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Tuesday Tip: Expect (at Least Minor, Sometimes Major) Failure

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We all understand that when we first attempt to drive a car or ride a bike, we’ll make mistakes. Behavior change is no different; it’s a process of slipping, learning from the mistake, and trying again.” ― John C. Norcross, Changeology

Ah, the beginning of February.

If you made a New Year’s Resolution a month ago, and you’ve kept it so far, take a victory lap. The other (probably half) of you? Don’t worry about it if you are faltering. Worry and self-criticism don’t work. Don’t stress, but also…don’t just sit there.

This may be blazingly obvious, but in order to do better tomorrow, you’ll need to know what causes your trip-ups. What obstacle have you failed to see or plan for in the last week or so? How does your resolution need tweaking? Did you take on too much too soon? Figure it out, and make a specific plan for what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation again.

When I was first trying to squeeze meditation into my morning routine, I felt like I was failing more mornings than I was succeeding. Every day brought a new tweak to the routine. For example, at first I thought that I could get away with seven hours of sleep at night. But after three or four mornings of pushing the snooze button I realized I was too tired and had to turn the lights out earlier. Then I thought that I could read before bed on my iPad; that was a no-go, too, as the light from the screen kept me from falling asleep quickly.

For several days in a row, I didn’t foresee minor obstacles that proved challenging, like it being too cold in the house for me to not leap straight from my warm bed to my hot shower. But after I’d encountered each obstacle once, I could make a plan for what to do the next time. It can take many months to settle into something as large as a new morning routine.

So don’t worry about it if you are faltering — but don’t give up, either! Figure out how you need to tweak your habit to eliminate obstacles, and carry on!

Want more advice for establishing (and keeping) a new habit? Sign up for my FREE 90 day — text, email, and Facebook-based — coaching program to help you make and keep resolutions that stick.

Photo by Tim Ellis

Happiness Tip - Go Easy on Yourself - Christine Carter

Happiness Tip: Go Easy on Yourself

Fun fact: Most people are starting to falter at their New Year’s Resolutions by now.

If you are anything like me, setbacks, lapses, and mistakes can come with a fair amount of self-flagellation. Somehow I think that if I’m really hard on myself, I’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or I’ll motivate myself towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.

Here’s why: Self-criticism doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.

Self-compassion — being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves–does help matters when we make a mistake or the going gets rough. It leads to less anxiety and depression, greater peace of mind, and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

Take Action: The next time you flub-up, take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a small child: use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response (which will only make matters worse).

Photo courtesy of Matty Ring.

Don’t Make the Same Darn Resolution Year After Year

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Now that the holidays are behind us, and our daily routines are settling back into place, I’m ready to take this fresh start that the New Year offers us. I’m ready to intentionally make a resolution that I know I can keep.

Are you?

Before you try to change yourself in any way, take stock. How many resolutions did you make LAST year that you were able to keep in 2015? Looking back, what goals did you reach? What resolutions did you make last week for 2016 that you’ve made before, in years past? (How many years in a row is this now?)

Sometimes we don’t keep our resolutions because our priorities shift, and that’s a good thing. But more often, we don’t keep them because life takes over. Habits can feel too hard to create, and by mid-January, our willpower starts to wane.

This year, don’t make resolutions that depend on willpower. In fact, will you please let me help you make your resolutions this year? It doesn’t have to be so hard: I promise!

Register now for my newly relaunched habit coaching program. It’s FREE. There is no catch; I love my job and my readers and I really want you to be successful this year. I want to help you set a resolution you can keep. I can give you the know-how you need to achieve your goals this year. No willpower needed!

This program is a completely revised version of my most popular webinar, Cracking the Habit Code. 90 Days to a New Habit also includes a free workbook and access to a live online Q&A (TOMORROW!) to give you even more guidance and structure.

Here’s how I want you to feel at the end of my 90 day program: Successful. Happy. Productive. Like you can live your life intentionally, and that you can spend your time and energy on the things that matter most to you.

Enroll in the free 90-day coaching program

Register for the live 60-minute Q&A TOMORROW at 2:30 PM PST

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Eight More Ways to Say No

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“I know I should say ‘no’ more,” everyone seems to be telling me. “But how? It’s so hard.” Saying no can be hard. Here are eight more strategies to make it a little easier.

  1. Call it as you see it: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not able to do more than my share this week.”
  2. Reference your crystal ball: “Right now, in this moment, I’d like to go to that party. But I know that I will regret it if I do.”
  3. Practice your reason for saying no before you need it: “I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities before the end of the year.”
  4. Say no clearly, and repeat yourself using the same words, if necessary: “I’m so sorry that you are struggling right now, and I wish I could help. But I can’t cover for you this time. I really do wish I could help, but I can’t.”
  5. Fight fire with fire: Take advantage of the “curse of familiarity” by finding an advocate who is close to the person asking you for a favor—and let them say no for you.
  6. Offer a concrete excuse: “I promised my daughter I’d take her to a play that night.”
  7. Offer an alternative: “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”
  8. Take time to consider: “Thanks for the opportunity. I’ll look at the time frame and get back to you.”

Interested in the research behind these strategies? Check out my Huffington Post blog on this topic here (will add link later). Want even more suggestions for how to say no? See “21 Ways to Give Good No.”

Photo by Lars Plougmann

Tuesday Tip: How do you want to feel?

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Before you start to make your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself not what you want to achieve, but what, in your heart of hearts, you want to feel. Shooting for the feeling-state that you want more of (maybe you want more happiness, confidence, or fulfillment) will take you down a different path than setting your sights on a particular achievement. Emotions are more motivating—and far more fulfilling—than an achievement goal in the long run.

Maybe you want to lose weight this year, for example. If you make a resolution to “lose 20 pounds” and then join a weight loss program, how will that make you feel? At first, you might feel great, because you’ve just made a healthy decision for yourself. But if you don’t cheat on your diet, you’ll likely soon feel deprived. And if you do begin to cheat on your diet, you’ll likely feel anxious and guilty. Both of these feeling states are unmotivating and uncomfortable, which will make it easy for you to ditch your diet.

But what if you resolve to do things that make you feel healthy and strong this year by getting in specific habits that foster your health and strength? Feeling stronger and healthier are very motivating feeling states, which will make it much easier for you to keep your resolution.

So don’t make a resolution to grow your business by 25% if growing your business is likely to make you feel more stressed out and exhausted…unless you acknowledge that you are actually making a resolution to feel more stress in the coming year.

Start with how you want to FEEL, and plan out your actions from there. If you’d like more support, I’ve just redesigned my FREE online coaching program, 90 Days to a New Habit (formerly called “Cracking the Habit Code”). This 12-week coaching program (did I mention that it is free?) is designed to help you set the right resolution this year and keep it. Enroll anytime here. Still have questions? SAVE THE DATE for a free Q&A with me on January 6th at 2:30 pm PST — register here.

Photo by Dawn Ashley

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Tuesday Tip: How to Buy Happiness

Even though we say we can’t buy happiness, we often behave as though we can. Why else would we spend so much time shopping? What if I told you that you actually can buy happiness, for yourself, or for someone else? Well, you can! Here’s how.

For starters, remember that there is a huge difference between real joy — or any other positive emotion, like gratitude, or love, or hope — and the gratification that can come from buying something (or receiving a gift). Positive emotions like awe and compassion have different effects on our nervous system than material rewards, like gifts, do.

Positive emotions function to reverse stress — to put the breaks on any lingering fight-or-flight response that might be making us feel anxious or unsettled. In contrast, material purchases and gifts trigger the reward center in our brain, which usually delivers a nice hit of pleasure…and then leaves us wanting more. The lingering feeling that more would be better can be blamed on a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Though dopamine does deliver that initial pleasurable feeling, its main purpose is to create desire, or craving, in the brain, which acts as a motivating force. This is why when we treat ourselves with food or a shopping trip we are often soon left wishing for more (rather than satisfied with what we already have).

So here’s how to buy happiness: Make purchases that foster real positive emotions, either in yourself or others.

Here are some ideas for your happiness gift list:

  • Buy experiences like a trip, concert, movie, or dinner out — especially those that foster connections between friends and family members. This gives people a chance to feel emotions like love, excitement, anticipation (and maybe awe, elevation, or inspiration, depending on the activity). The feeling of connection we get when we do something fun with people we love is one of our most powerful sources of happiness.
  • Don’t buy gifts from a list or registry. One of the reasons that we love opening presents so much is that people find surprises exciting. Excitement is a positive emotion. This means that a gift has the potential to bring happiness mostly through the joyful anticipation it brings…not the actual gift itself, which might be gratifying but will often leave us wanting more. If a receiver chooses a gift themselves and knows what they are getting, the joyful anticipation won’t be there.
  • Give something that enables the receiver to give to others. (I’m a fan of ‘Tis Best gift cards, for example.) Believe it or not, giving brings far more happiness than receiving, and so when we want to give happiness, the best thing we can do is enable someone else to be a giver. When they are able to give to people or causes they feel passionately about, gift receivers are likely to feel generosity, awe, compassion, love, gratitude, or engagement — all big and powerful positive emotions.

Looking for ways to give yourself a little pressy? Spend your money on your health. Really! Although happiness does lead toEstablish an Exercise Habit Mini-Course - Christine Carter better health (primarily by reducing stress), health is also a major predictor of happiness — on average, healthy people are 20% happier. So buy yourself some vitamins, and those Zumba classes you love so much.

Here’s a no-brainer present for yourself: my new Establish an Exercise Habit Mini-Course, designed to teach you how to establish a lifelong exercise habit for yourself. It’s only $9.99, and I promise it will pave the way for you to be healthier AND happier in the coming year.

Happy Holidays!

 

Tuesday Tip: Tell a Story from Your Family History

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Here’s a way to foster family connection: Share a story from your family history. It doesn’t even
have to be a good story!

Research shows that one way people foster happiness is by creating a particular type of narrative about their history, one that demonstrates that family members have been through both good and bad times together, but through it all they’ve stuck together. 

Kids who know a lot about their family history — the parts that they didn’t experience themselves, but that were passed down to them through stories — feel that they are a part of something much larger than themselves. This, in turn, gives kids enormous emotional benefits according to researchers Marshall Duke, Amber Lazarus and Robyn Fivush. These benefits include:

  • a greater sense of control over their lives;
  • higher self-esteem;
  • better family functioning;
  • greater family cohesiveness;
  • lower levels of anxiety;
  • fewer behavior problems.

In fact, in Duke, Lazarus, and Fivush’s research, knowledge of family narrative was more strongly associated with children’s emotional well-being than any other factor.

It’s not that knowledge of your family history provides all those benefits in and of itself; the way to build a happy family is not necessarily to start giving kids family history lessons. The researchers explain: “If simply knowing family history could make for better states of well-being, some might propose (confusing correlation with causation) that we simply teach children various facts about their families and they will become stronger. Clearly, this approach would not work!”

Duke, Lazarus, and Fivush go on to explain that most kids come to know their family history at times like dinner, or on vacation, or through holiday traditions — and that other research shows that these same situations and experiences occur more frequently in cohesive families.

All of these things together help kids experience themselves as a part of something larger than themselves, and that sense gives them “the personal strength and moral guidance…associated with increased resilience, better adjustment, and improved chances of good clinical and educational outcomes.”

So one way to build a happy family is to construct narratives about your family. Why not start this week? To help, I’ve created this list of 20 Questions to Ask at a Family Dinner.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I’m so grateful for this wonderful community.

Photo credit: Hotlanta Voyeur

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Three Tricks to Find Your Flow

Athletes call this mental state being in “The Zone”; psychologists call it “flow” or peak experience, and they have linked it to leading a life of happiness and purpose. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who authored theTao Te Ching, called it “doing without doing” or “trying without trying.”

I think of this mental state as our “sweet spot,” where we have both great strength and great ease; it’s the mental state when our best work emerges without strain or anxiety. Instead of making our most powerful effort, we get to experience our own effortless power.

Although we usually assume that a state of deep concentration is hard to achieve (and getting harder these days, as the interruptions from our smartphone/email/texts mount) the truth is that we can access this wonderful state much more easily than we often realize. Here’s how.

1. Clear mental clutter. What is going on in your mind that will keep you from your sweet spot?

Take a quick look at your task list, and decide what you will do today and when you will do it. When our subconscious mind doesn’t know when we will complete a task, it will often interrupt our flow state with intrusive reminders about what else we need to do. Research shows that our unconscious isn’t actually nagging us to do the task at hand but rather to make a plan to get it done. So scheduling a task can make a huge difference in our ability to focus on something else.

Another precursor to getting into The Zone is knowing where you are in your workflow. “That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, told Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s where the engagement comes from.”

So note what you’ve just accomplished, what you hope to accomplish next, and what you’ll work on after that.

As I approach my tasks, I also find it helpful to take a quick peek at my calendar and email to clear mental clutter. Is there anything urgent? The idea isn’t to respond to emails; it’s a check that keeps me from worrying while I work that I should have checked my email, and keeps me from wondering if there is anything on my calendar that I should be preparing for.

2. Build yourself a fortress against interruption. If you can’t concentrate, you can’t be in your sweet spot. Period.

That’s because if you keep getting interrupted, you can’t achieve the state of deep concentration that you need for flow. Even if you like the interruptions (as when you get funny texts from a friend). Even if the interruptions are good for your work (as when a colleague stops by to answer a question). If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this:

No focus, no flow.

No focus, no flow. #TheScienceOfFindingFlow Click To TweetNo focus, no flow.” username=”raisinghappines”]

Anything that might distract or tempt you away from your work needs to be taken care of before you drop into The Zone. Think of yourself like a toddler going on a road trip: What will make you pull over before you reach your destination? Will you need to plug your computer in? Get a kleenex? Adjust the thermostat? Something as small as an itchy tag on the back of your shirt can weaken your focus if you are tempted to go to the bathroom to cut it out. Here is what I have to do before I find flow:

Clear my desk of anything that might distract me. I remove yesterday’s coffee cup, close books, put pens away, stack papers into a deceptively neat pile. As I do this, I note anything on my task list that will need my attention later, and make a time when I will attend to it.

Open any documents on my computer that I will need to use while I’m doing my focused work, and then quit my email application. This prevents me from opening my email while I’m trying to write—once I do that, I have to exert a lot of mental energy to resist reading new emails.

I close open browser windows and any other apps that aren’t in use. I leave my calendar open, as one of the great benefits of working from our sweet spot is that we lose track of time, and my calendar keeps me from missing what’s next.

I put my smartphone into “do not disturb” mode and move it out of sight. I turn off the ringer on my landline. (All other alerts on my computer are already off. I would never dream of getting a device like an Apple watch, which would be a constant threat to my concentration.)

I go to the bathroom and bring a glass of water, snack, and cup of coffee to my desk.

I close my shades and office door. If I’m not alone, I put on noise canceling headphones and then I tell Buster, my trusty canine colleague, to go to his “place,” where he’s trained to stay while I work.

Take a minute to anticipate your needs and take care of them now rather than when they will break your state of concentration.

3. Prepare your brain to go into a deep state of focus. This doesn’t require any sci-fi technology that sends a probe or special rays into your brain. Instead, it just takes a few simple, very ordinary steps.

Have a small snack. Concentration is very taxing for our brain energy-wise. Research shows that our focus and stamina tend to improve when our blood sugar is on the rise. (No need to have a whole meal, though. Digestion diverts energy from the brain. A small handful of nuts works best for me.)

Drink a lot of water. Your brain is 73 percent water, and even mild dehydration can cause it to sputter. Research participants who are barely dehydrated — not enough to even feel thirsty — experience “significant deterioration in mental functions” according to one study. Drinking water corrects trouble focusing. We aren’t sure why, but one theory is that it is the brain’s way of getting us to pay attention to our basic survival needs rather than our big thoughts and ambitions.

Put on some music you’ve chosen as ideal for getting into your sweet spot. Star athletes have long understood the power that music has to raise our energy and focus our attention — as well as to block out distractions. (Just make sure that the music isn’t another distraction in and of itself. I’ve created a Pandora radio station that plays only upbeat instrumental music; lyrics distract me.)

Exhale deeply for a minute or so. Our breathing profoundly affects our nervous system and blood flow in our brain—and, therefore, our performance. Taking some nice deep breaths signals to our brain that we are safe, allowing us to access mental resources we can’t when our breathing is shallow (which our brain takes as a sign that we are in a state of fight or flight).

Elite performers — from Stephen Curry to Maya Angelou — train themselves to drop into The Zone unconsciously by performing little rituals like the one I’ve created out of these three steps. (Angelou said that she used her pre-writing routine to “enchant” herself.) Indeed, rituals like these make it possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary work.

Getting into a flow state is a habit you can create!
If you need help developing your “flow” routine,
 I hope you’ll check out my latest eCourse, The Science of Finding Flow. In 9 self-paced units, I’ll show you how to optimize your brain so that you can allow your most joyful, productive, energetic, and successful self to emerge. I’ll teach you how to be happy while accomplishing your goals — and while still having energy left over for the things you want to do.

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Photo courtesy of Kristina Alexanderson.

This is What I Hope I’ve Taught You

My baby Fiona giving her 8th grade commencement talk. (A reminder to me that she’s got this thing — she gave better advice to her friends at graduation than I provide in this article.)

My daughter, Fiona, leaves for school this week. I’m happy and excited for her—and also broken up about it. Although it was always the plan for our kids to grow up and move away, this week, like so many parents who have a child going off to school, I’m consumed by grief.*

I’ve done my best to teach my kids everything I know about finding happiness and fulfillment in life, but who knows when they are really listening? Just in case she missed something, here is a list of the principles I hope Fiona takes with her to school.

1. Make kindness the central theme of your life. Look for opportunities to show compassion and generosity. Don’t be tricked into thinking that happiness will come from getting what you want; happiness comes from giving, not getting. When you’re feeling down, help someone else.

2. Tolerate discomfort. Have the difficult conversations. Let yourself truly notice when other people are suffering. Do the right thing even when the right thing is hard. You are strong enough.

3. Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.

4. Let go of what other people think of you. Another person’s opinion of you is their business, not yours. Great leaders are often criticized. Especially ignore critics who seem delighted when you stumble. 

5. Invite constructive criticism from the people who want the best for you. Other people offer us a different view; we need their broader perspective to grow and improve.

6. Accept that well-meaning and loving people will sometimes give you bad advice. You’ll know when something isn’t right for you because you’ll feel it in your body. Our unconscious mind is our best source of intelligence, but it communicates through intuition and bodily sensations, not words. Learn how to read your “body compass.”

7. Know the difference between legitimate and not-helpful fear. Legitimate fear, like terror in the presence of a dangerous person, makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. When you feel legitimate fear, run like the wind. Not-helpful fear, on the other hand, makes us hesitate rather than bolt. (Like when we are afraid of looking stupid and so don’t ask an important question.) Ignore your hesitation. As Maria Shriver wrote in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring … Whatever you’re afraid of–that is the very thing you should try to do.”

8. Your relationships with your family and closest friends are always more important than any achievement. Prioritize accordingly.

9. When you hurt someone, apologize. Even if you didn’t intend to hurt that person, or you think they are over-reacting.

10. Look people in the eye. Chat with people in elevators and in line at the store. Look up. Smile.

11. Develop a strong handshake. Try to connect with people in your first interaction, to make them feel your delight in them (even if you are scared to death).

12. Hug people liberally. Even people you’ve just met. People are stressed. They need more love. Don’t withhold it.

13. Don’t compare yourself to others. When we get caught in a web of thinking that we are better or worse than others, we usually end up depressed, anxious, and insecure. If you notice that you are comparing yourself to others, try asking yourself these questions: What do I appreciate about those people? How can I connect with or learn from them? How can I add value to their lives?

14. Develop good habits; you won’t need so much willpower that way.

15. Don’t wear uncomfortable shoes, even if everyone else is doing it. High heels are the cigarettes of the future; they are bad for your health and they get you in the habit of ignoring pain in order to look good to others, which is never a good idea.

16. Let yourself feel what you feel. When we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed), we live in a world that offers many ways to numb those negative feelings–to not really feel them. But to honestly feel the positive things in life—to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude—we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. Practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.

17. Train your brain to see the positive in your life by keeping a gratitude journal.

18. Don’t believe everything you think. If a thought is stressing you out, it is probably untrue.

19. If you feel overwhelmed, unplug. Create times and places in your life every single day where you are free from technology.

20. Make your bed, and keep your room clean. The state of your bed is the state of your head. The outside tends to match the inside.

21. Know when and how to say “no.” That way, you’ll feel more joy when you say “yes.”

22. Chase meaning, not happiness. What purpose or value does your work and your passion have for other people? If you don’t know, find out.

23. Focus on the journey, not the achievement. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, or saving your happiness for when you get where you are going, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.

24. Remember that talents are actually skills. Talent” comes from hard work, passion, and great coaching or teaching.

25. Give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone does something hurtful or annoying, consider the idea that it isn’t about you. Practice compassion and empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of others.

26. Make mistakes. In the classroom, in your relationships, on the athletic field, at parties, at home. We learn stuff from our mistakes that we couldn’t learn any other way.

27. When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Self-criticism makes us depressed, and much more likely to make the same mistake again. Instead, remind yourself that mistakes make us human. Feel compassion for your suffering. It can feel really awful to make a mistake. It’s okay to feel awful–to feel frustrated, embarrassed, guilty, disappointed, etc. You can handle these feelings.

28. Repair your mistakes. Use them to become a better person.

29. Love what is. Wishing to be older or younger, wanting other people to be different than they are, wanting it to be sunny when it is raining–this is fighting with reality, and it is a futile and frustrating pastime.

30. If you are tired, rest. Working 24/7 will get you nowhere fast. (Trust me, I’ve tried this.)

31. Remind yourself that more is not necessarily better. Do this especially if you are worried that you won’t have enough of something, if you feel like you don’t have as much as others, or if you are feeling ungenerous with your belongings or your time. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more likes on Instagram, more clothes, more popular or important friends, more prestigious schools. But as they accumulate more, odds are, they’ll just want more! True abundance is not a quantity of something; it is a quality of life, a feeling of sufficiency. When we step back from the idea that more might be better, often we see that we have enough to share.

32. Surround yourself with people and situations that make you laugh uncontrollably. Laughter is heaven on earth.

* Fiona is going to boarding school for 9th grade. This is at once terrible and wonderful. Even though I went to the high school she’ll be attending (The Thacher School), and I’ve served on its board for nine years, I’m really having some hesitations about all this going away business. But then I remember: I had an incredible experience at Thacher that I would never dream of depriving Fiona of, especially just to satisfy my own selfish desire to keep her home. Still.

 

My latest eCourse, The Science of Finding Flow is focuses on so many of these topics — how to really feel your feelings, how to live with total integrity, how to prioritize friendships and nurture important relationships. In 9 self-paced units, you’ll learn to allow your most joyful, productive, energetic, and successful self to emerge. Enroll now or learn more here.

 

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The Three Components of an Effective Apology

People make mistakes all the time.

Not just bad people, or weak people. All people. Our mistakes are what make us human. And even when we don’t think that we’ve made a mistake, other people will often find errors in our ways. We human beings are walking offenders.

Here’s the real question: If we’ve done something that offends someone else — whether or not we feel we are to blame — should we apologize?

I believe that it almost always serves our highest good to apologize if we’ve hurt or offended someone else — even if we think the offended person’s anger is unjustified, or if we have a perfectly good excuse for what happened. Or if our intentions were all good.

Often, the impact of our actions is not what we intended. But here’s the thing: Impact matters more than intention. Our happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of our social connections — our relationships with friends, family, partners, spouses, neighbors, colleagues — and so broken or fraying connections are usually worth repairing.

We don’t repair a fissure in one of our relationships by ignoring it. (We have a saying in our family: You can sweep sh*t under the rug, but it is still going to smell.) And we don’t repair it by blaming someone else, or defending our actions. We initiate a repair by apologizing.

But all apologies aren’t created equal, of course. (All parents have watched children spit out a forced “SORRY!” and known it was worthless.)

So what makes a good apology? After studying that question extensively, Aaron Lazare developed perhaps the most robust criteria to date for effective apologies. Drawing on Dr. Lazare’s work, I’ve created the following three-step method for making a good apology.

Step 1: Tell them what you feel. (Just the remorseful feelings, please.)
Usually, we start by saying “I’m sorry” to express remorse. “I’m sorry” is more effective when we elaborate on our remorseful feelings. For example, “I’m so sorry and saddened to hear that my lack of communication has made you so angry and resentful.” Or, “I’m so sorry and embarrassed and ashamed that my comment caused such an uproar.”

What is not constructive is succumbing to–and sharing–feelings of resentment or defensiveness, like, “I’m sorry… you’re being so petty and critical.”

Step 2: Admit your mistake AND the negative impact it had.
This is the hardest part, because it requires admitting responsibility for our actions or behavior. This can feel impossible if we don’t really think we did much wrong, or if our intentions were good.

Ask yourself: How is the other person feeling? What did I do that caused that feeling? Could I have done something differently? Then acknowledge these things. Empathize with the offended person; the most important thing is that you demonstrate that you know how they feel. (Don’t apologize until you truly do understand how they are feeling; if you can’t put yourself in their shoes, your apology will ring untrue.)

For example: “I can see that my comment hurt your feelings, and that you are feeling misunderstood and uncared for.” Or to your partner you might say, “I know that it was wrong of me to call you out in front of the whole family, and that you are angry because I’ve hurt your credibility with the kids. I’m sure that was embarrassing, and it was a mistake for me to do that.”

This is where most of us are tempted to offer an explanation for our behavior. When in doubt, leave the explanation out; trying to explain away our actions can seem like we’re being defensive, or making excuses. (Remember, the point is to repair the relationship, not make the other person see that you were right.)

If you need to shed light on why you did what you did, be careful to continue to take responsibility for the negative impact you had. Saying, “I really didn’t know that you would be offended” is an excuse, not a good explanation. Whining that you didn’t intend for the other person to be hurt doesn’t shed light on anything. More effective would be saying, “It is no excuse for standing you up, but I want you to know that my stepfather had just had a stroke, and I was so frantic to get to the hospital that I forgot to call you.”

If you do offer an explanation, it can help to reiterate your mistake and again acknowledge how the other person feels: “Again, I’m so sorry that I didn’t call you, and that you were stuck there waiting for me for an hour. I can only imagine how upset, worried, and angry you must be.”

Step 3: Make the situation right.
Good apologies include a reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Maybe you create an opportunity for the person you embarrassed to regain credibility. Or perhaps you admit your mistake to others, too, as a part of the reparation. In many relationships, a hug is a great reparation.

Often, all we need to do is explain what we are going to do differently the next time so that we don’t repeat the offending action or behavior. This helps us rebuild trust and repair the relationship.

If you aren’t sure how to make it right, just ask, “Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?”

Above all, deliver on any promises you make. When we feel guilty or embarrassed, sometimes we over-correct in our attempt to gain forgiveness. If the person is asking for something that you can’t give, say so, and say that you will give some thought to what you can give to make it up to them.

Knowing how to apologize well is at the top of my Sweet Spot Manifesto. It’s a life skill I want my children to practice and master. And it’s one that I’m still working on myself.

Inspire others: When has an apology made all the difference in your life?

Join the Discussion: Are you wanting one of these apologies? Whenever I talk or write about making apologies, people often respond by wishing that someone else would apologize to them. If this is you, please send me an email or leave your story in the comments — I will try to address your situation in a future post!