The 40% That We Control

It’s true that the majority of our happiness is out of our control. 50% is due to our genetic makeup and 10% to our environment. But that means the remaining 40% is entirely within our control!   That’s huge!

So on a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?

Regardless of your answer, you can move that number closer to the happier end of the spectrum just by making small shifts.   Our habits of the mind are just that – habits. They can be broken and healthier habits can be chosen to replace them.   Even optimism and forgiveness can be learned (see Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, Kushner’s How Good Do You Have to Be or Worthington’s Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving). We can create daily practices of gratitude and kindness and make a point of savoring special or even ordinary moments in the present or future.

Taking care of our mind and body is also critical to our happiness. We all know we’re supposed to exercise our body and eat healthy food, but what about our mind? Our mind needs exercise and nourishment too in the way of mindful practice (being in the present moment, not the past or the future) and focusing on the positive. Our mind’s negative habits are the psychological and emotional equivalent of perfecting the art of watching TV and eating Girl Scout cookies.   Mindfulness, gratitude and focus on the beauty of the present moment are what nourish our spirit. Though meditation is the mac-daddy workout for mindfulness, other mindful practices such as yoga, tai chi or prayer are also great exercise for our mindfulness muscle.

Finally, our connection to others and the natural world should also be nurtured.   Relationship skills are not routinely taught, yet are an essential life skill. Forming healthy, meaningful relationships and giving to others in an authentic way is well worth the investment of time and effort. Furthermore, connecting to nature takes neither time nor practice. We simply need to be present and appreciative when stepping outside.

So you see, happiness is not really that complicated though it often seems so hard or even impossible to attain. Excessive focus on status, money, problems or our inadequacies is a misuse of our 40%. Instead, prioritizing mindfulness, positive emotion and connection helps to maximize your 40% in the best way possible.


Acceptance Through Cost Averaging

One of my earliest financial planning lessons was on the concept of cost averaging. The idea is that you automatically invest a fixed amount each month into your mutual funds or stocks. When the stock market is climbing, then you’ll watch your stock value grow. It’s the quintessential buy low, sell high. A great idea!

When the stock market is falling, it’s still a great idea to buy because now you’re getting more shares for the money. Your number of stocks will grow. When the stock market climbs later, you’ll have even more stocks to take advantage of that growth. Another great idea! In other words, whether stocks are rising or falling, you’re doing the right thing by continuing to invest every month. Even better, you can just set it up and forget about it.

However, for this model to work, you have to have the stomach to stay in the game when the market falls.  I know some who have a hard time with this approach because they can only see the downside of the falling market.  Their tendency will be to sell, not invest, when the market is falling, i.e., buy high, sell low. Not a strategic financial management plan.

What does this have to do with well being? The cost averaging analogy applies to the ups and downs in our lives, the good times and the bad. When times are good, you can just sit back and enjoy the ride, savoring the experiences and positive emotion.  When times are tough, like the market, there are really good opportunities if we can see the opportunity. During tough times, we have an opportunity to learn important life lessons, make critical changes, and foster our personal growth. People rarely make needed changes when times are good. Change and self-investment occurs when we’re uncomfortable or miserable, not so much when we’re feeling joyful or at peace.

Thus, when bad times hit, it’s a golden opportunity to learn and grow. When good times return, we have created additional internal resources, and we can enjoy those good times all the more, especially since they were hard-earned. The trick is, we have to see the opportunity hidden in the tough times and invest in ourselves. Otherwise, we may do the psychological equivalent of buy high, sell low.

So you see, there really is no such thing as “good” or “bad,” it all just depends on your perspective. Pessismists will view the downside of even a growing stock market and optimists will see the upside of the falling stock market. How will you see the ups and downs in your life? Remember, your perspective is a choice.

Comfort Zone and Self-Limiting Beliefs

Today’s kids are scheduled to the max, often having insufficient down-time to just sit and daydream. However, the advantage of having a diversity of early experiences means that they are getting exposure to skills and concepts that will feel familiar to them in future, similar experiences. This exposure will help them to have a broader comfort zone later in life.

I’m so grateful for the experiences I had as a child, even though our generation relied more on playing outside and unstructured time in general.   The experiences we did have generally revolved around my parents’ own interests and comfort zones. Where they had self-limiting beliefs probably resulted in less participation and exposure to us kids in those areas. As a result, we probably unconsciously mimic their familiarity, comfort and self-limiting beliefs.  In this manner, I think we pass self-limiting beliefs down through the generations.

For me, 2016 is the year of dismantling self-limiting beliefs. My current effort is in singing. I have no aspirations to perform or do anything specific other than to prove to myself that I can, indeed, carry a tune without the aid of heavy machinery or technology. When I told my dad about my project, he laughed and said, “none of us can sing.” I was a bit surprised to hear him say that given mom had once sang in a chorus, but that probably explains where my belief originated.

I can assure you that I’m no Pavarotti, but after only a few lessons I have developed enough confidence (or indifference) to sing around the house within earshot of my sweet husband. And, I’ll have you know, that I even sang for myself by recording and playing back a verse on my iPhone. This represents a real achievement on my part; in graduate school we were videotaped while giving a presentation and I was too chicken to ever watch it. Decades later, I still have not ever watched myself giving a presentation, despite feeling pretty confident in my presentation abilities.

Also, as I observe my progress on my self-limiting beliefs, starting with running, singing and next with acting, I feel that branching out has been getting easier each time. It didn’t hurt that my first singing lesson only involved my teacher, but we quickly added my BFF and now we’re working on singing a duet. The acting class may have a larger audience at the start, but that’s OK.   My general comfort zone is already wider and I’m less concerned about other peoples’ opinions than I once was. Besides, the definition of courage is doing what you’re afraid of, not necessarily what is dangerous or bad for you (or other people, in my case). And I decided long ago that I don’t ever want to make decisions around or limit myself because of fear. So fear, fear go away. Don’t ever come another day.


Creating magic (picture credit:

The Language of Diversity

For most of my life, I have felt like I was in this weird no-man’s land of diversity.  I’m neither “underrepresented” in my chosen profession (though Asians are not in leadership positions at the same rate), nor part of the majority.    During segregation, some of my relatives stated they weren’t sure which facilities they were supposed to use – colored or white.   Though thankfully we don’t have this conundrum today, the language of diversity – what we call each other, what we call the behavior, how we describe the situation – is still just as troubling to me.

I get it though.  Life and people are complicated.  Everyone’s experience is different, so finding the right language to describe such nuances is difficult and fraught with emotion and connotation.  And in our attempt to not offend, I believe we have instead opted to minimize.

For example, when examining our policy around diversity, we use the language of “prohibited behavior.”  You may not harass, discriminate or retaliate against people if they are in a protected class.    In other words, if you are not targeting someone because of protected class status, then feel free to harass, retaliate and discriminate with impunity.  Apparently it’s legal, assuming you can prove it’s not based on a protected class.

Even the phrase “prohibited behavior” minimizes what it is.  When I was in school, also prohibited were wearing skirts above the knees, sleeveless shirts, T-shirts with graphic images or offensive words, chewing gum or having other food in class, and kissing in the hallways.   These sorts of prohibited behavior are hardly on par with those that create inequity and a hostile environment, yet we use comparable language to describe them.

“Prohibited behavior” also focuses on the person committing the offense, sanitizing  the impact on the targeted person.  Such behavior is, in truth, oppressing, abusing, bullying, marginalizing, controlling, criticizing, subjugating, excluding, devaluing, mistreating, denigrating, ignoring, violating, demeaning, treating contemptuously, etc.   This type of prohibited behavior is, at best, a bad idea and at worst, is damaging and immoral.  

I understand why we do it.  We all have biases, both conscious and unconscious.  When confronted with our biases we often react defensively and angrily.  Neutral language is sometimes required to even allow the conversation to happen.  However, as we’re placating the perpetrators, what are we doing to those who are suffering from the discrimination?

Though I’m in this weird class of a sort-of-minority, I have experienced racism and even sexism most of my life. Though I believe I have processed that contempt and become a better person because of it, I still have difficulty recognizing and healing from discrimination unless I fully acknowledge its presence and impact on me.   This neutral language, though probably designed to allow people to confront their biases, is a barrier to having an honest dialogue, real accountability and healing.

I really don’t know the solution to this conundrum.  However, my own healing requires that I recognize and name the behavior for what it is, and acknowledge the impact it’s having on me and even on our community.  I recognize the need and benefit of an indirect approach but fear that in the end, it does more damage than good.