Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Advice

I’m not big on advice, but what the heck, it’s my blog. So here it is. It might be fun to practice savoring during the holidays. When savoring, one experiences the specifics and detail of the present moment. Noticing all the different aspects of an experience might include sounds, smells, textures, tastes and emotions.

For instance: I’m lying on the beach. I feel the sand warm under my back. I smell the ocean and sunscreen and feel a light breeze play across my face. My hair moves slightly against my cheek and I feel my eyelashes meeting above closed eyes. Along with the surf, I can hear the occasional shriek of a gull and children off somewhere playing and calling to one another. I'm relaxed. I feel still, at east and connected.

I could go on with my observations (and wishful thinking). Notice what I didn’t include. I’m not worrying about what’s going to be waiting for me when I get back to work. I’m not wishing I was on a beach in Cannes instead of Florida. I’m not thinking I should get productive and take a walk or read. I’m not looking at my watch, checking my email or texting.

You can savor anything. We are all familiar with the idea of savoring a fine wine, cigar or other gustatory experience. Have you ever savored a success? Getting the promotion, finishing the dissertation and completing your first 5K are all opportunities for savoring. So is listening to a symphony or smelling a rose.

So my holiday advice: Find a few things (or many) to really savor and enjoy. Maybe it’s a special food someone makes at this time of year, or the giggle and smile of a particular niece, or the walk you have the time to take in the crisp winter air. Make the most of these experiences and be really present for them. If you’re used to being on the run and multitasking, it may take some practice, but I think you’ll find it well worth the effort. And it’s good for post- and pre-holiday times as well.

For more tips, see an article about the Harvard Medical School Portable Guide to Stress Relief.

A song that captures savoring and the holiday mood: Let it Snow

Monday, December 15, 2008

In Sickness and in Health - II

Does it come as a surprise that breast cancer patients with better marriages have an easier time with recovery than women in troubled marriages?

There were behavioral differences found among the women in this study. Those in better marriages had better eating habits and engaged in more physical activity. They showed less cancer-related stress, fewer symptoms and quicker recovery.

I’m not on an anti-marriage kick, I just happened to come across this study and the one I discussed in my last blog back-to-back.

Perhaps it behooves us to consider just what it is we are getting in our marriages, what we’re missing and what we might think of as important ingredients.

My tip for a better marriage (borrowing liberally from The Good Marriage by Wallerstein and Blakeslee), in addition to genuine love and affection for your partner, is to make sure you have the following:

Honesty, honesty, honesty
Shared values
Togetherness and autonomy
Mutual admiration
Work, work, work

If you don’t, you can try to get it. And of course there’s always coaching and therapy. But address problems as they come up. Like most things, a good marriage is a lot of hard work.

It’s a little corny, but check out True Love (Bing and Grace) on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Sickness and in Health

Marriage has long been considered a psychologically beneficial state, with marrieds often healthier and happier. But hold on. It’s really been considered beneficial primarily for men, with women more likely to be depressed in marriage than men. This relates in part to the well accepted fact that married working women typically handle more of the housework and childrearing responsibilities, effectively giving them two jobs.

Recent work has started to question some of these findings. One group of researchers has suggested that the benefits of marriage can be shared by cohabitors (i.e., they both have built in companions and someone to share the work). But these researchers have found that the cohabitors are happier and have higher self-esteem than the marrieds. With marriage comes a loss of autonomy and difficulty pursuing personal growth goals leading to decreases in happiness and self-esteem. Cohabitors may be able to maintain more autonomy and self-direction. And the single men may even be as happy as married men.

Even cohabitors tend to decrease contact with family and friends, like marrieds. And cohabitors separate more. But now we find that a bad marriage is worse for blood pressure than singledom. We also find that divorce and loss of a spouse through death may lead to more stress than singles experience with relationship dissolution.

The biggest takeaway messages for me are about maintaining autonomy and personal goals in relationships, be they marriages or other. Retain your sense of self in a relationship. Don’t sacrifice important personal goals. Keep your friends and families close. Do the things that make you feel happy. Don’t give up who you are in order to satisfy someone else. Healthy relationships don’t demand this level of sacrifice. I think in sickness and in health just means you’ll stand by your partner.

Mood music: Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), Beyonce; So What, Pink

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Running on Empty

I was flipping through the November Runner’s World, noticing how brilliant the advice was, not only for running, but for life.

Eat healthy (before and after your runs); you’ll go farther and recover quicker. Who shouldn’t follow this advice, even without the running?

We’re all in a hurry but you can eat healthy on the cheap. Too true. While the big mac is quick, how much money and time does it take to sauté a piece of chicken and a few veggies?

Use strategies to achieve your goal: visualize success; use mantras to keep you going. Think about any of the challenges you face in life. Whether it’s giving a talk in public, asking someone out on a date or getting a huge project finished, visualizing the desired outcome, or the most desirable outcome (the audience applauding wildly, the datee swooning at the ask, the boss offering an immediate promotion) is useful. Using a mantra to keep you going (I'm taking deep, cleansing breaths; I can do [fill in the blank]) is also a good trick.

Set a few goals, not just the big one, so it’s okay if you don’t beat your personal best this time. You’re applying for jobs, so you set your sights high, but also apply for a few safe options; they’d be fine if they have to be. You may ask several people out, even though there’s one you think is to die for. It’s great to do better than your best on a project, but sometimes you run out of time and have to save some of that greatness for the next one.

Make it fun. Taking a buddy is the typical runner’s answer to making the trek fun. Or taking your iPod. Hmmmm. I’ve never considered listening to Dane Cook on my iPod while running. It could work. For other enterprises, humor tends to make giving talks more fun, taking breaks for fun helps get big projects completed more easily, picturing the Pinocchio nose growing, as your potential date gives the lamest excuse for why h/she can’t go out with you, eases the pain. In short, try not to take yourself so seriously.

If you’ve gotten off track (so to speak), get back into it slowly and deliberately. Doesn’t this apply to anything? Dating? Writing your next novel? Painting your house? Piano lessons?

Friends help motivate us to get out there. Of course! Enough said.

After the big race, there’s a bit of an anticlimax. What can you do to make it better? Planning a post-event party, even a tiny one with a single close friend, is a good way to cushion yourself from the letdown that can happen. Or, to really cushion it; get a massage.

And my personal favorite, why should I run? This is the question that plagues beginners reaching their first plateau, and long-time runners in a slump. You know why you run or do anything else. You’ve already listed the reasons in your head for giving the talk, asking for the date, taking on the impossible project. So go for it.

So there's no need to run on empty. Good strategies are good strategies, whether we apply them to something physical, metaphysical or psychological.

Everyone I know, everywhere I go, people need some reason to believe. Jackson Browne