Big life questions

Reality Check: Who Are You & What Are You Doing?

Who has time to think about the “big questions” in life? Most people I know are too busy and overwhelmed these days with the demands of daily life to press pause and ponder existential issues. Being honest, even if you did have the time, would you want to grapple with these big questions? Or rather, with the answers. As one patient — who we’ll call Patient Nietzsche for this piece — told me bluntly, it’s easier to avoid them:
Do you know what scares me the most? Being alone with my thoughts. I start thinking about my life and questioning my choices, and getting philosophical. I would rather focus on what I need to pack for my business trip or buy at the grocery store than what I am doing with my life.
I know exactly what Patient Nietzsche means. These questions often pop up when I am in transit — on an airplane, on a train, or driving somewhere. When I’m physically bound to one place. My knee jerk response is to avoid them and to dive into a book or pray for strong WiFi so Instagram can save me from contemplating the meaning of it all. Why reflect when I can watch a cat video instead? As tempting as it is to push them away, research shows it is worth the time and effort to channel your inner Jean-Paul Sartre. In a study entitled Suppressing Spiritual Struggles: The Role of Experiential Avoidance in Mental Health, the authors found that people who embrace existential and spiritual struggles and reflect on their values and beliefs are emotionally healthier than those who don’t. As Dr. Julie Exline, one of the co-authors of the study, explains:
Regular avoidance can make it difficult to identify, work toward or experience the qualities that lend a sense of purpose to life.
Taking the time to think about what matters to you is a great way to bring your values front and center in your life. When your daily decisions reflect your priorities and not just what you feel like in the moment, you strengthen your resilience and build your emotional reserves. Here are a few questions to get you started:

Where am I headed and what is my ultimate personal goal?

How does my daily life reflect my priorities?

What do I value and how do my choices impact my values?

What are my responsibilities to my community and to make the world a better place?

Examining our values grounds us. Think of them as a compass to help make the right decisions at the right time.
Are you good company?

Are You Good Company?

There are some people we naturally love to be around. They are like sunspots, giving off warmth and radiating good energy. There are others we avoid like the plague. They suck the energy out of room and make us feel self-conscious and insecure. Science suggests there is something to this. An article in Scientific American explains the phenomenon of good and bad vibes:
No one needs a study to tell them that they feel good when interacting with some people and bad around others. But the striking conclusion of this research is that without trying or even being aware of it, each person gives out a vibe—the researchers dubbed it “trait affective presence”—that affects everyone they come into contact with in the same way.
We know that one person’s mood can influence another’s, a principle referred to as emotional contagion, but trait affective presence is different:
Trait affective presence, in contrast, is the tendency to consistently elicit the same emotions in everyone around you, regardless of what mood you happen to be in.
In other words, an individual’s personal level of happiness does not automatically mean they make others feel good. In fact, a happy person can have a Debbie Downer effect on others. So even the most kind or altruistic person may induce anxiety in the people they meet. In romantic settings, trait affective presence is especially powerful. In a speed-dating study, the two most common feelings that people tended to bring out in others were enthusiasm and boredom. This makes sense:
When people are looking for a potential romantic partner they pay much more attention to the degree to which they feel aroused.
Why some people make others feel good and others don’t remains unclear. It may have something to do with non-verbal cues and warmth. Charisma may play a role, too. As I have written about before, charisma can be cultivated. Your assignment:
Let your light shine so brightly that others can see their way out of the dark. ~Katrina Mayer
Emily Esfahani Smith

Emily Esfahani Smith

Writer, Wife, Author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters
Mental Rehearsal

Dress Rehearsal of the Mind: How to Overcome Anxiety & Build Confidence

I have always been a little skeptical of visualization techniques. The idea of telling someone to visualize winning the lottery, marrying George Clooney or getting that job at Google sounded more like “The Secret” than actionable advice. That said, I have learned that some visualization techniques are worth a second look (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). Instead of visualizing your greatest dream coming true – like thanking all the little people when you win the Oscar—experts suggest engaging in mental rehearsing. Mental rehearsing is very different from mental winning—it focuses on process not outcome. Sports psychologists recommend detailed mental rehearsals to help athletes build confidence and overcome anxiety. Death defying and record-breaking rock climber Alex Honnold (the guy who climbs without ropes) highlights the value of intense mental preparation:
When I’m planning on doing something challenging, I spend the time sort of visualizing what the experience will feel like and what the individual sections of it will [feel like]. Particularly if it’s a free solo, I’m climbing ropeless, then I’ll think through what it’ll feel like to be in certain positions, because some kinds of movements are insecure and so they’re kind of scarier than other types of moves, and so it’s important to me think through how that’ll feel when I’m up there, so that when I’m doing it I don’t suddenly be like ‘Oh my God, this is really scary!’ I know that it’s supposed to be scary, I know that’s going to be the move, I know what it’ll feel like, and I just do it.
Hunnold does a dress rehearsal in his head, imagining all the possible scenarios and emotions he might experience for when he does the real thing. He has a realistic game plan that considers the physical and mental challenges he might face. There are no surprises or unanticipated events to shake his unshakable focus. While the stakes are a little lower, mental rehearsals have application in every day life. Next time you have to give a presentation at work or go on a job interview, consider doing a rehearsal in your head. Odds are your performance will be better.

25 Ways to Celebrate Kindness

According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman, we experience approximately 20,000 moments each day. In honor of #RandomActsOfKindnessDay choose to make the most of each one by seizing the many opportunities to be kind, make an effort, connect and give back.
  1. Pay a coworker an honest compliment.

  1. Strike up a conversation with someone you see everyday but don’t know very well – a doorman, the postman, a neighbor, the barista.

  1. Buy a coffee for the person in line behind you at the coffee shop.

  1. Send flowers for no reason.

  1. Offer to run an errand for a friend.

  1. Hold the elevator.

  1. Give your cab away.

  1. Leave an extra big tip.

  1. Hold the door.

  1. Leave change in the vending machine.

  1. Text a friend to tell them how and why you admire them.

  1. Tell a stranger that you love what they’re wearing.

  1. Make a playlist on Spotify for a friend who’s going through it.

  1. Pick up some litter.

  2. Write something nice on that person’s updates who posts on Facebook constantly. They’re probably lonely.

  3. Put sticky notes with positive slogans on the mirrors in restrooms.

  4. Bring your partner coffee in bed tomorrow.

  1. Do a chore for someone without them knowing.

  2. Leave happy notes around town.

  3. Let someone go ahead of you in line.

  4. Leave heads up pennies on the sidewalk

  5. Smile at everyone.

  1. Email or write an old teacher who made a difference in your life.

  2. Smile at someone on the street, just because.

  3. Give up your seat to someone (anyone!) on the bus or subway.

  Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does. -William Jam


14 Ways to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

The average American gains between 4 and 7 pounds in the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You don’t have to be one of them. Here are 14 secrets to maintaining your weight — and sanity — this holiday season (and still enjoying yourself):

1. Know your triggers

Stress combined with an increased abundance of calorie-packed treats can lead to unnecessary eating. Be aware of those situations and your choices.

2. Avoid the collective holiday mindset:

Life isn’t on hold until January 1st. Do not use the holidays as an excuse to put health on the back burner. Don’t stop going to the gym.

3. Keep a log:

Weigh yourself everyday. Self-monitoring is an effective tool.

4. Survey the entire buffet before serving yourself

People eat less when they know what to expect.

5. Snooze

Fatigue leads to overeating. Make sleep a priority.

6. Do something for someone else

Volunteers weigh less, feel healthier and have less of a chance of suffering from a heart attack than the Scrooges of the world. If you’re taking care of someone else, you’re not going to be thinking about that second (or even first) slice of fruitcake.

7. Use small plates

You will eat less. This limits how much you can pile on your plate.

8. Savor it

Slow down and chew more. You’ll enjoy yourself and the food more.

9. It’s ok to be vain

Too much sugar reduces effectiveness of elastin and collagen, proteins in the skin that help maintain its youthful appearance. It also causes acne.

10. Pre-Game checklists:

Going to the grocery store on an empty stomach is a bad idea and the same holds true for holiday parties. Don’t arrive starving and have a list in hand.

11. Bring snacks

Resist temptation by heading it off. Keep a bag of almonds or an apple close by.

12. Take a hike

Or a brisk walk. The more you move the less likely you will pack on the pounds. Walking also reduces stress and rumination. Do it with a friend for an added boost.

13. Use the 80% rule

Stop eating when you are 80% full. Longevity expert Dan Buettner says this can be the difference between a pound lost versus a pound gained.

14. Don’t deprive yourself

If you are going to indulge, make it worth it. Skip the store-bought Christmas cookies so you can really enjoy Grandma’s homemade pecan pie.

“Sorry Syndrome”: Do You Apologize for the Rain?

When someone steps on my foot, I am the first to say, “I’m sorry.” I apologize for the weather, for terrible traffic, the long line at CVS and dozen of other undesirable situations that I am not responsible for. I am not the only one who is inflicted with “Sorry Syndrome.” Many of my patients, especially women, tell me they insert “Sorry” into any sentence that contains a request.
“Sorry, may I have a glass of water?” “Sorry, can I ask a question?” “Sorry, where is the bathroom?”
Knowing how to apologize for something you regret is one thing. Apologizing for basically existing is another. As columnist Jessica Bennett writes:
Sorry is a crutch — a tyrannical lady-crutch. It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear “soft” while making a demand.
So why do we insist on making on apologizing for no reason? A Harvard Business School study provides a possible explanation. According to the research, superfluous apologies build trust. In the study, an actor approached strangers in a train station on a rainy day and requested to borrow their phone. Half of the time, the actor prefaced his request with “I’m sorry about the rain!” The other half of the time, the actor went straight to the point and asked, “Can I borrow your cell phone?” Apologizing for the rain made a big difference: forty-seven percent of strangers offered their phone if the actor apologized for the rain. Only nine percent did without the apology. As the authors conclude:
Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying 'I'm sorry' - even if they are merely 'sorry' about the rain.
Building trust is important but does not justify apologizing for every little thing. If you want to reduce the number of superfluous apologies that roll off your tongue, consider replacing “sorry” with “thank you.” For example, instead of saying, “Sorry for rambling” you can say, “Thank you for listening.” Instead of saying “Sorry” when you move past someone on a train, you can say “Thank you for making room.” A recent article in The Atlantic highlights the benefits of replacing an apology with gratitude:
Sorry you had to do that” is not only a rejection of their nice gesture, a lot of times, it makes it weird. “Thank you for doing that” is recognizing and accepting their kindness.
On that note, thank you for reading this article.

I Have a Confession to Make

Imagine sitting alone in a restaurant waiting for a friend. How do you pass the time? Do you look around? Do you savor the time alone to reflect or think about something that’s bothering you? Do you allow yourself to daydream? Odds are you do none of the above. You reach for your phone and don’t look up until your friend arrives. You are not alone. Using your phone as a time-filler whenever there is a free moment has become the norm. Waiting on line at the office cafeteria, in between conversations at a cocktail party, before a meeting begins, sitting in a taxi on the way to the airport, along with every other “in between” moment, are now occasions to connect with our device not the world around us. They are triggers to look down. I do my best to resist turning to a screen to fill time. I don’t want it becoming a habit and I certainly don’t want to model it for my children. My hope is that they learn how to manage boredom and unstructured time and that they use it to their advantage. In a recent article, journalist Naomi Shaefer Riley captures the downside of always turning to a screen to avoid boredom. If every unfilled moment is filled by a video game, a text, or Snapchat, she argues, then there is no time to daydream. So, I have a confession to make: The TV in the car works. Ages ago I told my kids that the screen was defective because I didn’t want them to tune out every time we got in the car. This white lie will probably backfire one day but right now I have no regrets. First of all, I like the company. If I am stuck in traffic I would rather talk to them than see them through my rear view mirror with earmuff-like head phones on and their mouths hanging open mindlessly watching a movie. It’s an opportunity to connect with each other, to read a book, to take a nap, to belt out Taylor Swift,  or to look out the window and let the mind wander. Boredom isn’t such a bad thing, especially when you reframe it as an opportunity to be creative. In an article in GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mastermind behind the hit show “Hamilton,” talks about a childhood friend who once spent a three-hour car ride playing with a stick he found in the back yard.
Sometimes the stick was a man, sometimes a piece in a larger game, or he’d give it voices, pretend the stick was a telephone. I remember sitting there next to him with my ‘Donkey Kong’ thinking, ‘Dude, you just entertained yourself for three hours . . . with a f- -king twig!’ And I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I have to raise my imagination game.’
Miranda says “time alone is the gift of self-entertainment—and that is the font of creativity. Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.” Or, (sorry kids) a long car ride. Instead of staring at a screen, channel a famous refrain from one of the songs in Hamilton:

Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now.

Learning Resilience from a Master

The last ten years of Henri Matisse’s were far from what most of us would think of as joyful. His marriage was over, he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a number of painful surgeries, and his beloved daughter was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo for aiding the French Resistance. Who could have blamed him for calling it quits and sinking into deep despair? And yet, during this dark time he created the most electrifyingly joyful work of his career. Confined to a wheelchair and crippled by pain, Matisse never stopped working. In fact, rather than a period of decline, it became what Matisse described as a “seconde vie.” He transformed the darkness into an intensely vibrant and productive period, creating “cut-outs” –the cut paper collages he described as “painting with scissors.” Unlike actual painting, painting with scissors could be done from his wheelchair or bed. Matisse once famously said, “Work cures everything,” and one cannot help but consider the therapeutic value of the cut-outs for Matisse. Studies show that meaningful work and a sense of purpose—a reason to get out of bed in the morning—are linked with longevity and life satisfaction. Because of pain and physical limitations, Matisse often couldn’t get out of bed in the morning so he rose to the challenge and worked from his bedside instead:
You see as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.
The “little garden” he refers to are the cut-outs pinned to the walls surrounding his bed. They served as ideal stand-ins for the natural world, providing solace and beauty in a make shift studio. Matisse made it work. He cultivated and created an environment that enabled him to pursue his passion and immerse himself in this labor-intensive work. Rather than serving as a metaphor for decline or loss, these works pulsate with life and vitality:
This new lease of life led to an extraordinary burst of expression, the culmination of half a century of work, but also to a radical renewal that made it possible for him to create what he had always struggled for: ‘I have needed all that time to reach the stage where I can say what I want to say.’
Matisse embodies what people refer to today as resilience. With passion and perseverance, he navigated his way through this challenging period and found beauty in the darkness. He once said,
There are always flowers for those who want to see them.
Even in the autumn of his life Matisse chose to see the flowers.


Emily Esfahani Smith

Emily Esfahani Smith

Writer, Wife, Author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters


Big life questions

Reality Check: Who Are You & What Are You Doing?

Who has time to think about the “big questions” in life? Most people I know are too busy and overwhelmed these days with the...
Are you good company?

Are You Good Company?

There are some people we naturally love to be around. They are like sunspots, giving off warmth and radiating good energy. There are others...
What a Bucket of PopCorn Says About You

What a Bucket of Popcorn Says About You

In the un-put-downable book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the authors describe a famous popcorn study. Moviegoers were given a...
Mental Rehearsal

Dress Rehearsal of the Mind: How to Overcome Anxiety & Build Confidence

I have always been a little skeptical of visualization techniques. The idea of telling someone to visualize winning the lottery, marrying George Clooney or...

25 Ways to Celebrate Kindness

According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman, we experience approximately 20,000 moments each day. In honor of #RandomActsOfKindnessDay choose to make the most of...