Class of 2016: Be Your Authentic Selves

“Wear sunscreen.” Nineteen years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich shared that advice in a hypothetical commencement address to the Class of 1997. It went viral in part because it was rumored to be a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut to MIT grads. So as Glenbrook North prepares to graduate the class of 2016, I thought I’d share some thoughts and ideas with them as they spread their wings and leave the nest of GBN. And if you want to start a rumor that this was delivered by a famous writer at some big college, I won’t object.

Read a book this summer. And at the risk of inviting the scorn of teachers everywhere, I’ll go one step further and say this: Don’t active read a book this summer. I know that active reading has its benefits and secretly I wish I had learned some active reading strategies when I was growing up. But active reading has drained my kids of some of the love for reading they had growing up. I’m not saying never active read, but this summer find a good book, a quiet place, and re-discover the joy of reading.

Don’t be in such a hurry. I know it seems like the goal of high school was to get into college, and the goal of college is to secure a job upon graduation, but trust me when I say that your adult life will start soon enough. You don’t have to have 50 internships before you graduate from college; you can learn a lot about people and gain valuable customer service skills by waiting tables or working in retail.

Be intellectually curious and seek out people whose views are different than yours. These days, people tend to read and watch news media that reinforces what they already believe. Both sides of an argument then dig in their heels, blame the other side, and kick the problem down the road for another day. Our state government is exhibit A. Be better than that. Work to understand people with whom you disagree and resolve to find solutions to the problems we face.

Commit to being your authentic self. I spoke to a group of teenagers last year and asked if any of them knew what career they’d like to pursue. A young man rose his hand and replied that he wanted to be pediatrician. When I asked him why he wanted to be a pediatrician he said, “Well, my mom said I could be anything I want, as long as I was a doctor or a lawyer.” Yikes. What if that boy’s passion is classical music? What if he wanted to be a teacher? Or a chef? No one is going to live your life for you. At the end of the day, you have to look in the mirror and like what you see. The best way to insure that happens is to work to understand yourself—not what someone else thinks you should be.

Strive for happiness, not material wealth or “success.” I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to accumulate material wealth but it’s the means to the end, and too often people sacrifice happiness for money. Worse yet, most people still believe that there is a correlation between material wealth and happiness (there isn’t). In fact, much of the well-being research suggests that happy individuals are successful across multiple areas of life: marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. To paraphrase Tal Ben-Shahar in his book, Happier, don’t live to accumulate; value the unmeasurable (emotions and meaning) over the measurable (material wealth and prestige).

And yes, please wear sunscreen.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016!

The Happiness that Helps us “Smile Through the Tears”

I write a column in The Northbrook Tower called, “Happyology” and at the end of the column is a paragraph that says that I’m attempting “to shine light on the happiness and positivity in the Northbrook community.” I also have the word “happiness” in the name of my company. So, you might conclude that I’m interested in promoting a the-sky-is-always-blue-and-the-sun-is-always-shining concept of happiness. Or that I subscribe to the adage, “Every dark cloud has a silver lining.” Or, in the face of bad news my advice would be, “Put a smile on your face, think positive thoughts, and everything will be just fine.” That’s not the case. The subject of happiness and, more specifically, positive psychology is more complex than that. And while the tragic loss of a Glenbrook North student is on my mind, I wanted to share some thoughts about the kind of happiness I hope will invade the young adults in our community.

Here is the best description of happiness that I’ve encountered: “The happiness which brings enduring worth to life is not the superficial happiness that is dependent on circumstances. It is the happiness and contentment that fills the soul even in the midst of the most distressing of circumstances and the most adverse environment. It is the kind of happiness that survives when things go wrong and smiles through the tears. The happiness for which our souls ache is one undisturbed by success or failure, one which dwells deep within us and gives us inward relaxation, peace, and contentment, no matter what the surface problems may be. That kind of happiness stands in need of no outward stimulus.”

The author of that description is Billy Graham and whether or not you share his beliefs or his politics, I hope you will agree that it is a powerful, meaningful statement. I believe that this description of “happiness” articulates what we want for ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, what parents in Northbrook want for their children. Here is what I love about this definition:

  • It tells you what happiness isn’t—a superficial feeling that is dictated by a person’s circumstances. As human beings we regularly convince ourselves that a small change in circumstances will lead to a significant boost of emotion. In fact, research has shown that a change in circumstances affects only 10% of a person’s happiness. And very often, that boost in happiness is fleeting.
  • It’s honest about the fact that life has ups and downs—that life doesn’t always go according to our best plans and the lows can be distressing. Too often we think that life has to be linear: you graduate high school, go to college, work, attend to graduate school, get a better job, and then enjoy the life you’ve created. But there’s no harm in taking a circuitous path. In fact, that’s often where we grow the most.
  • It specifically draws attention to the fact that happiness shouldn’t be affected by our successes or failures. The young adults in our community are blessed with opportunities to celebrate their successes—in the classroom, through athletics, on stage, etc. But their happiness shouldn’t be a byproduct of their accomplishments; rather, they should derive happiness through the process of discovering their calling and pursuing their passions.
  • The emotion generated by this mindset isn’t simply pleasure. Yes, pleasure and positive emotion are important to feeling happy, but a person with this perspective on happiness finds “inward relaxation, peace, and contentment”—feelings that are far more valuable and important to a person’s overall mental and physical well-being.

Young adults in our community can achieve the kind of happiness that “stands in need of no outward stimulus” if they are given the chance to explore and understand who they really are—their passions, interests, strengths, and values. Once they know themselves better I’m convinced they will make more honest choices and live more authentic lives.

Shouldn’t that be the goal for the young adults in our community? To help them live authentic lives? I hope that it is.

Gratitude: Fuel for Happiness

2014-11-26-gratitude2If everything had gone according to my plan, you would have read this column before Thanksgiving. I wanted to share some thoughts about the benefits of expressing gratitude in advance of the holiday where we reflect back on the people and events in our lives for which we are so thankful. But the nasty virus that made its way through our household had its own plan for me and the week before Thanksgiving I found myself flat on my back and unable to think clearly (insert joke here).

Luckily the illness passed, and I was able to successfully celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. And the message I hoped to share before Thanksgiving is still relevant as we head into the December holidays, so here goes: Expressing gratitude is good for our bodies, our minds, and our relationships. In short, it can make us happier.

What exactly is gratitude? According to Robert Emmons, psychology professor at UC Davis and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, there are two components to gratitude. “First,” he writes in his essay, Why Gratitude is Good, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Second, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Armed with that definition I set out to talk with some Northbrook residents to hear what they’re grateful for and how they express gratitude. I interrupted several Starbucks patrons last week and they confirmed that expressing gratitude contributes to their overall well-being.

Kara, a sophomore at GBN, told me how she often writes people letters to express her gratitude. And, following a family vacation she presented her mom with a scrapbook of memories from the trip. Her friend Michaela chimed in to say that personal, heartfelt expressions are more valued by the recipients. “My mom just wants me to show my love, not buy her stuff…anyone can do that.” Both girls shared that doing these things made them happier.

Crestwood Place residents Becky and Burt Ofsaiof moved to Northbrook eight years ago and they are grateful for the myriad ways they can stay active in the community. Married for 53 years, they spoke about the North Shore Senior Center where they exercise their bodies in the workout room and their minds through discussion groups. They attend concerts at the Northbrook Public Library and find ways to give back through the Go Green Northbrook initiative.

But Becky also shared that as a cardiac and cancer survivor, she and Burt express their gratitude through their spirituality. “I pray every day,” she said and she gives thanks for the healthcare facilities and the “earth angels” such as doctors and nurses.

As for me, I’ve found that when you make a conscious effort to count your blessings, you end up seeing goodness in the common aspects of everyday life. Like when someone slows down to let you merge or holds the door for you. Or when a neighbor gets your mail when you’re out of town. Or when the kid who puts your groceries in your car does so with a smile.

How about you? I’d love to hear what you’re grateful for and how you express gratitude. Shoot me your story at david@thehappinesscatalyst.com.

Class of ’85 Looks Back…and Forward

GBN30

When I walked into the Landmark Tavern last month, I knew I’d see more than a few familiar faces. It was the weekend of my 30-year reunion from Glenbrook North and many classmates were meeting in town on the night before the official event. Some flew in from out of state for the event; most who attended live in the Chicago area. I moved back to Northbrook over 18 years ago, I’m the proud parent of two GBN students, and I work with young adults as part of my life coaching practice.

If the metaphor for high school is a weird science project—take 14-18 year olds who share the same zip code, throw them into a petri dish, and watch what happens—then the metaphor for high school reunions is no-expectations speed dating. You spend a little bit of time with a person from your past, swap basic information about the current state of your lives, then move on to the next person knowing you won’t see most of them for another five or ten years. Sure, thanks to Facebook you’ll know what their kids are doing and what they ate for dinner at that restaurant last weekend, but you don’t expect a second date.

For several days following the weekend I thought about my classmates’ journeys since high school graduation. Who was happy? Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, defines happiness as frequent positive feelings accompanied by an overall sense that one’s life has meaning. And that got me wondering: Who among the GBN Class of ’85 has this kind of happiness?

So, I asked. I sent out a quick survey to my peers to get their reaction to a few questions. What were they most proud of? How is life different than what they expected? Who had found and stayed with their careers? Who, like me, had discovered their calling later in life and made a significant career change?

Of the classmates who responded to the survey, most mentioned their families as their greatest source of pride. “Having a wonderful wife and kids,” said one classmate. “My family and my 25 year marriage,” said another. Others mentioned professional accomplishments like leaving the relative safety of a corporate job to start a small business.

It can be difficult to look back and compare reality to expectations. My classmates’ responses included genuine surprise at their circumstances, “I thought I’d be a career woman,” said the mother who stayed at home for the past twenty years, and, “I thought I’d live in the big city,” said the person living in Utah.

Many expected that their lives would have turned out differently. “I feel less secure, emotionally and financially, than I thought I would be by this age,” said one classmate, while another answered with an obvious reaction to his current state, “I didn’t expect to be divorced and a single father.” Who does?

I was delighted to learn that those classmates who haven’t changed careers did so because they discovered what they love to do early in life and they continue to be challenged. “I have always wanted to be a psychologist and I am one. Love it!” said one woman. Similarly, many who have changed courses professionally have done so to pursue a passion or calling.

The last question I asked my classmates was, “If you could go back in time and speak to yourself when you were 18, what would you say?” Here’s a sample of what the GBN Class of ’85 would tell itself:

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff
  • Quit worrying about what you need to be happy
  • Have confidence in yourself and your choices
  • Don’t let others bring you down. Be confident in your own skin
  • Surround yourself with friends who make you feel good about yourself
  • Try to be the best part of someone’s day

My classmates’ responses reflect what I hope we’re telling our own children. Make an effort to understand who you are, what makes you tick. Then, make an effort to be true to who you are and live an authentic life. Doing that will help you discover your calling and live a happy life.

David Whitlock lives in Northbrook with his wife, two GBN students and a dog named Hudson. His column will shine a light on the science of happiness and positivity in our community. He is the founder of The Happiness Catalyst and can be reached at david@thehappinesscatalyst.com

“Whadya Mean By ‘Happiness’?”

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”–Aristotle

I use this quote a lot–in presentations, on this web site, at the bottom of my emails, etc. Why? Well, two reasons:

  1. Aristotle is widely recognized as a great philosopher and thinker. His writings and teachings influenced Western and Christian philosophy; Islamic and Jewish philosophy; and post-Enlightenment thinkers. So you could say he was an important contributor to our world.
  2. He wrote this over 2,000 years ago

The second point is as important as the first. It means that for thousands of years humans have considered happiness the ultimate goal. And I believe that it is just that: the ultimate goal.

But What Do You Mean By Happiness?

Well, it might be easier to answer that by first telling you what I don’t mean:

  • I don’t mean a state of eternal bliss–sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns
  • I don’t mean the physical feeling of happiness (although I hope that by working to be happier you enjoy those feelings)
  • I don’t mean the unrealistic expectation that your life will be free from problems and pain

What I do mean:

  • Well-being–an emotional and physical state that is healthy and productive
  • Optimism–approaching the challenges of the day with a positive outlook
  • Effectiveness–being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, understanding before trying to be understood
  • Active–being engaged in activities that will provide pleasure in the present and a benefit in the future

Happiness as proposed on this site and through the work I do with young adults, is what we as humans were born to pursue. And it’s a lifelong quest. There are no quick fixes. As Tal Ben-Shahar writes in his book, Happier, “We pursue happiness because it is our nature to do so. When the answer to a question is ‘Because it makes me happy,’ nothing can challenge the validity and finality of the answer. Happiness is the highest on the hierarchy of goals, the end toward which all other ends lead.”

 

How to Find Your Calling

Path of life sculpture garden, Windsor, VT, October 9th, 2010
This post appeared on the Erika’s Lighthouse blog.
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”
–George Bernard Shaw
What do you think of when a person says she has found her calling? For many people, the word “calling” has religious implications—we often hear about someone being called into ministry or to the Torah. But discovering your calling is one of the keys to emotional well-being and can provide you with the confidence to address the hard decisions we all face.

What is a Calling?

Your calling is where “Who You Are” (who you really are) intersects with “What the World Needs.” “Who You Are” means that you understand and are using your unique talents and inherent strengths. The second component, “What the World Needs”, means that the activities in which you are engaged are valued by society. When those two dynamics intersect, you’ll find your calling. You’ll be your authentic self and the activities in which you’re engaged will give you pleasure and have meaning.

Why Find a Calling?

William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, writes in his book The Path to Purpose that many young adults without a calling, “Report an inner life of anxiety and a sense of feeling trapped in a life that is not under their own control. They feel disappointed in themselves and discouraged by what life has offered them thus far.”
Through finding a calling, you will know yourself better and will be equipped to answer the tough questions that lie ahead. You will have a purpose to work towards and you’ll gain your own sense of value and self-worth from accomplishing the goals you set. And, as Damon suggests, “Passionately pursuing a purpose directly engages young people in life experiences likely to enhance their optimism and self-confidence.”

How to Find Your Calling

 To paraphrase noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, you discover your calling by daring to listen to yourself throughout your life. By doing so, Maslow suggests that you will be equipped to “choose wisely for a life.” In my work, I coach young adults to understand who they are by helping them examine their:
  • Dreams
  • Interests & Passions
  • Skills & Abilities
  • Talents & Strengths
  • Motivations
  • Values
  • Goals
When you understand “Who You Are”, you can start to explore where you can apply yourself. And, no – you don’t have to have all the answers right now! But, if you consciously work to discover your calling, you’ll feel more confident that you’re on the right track towards choosing wisely for your life.