If I were a kid today, I’d probably be the subject of my mother’s Facebook posts. In the spring, during the very hours birds build nests and pollen clogs the sinuses, schools everywhere frantically pack in every event, concert, graduation and award ceremony possible before the end of the school year.

It’s a family’s most exhausting time of the year. It may just be Facebook’s busiest time of year, too. If I were a kid today, my own face would appear on Facebook dozens of times this month.

And I’d be horrified. But not for the reason you think.

Sure, there’d be some “oh MOM!” embarrassment, and maybe more than the usual amount of worry that my friends would see me in unflattering photos, my grin appearing above the NHS certificate or below the mortar board of my eighth grade graduation costume.

Deep down, the source of my horror would be the fear that my next action–more likely abandoning my cereal bowl on the counter than finding a cure for cancer–would be unworthy of a brag post on Facebook. With my adolescent (or younger) level of development, I may even wonder if my parents love me for the person I am, rather than the things I achieve.

I mean, I can’t ALWAYS be achieving. Right?

American culture embraces achievement. We are the sum of what we DO in life, not who we ARE as human beings. It’s not a huge boost of self esteem when mom, the very stronghold of no-matter-what love and pride, falls victim to keeping up with the Joneses in the offspring-achievement stakes.

So what impact does our culture of achievement have on my emotional wellbeing? Far from the desired effect of helping me set and reach goals, it can make me one stressed out person, indeed.

Christine Carter, Ph.D, a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, refers to a scientific study from Columbia University when she commented on her site, “kids whose parents over-emphasize their achievements are more likely to have high levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse compared to other kids. It’s easy to do. Look at what you hang up in your house. Listen to what you tell your parents about your children.”

And I’ll add this: pay attention to what you post on Facebook, because I’m watching that, too.

While the internalized response may not be quite the same, all of this applies to adults, as well. I met with a close friend yesterday who, in her forties, recently transitioned to a well-paying position at one of America’s largest companies. After 15 years at home with her kids, during which time she was busier than ever managing her home, meeting the needs of several leadership-level volunteer positions and working part time for the family-friendly flexibility (read: low pay) it offered, she’s returning to a career that will make more tangible use of her STEM degree.

HER mom’s comment on Facebook? “We’re so proud of you.” To my friend, this translates into “Finally! You’re doing something we can brag about to our friends.”

With knowledge that the situation is complex, my friend wonders where was her mother’s pride when she made the conscious choice to devote her attention to raising her children? Was it any less an achievement than managing consumer goods production schedules for close to six figures? Was it “too ordinary” to be worthy of pride?

As much as we love high achievement, we crave drama.  It’s not so interesting to gush about how wonderful our kids are when they do the little stuff, like listen undistracted to a story from our everyday lives, or save a worm from center-of-the-sidewalk dehydration by moving it to the safety of the grassy earth, or even grapple with the decision of which series to binge-watch next. Yet it’s the everyday things that make us who we are, not the “Best Of” awards.

Mom, if I were a kid today, I’d want your pride and your love everyday, achievements or not. In other words, be proud of who I AM, not what I DO.

Thanks mom.

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Seeking shared experiences

One winter day, I rode with my family in our car to a local museum. It must have been the deepest part of winter because the landscape was bitter and gray. We turned off the highway to the long entrance of the museum and directly in front of me, I saw a bird of prey fly in from high to low to capture a small animal. It was picture perfect, as if a movie director had carefully planned and executed the scene. Something we don’t see very often.

Did you see that?

Unbelievably, no one else in the car saw what I saw.

But isn’t that how it is? The moment we witness something remarkable, whether it’s an unrepeatable act of nature or a let’s-watch-it-again funniest home video, we seek to share the experience. We want others to see what we see, to feel what we feel.

Turns out there is a reason for this. A study published in the Journal of Social Issues suggests that individually, we seek to revisit our initial emotions through sharing, but the value-added bonus of the shared experience is a strengthened social bond. We feel closer to those around us when we share something we observed. We seek to connect and are rewarded when we share something significant.

What’s even more fulfilling is a connection gained when we experience something awesome as a group, in other words, when everyone sees what we see at the same time. This is why flash mobs are so memorable, and also why tragedies touch us so deeply.

While we can’t plan freak shared experiences like automobile accidents or rainbows, we can seek to connect with those around us through day-to-day encounters. Next time you are forced to stand in line, resist the urge to check your email on your smartphone. Instead, look around you. Make eye contact with those in line. Offer an empathetic smile; you are in this together, after all.

Next time you walk through a doorway, hold the door for the person behind you, even if you have to pause for longer than a moment to do so. Chances are that person will move more quickly to honor your offer, providing you an opportunity to smile and acknowledge appreciation. Plus, no one likes to have a door slam in their face.

In other words, keep your head up. Spend this day looking outside yourself in every way you can. Actively connect with others around you.

Your goal is to feel connected, but who knows? You may experience something amazing at the same time.

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Life-long strength

Once again, I am deep in summer training for the Detroit half marathon. I have a love/hate relationship with this experience, and I wait for the moment when training becomes “easy.”

It never does.

My training schedule requires running four days each week for 22 weeks. During the summer, I find myself wishing for more days in the week, so I can get every run in easily.

Off-season, I cross train with lots of different exercise. I walk with friends, run as many miles as whim carries me, swim a few times each week, and sweat through regular spinning classes. Last winter I felt like I was in pretty good shape, at least by my own standards.

With a goal of carrying this strength through training season, I haven’t given up spinning or swimming. Unfortunately, my running is suffering. So, while I’m not necessarily cutting back, I am easing intensity. I go to my regular weekly endurance cycling class, but bump down the gear to ease the load on my legs. I think I’ve hit my stride, or in today’s vernacular: I’ve found balance.

My experience is a metaphor for every woman’s fragmented life. We work, raise children, run households, plan vacations, coordinate volunteer meetings, sit on boards, budget for our children’s college tuition, clean, cook and counsel. We are busy, busy people.

As our children get older, and our personal needs begin to shift, we find pleasure in giving up some tasks, melancholy in others. We want to accomplish all we have grown accustomed to, so we find other activities to fill our time. And occasionally, we feel our energy level slipping.

This is the time to ease off, to reduce the intensity, without regret. While the 30-somethings in class are pushing at gear 15, there’s no shame, at almost 48, in backing off to 12.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating pulling every plug and reclining in the long shadows of life’s afternoon. Afternoon can be the most productive time for some of us. What I am saying is sometimes we need to get used to providing 100% where it counts, backing off to 75% where it doesn’t. Maybe this is a difficult task for those who only spin at one speed, but it’s one worth exploring.

Life-long strength depends upon it.

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In praise of one thing at a time

My husband is a confessed single-tasker.

He can only process one to-do at a time, completing it to the best of his ability before moving on. This includes talking versus juicing, stirring the soup versus pulling bread from the toaster and walking versus texting.

And while nothing is more infuriating to one who survived raising two children by juggling six to eight different tasks simultaneously, I must admit, sometimes his way is better.

When we run outside together, my husband is always the one cautiously meets a driver’s eye before stepping into the street. And while I get irritated because he puts this practice ahead of responding to my incessant questions about nothing of any great importance, I’m glad that his brain prioritizes his actions and keeps us safe.

One skill at a time.

Completely relevant to multitasking while driving, my friend Cindy La Ferle shouted out on Facebook that she is absolutely fed up with drivers who text or talk and drive at the same time. I wonder if those who engage admit the practice is dangerous only when attempted by those less skilled at multitasking. A “Don’t try this at home, kids. We’re professionals” type thing. Like somehow they are more blessed with multitasking ability than behavior researchers and lawmakers alike could ever dream of.

Beyond the life-or-death aspect of multitasking, a busy life offers many daily reminders that we are attempting to do too much all at once. My son has lost his wallet twice in the past week, failing to find it even when he retraces his steps. After prying it from between the car’s back seat and door, he confessed to being too preoccupied to pay attention to where he throws his wallet.

Then my husband returned from yoga class carrying a parking ticket because he simply forgot to put money in the meter. “And that’s exactly why I need to go to yoga,” he said.

All roads lead back to mindfulness. When we walk around in a haze, our minds whirring with thoughts of the past or of the future, or if we are too busy reading, texting, processing or Googling to experience life in each and every moment, we get ourselves into trouble.

But will it be little trouble, like owing ten bucks for a parking ticket? Or will it be much bigger trouble with lifelong impact for us or for others? Now that’s for you to decide.

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Independent we stand

We Americans pride ourselves on our independence. I write this in the days prior to the Fourth of July, our true “Independence Day,” so it’s appropriate. But apart from barbecues, family picnics and fireworks celebrations, everyday is independence day.

Perhaps because the very foundation of our country lies in our historic action of fleeing those who sought to oppress, then fighting the ruling party to crush a system of unfair taxation.

It always comes down to money, somehow, doesn’t it?

At any rate, a huge percentage of our country was founded by brave individuals forging west, searching for space to settle, farm and stretch their arms wide. I’ve always been fascinated by the fortitude of our nation’s pioneers. Laura Ingalls Wilder probably had something to do with this.

The truth is, our pioneers could only live independently for so long. In time, they created settlements, the precursors to our modern cities, so they could live in communities and benefit from the abundance that comes from many hands working together.

We Americans like to consider ourselves islands. Individuals who live side by side, but who don’t really require each other, even in the most basic sense. We have babies, yet expect them to learn independence from birth. We guide our children to stand alone, resist peer pressure and always move upstream, even when the entire population is moving downstream. We spurn the greater good in favor of personal achievement.

As such, we have trouble understanding a philosophy that is built on the whole, instead of on the individual. We shun collectivism, boosting the lone fist high above the clasped hands. We fail to understand that other nations were built not by individuals, but by communities. Not everyone believes in the individual above all else.

And that doesn’t necessarily make it good or bad. It just is what it is.

Our recent health care reform is one example. Countries with nationalized insurance plans provide adequate care for everyone, and it seems to work moderately well. Is it a perfect situation? Probably not. But how perfect is a system that ultimately works to keep people sick for the sake of profit? How perfect is a system that only goes so far to provide wellness programs through hospitals and clinics, knowing that successful results mean substantially fewer dollars generated?

Yes, taxes are higher for people with “socialized” medicine, perhaps reducing the average person’s disposable income substantially. But a nation whose people don’t feel tied to an employer’s health care plan is potentially a nation richer in entrepreneurial spirit, where people learn that there are many ways to make a living, to earn a decent amount of money without slaving to the 9 to 5 routine.

Because how is being shackled to an employer, who can wave you off as easily as hug you tight, true independence? We fear building government that has the potential to provide each citizen with some element of coverage in times of grave illness or injury, yet cling to a system that does not necessarily promote what we prize above all else – a true spirit of independence.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as writers like me make it seem. We have a long way to go to make our health care system right, and perhaps an even longer way to go until we, as individuals, learn to take responsibility for our own health in a way that reduces our need for lifelong medical care. Now that’s true independence.

I have faith that we can get there. If we really want to.

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An everyday boost

I just noticed my oven has a sense of humor.

When it is done preheating, it chimes and its LCD readout says “INSERT FOOD.” I’m sure the engineers at Maytag saw this as nothing more than an informational prompt. But it makes me laugh, and suddenly I feel connected to the person who decided the prompt was necessary.

Truth is, we could all use a little more humor in our lives. And indeed, in our appliances. But if our labor-saving devices could do just one thing in addition to toasting, freezing, washing or brewing, my vote would be for providing some positive talk. A little phrase of truth that will ground us and allow us to move to the next moment feeling strong and worthy.

Not enough of us are skilled at providing the oomph of confidence that positive self talk can provide, so let’s delegate it to our washers and dryers.

Positivity can boost mood, increase coping skills, contribute to longevity and even stave off heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. We are how we think, apparently.
Unfortunately, there is plenty in the everyday world to counteract even the most sunny Pollyannas. War, crime, taxes, politics, arguments, even the simplest conflicts carve away at our souls like skates on a sheet of ice.

Engineers at appliance companies take heed. Imagine yourself as the Tinkerbell of positivity and work some magic into your next refrigerator plan. Think of all the good you could do.

Some suggestions:

  • A pleasant voice announcing “You look radiant in blue, even more so when the sky is cloudy” would be a welcome boost as I return the OJ to the refrigerator shelf.
  • “Smile. You are making the world a cleaner and more beautiful place,” would sound perfect as I take laundry from the dryer.
  • “You achieve amazing things when you try.” Yes. It’s a wonderful perk to get a compliment and a piece of sprouted whole grain goodness from the confidence-boosting toaster.

Recognize that none of these announcements is in any way bogus information. Each of us is a worthy being, placed on this earth to achieve some purpose, even if that purpose isn’t abundantly clear each and every day. And while our coffee pots are brewing a hit of mental alertness, they may as well be soothing our psyches at the same time.

Take a look around. Where do you invite positivity into your world?

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