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Your Aging Brain and A Happy, Successful Life

In this month’s e-newsletter, I share Arthur Brooks‘ happiness strategies. Brooks is a Harvard professor, PhD social scientist, best-selling author, and columnist at The Atlantic.

Brooks explains that our brains and mental capacities change or erode with age, shifting from one set of skills and abilities to another. He goes on to say that there is good news: even with the change in skills and abilities, you can make the second half of your life even better than the first!

Brooks also explains that while 50% of happiness is genetic, 25% is due to circumstances that constantly change, so there is always room for improvement. With knowledge, practice, and fixing barriers to happiness (for example, mental health and poverty), we can become happier. He emphasizes that happiness is a process and takes time. This reminds me of the phrase, “incremental success is better than ambitious failure,” so take your time and focus on progressing upward.

 

Themes that resonated from Brooks’ book and talks

  • The difference between fluid and crystallized intelligence and why it’s easier to be an innovator or poet in the first half of your life and a CEO or teacher in your second.
      • Fluid intelligence refers to your raw smarts and ability to solve problems, to be innovative, to improve what you do, and to think through things quickly. Fluid intelligence is strongest when you’re young and peaks at about fifty years of age.
      • Crystallized intelligence refers to your ability to teach, explain things, tell stories, see connections among ideas, and understand how things fit together. Crystallized intelligence develops in your forties and stays strong into your fifties, sixties, seventies, and even eighties.
  • What a success addict is and how to avoid the hedonistic treadmill trap by focusing on Your Why versus Your What. To find Your Why, Brooks recommends spending 15 minutes a day for three months reflecting on the nature of your own desire. Click here for another great resource Start With Why by Simon Sinek.
  • The happiness portfolio and the four most important habits of the happiest people. Brooks talks about focusing on having 1). Faith (an interest in something bigger than yourself), 2). Solid Family Relationships, 3). Supportive Network of Friends, 4). and Work Which Serves Others.
  • Why it’s better to listen to common sense and wisdom traditions versus messaging from advertising and social media. Our culture mistakenly tells us that in order to be happy we need to do three things: 1) Love Things, 2). Use People, and 3). Worship Yourself. If you want to be happy, Brook recommends keeping the general formula but switching the focus: 1). Use Things, 2). Love People, and 3). Worship the Divine (however you interpret this).
  • A three-step algorithm to become happier in life: 1). Understand what’s going on (enhance knowledge), 2) Practice it in life (wise action), and 3). Share it with others.

 

Monthly Favorites

  • Click here to purchase Arthur Brooks’ book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.
  • Click here to listen to The Good News About Your Inevitable Decline on the Ten Percent Happier podcast with Arthur Brooks and Dan Harris (75 minutes).
  • Click here to listen to Dr. Ron Siegel talk The Science of Mindfulness at Talks at Google. One of the best overviews of what mindfulness is, what it’s not, and how to work with everyday problems, anxiety, and depression (65 minutes).
  • Click here to listen to the podcast Vulnerability and Redemption with Adrian Grenier on the podcast A Bit of Optimism with Simon Sinek. Grenier, the former star of Entourage who had fame, money and everything else, shares his story of how his girlfriend dumped him which led to a journey of reflection, growth, and farming (24 minutes).
  • Click here to listen to the podcast Equanimity: The Gifts of Non-Reactive Mindful Presence by Tara Brach. In her talk, Brach reminds us to pause and find an inner refuge when feeling angry and fearful; a resource many clients are relying on during these difficult times (42 minutes).

When the Need to Be Liked Gets in the Way …

“I dreaded having the awkward conversation with my manager who was not showing up in the right way for her team. My usual tendency is to avoid conflict. Yet, by managing my discomfort and preparing for the discussion, I was able to share concrete examples of how she could improve. I learned that clear is kind and we got to a better place,” a client leader shared.

Most leaders arrive at the decision that being direct and honest is kind after learning the hard way; overcoming their mistaken belief they were helping someone by being “nice” to avoid hurt feelings. In fact, waiting too long to share constructive feedback can not only negatively impact someone’s development but also have the potential to lead to tears and drama, as one client recently shared.

As an executive coach, organizations often hire me to share difficult news with their leaders. I can’t count the number of times that client leaders have thanked me for giving them the direct, clear, and honest feedback that no one else was willing to share with them.

Most of us avoid conflict because it’s just so uncomfortable: tough emotions, physical sensations, and spinning thoughts often accompany these difficult situations. But, as I’m sure you know, conflict is a necessary outcome of working with others and if handled correctly can build bridges and lead to better solutions.

Many clients use a version of the questions (listed below) as a framework; they often share that taking time to prepare for the conversation can help minimize (though not necessarily eliminate) the discomfort (e.g., racing heart rate, tight chest, OCD thoughts, sweaty palms, etc.) associated with having a tough conversation.

Keep in mind it doesn’t have to, and won’t be, perfect. Despite your best efforts, your tone, body language, or phrasing might not be “perfect,” and that’s okay, it’s part of the process. Just make sure you set the right intention by preparing ahead for the meeting to bring out the best in you and (hopefully) the other party.

Click here to learn more about preparing for Courageous Conversations.

What Leaders are Working on….

I hope 2022 finds you off to a good start, with moments of joy and well-being, despite the struggles associated with COVID-19 and life in general.

I’d like to share three of the most common leadership skills and some tools that executives are working on and using in their coaching engagements. These three skills are universal and relevant for whether you lead in an organization, a community, or your home.

One: Executive Presence is the ability to show up confident, calm, grounded, and with a positive state of mind. We all need strategies and practices to help us overcome our innate negativity bias and manage our nervous systems in order to show up at our best self to inspire and motivate others to be their best.

  • Click here to read How to Show Up Cheerful During Tough Times
  • Click here to learn more about Taming Anxiety: How to Stop the Spin Cycle
  • Click here for a worksheet on Energy Management and the 3 P’s (a favorite go–to resource for many clients)

Two: Conflict Management is the ability to manage difficult situations by having the courageous conversations, sooner rather than later … or never. Conflict is a necessary and healthy part of business; having the critical conversations is hard work and takes preparation.

  • Click here to learn more about how to have Courageous Conversations
  • Click here for Norman Fischer’s guided meditation on “Presence” to the Conflict Resolution Professionals group (only twelve minutes and a client favorite)

Three: Time Management is the ability to set aside blocks of reflection time to make sure you are prioritizing what activities matters most (for example creating/communicating vision and strategy, building key relationships, developing skills in others, etc.) versus getting caught up in tasks or activities that should be delegated to others.

  • Click here for a Time Management Matrix worksheet which will help you reflect on and evaluate how you are spending your time 

 

How to Show Up Cheerful During Tough Times

Everyone seems to be struggling these days, just when things seemed to be a bit more normal, we now have Omicron spreading like wildfire impacting holiday plans.

And despite tough times, it’s the practice of any effective leader, whether in family, community, or at work, to be able to see things as they are and still show up cheerful enough to inspire and motivate others toward achieving a common vision.

Given being positive is an important leadership skill, I often ask executives – how do YOU do it? How do you see the world as it is, without being in denial or dismissive yet show up with a positive mind state? This is what some of them have shared:

  • I make sure I have enough quiet, reflection time so that I can step away from the busy-ness of the day to feel more spacious, creative, and positive about our organization’s future vision.

  • When a difficult situation arises, I make sure to hit the pause button, allow any strong emotions to settle, stick to facts, and not get caught in a narrative. I focus on letting go of my need to “fix” and control everyone and instead I try to go with the flow and move us in the right direction.

  • I’ve learned to pick my battles by letting go of the need to be right and instead do what’s best for the organization. It can sometimes mean taking the hit for something that isn’t directly my fault. Focusing on what’s best for the organization and managing my ego helps me stay out of drama – and remain grounded and upbeat.

  • I know it sounds funny but when an uncomfortable situation arises, I shift my awareness into my feet, feeling their weight and physical sensations, and it keeps me more grounded. Not only does this help me manage triggers in the moment, I’ve noticed that the stronger emotions move right through me so I don’t have left over emotions lingering around for a day or two like I used to.

  • I’ve learned to accept that difficulty and negativity are baked into our human condition and kind of focus my mind to what’s going well and move towards positive actions and outcomes.

  • I just make sure to get away from it all and walk my dog or play golf or go for a run, that always helps me gain a better perspective.

  • I just get away from it all and watch I Love Lucy!

Resources to Be More Cheerful

  • Embodied Presence During Conflict. Click here for Norman Fischer’s Guided Meditation on “Presence for Conflict Resolution professionals” (twelve minutes). It’s an excellent practice for using the body and breath to show up with an intuitive, creative, and spacious mind state and a client favorite.
  • Cultivate More Joy. Click here to read how Joy Leads to Better Work Performance with tips by Shawn Achor, a Harvard educated happiness researcher who works with Fortune 100 companies. He defines happiness as the joy you feel moving toward your potential and offers five tips for cultivating more joy.
  • Importance of Being Cheerful. Click here to listen to What is Nirvana on Dan’s Harris’s Ten Percent Happier podcast with Robert Thurman. Thurman, retired professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and friend of the Dalai Lama, discusses the importance of cheerfulness, what is nirvana, and the Buddhist Four Noble Truths.
  • Breathe for Better Brain Health. Click here to read Your Breath Your Brain’s Remote Control and try a five-minute breath meditation by Diana Winston to help you cope with stress and anxiety. In meditation practice, we take a long and deliberate inhale to energize and wake up the body and a long and deliberate exhale to invite a sense ease and calm into the body.
  • Nothing is Personal, Permanent or Perfect. Click here for a worksheet on Energy Management and the 3 P’s. A favorite go to resource for many clients.

Wishing you a cheerful, healthy, and safe holiday and 2022!

A Story of Gratitude: How to Be Thankful on Thanksgiving and Not Just About Turkey

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. We have the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on what we are grateful for and share the day with people we love. And while this year presents new challenges – like how to continue being COVID safe while celebrating the day – it also offers new opportunities to express gratitude and feel joy for what we have.

I wrote this story fifteen years ago when my father “Jimmy” was alive yet the message continues to stay with me because it speaks to the mystery of life – that despite our many challenges and differences, there is much to be grateful for and we are all interconnected.

Wishing you a safe, happy, and healthy Thanksgiving 😎.

A Story of Gratitude: How to Be Thankful on Thanksgiving and Not Just About Turkey

Thanksgiving 2007

This year is especially meaningful for my family as my father and mother drive to New Jersey to share Thanksgiving with us. We are grateful that my dad is with us, because as he often says, “I’m damn lucky to be here…almost bought the store, and not just once!”

Thankfully, my father’s situation has improved and he is on the road to better health as he recovers from aspiration pneumonia and the complications of his illness. Now I watch this man I love find the courage to deal with life on new terms, one where he wears a “trach,” uses a feeding tube, and is dependent on oxygen—maybe for the long term but hopefully for the short. He shows gratitude for each new day: a walk around the neighborhood, a good night’s sleep, a visit from a friend, or the occasional sip of ice-cold water he sneaks when he thinks no one is watching.

There is amazing power in recognizing what we are grateful for. Recently, a few of my clients have expressed they were stuck in a negative mind-set. We talked about keeping a gratitude journal.

I’ve learned from the experiences of clients, as well as my own, that writing in a journal helps bring better energy and perspective to our lives. If you feel stuck and are not enjoying life as much as you’d like to, try keeping a gratitude journal, and see what shifts for you. Over time, you’ll see the impact that focusing on the things in life you’re thankful for has on improving your positive mind-set.

In addition, we know, based on research, that going into a state of gratitude helps us gain perspective, show up happier, and be more mindful. Mindfulness is the ability to tune into oneself and others and show up more centered.

My gratitude journal entry from November 25, 2007:

I was surprised by how much my mother needed my father in her life—any way she could have him. And by my dad’s courage to fight for his life, even when it meant putting aside his ego and living in a way, he would have never thought he could or would have to.

I was moved by my father’s courage and wonderful sense of humor during a challenging time. On many occasions when the nurse showed up with yet another needle, my father jokingly referred to himself as a “human pin cushion.” And when one doctor told him he had lung cancer and six months left to live, Dad walked out, laughed, and said, “Don’t think I haven’t heard that before—if I heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times.” Thankfully, the doctor was wrong.

I am inspired to give more to someone in need because I have learned that while I thought I was the one giving, I was really the one receiving.

I am especially grateful to my family, friends, work associates, and clients who supported me during this time so I could give to my dad what he needed and help him get stronger.

Monthly Favorites
  • Click here to read This Thanksgiving, Let’s Complain! by Jay Michaelson.
  • Click here to read A Game Plan for Healthy Enjoyment of the Holidays by Peter Attia
  • Click here to read Have the Holiday Crazies Set In? This Simple Gratitude Practice Can Help You Reset and Remember What’s Most Important by Gina Hamadey
  • Click here to read Here’s How to Avoid 6 of the Most Common Sources of Holiday Stress, from Supply Chain Issues to Awkward Dinner Table Convos by Sarah Stiefvater 

 

Gratitude opens the door to the power, the wisdom, the creativity of the universe.
—Deepak Chopra

 

Touchy-Feely

When my husband Brad tells me he is listening to something called “Touchy-Feely” for the third time, I pause and ask myself, “What the hell is going on here? And why would Brad, who rarely listens to anything more than once and has limited patience for discussing feelings be listening to something called Touchy-Feely?” We order the book. Next thing I witness is Brad quoting to me from the book, talking about something called an AFOG – short for “another f**king opportunity for growth.”

The book is called Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends and is by David Bradford, PhD and Carole Robin, PhD, colleagues who teach the most popular course Interpersonal Dynamics and affectionately coined “Touchy-Feely” by students at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

The authors share their passion for creating exceptional relationships, that is relationships where you feel seen, known, supported, affirmed, and appreciated for who you really are – not an edited (or Facebook) version of yourself. They discuss a process based on their years of experience to cultivate exceptional relationships.

Bradford and Robin believe that the best way to learn to be more interpersonally effective is to engage with others in real life situations and in real time rather than through lectures, readings, case studies, or yes, even their book and offer specific suggestions.

They even share their own personal struggles – at home and in their co-authoring partnership– modeling that mistakes and misunderstandings are part of the process. Mistakes happen, and repair and recovery are possible. In fact, challenges are opportunities to learn and deepen relationships.

Bradford and Robin explain that exceptional relationships have six distinct hallmarks:

1.  You can be more fully yourself, and so can the other person.

2.  Both of you are willing to be vulnerable.

3.  You trust that self-disclosures will not be used against you.

4.  You can be honest with each other.

5.  You deal with conflict productively.

6.  Both of you are committed to each other’s growth and development.

The six hallmarks represent important soft skills including self-disclosure, offering and receiving feedback, and managing conflict. There’s no easy way around cultivating exceptional relationships: it is not something you can delegate as a leader, and it requires a lot of hard work! Simple concepts, not easy to do, yet, well worth the effort!

For more information on Touchy-Feely

  • Click here for their website where you can learn more about the concept, order the book, and take their assessment.
  • Click here to purchase the book on Amazon.
  • Click here to hear the Podcast talk (the one my husband Brad loves!) The Awesome Power of “Touchy-Feely” with Carole Robin and David Bradford on Ten Percent Happier Podcast with Dan Harris.

How You Communicate and What It Reveals

I’ve been thinking …. what could be more sacred than the way in which we communicate with each other? What we say and how we say it reveals a lot about who we are – how busy, thoughtful, clear, focused, scattered, funny, kind, etc. we are.

I find exchanges of words to be like mini prayers, sometimes even opportunities for blessings. Yes, even exchanges with business colleagues and clients. Life is so uncertain, and you just never know what it has in store for any of us.

Recently a colleague Carol unexpectedly passed away. I never met Carol in person and only knew her through email exchange, and yet I could tell by the way in which she communicated that she was thoughtful, kind, responsive, and collaborative. I miss Carol and communicating with her.

In our busy world, it is easy to dismiss the importance of how we communicate, and how in turn it impacts others. And while we can’t always answer every communication because of the sheer volume of emails and texts, sometimes we rush to communicate without any thought or consideration of how the words might land on the audience – often lacking the simple please and thank you that a personal dialogue would include.

Thought questions

  • Do you consider how your words might land on the receiver?
  • Do you communicate in a way that is collaborative and thoughtful or demanding and self-centered?
  • Is your communication concise and clear or do you make the reader work hard to understand what you are trying to say?
  • Do you close the loop when you communicate Or do you leave the recipient hanging and wondering what is the next step or when they might hear back from you?

Here is a simple and useful tool I learned from my friend and colleague, executive coach Rick Gardner. It’s called the “The Feel, Know, Do” model, and is a tool many of my clients use.


The Feel, Know, Do Model

  • Feel: How do you want the recipient (or audience) to feel? Seen, heard, validated, challenged, inspired, motivated, energized? For challenging audiences, keep in mind the “do no harm” concept.
  • Know: What do you want them to know? What are the one to three key points you want the audience to take away? Remember, less can be more, so when communicating with senior leaders who have less bandwidth it is better to keep it concise and clear, encouraging the audience to ask questions if they need more information or clarification.
  • Do: What actions do you want them take? To know and not to do, is not to know, so what do you want them to do?

Monthly Favorites

  • Click here for Ted Lasso on Apple TV. Funny, upbeat, and why qualities of kindness, compassion, and acting like a goldfish can make you a more effective leader and coach – whether at work, home, or within your community.
  • Click here for Is it Safe to Speak Up at Work? With Wharton Professor Adam Grant. You’ve probably heard the saying “bad news never ages well”. In this podcast learn how to create a safe environment where colleagues can share bad news, ask for help, and/or admit when they’ve made a mistake.
  • Click here for Looking Towards American Renewal. Renegades Born in the USA. President Obama and Bruce discuss their hopes for American unification, what defines cultural appropriation, and Bruce’s memories from when he was writing “Born in the USA.”
  • Click here for The Science of Making and Keeping Friends. Robin Dunbar on Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris. Learn about “Dunbar’s number,” a measurement of the number of relationships our brain is can maintain at any one time as well as research findings and practical tips for upping your friendship game.
  • Click here for The Effects of Trauma, The Role of Narratives in Shaping Our Worldview, and Why We Need to Accept Uncomfortable Emotions with Esther Perel and Peter Attia on The Drive. They discuss the value of our relationships with others for one’s sense of wellbeing, ability to deal with past trauma, resilience, and even our lifespan.

 

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Since it is August and most of my clients (and I!) are taking time to rest, reset and enjoy the summer – I am offering a favorite poem by Mary Oliver.  Hope you enjoy!

 

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 —Mary Oliver

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