Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alpacas and Purpose

"We retied and bought a house with a lot on the bay and a dock for our boat," she said," but it wasn't long before it was . . . well . . . kind of boring." 

Scrunching her face into a smile the tall, slim, athletic woman in front of me began to explain just how she and her husband came to be the owners of an alpaca farm on San Juan Island off the coat of Seattle, Washington.

It's really hard to imagine a prettier place than the islands in the summer time. The ocean sparkles a midst numerous small bays, islands and inlets. Rain is infrequent in July and August and temperatures hover in the 70s during the day. 

Old growth forests can be found in many areas. 

Orca "Killer" whales and Harbor seals swim just off shore. 

Sailboats and yachts fill harbors that have snow-capped mountains as a distant backdrop. Many might consider it an ideal retirement, but to the alpaca farm owners it wasn't enough.

One evening they attended a charity dinner auction where two alpaca were up for bidding.

"I'm going to bid them up," her husband said. "We want be be sure the hospital gets the money it needs."

"You'd better be careful," she warned. "You might just come home with two alpaca." 

It turns out, she was right. The hospital may have gotten more money, but the couple found a new purpose in life.

It wasn't long before they fell in love with their new animals and began to consider how they could keep them. Eventually--gradually--it became clear that to keep the alpaca and begin their own herd, they would need to sell their house with a bay side view, their boat and other assets they had acquired. Eventually they sold it all and purchased the good-sized farm that had served as home to their first two alpaca. They bought more stock, increased their herd and opened a store selling alpaca items.

"That was 15 years ago," she said, clearly proud of what they had accomplished.

I enjoyed hearing the story of the alpaca farm especially because it demonstrates one of the findings of Blue Zones author Dan Buettner. According to researchers Buettner interviewed, one of the characteristics of those who live the longest, healthiest lives is living with purpose. One study that followed high functioning people between the ages of 65 and 92 found that "individuals who expressed a clear goal in life--something to get up for in the morning, something that made a difference--lived longer and were sharper than those who did not" (p. 282).

There are any number of ways to experience purpose in one's life, but it occurs to me that the Baby Boomer generation--those entering retirement in droves these days--may want to consider what their purpose might be in retirement. Where will they find meaning? What will get them out of bed in the morning?  What will bring them contentment and satisfaction all day long?

It might be a beautiful home in a pristine setting with a boat docked nearby, or it could be an alpaca farm. Sometimes it's not what we think it will be.

Go Outside!

When I was a child and my mother had had her fill of us, she often said to us children, “Go outside!” She had tired of our whining, or fighting, or complaining and figured the situation would be remedied if only she could get us out the door. She wasn’t particularly worried about the weather. Our house wasn’t air conditioned and playing under a shade tree was probably cooler anyway. She knew we’d figure it out.
Cold weather? “Put your warm clothes on,” she’d say. “Cover your head.” In some cases we made a beeline to the barn, but often we would scour the fields or wander in the woods –- great places for taming tempers and working out the inevitable conflicts siblings experience.

Today I spend most of my time inside—as do most adults I know, but I continue to believe many of us would be happier, healthier people if we spent more time outdoors. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Consider the findings of Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer. From his interviews with people from around the globe, Buettner notes those who live the longest, healthiest, happiest lives tend to make the kind of physical activity that results from going outside a regular part of their lives. They don’t exercise for the sake of exercising, but rather choose activities like walking or biking to work or to the store rather than driving their car. Activity is part of their routine and lifestyle rather than something they drive to the gym to do.

There are undoubtedly many benefits to being outdoors, but here are a few that came to mind for me.

1) Stronger bones and better mood.  We benefit from some exposure to the sun. Use sun screen, certainly, but soaking up the daylight is important both for the production of Vitamin D and our bone health, as well as for an improved mood. Depending on your skin’s pigmentation, exposure to just 10-15 minutes of sun per day has been demonstrated as critical in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the kind of depression some experience during the winter months after too little sunlight and too much time indoors.

2) Perspective.  Time outside can help you gain a fresh perspective on your place in the universe. The cycles of the seasons, brightness of the stars, vastness of the mountains or oceans, all remind us life will go on regardless of some things we see as critical in the moment. There is only so much we can control. The rest we must leave in the hands of a Creator greater than ourselves.

3) Community.  Certainly people do venture into the great outdoors to explore nature by themselves. Solitude can be a very healing and soothing experience for many. At the same time, going outside seems to enhance our opportunity to build relationships with others. Picnic or sit on the porch. Backpack or boat. Climb or canoe. Hike or fish.  All give us a chance to strengthen relationships with friends, family and neighbors.

Going outside probably won’t “save the world,” or cure cancer, but if I could encourage people to do just one thing to improve their overall health and wellness, I think it would be, “Go outside more often.” It’s just a start, but I think the rest will follow.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Wellness Means a Healthy Body and Healthy Relationships

Eat less. 

Move more. 

Reduce your stress 

Quit smoking. 

These four are typically the primary focus of most wellness programs. They’re all worthy goals, but insufficient to bring about health alone. It’s possible to have a low body mass index, manageable stress, be smoke-free, have a reasonably healthy diet and exercise regimen and still be unhealthy.  

According to the World Health Organization, health is defined as, “a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” In other words, it takes more than a healthy body. It also requires a healthy mind and good relationships.

When employers institute wellness programs, hoping to improve their company’s bottom line with employees who need to access their healthcare benefits less often, I wonder if they are also aware that 30% of sick time is due to family conflict. This may be marital conflict, but it can also be related to dealing with a rebellious teen, navigating family tension involved with divorce, or family conflict associated with caring for an aging parent. These sorts of relational issues undercut the company’s bottom line, increase fellow employees’ workloads, and may increase personnel issues. In fact, lost work time associated with marital problems alone is estimated at $6.8 billion per year.

Healthy relationships, especially healthy, long-term committed relationships often known as marriage, bring about the best benefits for children as well. In a very large study from the Centers for Disease Control, “Family Structure and Children’s Health in the United States: Findings From the National Health Interview Survey, 2001–2007,” children in nuclear families did better on nearly every measure as compared to children living in any other family arrangement. In short, they were physically, mentally, cognitively and socially healthier.

Do I think see marriage as the solution to every problem? Absolutely not! Some marriages and relationships are dangerous. Am I so na├»ve as to believe everyone who desires marriage can attain this goal? Nope. I also know people who would like to marry, but probably never will. Do I see single parents as somehow sub-standard?  Emphatically not! I think single-parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world and am privileged to have known and be friends with a number who do a terrific job.

What I can’t get away from is the data. If you want research, I can bury you in papers and studies from some of our nation’s most prestigious institutions. If you would to talk to experts, I can introduce you to folks at both ends of the political spectrum who agree that we need to do more to support healthy relationships. There’s simply so much statistical evidence about the importance of healthy, stable, committed relationships to child well-being that it’s hard to deny.

We need fathers more engaged with their children. They clearly have more access when married to the mother of those children, but when this is not possible a healthy co-parenting relationship is preferred. We need more parents prepared to form and maintain a stable relationship for the benefit of their new baby. We need more support for people as they navigate the typical transitions associated with family life – becoming a couple or family, pregnancy and childbirth, rearing young children, making the transition to adolescence, dealing with mid-life issues and caring for aging parents. A healthy body will help one cope better with these sorts of concerns, but offering parenting and relationship education as part of a wellness program may also be a very cost effective strategy.

"Wellness Means a Healthy Body and Healthy Relationships" appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on Wednesday, July 30, 2014.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Managing Family Togetherness

“That child deserves a spanking. When I was growing up, my parents would never have allowed me to get away with that kind of behavior.”
“Now that your man is in the White House, are you having any second thoughts? If you’re not, you should be.”
“I can’t believe you spent that much money for a car. You should’ve talked to me first. I could have set you up with a much better deal.”
Comments like these are the perfect grist for many a family get-together. Once, just once, couldn’t Aunt Harriet refrain from commenting on how we discipline our children? Must we always have a big family row over politics? Does Uncle Henry consider himself the expert on every topic under the sun?
Summer is a time filled with family. There are visits and vacations, relatives and reunions, time away and . . . sometimes too much time together. Regardless of the venue, summer is also a time of hopes and dreams for how it will be when we all get together, go away for a few days, or get out of town to a special location. Sadly, reality often falls short of our ideals and expectations. We may end up returning home more exhausted than when we left and frustrated with family interactions.

Although we’re nearly halfway through the summer at this point, I thought it might be good to offer a few thoughts from a therapist’s perspective about family togetherness to potentially ease the pain—if not now, then perhaps during the holidays later this year.
Practice Humility and Humor. Okay, so maybe Cousin Edmund’s stories do go on and on and on and Great Aunt Clara always asks embarrassing questions. If you can’t keep them from talking, perhaps the best approach is to accept the fact it’s going to happen. Prepare a clever response in advance, e.g., “Hey, how about those Royals?” Or, “Did you ever give me that recipe for your chicken salad?” Think of these family members as characters in an unfolding drama. The most interesting and entertaining stories almost always feature people with idiosyncrasies. Your family members could be cast in starring roles. Remember, you yourself may also be somebody else’s difficult person.
Watch the Exhaustion Factor. The more tired you are, the more annoying other people become. We already know we’re a nation of sleep-deprived people. Especially when there’s the potential of dealing with challenging people and personalities, do your best to stay well-rested. You can’t change them, but you can prepare to be your best self.
Set Limits. Sometimes we too quickly agree to be on someone else’s schedule, when we’d really rather make our own plans. It’s okay to honor some of the wishes of others, but too much giving in often leads to resentment and bitterness—especially if it involves spending a majority of your vacation time with difficult people. Only you can decide how much is too much, but it seems to me the happiest people are those who know when to come and when to go. They also decide what they will and will not be able to do and let others know their plans well in advance. Family interactions often follow predictable patterns. Deciding ahead of time how you would like to respond to the people you love most tends to lead to the happiest memories.
This column originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on Wednesday, July 16, 2014.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chiggers, Choices and Change

“Why do we have such a hard time changing the way we do things?” a colleague recently inquired as we reflected on various community initiatives and the possibility little had really changed.

I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact we humans are creatures of habit.
For instance, let’s take the reality of chiggers. Every single summer in the Ozarks you are certain to find them if you venture off pavement into tall weeds and grass. If you’re a gardener, you’re bound to encounter them when you brush up against ornamental grasses. Get down on your knees to grub up the crab grass and you’re a goner. Those pesky chiggers seem to leap onto your body and burrow into your skin at any place where clothing restricts. This means you are likely to have an itchy red bump in an area inappropriate to scratch in polite company. If you’ve ever had them, you know what I mean.

So what do chiggers have to do with change? Just this . . .  even though I know a thorough dousing in insect repellant will dispel most chiggers,  nearly every year in early summer I neglect to do what needs to be done until I’ve had a miserable infestation.  Only then do I make a choice to saturate myself in insect spray before venturing again into the great outback of my backyard. You think I’d learn to choose this option earlier—maybe it’s just my disgust for DEET, but I usually don’t. Like most people, I appear to have a proclivity to persist in what I’ve always done. Only when, once again, the itching become intolerable do I swear I will never, ever again fail to respect the mysterious, invisible chigger.

In the same way it seems to me we don’t change some of the approaches we use to solving problems in our lives or in our community because we find change awkward and uncomfortable. It’s hard to see solutions from a perspective different than our own. It’s uncomfortable to adopt unfamiliar strategies and innovative ideas. We prefer to label our continued efforts as “persistence” and insist this is a worthy goal, Streep and Bernstein, authors of Mastering the Art of Quitting,” suggest something different. They maintain, “People who ultimately reach their goals have to do more than learn from their failures . . . and have to give up on their failed goals fully and completely” (p. 4).

Years ago in a county far away I met with a group of leaders to determine what might be done about the problem of teen pregnancy in our community. An agency worker from a neighboring county declared, “I could be in your county more than one day a week if you had more pregnant and parenting teens. You need to find them.”
It struck me as odd. What if we did not have more pregnant and parenting teens? Was that a problem for us or for her?

It makes me wonder. What kind of assumptions could we be making about certain problems that might actually be making them worse? How might we be overlooking the obvious?  Assumptions, like chiggers, are virtually invisible to us, but definitely influence our choices. What uncomfortable action might we consider to protect us from longstanding assumptions, in much the same way DEET protects us from chiggers?  If we want truly meaningful change, we might want to consider that sort of repellent as we continue to address our thorniest issues.

This column originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Decision Fatigue

We were walking out of a garden center on the southwest side of Springfield a week or so ago when my Main Man commented on the extensive number and variety of plants available. "When I think about what we used to sell at the garden center where I worked during high school and college," he said,"it's amazing." 

"Do you think people today are better gardeners?" I wondered.

"Probably not," he said. "Today an amateur gardener will attempt to grow more difficult species because they're available. They see them at the store, take them home, and plop them in the ground. They don't know that some varieties have a more difficult time thriving than others. What we sold at Barrett's would be considered just the basics now--petunias, zinnias, and marigolds. Pretty much everyone could make them grow, so it was easier to be successful from the start. I worry that many first-time gardeners today may be discouraged with some of the plants they try and just give up."

I know we were talking about plants, but my husband's remarks caused me to think about something known as "decision fatigue" which occurs when we have to choose from among too many options. In The Paradox of Choice,psychologist Barry Schwartz describes what happened when a supermarket offered customers the opportunity to sample as many varieties of jelly as they liked and purchase them at a discount. One day customers had the opportunity to choose from among twenty-four varieties; the next day they could choose from among only six. On day two, the supermarket sold ten times as much jelly. Researchers noted that when the decision became more difficult, i.e., there were too many choices, the customers bought nothing at all.

Schwartz concludes that too many choices leads to "decision paralysis." Worse than that, it may also contribute to our unhappiness. We struggle with contentment if we believe a better choice may still exist "out there." How is it possible to know if we haven't sampled them all? Eventually we choose, but we're prone to discontent because we are uncertain about whether or not we have maximized our options.

That's the problem with the world most of us inhabit today. Even though we may find the cereal aisle at the grocery store overwhelming, we still appreciate the opportunity to choose. We know the abundance we enjoy is one unavailable to much of the world. At the same time, preoccupation with variety and choice can cripple contentment. Added choice can equal more stress. More opportunities may disable decision-making ability. 

This summer I'm wondering if we might consider constraining our options a bit just to give ourselves a break. I'm wondering if this might be the season to limit the number of activities in which we (and our children) participate. We could creatively choose to restrict ourselves in any number of ways, but here are just a few possibilities:
  • Read only books borrowed from the library.
  • Limit grocery shopping to one supermarket.
  • Eat primarily foods grown locally and purchased at a farmer's market.
  • Focus on vacation options close to home (e.g., within 100 miles).
  • Have at least one or two media-free evenings per week.
We can't eliminate all the stress in our lives associated with decision-making and we probably wouldn't want to do so. At the same time, we can have a saner summer by placing some self-imposed restrictions on the number of options from which we will choose. That's a choice we can make.

Decidedly yours,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, April 21, 2014

Quitting 3: Avoiding the Sunk Cost Fallacy

"Once I start a movie, I always finish it, even if I don't like it."

"The book really bogged down in the middle and kept getting worse, but I just couldn't bring myself to put it down because I always finish reading something I've started."

"The project wasn't going anywhere. In fact, things were probably getting worse, but I just couldn't quit given the time and energy I had already invested."

Ever heard someone say one of the statements above? Ever said something like it yourself? How many of us have been counseled and coached to finish what we started, even though all the signs aligned to suggest we were going nowhere but downhill? 

 Conventional wisdom is often expressed in the following ways: 
  • Join a team--finish the season. 
  • Take on a project--see it through to conclusion. 
  • Help yourself to the buffet--finish what you put on your plate. 
  • Make an investment in the stock market--hang in for the long haul.                           
The basic rationale  for continuing often sounds something like this: "I've already invested so much in this endeavor that I can't quit, turn back, waiver, or reconsider."

In other words, we base our decision to continue in a particular direction based on what we've already invested--as if we could recoup those resources--rather than on what we will lose if we continue a course of action.

In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli summarizes nearly 100 ways human beings embrace irrational thought to their own detriment. One of these ways involves something known as the "sunk cost fallacy," also known as the "Concord effect." Basically this involves the idea that we have a much more difficult time letting go of something in which we've invested a great deal of time, energy, love, or money because we believe "if we stop now it will all be for nothing." It's as if we believe we can somehow recover what we have lost if we continue. The problem is that future effort in a direction going nowhere is even less likely to produce a return on our investment, let alone recover what we've lost.

Dobelli acknowledges there are times when staying the course, is the right thing to do. The decision to continue, though, should be based on the likelihood of reward for future efforts, not on what we've already invested. He cites a number of examples where the "sunk cost fallacy" had a disastrous effect (e.g., the continuation of the Viet Nam War, the failure of the Concord airplane, and any number of ad campaigns or stock market investments).

The decisions you are making likely have much less gravity than a super-sonic airplane or a war, but they are important to you. The next time you're watching a movie that's a yawner, reading a book with a plot going nowhere, or involved in a project with a less than promising outcome, you might just call it quits. While you cannot regain what you've already invested, you can avoid wasting future precious resources on something showing little promise.

Thinking it's time to let go of a few more things,

Dr. Jennifer Baker