I work with several couples who love each other and want their relationships to thrive and grow, but they don’t put much effort into planning quality time together. “Busyness” has become a major rationale for many couples, as they balance the multiple roles of employee or business owner, parent, friend, relative, self-care, and partner.
I find myself telling couples with some frequency that wanted time together won’t just happen on its own when you have a lot on your plate. Wishing for it isn’t enough – you need to be more intentional about making it happen by putting it near the top of your priority list and individually and together planning.
If you’re a bit wary about whether your ideas for meaningful, fun time together will be a hit with your partner then ask them about the kinds of activities indoors and outdoors they’d enjoy. You can each make a list, put the ideas in a jar, and pick from each other’s jars, taking turns. (My “Jar Exercise” I refer to in one of my free articles you can receive by signing up). Don’t allow quality time together to become a one-person job. It’s best to share the labor of connection. You’ll also get more “bang for your buck” by introducing novel places and activities. Neuroscience points out the benefit of novelty to the bonding experience between couples, so try to avoid doing the same old thing every time you’re together. Try to balance tried and true rituals you both enjoy with new experiences and places. You’ll be enriching your relationship in a major way. You’ll be avoiding the big pit of “busyness” and disconnection in your relationship, and you’ll feel better about being proactive about this issue.
This past weekend it was a balmy 24 degrees for the high on most of Saturday and Sunday here in the Northeast. Many of you might grimace at this information, especially if you live in Maine or New Hampshire and routinely experience a six month winter. You’re even more likely to look at this photo of me on the Lincoln Woods trail, deep in the heart of the mountains, and think I’m crazy, right? What you may not realize is that, along with some good friends and my husband I was practicing the art of making peace with the cold, given the fact that we can’t change it and would certainly get very depressed hanging around inside all winter. (What you can’t see in this particular photo is the fact that all four of us had just driven two hours North to see the Ice Castles, basically, an ambitious bunch of ice towers near Loon Mountain – all freezing stuff)!
But, there’s method to the madness: Get out in nature after you’ve sufficiently bundled up, experience it’s beauty, yield to it, and you’ll be taking a natural anti-depressant! So, whatever feels most comfortable to you – downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, or just plain trail walking with your dog, if you have one – any of these activities will help you not only get through the very long New England winter, but will give you exercise, social contact, a happy dog and communion with nature. All very good things….
I could never sit “Indian Style,” so when I spent two weeks in Girl Scout camp at age nine I felt like a total failure next to all the other little scouts sitting like perfect Yogis around the campfire, inhaling their gooey Smores. Imagine my later dismay whenever I attended a cozy, casual group event, or God forbid, a Yoga class and attempted to achieve a Namaste frame of mind in lotus position! So, sadly to say, my attempts at “regular” meditation haven’t been stellar with the posture all convoluted. I also sit in my work as a psychotherapist more than most elders do when they’re confined to wheelchairs, so more sitting as a form of meditative practice is generally out.
I relax and even meditate through movement, often focusing on my breath and gait during speed walks, no matter where I am. But the real deal happens when everything is quiet and shut down, my cat and husband are asleep, the horrible news is off, my laptop has been put to bed, the dishwasher is humming, and I’m in the zone making popsicles. I am the newest member of a bizarre club of mostly young Moms who need some peace and quiet, and find it late at night, concocting all sorts of decadent popsicles, then posting them on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. I call them the Midnight Madness Poppers, and I guess I’m one of them, invited, young and tired, Pinterest addicted – or not. I’ve decided that even though nobody has nominated me yet, that I have an even more exclusive membership in this club, because anyone can invent delicious pops loaded with gobs of sugar, but mine are healthy, untainted by that sweet poison.
I’ve also decided that most anyone can sit in perfect Lotus position, still and silent, noting their breath and invasive thoughts as a path to enlightenment. How many people can go into a total meditative trance at midnight whipping up things with names like “Banana Maple Coconut Rum Pecan” or “Russian Cappucino Walnut Kahlua Chip”? Huh?
Meet Barley (Lager) – our new “Grandson.” He may be the youngest member of our family, but we think he’s wiser than all the rest of us combined. He knows how to live and love and get his way when he wants to do his thing. You can’t walk with him ten feet in public without his universal fan club, (mostly older, very fancy, done up ladies), stopping, shrieking, cuddling him and kissing him on the mouth – even though he may have just eaten some fresh deer poop. Like most puppies, he loves everyone and everyone loves him. Of course, it helps that he’s soft and fuzzy, full of kisses and clumsy like a baby. But, he knows a few things about how to live with joy that the rest of us could learn from, probably saving us thousands in therapists fees like mine, and thousands of hours of searching through self help books. If we all just emulated the Barleys of the world we’d probably also spare ourselves loads of angst, and mountains of emptiness and stress.
So, here’s what Barley has already taught me about how to live happier:
- Be present in the moment, whatever that is
- Be curious – it’s an amazing, big world out there!
- Eat heartily when you’re hungry and nap when you’re tired
- Play a lot with gusto and abandon
- Be loyal, but also love the one you’re with – unless they’re mean
- Forgive and forget – today’s a new day
- Cuddle and kiss your family whenever you can, especially when you greet them
- Ask for what you want without shame
- Enjoy your own body – it’s full of wonderful parts!
- Give everyone the benefit of the doubt – maybe they’ll be a new friend!
- Back off when someone says “No” – and don’t bite!
- Be determined about getting your rewards
- Listen very carefully, trust your nose and tune in
- Be silly and unselfconscious – who gets hurt if you’re having fun?
(Feel free to add to this list in the name of helping all of us “grown ups” learn to live with more joy and exuberance). Right now, with Barley’s modeling, I need a nap…..
I haven’t been blogging for more than a month, not only because of the holiday busyness, but because I have an overactive brain which got hijacked by an obsession for grain-free, low carb cooking and baking. I’ve discovered several websites which tout tons of recipes for healthy, wheat-free, sugar-free breads, cakes, soups, muffins, appetizers, candy, etc., all part of the “Wheatbelly” crusade. I’m hooked. I’m like a junkie on crack. I’m often up till 1:00 AM immersed in a world of other “junkies” who spend every kid-free, husband-free, (I’m not being sexist, it’s mostly women), moment making these healthy treats, and blogging about it on their sites. I call one bunch the “Mad Midnight Popsicle Mavens.” (They really started me on this mania, with their mouthwatering pictures of their mostly sugar-free creations).
This obsession actually started for a logical reason. I’d been suffering with acid reflux and asthma for several years, often rudely injecting itself into sessions with clients, with me either wheezing or choking for a period of time, on their dime. Clients were always very understanding, but I couldn’t tolerate feeling like an old coot, so I did my homework and found out about grain-free eating as an antidote in the Wheatbelly research. Thankfully, this way of life has helped enormously, but with the mixed outcome of creating a new “mania,” as I like to think of it – not a mental illness, but a happy passion. So happy, in fact, that I could forget to sleep, if I allowed myself, but I generally don’t.
So, what’s the point of this tale? To let anyone out there know that if you too are prone to fixations, preoccupations and manias, to be aware of how and when you allow them to rule your world. Do you forget to pick up your kids at daycare because you’re in a happy shopping trance? Does your obsession with learning an instrument trump paying the bills? Do you neglect your spouse because you’re fixated on a new puzzle? It’s all a consciousness and balance game.
Anyway, I gotta go. The grain-free cookies are calling….
As the seasons change, many people I know are bemoaning the loss of “time off” they’ve had in the summer. There’s an obvious feeling of ambivalence about the upcoming season of busyness and social obligations dovetailing with work and family responsibilities. People tend to dread being over scheduled and deprived of personal time to self-nurture or play. The myth we seem to have bought into in the American culture is that one needs to be on vacation to fully experience joy, spontaneity, discovery and meaningful connection.
I invite you instead, to explore the experience of what I call “time on,” or living your everyday life with more wonder, appreciation and joy. Start by regularly taking a “snapshot” of the present moment – notice your breathing, the air on your skin, the color of the sky, the sound of the wind in the leaves. Notice the quality of the conversation and connection with the person facing you. Take a “snapshot” of this sharing as it is unfolding. Savor it. Drive more slowly and take in the tones of the changing season. Take a “snapshot” of that field of hay, or the person trying to get somewhere in the car next to you. Take a risk and smile at them and your common circumstance. Be more playful with yourself and those around you. Laugh at yourself more often. Be physical – dance, walk, run, move! Appreciate the daily work your body does for you, and treat it with kindness and compassion. Stop, and pet your dog or your cat if you have one. It will be good for both of you. Pick a wildflower and stick it in your hair. Write a poem, play an instrument. Turn off your automatic TV watching, and read a good book or listen to a symphony.
Just be present for your life each day, not just for one or two weeks of vacation in the summer. Use your “time on,” your everyday life, to be cognizant of, and grateful for your blessings. You’ll be a much happier person…….
PS. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and eloquent writer, is a terrific resource for the issues of happiness, staying present and in the “now.” You can get any of his wonderful books on these subjects at my Amazon store by going to: http://astore.amazon.com/wwwsusanlagec-20
It’s Fall again, the air is crisp, the leaves are glorious (all those usual notes), and once again my husband and I are sitting on the giant wraparound porch at the Eagle Mountain House in Jackson, New Hampshire. This is one of our happy rituals as a couple – to drive up into the White Mountains in the late Fall, go for walks, meander through the back roads, browse the shops, read with a glass of wine on the porch, and feast on comfort food in local eateries.
Rituals are a perfect way to create soothing predictability, comfort, and anticipation into your life, whether you’re coupled or single. When you hold a memento or picture of the location, and gaze at it, pulling up good memories, you’re ramping up “feel good” chemicals in your brain. If you’re coupled, it tends to rekindle experiences of bonding and connection. If your life feels like a dreary treadmill, a happy ritual can interrupt the depressive feeling, and remind you that life, however hard, is also filled with meaning and joy, if you allow it.
So, if there’s a special experience you’ve had with some regularity either alone or with a partner, take it off the shelf and re-enact it! If there are none in your repertoire, then create some new experiences which can be ritualized. You’ll be doing your mood and your relationship a world of good.
I have a confession to make. I’ve just finished the final episode of season four of “Breaking Bad,”and I’m beside myself. What will evenings be like without the punctuation of bloody drug cartel wars, Walter’s chronic, obsessive lies covering all his suicidal choices, Jesse’s hopeless incompetence, Skyler’s opportunistic manipulations, Hank’s shrewd D.E.A. determination, and oh, most of all, the murderous kingpin Gus, we all hate to love? The sheer thrill of watching these characters play out their bizarre agendas has been akin to the fascination of witnessing a train wreck in slow motion, or stopping to steal a peek at the blood in a gory highway accident. Horrible things happening to other people. Revenge brutally extracted by other people. But the very worst consequences miraculously avoided, time and again. Ah, TV……
By day, my therapist world is governed by the ethics of sound judgment, compassion, mindfulness, delayed gratification, consequences for all actions, law abiding work, cooperation, mutual benefit. No place for this dog eat dog, kill or be killed, survival of the fittest stuff. What a guilty pleasure, however, to spend 48 minutes several times a week dancing with total destruction! (I’m sure they’ll find some link to lowered cortisol levels resulting in a healthier, longer life, don’t you think?)
I’d better find another “train wreck” show, got any suggestions?
PS. When you’re up for something productive, (outside your own guilty pleasure), tune in to my next BlogTalk Radio episode, “Effective Trauma Treatment and its Impact on Relationships”, featuring Phil Harford, an expert in this field. It’s on Wednesday, Feb. 8th at 8:30 PM. Call in toll-free at: 877-497-9046 to listen, and if you want, to join us live on the air. It should be a very interesting and informative show! (Walter, Jesse, and Gus sure could have used the knowledge).