At one point or another we’ve all thought to ourselves - Am I happy?
Yet this might not be the best question to ask. When we reflect on our happiness in this way, asking AM I happy, we create a false choice by presupposing only two possible answers – we are either happy (yes) or unhappy (no). Worse yet, when we search for the sources of our discontent we typically focus on situational factors outside of our control.
A more constructive question would be - How can I be happier? The reframe elevates our awareness of our having the power to make different choices and reminds us to take a long-term view. As with the stock-market, it’s more valuable to consider trends over time rather than focus on day-to-day fluctuations.
So, HOW can we be happier? As we know, it’s rather complicated. In fact, the myriad reasons that the successful pursuit of happiness can be so elusive has been the subject of many books, articles, and talks.
My most recent Aha! on this question came to me after listening to a lecture Tal Ben-Shahar gave as part of the new year-long Certification in Happiness Studies he is offering - for which I’m honored to be a teaching assistant. Here’s what he shared:
Recent research has shown that the direct pursuit of happiness leads to - unhappiness.
To work around this paradox, Tal suggests we purse an indirect path toward well-being that is both pragmatic and backed by science. He calls it the Wholebeing Approach, a mash-up of the words whole person and well-being, and it is comprised of the following five interconnected elements:
Spiritual Wellbeing: Leading a meaningful life wherein you know your purpose and have a good understanding of the values that drive your actions, and mindfully savoring the present.
Physical Wellbeing: Cultivating positive regard for your body and being aware of its ability to affect the mind - and also tapping into the idea that the mind can affect the body.
Intellectual Wellbeing: Engaging in deep learning and opening to experience that stretches the mind and cultivate creativity and love of learning.
Relational Wellbeing: Nurturing a constructive relationship with self and others, through kindness and compassion.
Emotional Wellbeing: Feeling all emotions with an emphasis on managing painful ones to build resilience and a sense of optimism.
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What I most appreciate about the SPIRE Model is that it offers multiple, clear, empirically proven, actionable pathways we can follow to indirectly pursue a more fulfilling life. It reminds us of the importance of a wholistic approach that includes engaging in work that is personally meaningful, exercising regularly and eating healthfully, learning continuously, spending time with dear friends and family members, becoming more aware of our feelings and participating in fun activities. In order to experience deep and enduring happiness and live to our fullest potential we must address all five elements. In other words, we can’t focus on only some of the dimensions and neglect others, they all interconnected.
One of Tal’s gifts is synthesizing empirically validated, theoretical constructs into practical and actionable tools. Together with his colleagues Megan McDonough and Maria Sirois of the Wholebeing Institute, Tal has created a SPIRE Check-In Exercise to help us evaluate our lives in terms of the 5 elements and, more importantly, create a specific action plan that leads to a shift in our happiness.
I invite you to download the exercise, using the link below, to create your own Aha! Moments regarding the actions you can take to Jolt your Joy and start to make progress towards that seemingly elusive question - How Can I be Happier?
To fulfill our potential for happiness, we need to pursue it indirectly.
Download the SPIRE Check-In Exercise to shine a light on what’s working well (so you can do more of it) and Identify actions you can take to improve your overall well-being.
In June I gave a talk on the newly released book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch. Following on the heels of two high profile celebrity suicides, the talk felt more poignant.
I shared the latest research from the fields of psychology, economics, and neuroscience that indicates happiness, when normalized for situational factors such as health, income and career fulfillment, follows a U-shape curve. The big Aha! - aging itself affects our life satisfaction.
In other words, even when our lives are objectively great, feelings of disappointment, malaise, and discomfort in midlife are perfectly normal.
The primary cause of our malaise is the gap between how satisfied we actually feel versus how satisfied we believe we should feel. Rauch explains that the dip in our life satisfaction occurs when the hard work of realigning our happiness expectations is being done. Until this readjustment happens, we get hit from two directions at once - feeling both disappointment about our past and pessimistic about the future; a recipe for misery.
Interestingly, apes suffer the same dip in fulfillment through their life span and humans are one of only three known species where females long outlive their fertility years. Combined, these factors have led scientists to theorize there is a biological component hardwired in our DNA that serves a broader evolutionary purpose. Rausch writes: “The curve seems to be imprinted on our biology to repurpose us for a changing role in society as we age – a role that is less about ambition and competition and more about connection and compassion. It’s a time when we stop focusing on acquiring – family, home, career, and financial assets and start to invest outward into the next generation, the community or a cause.”
Whether we experience an existential crisis at the bottom of the happiness curve or make the turn gradually, we are led to the same direction: toward others and toward wisdom.
The “grandmother wisdom hypothesis” goes like this: since society as a whole benefit when elders promote the common good above self-interest, the restlessness, stress, and disappointment felt through midlife are growing pains intended to serve as a signal it’s time to reflect, reassess, and recalibrate. The underlying purpose of the discomfort is to motivate us to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, become less judgmental, develop patience and ultimately realign our lives with our values - to live more wisely.
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Understanding that our underlying malaise is a perfectly normal life stage that serves a broader purpose is helpful, but it also got me wondering: Pain in midlife might be inevitable, but must we suffer through it; how can we navigate the trough with more joy and ease?
One way is to accelerate the acquisition of wisdom. It is not enough to intellectually study, we must also do things differently to experience transformation. The benefits are well worth the effort, with applied wisdom we can experience more balance and equanimity; more contentedness and less regret; and more comfort with inner and outer ambivalence and conflict.
The main take-away from the book is this - being satisfied in midlife is possible, it’s just harder. If we don’t have our values front and center we can stay stuck in the U.
One of Rauch’s suggestion to help travel through the U faster and even change the shape of the U is to work with a coach, because he writes, “the primary goal of coaching is to help clients clarify their values and align their life with them.”
Navigating the happiness curve does not have to be a do-it-yourself project where we all have to start from scratch. We can seek support to help us navigate the dip with more joy and ease and come out on the other side with the clarity, confidence, and peace of mind that comes with knowing we can handle anything that comes our way.
Midlife pain might be inevitable. The suffering, however, is optional.
Midlife malaise is a signal to pause and realign our lives with our values
Here's an exercise to put in your wisdom tool kit and get you started on the path towards greater self-knowledge.
It’s an exercise created with my colleague Wendy Van Besien to help you reconnect to your deepest values so you can use them as guideposts in your life.
For the better part of a decade I felt stuck. I knew I wanted to make changes in my life, yet I had no idea where to begin. Unbeknownst to me, I was trapped in a victim story that was unwittingly self-sabotaging my efforts.
I also felt ashamed. How could I, a woman who seemingly had it all - happily married, two healthy children, wanting for nothing materially - how could I be discontent? What was wrong with me?
The combination of my malaise, fear, and indecision led to frustration and a sense of overwhelm. I read self-help books, talked to friends, worked with therapists. However, these actions felt more like a Band-Aid; while I felt better in the short term, I never got to the root cause of my dissatisfaction. Discouraged, and tired of spinning my wheels I tried a new approach: I hired my first coach.
While working with a life coach I learned it was my perceptions about my life that were creating my discontent. She helped me uncover what was really holding me back and gave me the tools, resources, and accountability to make the changes I desired.
Knowing is not enough; to create change we must put that knowledge into action and make different choices.
My first significant breakthrough was my commitment to return to school to become certified in Applied Positive Psychology – the science of wellbeing. Even before the formal classes started, I picked up the book Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson. Though the title sounded too good to be true, the book delivered.
It was my first exposure to the scientific research that showed fostering positive emotions like joy, gratitude, and hope opens our awareness to a wider range of thoughts and broadens our ideas about possible actions we can take.
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Here are some of the proven benefits the cumulative effect of positive emotions have over time:
Experiencing serenity sparks our urge to savor our current circumstances and integrate them into a new view of ourselves and the world around us.
Fostering a positive state improves cardiovascular health, coordination, sleep, immune function, and also reduces inflammation.
Elevating curiosity sparks our urge to explore and learn; it is easier for us to consider multiple ways to reach a goal and to find several solutions to problems.
Positivity helps to make others more open and willing to cooperate, fostering better connections with family and colleagues.
Cultivating joy sparks the urge to play and be creative, we become more optimistic, resilient, open, accepting, and driven by purpose.
I am a JOY EVANGELIST because from the moment I started to actively cultivate more joy, gratitude, and hope in my own life, everything began to shift. While my outer circumstances didn’t change, my perspective did, and that was all I needed to get unstuck. The best part: positive emotions always exist within. Once we learn how to access these emotions more consistently, we can tap into this free, infinitely-renewable resource.
Almost a decade has passed since I began this latest phase of my journey, guided by mentors and coaches who have supported my growth. There are times I still find myself feeling fear, indecision and overwhelm; after all change will always be a part of life. But today, as a zealot for positive emotions, boosting joy has become the go-to in my tool box because I know it is often the kick start I need to break the cycle of stuck and get myself moving again. Not to mention it's fun - and we can always use some fun in our lives!
Positive emotions are the sparks we need to ignite change and keep moving!
Jolt of Joy
To hear more about my personal transformation and learn tips on how you can rewrite the disempowering story that might be keeping you stuck, I invite you to listen to the Reignite Your Light podcast : “The Joy Evangelist.”
One teacher that has profoundly influenced my personal journey is Sylvia Boorstein. It was through her writings I was introduced to the Buddhist teaching: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
The idea that suffering is not an absolute given, an inevitable outcome of difficult, painful times was a novel one to me. Having a choice in how to respond to the inevitable ups and downs of life is incredibly empowering.
In her book, “Happiness is an Inside Job” Sylvia writes: “Suffering is what happens when we struggle with whatever our life experience is rather than accepting and opening to our experience with a wise and compassionate response.”
For me, accepting experiences with self-compassion and wisdom now means allowing myself to lean into the pain and discomfort, truly and deeply feeling it, mining it for the lessons, and opening up to new opportunities that ultimately emerge.
I’ve since adopted her simple yet powerful mantra whenever life throws me that inevitable curve ball:
“Sweetheart you are in pain, relax, take a breath, let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we will figure out what to do.”
Addressing ourselves as “sweetheart” we offer ourselves the same kindness, love, and compassion we would to any dear friend or loved one going through a difficult time. Why should we treat ourselves any differently?
Acknowledging yes, we are truly in pain and validating the discomfort we are experiencing is a completely human and normal emotion is an important, often overlooked step. Over the years I’ve since learned all the numbing, ignoring and pretending isn’t helpful. What’s needed is acceptance.
Relaxing by taking a breath offers a mindful pause, an opportunity to create a space to separate from our emotions and recognize that we don’t have to act on all the thoughts that are being triggered by the multitude of emotions understandably swirling in times of pain.
Reminding ourselves to pay attention to what is happening in the here and now allows us to break from any ruminations this event might have triggered in us based on unresolved past events. Being in the present also stops us from catastrophizing – forecasting the absolute worse case scenarios into the future. It gives us the chance to remind myself, “I’m OK”. Right here and right now – I am Okay.
And finally, saying to ourselves, “we WILL figure out what to do” reinforces the idea we have confidence in ourselves that no matter what life throws at us, we can always figure out what's the next thing we need to do. That assurance moves us away from the fear and uncertainty created by an unexpected and often time unwanted event into the action needed to move through it.
Pain IS inevitable in our lives and yet knowing suffering IS optional provides conscious choice. I've found that having faith in myself and some higher power, trusting in myself and in the process, and patiently riding out the storm with a deep knowing that this too shall pass minimizes the fear and lessens the struggle brought about by the many painful and unexpected events that's a natural part of our life's journey.
I'm curious what personal mantra have you found to be helpful when navigating difficult situations?
"Enjoy the Process of Becoming" I wrote. Yes! That’s the label on the box. Then I put down my pen and closed my journal.
Let me explain.
The first meeting I had with my current coach was in September of 2016. At the time I was still trying to figure out my target audience and articulate what was the future vision I wanted to help my ideal clients achieve. Who did I feel most passionate about helping? What was my authentic voice? Who would most likely find value and resonate with my message, process, and tools?
So here was the task: every day for a month I spent the first 2 hours every morning reflecting and writing. I walked myself back through all of my personal and professional experiences. Key turning points, hard fought lessons learned, and the journey I took. Every day I was to sit with and try to connect to the emotion behind my stories. And by our next session, I was to share with him: “if I were to put a label on the box of these stories what would I call it?”
And there it was, my bigger life lesson: “Enjoy the process of becoming….”
Throw away the mantle of perfectionism.
Forget about keeping everything under control.
Lean into the discomfort.
Be fearless in the face of uncertainty.
Define success on your own terms.
Return to your authentic, best self – the one that’s there beneath all the external messages of should’s.
At its essence: You were born worthy. You are already enough!
Imagine what life would be like if we could live through uncertain times without getting stuck in fear and overwhelm.
Which got me thinking:
How can we enjoy the process that is the journey of our lives?
How can we embrace the dynamic, ever-changing qualities of life?
How can we appreciate that if we are not growing we are dying?
What would life be like if we understood there are no failures, only opportunities to learn?
Yes, we are always becoming – so we might as well enJOY it!
The other day I heard Oprah Winfrey ask:
“How do you define success?”
I don’t know about you but the word success has been an emotionally fraught, super-charged word practically all my life.
I’d always been a hard-driving, achievement oriented person – chasing all the culturally defined, external “success milestones”. I did it because I had come to believe the idea that success was a precursor to happiness. I thought that if I put my head down and worked hard enough, that I’d be happy when ________ (fill in the blank).
The reality was somewhat different than the fairytale dream.
I found that once I achieved an external, material goal the jubilation didn’t last long because there was always a new, bigger goal to achieve. So after a brief celebration, I put my head back down, assumed the no-pain no-gain mantra, and plowed ahead more determined than ever to get to that happy place.
It wasn’t until I did a great deal of soul searching, got still, and started revisiting all the “should” messages in my life that I reconnected to my inner voice. The authentic one telling me what was important to me. The one that already knew what gave me meaning and purpose. The one that gave me the permission to define success on my own terms.
That was the most liberating thing I could do and opened me up to access the joy in my life that had always there and had been always available to me – that was just hidden from view. Which is why I just LOVED Oprah’s answer to her own question:
"Success is getting to the point where you are absolutely comfortable with yourself."
Wow. Simple, yet powerful.
For me that's an achievable milestone worth pursuing.
How about you? How comfortable are you with yourself? How much meaning and purpose do you feel in what you are doing? How often are you accessing the joy available to us everyday?
How can I help?
Not surprisingly, when I posted on Facebook about redefining “success” on our own terms generated a great deal of discussion. Apparently, that word is emotionally charged for so many.
What I found particularly interesting was the nearly universal agreement that the definition of success can be thought of as a moving target – one that changes with the decades of our lives. And when I gave it some more thought, I realized how true that has been in my own life. And it also makes sense when we think about it in terms of the arcs of our lives.
David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done – the art of stress-free productivity” writes: “You can’t decide if you’ve succeeded unless you hold it up to the criteria of ‘why’ you are doing anything in the first place, why it is important to you.”
In other words, “Purpose defines Success.”
I think that’s why my early years appeared so much “easier” - the metrics were clear and seemingly predefined. My 20’s was all about building my educational portfolio and starting my career. I was fortunate enough to meet my life partner in graduate school and checked that box off as well. In my 30’s we bought our dream house, started a family, and I was focused on climbing the corporate ladder. Check, check, check.
However in my 40’s I drifted off the traditional course – relocating 4 times to places as varied as Brazil, FL, CA, and PA. There were no set guideposts to follow. The “shoulds” became a moving target– each new location had its own cultural norms and definitions of success. In retrospect I can see what gave meaning, purpose and focus to my life was the desire to be a strong role model for my kids as I sought to rebuild and recreate a steady home life for my family. It became the singular “WHY” of my 40's.
A rather unconventional definition of success. And one that I did not value or appreciate at first since it didn't meet "societal norms". Yet when I hold it up to David Allen’s metrics- did I fulfill my purpose – for sure it was a highly successful decade. Alas, I only saw that in retrospect. As I was living it, the story I told myself was quite different. One that was not that empowering or flattering (here's a link to my interview if you haven't heard my story yet: http://bit.ly/2pRbGu3). One that kept me stuck, uncertain of how to move forward, yet knowing I wanted more.
I’m still in the early years of my 50’s and this decade has already been rather eventful. It seems to be a period full of transitions and recalibration. But having done all the hard work in my 40’s which generated self-awareness, self-compassion, and reconnection to my inner voice I released the shackles of perfectionism and societal “shoulds”. Yes I have finally come to appreciate Oprah’s definition of success: “…. Getting to the point where you are absolutely comfortable with yourself.”
Today I meet so many women in midlife who are going through common transitions:
* Redefining their role as mother as they send their kids off to college.
* Adjusting to their roles as daughters as they support their aging parents.
* Recalibrating career goals
* Dealing with personal illness or illness of a close personal friend or family member.
Be kind to yourself. And heed the helpful advice of David Allen: "Trying to brainstorm a good idea without first asking the question WHY am I doing this. For what purpose? Why is this important to me… only leads to a lack of clarity and increased stress." It's likely to leave you feeling stuck.
Reconnect to your WHY and your next steps will become infinitely more clear.
Positive psychology, the science of coaching, offers many empirically validated tools that can help you to uncover your WHY. It's inside you already, waiting to emerge. Sometimes it just needs a bit of help to reconnect to it.
Please visit my Pinterest page to find free insights, tools, articles and lectures to start you on your way.
“My inner voice is always telling me: you don’t’ belong here, you don’t deserve to be here, you’re an imposter.”
“I prefer to avoid conflict, I’m afraid if I stand up for myself, people won’t like me.”
“If I can’t fix something, I believe it’s because I’m not good enough.”
“I can’t seem to forgive myself for not being further along in my career, right now I feel like I’m such a loser.”
These were just a few of the answers to the questions a client shared with me as we were reviewing the results of an assessment I give at the start of any new coaching engagement. At one point, after hearing her innermost thoughts repeated out loud she burst out laughing. “Wow, that’s harsh.”
Yes, it’s true. We often subconsciously say the cruelest things to ourselves. I know from first-hand experience, I've must have had those EXACT thoughts looping through my head my entire adult life. I discovered that it’s not until we shine a light on them and bring them to our awareness, that we can realize how disempowering and down right mean they are.
If we are not careful, over time we begin to believe them. Then those beliefs turn into action – or in most cases inaction. Rather than motivating us, these inner voices turn us into victims. Next thing we know we start telling tell ourselves: “Why bother. It really doesn’t matter what I do because it will never make a difference.” We get complacent. We get frustrated. We might try and take actions, but with limited effect because those voices keep pulling us down. So, of course nothing changes. We feel stuck.
It is often said we teach what we need to learn, which is likely how I found my way into positive psychology and professional coaching when I felt myself hit a really low point in midlife. I had spent years trying to relaunch my professional career after an extended hiatus and, as the victim storyline in my head went: "I was a failure. I wasn't good enough. It was never going to happen." (If you haven't heard my story, here's a direct link: http://bit.ly/2pRbGu3)
I was completely stuck until I discovered teachers and role models like Brené Brown who taught me about vulnerability. I then found Kristen Neff an expert on self-compassion. To rewire that negativity loop in my head, I started practicing loving-kindness meditation, my favorite one entitled "Self Love" was on Barbara Fredrickson 's. And it was Tara Brach who taught me about “Radical Acceptance”.
While I made considerable progress, it wasn't until I started working with a coach that the real changes started happening. Someone who listened without judgment, acknowledged and validated my feelings, and lovingly held me accountable to the commitments I was making to myself (but had not yet followed through on).
Change can be hard.
It takes time.
Sometimes we need a guide who is a few steps ahead of us on the journey.
Someone to help get us moving again.
Someone to shine a light on those subconscious limiting beliefs that are holding us back from achieving our goals.
For links to these tools and much more visit my Pinterest Page:
If you are ready to take the next step beyond self-help books, articles, and letctures, and are interested in learning more about the assessment that can quickly pinpoint exactly what's holding you back from your fulfilling your dreams, contact me for a free consult.
As a Jewish girl growing up in New Jersey, I was raised to never buy retail. I spent my formative years bargain hunting at Loehmans, Mickey Finns, and Syms. The only time I purchased clothes at high-end stores were for special occasion outfits or during “big” sales. To this day if you were to compliment an outfit to anyone in my family the automatic reaction is: “Oh, you like it, can you believe I got it at ________________ for only ________________.”
While many enjoy the “hunt and conquest” involved in this retail sport, I actually walked away with several limiting beliefs: “I can’t afford to pay full price for anything” or “Luxuries are for other people”. “I’m not worth it”.
As I rose the corporate ladder as a marketing executive at Pepsi, earning a comparable six-figure salary to my husband, those voices were temporarily silenced. I figured I worked hard, I make my own money - I can buy retail.
However, when I left the workforce to raise our kids full time, a new limiting belief emerged: “all the money I spend is my husband’s money”. This lead to guilt every time I pulled out the credit card to buy something for myself.
Interestingly I never thought twice about making purchases for my kids – designer clothes for my budding fashionista daughter, the latest baseball equipment for my naturally athletic son. Yet that was just the material “stuff”.
Year after year we invested in our kid's futures by hiring experts to support their passions and interests: private violin teachers, private batting lessons, and private academic tutors. While those investments added up over the years – writing those checks was done without hesitation. The experts took our children’s nascent strengths, skills, and talents and coached them to their highest potential. Their expertise, support, guidance, and accountability developed much more than the kids' competence, it gave my children confidence. My kids came to see, through their dedicated effort, they could achieve whatever they put their mind to. To me that is PRICELESS.
Meanwhile, here I was, a “formerly” successful, highly skilled, very competent woman, struggling with my disempowering narrative (LINK to my story http://bit.ly/2pRbGu3). I felt completely stuck because I had "unsuccessfully" tried to relaunch a professional career several times, in several locations. Which, of course, made me a "failure".
I was stuck in my narrative. I was stuck in my head.
I was stuck and fresh out of ideas, which got me thinking. Why can't I get some professional support? Aren't I worth investing in my future? What message was I sending to my kids if I gave up on my own dreams? If I weren't willing to invest in myself and do the hard work?
So six years ago I took the step of hiring my first certified professional coach. And well, I've never looked back.
Was it terrifying? Absolutely.
Was it hard work? Yes.
Was it a big investment? For Sure.
I could have never done it on my own.
The transformation in my life, well it's PRICELESS.
Not to mention the added bonus that I've finally come to see: I am totally worth it!
There was a period in my life when I felt stuck. It seemed I was at the effect of decisions that were “out of my control”. I considered myself a victim to my circumstances. Relocating over, and over, and over again once more was no picnic. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t miserable. Things were certainly “good enough”. But at a certain point, I felt like I was going through the motions of my life.
To power through I put my head down and became wrapped up “doing” mode. I found solace in the day-to-day business of life "on the move".
There was a part of me that knew this was a short-term solution. I had an inner knowing that I wanted to make changes – a tiny voice that kept getting louder and louder: “This is not the life I ordered”. “Hello, anyone home?” “Pay attention, you’re not listening.”
However, the challenge was that I had no idea how to start. I couldn’t see any way out. It all felt overwhelming.
In retrospect (which of course is 20/20) I can see the main limitation had been the fact I had been operating under a very constricted level of awareness.
My default ways of thinking caused me to only see narrow possibilities and few solutions. Of course, since I kept repeating the same thinking patterns, and actions, my outcomes never changed. It is no wonder I felt frustrated, hopeless, and stuck.
So here’s the crazy thing - once I started elevating my self-awareness by shining a light on my belief systems, values, thoughts, feelings, and emotional responses that had been previously operating on an unconscious level – it was like turning on a light. We can only change the things we are aware of.
Through my IPEC coaching program, I've been trained in administering and debriefing the ELI - a proprietary tool that does just that. It is uncannily accurate and it can show you what thought patterns might be keeping you stuck and what triggers might be holding you back from achieving the goals you want to see in your life. Had I known about his tool, it would have saved me years of soul-searching because, as we know, awareness is the first and most important step to creating change.
Interested in finding out more about this empirically tested assessment that will jumpstart your awareness and get you moving forward again? Contact me and let’s schedule a complimentary, no-obligation session to explore. Let's get you moving again!
Based on her unique life experiences, and certifications in the science of positive psychology and the art of life coaching, Alison offers practical wisdom that helps women navigate midlife transitions with clarity and confidence. www.alisondeutsch.com