March 13, 2014

A Different Kind of “Spending Habit”

Every now and then I think about how my spending habits have changed over the years. When I was a teenager I earned cash one way or another, to buy record albums, to attend games or dances, and after much saving, to buy a car. During my college years, money was tighter than ever but the restricted budget didn’t bother me much because I was studying nearly all of my non-class hours. Academics had top priority for me. Most of my friends were involved in school too, so we were pretty much in the same boat. Entertainment was “on the cheap” in those days, maybe getting together with friends to cook a meal, shoot hoops, or go for a hike. Certainly the next phase of life created a change in financial outlook; both my wife and I were working at jobs that paid more than we’d made before college, and a mortgage became an inevitable part of our world. With that mortgage, a couple of car payments, and a few pieces of furniture, our spending habits changed.

I’ve come to see that my finances are actually a way of thinking about what I value. Thinking about how I spend money gives me a pretty clear idea of who I am; what’s important to me; what I want to experience, to give to others, and the kinds of community organizations I choose to support.  My identity is reflected also in other spending habits, and that’s why I’m suggesting that you think about how you spend this “other personal capital”.

TIME: I’ve written before about how you might want to spend it. When I think of the allocation of time, it reminds me of the household budget. We put our money into the things we value most highly–we spend the greatest share on the mortgage, or rent, if we’re typical–and the things that get cut out when money is tight generally comes down to things that mean less. If we are fortunate, it comes down to things we can live just fine without.

Now, if we use that same “budget principle” to think about how we spend time, we might be surprised. Don’t consider just what is important to you, or what you love spending time on, but be honest about where your time goes. If you’re like most of us, work takes up a whole lot of your waking hours. This is like the mortgage in a way. It lays a foundation for the other things that are important to you. In the same way the mortgage eats up a considerable chunk of the money, work probably takes a prominent and essential place in your allocation of hours. To be fair, a lot of us love what we do, and that is terrific! We gain a lot of satisfaction and inspiration or creative enjoyment from the work that pays the bills. Not everyone feels that way, of course, but when work hours are gratifying, we are fortunate indeed.

So, if work is a foundation for your time, what’s next in your “budget” of hours? Do you hold relationships in high value? Is your romantic partner a priority? What about children, other family members, friends? Are you at all passionate about learning or creating something? And importantly, if these people and activities are priorities to you, is this where you are putting your TIME?

It is sometimes tough to look at this “chronological ledger” because, too often, our most essential relationships slip to the bottom of the list of time priorities, as if they were luxury items or inconsequential extras dropping off our wish lists when cash was tight.

Here’s the bottom line on this, in my view: work is vital, it’s important, and it pays the bills so other good things can happen for me and for my family. I love my work, and I think I’m even pretty good at what I do. But the day will come when I retire from this work: who, and what, will be left then? I want to spend my time so that my retirement will be rich, full and satisfying, too. And believe it or not, I want that well-rounded life, even while I continue working.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have studied marriage for the past several decades, and they’ve published widely on the skills necessary to make lasting, satisfying family relationships. I’ve written a lot about the Gottman approach to marriage, and their metaphor of the “sound marital house”. Inherent in all that the Gottmans have to say is the idea of spending your time on the relationships that matter. Not a two-week vacation together every year (though that sounds wonderful, too) but rather a consistent, moment-to-moment, day-in-and-day-out engagement through time. The Gottmans urge us to think in terms of the moments when all else is tuned out, shut down, set aside–when the focus can be on what is important with your spouse, your child, a friend.

We spend time at work. We spend time “at home,” but is it time spent intentionally? Does it increase the closeness or the intimacy of the relationship that is your priority? Budget time for these relationships. Spend your time in them as intentionally as you spend money. This seems most critical in cultures (like our own) where work, career, and individual personal development have all superseded “other people” in our expenditure of time. The facts contrast with what we know to be true: other people are the most important source of well being. This historical shift away from the emphasis on family and social time priorities led to Artie Hochshield’s assessment of our culture in the aptly titled book, The Time Bind: When work becomes home, and home becomes work.

It need not be the case for you, however. As your (time) spending habits change, other changes will follow. If your time with family members is sedentary and passive–like watching TV together–try something more engaging like playing a game. if your time together is always at home, try getting out for a walk, a picnic or a drive in the country. The main idea is to give your time over to engagement in the relationship. Shared activities that are new to you are another terrific way to give fresh emphasis to your priority relationships. If nobody in the family has ever gone bowling, spending an afternoon at the lanes will open up all kinds of conversation and fun, despite the gutterballs and potential stares from others at your unorthodox form.

Here’s another suggestion for an expenditure of time that can pay long-term dividends: allow your partner, child or a friend to teach you something. That’s right. You have a son who plays guitar–let him teach you to play a G chord. Your daughter sews clothes for herself or her doll collection. She may offer you lessons in sewing on a button, in trade for half an hour of your time. I know you don’t want to become a guitarist, or a professional tailor, but you DO want those relationships to flourish. Take a few lessons in the kitchen, or the laundry room, from the family member who has expertise in these areas and you’ll build your relationship. Even better, use the skills they teach you on a regular basis. This is time well spent on relationships you listed as a priority.

As seasons of life change, we experience having more or less money to spend on things, and time, too, has a budgetary cycle of its own. Think about the people and activities you consider a “top priority”. Aligning your time expenditures with the priority level of the people in your life will offer more satisfaction than owning more stuff, or watching more sitcoms or reality TV.

Posted in: General, Social Life @ 2:50 pm

September 7, 2012

Nursing the Grudge

My friend used that phrase a couple of weeks ago as we talked about a fellow he knew. He said something to the effect that his acquaintance was “nursing grudges that should have died years ago.”

I got a kick out of the colloquialism, “nursing grudges” but later on in the day I found myself thinking about sick friends or pets who were “nursed back to health” and it brought me around to the idea that somebody who nurses grudges is doing something specifically to keep them around. It wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether I might be hanging onto some old angers that should have “died years ago.”

My friend’s comment and my own subsequent thinking about holding grudges, versus letting transgressions die away, led me to some thinking that might be worth mentioning for others to use:

All of us, at times, perceive ourselves as the victim of someone’s negative or damaging behavior, and at times we’ve all been the perpetrator of damage or negativity to someone as well. The degree of damage I’ve done to another person is something I have a hard time assessing—mostly because I think of myself as a good person, and really don’t ever want to hurt or be unkind to anyone. It’s hard for me to imagine that anything I would do might cause any lasting harm. Hard for me to think of my small failures or tiny acts of inconsideration might be of serious hurtfulness. After all! I’m a good guy!

On the other hand, the degree of damage that someone else does to me is EASY to assess because, well, because it was done to ME! I know all the ways it was inconvenient, or discouraging, or costly, or painful, or… you get the idea. And along that same line, I don’t have the benefit of knowing all of the dozens, or even hundreds, of very good things that person has done. I only have (or, maybe, only focus on) the really bad thing that person did to ME!

If I find myself thinking about the negative experience I’ve had with the person who has “done me wrong” I can easily elaborate on it a little. I can often remember past transgressions done by the same person, and think of ALL the ways it made my life harder. Elaborating gets easier when I think of the past, and makes the current damage all the worse for being a repeat offense. It makes each one BIGGER somehow. Now, I can think of more ways that I was inconvenienced, or perhaps given cause to worry, or to dread our next meeting. All this ruminated “enhancement” of the wrongs done to me by another will likely become “fact” by the time I review it in my mind at a later date, too!

Anger, anxiety, depression and other negatives of thought and emotion have physiological repercussions as we know. Thus, nursing a grudge may keep that grudge around longer, but may be likely to shorten the lifespan of the grudge holder.

In future blogs, I’ll want to return to the tremendous importance of apologies, as well as the forgiveness of another—or even oneself—for the large and small transgressions of life. Psychologists have been exploring how apology and forgiveness benefit us, and what is likely to help it along. You might never forgive me if I didn’t tell you all about it!

April 18, 2011

Command Performances

I’m fortunate to have so many friends and relatives to use as examples of bad behavior in my blogs, but of course my favorite example is my wife, I wouldn’t say that behind her back, or if she didn’t already know it. And I also wouldn’t say it if my wife couldn’t cite just as many examples of my own bad behavior as soon as she reads this blog!

Kidding aside, each of us is pretty good at spotting the bad behavior perpetrated by the other—as is true in most marriages and other experiences in life—and when it comes right down to it, that bad behavior can often be summed up by the word “demanding-ness”. In terms of her demands, it’s not as if my wife must have diamonds or other luxuries, and my demands on her are not anything you’d call a superhuman feat, either. And yet, we want what we want, when we want it. (more…)

January 31, 2011

Half Full or Half Empty?

Most of us know someone who seems to be perennially pessimistic about things—a spouse, co-worker or friend. And it’s also true that most of us have an acquaintance or two who is rarely discouraged by anything that comes along. To an observer it looks as if they are on two ends of a continuum, and in some ways that is accurate.

From those who do research into this kind of thing, we’ve learned that such dispositional differences are influenced profoundly by heredity, some say as much 50-80%! Whether on the positive end of the continuum or the negative end (or more likely near the middle), each of us seem to have a dispositional range where we operate. As individuals, we’ve had the experience of trying hard to appear happier and more optimistic (or maybe even more pessimistic) than we really feel, just to get through a situation or event. Or we are up or down for a period of time depending on circumstances. It changes for a little while, but over the long term, we all have a dispositional style that we generally return to. In other words, those with a half-empty perspective can work toward the middle, but they’re probably never going to see the world in the same way as those born with more rose-colored glasses. And those who are higher in optimism may drift lower, but are never going to become a Chicken Little (The sky is falling! The sky is falling!). (more…)

December 12, 2010

Being and Belonging

Some of you may know that I took some time off this summer.  I had a great time in a wonderful setting on a lake, with my wife and a group of friends.  It was a time of sharing lots of activities and really good food, as well as just having some time together when we didn’t have to do the things from our everyday lives.  I enjoyed it tremendously.

And some of you may also know that I took a trip to Austin, Texas this fall, and I went by myself.  It was the trip of a lifetime for me.  I got to see great music played by people I’d admired for years, and great music played by people I’d never heard of before!  And I enjoyed that trip tremendously.

I talk about this with patients, and even my students in classes, because the idea of being independent and doing things apart from one’s partner or spouse is sometimes looked at as a negative.  And for some, the idea of only doing things with one’s spouse or the family, or close grouping, is also thought of as a negative.  In general, boys are brought up to stand apart and assert their independence, while girls are encouraged to blend in, and associate more closely with friends and the family; what researcher Shelley Taylor calls the “tend and befriend” response. As we grow up, these values and skills are continued, and if we aren’t careful to learn how to do both, our lives are less full, perhaps less rich and rewarding.


November 9, 2010

Apologies: Thawing the Ice that Grips Relationships

Apologies are interesting.  There are people who offer apologies in order to smooth things out for the moment so that a conflict can be avoided—maybe even a conflict that would do their relationship some good.  There are those who offer an apology, in hopes that next time the misdeed will be forgiven without any notice or further apology.  And, I hope, there are apologies that come from those who take responsibility for poor behavior, regret their actions, and have a desire to refrain from (or limit) inconvenience or harm to another in the future.

When I look at dictionary definitions, as I often do in thinking about a topic, I notice that “apology” comes with some contradiction that seems to be borne out in the way people offer their “regrets” about things they’ve done: (more…)

July 6, 2010

Positive Psychology Activity 3: Elevator Ride (“Goin’ Up!” and “Down Please!”)

Effective self-control is one of the two most important keys to success in many areas of life (intelligence is the other), and failed self-control may lead to forms of behaving badly (criticism, defensiveness, etc.) or more serious forms of disturbance: anxiety, anger, and depression; verbal or physical violence; substance abuse and addiction; masochism; eating disorders; etc.

Strong research supports that self-regulation operates as a limited resource, (akin to strength or energy) and can be depleted when you are stressed by too many challenges and stressors in your day. This leaves a person vulnerable to impulsive and undercontrolled behaviors (too much eating, drinking, yelling, spending, etc.). Cognitive and physical rest, and enhancement of positive emotions can restore these resources, which are also used for decision-making and active responding. This week, think of the things you do (or create new ones) that lift your mood, slow down your thinking, and relax your body. Practice one technique in each of the following categories: (more…)

August 11, 2009

Activity One: Gratitude: The Mother of All Virtues

If you’ve been coming back to this site for new material, I apologize for the delay in posting new blogs. In March, I wrote that I would be posting some of the activities that I have students complete in my 80 hour Positive Psychology program at Evergreen, as well as the offenders who participate in the prison programs I do.

In the first blog, I want to address perhaps the most powerful activity one could engage in to improve satisfaction with life, and that is to express gratitude. The second blog is focused on how one can enhance the “savoring” of life, as we are often in such a great hurry, we forget to enjoy our experience.

Activity One: Gratitude: The Mother of All Virtues

Gratitude is defined by researcher Robert Emmons as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” If you are focused on this moment, appreciating your life as it is today, and thinking about what made this so, you are in a state of being grateful. It is probably best to consider what gratitude is on your own terms, but if you “think” about your life from a grateful perspective, the benefits are numerous.


Activity Two: Savoring – Stop and Smell the Roses

I can recall when I lived in Austin, TX. I was 21 and life was pretty easy and simple, though I was most often broke. I used to lie on the bank of the San Marcos River waiting for my brother and his wife to join me so we could float down the river on inner tubes. If I close my eyes, I can bring this memory to mind in an instant, and smell and feel the sticky, thick summer air of the Texas Hill Country, and hear the laughter of others enjoying their day on the river and the constant clicking buzz of cicadas in the trees. When I call this image to mind, it makes me feel good, it reminds me of the positive things that have happened in my life, it makes me appreciate my brother and the life lessons I learned from him, and it reminds me that life can be simple if you decide to make it so. I recall the trips down the river, the rope swing at a swimming hole near the end of the journey, and the traditional Mexican family restaurant at journey’s end, with homemade tortillas and my first ever experience of homemade chili con queso. This is an example of savoring the past.

January 16, 2009

Rituals of Connection

I see so many couples in my practice who are “crazy, busy,” as one recent book describes it. I have used the term “always on,” to describe the current state of the contemporary American. This often leads to couples telling me they have no time for the little things I suggest they do to work on their relationship. Research shows that spending more positive time together every week is critical for improving marriages. Because it is unlikely society will slow down, it is critical that we take responsibility and have the intention to change, and invest the attention and time in those we say we love.

One way to do this is to create “rituals of connection,” those little daily or weekly habitual things we can do to invest in each other. I use the term “invest” specifically, because we often take for granted (more…)

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