice each day — being a mom, wife, lover, friend, sociologist, author, speaker, coach, teacher. To give up success, in favor of peace. That’s fucking frightening to people like me.

I have struggled to meditate regularly for the last three decades because my belief that I should meditate is intellectual, cognitive. But my avoidance of it — my fear of not being good enough — is emotional.

And emotions always trump logic. I know that I am not alone here. Many people don’t do the very things they know would make them happier and healthier.

So instead of telling myself a thousand more reasons why I should meditate, I’m going to work with my fear on an emotional level. I know how to tame a fear. Here’s how, if you’d like to follow along with a fear of your own:

1. Name it to tame it. Instead of denying that you’re afraid, look fear in the face. Give it a name. For me: Fear of not being or doing enough.

2. Comfort yourself. Start by exhaling deeply, which is the key to calming the nervous system.

Now, think about what will make you feel safer. What can you do to soothe yourself right now? (I know, a glass of chardonnay sounds good. That’s not the type of comfort we are talking about, friend.) I like to recite to myself this part of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to myself:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.

3. Take a baby step. Break the behavior you are avoiding doing into an action step so small that it no longer feels worth resisting. I’m going to go meditate for three minutes. I know I have three minutes, and that doesn’t feel so scary, after all.

That’s it! That’s what I’m doing — and it’s getting results: Meditation has become more a part of my daily life.

Meditation allows me to practice putting down the heavy trophies that proclaim that I am “enough.” For a few minutes each day, I can leave the world of success and status and go home to who I really am: Love. Acceptance. Connection.

Pico Iyer writes in The Art of Stillness that “getting caught up in the [material] world and expecting to find happiness there [makes] about as much sense as reaching into a fire and hoping not to get burned.”

I’ve come to see that there is no such thing as a bad meditator; there is just a person who either turns to her internal experience to see what is there, or someone who does not. For me, I’ve finally seen that turning inward is not as scary as I thought it was, and it’s a sure way not to get burned.

the-importance-of-alone-time-christine-carter

Spend Some Time Alone

Usually, you’ll hear me tellin’ ya to spend more time with friends.

This is because the best predictor of a person’s happiness is the breadth and depth of her social connections. But alone time is important, too.

A Harvard study indicates that a bit of solitude can make us more capable of empathy towards others. Empathy is one of the foundations of happiness, in part because empathy builds the social connections that are so crucial for well-being.

Ironically, in order to best nurture our connections with others, we need to spend time alone. Click To Tweet

So, ironically, in order to best nurture our connections with others (and our own happiness) we need to spend some time alone. In my own experience, this is especially true for mothers! I know I am warmer and more patient with my children when I’ve had some time alone.

Take Action: This week, remember that solitude is very different from loneliness, and give yourself a bit of alone time.

Join the Discussion: Do you think solitude contributes to your happiness? How do you get your alone time? Comment below.

Happiness Tip: Lower Your Expectations

My father — the most disciplined person I’ve ever known — always quips that his “only goal is to climb a low mountain.” As an over-achieving kid, I never understood this assertion. Why would you only want to climb a low mountain?!

Turns out, low expectations can be a key to happiness. Sometimes we expect too much from our spouses, our children, our jobs, and ourselves. When our expectations are unrealistic, instead of inspiring greatness with the high bar we’ve set, we’re more likely to foster disappointment, or resentment, or even hatred in ourselves.

It’s not that we shouldn’t ever have high expectations; it’s just that we need to be aware of how our expectations can sometimes make us unhappy.

Turns out, low expectations are a key to happiness. Click To Tweet

Take Action: This week, reset an expectation: what is a more realistic and joyful goal? Then, refocus on the journey rather than the destination. What mountain can you climb that you will truly enjoy climbing, whether or not you ever make it to the top? How can you focus on the present moment — whatever you are doing right now — rather setting big goals and high expectations for the future?

Join the Discussion: Which of your high expectations are making you miserable? Are you afraid to lower your expectations? Have you ever felt happier — or been more successful — after lowering your expectations? Inspire others by leaving a comment below.

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Believe it or not, the key to getting into a new habit is also low expectations! Design your own “better than nothing” workout to start a daily exercise habit. Learn more here. Use coupon code LOW50 to join my 21 Day Exercise Mini-Course for only $4.99.

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Three Risky Ways to Fall Deeply in Love

Love feels magical and biological—something that just happens to us, something beyond our control. Research shows, however, that love is better thought of as behavioral—or even transactional. Yes, hormones play a role, but much more important is how we act with the object of our affection. We do certain things, and those actions foster the emotions we associate with being in love. According to researcher Barbara Fredrickson, author of Love 2.0, we create our feelings of love, day after day. Or we don’t create them, and love fades.

So what actions lead to love? Here are three – in honor of Valentine’s Day – all based on fostering vulnerability. Before you run for the woods, hear me out. Yes, vulnerability can be uncomfortable because it involves, by definition, emotional exposure, uncertainty, and risk. But vulnerability allows trust and intimacy to develop and deepen, creating strong feelings of connection and love.

Action #1: Take a risk together.

Researchers think we tend to unconsciously conflate the high-arousal induced by doing something risky with the high-arousal of intense attraction—the two states feel similar. This creates a similar biochemistry and physiology as when we are first falling in love.

This Valentine’s Day, go straight for that adrenaline rush by doing something risky. Venture to an unknown place that feels a little daunting. Visit a karaoke bar, and actually sing. Try a new sport, one where you risk feeling silly or uncoordinated.

Action #2: Get naked…emotionally.

What can you reveal to your partner that he or she doesn’t already know about you? Ask your date intimate questions to which you aren’t sure you know the answer. We come to like people more when we engage in escalating, gradual back-and-forth “personal self-disclosure.”

Love comes from action, not waiting to be adored. Click To Tweet

Researchers have long been able to create profound feelings of being in love through self-disclosure (even between strangers!). Check out the 36 questions that Arthur Aron and his colleagues used to do this in the lab. And don’t forget: How you respond when your partner is making him or herself vulnerable is also important. (Hint: turn off your phone and pay attention.)

Action #3: Gaze into each other’s eyes.

Directly, for four full minutes. Set a timer. Don’t talk. Breathe. Relax.

This technique has been widely cited as a part of the experiment by Arthur Aron and pals—though I haven’t been able to find reference to it in a published study. Still, this seems like a very solid tactic for creating feelings of intimacy and love.

Stanford researcher Fred Luskin has people do this in his workshops, and it definitely creates big feelings of vulnerability. (Which is good, remember. The exposure is terrifying, but that is what we are after here.)

Take Action: Choose one or more of the three actions above to do with your Valentine and then make a plan for making it happen.

Join the Discussion: What other ideas do you have for making yourself vulnerable in the service of greater intimacy and connection?

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If you want more intimacy in your key relationships, you will love my eCourse, The Science of Finding Flow! Enroll now for $99 using the coupon code FLOW99. This is a steal, friends–that’s more than half off! Enroll here.

Photo by James Marvin Phelps

Tuesday Tip: The Best Habit To Start Now

You already know, of course, that getting into a regular exercise routine is probably the best thing you can do for yourself — whether you want to be happier, healthier, skinnier, or smarter. Even though you already know this, I’m going to remind you. Why? Because I think we sometimes forget that the hassles of exercise don’t usually outweigh the benefits. Reams of research show that:

1) Exercise boosts your energy by delivering oxygen and nutrients to your brain and muscles. It helps your cardiovascular and muscular system work more efficiently, which gives you more strength and endurance (and therefore energy). Exercise also triggers the production of insulin receptors, which means that your body is able to better utilize glucose, or blood sugar — the raw energy that your body runs on.

2) Exercise reduces stress and anxiety. While aerobic exercise has been shown to alleviate anxiety disorders, even people who don’t struggle with a disorder report feeling less anxious after exercise.
3) Physical movement makes us happier, in part by fostering the neurochemicals in your body and brain that leave you happier and more relaxed. Doctors in the UK often prescribe exercise as a first-line treatment for depression, it’s so effective!


 

“At every level, from the microcellular to the psychological, exercise not only wards off the ill effects of chronic stress; it can also reverse them. Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to its preshriveled state. The mechanisms by which exercise changes how we think and feel are so much more effective than donuts, medicines, and wine. When you say you feel less stressed out after you go for a swim, or even a fast walk, you are.”

― John J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

 


4) Physical movement improves sleep — and better sleep also tends to makes us happier, healthier, and more productive during the day.

5) Exercise makes us healthier physically and helps us control our weight, so much that it increases longevity — the amount of time that we live. Physically active people have: 

  • Reduced risk of heart attack
  • Lower blood cholesterol
  • Lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes
  • Lower risk of cancer
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Stronger bones, muscles, joints — and therefore lower risk of osteoporosis and risk of injury from falls.

6) It’ll improve your ability to focus, resist temptations, and make good decisions. According to John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, participants in an Australian study who exercised:

Reported that an entire range of behavior related to self-regulation took a turn for the better. Not only did they steadily increase their visits to the gym, they reported that they smoked less, drank less caffeine and alcohol, ate more healthy food and less junk food, curbed impulse spending and overspending, and lost their tempers less often. They procrastinate less and kept more appointments. And, they didn’t leave the dishes in the sink — at least not as often.

7) Physical activity conditions your brain for improved memory and learning. Exercise increases brain chemicals called “growth factors,” which help the brain both grow new neurons and establish new connections between existing neurons. This helps us learn, adapt to change, and move what we learn into long-term memory.

I hope, looking at this long list of benefits — which is not even exhaustive, by the way — that you are feeling more motivated to make a plan to get in a daily exercise habit! If you know you want to get in an exercise habit but aren’t sure where to begin, please let me help! Enroll in my 21 Day Exercise Mini-Course — it’s only $9.99, and you’ll get free live coaching from me as a part of it.