Category Archives: Developing Positive Meaning in Life

# 66 Do The Next Right Thing

purple-dot ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????           Recently, I was working with a man who taught me a new tech- nique.   A recovering alcoholic, he had done well to marry, have two children, and hold down a stable job.   But he was prone to dark, angry moods when things didn’t go his way.  He would retreat to his basement recreation room where he would play violent video games for hours, and shut everyone out.  His wife, exasperated with him and his refusal to help her with the kids, would pick a fight, and the two would escalate to the point of threatening divorce. “I figured out something,” he said in a session with his wife.  “I realized I don’t have to do any of that when I’m frustrated or disappointed.  All my life I thought I had to do something–you know, get my anger out, fight someone, get drunk, and when I couldn’t do that any more, blow someone to pieces in a video game.  Then it occurred to me I could just do the next right thing. The next right thing is just whatever needs to be done.  It might be putting a load of laundry in the washing machine.  It might be taking the dog for a walk.  It might be wrestling my sons.  It’s just whatever is right there needing to be done. And I do the next right thing and the anger and the dark mood just goes away.”

This simple principle may seem obvious to those who already do this and never thought that someone had to learn it. But to those for whom this is a new idea, it is life-changing. You do not have to slide into a dark mood when the road of life is bumpy, you can simply do the next right thing and keep going.  How could you implement this in your life? This is such a simple principle you can apply to many areas of your life.  When you are feeling bitter and betrayed, you do not have to focus on it, you can do the next right thing.  When you are overwhelmed with waves of anxiety, you can look around and see what needs to be done.  You can focus on the next right thing instead of your anxiety.  When you are feeling beaten down and discouraged, put two feet on the floor, get up and look around.  There is a next right thing waiting to be doneGo and do it.


# 54 Make Small Talk With Someone You Barely Know



People in a coffee shop     We’ve known for years that social isolation, or loneliness, is bad for our health.  Isolated people have more health problems, and they don’t live as long as people who stay connected to others.  Psychologists have questioned whether it is the subjective feeling of loneliness, i.e., the lack of a close companion to talk to, or whether it is the lack of all types of social interaction with others, that is the important factor asso-ciated with poor health and decline as we  age.

Asked another way, how much connectedness does one need to maintain a sense of well being?  Do we need to be married?  To have a wide circle of close friends?  Someone to talk to about our problems?  Or is it enough to have a brief chat with the mailman and ask the woman at the drycleaners how her son is doing in college?

Researcher Andrew Steptoe of the University College of London led a team which explored this question by tracking lives of 6,500 people age 52 or older over a span of seven years.  As expected, those who were socially isolated were more likely to have died (22% passed away) than those who were more connected (12%).  The feeling of loneliness was associated with early death but not as strongly as was social isolation.  What surprised them, however, is that the amount of social contact with others, even  brief social contact, was associated with longer life spans.  The takeaway is this—even small talk with an acquaintance like the bus driver—could extend your  life.

*  For several days this week, make small talk with strangers, or people you barely know:  the cashier and the bagger at the grocery store, that person at church who doesn’t attend very often, the waitress, the neighbor you see raking leaves in his yard, the man walking his dog in the park, the barista at your favorite coffee shop, the letter carrier. .

*  Imagine for a moment that when you do this, you are adding a day to the length of your life.

*  Imagine this too, that you are adding a day to the length of that person’s life as well.



Steptoe, A.  March 19, 2013. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences.

(excerpted in:  Scientific American Mind, Sept./Oct. 2013).



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# 40 Seek the Good of the World

purple-dotHindu deity

As the ant collects grains of sugar from among grains of salt, so should you seek the good in the world from among the bad.    –Hinduism

Sift out the good from the many things you hear, and follow them;  sift out the good from the many things you see and remember   them.  –Confucianism

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure,  whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report;  if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.


“Seek the Good of the World” is one of the principles shared by all religions.   It is one of the universal truths demonstrated so succinctly in a little gem of a book by Jeffrey Moses, entitled Oneness.   

For today, seek the good of the world.  Read the newspaper and highlight, with a marker, three good things that you found there.  Don’t read the newspaper?  Try a magazine.  If not a magazine, listen to the news in your car.  Sift out the good from the bad.  Recapture it in your mind’s eye–visually, emotionally, with sound, texture, and color.  Write down the good that you found.




Moses, J. 2002.  Oneness:  Great principles shared by all religions.  New York:  Ballantine



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#38 Move From Pleasure Toward Enjoyment


Psychologist and researcher Martin Seligman began his life’s work with the study of clinical depression.  This work led him to research on optimism and pessimism.  He began a body of research that signaled a renewed interest in the age old question, “What makes people truly, deeply happy?”  Are we motivated, as Freud said, by the pleasure principle?

Seligman made the observation that pleasure is different from enjoyment.  Pleasure is the sensation one gets when you engage in efforts toward immediate gratification–eating, loveless sex, pornography, getting high on drugs, shopping, passively watching television. The pleasurable effect is very short-lived.   Enjoyment is what we feel when we go beyond the immediate impulse and engage in something that stretches us beyond our immediate needs.  Enjoyable activities are things like having a good conversation with friends, exercising or participating in a sport, appreciating art, or doing a good deed.  Enjoyment has much longer effects than pleasure and leads to personal growth and long-term happiness.

Given that enjoyment is so much more beneficial than pleasure, Seligman asks, why do people so often seek “short cuts”?  Why would people eat ice cream in front of the television instead of going for a walk, calling a friend, or reading a good book?  The answer lies most likely in our brains.  Pleasure seeking motivates us to eat, find comfort, and seek mates.  In other words it has survival value for our species.  However, it is our continued gravitation toward pleasure, toward short cuts, that has resulted in not only addictive behaviors and dependencies, but, ultimately, low ratings of enjoyment and happiness for so many people in our society.

What are the shortcuts to pleasure that you engage in?  Why?  How long does it last?   How do you feel afterward?





Select one of these habits of immediate pleasure seeking.  What enjoyable activity could you put in its place?




Seligman, M.  2002, May.  Plenary Address.  Georgia. Psychological Assn.  Savannah, Georgia_

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# 31 Redeem Your Past

purple-dotLake City Dock 1

So often I encounter psychotherapy patients whose story goes as follows, “I am (depressed, angry, an alcoholic, etc.) because I grew up in a dysfunctional home.”  This story is not only flat and lacking in perspective, it is lacking in hope.  It far oversimplifies the true nature of the human condition.  I recall the man who told me that he grew up in the ghetto and realized by his teens that if he stayed there he would end up dead or in prison, so he resolved to get out and to make something of himself.  I have personally interviewed many adult children of alcoholics who felt they became very mature and responsible at an early age because they had to run the household due to a dysfunctional parent. . They resolved never to drink alcohol,l and they kept that resolve. Contrary to what you hear in the media about how children who were abused grow up to abuse their own children, the research indicates that 90% of adults who were physically abused as children do not abuse their own children.  They made the decision to leave abuse and hatred behind them.

Do you feel burdened by a life story about growing up in a dysfunctional family?  If so, we must rewrite the story, embracing the whole of the human experience and pointing the way toward a livable future.  Your past is yours to make of it what you will.

Finish these statements:

Even though I grew up in a dysfunctional home, there were three good things I got from my family.  These were




Growing up in a dysfunctional home taught me many valuable lessons.  Here is one of them:




Even though I grew up in a dysfunctional family, I turned out well in many ways because of some innate qualities (or abilities) I was born with.  These are:




Though there were many painful experiences in my home life growing up, there were people outside my immediate family who were beacons of light in the darkness, and whose support and encouragement sustained me.  These were:




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# 29 Find Your Invincible Summer

Albert Camus

Albert Camus (Photo credit: Mitmensch0812)

Albert Camus graffiti

purple-dot Albert Camus was one of the great existentialist thinkers of the twentieth century.  I read about him in high school French class when we translated his play, No Exit.  Camus was part of the French resistance movement during the Nazi occupation.  His philosophy, in one statement, was that there were no absolutes in life;  we bring meaning to our lives by how we live them.  I saw this quote when I was in my 20’s and have always remembered it.  It is from a book titled Actuelles, written in 1960.

We tend to equate existentialism with despair, yet this passage is about hope.  What does it mean?  What was the darkest time in your life?  What sustained you during that dark time?  What was it inside of you?  What was it outside of you?

Think about a difficult situation in your life right now.  How can you use those same inner strengths to deal with it?  How can you use some of the same resources outside of you?   Jot these down in a notebook so that you remember them.

#22 Become a Stakeholder


I like the term “stakeholder.”  It conjures up images of the pioneers in their covered wagons, flailing their whips over the horses’ heads when the gunshot sounds, eager to be the first to stake their claim on a patch of good land when the West was opened up.  Our minister used the term stakeholder once during the annual canv?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????ass, urging us to move from just attending church to becoming a stakeholder (by increase-ing our pledges, of course).

There are visitors and stakeholders in most forms of social life.  The visitor parent takes the child to school.  The stakeholder parent joins the newsletter committee.  The visitor votes in city council elections.  The stakeholder campaigns for a candidate, attends local community meetings.

Why should we care about being a stakeholder?  The eminent psychologist Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, summed up years of research on the subject of happiness in his book, Authentic Happiness, published in 2002.  He found that happiness is composed of three things:  pleasure (the moment to moment sensation or emotion of lightheartedness, euphoria, joy, or sensuality), engagement (the depth of involvement with one’s family, work, or passions) and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end).

Our society in the 21st century has been caught up in a whirlwind of the pursuit of pleasure.  Writing in Time magazine in January of 2005, Seligman said, “Of those three roads to a happy, satisfied life, pleasure is the least consequential  It turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important.”

Stake holders are those people who commit themselves fully to the thing they cherish.  They move from visitor status to the fully committed.  They have the deeper level of happiness that comes with engagement and meaning.

How can you move from being a visitor to a stakeholder in your church?  Have you considered serving on a committee?  becoming a greeter?  teaching a religious education class?

How could you become a stakeholder in your community?  Attend meetings of your neighborhood association?  Join the Neighborhood Watch group?  Join the garden club and plant flowers in the park?

How can you be a stakeholder in your children’s school?  Be a room parent?  Volunteer in the office?  Collect extra school supplies for the teacher?

Don’t feel you have time?  Remember, visitors are observers and outsiders.  It is the stakeholders who feel they are an important part of the group, and that their day to day lives have meaning.


Wallis, Claudia.  “The New Science of Happiness.”  Time, 2005, Jan. 17.  Also:  Seligman, M.  2002.  Authentic Happiness.  New York:  Free Press.

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#21 Embrace Life Wholeheartedly

purple-dot??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Let us work like we don’t need the job; love like we’ve never been hurt; and dance like no one’s watching.      –author unknown

A lovely parable for how to live:

To work for the passion and joy of it,

not just for the paycheck.

To love wholeheartedly, without caution

or fear of betrayal, loss, or disappointment…

To enjoy life without self consciousness

or embarrassment.

The quote has stood the test of time because there is wisdom in it.  Those who approach life with few inhibitions get more joy out of it than those who put limitations on themselves.  I have seen this in my work with some psychotherapy patients.  They make day to day decisions on the basis of minimizing unforeseen negative consequences–on avoiding the possibility of painful experiences–rather than moving toward growth and a fuller life.

  •   What is one area of your work which you truly enjoy and would do even if you           weren’t paid, and presumably didn’t need the money?  How could you do more of it?
  •  Name one person or group of people  that you love without hesitation..  Send that person a message today and let them know.   Send that group a message and let them know how much they mean to you.
  •  What is something you enjoy without self consciousness?  or would like to?  How can you let go your inhibitions and do it more wholeheartedly?
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#20 Let Some Laughter Into Your Life


Français : Woody Allen au festival de Cannes.

Français : Woody Allen au festival de Cannes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the movie, Hannah and her Sisters, Woody Allen plays his familiar character–a neurotic New Yorker struggling with the complexities of modern life.  His character is a divorced television producer with a failed show.  At first he is thought to have a brain tumor but finds out he’s all right after all.  Rather than be thrilled to go on with life, he lapses into despair over the realization that he could die at any time and that his life doesn’t mean anything, that he doesn’t believe in something big.

Allen tries to convert to Catholicism, then tries to join the Hare Krsna’s.  When these efforts fail, he puts a loaded gun to his head, determined to end it all.  The gun slips out of his hand and fires a bullet into the ceiling, startling him, not to mention his neighbors.  Shocked at what he’d almost done, he goes for a walk in downtown Manhattan and wanders into a Marx Brothers movie.

He says, “I started getting hooked on the film.  I started to think, ‘How could you think of killing yourself?’  What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it?  Don’t you want to be a part of it?  I should stop searching for answers I’ll never get and just enjoy it while it lasts.”

What saves Woody Allen’s character from despair and suicide is laughter.  He sees there is humor all around him.  This world is an interesting place.  It’s not too bad after all.  Why not be a part of it?

  • Life is like a river flowing past your door.  We can sit by the side of the river and agonize about the water quality, or bemoan the fact that not the right kind of boats come by, or fret over the tricky currents and possible waterfalls downstream.  Or we can just get into our own little boat and push off the bank and enter the stream.  We don’t have to know what it all means, or where the river is going.  Maybe, if we go down the river, we’ll figure it all out in the end.  In the meantime, we can enjoy the scenery and laugh a little.

How can you have more laughter in your life?  How can you pass it on to others?  The internet makes this easy.  Search websites for jokes, funny signs, cartoons;  send one to a friend or two.  Review some U-tube videos and send a funny one to a friend.   Note whether it gave your mood an uplift.

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#19 Sow Beauty

purple-dotDaisies, P.Park 

“Resident sows beauty, sense of community”

“I love beautiful colors and flowers,” said William Hollins, a photographer and business owner in the West End, a renovated inner city neighborhood in Atlanta.  “I want to look out the window and see beautiful things.”  This is the reason he gives for his habit of going for a walk almost every day for the past 25 years and doing some small task to beautify his neighborhood.  He picks up trash and debris.  He even blows away the leaves from the sidewalks.  When interviewed for the piece in the newspaper, he had just planted a garden around HowellPark.  He accomplished this by dragging the garden hose from his house across a major street to water the flowers.

Hollins said he developed the sense of community responsibility from his father who often gathered his children along with other neighbors to clean up the vacant lot and streets around their home in an inner city Chicago neighborhood.  Hollins viewed the way his family treated the neighborhood as reflective of the way they treated other people—with care and respect.  “It’s part of my ministry to put a smile on people’s face,” Hollins was quoted saying, “and the garden is just one way.”

  • Take a walk to your local park if you live in the city.  How does it look?  Would it benefit from some flowers?  Consider planting some as Mr. Hollins did.  Record how you felt afterwards.
  • Do you live in a small town or out in the country?  How do the roads look?  When I have been out in the countryside on long distance bicycle rides I have been disappointed to see some roads blighted by large quantities of trash along the roadsides and ditches, but uplifted by patches of wildflowers and blooming bulbs.  Who were these people who planted them there?  Take a morning when there is little traffic and reclaim one small area.  Pick up the trash and plant some flowers.  Other people do notice.  Record how you felt.
  • Not into flowers?  Go to you’re your local United Way website and look at volunteer opportunities.  For example, if you enter “United Way, Des Moines” as a search command in Google, you will be directed to the United Way of Central Iowa website.  There you will find a list of volunteer opportunities.  Volunteering does not necessarily entail a long commitment.  Some are as brief as a two hour event of stuffing back-to-school backpacks for poor children on one day only.  Pick one.  Record how you felt afterwards.


. Conwell, V.  Oct. 6, 2004.  “Resident Sows Beauty, Sense of Community.”  Atlanta Journal Constitution, E7.

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