Understanding Your Children’s Strengths

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Yesterday I introduced The Strengths Switch by Dr. Lea Waters. Today I want to highlight the distinctions she makes among different kinds of strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses. People can become very proficient at learned behaviors, but without the energy and enjoyment associated with strengths. To understand the differences, let’s look at three dimensions for evaluating possible strengths:

  • Performance: being good at something. Watch for times when your children show above-age levels of achievement, rapid learning, and repeated patterns of success.
  • Energy: feeling good while doing it. Strengths are self-reinforcing. The more we use them, the more energized we become.
  • High use: choosing to do it. Watch for what your children choose to do in their spare time, how often they engage in these activities, how they speak about these activities.

Different Kinds of Strengths

Using these dimensions helps parents distinguish among different kinds of strengths, as shown in the figure below.

Take a closer look at strengths

Core Strengths are our go-to strengths. They fuel high levels of performance and energy and use.

Think about your child. Imagine her without one of her core strengths. For example, my son Jonathan is social. It is impossible to imagine Jonathan being himself without his sense of humor or loyalty to his friends. My son Josh is empathetic and kind. It’s impossible to imagine Josh without thinking of his thoughtfulness. What are the core strengths that are the essence of your children? What are the core strengths that make you the person you have become?

Growth Strengths energize us and offer the potential for good performance, but use is typically low to medium. You may see only glimpses of them, but they can shine if they are developed. You may notice that when your child is using a growth strength she is energized and showing early signs of good performance. According to Dr. Waters, these strengths are fascinating because they don’t initially look like strengths, but they can blossom quickly once they are discovered.

Learning about strengths at Independent School 528

You can encourage your child to use her growth strengths by:

  • Noticing the strength she’s drawing upon
  • Pointing out how her performance is improving
  • Letting her know you see the positive energy she’s exuding when she’s using the strength
  • Offering low pressure opportunities to use that strength
  • Praising her when she chooses to use it on her own accord

Learned Behaviors need to be taught, often to meet requirements of parents or school. Therefore, motivation to perform learned behaviors comes from the desire to please others, operate successfully in the world, or to gain external rewards. They are not intrinsically motivating. Your child can excel in these areas, but they do not give energy.

But What About Weaknesses?

Weaknesses also exist. Weaknesses are features that are disadvantages or flaws that prevent us from being effective at something. We can be weak in certain skills, abilities, talents, or character traits. We all have weaknesses. When my sons were young, I always showed them when I made a mistake in order to model the fact that no one is perfect and that it’s okay to not be great at everything. Today my husband and I often reach out to them for technical support when we reach the limits of our ability to deal with the machines in our home.

Dr. Waters stresses that strength-based parenting doesn’t mean ignoring your child’s weaknesses, but it does allow you to approach them from a healthier and more productive perspective. When the focus is first and foremost on strengths, everyone can be more genuine and less defensive when communicating about weaknesses. Three essential messages to give your child about weaknesses:

  • Just as everyone has strengths, everyone has weaknesses.
  • Having weaknesses doesn’t mean you’re unworthy.
  • Avoid the trap of spending too much time focusing on your weaknesses.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Each day you have the opportunity to practice strengths-based parenting. You will learn from your progress, and you’ll constantly be given new real-life opportunities to become a master electrician, flipping the switch.

Go to the Strength Switch website for free resources, a blog reflecting on putting the strengths switch into action, and information about the 5-week online course.

Lea was the emcee for the Soaringwords Opening night celebration at the 
Canadian Positive Psychology Conference in 2015 at Niagara on the Lake. 
Here she is in the middle of the dancers.



Waters, L. (2017). The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. New York: Avery.

Waters, L. (2018, Jan. 2). Working with Weakness: 3 Ways to Effectively Confront Your Child’s Weak Spots. Lea Waters’ blog.

Waters, L. (2018, Jan. 16). 4 Ways to Put Strength-Based Discipline into Practice. Lea Waters’ blog. Includes a discussion of dialing up or dialing down strengths.

The picture of core strengths, growth strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses is used courtesy of Dr. Lea Waters.

The Strength Switch: Practice Acting On Your Child’s Strengths (Book Review)

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The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Dr. Lea Waters, PhD, Professor and Founding Director of Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Melbourne.

What if you could make a small shift in your parenting style that would yield enormous results for your child… and for you?

If you’re like most people, you want to raise emotionally and intellectually healthy children. But today there’s so much pressure to have our children and grandchildren excel in EVERY aspect of their tender lives.

Dr. Lea Waters

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, parents can post every trophy and accomplishment on social media. Today’s children are the most documented generation of all time. Being bombarded with daily photo and video montages showcasing the accolades and adventures of other peoples’ seemingly perfect children tends to accentuate the tendency to focus on what’s wrong with our children and then try to fix it.

Lea Water’s break-through strength-based parenting approach changes that around. First it helps you see what is right about your children. Then it helps you nurture and cultivate their innate strengths and talents.

Sounds great. How do I do this?

Start with observation. If your daughter is really interested in music and loves to sing along with every song on the radio, perhaps you want to encourage her to join a chorus at her school, pick up an instrument, or start writing her own lyrics. If your son is likes to read more than he enjoys playing sports, perhaps you want to introduce him to some age-appropriate book series that pique his interests instead of pushing him to compete in sports that he does not enjoy.

Thus the strength-based parenting approach involves two simple steps: First see your child’s strengths. Then build upon them.

Dr. Waters notes three strength-based parenting styles:

Parents love to share strengths

  • Strengths Communicators: Parents who naturally use conversation with their kids to highlight strengths and talk about opportunities to use strengths for better outcomes.
  • Strengths Activators: Parents who coach their children to practice their strengths when hands-on opportunities arise.
  • Strengths Creators: Parents who are big-picture thinkers that can strategically create strengths-based opportunities for their kids.

Parents tend to use a blend of all three approaches with a dominant style based on the parent’s own strengths. To find your own dominant style, take the Strengths-Parenting Style Survey as part of Dr. Water’s online strength-based parenting course.

Use the Strengths Switch to Short-circuit Negative Thoughts

At the end of the day, chances are, your energy is depleted from hours of work, significant responsibilities, and caring for your children. When you’re hungry, angry, and tired it’s easy to become irritable. Dr. Waters offers the strength switch as a simple but powerful tool to help you shift from focusing on your children’s weaknesses to focusing on their strengths. The strength switch acts like a circuit breaker, which is defined by Wikipedia as an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current that typically results from an overload or short circuit. The circuit breaker interrupts current flow after a fault is detected.

Most of us can appreciate how negative thoughts and emotions can short-circuit our sense of balance. So thinking about this metaphor sounds good on paper, but how do you practice strength-based parenting in the moment when negative emotions start to overwhelm? Dr. Waters has a step-by-step guide for the strength switch briefly summarized here:

Where was the bike left out?

  • Observe your child’s action. For now, let’s assume your child did not put his bicycle away. It’s blocking the front door of your apartment so you have to move it in order to get inside your home.
  • Take a nanosecond to remember that just because you aren’t seeing your child’s strengths in that moment, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.
  • Pause for a moment: be mindful when the knee-jerk negative default feelings and thoughts start to take over. Taking a pause helps you get between your thoughts and feelings and a negative reaction.
  • Take a couple of deep breaths. Each time you breath out, you reduce stress hormones and calm your body.
  • Insert the thought, “The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them.”
  • Take a few minutes to allow yourself to settle down. Perhaps you want to hang up your coat, or change out of your work clothes. Maybe you want to listen to your favorite song before speaking to your son.
  • Say what you mean, but not in a way that is mean. Children, especially very young ones, cannot distinguish subtle emotions such as irony or sarcasm. It’s best to say what you want in a neutral and loving way, not letting anger or frustration seep into your voice.

    Say something such as, “I see that you cleaned your room and made your bed this morning before you went to school. That’s great. I had a bit of trouble getting into the house today when I got home because your bike was blocking the door. When you come home from school tomorrow, I’d like you to remember to park your bike on the side of the house.

When we activate the strength switch, it can produce radically different results. Flipping the switch, we experience a sense of control by actively choosing where to put our selective attention. Where attention goes, energy flows. Imagine how liberating it is to choose to focus on the positive instead of harping on the negatives. Reinforcing your child’s strengths gives you both a powerful foundation of good will and trust. This fertile ground is a much better place to address areas that need fine-tuning.

Sharing smiles and encouragement, even in the midst of medical challenges








Practice the Strength Switch
Think of a situation from the past couple of weeks where your negative feelings escalated and you lost your cool with your child, causing both of you to feel crummy about the situation. In a couple of sentences write down what happened simply re-telling the facts.

Now close your eyes and breathe out and re-imagine the scene. See yourself taking a pause, and see yourself remembering that your child has strengths, even though you temporarily are focusing on something that is out of balance. Now, write down a new ending to this story where you flipped the strength switch and approached the situation from a place of love and patience, recognizing the good in the child before addressing the situation that needs an adjustment.

Reread your notes. See how taking a few moments to recalibrate your thoughts, feelings, and actions can make an enormous difference in the outcome: Happier parent. Happier child, motivated to remember to use her strengths in the future.

Click here, to explore the distinction Dr. Waters makes between strengths and learned behaviors.

The Healing Power of Love

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By Lisa Buksbaum for Positive Psychology News Daily

Words from the heart enter the heart.
~ Mishnah, Rabbinic Commentary on the Talmud. Berachot 6b

Today neuroscience can validate the accuracy of this adage by empirically measuring the impact of loving words, adoring gazes, caring thoughts, and the simple touch of a hand or shoulder. Small gestures can have profound, immediate, and positive impacts on our physiology, thoughts, and feelings. Dacher Keltner speaks about four great loves: the love between parent and child, the passion between sexual partners, the enduring devotion between pair-bonders, and the love for non-kin, most typically friends and fellow humans, but also including pets.

How Can You Resist A Baby?

Bonding to a newborn

According to British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, children come into the world biologically programmed to form attachment with others because this will help them survive. He posits that the first great love of life begins when we leave the womb. It includes a rich vocabulary of touch, voice, gaze, and facial displays and is evident in the merging of minds, heartbeats, and nervous systems of caretaker and young child.

These processes establish deep patterns of neural response in the pre-social nervous system: growth in tactile receptors in the skin, strengthening of the oxytocin system, setting the HPA axis to less stressful levels, and lighting up reward centers in the brain. For those of you who don’t happen to be brain surgeons, HPA is an abbreviation for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It describes a complex set of interactions among the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain and the adrenal glands in the body. Keltner likens the experiences of early love to feeling a warm hand on your back encouraging you as you move through life.

Not everyone forms warm and supportive attachments. Some experienced cycles of isolation or trauma as young children. Fortunately, through twelve-step programs, counseling, and determination, even people without secure attachment can become the empathetic, nurturing parents that they wished they had had.

The Thrill of It All

Anyone who has experienced a grade-school crush, high-school flirtation, or serious love relationship knows that powerful passionate feelings can short-circuit the brain. My first crush was directed towards Bruce Grunt, the new boy in town who sported wavy brown hair, big eyes, and a winning smile. What clinched Bruce as a fifth-grade heart-throb for me was that he reportedly played the drums just like Bobbie Sherman of the Monkees, one of top teen idols at the time.

Just engaged

Just as scientists have documented pervasive baby-parent bonding rituals, simple flirtation rituals echo the same auditory and physical bonding rites. Remember what it felt like to hear the other’s voice or see the other approaching? I remember my heart fluttering when I spotted my husband Jacob walking towards me on Manhattan’s West 86th Street when we were newlyweds. When we’d meet at our lobby, we’d both be grinning from ear to ear. Before proceeding to the elevator we’d share a hug, a universal gesture that places two individual bodies in a heart-to-heart stance. If positive psychologists had been perched in our lobby, they probably could have measured the expansion of our peripheral visions and the rise in our oxytocin levels.

All of these physical reactions demonstrate Barbara Fredrickson’s theory that experiencing positive emotions together actually opens us up to experience more positive sensations. Barb defines love as “micro-moments of connection,” and “positivity resonance.” I invite you to watch this Soaringwords’ video where Dr. Barbara Fredrickson shares findings from her riveting book, Love 2.0.

(Youtube link)

After the Thrill, the Bonding

There’s nothing like the thrill of the powerful choreography of touch.

Puppies tumbling

Just like puppies tumbling around with joy and abandon, everything seems playful and new at the beginning of a relationship. There are many exquisite touch receptors under the surface of the skin that are activated with a provocative brush of the arm, an emphatic pat of the shoulder, a butt bump after a shared joke. These harmless ways of upping the ante in flirtation allow two people to read each other’s reactions to see if they are in fact in synch.

When all goes well, a couple experiences behavioral synchrony with mirror neurons firing and mutual mimicking of expressions, laughter, and body language. The old definitions of self give way to an entirely new identity. The new identity emerging from pair bonding can realign our lives. Amplified devotion prepares us for commitment to monogamous bonding. All of these dance steps of behavioral synchrony reinforce perpetuation of our genes, which brings us right back into experiencing those powerful parent-child bonding emotions with our offspring.

Sharing SoaringSuperheroes®

Pay-it-Forward and Expand Your Love

The best way to experience more love is to be gratuitously kind to others without expecting anything in return. Doing something nice for someone else simply because you expect a positive return reduces love to the level of a business transaction. In contrast, paying-it-forward is expansive and generative. This is why for the past sixteen years Soaringwords has inspired thousands of hospitalized children and teens to engage in expressive arts projects to donate to other ill children because we know that this simple gesture accelerates transformative healing.

Beloved Pets

Atul Gawande describes an experiment by Dr. Bill Thomas at the Chase Memorial Nursing Home concerned with measuring how man’s best friend (and some cats, bunnies and parakeets) retarded illness and aging.

4-pound sidekick, Lulu

As a young audacious doctor Bill Thomas was put in charge of a nursing home facility. He was dismayed to discover that the residents were depressed, heavily medicated, and isolated as they spent most of their time in their bedrooms or sitting shoulder to shoulder parked in their wheelchairs near the nursing station watching a TV with the sound blasting. Dr. Thomas ordered 100 parakeets, four dogs, two cats, a colony of rabbits, and a flock of laying hens.

The first few days were mayhem as fur and feathers literally flew around the facility. Then patients who were non-ambulatory volunteered to walk the dogs and actually walked for the first time in months. Otherwise non-responsive residents started caressing and caring for the bunnies and cats. Drug costs for the facility fell 38% compared to a comparable facility, while deaths decreased by fifteen percent.

These people needed something to love.

Share the love

So this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re loving a baby, flirting madly with someone new, keeping the flames of love stoked with your mate, or giving to close relatives, cherished friends, strangers, or pets, remember that loving words, gazes, and gentle touch can elevate the giver and receiver to experience laughter, gratitude, and joy together. As Helen Keller aptly said,

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They simply must be felt with the heart.

Love is everywhere if you’re open to seeing it!



Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.

Buksbaum, L. (2013). Soaringwords empirical research to measure the well-being of hospitalized children. MAPP Capstone. University of Pennsylvania.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. New York: Penguin Group.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Gawande, A. (2017). Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Picador.

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J., & Rapson, R. (1994). Emotional Contagion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.


Happy National Hugging Day, You Probably Know What to Do Next.

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A few years ago, I embarked on a 250-mile road trip to meet Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionately known as Amma. She is a Hindu spiritual leader, revered as a saint by her followers. Amma’s name means “mother” in Hindi. There is nothing more maternal than a woman nestling a child in her arms, and Amma has amplified the simple, powerful, loving gesture of a hug to an astonishing level. According to the Amma.org website, to date Amma has hugged more than 34 million people.

Born in India in 1953, she was the third of seven children. Her father was a poor fisherman. From a young age, Amma was sent to gather food scraps from neighbors for the family’s cows and goats. Each day as she rummaged through trash, she was confronted with the intense poverty and suffering of others. After hearing a particularly dire story, she would bring the person food and clothing from her own home. When her family learned about her altruistic actions they scolded her.

At the same time, Amma began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. Her physical contact with other people, especially men, was considered unacceptable, and her parents insisted that she stop immediately. Instead, word of her kindness and wisdom spread rapidly through the region, and people started traveling great distances to her village to meet her. Often there would be dozens of people sleeping on the ground near her humble home waiting for a chance to speak to this fourteen-year-old girl.

“People used to come and tell me their troubles. They would cry and I would wipe their tears. When they fell weeping into my lap, I used to hug them. Then the next person wanted it too, and so the habit picked up,” she told a Rediff interviewer.

My Own Experience with Hugs

For many years, I have traveled around the country running Soaringwords’ programs for thousands of employee volunteers at end of sales meetings or corporate retreats. My Soaringwords talk is followed by a hands-on team-building activity doing something simple and kind to benefit ill children. Evaluations show that these are often the emotional highlight of the meeting because of the powerful feelings evoked.

Soaringwords programs often culminate in hospital visits with small employee delegations donating their Soaringwords projects to babies, children, and teens. After going room-to-room, reading the special messages and artwork on the quilts and pillows, we thank the children for allowing us the privilege of visiting. Then comes my favorite part, what makes me want to get up the next day and do it all again. As I leave the hospital room I always asked the child, teen, or family member:

“Would you like a hug?”

There is a momentary pause that feels like everything is moving in slow motion. I wait. I have no expectations. Sometimes a person looks at me and says “No thanks.” I smile and say something like, “It’s been such a pleasure to meet you.”

Most of the time after I ask, the person pauses and starts to smile or nod silently. I take a step forward, waiting. When it’s the right time, the hug happens. Some of the hugs are immediate and strong. Other hugs are slow and tentative. A few seconds elapse, then come the tears. Tears of joy. Tears of release. Or just tears of being “seen.”

Amma giving a hug

Meeting a Master

This is why I was compelled to drive for four hours to meet someone who had already hugged more than 34 million people. I knew that I would come away inspired. In Hinduism, darshan is the act of beholding a deity, divine person, sacred object or natural wonder, especially in a physical form. I was ready to see this paragon of loving kindness in person.

Dorothy, I think we’re not in Kansas Anymore

I set out with Greta, Soaringwords’ Community Relations Manager, to experience the power of Amma’s love and perhaps even receive a hug for ourselves. The road trip coincided with Greta’s birthday so we dubbed it a Soaringwords Adventure & Birthday Boondoggle. We knew we were far from New York City when we stopped at a gas station just a few miles from the retreat center. As we pulled in, we noticed a couple dressed like they were attending Woodstock, dancing and chanting on a well-worn patch of grass abutting the gas station.

When they saw us leaving our car to stretch our legs and use the facilities, the man approached us with a broad grin.

“Greetings holy sisters.” His eyes were joyful, his shoulders slightly drooping like a friendly basset hound.

“Well hello there, looks like you two are celebrating this beautiful day.”

“Indeed. Are you coming to meet Amma?”

“Why yes, we are.”

“I’ve seen her 25 times, here and in India.”

“Wow, we are Amma virgins. It’s our first time.”

“You won’t be disappointed. It will change your life.”

Greta with Carrots

A few minutes later we pulled up to a large parking lot, a patch of dirt in front of a tired building that looked like it might have been a dance hall, bowling alley or warehouse decades earlier. Several greeters were on hand at the registration station which had hundreds of envelopes perched on a folding table. We received our room assignment, schedule of meditation sittings, and assigned duties. We had kitchen duty at 5:00 AM the next day. Greta and I peeled potatoes and chopped carrots for hundreds of people. It was meaningful to contribute, although Greta noted that it felt like being in an I Love Lucy episode as we tried to cut vegetables in precisely instructed shapes and sizes.

Our room was immaculate and wonderfully barren: two beds, a lopsided dresser, and a couple of pegs to hang our worldly possessions or wet towels. A single light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a bent wire illuminated the space between the beds. According to the printed program schedule, our days started at dawn and did not have an official end time. We realized that we were in for a whole lot of sitting in silence for hours at a stretch. We closed the door to our room and took a short hike prior to the opening session asanas, times to sit in meditation.

She looks Holy

Botero Sculpture

Amma reminded me of iconic portraits of Indian Goddesses like Radha, the life energy and goddess of kindness, or the Great Tara, the supreme creatrix and mother of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Amma looked like a grandmother, and also a little bit like a Botero sculpture. I immediately wanted to hug her.

Like many things that are authentic and true, eighteen hours later, when I had my chance, it was nothing like I had imagined, and it was wonderful. Greta and I each received a small orange ticket, with a number printed on it. At the appointed time, organizers invited people to start assembling in a line that wrapped around the circumference of the entire hall. As I walked up the stairs to the stage where Amma sat on a golden chair, we locked eyes. Her gaze was penetrating and soulful. I stared into her eyes, feeling in the presence of a holy person. I smiled softly as tears streamed down my face. Suddenly she leaned into my face and cupped her thick hand close to my ear creating a megaphone of flesh and bone. Then she started screaming directly into my ear: “Mother, Mother, Mother.” She kept screaming for about five minutes. I was reduced to tears feeling the pull of her love, my mother’s love, and the love I have for my children and all the children I have ever encountered through Soaringwords. My time was finished. I was gently lifted by two organizers, and the next person knelt down to meet Amma.

So don’t just sit there. Go find someone to hug!

January 21 is National Hug Day in the United States. Not an official holiday, National Hug Day was created by Reverend Kevin Zaborney because he perceived that many Americans were afraid to display affection in public. He chose this time of year because it’s often a low point for human contact between the December holidays and Valentine’s Day. But you do not need to wait for a special holiday to give a hug.



Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26, 135-147. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614559284. Abstract.

The Rediff Interview/ Mata Amritanandmayi

Killam, K. (2015, March 17). A hug a day keeps the doctor awayScientific American.

Inagaki, T. K. & Eisenberger, N. I (2012). Neural correlates of giving support to a loved one.Psychosomatic Medicine, 74(1), 3-7. Abstract.

Photo Credit
: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
A hug from Amma courtesy of vaniAmrita
Another hug from Amma courtesy of vaniAmrita
Greta with carrots courtesy of Soaringwords.
Botero sculture courtesy of Maurits Verbiest

Practicing Happy Together Can Be A Snap For Aristotelian Lovers

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                        Practicing Yoga Together: An image from the Romance and Research™ workshop

If you’re like most people who are interested in deepening your relationships, then you probably ordered your copy of Happy Together published yesterday (Jan. 16, 2018) to coincide with the 8th anniversary of authors, Suzann and James Pawelski, a positive psychology power couple.

Today I want to highlight two compelling Happy Together concepts that can help you cultivate stronger and happier relationships.

SNAP! Practice, Practice, Practice!

Developing good habits in our relationships is like building any other good habits: it takes regular practice. James Pawelski’s hero is the philosopher William James, someone we could all consider a positive psychology pioneer. Reinforcing the message that good habits are a foundation for strong, positive relationships, James Pawelski uses the acronym, SNAP, to help us remember the four rules stated by William James for cultivating good habits:

    • Start strong. The more highly motivated we are to start a new habit, the more likely we are to be successful. One way to increase motivation is to make a public announcement of the habit we want to build. Calling for witnesses makes it easier for our friends to support us and harder for us to back down.
    • No exceptions. We may think that once we have acted in accordance with the new behavior for a few days, we can give ourselves a break, but this is likely to take us back to square one. Slips do happen, but if the general rule is no exceptions, it becomes easier to get back on track.
    • Always act. Whenever we have an urge to act in accordance with the new habit, we should follow that urge, no matter how annoying it may seem. This reminds us of the fundamental way that children learn by following the actions of their parents, not simply listening to their words.
    • Practice exercising the will. James suggests doing something hard every day, for no reason but that it is hard. Doing so, he says, can strengthen the will, making it ready for our use when we need it.

Forget Ann Landers. What Can Aristotle Teach Us About Building Love That Lasts?

Back in your school days, you probably learned about Aristotle, a towering figure in Greek philosophy and science, student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle is another early contributor to positive psychology, contemplating questions such as “What makes people human?” “What makes life meaningful?” and “How can we enhance well-being within people and between people?”

Aristotle in the library

You have probably heard the term Platonic friendship used to describe a close relationship that is not sexual. Aristotle cultivated his own philosophy on friendship that James Pawelski calls Aristotelian Friendship based on the notion that the highest kind of friendship is one where people are drawn together by the recognition of the good in each other and the desire to support it. James used the idea of Aristotelian Friends (AF) in MAPP to encourage people to practice supporting each other as they grow and cultivate strengths. Aristotelian friends value the other person’s character and want to help it develop in healthy directions. The good that AFs see in the other person may also inspire them to want to become better themselves. In an Aristotelian friendship, each person is focused on the other person. AFs love each other for who they are, not just for the profit or pleasure they can get out of the relationship. Aristotle contends that friendship based on goodness is the truest kind, superior to the other two. Although Aristotelian friendships are not motivated by the quest for profit or pleasure, Aristotle noted that they often do turn out to be useful and pleasurable, as well as good.

After getting married, Suzie asked James a provocative question that elevated and transformed their marriage. “Why do Aristotle’s observations need to be limited to just friendships? What if we apply his philosophy to romantic relationships, as well? What if we see ourselves not just as lovers, but as Aristotelian lovers, focusing on appreciating the good in the other person and supporting each other’s growth and development?”

Being a wise philosopher and positive psychology practitioner, James embraced this idea wholeheartedly. (Spouses take note, when your partner makes a brilliant suggestion, follow their lead).

This concept of Aristotelian Lovers led Suzie and James to create Happy Together.

Loving gesture

Getting Started: Look at What You are Already Doing Well

There are so many small gestures to show love in a mature marriage. I like to tuck a card in my husband’s suitcase before he goes on a business trip, knowing he will discover the card and feel loved and supported. That creates positive emotion. When either one of us comes home from a business trip, there’s a large sign on the door with clever allusions to the destination city or conference woven into the message. We both use our character strengths of creativity and humor to make the signs. When we do something together, there’s a lot of mutual savoring before, during, and after.

Welcome back to the hive

At nighttime, before going to sleep, I make lunch for Jacob to bring to the office, not expecting something in return. When Jacob proofreads my blog posts or pulls articles from the Wall Street Journal that he knows I would want to read, he is not expecting to be paid back. On a deeper level, when I was mourning the death of my father, Jacob gave me plenty of room to experience my feelings. One way he showed steadfast support was to draw a warm bath and light a candle for me to relax each night after a long day.

Welcome home, Lisa

When we are with others of good character, it motivates us to improve our own character. Suzie and James Pawelski remind us of Jonathan Haidt’s wisdom about elevation, an “other-praising” emotion that causes “warm, open feelings in the chest” and inspires people to behave more virtuously themselves. When we are uplifted or elevated, our hearts are opened and our thoughts are more focused on others than on ourselves. We seek ways to make positive changes to enhance our relationships, and we experience moral growth and heightened positive emotions.

There are many many benefits from practicing being Happy Together.



Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcerPerigee.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Photo Credits:

Suzie and James doing yoga together used with permission from Suzann Pileggi Pawelski.
Welcome back posters used with permission from Lisa Buksbaum

The following image is from Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Aristotle in the library courtesy of Rachel Sample
Loving gesture courtesy of Simon Cocks

Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts

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Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts
by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski & James O. Pawelski

In ancient times, people congregated around campfires, town-squares, and stages to be mesmerized by morality plays, fairy-tales, fables, and legends.

Stories by a campfire

These stories had captivating characters with exaggerated personalities so that the audience could easily distinguish between right and wrong. Many stories culminated with “Happily Ever After.”

Today, as sophisticated moderns, we know that happily-ever-after only happens in fairy tales. Or do we?

Consider the iconic line from the movie Jerry McGuire, when the lead character says to Dorothy, “You complete me.” This kind of Hollywood romance reinforces the perception that the lustful exuberance experienced during the “falling in love” stage of a relationship should last forever. Smiling picture-perfect couples and families on social platforms can make it appear that everyone else is enjoying fantastic relationships, 24/7.

Based on these powerful movie and social-media messages, it’s no wonder that our notions of romantic love might be skewed so that we believe that happily-ever-after is the norm, even if it is not our experience. That can lead people to feel that their own relationships are subpar.

Suzie and James Pawelski wedding day
“Baiada Photography©2010”

Happy Together debunks flimsy notions of romantic love, showing that successful couples work on being happy together. Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawelski connect their own experiences to scientific research in order to demonstrate that becoming happy, apart or together, is an on-going process of cultivating healthy habits. It takes time.

Suzie is a journalist fascinated by the science that underpins human behavior. She serves as a well-being consultant specializing on the impact of happiness on relationships and health. James is a philosopher, professor, and cofounder of the Penn Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program with Martin Seligman. Suzie and James met at the MAPP program.

Who Can Benefit?

After Suzie wrote the cover story of the January 2010 issue of Scientific American MindThe Happy Couple, the flurry of interest inspired the couple to create the Romance and Research™ workshops. The workshop debuted at the 2014 European Conference on Positive Psychology (ECPP) in Amsterdam.

Like hundreds attending that conference, I was packed in a standing-room-only crowd. From feedback afterward, the Pawelskis concluded that people gravitated to the topic for three different but all compelling reasons:

  • They have a rewarding loving relationship already. They want effective new ways to make the relationship even stronger
  • They feel stuck in their current relationships. They want ways to repair or rebuild positive relationships without having to start over with new partners.
  • They want to enter a romantic relationship. They want ways to make it happy, healthy, and fulfilling.

I’ve added a fourth group based on my experiences connecting with ill children and families for sixteen years.

  • They belong to families grappling with serious illness. Key relationships may be strained because so much attention is focused on medical challenges, whether their relationships were thriving or strained prior to the illness. They want ways to choose to focus on what is working well and to come together with love, compassion, and solidarity in order to make each day more bearable.

James and Suzann Pawelski

Whatever camp you fall into, reading Happy Together is like going to a relationship boot camp led by two skillful, funny, and authentic trainers.

Going to a Relationship Gym

Imagine reading a fitness magazine and expecting to lose four pounds simply by skimming the recommended exercise drills without doing any physical work. It’s just not going to happen, even in the movies!

The Pawelskis aptly use Relationship Gym as a metaphor to help readers realize that in order to enjoy a successful, happy relationship, both partners need to do the exercises in order to build strong love that lasts. Going to a single Pilates class is not going to make you fit overnight. It takes practice over time. Just so can you become stronger and more confident in your relationship repertoire.

I remember starting a Pilates class. I felt muscles in my abdomen, thighs, and calves that I did not know I had. Over the next few weeks the intricate moves became more familiar to me as my muscles got stronger and my confidence blossomed. In a few months, I had internalized the moves so that I was able to do the exercises at home without having my teacher shouting instructions. Relationship exercises can become second nature in a similar fashion.

Just as most gyms have more than one exercise machine to tone and build different parts of our bodies, the Happy Together Relationship Gym focuses on four areas to strengthen core components of our relationships.

Lisa on 3rd grade field trip

  • Harmonious Passion: If you’ve ever really clicked with someone, a new teacher, friend, or romantic partner, then perhaps you’ve experienced the heady feeling of harmonious passion, overwhelmed with positive emotions that make your heart sing. I was inspired by Bertha Davidson, my third-grade teacher to feel this way about expressive arts. She arranged field trips to New York City from my elementary school in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. We visited art museums. We put on plays and wrote sketches. She taught us how to listen to classical and jazz music. This formative relationship sparked a life-long passion to create art, to dance, to sing, and to learn how to play the guitar. These are harmonious passions that I enjoy to this day.
    In my honeymoon years whenever I saw my husband Jacob walking up the block towards our apartment, my heart would flutter. That’s hormones combined with a bit of harmonious passion. All good. After thirty-two years, I still feel warm inside when we reunite at the end of the day. Robert Vallerand’s research shows that it’s important to cultivate harmonious passion. However obsessive passion can actually be damaging and worse than not having any passion at all.

  • Positive emotions have ongoing positive consequences in our lives, making us open up, like a plant stretching towards sunlight. Barbara Fredrickson calls this the Broaden and Build Theory: positive emotions broaden our sense of what is possible and build positive qualities. They cause good things to happen.
    Experiencing positive emotions together builds up a strong foundation of good will, understanding, and connection that helps successful relationships bounce back from misunderstanding, hurt feelings, or life’s inevitable setbacks. As relationships mature, it’s important to cultivate positive emotions in yourself and toward your partner so that you continue to experience joy and excitement together. The book has a hearty array of delectable positive emotions and a sampling menu of Happy Together exercises you can do to experience more positive emotions.

Lisa savors her wedding day

  • Savoring helps us make the most of positive emotions and good experiences. It’s so easy to take positive experiences for granted, enjoying them briefly and then getting on with our busy lives. Research on savoring shows us the value of intentionally opening ourselves as fully as we can to the positive moments while they are happening, of remembering positive moments from our past, and of anticipating positive moments in the future.
    Think about the best vacation you ever took: Did you take time to thoughtfully plan the trip? Do you remember how you enjoyed the time? I remember the dreamy smell of the salt-water spray as I walked along a turquoise ocean holding hands with my partner, the laughs as our children discovered sand crabs burrowing into the sand. They spent hours slinging them into brightly colored plastic pails. Have you found yourself smiling as you looked at photos from this holiday? Do you have a photo in a prominent place where you can enjoy looking at it? If you answer YES to any of these questions, then you know what it means to savor. The Pawelskis show you more ways to savor together.

  • Character is a key part of who we are and how we relate to others. Many books and articles talk about the importance of knowing and cultivating our own particular character strengths. The Pawelskis remind us that knowing the strengths of our loved ones and sharing our strengths with them can help us avoid some of the frictions and frustrations that tend to arise from differences in our personalities. Strengths awareness can help make the relationship itself greater than the sum of its parts.
    Recognizing, acknowledging, and celebrating strengths in action is a sure-fire way to avoid relationship burn-out. The best part is, it doesn’t cost anything. Once you build this habit into a relationship, it fuels harmonious passion, savoring, and oodles of positive emotions.

As the calendar bends towards Valentine’s Day, Happy Together is a wonderful book for you and the important people in your life. It provides a dazzling array of easy-to-implement exercises to keep your relationships strong and energetic. The Pawelskis demonstrate that relationships can also get better with age, like fine bottles of wine.

Speaking of aging well, the launch date of Happy Together (January 16) coincides with the Pawelskis’ eighth wedding anniversary. Mazel tov!

Read part 2 Practicing Happy Together Can Be A Snap For Aristotelian Lovers



Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcerPerigee.

Happy Together book site. Includes Meet the Authors and Learn and Share with additional resources.

Pawelski, S. P. & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Talking with Larry King about “Why the Grass Seems Greener”. Appears on the Happy Together channel on Psychology Today.

Pileggi, S. (2010). The happy coupleScientific American Online.

Britton, K. H. (2011). What about passion? Positive Psychology News.

Britton, K. H. (2010). Two Bits of Wisdom about Long-Term Relationships. Positive Psychology News.

Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.

Polly, S. & Britton, K. H. (Eds.) (2015). Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Positive Psychology News.

Vallerand, R. (2015). The Psychology of Passion: A Dualistic Model (Series in Positive Psychology). Oxford University Press.

The Wonder of Wonder

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What lies behind us
And what lies before us
Are simple matters
Compared to what lies within us.
– Anais Nin


One of my father’s favorite words was WONDROUS, an odd descriptor that he uttered whenever he thought something was awe-inspiring, heart throbbing, breathtaking.

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I cannot ever recall hearing anyone else say this word. That’s probably why I thought it was a bit peculiar and perhaps a little embarrassing.

Decades later, I discovered that the word WONDROUS actually appears in the weekly Torah reading when miraculous things happen, such as the parting of the Red Sea allows the Israelite slaves to escape the wrath of Pharaoh’s Army. It made me happy to realize that this lofty emotion used to describe a miraculous occurrence was a sentiment that my father experienced, articulated, and shared with his family routinely.

Lisa and Gary and the wonder puppy

Today thinking about the word WONDROUS evokes a memory: both of my parents’ warm gazes as they took turns tucking my brother Gary and me into bed. They tenderly kissed us on the cheeks, lovingly stroked our hair, and wished us pleasant dreams. Only decades later as the parent of Jonathan and Joshua can I completely understand how WONDROUS it is to love a child.

Wonder, the book

I remember devouring the book WONDER in one sitting when it was first published in 2012. It’s a brilliant, poignant tale that captures the strong parental bonds that we can feel towards our children coupled with the realization that we cannot protect them from the viciousness of the world, especially when that world is the brutal stomping ground of elementary school.


The story is a pitch-perfect depiction of the landmines of kindness or cruelty, never knowing which emotion will be triggered until you step on it, that confront differently-abled children and adults each day. August Pullman called Auggie is the ten-year-old hero of the story. He has already undergone 28 reconstructive surgeries to re-build his face by the time he begins fifth grade. Auggie has incredible parents, a devoted older sister, and a dog that licks his face whenever he walks in the door.

The problems happen when Auggie leaves the security of home and has to face the stares and whispers of classmates and strangers. In the first week of school, another boy starts a rumor that classmates can contract the plague if they touch something that Auggie touches. One mother actually airbrushed Auggie’s face out of the class photo because she could not bear to see his face amidst the sea of smiling fifth grade faces.

My Own Experience

Re-reading WONDER reminded me of real-world middle school excursions into the world of bullying towards differently-abled children, specifically my only sibling and younger brother Gary. His childhood asthma often made it difficult for him to breathe, especially in the fall and spring. This illness precluded him from participating in gym class and recess. When you’re a boy in middle school, missing gym and recess is an enormous calamity. To make matters worse, while others got to play, Gary had to sit in the school office or library.

One afternoon walking home from school, a couple of bullies pounced on my brother. They punched him and yelled “asthma-spaz” over and over. The attack triggered my protective big-sister adrenaline. I dropped my book bag and jumped on the assailants, flailing my arms, pulling, scratching, and screaming, “Get off him! Get off him!” Hearing the screams, a woman ran out of her house and threatened to call the police, motivating the attackers to flee. We walked home bloodied and stunned. The next day my brother had a brand-new nickname, “Honig’s Baby Sister,” scribbled on his locker. I learned from this experience that I could not save him from bullies or from the vagaries of his condition.

One Person’s Kindness

One of the best parts of reading Wonder happens on Auggie’s first day of school when one kind girl named Summer leaves her lunchroom table of friends to sit with the new kid that everyone else is ostracizing. Summer’s loyal friendship helps Auggie decide not to drop out of middle school to be home schooled by his mother. At first, her simple courageous gesture causes her to be ostracized, but then it becomes the catalyst for other children to realize that Auggie is likable and funny, interesting and strong. One at a time more children join his circle of friends. In a pivotal scene towards the end of the book, a bunch of thugs viciously attack Auggie and one of his friends in a forest in the middle of the night. Tremors went up and down my body as I remembered the punches and taunts that pummeled my brother Gary on that sunny day just a block from school and several blocks from my home.

Several years later in the Summer of 1983, I was strolling on the streets of Greenwich Village in New York City with Paul Steven Miller, my close friend from college. He had just graduated, and we were having a celebratory lunch before he moved to Cambridge to start Harvard Law School. As we left the restaurant, a bunch of men congregated on the sidewalk and started pointing at Paul who stood four feet two inches tall. The original Star Wars movie had come out, and they were calling him R2-D2 and laughing like a bunch of fourth graders. We ignored the taunts but the attack still wounded us.

Paul Steven Miller

Years later, Paul was nominated by two U.S. Presidents to become the Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He went on to become the architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to protect differently-abled people from prejudice and discrimination. Nonetheless, this giant in the field of human and disability rights was still a target for mean spirited people. Decades later, when the Austin Powers movies debuted, people pointed at him and shouted, “Hey Mini-Me, How Ya’ Doing?” and then burst into uncontrollable laughter.

Paul is one of the many outstanding people profiled in my upcoming book: SOARING into Strength: The New Science Approach to Help You Heal.


What We Do Matters

One of the most poignant stories about WONDER is a real-life incident that motivated the book to be written and the movie to be produced. The author was getting ice-cream cones with her young children when they saw a girl with facial deformities in front of them on line at the ice-cream shop. The author’s children gasped and pointed at the girl, “Look Mommy!” She feared that they would say something age-appropriate and uncensored, so she immediately pivoted the stroller and bolted out of the ice-cream shop. Feelings of guilt and horror plagued her because her children’s innocent reaction to someone so physically unique had made that other child suffer. For years as she saw the little girl’s eyes staring at her children realizing that this was the reality that confronted that child every day. She wrote WONDER from the vantage point of a child who looks different on the outside but who is ordinary and WONDERFUL on the inside to help teach adults and children empathy and tolerance.

Principal at 5th grade graduation

Like Auggie, the wounds my brother and Paul suffered from their attackers healed on the outside, but invisible scars remain. I found myself sobbing on the beach as I read the Fifth-grade commencement scene in Wonder. School Director Mr. Tushman bestows a special award, The Beecher Medal of Honor, for a student who has been exemplary throughout the school year. Announcing the winner, he says,

“Not just the nature of kindness, but the nature of one’s kindness. The power of one’s friendship. The test of one’s character. The strength of one’s courage. Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion to greatness. And this is what the Henry Ward Beecher medal is about: recognizing greatness.
But how do we do that? How do we measure something like greatness? Again, there’s no yardstick for that kind of thing. How do we even define it? Well, Beecher actually had an answer for that. Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength. He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own. So will August Pullman please come up to the stage to receive this award.”


What to do When You are Lost

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Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
if you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.
David Wagoner, from Travelling Light: Collected Poems and New Poems, 1999.

Today it’s often easy to feel lost when the landscape is rife with 24/7 streams of bad news like storm clouds. In times like this, it’s wise to turn inward to regain a sense of stillness and balance. Nature has always been a rich repository of healing imagery to help us shift our thoughts and feelings to an inner state of quietude and calm. We make plans, and then life happens. Today I left my home at seven in the morning, schlepping three large tote bags brimming with a delicious home-made dinner to share with the New York Life team leads who champion monthly Soaringwords’ Volunteer for Good programs in the NYC and Jersey City offices. As I was leaving a morning meeting, someone announced that a pipe bomb exploded in Times Square. We all paused for a few moments of silence and then I had to decide to push onward twenty blocks towards my midtown office or to return home to stash the food into my refrigerator. Being a resilient New Yorker, I pushed on. Soaringwords’ office is at the WeWork building in Bryant Park, overlooking the skating rink, behind the New York Public Library, just a few blocks away from Port Authority. Because all the NYC subways were shut down, it took more than 35 minutes to get a taxicab. Once I got inside the taxi, the driver announced that he probably could not get me anywhere near the office since the roads were closed to traffic. I got out of the taxi and changed course. I walked to the nearest bus stop heading uptown and returned to my apartment.

Prepare your soil
In spite of fierce storms, trees stay grounded because their roots have had enough time to penetrate deeply into the soil. In times of turmoil, I find it helpful to dig deep into life-affirming routines. For me this means a daily practice starting with some imagery, stretching, and an early morning walk in nature, swimming six times a week, and getting extra rest to counter the impact of information-overload or stress. These are simply tried and true essential nourishing rituals that I know will sustain me during these calamitous times. When I forgo these simple rituals, my shoulders get tense, my lower back starts to throb, and I feel less centered. This is my body’s way to re-mind me to pay attention. What are the daily rituals that you can do to find balance, quiet and calm?

Today is the First Day to the Rest of Your Life
This was a popular poster and bumper-sticker in the 1970s. Like many sayings based on common sense, it’s true. Today is a wonderful opportunity for you to identify one or two easy-to-do actions that will help you un-plug to the outside noise allowing you to go within to connect with your inner wisdom.

A Forest is Comprised of More Than One Tree
When times feel difficult or overwhelming, it’s essential to reach out, like the branches on a tall Oak tree, rather than turn inward and isolate. I’ve noticed that when the going gets tough, people tend to isolate, myself included. Even though that’s the time I feel like shutting myself off from others, it’s the time that I need to connect. While it takes seconds to connect on social media, nothing replaces the immediacy and intimacy of gathering with other people face to face. Today it is essential to be part of communities where you can be yourself. One of my forests where I seek sanctuary happens to be in the observance of the Sabbath. Each Friday night as I light my Sabbath candles I relax knowing that my electronics will also be taking a break for the next 25 hours. For three hours on Saturday morning, I escape into hauntingly beautiful melodies of wordless prayers called niggun (melodies that are chanted or hummed). I also find comfort in the words of centuries-old prayers that give me strength. Your forest can be in other places that give you peace of mind and strength. Whether it’s a book group, a religious community, a dance class where you are part of a vibrant community, a twelve-step program, your local Y, or simply hanging out with other children, teens and families who are spending time in the hospital, I promise you that you will be better able to connection to yourself and to others when you do not isolate. In this way, you will feel like a tree deeply planted in the nourishing soil of life. Sending you strength and Soaringwords.  

Hot Cider and Grief at the Holidays

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This morning’s Wall Street Journal featured a sensitive article A Blue Christmas: Dealing With Loss During the Holidays by Clare Ansberry with “food for thought” for those mourning the loss of loved ones and guidance for everyone who wants to say and do helpful things for people who are grieving but don’t exactly know how to do this gracefully.  This year, the article truly resonates as I embrace many feelings remembering our family’s last Thanksgiving celebration, the final holiday we shared with my beloved dad, nine days before he died. For the past nine years, at every holiday celebration and family dinner I had the seat of honor next to my father. Dad’s right hand side of his body was paralyzed from five strokes. One of my duties was to lovingly prepare his plate of food (picking the perfect piece of turkey with crispy skin, the best sweet potatoes, and the corner piece of corn bread). I discreetly cut his food in the kitchen to maintain his dignity as he was able feed himself at the table.





The Empty Chair
This year, I was aware of the “presence of the absence” as Rabbe Nachman, a Hasidic master teacher (1772-1810) eloquently captures the ethereal landscape of loss in his seminal work, The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy. Many people I know leave an empty chair at the holiday table and invite people to share stories, favorite memories about the person who is physically no longer present. In her article, Clare Ansberry recounts that families don’t want loved ones to be forgotten so I was grateful when Aunt Margery said some beautiful words of tribute in honor of my dad immediately before the meal. Rarely at a loss for words, I was determined to get through the meal and quietly focused on eating my food slowly and with gratitude. One of the things I was most grateful for was the fact that other guests animatedly talked about their hobbies, funny holiday stories, trips and, of course food! I was grateful to listen to interesting conversation and be part of a cozy holiday meal.

Grief is not tidy and orderly.
I never know when I will experience a pang or a sobbing bout, or a wave of joyful, hilarious memories. The only constant variable is that there are no rules. Whether the loss was months or years ago, adults who lost a parent in childhood say it takes six years or more to move forward, according to a bereavement survey underwritten by the New York Life Foundation that supports Bereavement programs for grieving children. For most people surveyed, support falls off after about three months. I have been conducting my own research these past few weeks leading up to the holidays as my feelings of grief have swelled to the surface more than over the course of the past year. So when people ask me “How was your Thanksgiving?” or “How are you doing?” instead of defaulting with a gushing remote-control response of “Great, how was your holiday?”  I tell them that it’s a tough time. The reactions are fascinating. Most people share a story about the loss of a loved one… or ask me if I’d like to receive a hug. (Of course I would). My authenticity is rewarding me with gratitude as these beautiful one-on-one encounters create powerful moments of connection.

Choose Joy.
During the course of his life Rebbe Nachman endured many tragedies and deaths in his family. One of his most inspiring quotations is: “Always remember joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest, it is vital.”  One of the nicest traditions we’ve adopted over the past year is to share “Charlie-isms”- hilarious and inspiring stories of things my dad did throughout his life to keep the memories alive. Here’s my favorite Charlie-ism from Thanksgiving.

I grew up in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey. Dad worked six days a week. After work, he always made time to play catch or ride bicycles with my younger brother Gary and me. As the years progressed, we’d go around the block first in our strollers, then walking, on tricycles, and roller skates. When Gary was eight and I was ten, Dad took us on a top-secret outing that was to commence at midnight. He bundled us up. When he woke us up, we were parked at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. ALL the Thanksgiving Day floats and balloons were being blown up RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES. Dad, Gary and I were the ONLY people who were not part of the parade crew. It took Macy’s 25 years to replicate Charlie’s genius idea.

Making a Decision to Choose Life.  
My grief helps me stay in touch with the feelings of isolation or sadness that most of the Soaringwords children and families experience 24/7 and for that I am grateful. My default philosophy is to always choose life and, in this way, temporary waves of grief serve to amplify the joy and blessings of each day when the feelings shift.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw,
This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn-out before you are thrown on the scrap-heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

This year, may all of your holidays be authentic. 

Lisa Honig Buksbaum is the CEO & Founder, Soaringwords a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing.  Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it-forward to inspire ill children and teens to “Never give up!” 



Happy Holidays… Not Necessarily So

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This time of year, holiday euphoria bursts into our lives as people whip themselves into a frenzy thicker than the marshmallow topping on a Thanksgiving sweet potato soufflé. Shopping lists, holiday meal plans, and travel logistics loom larger than the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

At the same time, seasonal depression rates spike. Feelings of melancholy and sadness are especially high among millions of children, teens and families grappling with illness. Instead of spending hours pondering what Chanukah gifts to buy or which stocking stuffer is “perfect” for each person, families experiencing illness focus on getting through each day.  

Being bombarded with exuberant holiday music for hours, days or weeks can evoke negative responses from people already feeling vulnerable during the holidays. “Perfect family holiday tableaus” appear everywhere creating a tsunami of holiday-hoopla that makes people feel even worse about their current situation. This reaction is what psychologists call Social Comparison Theory, more commonly known as “Compare and Despair” Syndrome. Hearing about all the wonderful holiday celebrations and plans can trigger woeful sentiments such as “Everyone else is feeling exuberant and joyful, what’s wrong with me?”  

How to Avoid Falling into This Negative Thinking Trap
Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatte explain several common thinking traps in their book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (Random House, 2003). Enforced holiday glee triggers the Magnifying and Minimizing Thinking Trap where a person focuses on negative aspects of a situation which magnifies the impact while de-emphasizing the positive aspects of a situation.  Maximizing thinking could sound something like,

“Mark is so weak now, I feel like our family will NEVER be able to enjoy holiday celebrations again…”

However, when we take the time to analyze things that “trigger” powerful feelings and negative emotions, often looking at the facts and understanding the underlying thinking can help us self-sooth ourselves, minimizing painful emotions the next time an activating situation occurs.  This thought process is called Re-framing.

One way that hospitalized children, teens and their family members can begin to experience greater optimism during the holidays (and all year long) is a process called re-framing. Re-framing is the ability to look beyond the negative or painful aspects of an illness or hospitalization and to see and appreciate some of the special or awe-inspiring moments that happen. Glass half full, glass half empty… when you focus on small or heroic acts of progress that a child or teen has taken in her recovery you are re-framing a difficult situation to focus on hope and resilience instead of despair.  When you appreciate a kind gesture from a nurse or hospital volunteer experiencing the goodness in another person with no ulterior motive except to make you feel loved and supported, that’s re-framing by accepting something good even in the midst of hardship.

Why Does the Holiday Season Actually Make People Feel Anxious and Downtrodden?
Perhaps the best holiday example of all time that triggers Social Comparison and also motivates people to fall into Negative Thinking Traps is none other than New Year’s Eve: the only holiday that bridges the old and new year simultaneously.

New Year’s Eve is stacked with impossible-to-achieve expectations that Everybody (note the capital “E”) is having a rip-roarin’ great time. These super-sized expectations naturally start to generate built-in anticipatory stress that the holidays will be happy, happy, happy. Just like in the movies. Social media plays a large role in increasing social comparison. Recently Morning Edition on National Public Radio (NPR, May 2, 2017) hosted a segment entitled Why Social Media Isn’t Always Very Social. According to Barbara Kahn, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies decision-making, social media generates a lot of FOMO which stands for Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO is another way people experience the false belief that  “Everyone (again note the capital “E”) is having a better time than I am.” https://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/526514168/why-social-media-isnt-always-very-social

Five Simple Things You Can Do to Reduce “Happy Holiday” Burn-Out  
If you or someone you know is going through medical challenges during this holiday season you might want to read these five easy action steps to help reduce holiday stress. Better yet, share this post with your friends and family and then talk about something simple that you can do together to make the holidays more meaningful.

1. This is the perfect time to PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION (or give someone permission to put his or her self-interest first) in order to confidently say “NO” to invitations or plans that seem overwhelming or impossible to participate in at this time. Simply explain that you and your family are not able to attend the family’s annual holiday tradition this year. Remember, “No” is a complete sentence.


2. Choose activities that are calming and cozy. Instead of focusing on what you and your family are NOT able to do during the holidays, it can be refreshing and even fun to do something different, like movie night – make sure you pick comedies and films with upbeat stories. Perhaps a scaled-down holiday meal where everyone comes in their PJs would be fun or a holiday get-together where everyone eats desserts first or, better yet, a get-together where you ONLY SERVE DESSERTS eliminating hours of preparation and expense from the rest of the meal.


3. Incorporate rituals that add meaning and joy. Last year my dad’s health was declining significantly and I wanted to do something positive to counter the sadness we were all experiencing. Prior to Thanksgiving, I sent everyone in my family a package with six blank cards and envelopes inviting them to participate in the First Annual Post-Thanksgiving Family Gratitude Circle. The instructions were simple each person wrote a Gratitude Letter to each person in our family. During Friday night dinner, on the day after Thanksgiving, each person brought a stack of six sealed envelopes to the table. Starting with my Mother, we went around the table as each person in the family read his or her Gratitude Letter to the designated relative. Laughs and tears reverberated around the table. It was a heart-felt, beautiful experience, a gift that exceeded the value of anything that could have been purchased in a store. Here’s a link to creating and sharing SoaringGratitude Letters at your family’s holiday celebration:  http://www.soaringwords.org/gratitude-letter/

4) Holidays don’t have to be observed at a certain day or time even if this has always been a time-bound family tradition spanning decades (or centuries). When illness is part of the reality, sometimes people have to be flexible to accommodate the “new normal.” Perhaps some members of the family will leave the hospital in order to attend the annual meal while others will stay back with the person who is not able to make it to this year’s celebration. Other families experience tremendous relief by postponing their attendance at a family gathering. This decision to take a rain check takes the stress off of everyone and also can possibly give people something to look forward to at a future date.

5) It’s no accident that Chanukah and Christmas occur during the darkest time of the year when the days are shortest around the Winter Solstice. During this bleak time, it’s possible to remember that there are always other children, teens or families who are less fortunate than you. Opening yourself up to empathy and kindness reduces feelings of distress and isolation. The best way to transform feelings of despair into feelings of meaning and purpose is by embracing the needs of another person. According to the work of Adam Grant in his book Give and Take (Penguin Random House, 2014) when you take a simple action to lift the spirits of another person it also elevates your own well-being. That’s why we’ve built pay-if-forward activities into all of the Soaringwords’ programs we have shared with more than 500,000 children, teens and families over the past sixteen years. So whether you’re busy counting the days until the holidays officially begin… or whether you’re focusing all of your energy on positive, healthy outcomes for you or someone in your family, here are three wonderful ways to share some joy with hospitalized children, teens and families this holiday season.

SoaringSuperhero Message and Artwork: 
Strength and greatness is inside of everyone. When you create a superhero message and artwork to donate to an ill child it reminds him or her that they too have superpowers such as being strong, creative, funny or kind. You can use your strengths to inspire children to “Never give up!” Click here for the online activity.

SOARING Gratitude Ladder:
Gratitude opens your heart and inspires you to give back to others. Gratitude is about joy and appreciation of simple, little things that happen daily. Sometimes it is easy to take these things for granted.  When you create a Gratitude Ladder for someone you will be giving them an incredible gift highlighting what you appreciate most about them. Click here for the activity.

SoaringLove Message:
When you love someone or something it makes you feel really happy so your heart expands with joy. Many different cultures have LOVE symbols to communicate this powerful positive feeling. Native Americans consider the Hummingbird to be a symbol of Love. In China, the Maple Leaf shows the sweetness of Love. In Norway and Iceland, the Harp symbolizes love.  Hinduism and Roman Mythology consider the Shell to be a love symbol while American Sign Language has the “I Love You” sign. Today you are invited to make a special SoaringLove message and artwork to give to a hospitalized child to brighten his day or you can surprise someone in your family by making a message just for them. Click here for the activity. 

Call to action
Give your project to someone special such as your mom, dad, brother or sister, friend, nurse, doctor or another child in the hospital.  

Author: Lisa Honig Buksbaum is the CEO & Founder, Soaringwords a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing.  Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it-forward to inspire ill children and teens to “Never give up!”