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Bill's Values

Don't Ruminate, Communicate

Bill Radke

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View from Santa Monica to Malibu hills
(Bill Radke)
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Last year, I became a first-time parent, and on this show I've been doing a monthly series about the values I hope to pass on to my daughter. This week, Susanna turns 14 months old.

As I do these stories, I notice that I end up agonizing about my own childhood and all my regrets, and my fears for my daughter's future. This is what a psychologist would call "rumination."

Sonja Lyubomirsky defines rumination this way: "It's examining your life too much, it's pondering, introspecting, dissecting every little thing about yourself -- especially negative things."

Lyubomirsky is a research psychologist and professor. She's written a book called "The How Of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want." I went to her apartment in Santa Monica and asked her how I can help my daughter be happy over the course of her life, and she talked about rumination. In Susanna's life, when things go badly -- if she's anything like me -- she's going to focus on that misfortune, try to figure out what went wrong, why life is so hard and who's to blame. This is human, it's very common. And it's a terrible idea.

"What happens," says Lyubomirsky, "is when you're angry or anxious or sad, you're very biased in your thinking. And so it's really not serving a purpose. An examined life is important, but it has to be done when you're in a neutral or positive mood."

So I asked her: In order to be more happy, would you be willing to be more shallow?

"I think that's a myth," she said. "There's a famous scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is walking down the street and he sees this couple in tennis whites and they look really happy and he walks up to them and says something like, 'You look like a very happy couple. How do you do it?' And they say, 'Oh, that's because we're shallow and we have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.' So it's that myth that I think pervades our culture: Ignorance is bliss, happy people are shallower. But the research actually shows that happier people are more creative, they're more flexible in their thinking.

"I do think it's a myth, because people think that happy people see the world through rose-colored glasses, they don't see the world as it 'really is.' And my response to that is that we don't really know what the world 'really is' -- there are multiple perspectives of the world. At the same time, the world is a wonderful place. You see lots of compassion and goodness. And at the same time, you see a lot of evil and injustice and oppression. And there's no 'true' way of seeing the world. And so you can't say that happy people are somehow deluded."

So her advice to me and my daughter -- and you -- is when you're upset and you start ruminating, stop. Distract yourself, think about something else. If you really want to wallow, you can wallow later. And you probably won't.

There's another value Dr. Lyubomirsky advised me to embrace in my family. And for that, we got in the car. We drove about 20 blocks to a park bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean... The sandy beach, the Malibu hills, all under a sunny blue sky. She lives less than a mile from what she calls "the most wonderful place in the world."

She told me: "You know, when I first moved to California, I remember waking up every day thinking, 'Wow, what a beautiful day!' And every day I would say that to myself: 'Oh, look, it's so sunny outside and the sky is incredibly blue!' And then after a while, you get used to it."

People adapt to stuff. When you break a leg, you're miserable at first, but pretty soon you're used to crutches. On the other hand, when you live near the ocean, pretty soon you take that for granted. It's called "hedonic adaptation" and Lyubomirsky helps her children avoid it -- when a friend from Montreal visited last weekend, she took her kids and this friend here, to this oceanside park.

"I got her to talk a lot about what the weather was like in Montreal then, to get them to appreciate it. And so she talked about how her 2-year-old doesn't want to walk on the snow, because it's so cold. But of course, it totally backfired because my kids just started saying, 'Oh, we want to go in snow, we want snow!' So it didn't work."

There's been a ton of books recently about happiness and how our brains make sense of the world. I've been reading about them in a Washington Post column called the Human Behavior Department, written by Shankar Vedantam. I wanted to know what wisdom Vedantam has gained from reviewing all this research. What has he learned that I can pass on to my daughter? He told me that his greatest lesson has come not from the psychologists, but from his own 2-year-old daughter.

"A few weeks ago," Vedantam told me, "a family friend came over and they brought my daughter a little gift, a little bath toy. It was a blue toy octopus with a little button, and if you pressed the button while the octopus was in the bath it would spurt water. And the moment I saw it, I was immediately thinking forward about how enjoyable it would be to put the little toy in the bath and have it spurt and I wanted to get to that moment right away. My daughter, as most parents of children will know, was as interested in the box as in the toy itself. And we had a little bit of a tugging match, with her trying to tell me that she really wanted to explore the box and play with it and that was as interesting to her as the final product, as I was trying to tell her, 'No, no, forget the box, that's completely unimportant. It's only the way station on the way to what's actually important, which is to play with the toy in the bath.'"

So you know where this is going, right? The lesson is that we should live in the present -- that life's meaning resides not in the future, but in this moment of delight. That's what Vedantam teaches his daughter... right?

And that's when he laughed and told me: "Well, I'm going to sound very contradictory and hypocritical, because much of what I'm training my daughter to do is to think about the future, and foresee the consequences of her actions -- to try and recognize that when she jumps off the steps, she could get hurt, that when she does this it is going to have this consequence. And if she asks for something politely, it's likely it'll produce a favorable response from my wife or from myself. So in much of my everyday life, I'm training my daughter to do exactly the opposite of what I'm telling you is important to do.

"You know, being able to live in the future is a very, very valuable skill. It also comes at a price, and a price that I think is often hidden from us, which is that it takes us away from the moment, away from the present. I will say, in my defense, that I try very much to learn from my daughter and I try when I'm with her to enjoy myself and to be with her -- and not try to do six things at the same time and be distracted when I'm with her.

"You know, one of the fallacies, if you will, in the original question you posed -- and this is my two cents -- is that I'm not sure it's the things you actually convey through your words that impart the most valuable lessons to your children. When I think about the lessons I've picked up from my parents, they told me a zillion things that I no longer follow; but when I look at my own life and my attitudes toward work and towards family, I have integrated a great deal from my parents. But these are often the things that were never discussed at all, they were never made explicit. And I think in the idea of 'What can you communicate to your child?' I think it's important to acknowledge the idea that most of the important things you communicate are not going to be communicated through your words but through your actions."

I wonder what my daughter Susanna is learning from my actions. I think I'm very present with her. I read to her, I get down on the floor and play with her, I hug and kiss her. On the other hand, both my wife and I work, and Susanna spends almost as much time with her nanny and she does with us. What does that tell her about our priorities, our commitment to her? Do I value my job more than my daughter? Do I even know what I value?

Hmm... Am I ruminating again?

More stories from our Bill's Values series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Paul Hyden

    From Geneva, IL, 04/07/2008

    Here is a link to a particularly engaging talk on happiness. The speaker introduces the concept of synthesized happiness.... the kind of happiness you see yourself when things go wrong. He discusses research which demonstrates how this kind of happiness is fundamentallly the same as "authentic happiness".
    Interestingly, it is related to this uniquely human ability to both live in the moment and simulate the future in our minds.

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