Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Birthdays are Bad for Your Health

Today is my birthday. Yep, I’m writing this at 32,000 feet heading to San Francisco and I celebrated with a glass of tonic water and a tapas box. But driving to the airport this morning I was startled when my husband called, sang happy birthday and then asked, “so, how does it feel to be 58?” Really? Am I that old? Well, technically the answer is yes. My carbon form has traversed this planet for 58 years along with millions of others; eating, sleeping, playing, working. If we count the days, I’ve probably been here longer than most people. But why count the days? Seriously, paying too close attention to your age is bad for your health.

Okay this is a little tongue-in-cheek but the studies of Ellen Langer on aging and mindset are amazing. She believes that some of our physical limitations of age are as much or more a part of the mind as they are of the body. Her studies place participants in situations that replicate what life was like 20-30 years prior. For a week they talk and live as though it was 1984. The results are lower blood pressure, better circulation and flexibility and even improved vision. All because the participants stopped living their age.

We all have concepts of age. That is why so many of us hate approaching milestone birthdays because all we can think about is aging. When we are continuously reminded of our age, we begin to act and feel that way, becoming more cautious because we fear getting hurt. Eventually our beliefs become our reality.

Aging is for the young, let’s face it. When you want to drive you can’t wait to be 17. Others can’t wait to vote at 18 or drink at 21 (okay, legally). Then all the rush to get older stops or at least it should, unless you really want an AARP card or Medicare.

Let’s face it, our bodies will remind us that we are aging, they don’t need any help. So what if we only celebrated birthdays but didn’t count them? How old would you be? How old would you feel? Counting birthdays doesn’t mean anything. Meaning is not found in the amount of days in your life, but the amount of life in your days.

So for me, today is a reason to have fun. I’m glad I’m here. But I’m not going to spoil it by counting the years. Nope I’m just going to enjoy today.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Live Life on the Peaks

Happiness is not a subject near and dear to my heart. It's not that I'm against happiness, I tend to be a very happy guy. But happiness is not something I pursue. Anyone who consistently reads my writing know that I believe happiness  is a positive effect of pursuing individual greatness, but not the goal in itself.

However, though I don’t focus on happiness many people think I’m the ultimately happy guy who never looks at the dark side of life. Last week I was talking with a friend and she was opining that “on the journey of life you have to experience both the peaks and the valleys.” I agreed, but countered that “just because I experience the valleys on the journey of life doesn’t mean I have to stop and build my house there.”

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a positive psychology summit at the University of Pennsylvania. It was attended by some of the smartest and most accomplished people I know. Dr. Ed Deiner spoke about happiness and revealed some studies that if you are super happy, you might not achieve as much as someone else who might be moderately happy. (Of course if you are depressed you might not accomplish much either.) Afterword I tried to pursue the point, but he deftly dodged it. However, his point was made. Some of the most prominent people in history struggled with their dark side and used it as a spring-board to creativity and success. It’s important to note that most of them didn’t wallow in their dark side, but acknowledged it and used it.

In the journey of life all of us experience peaks and valleys. However by living in the valleys we close ourselves off from the good side of life. Yes, it is important to experience the highs and lows, but since we all have a choice, why not build our homes on the highs? We can do that by enjoying the peak moments more, exploring them and learning how we can repeat them and treasuring them each time they occur. Then, with confidence we can experience and even explore the valleys, but in time move out and back up to the peaks. So the question remains, where do you want to build your house?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Don't Fight Busyness, Elevate It.


Recently whenever I ask someone how they are doing I hear variations of “crazy busy,” “so busy I can’t think,” or “I’m slammed.” Frankly I’m tired of hearing it. I just read an HBR blog on this busyness syndrome and how to fight it. Honestly, I don’t want to fight busyness because that’s a losing battle, but I want to change the focus.

Think about it. All of us are busy; busy creating a life, loving others, doing our job, or we are busy living. So what? The first definition of busy I found is “actively or fully engaged or occupied.” Hey wait? That’s the way I want to live my life! I hope I can describe every day that way. But most of us mean the 2nd and 4th definitions “overcrowded or cluttered with detail,” “crowded with or characterized by much activity.” But honestly even those don’t sound too bad.

The real challenge is that saying “I’m crazy busy” has become a badge of honor. We brag about how much work we have to do and how there is no time for our lives. Perhaps it makes us feel important. Really? We want to live like this? I don’t.

And more to the point, this busyness syndrome can get in the way of achieving anything. Many people point to their calendars and inboxes to justify how they can’t get another thing done. But I wonder what they are doing. I meet plenty of busy people. A few of them actually accomplish something.

Recently I worked with a multinational corporation that wanted to change the dialogue around performance reviews for their employees. They realized that most employees arrived for their year-end reviews armed with all of the projects they worked on during the year and how hard they worked. This company decided to look at “business impact” instead of activity. Instead of only talking about how many projects, tasks, or meeting occurred, the question became “what was the impact of this work on the business?”  It radically changed the conversation and it changed the mindset.

Think about how we would reset our lives if we looked at impact. If you schedule time with your kids, ask yourself what impact it had on them, or you? It might make you put your smart phone down to have a greater impact. Or that writing project you are working on? Did you spend a couple of hours at your desk, or did you accomplish something, actually get some pages written? What was the impact of the time spent working? We can even use this gauge in a more dramatic fashion and ask the question, what impact has my life made?

We are all busy. It’s called living. But being busy can be a smoke screen full of sound and fury and signifying nothing (with apologies to the Bard). By changing the litmus test of our lives we can move from crowded calendars to meaningful calendars. If we concern ourselves with impact our meetings, dates, even playtimes take on more significance. And finally if we live our lives focused on our impact on others and the impact we leave, we will dramatically change our world. Isn’t that better than just being busy?