We could have resolved to eat more leafy greens or to add another spin class to our weekly workout schedule. But when a team of us at Live Happy made it our mission to become happier this year, we dug deeper to identify the behaviors, interactions and attitudes that were sapping our energy, productivity and joy.
Our issues, it turns out, are pretty universal: anxiety, troubled communications with a loved one, an inability to unplug from work, poor sleep, a lack of long-term goals. To help us tackle these challenges we’ve enlisted a squad of top experts who have agreed to coach each of us. And because we know that the most effective way to implement new habits is with deadlines and accountability, we’re putting both in motion.
We’ve decided to bare our souls and write about our goals, struggles, setbacks and—we hope!—triumphs in frequent blog posts over the next 90 days. All of the experts agree that in three months, each of us should be able to achieve a significant happiness reset. We’d like to invite you to take this journey along with Susan, Kim, Chris, Donna and me (I’m the cranky, sleep-deprived member of the group). We’ve assembled everything you’ll need here.
Along with our own blogs, which we will continue to publish as the 90 days progress, you’ll find regular posts from our coaches detailing the programs and strategies they’ve put together for us. They’ll be writing about what we can expect each step of the way, including how to get around roadblocks, bounce back from setbacks and maintain the new happier-you habits for a lifetime.
You’ll also find podcasts with the coaches, links to resources and other helpful tools. Check the web page frequently for updates, and add Live Happy to your Facebook and Twitter feeds. We’ll have ongoing news for you, including the scoop on great giveaways and information on how to connect with our coaches through Twitter chats and more. And, in the June print issue of the magazine, I’ll be writing about what each of us achieved in our 90-day happiness makeover. We expect the changes will be transformative, for us and for you!
1ST CHALLENGE: CAN’T UNPLUG FROM WORK
Subject: Donna Stokes, Live Happy managing editor
Expert: Christine Carter, Ph.D., sociologist and senior fellow at University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center; author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.
What Donna says
From the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, I’m checking my work emails every 10 minutes, including when I’m stopped at red lights or in line at the supermarket. My husband and I both have our laptops or tablets propped up during dinner. At midnight I’ll see 15 new emails in my inbox and my blood pressure spikes, even though there’s nothing I can do about it until I’m back in the office the next day. I’m lucky to have work I love, but I worry that this compulsion will lead to burnout.
It’s also keeping me from doing other things I enjoy, like reading short stories at night or spending more time with my husband and dogs outdoors.
What Christine says
I love coaching people around unplugging because it’s so simple but it’s life-changing. I’m going to teach Donna some little techniques, which we’ll practice together, and her life is going to be so different and so much more fun.
Unplugging does something really wonderful. It brings ease into our lives. That means we operate from what I call our “sweet spot,” when your greatest strengths overlap with the least resistance. There’s nothing wrong with making a powerful effort; we just can’t do it all the time. As human beings we’re part of nature, and all of nature ebbs and flows. To focus on pushing forward without ever allowing yourself an ebb is a very stressful and exhausting way of living, and neuroscience teaches us that it keeps our brain from functioning at its peak.
We have this idea that if we’re just standing in the grocery line or staring out the window when we’re stopped at a red light, we’re wasting time. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a heck of a lot more brain activity while you’re daydreaming than there is when you’re focused on a task. While you’re “wasting time,” your brain is actually forming neural connections between things that it did not previously see as being related, and that’s where creative insights come from. If you’ve noticed that you have all your best ideas when you’re in the shower, that’s probably because the shower is the only time you give yourself a chance to daydream.
There’s a very high cost to being plugged in all the time. Not only are you thwarting creativity, you’re also undermining your relationships.”
You can’t fully be present for another human being if there’s a screen between you. Research shows that even if a phone is turned off and face-down on a table, it lowers the quality of the conversation that takes place.
I struggle with unplugging, too. I have a hard and fast rule that I never use a device when I’m doing something with my kids, and sometimes I slip. When I do, I’ll go on what I call a digital cleanse and bury my email or texting app deep in a folder so I really have to hunt for it. It’s a two-minute intervention that makes it a lot easier to change a behavior that’s become automatic.
Get ready to tackle unplugging from work along with Donna
For three weekdays and one weekend day, jot down every time you could have allowed yourself to daydream or be fully present for another person, but you allowed your device to get in the way instead. For example, you checked your texts while waiting in line to get into a movie with your daughter (and, yes, you’re allowed to make these notes on your phone).
- Read Donna’s first blog about her unplugging challenge, here.
- Read Christine’s 6 Steps to Unplug From Work, here.
2ND CHALLENGE: OVERCOMING ANXIETY
Subject: Kim Baker, Live Happy art director
Expert: Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and managing director of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago.
What Kim says
All my life I’ve dealt with anxiety that’s driven by worry. I can work myself up to the point where my heart is racing and my palms are sweaty because I’m thinking, “What if something happened to my daughter or my husband? What if my migraine is really a brain tumor?” These thoughts are distractions that take me away from living in the moment. It’s really important for me to be fully present for my family and my friends, so I want to learn better ways to manage my worry and anxiety.
What Karen says
Worry makes people really miserable. Ifyou’re a worrier, and a great many people are, you live your life in high idle; your mental motor is always turned up. Worriers tend to have trouble with their sleep, they have digestive issues, they have headaches and sometimes even chronic pain because their muscles are so stiff.
Persistent worriers, who are twice as likely to be women, have literally forgotten how to relax. The irony is that worriers think they’re being responsible by preparing themselves for the worst. What’s really going on is that they can’t tolerate uncertainty. Psychologists know that faced with an uncertain situation, non-worriers will assume all is OK until they hear otherwise. Worriers, onthe other hand, focus on a few catastrophic outcomes. They’ll spend hours searching online for all the life-threatening things those abdominal twinges might be. And they’ll constantly seek reassurance from other people.
They may experience quick drops in anxiety when their doctors tell them, no, they don’t have cancer or co-workers assure them they’re not going to lose their jobs. But before long their anxiety returns, and it’s even stronger. Then, they’ll do another Internet search, re-read the information they’ve already read or replay conversations that they’ve had. It can be hard to recognize that worrying doesn’t solve problems; it doesn’t improve your ability to cope. It does, however, make you irritable, unpleasant to be around and more likely to feel overwhelmed.
But don’t worry! The good news is that worry is very treatable. Here’s the catch. The treatment for worry, which includes techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy, is counterintuitive. When I work with someone who has issues around worry, I’ll expose her to uncertainty and then put a complete ban on seeking reassurance. That can feel uncomfortable, even reckless. To ease that discomfort, I also do mindfulness training, so runaway worriers can learn to stay in the present as opposed to the awful futures they’re imagining.
Exercise is also an important part of the program. It helps mechanically loosen your muscles and also helps metabolize the chemical byproducts of anxiety such as stress hormones.
The biggest hurdle for worriers to overcome is to recognize that what they’re worrying about isn’t the problem; the problem is the worry itself.”
It’s important to acknowledge what a detriment worry is to your well-being and that it’s something very much worth trying to overcome.
Get ready to tackle worry along with Kim
Keep a diary of your worry. The way to identify a worry, Karen says, is that it’spreceded by “what if,” such as Kim’s “What if something happened to my daughter?” thoughts. Jot down every “what if” rumination, from “What if I speak up at the meeting and everybody laughs at my ideas?” to “What if I have a panic attack when I’m driving across the bridge?”
- Read Kim’s first blog about her anxiety challenge, here.
- Read Karen’s 6 Steps to Win the War Against Worry, here.
3RD CHALLENGE: SETTING LONG-TERM GOALS
Subject: Chris Libby, Live Happy section editor
Expert: Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, author of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide
What Chris says
I sometimes think I walk through life like Forrest Gump. I don’t really plan things; I just kind of let them happen. I’ve always believed that if you work hard, good things will come your way, and, in my life, they have. I spent 15 years at a local newspaper and a couple of months after it folded I got a call about a new magazine that was starting up. That magazine was Live Happy. As well as things have turned out, I do have a nagging sense that if I want to continue to nourish in my career and life, I need to be more proactive and begin thinking about where I want to be in, say, five or 10 years and what steps I might start taking in that direction.
What Caroline says
I get an incredible amount of pleasure out of helping people come up with goals that are closely aligned with meaning and purpose for them. Often they’ve never articulated these goals to anybody else or even to themselves. So it takes what I call “forensic coaching” we walk through their strengths and their values and explore their appetite for risk-taking.
People like Chris, who are already happy and thriving in their careers, have a head start on setting and pursuing goals. Success flows from being happy first, not the other way around. If your job is bringing you joy, as Chris’ is, it’s the ideal time to aspire to be the best you can be by identifying some big dreams.
Take your emotional temperature:
If you’re feeling blue and pessimistic, you’ll want to do a mood intervention, with daily habits of gratitude, mindfulness and savoring, before your work on long-term goals. Life is transformed when people set hard goals. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. Nobody changes and grows by playing inside their comfort zone. But if 2016 is the year that you want to explore risk-taking and you’re up for some hard work.
Far from being selfish, setting bold goals for yourself is a mitzvah, Hebrew for a good deed or an act of kindness that you put out into the world.”
I’d encourage you to step outside your comfort zone to pursue a goal that’s big and intrinsic, meaning it comes from your own genuine desires, values and interests. Playing bigger and bolder is what happiness, purpose and fulfillment is all about. When you set these long-term goals, you move into an expansive way of thinking. Your eyes aren’t on your feet, they’re on the horizon. Audacious goals are energizing and inspiring, and they’re contagious. The people around you will “catch” that vibrant energy, too.
Get ready to set some long-term goals along with chris
Identify your signature strengths by taking the VIA Character Strengths Survey. A key tool in the field of positive psychology, the free survey assesses 24 different positive traits, such as persistence, open-mindedness, leadership, vitality and social intelligence. Research shows you’ll make more progress on your goals, and be happier pursuing them, if they’re aligned with your signature strengths.
What’s more, as you move along on your three-month goal-setting program, you’ll find new ways to apply your unique strengths to whatever goals you do set.
- Read Chris’s first blog about his goal-setting challenge, here.
- Read Caroline’s 6-Step Goal-Setting Challenge, here.
4TH CHALLENGE: COMMUNICATING BETTER WITH A LOVED ONE
Who: Susan Kane, Live Happy contributing editor
Expert: Michele Gravelle, communications strategist with Triad Consulting Group
What Susan says
My daughter, Coco, and I had always been very close and loved spending time together. But that changed this year when Coco turned 13. Just my saying hello when I get home from work seems to annoy her. If I try to get anything more than a couple of words out of her, she’s rude and surly. Even though I recognize that this may be normal teenage rebelliousness, these interactions leave me swamped with sorrow. I’d like to learn more effective ways to respond to Coco so her guard comes down and we’re able to connect in more positive ways more often.
What Michele says
I’m thrilled to have the chance to coach Susan on improving her communications with Coco. And the reason why goes back to Labor Day 2013. My then 23-year-old son dove off the back of a boat into water that was too shallow. He broke his neck and suffered a spinal-cord injury that’s left him paralyzed from the chest down. I took a six-month leave of absence to be with Sam in the hospital, and when I came back I decided that I only wanted to do work that really matters. Giving people the tools to show up in their lives and talk to the people who are important to them is that kind of work.
After all, what brings us happiness boils down to relationships and relationships are really just a series of conversations.”
It’s easy for conversations between family members to go off the tracks. Nobody knows how to push your buttons better than family. Your sister says something that hurts your feelingsor makes you angry and your knee-jerk reaction is to lash out in return. Part of choosing happiness is choosing a different way to respond.
You’ll want to pause and take a moment to say to yourself, “OK, I don’t like what she said, but let me try to put myself in her shoes and see if I can understand why she said it.” When you practice that kind of empathy it makes it possible for you to have a more compassionate, respectful response.
Curiosity is also key to improving communications. If someone has dug in his heels on an issue, you might say something like, “Help me understand why this is so important to you.” That really gets to the heart of things. Often the impact that we have on people is invisible to us; it’s our blind spot. To shed light on this we may need to ask them the question: “What am I doing that’s getting in your way or making your life more difficult?” That’s a hard question to ask, but it’s also an incredibly healing one that helps clear the air so you can begin to address things in a more neutral way.
Working to keep communications strong with someone you love can be a lifelong project. But, by demonstrating empathy, curiosity and asking the right questions, you can expect less tension in the relationship, along with deeper and more meaningful conversations, in just 90 days.
Get ready to tackle troubled communications with a loved one along with Susan
Choose one person who really matters to you and with whom you’d like to improve communications. For two weeks keep a journal of your conversations—both the ones that went well and the ones that didn’t. Take notes on what you were feeling and what your internal voice was saying during these chats. Often, what causes a conversation to derail isn’t what we say, Michele points out, but what we were thinking and feeling.
- Read Susan’s first blog about her communication challenge, here.
- Read Michele’s 6 Steps to Healthier, More Productive Conversations, here.
5TH CHALLENGE: TACKLING CHRONIC INSOMNIA
Who: Shelley Levitt, Live Happy editor at large
Expert: Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight through Better Sleep
What Shelley says
I’ve never been someone who slept straight through the night. But over the past few months my sleep has been declining to the point where I’m up more hours than I’m snoozing. I’m constantly fatigued and irritable, and I’m so groggy by late afternoon, it’s hard for me to get through the rest of the day without taking a nap, which sets me up for another lousy night of sleep.
On those rare occasions when I do get a good night’s sleep, my energy, confidence, productivity and optimism soar. I want to go from that being a rarity to being the everyday me.
What Michael says
You can’t live a happy life if you’re not getting good sleep. The more sleep-deprived you are the less likely you are to have positive relationships, whether we’re talking about marriages or business relationships. Lack of sleep compromises your resilience, making you less capable of bouncing back after a setback. Insufficient sleep even affects your sense of humor; you’re less likely to get a joke and more likely to take offense at neutral comments.
We also know that inadequate sleep can lead to or worsen anxiety and depression. You can certainly live a happy life if you suffer from depression or anxiety as long as you’ve figured out how to manage it, but lack of sleep will dramatically undermine those strategies or treatments.
Everyone has the occasional bad night’s sleep. But if you’re having sleep problems—either difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep—for three or more nights a week for a month or longer, you’re suffering from chronic insomnia.”
Keep in mind that good sleep is about not just the quantity of your sleep but the quality of your sleep. You need to move beyond the first two stages of light sleep and spend ample time in stages 3 and 4, deep or delta sleep, and in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to feel physically and mentally restored. How much sleep we need is variable; my wife needs a solid eight hours; I’m good with six-and-a-half hours.
Sleep is largely regulated by the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus [a tiny region in the hypothalamus], or what I call “the sleeper.” Very few people have a broken sleeper, which means that very few of us have an inability to sleep well. Good sleep comes from good habits. I can’t promise everyone that they’re always going to have a perfect night’s sleep—life with all its challenges and stressors can get in the way. But by changing your sleep habits and patterns over three months, the great majority of people can dramatically improve their general level of sleep.
Fair warning: The first few weeks of the program may feel like torture. That’s because people who are chronically poor sleepers have an internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, that’s out of sync with their sleep drive. Getting these two systems aligned requires sleep restriction, often to just five or six hours a night. It’s a tough intervention but the eventual payoff—deep, restorative sleep —is huge.
Get ready to tackle poor sleep along with shelley
Keep a sleep diary for two weeks. Note the time you went to bed; the approximate time you fell asleep; the number of times you woke up during the night and how long you stayed awake; whether you took any sleep medication; how many naps you took and how long they lasted; and how many caffeinated beverages you had during the day.
- Read Shelley’s first blog post about her sleep intervention, here.
- Read Michael’s 6 Steps to Better Sleep, here.
- Go to 90 Days Home Base to follow our “subjects” on their 3-month journey.
- Find more information about our amazing coaches, here.
Shelley Levitt, editor at large for Live Happy, is a freelance journalist living in Southern California.