The Happiness Factor

Everyone goes through dark times: loss, illness, disappointment, rejection—universal experiences in our journey through life. Happiness, however, is another matter. It is much prized, but what is it? A mind-set, a condition, something reserved for the few and out of reach for most? And how does a person find it, or do it?

We like Abraham Lincoln’s thought on the subject: “People are just as happy as they choose to be.” Perhaps you’ve decided that wherever you are in your life is okay; or, perhaps you’re doing whatever you can to be someplace else. True happiness assumes that you can have dreams while still having a toehold in reality, and further, that you can be content with what you have rather than constantly feeling compelled to compete for more.

But in our consumption-driven society, the thrust of the economic engine is to convince us that we need more, and the prevailing message is that we’ll be happier, sexier, smarter, and hipper if we have more. Unfortunately, that focus is actually the enemy of happiness, because the root of greed is “every man for himself”—which is also the root of disconnection and loneliness. The cost of the fear and anxiety that brings is very high. We’d be better off focusing more on sharing, and helping our children learn to share, and understanding that we’re all connected.

We’d like to make the following suggestions for contributing to your own happiness:

  1. Disengage from fear-mongers and the onslaught of experts and talking heads filling airtime and print-space.
  2. Realize that pessimistic possibilities become probabilities the more often they’re repeated as facts; don’t confuse possibility with probability.
  3. Look at the truth of what’s really under your control in your world; know that the only person you can change is you.
  4. Make an inventory of what you have in your life; nothing is too small to be included.
  5. Practice gratitude for life and what you have.
  6. Treat people as you wish to be treated; it encourages reciprocity.
  7. Make every interaction an example of your humanity.
  8. Resist the temptation to see people as more or less; we’re equal.

Try to imagine at the end of your life’s journey, as the world and its conceits fall away, what will seem important—what will stay with you. It is highly unlikely that you’ll be dwelling on more, bigger/better, if only… Imagine what would be the image, the memory you’d take with you. We’ve witnessed the peace and grace that comes with acceptance at the end of life. The secret of happiness may well be to learn from that wisdom: to practice, during our lifetimes, acceptance and gratitude for what is, while at the same time striving to learn, grow, and change what we can, beginning with ourselves. We can choose to be happy.

Barbara & Oliver

Uncertainty and Consequences

Mankind fills the empty space of uncertainty with something concrete—whether this is something rational and useful or something chaotic, at least it’s something known. To cope with life’s inherent uncertainties, individuals and societies develop various patterns of behavior, such as rules of law and moral codes, intended to reduce the impact of the unknown on our lives.

Legal and moral systems were originally intended to apply equally across society. And in a society experienced by its members as just and equitable, with concern for the common man, uncertainty produces less anxiety and disruption than in a society seen as caring more for the wealthy and influential.

Unfortunately, when some individuals realized they could gain advantage over others, inequality was introduced. Inequality acts to increase uncertainty and its ramifications. Uncertainty can then engender fear—another strong behavioral motivator.

When people feel unsafe, their instinctive response is to try to control their environment somehow. Conservatives alarmed by the sixties’ unregulated, messy people-power said “Never again!” Then 9/11 sent the message that nobody is safe, not even the rich and powerful. Were the ensuing seven years of profligate financial manipulation an overreaching attempt by that social class to regain societal control—inadvertently producing the worldwide economic disasters of 2008?

Fear is too often followed by exploitation and/or overreach. History has seen how overreach always leads to “pushback” of some kind, no matter the source of the overreach. We all drink from this poisoned well and, if history is our teacher, a day of reckoning is inevitable.

Why is the unknown so threatening, perceived as a “nothing” that must be replaced with something, even a destructive something? Humans seem to have an inherent propensity to fill uncertainty with negative predictions. But negative predictions are often more a function of anxiety than of actual evidence. “If this, then that” is pulled out of thin air, though it may not be borne out by present or even historical reality.

Think about your own tendency to fill the unknown with potential danger. Danger is always possible, but possibility is not fact. A prediction is merely a prediction, and a possibility is not necessarily a probability. Anxiety does not make things so.

Because anxiety is anticipatory dread, it always writes a bad story. Whenever it feels like something to dread is just around the corner, we need to find a different way to fill in the blanks. As it turns out, it can be calming to examine our negative predictions and look for hard evidence to support or contradict them.

As we often feel we can do little about what happens in the world at large, we are left to do what we can in a smaller way: to take care of our personal worlds and the workings of our minds. To accept that being uneasy with uncertainty is a human challenge is realistic. To pay attention to our responses, and try to keep in mind that uncertainty is not automatically a bad thing, is wise. The way of love can be a useful antidote to uncertainty because it adds trust and predictability to our personal relationships.

Barbara & Oliver

“The Matchmaker”: A Movie Experience

We recently went to an Israeli film called “The Matchmaker,” though we really had no idea what it was about until we saw it. It’s a story of survival and coming of age. We were both deeply touched by its portrayal of humanity, the dark histories that disturb sleep and make nightmares a normal part of life, and the choices that ordinary people make under extraordinary circumstances.

In this age of high-tech cinema full of magic, explosions, and heart-stopping hyper-excitement, “little films” often get lost. But we hope that this one won’t be. We typically opt for character-driven films such as “The Matchmaker” because we find comfort and reassurance in stories about ordinary people. After all, no matter our strengths or talents, we’re all ordinary people, all the sum of our genetic and personal histories and our reactions to those histories.

Within ourselves, any of us could be the people in the movie, no matter our national origin, language, religion, economic status, or other background factors. What we have in common is being human, our reactions to joys and traumas, and our interactions with the world that can either cushion those traumas or exacerbate them. In this particular film, the grace of the deeply injured and the generosity of spirit that inhabited them were inspiring.

Most of us seek inspiration, excitement, or distraction in our entertainment, which largely guides our choices on how to spend our “fun money.” Everything’s gotten rather expensive, what with gas, tickets, parking, food, beverages… But we spend the money because it’s important to us to be inspired, excited, or distracted—or all three.

The desire for distraction is likely a reaction to how complicated “modern living” has become. Sometimes the most basic transactions morph unexpectedly into ridiculously difficult challenges. Nothing seems simple any more—except when we’re sitting in a darkened theater with the comfort of snacks, when we’re guaranteed a few hours away from ordinary, workaday life.

Seeing “The Matchmaker” is a potent reminder that no matter how complicated our lives and technologies and rancid politics have become, those complications don’t nearly approach the level of dysfunction and inhumanity endured by many of the citizens of this film. It makes us so grateful for the good fortune we’ve been given up to this point. We did not earn it. It’s haphazard, and sometimes a rose is a rose and good luck is simply good luck.

Barbara & Oliver

Inspiration of AA

I stopped drinking 35 years ago and I have been clean and sober ever since.

When I began to think about the things that mattered to me that became my book, “To Find The Way Of Love,” I thought about the Twelve Steps of A.A. which have influenced my life. Anonymity would preclude any personal discussion of aspects of my experience, but the Twelve Steps, available to anyone, are shining examples of a way of relating without judgment from others. We all need an environment in which to grow, at any age, despite what may have interfered with that growth. Drugs and alcohol are two of many disabling factors in what we think of as normal development. There are others.

A.A. and a ‘good enough’ family environment provide what has been described as a holding environment in which we can develop and begin to learn who we are in relationship to others. First, we have to learn who we are. That grows from within. Advice, judgment, shame, criticism are not helpful to this process. Finding oneself amidst all the noise is.  It is one of life’s most important challenges.

I had an experience many years ago that had a profound effect on me. There was a big costume Halloween Party at a restaurant hosted by a design firm that worked for the Medical Center of which I was Senior Vice President of Planning. Everyone was disguised: I went as a clown, unrecognizable in costume and elaborate face painting. My nose was a large red bulb. Looking at a picture now many years later I can see how I wouldn’t have recognized myself. I never spoke, but made hand signals and pointed. I spent the entire evening without revealing myself, even when I was leaving. Nobody knew who I was. I had a very large social circle of personal and business friends, of many years, many present, yet I was able to remain anonymous for hours.

The next day I woke with the thought that I was the only person in the room who knew who I was. That was a whole new experience.

Oliver & Barbara

Why Are Relationships So Important

My wife, Barbara and I have talked about how we think it is a good sign when the teacher or other observer of the scene says your kid “plays well with others.”

It’s comforting to think that child will grow surrounded by friends, over the years, to laugh with and share with and cry with.

In my book, “To Find The Way Of Love” I say that relationships define us more then our achievements. I was struck by Steve Jobs’ response to his biographer Walter Isaacson as reported in Time, October 17. When asked why he, such a private man, was willing to open up about himself through numerous hours of interviews he is reported to have said to Isaacson; “I wanted my kids to know me. I wasn’t always there for them and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”

Steve Jobs was an acknowledged visionary and genius who had a profound relationship with his work and through that all of us. The vast outpouring of grief that followed his death speaks to that. Barbara and I were at an Apple store the next day and felt deeply moved by the growing tributes, flowers, apples, pictures, messages left outside the door in tribute. But as the end of his life approached it was his family that mattered. That was his priority. It’s a valuable exercise to imagine how we would spend the last week of our life, if we had advance knowledge.

I like to think that the test of a man or woman is how they play with others. Not the number of relationships, but the quality of one’s ability to relate and care and feel. It’s interesting that what has been said about psychopaths is that they lack empathy, the capacity to put themselves in another’s shoes. Given the environment today, some might say that because our elected officials are largely out of touch with the people who elected them, their fellow citizens, the disconnect gets larger daily as does the anger. Now we have groups protesting in Wall Street and many other locations across the nation, and growing.

Our relationships express our humanity. Our relationships can express our equality, person to person. Despite differences in ability, power, money, luck, and we are all born live and die. That is our common human experience. The rest is what happens in between. I would wish for a world in which “plays well with others” remains important and can make a person proud.

Oliver & Barbara

Helping Children Grow

Parenting may have been mankind’s first and most important altruistic act. For hunter-gatherers, parenting was downright courageous, as children were a liability in the continual migration that was essential for survival—but parent they did. We would not be here on Earth, almost 8 billion of us, were it not for our ancestors’ serious commitment to procreation.

Today, as then, the purpose of human parenting is to nurture and prepare progeny for independent and interdependent living, coaching them to navigate our complicated world and create a place within it in a self-sustaining way. Societies have always tried to publicize the beliefs, traits, and priorities they most valued, just as parents from the past and present have inevitably faced the fundamental question, “What qualities do we consider important to instill in our children?”

If we want to raise children to be kind, caring, and mindful of our interdependency, the process must begin with the children’s primary caregivers, their first and most crucial teachers. We all know that role modeling and imitation are fundamental teaching and learning experiences. Parental modeling of mutual respect sets the stage for a child to internalize that we can be different yet equal. The most important people in a child’s life must demonstrate that having different strengths and different functions does not diminish their basic equality.

It might be helpful to pause here and consider Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, and his perspective on childhood development. It is a guide to the stages of development he believed children pass through and the conflicts they face at every stage. As parents with the exciting but challenging task of guiding our children through their formative years, a brief summary seems relevant.

Erikson’s theory of developmental stages illuminates primary conflicts that he believed we face during distinct periods of growth. For example, from birth to about 18 months, the infant experiences a conflict of trust versus mistrust in interactions with caregivers. Next, until about three years old, the conflict is autonomy versus shame and doubt. While beginning to explore the world and gain bodily control, a new sense of independence is achieved, but the child who is slow to master toilet training or other functions can suffer from feelings of parental disappointment.

As the child continues to test the waters of independence from three to six years old, in the stage labeled, “initiative versus guilt,” parents can be on the lookout for a child’s attempt to explore independence and respond with a blend of encouragement and support within loving limits.

In the middle-school years of six to 12, the child is in a new world of demands and expectations where the conflict is “industry versus inferiority.” While we buttress the growth of self-confidence during these stages, it is also vital to guide children toward solutions to problems or conflicts with an understanding of fairness and how every one wants to be treated. Children who feel supported in their development and approved of by their caregivers are usually empathic and kind to others.

It is sometimes overlooked that for humans, parenting continues well past puberty. Erikson’s developmental stages continue through adolescence and beyond, as does the need for parents to support the emerging independence and skills of their teenage and even adult children. From 12 to 18 years, with peers becoming a stronger guiding force, identity versus role confusion is the primary conflict, so the challenge is belonging while forming a cohesive identity. Intimacy versus isolation is the conflict from 18 through midlife, followed in mid- to later life by a time of “passing the torch” and supporting the next generation.

Throughout this developmental sequence, it is tremendously helpful—perhaps essential—for parents to encourage and support the life-affirming quality of “plays well with others.” (I expand further on this theme in To Find The Way Of Love.) Indeed, a growing body of knowledge persuasively illustrates the benefits of supportive relationships on physical and mental health, and even longevity. Parenting is certainly challenging, but for those of us who choose that path, it may well be the most important and valuable thing we do in our lives.

Barbara & Oliver


A triumphant candidate who defeated incumbent Richard Lugar’s race for the Senate in Indiana said recently, “Bipartisanship will be when all Democrats agree with the Republicans.” Maybe he was joking—but it wasn’t amusing. When does the good of the country trump politicians’ self-interest? What happened to flexibility and compromise? What happened to representing the middle?

Much has been written about the hijacking of the middle by extremists; the hijacking of the system by vulgarities of special interests and obscene amounts of money; the disgust and disaffection of voters now desensitized to greed, corruption, and the playing of the system; and the politicians’ willingness to cut sometimes life-saving assists to the most vulnerable members of society.

The conflict between self-interest and altruism is very old, and the love of self and “mine” over country and all others runs very deep. But if the evidence shows that knowing when and where and how to cut is what yields the best results, then perhaps the extreme position of simply, reactively cutting—from the old, the young, and the poor—is not the answer to reducing the deficit.

In fact, the recent meeting of the G8 countries suggested that austerity itself may well not be the solution for stimulating the global economy; rather, that jobs, investment in innovation, education, and imagination for our smartest, betting on their contribution to society and the economy, is a better short-term investment in a long-term payoff.

Why are we shooting ourselves in the foot, so we cannot dance or walk? Why are we made uneasy by money in vulgar amounts, and by the shadowy world of who is spending it and to what end? We are uneasy because secrecy and cover-ups are incompatible with the intended transparency of representative government. So when a secret is revealed and a cover-up exposed (and they almost always are), the individuals responsible are severely punished. Former President Nixon was not forced to resign because of the misdeeds of Watergate but because of their cover-up. More recently, former Senator Edwards’ and former Governor Schwarzenegger’s careers and reputations were not destroyed by their “misbehaviors” (other public figures have survived worse) but by their attempts to hide them. Yet, powerful people continue to behave as if they are above the law and nobody is looking.

Now corporations are trying to get away with something similar. Emboldened by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, corporations are flooding political campaigns with anonymous contributions. They think they can influence elections outside the public view—and for a time they might, but negative public reactions to that attempt are only beginning. Occupy Wall Street was the first protest, with many more to come. Move to Amend is a serious challenge to the court’s flawed decision. And more and more people are remembering that the ascendancy of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolph Hitler in Germany was aided and abetted by corporations both foreign and domestic, leading to the disaster of World War II.

Corporations, beware the power and the wrath, of public opinion!

On Parenting and Altruism

Perhaps more than anything else, parenting is what defines humanity. The appearance of parenting in the world signaled the end of the Age of Reptiles (dinosaurs and their brethren) and heralded the beginning of the Age of Mammals—and parenting is probably the most important activity that humans have ever undertaken.

Reptile mothers reproduce by laying external eggs and hatching offspring capable of immediate independent survival. Reptiles have no apparent concerns for members of their own or any other species, including offspring, and often engage in cannibalism. Humans, thankfully, are different (most of the time). Like all mammals, our pregnant mothers bear young that emerge incapable of surviving without care. So for humans, parenting—protection and nurturance of offspring from birth—is absolutely necessary for the survival of the child and the species.

The root of our amazing brain began to develop in our reptilian ancestors. Initially, its capabilities were focused exclusively on self-interest, the individual’s own survival. Then in the later years of the reptilian age, another ability began to emerge in that ancestral brain: altruism, the capacity to be concerned about another individual. Modern science has physically located this capacity in the limbic system, part of our brain’s second developmental stage. Altruism is essential to the activities of parenting. The limbic system also appears to include a key prohibition against cannibalism: thou shalt not eat thine own kind, if you will.

Because brain development has been a process of accretion, with each new ability added to the previously existing ones, the capacities to act out of self-interest or out of altruism are both hard-wired into our heads. Thus, our ultimate actions are a matter of choice, a function of free will; and technically, a function of the neocortex, our brain’s third developmental stage.

That neurological and behavioral lineage strongly suggests that our lives are in our own hands. By extension, how we can best live becomes a matter of education, beginning with our children. One of the most important functions of parenting is education, through example and through the provision of schooling. Along with basic and advanced academic skills, parents can enhance their children’s education by encouraging their participation in sports and the arts—especially team sports and performing arts, as these activities both demonstrate and require sharing.

Learning how to share is a critically important lesson of childhood. It is absolutely fundamental to establishing and sustaining the personal relationships that will define a full, healthy human life. Outside of certain inherently imbalanced learning situations with parent/child or teacher/student, any true sharing demands an equality in power between the people involved in the sharing, with each person having the freedom to accept or reject the sharing without penalty.

Sharing’s deep significance derives from its mutuality and the fact that it simultaneously meets the needs of both self-interest and altruism. My mother demonstrated these profundities with a very simple but powerful example when I was fourteen. After school one day, my older brother and I were squabbling in our kitchen over who’d get the last apple in the fruit bowl. Mom heard us and intervened, taking the apple. She gave my brother a knife, saying, “You cut,” then saying to me, “And you pick first!” Her solution, and our actions, satisfied our self-interests and yet involved a consideration of each other at the same time.

Obviously, that incident made a deep impression on me. I’ve tried to apply its lesson in my adult life. In my book, To Find The Way Of Love, I define the way of love for humans as “promoting freedom and equality in all personal relationships.” Voluntary promotion that arises from within is the most desirable, but even an external stimulus can lead to finding the way. And parents are in the best position to provide that stimulus to the next generation. Simply being a parent, after all, is an act of altruism. Parents can also take us all a great step further, by demonstrating equality with their children. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “Try not to make your children like you. Try to be like them.”

Oliver & Barbara

This article appeared in Today’s Parent magazine:

Erikson’s 8th Stage of Psychosocial Development

The world looks and feels different at each stage of development. We are always interacting with the world within and without. Our traumas, successes, challenges, losses, events all trigger responses. Each stage for Erikson held a basic conflict and highlights an important event.

From birth to 1 & ½ years we have the conflict of trust vs. mistrust; the stability of the relationship between the mother or caregiver and baby, the importance of eye contact and the dance of resonance. This sets the stage for future development.

Next is independence (autonomy) vs. shame and doubt. As a child tries out his physical development (toilet-training, exploration) if he is shamed it can impact confidence. This stage lasts, loosely, until age 3. Then comes “locomotor” stage where independence is important leading to initiative vs. guilt. The child needs an affirming environment and support for his growing independence.

Next comes the Latency period from 6 to 12 years, where school is of primary importance along with peers. Mastery and industry vs. inferiority are the conflicts.

If successfully navigated stage 5, Adolescence, brings identity vs. role confusion. Peer relationships are central as adolescents seek a sense of identity. This is a difficult time of challenges and blends into stage six, young adulthood young adulthood, often defined as age 19 to 40 where the conflict is intimacy vs. isolation.

Intimacy, as in intimate relationships, staves off isolation and creates a richness of experience. We know from multiple studies that social/ emotional support is a strong factor in emotional, psychological and health issues. People live longer and better if they have strong ties, emotional support and connectedness.

Stage seven is seen as age 40 to 60 where one engages in generativity or stagnation according to Erikson. Support for the next generation, parenting, grand-parenting, mentoring or some other way “of giving back” has rich rewards.

The last stage for Erikson was maturity, from 65 to the end of life. Its conflict has been defined as ego-integrity vs. despair. This is the time of contemplation, memories, life-review and acceptances. There is a saying, “Too soon old, too late smart.” We hope this is only minimally true. Many people are not so fortunate as to have had successful, developmental resolutions of the different stages, conceptualized as essential psycho-social stages. What we miss, we must make up for as best we can and people do the best they can.

It helps to discover who you are. To learn life’s lessons, pay attention to the unusual events that come your way. It helps to face what needs our attention and healing where there are wounds.

We have heard life described as a journey. It is a journey of discovery; about ourselves and the world within each of us. If the world within is in good shape, we will improve the world without.

When economies are severely challenged, and millions are unemployed, the challenges are multiplied a hundredfold, especially when the conditions have been created by greed and irresponsible, sociopathic behaviors. That is for another blog but the world-within creates vast differences in the way people respond to crises, disappointments, the unknown and the multiple negative thoughts and predictions that can haunt one’s sleep and waking life.

The journey comes to an end for one and all. No matter one’s circumstances, it comes sooner or later. It’s the living that matters. The goal is to live so that when we arrive at the journey’s end we can each look back and say, “I did my best. I inhabited my life and I am satisfied.

Barbara & Oliver

Spare Time

If you are fortunate enough to have a job and to follow the relatively normal, hectic routines of modern living, you’ve come to know that spare time is something precious. And, as with spare change, there is often not enough spare time to do something substantial.

If you suddenly had an unexpected chunk of time with no immediate obligations to fulfill, how would you spend it?

Once you start thinking about it, the possibilities pile up thick and fast. Doing nothing, perhaps long-imagined, almost seems too indulgent or pointless next to so many other things crowding the list of “if there were time”: someone you want to get back in touch with…a book you’ve been dying to read…an article you’ve been meaning to write…a walk you’d love to take…a recipe you’d like to try…

Imagine having the freedom to spend a few hours breathing in the ocean, thinking, dreaming, meditating—time spent in slow motion, just seeing and being, observing. You really can slow your world for a while. Many of us have a place associated with relaxation and renewal, usually on vacation. How can we bring that into every day life?

Most people have spare time in small, intermittent chunks, yet they can achieve momentous things by focusing on a single goal be it self-renewal or an outward expression of an inner world, whenever they have spare time. They write books, compose music, invent things and in between the pockets of spare time they are thinking about their goal.

Believe it or not, some places in the modern world are actually conducive to slowed-down living. But even there, spare time is an interesting concept and experience. It’s partly an attitude, partly a choice, and partly an acquired taste.

Oliver & Barbara