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Emotional Health & Happiness

The Dance of Joy and Pain

I have spent a great deal of time studying Joy and Happiness in my own experience.  Also, my job as a therapist is to comfort those in Pain and teach people to experience more Joy.  In my journey I have learned 2 things so far:Silhouette of Happy Young Couple Dancing at Sunset

  1. People tend to run from Pain and hold tightly on to Joy.
  2. This causes problems.

 So what then is a truer understanding of the relationship between Joy and Pain?

Joy and Pain are like two friends who latch arms and dance with one another.

I say Joy here instead of happiness because I mean to refer to deeper more lasting positive state.  Sometimes we think of happiness as a state that characterizes brief and temporary bursts following a pleasurable experience.  By Joy I hope to refer to a deeper state of contentment and satisfaction that includes the temporary bursts of pleasure as well as day to day contentment.

Pain can refer to physical or emotional Pain.  These two types of Pain are experienced and cared for in very similar ways.

This image (of Joy and Pain as friends dancing with one another with arms latched together) expresses ideas about how the two relate to one another that I do not know how to express in words.  I can say that friends do not run from one another, nor do they grasp on to one another too tightly.  In my mind the two dancers remain connected at the arms as they constantly move together in unison.  As I watch them move together, they switch places with one another.  Sometimes I can only see one of them.  Pain hides behind Joy but Pain is still there…Also Joy sometimes seems to hide behind Pain.  However, I only must wait, and they will trade places again…always moving…sometimes more slowly and sometimes more quickly as the music changes.

My advice is to embrace, savor, revel, and rest in both friends’ presence moment by moment as you would if you were watching this breath taking interaction on a stage before you.

Self-Compassionate vs. Selfish

Many of my clients struggle when I encourage them to care for themselves.  Often people are concerned that taking time for themselves away from there family is selfish.  Other’s worry how setting boundaries to protect their own needs may hurt someone else.  We all get stuck trying to figure out how to balance our needs with those of others.  Isn’t it always right to put the needs of others before our own?

Recently I re-read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  This little book begins by describing the love between a little boy and a tree.  It starts out as mutual relationship where there is an equal exchange of loving, playful interaction.  Then the boy grows up and leaves, and the tree is sad.  When he comes back the tree is happy and continues to love through giving his apples, his branches, and then his truck.  At the end the tree is left only a stump and when the boy finally comes back as an old man and uses the stump as a chair, “the tree is happy but not really.”

What is the message of this short story.  Is the tree an example for all us of how to love with generosity and self-sacrificing compassion?  It seems so at first glance.  But if you look closer perhaps you might see that the tree is an example of what not to do.  He loves the boy, but not himself and in the end neither he nor the boy seem very happy.  The boy is alone with no one and nothing to show for his life, and the tree is now only a stump.

When we love our spouse, a child, or a friend, it is of great importance to love ourselves in equal measure.  An act of selfishness only benefits the one that takes it usually only by providing immediate pleasure or relief.  An act of self-sacrifice only benefits the other person usually only by proving the same immediate pleasure or relief.  However, an act of compassion values one’s self and others together by taking the needs of both into account and finding ways to serve both together.   When we care for others while also caring for ourselves in equal measure, our care tends to be of a higher quality allowing us to support the other for their long term benefit.

For example, a working parent feels guilty for being away from their children so they neglect time for themselves and for their relationship with their spouse.  They spend every second out of work trying to care for and experience positive quality time with their special child.  This is good, important work.  In the short term the child may prefer another trip to the park then two hours with a babysitter or grandparent.  However, what if those two hours to recharge allows that Mom the energy to provide disciple instead of just giving the kid what they want to keep them from whining.  Or it may keep that child’s parents relationship fed just enough so the child has the benefit of growing up with parents who love one another.  Caring for yourself and your marriage is an act of self-compassion because it benefits all involved.

The tree could have loved the boy and still keep his apples, branches, and trunk.  It might take a little creativity, but we can compassionately care for ourselves and those we love.

Comedian on Technology and Happiness

Yesterday evening I found wisdom in an unexpected place.  I was watching Conan O’Brien.  Mostly this was because the Big Bang Theory rerun had just ended, and I had not wanted to move yet.  Then Louis C.K., a comedian who I had never heard of, came on began to tell Conan why he won’t let his kids have cell phones.  I was impressed.  As a wordy, long-winded and serious psychotherapist by nature, I appreciate this comedian’s short and funny explanation better than my own.  Check out how his view on why over use of technology can rob us of learning empathy, the ability to just sit there, and emotional experience.

If you are having issues seeing the video, click here


Here are some great quotes from this clip.

“Just be sad…stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck.”

“Sadness is poetic.  Your lucky to live sad moments.”

“I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”

“You never feel completely sad or completely happy.  You just feel kinda satisfied with your product and then you die.”

I wonder if Louis C.K. is aware that he is talking about principles of mindfulness.  Clearly he understands better than most that pain is a normal part of life and when you avoid it you create suffering and miss joy.

The Road to Happiness

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”

– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

I came across this quote recently and saved it because it succinctly states a truth that I face with clients daily.  Every client that comes to my office is with me because they just want to be happy.  Sometimes it is after a divorce or marriage problem that seems impossible to solve.  Others worry and panic to point of not sleeping at all.  Irregardless of the circumstances the effectiveness of whatever avoidance or management technique available has run out and they simple desire help to feel better.

So frequently I am taking on the role of the bearer of the bad news. There is no way to happiness except through your pain and discomfort.  You can continue to ignore pain and discomfort.  Distractions and abound to help us avoid the pain and discomfort of life.  However, freedom from it only occurs after “becoming aware of your mental afflictions.”  Also, this is usually not an easy or comfortable thing to do.

I wish I could share with everyone the feelings of triumph when after several weeks or months of hard work, a client that is ready to get to know their “mental afflictions” makes a breaks through and tells me about how much better they feel.  It would be amazing if others starting the process could experience the tears of joy and a little sadness when I meet with the clients at the end of 1 or 2 years of work.  When they realize that we can’t come up with any more goals, and we talk about all the changes we have seen along the way.  The sadness comes from knowing that you will not see the each other regularly anymore, but at the same time a joyful satisfaction comes as you know someone’s life has been changed for the better.  The feeling is indescribable and unbeatable.  I usually tear up at least a little.

It is these times that I am reminded of how all the hard work and discomfort is worth it.  I only hope some people considering seeking help will read this post and take that first step…and then stick with it when the hard part comes.


photo credit:  Travel by Nature Photography

The Gift of Rest

From nature we learn about balance.  Each of the seasons come every year bringing heat in the summer and cold in the winter and each support the world in their own way.  If it were winter all year long the planet would not flourish.  So it is with us.  There is a season and appropriate time for everything.  Just as there is an appropriate time for movement, work, and production, it is also essential to find time for stillness and rest; a time to be unproductive and do nothing.

This photo was taken by Sarah Sphar after leaving work early to do nothing.

It is important to ask yourself if you are doing too much.  When we don’t listen to our bodies, it is easy to lose touch with your own natural cycles of activity and rest.  Consider tying the following experiment to help you begin to rediscover your natural rest-activity rhythm.

Use your daily schedule and calendar not just to plan activity, but to remind yourself to do nothing.  Why not schedule “do nothing” just like you’d schedule a doctor’s appointment?  It’s very healing to sometimes do nothing, go nowhere, and not have to be “on” for other people.  Doing nothing can take many forms:  You can take a nap, go to bed earlier or get up later, sit in a chair, look out a window, be quiet, or lie down and put your feet up.  Try turning off your phone, computer, and all other electronic devices and just enjoy some time in solitude and non-doing.  You may find yourself noticing the starlit sky or truly enjoying a hot or cold beverage that you typically chug as you rush out the door.  Many find it enjoyable to do nothing out in nature.  Consider planning to spend an afternoon outdoors, hanging out by the ocean, a lake, or a stream, the mountains, a forest, or any quiet, natural environment.  Notice what happens when you just take time to be in these settings.  If you have children, see if you can get a babysitter so you or you and your partner, can take some time to do nothing or experiment with doing nothing with your children.  You may be amazed, but the world won’t fall apart if you take a break. 

Do you find yourself  becoming anxious or tense just thinking about planning to do nothing?  Take a moment to reflect on the obstacles that get in the way of rest for you.  Conversely are there times or situations in which you find it easier to rest?  Perhaps there are simple changes you could make to make it easier for you to rest such as canceling extra activities, asking others to help out around the house, or encouraging others to relax so you can feel more comfortable taking some down time.

Now take a moment to explore any tension in your body, thoughts, or emotions that come up when you think about doing nothing for one afternoon.  Do have worried thoughts, feel guilt, or find this uncomfortable?  Pay attention to these sensations, thoughts, and emotions.  Do you have any idea where they come from?

reference:  A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bob Stahl PH.D. and Elisha Goldstein PH.D

How to be Happier: What really works?

We all want to be happier, but everyone tends to be terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Believe it or not there is actually a whole body of psychological research studying what works and what doesn’t. It is strange to me that we don’t discuss this subject more often as our society seems so obsessed with health.  In one study of 678 elderly nuns  the group that tested as the happiest lived 9.3 years longer than the least happy group.

Did you know that Pessimism is a more powerful risk factor for a shorter life span than smoking or alcoholism. We all wonder about those people who eat right and exercise and seem to be doing all the right things and then pass at a seemingly early age.   When someone you know of passes away from a heart attack at age 55 after taking up marathon running everyone comments and tries to make sense of it.  But no one ever says, “Well how happy was he really?” or “I never really thought about it before, but maybe his pessimism had an affect.”

Perhaps we should take these events not as an excuse to skip a few weeks at the gym, but as wake up call to spend a little more time learning about happiness and emotional well being.  So lets look at what works to make us happy and what doesn’t.

Some things that Don’t Work:

  • Wealth (after meeting basic needs)
  • Education or high IQ
  • Sunny days
  • Being young

What does work:

  • Mindful savoring – being connected to or attending to what you are doing
  • Engagement or flow –  full immersion in and enjoyment of the process of an activity, an energized harrenssing of emotions and in the service of learning or performing a task, often referred to as being “in the zone,” “on a roll,” “in the grove,” or “on fire”
  • Meaning & Connection – strong ties to family and friends, giving attention to something larger than yourself, performing acts or altruism or kindness

So don’t stop exercise, don’t take up smoking, and eat your vegetables.  However, if you are going to go to all the trouble of doing all that consider giving equal attention to learning more about how to be happy.


Research information source:  Workshop presentation of Ronald D. Siegel, Psy. D.  The Power of Mindfulness:  Mindfulness Inside and Outside the Therapy Hour

Photo credit: UNE Photos

Happiness is Chocolate Cake?

We all try to be happy every day. But what actually works?

One thing that always makes me happy quickly is a really good piece of chocolate cake.  Imagine it.  You sit down at a quiet table.  At this moment you may have any number of worried thoughts that you just can’t seem to get out of your mind.  Unpleasant anxiousness about unfinished tasks or problems that can’t be solved hang over you.  But then a waiter brings you the enormous piece of chocolate cake.  It’s the thick kind with layer upon layer of cake and icing and chocolate sauce drizzled on top.  From the moment of the first sweet taste the thoughts and uncomfortable emotions instantly disappear.    The strength of this pleasurable experience pulls you away from anything that you were hanging on to before.  However, only moments later you find yourself in the car driving home, and all your worries return along with additional worries about all the calories you just consumed.

If you really start to think about how to be happy you have to quickly toss out the temporary happiness these chocolate cake experiences.  They really don’t solve the problem of the general malaise and overall depressed or anxious feelings we have.  In fact after the temporary high is over we often feel worse.  The same effect occurs with slightly longer results when we get a promotion, buy the newest gadget, or finally lose weight.  So many things that we think will make us happy turn out in the long run to be just another chocolate cake experience.  They give us a brief high and then afterward return you to the state you were in prior to the cake being served.  So here is a twofold principle about how happiness works.

Any enduring happiness must:

1)      Happen in the present, the current moment, the now

2)      Come from your internal experience

Number 1 is best explained by this Tic Nac Han quote.  “Peace can exist only in the present moment.  It is ridiculous to say ‘Wait until I finish this, then I will be free to live in peace.’  What is ‘this’?  A diploma, a job, a house, the payment of a debt?  If you think that way, peace will never come.”

Number 2 refers to “internal experience.”  By this I mean your own internal thoughts and emotions which constantly stream though your mind and body.  The opposite of these would be any external experience.  We talk about these all the time. I will happy when I lose 20 pounds, get the job I want, finish school, get a new house, meet my soul mate and get married, or purchase a certain product.  All of these ultimately work about as well as the chocolate cake.

Our confusion about getting happiness from external experiences is understandable.  We are bombarded with messages about how external things will make us happy every day.  Also, they do work …for a while.  Sometimes the high lasts for moments and sometimes for months.  But sooner or later we get used to the new thing and we have to chase again.

In addition, we almost never talk about current or internal experiences.  Once we start to explore and pay attention to our internal, present experience there is a struggle to describe what we find.  We simple lack the language to talk about.  This is one thing I hope we can develop here in our discussion.

photo credit: Leslie Kalohi /

The Quest for Happiness Begins


The quest for happiness..we are all on, you, and all of us collectively.  If you think about it, most every activity throughout our day can be traced back to the pursuit of happiness.  The whole thing even made it into our nation’s declaration of independence.  Sometimes we think about happiness directly.  Most of the time, it just operates silently in the back ground and we don’t think about it until we are very uncomfortable.

One primary reason why I so enjoy being a therapist is because of my personal obsession with figuring out how to be happy and at peace.  It is also the one thing that all my clients have in common.  They come to me because they are uncomfortable, experiencing pain and suffering, and just want to be happier.

Simple Loving-Kindness Meditation uses repetition of the phrase, “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free from suffering” and slowly sends these thoughts out to an ever widening circle beginning with yourself and ending with the every living thing on the planet.  “May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering.”  This is what I wish for myself and all others.  This blog is designed to share my own quest for happiness.  I will tell you about what I have learned so far and invite others to participate in the ongoing journey with me.

Posts will attempt to balance the use of personal experience, the collective experience of others, and scientific research as sources.  We will focus on two main aspects of happiness and wellness: healthy relationships with others and individual emotional health.  We will be open to explore all treatments for physical and emotional pain including traditional Western and Eastern medicine, psychology, and spirituality.  A significant amount of the material will pull from concepts contained in Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy and Family Systems Theory.  These are both my theory base as a professional psychotherapist and as an individual seeking to be happy, peaceful, and free from suffering.

All post will attempt to address how to be happier highlighting what works and what doesn’t.  Categories will include the following.

  • Maintaining a healthy marriage or intimate partnership
  • Healthy relationships with children, extended family, etc.
  • Emotional health:  managing your thoughts and emotions
  • The relationship between emotional wellness and physical wellness or health
  • American culture and emotional wellness/happiness
  • Effective alternative treatments and Integrative Medicine

Please, subscribe and join the discussion.

Self-Compassion (An upgrade from self-esteem)

In the early days of my own mindfulness training, I thought about skipping over compassion meditation.  I later discovered it to be invaluable both in my personal life and with clients.  Self-compassion is about learning to be your own best friend.  We are not in the habit of thinking about our relationship with ourselves.  However, most agree that if we treated friends the way you treat ourselves, no one would have any friends at all.

The leading researcher on the topic, Kristen Neff, defines self-compassion this way.  “When we suffer, caring for ourselves as we would care for someone we truly love.”  She also stresses that self-compassion includes 3 components:  kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.  Put more simply self-compassion is loving connected presence.

Self-esteem became a fashionable idea in the 1960s and picked up steam in the 1980s.  It is good that as a society we began to realize the damage caused by the levels of self hatred and criticism we experience.  However, there are draw backs to concept of self esteem.  When the goal is to simply like yourself, you must deny the reality that in fact we sometimes show good qualities and other times bad qualities.  Self esteem then is unstable at best because it only works when we are doing well, and it tends to encourage us to compare ourselves to others.

By contrast, Self-Compassion is a way of relating to the mystery of who we are that honors the truth that human beings have both strengths and weakness.  Good feelings do not depend on meeting goals, physical appearance, or being special.  They come instead from caring about ourselves.  We can embrace human imperfection if loving kindness is added to it.

The key to finding self-compassion helpful is intention.  We cannot sooth painful emotions by trying to fix or get rid of them. “We give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad”  like taking care of a young child with the flu with gentleness and patients.

Is it very comforting to know that therapy as well as specific daily practice, just like daily exercise, can train the brain for compassion towards ourselves.  Self-compassion meditations with yummy titles like “affectionate breathing” and “soften, sooth, allow” can be found for free on Kristen Neff’s website.  However, many find coaching and training with a counselor is helpful as they attempt to implement these strategies in daily  life and try to find a their voice of self compassion.


reference:  Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristen Neff