Embrace Discomfort and Connect to the Meaningful Things in Your Life

Did you make a new year’s resolution at the start of this year?

Or have you ever made one in the past?

Like most of us, you probably started off with a lot of enthusiasm and lofty goals.

But how many times have you actually succeeded in sticking to the resolution? How many times have you reached your final goal?

And if you failed, have you ever wondered what exactly has gotten in the way?

There is no shame in admitting it. You are in good company.

Even with the best intentions and motivations, we all have a tendency to lose sight of our goals and falter at making the changes that we desire.

Why is that?

An Unsound Relationship with Discomfort

One of the biggest obstacles to making lasting change is having to repeatedly face discomfort. Often, we try to white-knuckle our way through it, only to find that will power and muscle are not enough.

The real problem is that our relationship with being uncomfortable is unsound. We have grown up with the notion that discomfort is something negative—a bad thing—and therefore, something that we have to avoid or get rid of as fast as possible.

The reality is that any change you make in your life, even a positive one—moving into a new house, starting a new relationship or job, or traveling abroad—comes with inherent discomfort.

But if discomfort is something that must be avoided, what do you give up as a result? Make discomfort the enemy long enough and you may even lose sight of what really matters to you in life.

Learning to See Discomfort in a Different Light

Many years back, I realized that much of my life centered around being comfortable. I had a good job and friends, but I lacked passion and meaning. It was as if I was living on autopilot.

It was then when I realized in order to have the life I wanted, I needed to adopt a new motto – “get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

I started to see discomfort as just an inherent part of change and growth—as something welcomed, neither good nor bad. From then on, when I felt discomfort, I stopped looking for ways to get rid of it. Instead, I reminded myself that it was simply a part of the process.

The lesson for you?

When you learn to see discomfort differently and start to actually invite it into your life, you can better connect with the things that are meaningful to you.

If you no longer have to avoid discomfort, what might you spend your energy doing?

Creating a Different Relationship with Discomfort

What steps can you take to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

As odd as it may sound, in order to try creating a different relationship with discomfort, you actually have to actively pursue the things that you know will make you uncomfortable.

Ask yourself: “Are there things I always wanted to do but did not do because I felt too awkward or embarrassed to do them?”

For some, it may be taking a dance class, singing karaoke, or doing improv. Remember, the important thing is that whatever you decide, it is something that matters to you.

The next step is to pursue these activities while noticing how it feels to be uncomfortable. You will likely hear some of the same old discouraging thoughts: “I can’t”, “I look silly.”

But what happens if you continue anyway and invite discomfort and all its friends to the party? Could you learn to engage differently with discomfort, embrace it, and in turn, grow and enrich your life? The only way to know is to try it!


Therapy is a great way of exploring your relationship with discomfort, how you responded to pain and discomfort in the past, and how you can get more in touch with the things that are meaningful in your life now. I would love to help you find the right balance and perspective.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Understanding the Research

Does valuing happiness help us live a joyful life, or does it backfire?

Happiness seems to have a high currency in America. Over the past few years, the number of popular books written on how to increase it has skyrocketed. To name a few: 10% Happier, The Art of Happiness, Authentic Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Project, 52 Lists for Happiness, Choosing Happier, Flourish. Even the US Declaration of Independence declares the pursuit of happiness as an “inalienable right.”

But what is the consequence of valuing happiness? On the one hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to work harder to attain it. On the other hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to feel unhappy if they don’t reach their standards.

In 2011, a group of researchers decided to put this question to the test. They asked adult females who had recently experienced a stressful life event, such as a divorce or accident, to indicate how much life stress had impacted them and how much they highly valued feeling positively (e.g. “feeling happy is extremely important to me”).

As expected, the participants who highly valued happiness tended to have worse overall wellbeing, including more symptoms of depression, and a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions. Interestingly, the researchers only observed this relationship when participants had lower, but not higher, levels of life stress.

Why did life stress affect this relationship between valuing happiness and wellbeing?

Imagine you just went through a tough breakup. You probably wouldn’t expect to feel happy, let alone feel disappointed by negative feelings. Yet, imagine celebrating a best friend’s birthday party. If you didn’t feel happy in this context, you might feel bummed, especially if you highly valued feeling happy.

In the next study, the researchers had female participants either read an article on the benefits of happiness (“valuing happiness condition”) or making accurate judgments (“control condition”). Then, the participants watched either a sad or happy film clip. Compared to those in the control condition, those in the valuing happiness condition felt worse after watching the sad, but not positive, film clip. Feeling disappointed seemed to play a role in this result: valuing happiness led people to feel disappointed during the sad clip, which, in turn, led them to feel unhappy afterwards.

Does this mean that people should stop valuing happiness?

Not exactly. For one, while the researchers did find paradoxical costs of valuing happiness, they studied people who valued it to a high degree. Other researchers have similarly found that highly valuing happiness is linked to depressive symptoms amongst people who previously struggled with major depression. Yet, valuing happiness to a more moderate degree could help people be happier by motivating them to practice different techniques aimed at increasing happiness. In other words, if people have the right ‘happiness building tools,’ some researchers think that valuing happiness to a certain degree could promote it. More research is needed in order to better understand whether there are conditions under which people could benefit from valuing happiness.

Overall, this research does suggest that a cultural fixation on happiness could have costs, especially if it leads people to feel disappointed with experiencing negative emotions. Research increasingly suggests that accepting negative emotions has benefits, and therapies that encourage acceptance of emotions (e.g. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) appear effective.

happiness

Pain, values, compassion, and a dying dog

“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”

 — Rumi

Just about three years ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Pain and values: two sides of the same coin” about our amazing dog Dalai. That post turned out to be one of the most popular pieces I’ve written. I wrote about the simultaneous, and I would say inseparably linked, love and pain that was consistently present for me when I was with Dalai, who was somewhere around 17-18 years old at the time. Because so many people have talked to me about that piece, I thought I would share an update and also some new thoughts I have on the topic of pain and values. If you want to read the original piece, you can find it here.

Dalai is still here, and so is the pain.

Believe it or not, Dalai is still with us, and at around 20+ years old, I’d say that little old lady is doing something right! She comes to work with us every day, usually riding in a trailer pulled behind the bike. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer about a year ago and has been on palliative care since. With the help of our amazing veterinarian, Heather Dillon, DVM, we’re able to manage her physical pain quite well and Dalai still has a wonderful quality of life.

And though I feel incredibly fortunate that Dalai is still with us, so too is the pain, anxiety, and sadness I feel when I think about what is to come. In fact, it’s difficult to admit, but there are even times when the pain is so intense that I notice having the thought that I wish it was over. Then of course I feel incredible pain at having that thought and the cycle goes on.

Compassion as palliative care

In my last post about this, I focused on the idea that I can’t move in the direction of my values if I’m not willing to experience painful thoughts and feelings – If I’m not willing to have those painful thoughts and the sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. And while it’s still very painful for me to be around Dalai, I’m not willing to give up one moment I could have with her just to avoid that pain. And in these past few years as both she and I have been working through the process of her aging and dying, I’ve learned a few things about how I want to be with that pain. So I thought I’d share something that for me has become an essential component in that equation of values and pain– compassion.

Just as my loved ones and I have been very intentional over these past several years about attending to Dalai’s physical pain as best we can, it’s also been helpful for me to attend to the emotional pain that those of us who love Dalai feel as we see her dying. Compassion, which literally means “to suffer together”, is a willingness to be present to suffering (another’s or your own) and a desire to ease that suffering. Compassion, including self-compassion, is my palliative care. It is what I am using to help ease the suffering my loved ones and I are feeling. Even though I help people develop self-compassion and be intentional about their values for a living, I found that although I wasn’t avoiding being with Dalai in order to avoid feeling the pain, I wasn’t fully present to it either; it was more like, “Well, that’s there and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m just not going to think about it.” And that can be helpful at times. But that isn’t how I treat others that I love when they are in pain and it felt incongruent with my values to treat my own pain in that way. So, over the past couple of years I have focused more and more on using compassion exercises in my own life, as a way to not only ease the pain I am feeling, but also honor it.

Quick self-compassion break

One of my favorite compassion exercises that I’ve incorporated into my life is Kristen Neff’s Self Compassion Break. The self-compassion break exercise gives me a way to treat myself with gentleness and kindness and also connect to the common humanity that is suffering. It is very quick and you can do it anywhere, which is great given that pain does not conveniently just show up when I have time to do a 30 minute compassion meditation. You can find an audio of the exercise here and a written script here. So next time you notice struggling with painful thoughts or feelings, especially when you know they are linked with something you care very deeply about, you might consider giving this exercise a try. And If you’re interested in reading more about compassion, my colleagues Jason Luoma (who also happens to be Dalai’s guardian too!) and Melissa Platt and I have a site dedicated to our work in that area called “ACT With Compassion” that you can check out here.

Thomas Merton once wrote that “Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.” When I am practicing compassion, I also often notice being more connected to all beings, including that little old dog at the heart of this all.

Pain and values: two sides of the same coin

 “Where there is love there is pain” –Spanish Proverb

I’ve known and lived with many amazing dogs and cats in my life. Each animal I’ve known has been special and wonderful in their own way. But then there is Dalai. She is my lifetime dog. When we adopted that scared little dog all those years ago, I could never have imagined how she would change my life. She’s the canine version of my soul mate.

The problem is Dalai is growing old

Dalai

We’ve shared many, many years together, and unfortunately the fact of nature is that our canine companions’ time on this earth is way too short. Dalai (pictured to right) is somewhere between 16 and 18 years old now. Gone are the days when we would end our early morning walks by chasing each other outside of the Brookings Institution (you should have seen the security guards out in front of that stodgy DC think-tank laughing at us each morning) or of overhearing people at the park say things like “Wow, look at that little rocket dog run!”

We still have our daily walks, but they’ve become slow strolls– sometimes it takes her 20 minutes just to get around the block. More frequently we simply spend time together with her curled up and snoring away beside me on the couch, perfectly content to let her younger adopted sister take over ball-fetching duty. And nearly every day when I’m walking Dalai or sitting with her on the couch, I feel a deep sadness in my heart. As I am with her I am constantly reminded that her time with me is getting ever more finite. And sometimes that sadness is so intense that I have the thought that I can’t bear the feeling.

But here’s the thing…

If I’m not willing to have those thoughts and that sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t actually care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. In order to spend time with her, to care for her and love her as my constant companion, then I have to experience my sadness at her impending loss. It’s the price of admission to be in this relationship.

My experience has been that those things that I care about the most, that are most meaningful in my life, are also the things that come with the most pain.

Check that out with your own experience. Are there areas in your life or relationships that you care about so deeply but that also bring a great deal of pain? Is it perhaps the case that the more you care about something, the more you’re opening yourself up to feeling pain?

Here’s an exercise I often do with clients around this struggle…

Step 1: Find some activity or relationship in your life that you value, but from which you find yourself pulling away. Maybe it’s a relationship you care about deeply but in which you’ve noticed you’ve been less engaged. Maybe it’s an activity you care about but you aren’t taking much action on.

Step 2: Now take out an index card or piece of paper. On one side, write down what you value in that relationship or area of living. Who do you really want to be to that individual? What are some descriptors of how you would like to be in that area of your life?  Now turn the card over. On the other side, write down what difficult thoughts and feelings might show up for you when you start taking action toward that value. For example, for my card with Dalai it might look something like

Front of card

 

Value:

 

Being a caring steward and loyal companion to Dalai for as long as she lives with us.

 

Back of card

Pain:

  • The thought “I’m not going to be able to handle it when she dies”
  • The thought “This is too painful”
  • The feeling of anxiety of not knowing when her death will happen

Step 3:  Now take that card and put it in your pocket, wallet, or purse. For the next week, take it out and ask yourself: “Am I willing to have that card, both sides of it, in its totality or would I choose to walk away from it?” Because, it’s a package deal, you can’t have one side without the other.

Values are freely chosen; we get to decide whether we will pick up the card. What we don’t get to choose is what’s on the other side of the card. Those things just come along for the ride.

 

Dalai and I are in this together. So Sadness, strap yourself in because Dalai and I still have a ways left to go on this ride together!

Money Can Buy Happiness, but Hobbies are Even Better

If you saw his Ted talk, you may already be familiar with Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s research on happiness. Dr. Kahneman and a group of researchers surveyed people across income brackets in a national sample on their overall happiness.

Those who made $90,000 reported being twice as happy as those who made $20,000. However, an interesting thing happens around the $50,000 mark: happiness begins to level off.  There’s little difference between the happiness of people who make between $50,000 – 89,000 and those in the highest income groups (e.g., over $100,000).

A Key to Increased Happiness: Engage in Active Pursuits

Kahneman and colleagues offer an explanation for this trend. They suggest that higher income people, although they work more, spend more free time in active pursuits (e.g., exercise) than passive activities (e.g., watching TV). The researchers suggest the more important key to happiness is how we spend our time off.

From this perspective, money is important so long as it allows us to actively engage what we enjoy. However, once we reach a certain income level (about $50,000 a year or so), we might better spend our time focused on doing fun things than on making more money. As a more concrete example, the researchers suggest we should be working harder to reduce commutes—which people particularly hate—and spend more time in the company of people we enjoy, as people tend to rate the latter particularly high.

Think about this the next time you think about getting a new job or promotion that will earn you more money but may lead to longer hours and a longer commute. Also, consider more carefully how you spend your free time. Is it something active (e.g., exercising, socializing) or passive (e.g., vegging out)?

References

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A.B., Schkade, D., Schwartz, N., & Stone, A.A. (2006). Would You Be

Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion. CEPS Working Paper No. 125.