Thursday, October 21, 2010

book review: What Happy People Know by Dan Baker (part 2)

In my previous post, I started raving about a great book I've read recently called What Happy People Know, by Dan Baker. In it, the author outlines six tools for happiness that you can employ to make your regular life happier, or to use in times of trouble and misery, just to get through the day. (I like doing both, thankyouverymuch.)

The six happiness tools are:
1. Appreciation
2. Choice
3. Personal Power
4. Leading with Your Strengths
5. the Power of Language and Stories
6. Multidimensional Living

I covered Appreciation, Choice, and Personal Power in the last post, so today I'll give you a run down of the last three, starting with...

Leading with Your Strengths
It feels good to do what you're good at. That's no great secret. And there have been two camps in the Self-Mastery world for years -- those who say to play to your strengths, and those who say to develop your weaknesses. But if you think about it, only the first camp really makes sense. Why burden yourself with improving your calculus skills if doing calculus doesn't make you happy?

Baker says that in working with severely troubled people, his first efforts are to connect them to their strengths. Everyone is good at something, even if that something isn't something you value. Baker's work starts with finding his clients' strengths and then transferring those skills into other areas of his clients' lives.

For example, he worked with an anorexic patient and never once asked her about food. Instead, they spent the first few sessions talking about what she loved -- her dog -- and then finding ways to expand that circle of love onto herself. When we surround ourselves with what we're good at, we feel powerful and joyful, and those lead us to greater and greater adventures.

The Power of Language and Stories
Several years ago, if you asked me if it was important whether someone said "I can't" or "It's hard," I would have said no. I would have told you that there are things I can't do, and things that are hard for me to do, and I would have done my best to convince you that that was "the truth."

Now, however, after a few years of playing with language and its effect on me, I have a completely different opinion. I have first hand experience of the power of words on the stories I tell myself. So I was pleased to see this show up in Baker's book.

He talks about how engaging in self-talk is how people begin to make sense of the world around them. (Incidentally, there's a Radiolab episode that talks about the same thing, and I was just listening to it before I sat down to write. Thanks, Universe!) And that, if we talk to ourselves the way we want others to talk to us, we're already on a better foot, saying "we do not describe the world we see, we see the world we describe."

He, too, cautions against using "can't," "don't," "shouldn't," and "won't," and goes on to warn against using the passive voice instead of the active one. But the key point I took away from the whole section on language is his idea of telling healthy stories vs. horror stories.

"When you meet someone new and tell him the quick version of the story of your life, do you usually tell him a healthy story or a horror story? Most people want to tell a healthy story, because nobody wants to look bad. But many people just don't know how. They're so accustomed to telling themselves horror stories in their self-talk that they just start blurting out all their fears and feelings of helplessness, although they often cloak them in terms of humor or heroics. They like their job -- but it was a real struggle to get it, and it still feels precarious. Their children are doing well -- but they're teenagers, and you know how that is..."

He goes on to say that it's "smart to tell yourself and others healthy stories about all the little incidents of your daily life. If you're late for work, don't tell yourself that your boss is going to kill you and that you're a loser for sleeping late. Tell yourself you're lucky to have a job where you can be late once in a while, and that you're going to use this experience to be more punctual in the future. The horrific version will just make you more defensive, while the healthy one will make you appreciative. People will notice the difference."

Multidimensional Living
When I read this book, I was dating a wonderful guy who seemed to have it all -- genius smart, off-the-wall funny, good-looking, and a great communicator. And the reason our relationship fell apart was because he was allowing himself to be ruled by his job. He had no time for a relationship -- or anything else, for that matter. And he wasn't happy. So this section really resonated with me.

A question that Baker asks his clients (to gauge where they are in their heads) is "are you winning at life?" The responses he gets vary, but if a person has no idea how to even approach the question, he gets a sense immediately that they are out of balance. ("Happy people," he says, "almost always think they're winning, even when they don't know what they're winning.")

Most people suffer from a lack of clear, values-based priorities, and so end up floating through life, buffeted by whatever comes their way. Baker argues that if you want happiness, you need to decide what you really want and then put your energy where it will do the most good.

There are three arenas in life, he argues; 1) purpose (often, work), 2) health, and 3) relationships. If you integrate all three arenas into your every day life, you can let your passions take you where they will -- because you have the grounding in the other areas to pull you back to center. It's when one of the arenas has more sway and importance than the others that people can get out of whack.

And that's the extremely nutshelled version of the book. There is so much more to it, so much that I want to xerox and hand out to people on the subway like those crazy stores that want to buy your gold.

The New York Public Library has five copies of this book, and at the time of this writing, four of them were available. If you're interested in finding balance, connecting with your heart, and having a handful of tools in your toolbox of self-improvement, this is a great book for you. (It certainly was for me.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

book review: What Happy People Know by Dan Baker

I read a lot of self-help books, but rarely do they offer me so much new information that I feel compelled to share them with you. (The last book I recommended was The Magic LAMP, which I read in February!) I recently came across a book, though, that I want you all to go out and buy/rent/borrow/steal. (Ok, maybe not with the stealing.) Today! Now! Go!

Oh wait. You need to know what book first.

In this book, What Happy People Know, Dan Baker, the head of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch (a spa/resort/retreat I may never make enough money to visit) offers up useful information in an approachable and easily digestible fashion.

According to Baker, there are six major happiness tools people can use:
1. Appreciation
2. Choice
3. Personal Power
4. Leading with your strengths
5. Language and stories
6. Multidimensional living

Because it's had such an impact on me, I thought I'd take you through some of the highlights of the tools.

1. Appreciation
I've talked about appreciation and gratitude before, but Baker takes these concepts much deeper, offering three or four practicable tools to make appreciation not just part of your regular routine, but also part of your disaster recovery mode.

For example, he shares one exercise called "Freeze Frame." When things are going All Kinds of Wrong, instead of thinking about how things are getting out of control, you think of something you appreciate. A loved one, a natural phenomenon, your dog, whatever. Doing this will calm your heart rate and give you space in which to see things differently. I've used it, and found it incredibly helpful.

He also talks about optimism, and how being an optimist is not simply walking around with a dopey smile on your face and approaching life with a glass-half-full attitude, but rather, it's an understanding that the more difficult or painful a situation is, the more profound the learning will be. This has helped me a lot recently while going through an incredibly emotionally break up -- I knew that when I came out the other side of the break up I would know more about myself and how I operate, which felt like a gift compared to the kick in the pants the break up was giving me. Does it make me want to run right out and break up again? No, absolutely not. But it does give me some silver lining and light at the end of an otherwise unpleasant-smelling tunnel.

(His mother also chimed in with the soothing idea that "no two people ever love each other the same -- and that whoever loves the most is the lucky one.")

2. Choice
Baker calls choice "the voice of the heart" and "honesty in action." I like that.

He talks about failure, helplessness, and powerlessness (and a bunch of shocked dogs... which made me sad) and offers some thoughts that can serve to remind us to stay strong:

1. Failure only occurs when you quit -- he talks about how Thomas Edison "failed" to design a lightbulb until his 2000th try

2. Be brave enough to resist when someone offers you the tempting scenario in which they strip from you the right to make your own decisions. While it is occasionally unpleasant to make (and live with) our own choices, imagine the other alternatives...

Finally in this section, he discusses the "Life Changing Quarter Second" in which we have a brief moment of control over our emotional reactions. There is a quarter second in which we can wrest our thinking away from a fear reaction and into a considered response, but we have to see and seize that moment regularly to stay in a place of choice.

3. Personal Power
This is that indefinable something that enables happy people to be happy, even when things are difficult. (In my leadership class, we call it the "Internal Locus of Control," meaning essentially the feeling that, no matter what comes your way, you can do something about it.)

Baker encourages his readers to watch out for VERBs -- Victimization, Entitlement, Rescue, and Blame. Highlights include:

V: He says that other people can hurt you, but only you can victimize yourself.

E: The mind and body thrive on struggle. Satisfaction without effort doesn't create happiness, it makes for boredom, alienation, weakness and feelings of worthlessness. And I can tell you that, after looking for a new job for six months, I was so elated to finally get one because I had struggled and put my time in.

R: There's a difference between assistance and rescue. There is nothing wrong with asking for help as long as you're willing to do your share of the work.

B: Blame solves nothing. If you were in a car driven by a friend that was going over a cliff, would blaming that friend keep you from crashing into the ravine below? Instead, what can you do to improve the situation for yourself (and/or your friend)?

We'll take a look at the other three tools in my next post.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

what are you chasing?

I live in New York, where it seems like everybody is chasing something. And I worry that people don't really know what they're chasing, and how their thoughts and behavior are impacting their journey.

Take me, for example, back when I was acting. I was chasing The Big Dream -- except I wasn't specific about what that meant to me. I just wanted to "be an actor in New York." Well, that's actually absurdly easy. Get a headshot, go on an audition, and voila! You're an actor in New York.

So I sat down to get more specific, and I realized that my goal was "to make a living acting in New York." Then I was getting somewhere. I had a clearer destination, and could focus my energy more tightly. Except that I was missing a piece -- how I wanted to be or feel while I was pursuing that goal. Because, as it played out, while I was chasing Making a Living as an Actor in New York, I was unhappy. I was working a job that made me want to stab people in the face, I felt like I had no time for anything that wasn't theatre, I was comparing myself to other actors (and coming up short) and, in general, I just didn't like the way I felt about myself.

I was, as it turned out, chasing the wrong thing, like the dog chasing the mailman. (Unless, of course, the mailman is delivering Omaha Steaks, but in my case he wasn't.)

It wasn't until I got specific about what I saw as success that I realized I was on the wrong path.

The same thing has happened with dating. I have defined and redefined (and redefined) (oh, and redefined) what I consider desirable characteristics in a guy. The three core qualities -- funny, smart, and self-aware -- stay the same, but the fourth quality always changes. Sometimes it's kind or thoughtful, sometimes it's simply ready, but as I have more experience, I can get more specific about what I want, and again, how I want to feel while pursuing it.

This last piece is often overlooked because we're not taught about feelings. But I think it's of the utmost importance. If you're ok with, say, pursuing a career in acting to the exclusion of everything else, that's great -- but be clear with yourself how long you're willing to do that. A month? A year? Your whole life? There are trade offs to everything, and making sure that what you're giving up is worth what you're getting is incredibly important.

The final thing I encourage people to look at surrounding success is how you will know you've made it. Often times, people get so wrapped up in the struggle of "making it" that the small successes they've had along the way no longer matter -- that big achievement is just around the corner waiting to be reached. And that's when success becomes a trap. Because as I know from first hand experience, it's easy to be more attracted to the pursuit of it than the enjoyment of it.

So to avoid the perpetual pursuit, define what it will look like when you've reached your goal. When will you finally consider yourself successful? And does that necessarily mean there is nothing left to achieve? I find that goal-setting is super-useful in this kind of work because it gives you a number of small victories to celebrate as you reach out for things that satisfy and fulfill you.

And really, is using the word "success" even useful? For so many of us (myself included) there is a sticky quality to it, one that implies comparison, scarcity, lack, and an overall "not good enough to be successful" quality. If you fall into that category (welcome!), then perhaps simply "happiness" is a better choice of words for you than "success."

To wrap up, if you haven't thought about it yet, I urge you (whether you live in New York or not) to take a minute (or hell, a year) and get really clear not just about what you want, but how you'll know when you're there.

In a nutshell:
1. Define success
2. Be willing to be flexible about that definition and change it as your circumstances change
3. Be clear about who/how you want to be as your pursue success
4. Know how it will feel when you're successful, and be open to that feeling
5. Use a different word if "success" or "successful" brings up negative feelings for you.