Happiness Myths

July 21st, 2014

There was an interesting op-ed in the Sunday New York Times discussing happiness. Now there’s a topic that everyone can relate to and would like to hear more about. What do you know about what happiness is and what makes one happy? You may be very surprised by what the research says.

There is a test that measure both happiness and unhappiness called the Positive Affectivity and negative Affectivity Schedule test. Not only does it measure both- it demonstrates that a person can be happy, yet unhappy at the same time. This may clear up the confusion for a number of people who have experienced this, but didn’t trust that their self-observations were accurate. Knowing this could also help folks to use their happiness to decrease their unhappiness.

Depending on the individual, there can be a number of stated reasons for unhappiness, but they vary quite a bit and aren’t always significant like living in poverty, having a chronic health issue, or experiencing a significant loss. Actually the number one typical day reason cited for unhappiness is spending time with one’s boss. Take note all you managers. Yes the above cited reasons lead to unhappiness as does loneliness, which is more common in our present culture and especially among those who live alone and/or in large cities.

A surprising finding from a study out of the University of Rochester in 2009 is that graduates who had set “intrinsic’ goals, such as finding a lasting relationship were much happier than those whose goals had to do with making a lot of money or achieving fame. Apparently being rich and/or famous does not make one happier, even if having financial security does contribute to greater happiness for the average person. Yet many people continue to pursue their career goals above all else and put their focus on gaining fame and fortune. How ironic that it can leave them feeling alone, depressed and empty. Think about all the celebrities and politicians embroiled in scandals, in legal trouble due to bad behavior, addicted to substances- and even suicidal.

Of course, there’s always the rest of us. All us normal people who go on reality shows hoping to get noticed, who buy lottery tickets hoping to win the prize that will change our lives for the better and all the folks who put their relationship goals and relationships on hold until they have achieved the right amount of fortune and success.

So what’s the real secret of happiness? Most likely a mixture of security and stability, happy love, close and caring friends, work we love- and the ability to put people and relationships above things and success.

Certainly gives us all something to think about.

Is red the new black?

July 16th, 2014

The color black is often thought of as sophisticated and sexy- think “little black dress.” It connotes an attractiveness and appeal that is universal and therefore, everyone wants to have at least one. Now there is a new study that highlights red as another must-have color for women. The University of Rochester has conducted studies over several years that examined how red enhances a man’s attractiveness to women, how red enhances a woman’s attractiveness to men- and now how women dislike other women who wear red because they see them as a greater threat due to their enhanced sexual attractiveness.

In 2008, the first study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that women perceive men in red as more attractive because it gives them an appearance of power. In a woman’s mind, this power manifests itself as having a higher status, making more money and being much closer to the top of the social status ladder. The study’s authors believe that both culture and biology contribute to this perception as societies back to ancient times used this color to convey prosperity and a higher status. Think “red carpet” in today’s culture. In the study, men did not attribute these qualities to other men in red- only women did.

A second study done in 2012 found that men showed a preference and increased attractiveness to women wearing red. In fact, when showed photographs bordered in red of different women, they were chosen over those that were bordered in other colors. When wearing red shirts or dresses, their attractiveness was even greater. The researchers came to the conclusion that red is the color of passion to men because women wearing it are perceived as less likely to rebuff a man’s sexual interest and/or advances. Red is also the color associated with heightened sexual pleasure, as in the blushing of the skin during sexual play or copulation. Research has also shown that non-primate males also prefer females who display reddening when close to ovulation. Fascinating stuff to be sure.

Now the latest study has looked at how women perceive other women in red. It’s not pretty ladies. When a woman encounters another women who is wearing red, she sees her as a rival and someone she definitely does not want near her partner/spouse. When presented with pictures of women in red, female study participants made derogatory comments suggesting that the women would cheat on her partner, probably has little or no money, and is someone she would keep away from her mate. Bottom line- they saw these women in red as less likely to turn down a sexual overture from a male- any male.

So the bottom line is if you are a women, you may want to think about where and when your wear red- what the event will be, who will be there and whether it will be a help or a hindrance to your acceptance, likeability networking- and overall presentation to the others in attendance. For those of you who don’t wear red because it’s just not your color- you may never have been considered that sexy- however, you probably have a lot more women friends.

Arthur’s gift of intimacy

July 4th, 2014

Our first named hurricane of the season has been moving along the coast this week. July 4th has always been a day of parties, barbeques, parades, fireworks, trips to the pool and beach- and hot summer fun. In recent years, however, all of these are peppered with moments checking email, quick calls to work associates, time carved out to finish and send that report or handling a few odds and ends that you couldn’t get done before vacating the office for a few days.

Before the internet and cell phone, we had down time. Time spent hanging out with friends and loved ones, interacting through play and conversation, time to read and time to get back in touch with our inner child. Of course, younger adults never knew a time like this- but those of us who did can’t help but feel something is missing in our present plugged in lives.

I’m sitting here looking out at the storm as it rages over the ocean all around me. We are in a sheltered place on Long Island Sound- a place I spent many childhood summers. When I come here for a visit, I can almost hear the voices and see the images of a long ago time for here time seems to stand still. The streets look almost the same, some cottages are updated, but the old names are still there. The view out over the sound is just as it was when I was 7 years old. While it’s true you can “never go home again,” I can come close in this place. But, somehow, there is often this distance or barrier that seems like more than time.

This morning, waking up to the storm, I felt like I had been transported back in time. Folks are out walking in bare feet with slickers on and no one is talking on a phone. Some outages have occurred, so people are unplugged- card and board games are coming out, there is conversation and story-telling- and someone even came to the door to tell us a neighborhood party has been changed to a few weeks from now- due to the weather. No text, email or phone call- they came to the door.

Today time has slowed down- and if I listen quietly, I can see and hear the children we were- laughing and running through the rain. I can picture us out on the fishing dock, catching bass which were always plentiful on rainy days. The day will pass slowly and a sense of calm and relaxation will set in, followed by a truly restful night’s sleep.

Soon enough, life will return to normal- but for this one day, our minds can frolic and play through memories of a simpler time, a time when intimacy was a way of life- when conversation happened in real time and the images of our shared days were recorded in our memories and not on our smart phones, where they were then stored and taken out on special occasions among friends, not shared online for any stranger or acquaintance who happens to click by.

Gray divorce shattering retirement dreams

June 29th, 2014

The New York Times is running an interesting piece right now on how divorce among the older long-marrieds is impacting their finances and especially their retirement security. “Gray” divorces are on the rise according to a study by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. Among folks 50 and older the divorce rate has doubled since 1990- and it’s expected to keep rising. So much for the belief that the divorce rate is only high among those who have young children, and are in the most stressful times of their life/marriage, etc.

The Times focuses on how assets are split in half, retirement income gets fought over, the importance of talking to a financial advisor before calling a divorce lawyer- and they even talk about possible hidden assets that can’t be accessed once a divorce is finalized. Therefore they emphasize the need to go slowly, get the best settlement you can- and really do your homework along the way. Did you know there is such a thing as a forensic accountant who can search out any hidden or even forgotten assets a soon to be ex-partner may have? I can’t speak for anyone who has decided that divorce is the best option- but it sure feels like the hardest and least desirable, especially if you are an older adult with less time to start over and rebuild wealth and regain lost lifestyle perks.

There is only a brief mention in the article of the pain and loss associated with the death of a marriage- and the emphasis is how this leads people to less thought out planning and rushing a process that is just too important to get wrong. While this is all useful to anyone facing a gray divorce- I think folks should stop and spend some time and effort before making the decision to move towards divorce at all. Yes, there are the big 3 that are not negotiable in any marriage- abuse, addiction, and complete emotional estrangement. These can be worked on but only if both partners are willing to do the hard work- and after years of living with someone who may be ‘guilty” of one of these, it may just feel like too little too late.

But what about all the space between marital discord and unhappiness and these three? In my experience as a psychotherapist and relationship coach, there is often room in a relationship for working on problems, space in which to find compromise and enough energy to do the necessary work. What is often lacking is the belief that change is possible or the will is not there to see the difficult process through.

But then I think about what this article details- the anxiety, uncertainty, grief, stress, work, and emotional and financial cost- especially for those who don’t have much time for starting over and who wouldn’t find it easy to do so at an older age even if they were determined to do so. Losing one’s home, giving up much loved possessions, breaking up your family, losing mutual friends, living on less, maybe much less- and having an uncertain and potentially very lonely old age to look forward to. Speaking for myself- this is motivation to slow down and really think about how brown that grass could be on the other side of the marriage fence.

Maybe we should have seminars where older divorced people give talks to those contemplating divorce and give them a view of post-divorce life in their golden years. Call it tough love for divorce contemplating boomers. If you are an older person, married for years and considering divorce- and looking forward to kicking back and enjoying those later in life years without the stress of your present relationship- consider spending some time with your divorced friends, going out to bars and social events frequented by divorced and single older adults- and you just may get a dose of reality that could save you from the biggest mistake of your life.

Do the once uncool kids end up being better partners?

June 25th, 2014

A study that was published this month in the journal Child Development came to the conclusion that the cool kids from junior high end up being the marginalized adults by the time they reach their early 20’s. Apparently, cool younger kids only hang out with the best looking kids and often run with older kids (because that is really cool) who may be a bad influence- and experiment with drugs and sex and get into petty crime because they think it’s cool or perhaps it’s another way to stand out.

According to the study, as they move into high school, their popularity quotient drops as other kids are more focused and serious and more mature about school and being responsible. This leads the once cool kids to struggle to try and find a way to fit in more and when they can’t- they often start to become marginalized and drift towards the kids who are less stable and mature. Over time, this worsens and by their 20’s they are often high school drop outs, have a criminal history, and/or are underemployed or unemployed and drifting.

The theory behind why is rather simple- they miss out on important developmental phases and experiences that their uncool peers get to have. This leaves them socially and psychologically delayed- which of course has nothing to do with IQ.

Several things came to mind when I read the study. The first is child actors/musicians who grow into dysfunctional young adults- think Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber to name only two of many. They grew up way to fast and took on adult roles before they were emotionally and developmentally ready. By the time they reached their early 20’s, they were missing some critical experiences that would have prepared them for being responsible adults. Now both struggle with substance abuse and criminal behavior.

I also thought about all the young adults who struggle to set and keep goals, stay in school, hold down jobs- and have healthy relationships. They are often attractive, charismatic and intelligent- but just can’t seem to get their act together. Were they cool kids once? Are bad boys often ex cool kids and is this why they just can’t get it together in their relationships and make healthy commitments?

If you were one of the quiet ones, painfully shy, a geek or a nerd or just more of a loner- it looks like now is your time to be cool. You went through all those difficult adolescent stages with your eyes wide open and you learned a lot along the way. For anyone who is planning to attend a school reunion soon or who has the opportunity to connect with old schoolmates online- don’t rule out any uncool kids from your past. According to this study- they could hold the greatest potential for a healthy relationship and satisfying partnership.

Dating and relationships in the Boomerang generation

June 22nd, 2014

The NY Times just published a lengthy piece on the increasing number of “boomerang kids” – the young adults who have moved back home to live with their parents, many for years. These young adults talk about how they can save money on rent while they make career and life plans. They also talk about the recession and how hard it was for the brief time they lived on their own- according to many, it was almost impossible to make ends meet. They felt they were at a dead-end and moving home would give them freedom to make some changes. Some also admit that they like the safety net of their parents’ home- and have fears about going out on their own.

One in five people in their 20’s and early 30’ live at home (home of origin). For their parents’ generation it was one in 10. The costs of a college degree, escalating housing prices and a high unemployment rate are mostly to blame. Yes, earlier generations had their challenges too- it just seems like a perfect storm happened for this age group and their challenges are greater for living independently.

Some experts believe this is temporary and that as the employment picture brightens and loans get paid down/costs come under greater control- more young people will decide they want to be on their own. However, many others believe this is a new trend and that we could be going back to a time when young adults lived at home until they were older and/or married. If “home” is too comfortable, they will stay- and it appears that these kids raised by helicopter parents see many positives to living with the parents. This coupled with the economic reality of more people who are unemployed, underemployed, earning less, and paying higher taxes- and even having a college degree will not guarantee financial and job security.

Much has been written about how this will impact the larger economy, especially down the road- but what about its impact on this generation’s ability to build relationships, marry and start families? The mean age of first marriage continues to climb and many people are delaying having children till they are older due to financial concerns and social changes. Often they opt to live together first, or decide to have children and skip the marriage part. These decisions have consequences that we may not even fully see yet. Now add to this the number of young people living with their parents. The challenges to growing a relationship- privacy, independence and autonomy, the experience of living independently and handling one’s own finances and household/lifestyle responsibilities would all be absent from the person’s experience. Should they want to date someone living on their own, this could lead to issues for that person who is handling their responsibilities and paying their own bills. It would also be difficult to make such a big decision and make the move to an independent life straight from Mom and Dad’s nest. Therefore, it would be too easy to stay comfortably in place, while time marches on and the years pass.

The good news is that young people remain very optimistic and believe they will thrive and be better off than their parents. They believe things will improve and that opportunities await if they continue to set goals and stay on course. This is a good thing and we can all hope that they are right. If not, will we be returning to a model of 2-3 generations living together under one roof? A world where folks meet, go through courtship and marry, all while each lives with their parents. Then, after marriage, they move into his or her parent’s home- and find a way to co-exist as an extended family network. This picture is not an awful one- but much would change for young singles and couples if this is the future they face.

Women, self-empowerment and dress codes

June 14th, 2014

The New York Times contains a very interesting piece in the Op- Ed section today. It’s about the dress code in Berkeley, California that appears to be taking students back to the good old 1960’s and ‘70’s. Hem lengths are being measured, tank tops are required to have wide shoulders, covering more skin, inseams cannot be too short- and the well-endowed girls (even in junior high) are being singled out because of the distraction factor they have for boys. Apparently this is not only happening in California- in Illinois female students had their necklines digitally raised in yearbook pictures.

In the past males were singled out as well, often for long hair or pants that were being worn too low- but it seems the girls are getting more of the attention now as it is felt that if their dress is too seductive, they are inviting trouble from boys. It’s an old issue and one we thought had been settled, so it’s natural to wonder why it’s rising again and what it has to say about our culture and attitude towards women today.

The author of the NY Times piece even wonders about her own thinking in that she worries about how her daughter dresses because she “doesn’t want her to be a target.” No kidding- what mother or father doesn’t worry about this and is the problem their thinking, the culture we live in, or basic biology, especially that of young heterosexual males? It’s safe to say that it’s some combination of these and that each has some weight in the decision of schools to tighten up dress codes, parents to ask their girls to change into something less revealing- and our culture to wonder if the way a woman presents herself contributes to a man’s getting the wrong idea.

Regardless, there is no excuse for crude catcalls, rude comments or unwelcome come-ons. No is no and it can be communicated in many different ways- verbally and nonverbally. However, women can help protect themselves and not become a statistic by raising their awareness on many fronts- where they go, what they drink, who they talk to and how- and yes, what their clothes and overall presentation say about them and what they are looking for. It’s great and feels good to look sexy and every woman wants to be seen that way- just as long as it comes with an understanding that you can admire but not touch without permission or make assumptions based solely on what you see. Wouldn’t it be great if we had evolved to this point already?

Almost as important as safety is the issue of respect. Women have fought to be taken seriously in the classroom, boardroom and in their homes. They want men to appreciate and know the woman under the clothes and attractive façade. Therefore if they help to feed the culture that objectifies them- they will not get what they want and have worked so hard for.

Student debt’s impact on dating and relationships

June 8th, 2014

It’s the topic of many financial columns, blogs, articles, and even a couple of best selling books. The President of the U.S. wants to take action to help alleviate it. Student debt in this country now tops one trillion dollars and it’s owed by those who have completed college and graduate school as well as the many who took out loans but never earned their degree. Add to this the difficulty in finding high paying and professional jobs after graduation for those who do- and this debt amounts to a life impacting burden that not only restricts a person’s ability to cover basic bills, live independently, and purchase a home- it is also interfering with the dating and relationship lives of those who carry it.

It’s more and more common for young people to be asked by potential mates about their credit score, level of debt and financial health. It’s playing a major role in the marriage and childbirth rates- and certainly the overall health of the economy. Top financial experts are looking for solutions and it may be that the only ones will take a long time and will require those affected to delay the normal next steps that their unfettered peers will be able to take- as they sail past them and into futures where they have more choice and control.

If you are one of those people who carry student debt- dealing with it smartly and efficiently should be one of your most immediate and primary goals. Instead of making a plan to meet new people to date- work on a plan to get out of debt faster. Look for ways you can cut your living expenses and overall spending and use that extra money to lower those loans. Think of it as an investment in not only your financial future- it will also help you to have a more satisfying and successful dating life by increasing your opportunities to connect with compatible singles with whom you will be free to move into a future life with- one that is unencumbered by debt and all the dead ends it can bring with it.

The culture that inspires #YesAllWomen

May 28th, 2014

Elliot Rodger’s rampage not only cut short six promising young lives, impacted a number of others who survived but will bear the physical and emotional scars, left families to deal with devastating and lifelong grief, and friends and neighbors to mourn and ask what might have been- it has also led to a renewed debate about guns and an explosive outpouring on Twitter from women in the form of #YesAllWomen.

The topic is misogyny and how elements of our culture have contributed to the risk so many women face of being sexually used and abused. The twitter sphere has been lighting up for days with posts from women around the country who are sharing not only their own experiences but those of the women around them. It seems that in spite of the supposed success of feminism, women are at greater risk today for sexual abuse at the hands of not only strangers, but male acquaintances and even friends.

Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote a piece on how our sexist movie culture may contribute to the problem. She wrote that; “ …For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny)…”

Her column drew a strong backlash from filmmaker Judd Apatow and actor Seth Rogan, who condemned Ms. Hornaday for trying to put the blame of this tragedy on their industry. While Hollywood is not in any way solely responsible, the culture of its messages may be contributing to the problem. If we want to get to the honest truths underlying this problem, we shouldn’t shy away from anything. Any and all possible influences should be openly laid out, dissected and discussed. Therefore, I want to join Ms. Hornaday by suggesting another possible issue here that I will probably be slammed for- how women themselves contribute to the problem.

Being a woman and the mother of a young adult daughter it is unlikely that I would in any way suggest we blame the victims- and that is not my intent. Instead, we need to explore the messages women send out that may be contributing to how males view women and sex. Casual hook-up sex has become not only common- it is the norm for many young adults, men and women alike. In my work with young single men and as the mother of young adult sons (yes I have a dog in both fights) - I frequently hear about women being the sexual aggressors. I use the word encounters because relationship would be a stretch. Instead, they have occasional or even sporadic hook-ups- which women happily engage in while making it clear they are not interested in anything other than a good time. Let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with two consenting adults engaging in mutually satisfying sex, as long as one of them doesn’t somehow feel hurt, slighted, or used because the sex is all they have.

This is what I hear too often from my young female clients. They have an interest in a guy or have developed feelings for him- and they have sexual encounters that they enjoy in the short run, but that too often leave them feeling used and empty. What they don’t give any real thought to is the message they are sending, one of no strings attached that leads the guy to think they are on the same page and all is cool. Imagine the confusion on the part of young men when women break down into tears the next time they see them and they are with someone else or the man who hears from one of her friends that she is very upset with him and feels used and/or taken advantage of. If a woman sets herself up as the victim in this way- she has the power to stop doing this and help shake up the culture of casual sex and pervasive attitude that women are often just for sexual fun and pleasure.

What I am suggesting instead is that women really think about what they want and put it out there- instead of going along with the flow as too many do. If you are attracted to or interested in a guy- try introducing him to all the many things you are other than a potential sexual partner. Engage in conversation that demonstrates your intellect, great sense of humor and/or easy and fun personality. Share some of your interests and passions with him and try learning about his. Suggest things you can do together that could help you form a bond of friendship that could lead to something more. The bottom line here- don’t keep selling yourself short as I believe too many women do.

Lastly, I’m going to offer you a glimpse of what I hear from the young men I work with and know regarding women, dating and relationships. Many talk about how hard it is to meet women who know who they are, don’t sell themselves short and don’t make it too easy for men. Yes, there is a double-standard to some extent- but you will be a true equal to any man and challenge and intrigue him if you set your bar higher in your relationships. Tell men what you want and how you expect them to behave and you may be surprised at the positive response you will get. It may even help put a dent in the toxic culture of misogyny that exists today.

Elliot Rodger and the problem of isolation

May 26th, 2014

Virtually everyone desires a connection with others. Relationships with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and lovers contribute heavily to providing crucial emotional support, reducing stress, providing an outlet for feelings and a means of self-expression- and are considered key to one’s happiness. So what must it be like for those who are socially isolated and often find themselves on the outside, looking in at their peers who have those connections to others? Most of us would not want to even imagine such an existence, or what we might be like if we were the ones living it.

This was apparently the world of Elliot Rodger. Yes, he was born to privilege and grew up with the benefits and material trappings that many of his peers did not. But none of that could fill the emptiness, and feeling so close yet so far must have only made it worse. Add to that the probability that he was at the very least emotionally disturbed. This term does not necessarily imply he had a major mental illness, but that is also a possibility. He was 22, which falls into the typical range of age of onset for mental illness- and there had been increasing incidents and disturbing thoughts for some time that are clues to someone being at risk for a major psychotic break. However, it is nearly impossible to know who is at risk for the path he ultimately took- to become a mass murderer in order to act out the feelings of rage that grew from his isolation. However, chronic and lifelong loneliness affects anyone who lives it and there is a cautionary tale for everyone in this extreme example.

We need others. This need does not mean that it’s necessary to have many close friends- just a few satisfying friendships will do nicely. Positive relationships with neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances all help to make our daily lives more productive, fulfilling, and help us to feel better about ourselves and the environment in which we live. We do not need to be the most popular or get along with everyone- it’s not even realistic to think this is possible. There will always be people who don’t like us or who we can’t relate to- however our good relationships balance that out and help us know it isn’t necessarily us and that we are OK even if that person doesn’t care for us.

Closeness to others helps us to meet our needs and makes even the hardest challenge or difficult day a little easier because there is someone who cares and is there for us, and believes in us. We have the comfort that comes with feeling valued and loved- and somehow the world is not too scary or empty because of it.

Take all that away- and where would any of us be? Most of us would survive, but existing is not the same as living a life of quality- one with experiences of happiness and joy that can only come when we are truly present and in the moment with someone we care deeply for.

Take care to build and nurture your relationships and don’t take them for granted or neglect them. The next time you encounter someone who seems ill at ease, perhaps awkward and on the outside of the group- try offering a smile and a warm hello. That small connection could help them to feel less alone and to believe that connecting with others and experiencing the happiness that comes from it could be possible for them.