Making New Year's Resolutions Work for You

Originally Published in Psychology Today.

 

To Make Your Resolutions Feel Successful, Consider Tailoring Them to Suit You.

As 2017 fades away and 2018 glimmers up ahead, most of us will soon hear this question pop up in conversation, if we haven’t heard it already:

“Do you have a New Year’s resolution?”

How will you respond?  If you’re like almost half of all Americans, you’ll say, “yes.”  And if the most popular resolutions are anything to go by, you’re most likely to say that you want to:

  • Shed a few pounds
  • Grow as a person or enhance your life in some way
  • Kick that smoking habit
  • Have more adventure
  • Carve out more quality time with loved ones
  • Devote more time to exercise
  • Gain knowledge or master a new skill
  • Be kinder and more generous to people
  • Meet that special someone
  • Obtain more enjoyable and rewarding work 

Of course, you may not relate to this.  A lot of Americans either rarely make resolutions or they don’t make them at all.  But regardless of whether you relish resolutions or you scoff at the idea of such foolishness, there’s actually reason to give New Year’s resolutions another peek.   

Surprisingly, the act of marking the start of a new year can inspire us to change.  According to a 2015 study, specific benchmarks in time (like our friend, New Year’s Day) allow us to give ourselves a fresh start.  Other examples include a birthday or an anniversary, or a milestone in life such as a wedding, a birth, a significant move, or a major career achievement.  These sorts of time markers stoke the fires in our belly to make a change for the better.  Why?  Because as we pass over such a threshold in time, we’re able to create some distance between who we were in the past and who we are today.  When we see our current self as new and distinct from our prior self–you know, the one with all those flaws and bumbles–we feel more capable of marching forward and taking on new goals and challenges. 

 “The old me couldn’t eat more fruits and vegetables, but this me can.”  

Now here’s where we come to a thorny spot with New Year’s resolutions.  Only eight percent of people manage to pull them off.  Perhaps this is why a lot of folks don’t make them.  After all, why bother setting ourselves up for failure?  Who needs that? 

But let’s slow down a minute and think about why so few people reach their New Year’s ambitions?  Is it because resolutions simply don’t work, or is the problem how we’re approaching them? 

Arguably, many of us tackle resolutions with a plan that looks something like this:

  1. Make a solemn promise to ourselves to change
  2. Harness all of the motivation and good intentions we have
  3. Hope for the best

And although this can work for some, this doesn’t work for all or even most of us. Essentially, we’re trying to mold ourselves to fit our resolutions.  So I have a proposal for 2018: 

Let’s flip resolutions upside down and design them to suit us.

Now how can we do that?  How can we boost our chances of looking back on 2018 with a gratified smile as we realize that we made our resolutions work for us for a change and actually feel successful?  Here are a few tips:

  • Aim for the goodies along the way instead of the one at the destination.  

Resolutions often have a long-term goal in mind, such as wanting to be more physically fit, to stop smoking for good, to live a happier and more loving life, or to enjoy a more fulfilling career path.  And even though these far-off goals spur us to begin the journey required to reach them, a 2017 study reveals that they’re not enough to help us press on and continue that journey.  However, what does help is peppering the road toward a distant carrot we’re chasing with lots of little carrots that we can savor right now.  If we’re trying to be a more generous and kind human being, then an example of a short-term bonus would be to relish the uplifting feelings that come with helping someone on a particular day.  Or if we hope to get in shape, we could celebrate the sensation of getting stronger as we notice how that weight seems a little less exhausting to lift, or how our feet can carry us a bit farther and faster as we run. 

  • Figure out what you want to achieve and where you are in the journey, and then match your resolution to that.

We humans are capable of moving in two directions when it comes to our goals.  We can move toward what we want, which is also known as a promotion-focused approach.  Or, we can evade what we don’t want; this is a prevention-focused approach.  When the approach we use matches what we want to do and how far along we are in doing it, then we’re more likely to be successful.  For example, if our goal is to cultivate a more connected romantic relationship, then we’ll do our partner, ourselves, and our relationship a favor by focusing on how we can show love and appreciation to our partner (a promotion-focused goal), rather than on how we can avoid upsetting our partner (a prevention-focused goal).  And if we’re hoping to stop smoking or lose weight, then we’ll be more successful in the first six months if we focus on reaching these goals (a promotion-focused approach).  Then, once we’ve managed to hit these targets and we want to hold onto them, it may be most helpful to concentrate on protecting ourselves from reverting back to where we were, such as starting smoking again or gaining weight (prevention-focused approaches).

  • To achieve more, aim for less.

It can be downright intimidating to change.  It’s fraught with challenges, flagging motivation, self-doubt, temptations, and stumbles along the way.  And nothing quite puts the frosting on a dispirited cake like a resolution that we try at and fail, without a crumb of victory.  It can feel so daunting that it seems saner to not even try.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we need to throw out our dreams and aspirations for an improved self and a better life.  Far from it!  Thankfully, massive goals can happily co-exist alongside smaller ambitions and triumphs as we go along.  So for example, if you hope to start running, rather than telling yourself you’re going to run a half-marathon this year, try starting with smaller targets like running one minute, one block, or one mile.  And give yourself a pat on the back for it.  Or let’s say you want to be a better friend or romantic partner.  Picture what that looks like for you and try writing down specifics.  What you would be doing, thinking, or feeling if you became that upgraded friend or partner you’d most like to be?  Then, when you go over your list, make sure you have a blend of steps that feel basic and simple (e.g., sending a weekly text to a friend you’re close to, but have been too busy to connect with) along with ones that may require more effort (e.g., listening to your partner and communicating in a loving way, even if you’re really mad).  And no matter whether you’ve achieved a step your list that’s a cakewalk or a gauntlet, you did it, so give yourself credit for it. 

When the sun sets on 2018 a year from now, maybe you won’t reach the long-term destination you set out for, but so what?  The road of improvement goes on for a lifetime, not for a year.  If you can honestly tell yourself that you’ve made even one small change and generally held onto it (hey, no one’s perfect), then you will have made progress, and that’s an accomplishment and a worthwhile resolution in and of itself.  But if you still find that New Year’s resolutions just aren’t your thing, consider using another benchmark in time that feels more motivating.  It’s all about making resolutions work for you.  

And, of course, no matter whether you choose a resolution or not, I wish you a year filled with love, friendshiphealth, meaning, laughter, growth, happiness, and anything else that’s important to you. 

See you in 2018!

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-...

Let's Talk About Orgasms

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

How does the pressure to orgasm affect sex and what can couples do?

Orgasms are ________.

Go for it. Insert whatever descriptors you like in the blank. If you said blissfulpowerfulpleasurable, or mind-blowing, you’re not alone. Then again, if you said fleetingconfusingunpredictable, or I wish I knew! you’re in good company there too. As a 2017 study revealed, 5 percent of heterosexual men, roughly 12 percent of gay and bisexual men, 14 percent of lesbian women, and approximately 35 percent of heterosexual and bisexual women do not frequently experience an orgasm.

Does this mean that you must be defective in some way if you don’t climax regularly, find it troublesome to get there, or have never experienced one? Of course not, but as the saying goes, perception is reality. All we humans have to do is buy into the notion that we’re broken in some way, and the self-doubt piles on. 

People can place enormous pressure on themselves when it comes to sex and orgasms. It’s easy for the Big O to become a Big Pain when climaxing turns into a must-have goal…or else. 

Or else what? 

Well, that depends. For some folks, an orgasm is a sign they’re functioning normally. The implication is that if it doesn’t happen, then something must be amiss with them. Others view climaxing as a reassuring message to their partner, such as “You’re a talented lover who’s turning me on!” Still, others treat an orgasm as an indication that they’ve done their part as a lover; if their partner didn’t climax, they assume it means they’ve failed. And when we treat orgasms as a way of showing that we’re normal, as a means to safeguard our partner’s feelings, or as a marker of our own sexual skill, we raise the stakes of an orgasm tremendously.

What is a person to do if an orgasm isn’t happening? For many folks, their answer is to fake it. According to a 2010 study, 25 percent of men and 50 percent of women have faked orgasms. Why did they do it? Popular reasons include: 

  • To protect their partner’s feelings
  • To make their partner feel good
  • To stop having sex

Although faking an orgasm may seem like the smoothest way forward in an uneasy situation, the downside is that this strategy takes away discomfort in the moment without fostering honest communication or enhancing sex for a couple in the long run. So what can you do if, along with many others, you feel the weight of orgasmic expectations? 

  • Take the pressure off of yourself and your partner to have an orgasm. Even better, change your aim from orgasms to relishing sex-play with your partner in the moment. See what happens if you focus less on the outcome and more on enjoying the journey. If you mindfully tune in to what your body is feeling and to your experience with partner, you may notice a boost in the bedroom. People who are more mindful are happier with their sex life.

 

  • Consider taking a chance and genuinely talking with your partner. Although authentic communication about sex is linked to more sexual satisfaction, a happier relationship, and greater passion, that doesn’t mean it feels easy or risk-free. Open dialogue can be challenging, as it involves a certain level of vulnerability. If you share what you like, what turns you on, or your hopes and fears, what if your lover were to judge you, to feel hurt, or dismiss or reject you? Even as these questions and the unease that accompanies them are entirely understandable, try to remember that those fears may not reflect reality. Just imagine: What if your lover reacted to you with acceptance, appreciation, responsiveness, love, and passion? If you make the leap and allow yourself to talk about sex with your partner, think of it as a worthy investment in the two of you. Besides, you just might make it easier for your partner to reveal more to you. Research shows that when we allow others to see more of us, they allow us to see more of them too. So why not open the door to deeper sexual communication yourself? Someone has to make the first move. 

The Sandman's Gift

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

What price do we pay for getting too little sleep?

Okay, I’ll admit it: When presented with a choice between visiting slumberland and burning the midnight oil, I haven’t always made the brightest choice. “If a few hours of sleep need to be sacrificed here and there to get things done and be productive, it’s worth it, right?” Wrong. Thankfully, my lovely husband gave me exactly the kind of truth I needed, referring to the version of me on sleep deprived days as Holly Version 1.0, which motivated me to turn over a new leaf on getting shut-eye. I mean, really. Who wants to function as Version 1.0

As it turns out, a lot of us are operating as Version 1.0 because a sizable chunk of us aren’t getting enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that inadequate sleep is a “public health problem,” and report that approximately 35 percent of adults in the United Statesare getting less than seven hours of sleep per night. (At least seven hours of sleep is recommended.) And the National Sleep Foundation reveals that the same percentage of adults (35 percent) say they’re not getting the quality of sleep they need.

So what are the consequences of too little sleep? It's harder to process information, remember things, and take care of the everyday business of life, and sleep loss also increases the odds of accidents and is linked to various health conditions (e.g., hypertension, diabetes). And there are other repercussions of inadequate rest. In thecriminal justice system, for example, judges give defendants more prison time during daylight savings time, a time when they’re also more likely to miss out on sleep. In everyday life, insomnia forecasts thoughts of suicide. At the workplaceleaders who get inadequate sleep are less socially skilled with their colleagues. And in the world of romantic relationships, sleep is linked to how couples relate to each other. For instance, couples who don’t sleep well are more likely to be at odds with each other. Not only is it harder to read the emotions of someone who hasn't slept enough, but that sleep-deprived person also has a harder time figuring out what their partner is feeling. However, those who get enough zzz’s are more likely to feel happier with their partner. And when well-rested people have less than shining moments with their partner, they’re more inclined to resist allowing these moments to dim how they see the relationship, which is beneficial for their bond.

What we just covered here is a fraction of the research on sleep and how it potently impacts our lives. Now perhaps you already know how vital sleep is and you’re getting the hours and quality of sleep you need: Beautiful! But, if you’re one of the many who struggles to get enough sleep, or who prioritizes other tasks oversleep (ahem, like yours truly used to do), I hope the information here offers a little validation about getting the sleep you and deserve. If you’re not sure where to start, consider some of the following initial steps: 

  • Don’t go it alone. Talk with your primary care doctor about how much sleep you’re getting and how you can improve the amount and quality of your sleep. Moreover, consider reaching out to a therapist and trying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), a scientifically supported treatment. Psychology Today has an extensive listing of therapists who can help.  

  • Do a little online searching for reputable websites that offer tips on how to improve your sleep routine. The National Sleep Foundation is a great place to start. 

  • Rather than trying to change your sleep routine dramatically, focus on making one minor, doable change. You’re used to going to bed at 12:30 a.m.? For starters, set an alarm to prompt yourself to go to sleep at 12:15 a.m. 

  • If you doubt the impact of sleep on your functioning, try noticing and jotting down how you think, feel, and perform on days when you get enough sleep compared to days when you don’t. And seek out the thoughts of others who really know you. Try asking a friend, a relative, or your partner for their input on what Version of you is walking around when you’re well-rested, and when you’re not. 

Alternative Facts in Intimate Relationships

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

Fibbing to a romantic partner may seem fairly harmless, but is it?

We’ve sure been talking a lot about lying lately, haven’t we? Is the news media being dishonest with you? Well, your take on that depends on whether you consider a story to be “real news” or “fake news.” And we’ve seen the repackaging of what most would consider to be untruths as “alternative facts.” 

But what about the deception that happens on a more micro level, between two people? Just as we denounce dishonesty at the societal level, we might also want to take another look at the falsehoods we utter to those who are closest to us, particularly our romantic partner.

Just how often do people lie? A lot. Think of all the encounters we have with others on a daily basis. On average, for every three to five conversations people have, they’re dishonest in one of them. And although individuals tend to be more truthful with their loved ones than with everybody else, they’re deceptive with them, too. For example, there’s evidence that people lie to their husband or wife 10 percent of the time. 

And folks aren’t really all that opposed to lying. According to 2016 surveys, 64 percent of us believe that it’s OK to mislead someone from time to time, and 58 percent of us think it’s acceptable to deceive someone on occasion so we don’t upset them. Indeed, even though people feel more uneasy if they fib to those they care about compared to someone they’re not close to, they still view most of these “smaller scale” lies as coming from a well-intentioned place rather than from selfishnessExamples of such lies in romantic relationships include praising food that secretly isn’t all that enjoyable or faking a sexual climax to spare a partner’s feelings. 

However, when it comes to “large-scale” lies, these actually take place more often within the nearest and dearest relationships. In romantic relationships, instances of weighty liesinclude attempts to cover up an affair, tall tales of achievements, and falsely saying “I love you.” But these kinds of untruths are pretty uncontroversial. Most people know they’re a big deal and feel more upset if they tell this kind of falsehood than a smaller one. Generally speaking, though, the practice of lying to a romantic partner to promote the relationship, spare feelings, and ease personal discomfort commonly occurs

But does it work? Does it really boost romantic relationships? Not really, for a few reasons. First off, we’re more apt to get caught if we lie to a romantic partner (and to others whom we love), leaving us with two problems. On top of the unearthed truth we were trying to evade, now we have to look at our partner and face the lie we told. 

Second, even if we believe our lie was just a fib and came packaged with caring motives, it doesn’t mean our partner will share that viewpoint. And why? Because we don’t treat lying and being lied to in the same manner. If we were on the receiving end of an untruth, we’d likely see it as self-centered, significant, and upsetting, whereas we’d minimize it and see it as a helpful gesture if we were the one lying.  

Third, dishonesty in a relationship can spark a cycle of disconnection. For instance, when someone suspects their romantic partner is being secretive, they have less faith in that person and become more secretive as well. And even if a person lies convincingly and leads their partner to believe the untruths, dishonesty with a romantic partner is linked with less emotional intimacy for the one who’s lying. Deception gives with one hand, but ultimately takes away with the other. Whereas truthfulness—the opposite of deceitfulness—is vital to building trust, which partners need to count on each other and feel more dedicated to the relationship.  

So how can we be more authentic and curb the spread of “alternative facts” in romantic relationships? Remembering moments of emotional safety and bonding may be a starting point, because when people remember feeling cared for, they’re less inclined to be dishonest

In the end, perhaps by reaching for acceptance, love, and intimacy, and taking the risks of being real rather than being deceptive, we’ll be more likely to find and keep the love we seek.

Sidestepping Into Addiction

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

How does denial impact addiction and recovery?

On the face of things, doesn’t it just seem like the answer to disagreeable feelings isto run for cover in our bat cave, where they can’t pester us anymore?  It seems so logical.  The trouble is that we don’t quite operate that way.  Ironically, recent research reveals that the more we ward off bothersome emotions on a day-to-day basis, the more the unpleasant feelings dwell within us and the more the pleasurable ones seem further out of reach.  And addiction, both to compulsive behaviors and mood-altering substances, is a forceful domain where emotional avoidance and psychological hardship traipse hand in hand.

For example, when we evade unwanted experiences inside us, we’re also more prone to grapple with harmful levels of gambling, which, sadly, offer the promise of feelings—like excitement, hope, and happiness—that can provide temporary solace from the real feelings of boredom, hopelessness, and sadness that a person experiences.  But we don’t have to spend money to fend off burdensome feelings. There’s also a link between our drive to bypass unsettling emotions and Internet addiction, particularly in the form of online gaming.  Does this mean that if you’re a gamer, you must be warding off vexing feelings?  Absolutely not!  Plenty of people play for the sheer pleasure of it, similar to folks who let loose with the occasional game of blackjack or a few rounds at the slot machine.  As long as we have a healthy relationship with gambling or the Internet, we’re cool.

In the world of substance addiction, emotional escapism rips us off with a smile.  For instance, a 2015 psychological research study from the University of Texas Medical School at Houston shows that people who stay away from their inner experiences related to cocaine use (such as their feelings) are less likely to stay on track with treatment for cocaine dependence, even when that treatment is well-researched and quite potent.  In fact, it’s a truism that substance misuse is a way of “medicating” uncomfortable feelings and that not wanting to face those feelings is a key dynamic in not admitting you have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.  “He’s in denial,” is a common plaint of both family members and counselors regarding people with addiction disorders in general. 

The fact that the majority of therapists admit to being unclear on how to effectively treat someone with denial speaks to its knotty, intricate nature.  Undoubtedly, though, the prospect of releasing denial, admitting to a problem with substances, and letting go of the very thing that offers protection from formidable feelings is thorniest for the person in the grip of addiction.  In the course of my work, I’ve had the privilege of walking side by side with numerous people as they explored the role of alcohol and other drugs in their lives.  And although their stories are unique, an intertwining theme is the utter humanness of wanting to evade deep unhappiness, anguish, or heartache (to name a few emotions), and to reach for a remedy to take those feelings away.  Alongside this understandable drive, other hopes fall in, such as wanting to make life a little more bearable or to feel a little numb inside in order to continue functioning on a day-to-day basis.  The tricky catch with this solution is that it works—in the short run.  It numbs, enlivens, soothes, or distracts, or all of the above. 

Maybe the emotions are so overwhelming that it feels like they will never stop if they aren’t nailed down with something.  Or perhaps alcohol and other drugs seem like the only option to cope with unalterable circumstances, such as living in a theater of war, extreme poverty, or an abusive family.  But regardless of what ground substance addiction springs from, what makes it especially cruel is that it gives with one hand in the beginning and takes with both hands later.  Not only does it stop working, it blocks the ability to heal the very emotions that drive the addiction, and it tends to create new painful experiences on top of everything else.  But in the midst of addiction, denial can be a thick cloak that protects us from the downsides of dependence.  For anyone with a problem with alcohol or other drugs, I recognize and respect the struggle between continuing what feels safe and familiar, and discarding denial.  Yet, as risky as it feels to let denial go, the most profound hazard is holding on to it.  I’ve witnessed firsthand the personal vigor and wholeness that infuses people who ditch denial and the false sanctuary of mood-altering substances and, as a result, come up to meet themselves. 

Hidden Traps

But the journey of ditching denial and reaching out for help isn’t a straightforward one.  Unobservable influences can impact addiction and the pathway toward recovery.  For instance, science suggests that folks who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs can pay attention to drinking or drug use, even before they consciously realize it.  In other words, people grappling with addiction can find their minds turned to toward alcohol or another drug of choice against their will, and this can continue even after they are sober.  And it makes sense why this happens.  Our brains are wired to pair things together, particularly anything that holds significance for us.  A song that once was just a pleasant tune can become deeply meaningful and emotionally evocative because it happened to be playing when something memorable occurred, like the first time you kissed your partner.  Likewise, alcohol and drug use can link up with reminders of their own.  Beer advertisements during the Super Bowl, a certain bar or lounge where drinking used to happen, a particular street related to drug use, or vivid smells that always used to go along with drinking or using—such as cigarettes, the smell of alcohol or drugs themselves, or the aroma of certain foods—are all examples.  And when these reminders automaticallypull people’s attention, they can make them more prone to experience cravings and more vulnerable to relapsing. 

What’s more, it has been shown that people who unconsciously link drugs and alcohol with their sense of self—with their own being, as though substances are a part of their identity—are more apt to give up on an addiction treatment program sooner.  Notably, it’s the unconscious attitude, not the conscious one, that forecasts people’s treatment time

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy 

But conscious denial of the human capacity to heal can hamper recovery too.  Many believe they’re locked in the firm grip of addiction with no hope of a way out.  A number of people think they’re not capable of handling life’s stressors and that they “need” alcohol or drugs to carry on.  Then they descend even deeper into addiction. For instance, among people who have had a traumatic experience, the belief that they don’t have control over their healing process is related to struggling with symptoms of PTSD, which itself is linked to turning to alcohol to get by.  Sadly, this strategy paves the way for an alcohol use disorder.   

If you think you might need help, countless people know what you’re going through. What’s more, they know the freedom that comes with getting help and climbing out of the hole of addiction.  And if you’re trying to help someone who’s struggling, please know that there are multiple ways to reach a better place, and that even if that person resists the treatment options recommended by their doctor, it pays to explore other options.   

How Do Biases Influence Our Spending?

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

Biases impact what we perceive and how we spend money.

How can we be more mindful consumers?  In the last two posts, we examined a few facets of this question by exploring some of the techniques marketers use to persuade us to spend.  Now, in the final post of this three-part series on marketingand influence, we’re going to look inward at some of the all-too-human biases that can leave us open to these potent methods.  These biases don’t exist because we’re just not smart or savvy enough.  Everyone has biases of some kind, but it’s not always easy to accept that.  It feels reassuring to think we’ve got our fingers on the pulse of reality.  And oftentimes we do.  We humans can be keen, discerning observers of life!  All the same, biases can color our viewpoint in many instances.  But thankfully, when we can acknowledge that we’re all susceptible to biases, we’re actually in a better position to shield ourselves against the subtle pull of sundry sales tactics. 

As we roam through the world of biases, your mind may assure you, “Don’t worry! These don’t really apply to you!” while other people’s biases readily flit through your memory.  Believe it or not, that itself is a bias, and we’ll look at it here in this post.  Or perhaps you are willing to admit that you have your fair share of biases.  If this is you, research reveals you’re still apt to miscalculate them, believing you hold less than you really do.  And that’s OK.  As we’ll see next, biases are linked to how our brains function.  

Two Gears 

Let’s start by looking at the bright side of biases.  They stem from an exceedingly pragmatic brain, which has to process endless reams of information all day, every day. And you, my friend, have a full life to life.  You don’t have time to painstakingly sift through everything you come across with equally attentive detail.  So your brain has to make choices if it’s going to be efficient enough to allow you to do everything you need to do. 

There are basically two ways your brain processes information.  The first is called systematic processing.  When your brain is in this mode, you’re paying attention. You’re thoughtfully, slowly, and studiously considering information, and you have the luxury to take your time.  Just think of times when you felt mentally engaged and mindful, taking in what’s in front of you with an astute eye.  Perhaps it was a work project, a news story, or a choice between two cars to buy.  Sure, it takes more energy and time, but this is what’s required to get the job done. 

But let’s say you lack knowledge that’s vital for you to prudently weigh the information at hand, or you’re exhausted or uninterested in what you’re hearing, or you have too little time to carefully reflect.  In that case, your brain will switch gears and take the easy path, which brings us to the second kind of processing known as heuristic processing.  When you’re in the heuristic mode, your brain relies on mental bypass routes that furnish you with the ability to make decisions quickly, and with less information.  In essence, you’re dipping into a toolbox of simple guidelines and formulas to make choices, and you don’t need a lot of time, energy, alertness, effort, or knowledge to do it. 

And we should thank our lucky stars that we’re endowed with both mental gears because we’d be totally dysfunctional otherwise.  Imagine what would happen if you didn’t have the capacity to veer a little nearer to autopilot at times.  You’d have to study all the laws and philosophically weigh whether you should follow each of them or not.  You wouldn’t be able to simply rely on your doctor’s lifestyle recommendations and trust her advice.  How does she really know what’s good for you, and why should you take her word for it?  If you saw other people screaming and running from a building, you wouldn’t take that as a sign that you should follow their lead.  After all, maybe you just need to check out the situation for yourself.  Every encounter with people would require careful, lengthy deliberation about what their intentions are and what they’re trying to tell you.  Patterns that emerge quickly for others would take you forever and a day to figure out.  In other words, it just wouldn’t work!

However, because your brain’s heuristic processing is faster and works with less information, even though it’s immensely useful, errors are bound to happen.  An example that always comes to mind involves a friend’s husband.  He was in a hurry one night and decided to run to reach his destination.  A woman walking alone saw him quickly approaching and ran away, presumably because she believed he was about to harm her.  In that moment, all she had to go on was that she was alone at night with a stranger running directly toward her.  Sure, he could be in a hurry, but he could also be an assailant.  She didn’t have time to debate which was true, so her brain took the fast path and told her to run.  But her swift judgment was incorrect–my friend’s husband is an immensely kind and gentle human being who would never hurt a soul.  In fact, he felt terribly when he realized he frightened her.  

And when it comes to what we buy, our brain takes these shortcuts, too.  Sometimes these mental timesavers lend us a helping hand in making decisions, like when we take the word of our dentist who recommends a certain toothpaste. But heuristic processing can also sidetrack us, leading us to spend money in ways we probably wouldn’t if we were taking in the situation a little more mindfully.  So what kinds of biases do people have, and how can they impact consumer choices?Let’s turn to that question next.  

Biases of Our Brain

I’ll Take Whatever Is Available, Please

Certain memories just pop to mind easier than others, don’t they?  If I asked you to write down a list of memories as quickly as you could without editing yourself in any way, the ones that emerge first are probably going to involve moments that a) happened close to the present time (e.g., the cereal you had for breakfast yesterday), b) were especially noteworthy and weighty (e.g., your wedding day), and c) stand out because they’re so uncommon (e.g., when you hiked into an ancient volcano).  And with the availability heuristic, we’re apt to rely on memories that readily enter our mind when we’re trying to guesstimate how often a situation occurs or how likely it is to happen.  This can lead to errors, such as:

  • Overestimating the odds that something will occur (e.g., a person who believes another plane crash is likely to occur in the immediate aftermath of one)

  • Seeing more of a relationship between two situations than is actually the case (e.g., someone who believes fender benders tend to happen on Mondays because his last two did) 

  • Misjudging how common a circumstance is (e.g., a friend who believes that one-piece swim suits are all the rage because she easily remembers seeing a couple of them at a pool party the weekend before)  

So how does the availability heuristic apply to marketing?  We can find one example in pricing.  If we repeatedly see ads highlighting a store's low-cost prices and we haven't really spent much time in that store before, we're more likely to remember those prices later and will view the store as a place with a lot of bargains. And marked down prices are certainly a draw for most of us! 

Just Give Me What Feels Like the Usual

The representativeness heuristic can also lead us into erroneous waters.  When we’re using this heuristic, we’re comparing a certain situation, person, or thing against our ideaof what that situation, person, or thing is usually like. 

At times, this heuristic serves us quite well.  If the ground starts to shake underneath you and you’re in California (and many other places), you would do well to rapidly match that situation with your notion of an earthquake.  If someone bursts into a bank with a ski mask and a gun, it’s a sound idea to quickly pair this person with your concept of a robber and behave accordingly.  Where we stumble and fall flat is when we mistakenly assume that the general image we have in our head always matches the reality before us.  I vividly remember the first time I felt the grating under my feet rumble as an underground train dashed beneath me in Boston.  As a native Californian, that sensation felt like the onset of an earthquake to me, so I braced myself for what was to come, then laughed with relief when I realization it was only a train.  

And it can also sway what we buy.  For example, think of the impressive array of items we usually find in stores.  Some of the products we come across are unfamiliar, lacking well-known brand names to back them up (e.g., generic cold medicine, soda, or paper towels).  Now imagine that the presentation and packaging of one of these more obscure products made it look like a big name brand that’s more recognizable to you (e.g., Advil Cold and Sinus, Coke Zero, Brawny Paper Towels).  If you decided to buy the unknown brand, concluding it’s much the same as the popular brand because both products look alike, the representativeness heuristic would be in action.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that the lesser known product isn’t just as good.  You could very well be right!  The takeaway point here is that the representativeness heuristic can influence our purchasing decisions. 

I think It’s Time for a Little A and A 

In daily life, we routinely have to make rough guesses.  About how much ice do we want to put in our ice coffee?  How close to the stop sign should we actually press the breaks?  How much do we want to request as a starting salary?  How much should we put away for retirement?  How many apples should we buy?  How many shoes for work do we really need?  Should we get two winter sweaters, or four? How many cans of soup and rolls of toilet paper will be sufficient?  You get the idea. And what each question requires is some number we can use at the outset.  This is called anchoring, and we need it to make a host of decisions, including all of the ones we just talked about. 

However, we may not always choose the proper anchor, and that’s where we make biased errors.  For instance, we may request less salary than our abilities merit, underestimate how much we need to live comfortably in our retirement years, or buy more apples than we can eat before they go bad.  So then we tweak the anchor we’ve set, and this is called the adjustment.  An adjustment could be a personal promise to ask for a larger salary in the future, to increase our savings goal for retirement and set aside more money from our paycheck, or to buy fewer apples. 

The trouble is that we have a bias here, too.  We tend to stay too close to our anchor, not making many adjustments at all, and marketers profit.  One research study found that when stores put a buying limit on a product, we tend to wind up using that limit as our anchor, and then any small-scale adjustments we make keep us near that anchor.  For instance, let’s say we walk into a shoe store and an employee tells us that we can’t buy more than four pairs of shoes.  Because we tend to start from an anchor and make inadequate adjustments afterward, we’re more apt to start with a game plan of buying four pairs of shoes, even if we were originally planning on buying just one.  And even if we don’t reach our anchor of four pairs, we’ll veer very little from that number (e.g., three shoes instead of four).  This translates into major profits for the store as it convinces its customers to buy more, ironically, by limiting how much they can purchase.  

I Just Don’t See It!

There are other heuristics and biases that we didn’t have a chance to cover here, but as we bring this article to a close, let’s not forget the bias blind spot.  This is the bias that we don’t really have biases, or at least not at the level that other people do. And if it’s unsettling to accept that you, too, have biases that can impact your decisions, hopefully you can find some comfort in the realization that you’re in good company with the rest of the human race.  No one is above bias.  And in the world of marketing, if we can own this truth that we are never wholly immune to bias and influence, we’ll stand on sturdier ground to spend our money mindfully, as we choose, not as marketers wish. 

The Cloaked Pull of Persuasion in Marketing

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

How do sales tactics sway us to give our money away?

In the last post on hidden influences in marketing, we saw how companies strive to cultivate brand recognition and create the ideal store environment.  But marketing efforts go well beyond this, with carefully honed techniques all designed around the primary, financial bottom line—to lead us to buy.  When we understand some of the most effective marketing techniques, it’s easier to resist them, but knowledge alone isn’t enough to shield us from their persuasive power. If we think we’re above the pull of corporate influence, we’re apt to relax. And then it doesn’t matter how much information we possess. We’re still an easy target. So the more we can hold onto an awareness of marketing strategies and the realization that we're never immune from their influence, we’ll stand on more solid ground to make informed, less biased choices with our money. So, on that note, let’s explore some potent marketing methods.

Wait a minute!  What did you say?

"Thanks for the offer, but I’m all set!"

These words line up at the starting gate, ready to race from your mouth as you nod your head and wait for a pause in the sales pitch to shut it all down. I’m betting this sounds familiar to you, and it’s certainly no secret to salespeople either. So how do they stop the mental “No, thank you!” tape from playing? An off-beat sentence thrown in as a curve ball just before the actual sales pitch works quite nicely. It’s a technique called disrupt-then-reframe. Imagine you’re strolling through a mall when a salesperson selling gift cards approaches you.

"Good day! I’m selling gift cards, and the price for one is as little as 100 dimes. It’s a great deal! What do you say?"

Wow—100 dimes?! The quirkiness of dimes, as opposed to the familiarity of dollars, handily distracts you from saying no and leaves you more open to believing the sales pitch (i.e., that you’re getting a good deal). This simple approach is so effective that it can even lead people to go along with ideas that oppose their own best interests, like voting for a hike in yearly college tuition—when they’re going to college! 

If you won’t agree to give away your dog, how about donating $50?  

Another approach is known as door-in-the-face. It hinges on a potent but often unstated social expectation that when a person does something beneficial for us, we owe it to them to return the favor. In psychology, this is called the norm of reciprocity, and we can see its reflection in common expressions such as “tit for tat,” "One good turn deserves another," and “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” If you’ve ever grumbled about an unexpected gift somebody gave you because it meant that you would have to buy a present in return, you have the norm to thank. It even turns up in subtler ways. The next time you see a person open a door for someone else without receiving any appreciation in return, look at his or her face. You’ll probably see a twinge of surprise, amusement, irritation, or a blend of these.  

So how does this apply to marketing and door-in-the-face? Let’s imagine that a salesperson approaches you and says, "Hi there!  Would you like to buy a 16-ounce bottle of our luxurious bath oil? It will leave your skin soft and supple!" 

In response, you say, “No, thank you.” But before you can walk away, the savvy salesperson says, “OK, how about the four-ounce bottle instead?

Notice what just happened here.  After you passed on the larger bottle, the salesperson scaled down to a smaller one, creating the illusion that he or she is agreeably trying to reach a middle ground with you. This is where pressure from the norm of reciprocity kicks in, leaving you with the vague sense that you should buy the four-ounce bottle because, well, the salesperson did try to meet you halfway, right? As you walk away with bath oil you didn’t even need, what slipped right under your attention is that the salesperson wasn’t actually engaging in any kind of give and take with you at all.  Even though it felt like an even exchange of favors, the only one who did any favors in that situation was you. 

Will you donate $50? Okay, now will you give away your dog?

The foot-in-the-door is the flipside of the door-in-the-face.  The salesperson using this approach starts off by asking you for a relatively minor favor, then maneuvers to the larger, genuine request.  For instance, imagine that as you walk into a store, a salesperson approaches you and says, "Hi!  Would you be willing to try our hand cream and complete a brief survey about it?  It won’t take more than two or three minutes of your time!"

That seems pretty minor.  What’s two to three minutes? Plus, your hands are feeling a little dry. Then the real pitch comes once you hand back the survey. 

"Thank you very much!  Can I interest you in our special gift basket?  It has the hand cream you just tried, a loofa sponge, scented soaps, and minty foot cream for just $20!"

Now that you’ve already committed to the first, smaller favor, you’re more likely to agree to the second, larger one to keep your decisions in line with each other.  After all, you’ve already agreed to one request. Why stop now and turn down a second one? 

Glad you liked the offer! Ooh, sorry I have to take it back!

This one is called the low-ball technique.  Picture yourself at a car dealership where you’ve found your wheeled version of The One.  Even better, the salesperson gave you a smashing offer of $17,000—for thatcar. You can’t believe your good fortune. Where do you sign and how fast can you make this darn pen go? As the salesperson leaves to get the paperwork, you dreamily see yourself zooming around town in it, so comfy, so responsive, so you. Then, right as you decide to name the car after your beloved childhood pet, the sales rep yanks you back to reality. 

"Oh gosh, I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but it looks like the price is going to be a bit higher. My boss said the deal is only good for the base model if we have it in stock, and since this model is the jazzed up version with the moon roof, I’m afraid the deal doesn’t apply. The price on this car is $23,000."

What?!  Disappointment floods in, but you don’t waver even though the true cost carves a bigger dent in your bank account. You go ahead and purchase the car because you’ve already made the commitment to do so. Once people firmly plant their feet on the ground and make a choice, they’re more inclined to see that decision through. This is why low-balling works.   

Get it while it lasts, and it won’t last for long!

This tactic relies on the notion of scarcity. When we believe that our ability to get hold of something is shrinking, we want it more. If you pay attention, you can spot scarcity in ads quite often. Ever see a website with a sale and a ticking clock counting down to the end of your chance for savings? 

"Don’t miss out on this incredible sale!  Time is running out!"

And what about those dramatic news clips of Black Friday shoppers brawling over the last Tickle Me Elmo? Scarcity plays a part there, too. Anytime you see an ad stressing limited stock or a narrow window of time to take advantage of a superb deal, watch the pull you feel. We tend to view such purchases not as wasteful, but as savvy, keen moves on our part. 

C’mon, everybody’s doing it!

We’re immensely social creatures—we pay attention to what other people do, including what they purchase. If a product or service is all the rage, it becomes more attractive to us. Marketers are aware of this, and they draw on what’s called social proof to generate sales. The underlying assumption behind social proof is our tendency to view anything that lots of people want in a shiny, positive light. Just think about websites that alert you to their most in-demand products, or the books flagged as being on The New York Times Best Seller List.  If other people are in on it (wherever itis), we want to be in on it, too, whether we originally wanted it or not. 

Yay, I like you! Now do what I want!

We’re more inclined to go the extra mile for those we like. It’s called the liking effect. We can like people for various reasons, such as their beauty or handsomeness, because we see a bit of ourselves in them, or because we know them. And sales people will strive to win your favor to persuade you to give them your business. A quote by a pharmaceutical sales representative vividly illustrates this

"I frame everything as a gesture of friendship…I give them free samples not because it’s my job, but because I like them so much. I provide office lunches because visiting them is such a pleasant relief from all the other docs. My drugs rarely get mentioned by me during our dinners."

These gestures seem sincere and even “off the cuff,” but they’re actually carefully crafted. And the same is true in other areas of marketing.

I know what I’m talking about! Now do what I want!

For our final technique, we come to the tactic of wielding authority.  We tend to follow people who seem like they’re in a position of authority, believing we ought to listen to them by virtue of their power, influence, or expertise. Famous athletes, film and TV stars, and experts in a particular field are examples of authority figures. And when any of these authority figures tell us to buy a product, we take notice and are more likely to listen. So let’s give ourselves the gift of taking time to step back and be mindful consumers. Do we want the product because we actually want it, or because a celebrity seems pumped about it? 

We’ve covered a range of strategies marketers use to sway how we spend our money. And even though we need to know about these persuasive approaches so we can spot them, knowledge alone isn’t enough to resist these tactics. We also need to be aware that we can fall for them. If we walk through the world convinced that we’re too smart, clever, or in-the-know ("Hey, maybe other gullible, uninformed dopes are sitting ducks, but not us!"), then we’re missing out on the toughest tool we need to push back against these techniques—humility. Our vulnerability to influential approaches doesn’t make us stupid. It just makes us human.

The Hidden Tug of Marketing

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

Subtle marketing techniques influence how we spend our money.

Like many folks, I subscribe to Amazon Prime, although admittedly, it was a piece of cake for them to win me over. The promise of free shipping and the convenience of seeing my favorite pea soup and other sundry goods just waiting for me at my doorstep?  Yes, please!  And in an effort to win over more people, the company devised one of the most adorable commercials ever.  The ad features a precious, lonely mini-horse whose caring owner swiftly installs a pet door so he can come inside for company, courtesy of Amazon Prime (of course).  It won’t give you specific information about Amazon Prime, and it doesn’t need to.  The ad pulls viewers in through its delightful, warm-hearted vibe, leaving them amused, attentive, and curious to learn more.  Arguably, the intent here is to forge a connection between its brand and humor, warmth, and caretaking in the hope that it will persuade you to buy an Amazon Prime subscription.  They wouldn’t invest the time, creative energy, and money into this kind of marketing otherwise.  But are they onto something?  Is it such a cakewalk to sway how we think and behave that darling mini-horses and endearing stories will do the trick?  Well, um…yes.  Thanks to diligent research, marketers know how to pull our strings while we don’t have a clue it’s happening.  And that’s precisely the point.  We can’t resist what we don’t recognize.  

We’ll address an assortment of persuasive techniques in future articles.  In this post, we’ll focus on some of the nonverbal strategies that marketers use to airily pull our strings on how we see a product, what we buy, and how much money we’re willing to spend. 

                                The Shape of Things

It’s not a fluke that logos are everywhere.  They offer immediate, smooth brand recognition. Just consider this example:

You can’t see a letter on this logo, yet you can probably pair it with the company and the products it represents.  But logos have a far more potent and unseen impact than brand recognition.  A recent study reveals that the logo’s shape alone affects how we see the product it’s associated with. Shoes or couches with a rounded logo?  We’re more inclined to view them as comfy and snug.  But simply swap in a sharp-cornered logo and that changes our perception.  Then we’re more apt to regard them as dependable and well-made.  Why would the shape of a logo have such an impact?  In all likelihood, because we connect a cushiony feel to round logos and firmness to angular logos and then view the product in the same light.

And the wheels of influence spin again when we pair ads with logos.  If the ad’s language matches the logo’s design, we’ll like the product more.  For example, if we see an angular logo with an ad highlighting a shoe’s sturdiness and reliability, or an ad focusing on how cozy a shoe is alongside a rounded logo, then we’ll prefer the shoe and are more willing to dip a little deeper into our pockets to buy it.  And for some of us, the shape of a logo can impact how we view customer service, with round logos linked to the impression that we received considerate service.

Think of all the times you walked into a store.  What was it like?  Was it pleasant and inviting, or vaguely off-putting?  Did you find yourself sticking around longer or spending more money in some stores than in others? If you’re like most of us, yours truly included, the answer is yes.  But do you have any idea why you linger more or hand over a greater fraction of your paycheck in certain establishments?We may think we know why we behave the way we do in stores, and at times we may be right.  But we’re not fully clued in.  One of the primary directives of a business is to make you feel good while you’re there.  After all, if the environment feels enjoyable, you’ll be more inclined to associate this feeling with the products around you.  And stores have figured out that the right sort of stimulation at the ideal level is crucial to your comfort and enjoyment.  Ultimately, it heightens how much you spend.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the shrouded yet highly persuasive elements of our shopping world. 

What we see: Colors are emotional, and they affect how we feel.  They also guide how much money we believe items are worth.  Take the color black, for instance. We tend to link it to high-end products.  Or consider the lighting in a store.  We direct greater attention to products placed under radiant lights–we’ll even handle them more.  And those of us who prefer intense java will consume more of it in a well-lit coffee shop.  However, if we prefer our coffee on the mellow side, then lower lighting fosters more coffee drinking.   

What we feel: We’re creatures of habit, as the cliché goes, but we’re creatures of touch too.  And companies know this.  When we get to put our hands on an item, we’re more inclined to buy it.  That’s why shrewd clothing companies will arrange their stores in a way that offers you ready access to their clothes.  A store’s temperature is also often deliberate.  The next time you walk into a store with more expensive prices, you might notice that the atmosphere feels cooler than a store with products that have a lower price point.  What would be the advantage of a cooler store?  In general, we tend to make less practical, reason-based choices when our body feels colder, which might lead us to spend more than if we were a little warmer.   

What we smell: The sway of smell is potent, yet its influence can fly right under our noses.  When we’re in a store with an inviting smell, such as the scent of flowers, we’re more prone to linger and feel the urge to buy something.  We’re even willing to spend extra money.  But the scent strategy doesn’t always pay off.  If the smell of someone’s perfume or cologne has ever motivated you to scoot a tad farther away, you’re well aware that what qualifies as an appealing scent for one person may not feel so inviting for another.  And if a store has a smell that’s unattractive to a number of its customers, it can lose profits.  It’s another example of how even a seemingly mild detail in a store’s space mightily influences how we spend our money.

What we hear: Let’s think about the music piping through a store.  Like some of the other elements we’ve been talking about, it only seems inconsequential.  In reality, it carries a great deal of weight.  If the music is set at the proper volume, we’re more apt to take a peek inside.  And when we’re in stores with slower music, we tend to take our time shopping and we’ll shell out more money, whereas rabid beats encourage us to increase the pace of our shopping and exit the store sooner.  On top of the volume and the beat, the type of music in the background determines how much we spend.  For instance, have you ever bought a bottle of wine?  If so, the amount you’re willing to pay for it is likely to rise with classical music in the background because most people tend to think of classical music and wine as being chic and classy.  The music fits the environment.  The type of music also influences what kind of wine you’ll buy, leaving you more inclined to buy German wine or French wine depending on whether there is German or French music playing.  We tailor our purchasing decisions to the music in the background and we’re not remotely aware of it.

And if it’s humbling to realize that the mere shape of logos and the intricate details of a store’s environment can impact your behavior in unforeseen ways, for what it’s worth, it means you’re human.  Thankfully, we also possess the human capacity to shine a light on those unseen spaces where we’re more persuadable, where charming mini-horses possess colossal power. 

Prejudice Toward Relationships

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

I enjoy looking at aspects of life in a holistic, broad way, to the best of my ability.  Without question, I have plenty of blind spots because, well, I’m human and we all do.  But I relish the never-ending journey of trying to question unchecked assumptions and make out what I didn’t spot before.  And a big picture outlook on romantic relationships helps us to recognize that they don’t exist in a bubble.  They live in a multilayered social and cultural context that touches and affects them.  For that reason, when we explore relationships in this blog, sometimes we’ll zoom into the dynamics between two people, and other times we’ll pan out and consider the larger habitat that relationships thrive, survive, and die in.  This post is dedicated to one piece of that wider backdrop: Social bias and prejudice toward relationships.

Many of us tend to think of prejudice as a negative stance toward individuals because of some quality they possess or a group they belong to, such as their genderrace, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, or religious affiliation, to name just a few.  But relationships can face prejudice too, as society also passes judgment on couples whose pairing falls outside the lines of what it defines as customary and appropriate.  Exemplars of such unions that have received attention in relationship science include same-sexcouples, interracial relationships, and unions with a notable age difference (defined as more than 10 years).  At one level, this may seem a bit far-fetched and outdated.  Marriage equality for same-sex couples is the law of the land and now the majority of people are in favor of it.  Most folks don’t appear to bat an eye at the idea of people datingand marrying across racial lines.  And we see plenty of examples of couples with distinct age gaps in popular culture.  No big deal, right?  Why are we even thinking about this?  

Let me be clear.  I’m not trying to say that social attitudes toward couples who go against the grain haven’t dramatically progressed—they have.  A mere 50 years ago, interracial marriage wasn’t even legal throughout the United States, and it took the 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving vs. Virginia to change that.  Then fast forward to 2013, and we see a Gallup poll showing that 87% of the country approves of interracial marriage.  And just 13 years ago, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the United States.  Unquestionably, society has marched forward in its attitudes toward relationships.  But does this mean that relationships that don’t quite fit the conventional mold of opposite-sex, matched-age, monoracial couples don’t endure prejudice and discrimination compared to more typical unions?  Absolutely not.  Such couples are still more apt to face unfavorable attitudes, to feel less accepted, and to experience dismissive or demeaning treatment.  Prejudice toward these relationships exists; it’s just gone a little more underground than it was in the past.  Here we’ll take a closer look at each of these three relationships.  Of course, there are couples who fit more than one of these categories, but in the interest of clarity and attention to each type relationship here, we’ll focus on them separately. 

Interracial Relationships

First, consider the 87% interracial marriage approval statistic we just saw.  On the surface, this number seems to tell us that nearly everyone is wholeheartedly in favor of it.  But do these poll results truly reflect a virtually universal embrace of interracial romantic relationships and marriage?  Unfortunately, when we dig a little deeper, the answer seems to be no.  When you ask people about how they feel about interracial marriage, the answer you get depends on how you frame the question.  Sure, 87% of people say they’re in favor of it in principle.  But what about when it comes to a family member marrying interracially?  According to a 2010 survey, only 66% are comfortable with it.  And among college students, although those who date interracially are apt to improve their attitudes toward other racial groups by the end of their college years, they’re also more likely to feel a greater sense of pressure from people they know to date within their own race.  In other words, most people approve of interracial dating and marriage, but not quite as many do when it’s in their own backyard. 

On top of the social pressure that people may encounter to date members of their own race, according to a 2009 study of internet daters, a personal preference to date within one’s own racial group strongly remains.  And although the percentage of people who interracially marry is increasing, only 12% of all new marriages in 2013 were interracial.  So even though we’ve come quite far in our willingness to cross racial lines in marriage and dating, as a whole most of us still marry and date in pretty racially segregated ways. 

And among couples who do cross racial lines, they face challenges that monoracial couples generally do not have to consider.  One study found that interracial couples are less inclined to show physical affection toward each other in public compared to same-race couples.  Interracial relationships are also linked to concerns such as:

  • Fears of how friends and family members will react
  • Rejection from loved ones
  • Public stares
  • Resentment of other people for dating outside one’s own race or for diminishing another racial group’s dating pool
  • Fear that a person of another race may be too culturally incompatible

Moreover, interracial couples experience poorer physical health than monoracial couples.  This is consistent with other research showing that people in relationships that do not feel socially validated or supported are at greater risk for health problems, worsened mood, and low self-esteem

Same-Sex Relationships

True, most people support same-sex marriage, but most just means over half, which is unfortunately accurate when it comes to current approval numbers.  Only 55% percent of people support same-sex marriage.  If we consider this statistic from the viewpoint of the progress we’ve made as a society, then it probably feels like a big number.  But when we think about the daily lived experiences of same sex-couples, this means that almost half of their fellow citizens see their relationship as invalid and unfit for marriage.  What’s more, almost 40% of people see same-sex relationships as not only ineligible for marriage, but immoral.  From that vantage point, 55% approval feels far too small. 

Unlike many heterosexual couples, same-sex couples face the stereotype that they can’t cultivate a deeply emotionally connected, ever-lasting union.  They also have to contend with the dilemma of whether to reveal their relationship to family members, friends, and colleagues, risking censure and disapproval, or hold on to acceptance and keep their bond a secret.  And in the midst of a culture that tells you that who you love is not “normal,” which lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals frequently deal with, it can be hard to resist soaking up that attitude over time and directing it inward toward yourself, a phenomenon known as internalized homophobia.  This kind of inner stigma as well as the prejudice from others that same-sex couples must go up against are connected to greater problems within the relationship.  Internalized homophobia can also present an agonizing conflict for some, as the person who they dearly love is also a reminder of what they’re ashamed of.  Yet even for people who are burdened with this kind of self-reproach, if they don’t believe they’ll encounter prejudice in their own social world, they’re more apt to take an optimistic view of their relationship.  And when it comes to having children, even though the road has become much smoother for same-sex couples who want to adopt, it remains bumpier than it is for opposite sex-couples.  For example, you could take the greatest, most loving would-be parents ever who are yearning to adopt, but if they live in the state of Mississippi, they’re still not allowed to do so.  

Age-Gap Couples

According to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau survey, 90% of all heterosexual married couples in the United States involve a husband and a wife who are no more than nine years apart in age; in almost 77% of marriages, there’s no more than a five-year age difference.  These numbers also map onto the age difference that people say they’re looking for in a partner, with men and women generally partial to a three-year age gap.  Among those who love and marry across a wider age divide, they can encounter social difficulties that more similarly aged couples do not.  Notably, they face widespread skepticism and stereotypes.  Common examples include the notions that relationships with notable age gaps simply can’t go the distance, and that the couple must be too different to find common ground and thrive together.  Other popular ideas are that the person who is younger must have a financial motive, or that the younger partner desires the relationship in a misguided attempt to resolve parental issues.  In light of these notions, it’s probably not surprising that age-gap relationships face pervasive social condemnation, and the partners are all too aware of it.  Across interracial, same-sex, and age-gap relationships, we know the least about the latter, as very little research has attended to these couples.  But what we can say is that relationship science doesn’t support the myths that age-gap relationships reflect unfinished parental issues or are less happy than age-matched unions. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

Most of what we know about prejudice centers around individuals.  So we have much to understand when it comes to how, when, and why prejudice and discrimination target and impact relationships.  We do know from relationship science that how we feel about ourselves has an impact on our relationship with our partner.  When we see ourselves in a positive light, it makes it easier for us to let someone else in and accept their love and affection.  So as we strive to elevate our sense of self-esteem, we make a potent investment in our relationship and offer it some protection in the face of prejudice and discrimination.  But according to many researchers, when the strain of social prejudice and discrimination weighs down, it can seep inside and tear down how people feel about themselves

And here we come full circle, back to our social environment and the fact that relationships don’t live in a bubble.  The social web that couples face can have an impact on their sense of self and their relationship.  For instance, for people who are members of racial or sexual minority groups, discrimination is linked to lower self-esteem and diminished relationship wellness.  And among interracial and same-sex couples, social disapproval of their relationship is linked to lower devotion and confidence, among other problems.  Although couples who are on equal footing in the relationship and handle stress well together can insulate themselves from this a bit, they still have to contend with social obstacles that could hamper their bond, obstacles that many other couples do not have to consider. 

True, it’s not possible to socially insulate couples from everyone who holds prejudiced views against their relationship.  But to the extent that we as individuals and as a society can question negative stereotypes about diverse couples and extend more positive and supportive messages to them, we can start to turn the social tide they swim into.  The media can also be a potent helper here.  For instance, positive media portrayals of interracial relationships are connected to improved, more favorable mindsets toward interracial couples.  Arguably, more favorable, recurring media depictions of same-sex and age-gap couples would also serve to enhance attitudes toward these relationships as well.  And thankfully, if we’re in a relationship that falls outside of traditional bounds, we can choose to seek out and cultivate social networks that approve of and support our union.

Of course, we’ve just scratched the surface of what I believe is a vital topic.  If you’re in a relationship like the ones we’ve explored, I wish you every happiness as you move forward with your partner, and hope this post offered a bit of recognition and validation.  Perhaps you’re not in such a relationship, but are having a hard time supporting one.  In that case, I’d like to invite you to open the door to exploring whether there may be just a little room to move toward greater acceptance. 

Thank you for reading. 

The Romance of Boycotting Valentine's Day

Originally published in Psychology Today

 

I was born on February 13, the day before Valentine’s Day.  Apparently, the hospital staff considered me a member of Cupid’s baby club anyway, because they put my pint-sized self into a big red heart when it came time for me to go home (and my parents made sure to take plenty of pictures before taking me out of it).

So, considering that my earliest moments of life were intertwined with an ode to Valentine’s Day, one would think this should restrain me from writing what I’m about to write, but no…

I propose we boycott Valentine’s Day.

OK, this probably makes me sound like I’ve got a gripe with romantic relationships, but actually the reverse is true.  I strongly believe that romantic relationships are a vital element of human life.  As a psychologist, I focus on helping people learn how to build and maintain emotionally connected, intimate, love-filled, rewarding, colorful relationships that last.  And personally, I’m married to an awesome man who fills me with excited butterflies and romantic, sentimental mushiness. 

And it’s precisely because romantic bonds are so meaningful and valuable that we’d do well to give Valentine’s Day the snub this year. Why?

First, although Valentine’s Day is an occasion to revel in love and relationships, there’s a decidedly unromantic aspect of this holiday.  If you’re in a relationship that’s been struggling, your odds of breaking up are actually dramatically higher around Valentine’s Day than at other times of the year.  Why?  The demands of Valentine’s Day can be too challenging and overwhelming for relationships in a rocky patch; they can propel shaky couples toward splitting.       

Second, it’s an awfully pricey holiday that largely works against itself.  In 2014, Americans spent $17 billion (that’s right, billion) for special dinners, candy, flowers and other symbols of the holiday, and it’s gone up since then, hitting over $19.5 billion in 2016.  It’s also a day with built-in gender bias, with men spending double what women do.  And even though we foot a hefty holiday bill, 66% of us believe that the money-driven, commercialized natureof Valentine’s Day actually drains the romance from the occasion.  So why do we keep buying into it?  According to a study of young men’s beliefs about Valentine’s Day, a sense of duty is one motivating factor.  They give presents, in part, because they believe they have to, which doesn’t sound very romantic.  

Third, for such a costly holiday, we sure don’t think much of it.  On the list of people’s most treasured holidays, Valentine’s Day ranks near the bottom, with only one percent of Americans rating it as their favorite. 

And finally, if we focus on what Valentine’s Day represents—a celebration of love, intimacy, emotional closeness, romantic gestures, and wooing a partner—it reflects love habits for us to practice on a daily basis, not on a special time of the year.  If we make every day a non-commercialized form of Valentine’s Day by habitually showing our commitment and love to our partner, then why do we need the holiday?

So, rather than obsessing about February 14th, how can we start forming ongoing habits of love and commitment?  According to Dr. Daniel Weigel, a psychologist at the University of Nevada Reno, we have plenty of options, and they don’t involve spending a lot of money or devising grand romantic overtures either.  Think small.  Cupid is in the details.  Here are a few examples:

  • Give your partner a sweet card or small present on a random day, just because.
  • Leave little affectionate notes for your partner.  You could even put them in sundry places, like a lunch bag, on a laptop, or tucked in a pocket.
  • Take time to express love, passion, fondness, and desire for your partner.  Don’t assume that your partner knows.  Everyone likes to be reminded.
  • Open up about what your partner means to you.
  • Send your partner a little text in the middle of the day to say “I’m thinking of you and I can’t wait to see you.”
  • Be polite and kind.
  • Listen to your partner and try to place yourself in his or her shoes.
  • Respect your partner’s individuality and don’t try to change him or her.
  • Be authentic and real.  Examples of this include telling the truth and following through when you give your partner your word.  
  • Spend time together and play.
  • Reflect on how to make your partner’s life brighter.

So on Valentine’s Day, be sure to show your love and devotion to your partner— just like you do on all the other days of the year.

A Laughing Matter

Originally Published in Psychology Today

 

My feet patted rhythmically along on the marathon course, my body feeling invigorated. And then IT happened at mile 21. As my eyes flicked back up from checking my watch, a vision of two hills stood side by side before merging back into one, dancing with wooziness in my head. I figured it was just a fluke, but when I looked down and back up again to test that idea, double vision and dizziness nudged me again. And when we’re talking about someone who shudders at the mere thought of Disneyland’s spinning teacups, well…

“Uh-oh. That can’t be good,” I thought.  

But right then, in the sage words of The Rolling Stones, I didn’t get what I wanted, but I got just what I needed. A joke. It floated through my mind like an angel, a divine messenger of ridiculous humor.

A guy walks into his doctor’s office and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I lift my arm!” And the doctor says, “So don’t lift your arm!”

Comedy (OK, admittedly bad comedy) worked its magic as I saw the light and heeded the joke’s wisdom, telling myself with a chuckle, “So don’t look down!”

Suddenly, what was unpalatable and disconcerting became amusing and non-threatening, something I could accept, work with, and manage, even though I certainly didn’t like it. That joke helped me finish the race and earn a new personal record.                 

Humor is a Human’s Best Friend

Comedians deserve deep, heartfelt gratitude. They’re not just funny. We actually need them. George Valliant, a renowned psychiatrist and researcher on adult development, viewed humor as a healthy kind of psychological armor. Sigmund Freud even gave comedy a reverent nod, observing that “humor can be regarded as the highest of these defensive processes.” Indeed, it has the potential to protect and elevate us in a host of ways. Humor is linked to contentment in relationships as well as self-esteem and cheerfulness. It acts as a psychological safeguard for people coping with the aftermath of a trauma, including firefighters and survivors of terror attacks and their partners. It even cushions us against the harmful impact that unflattering stereotypes can have on our performance, an effect known as stereotype threat. Moreover, education on how to use humor in daily life results in greater hopefulness, cheerfulness, confidence, and mastery over time. However, comedy’s ability to heal and serve us hinges on how we wield it. Let’s check out four types of humor.

Some of These Jokes Are Not Like the Others

Self-Enhancing Humor

When we use self-enhancing humor, we’re donning a healthy mental shield. It lends us a hand in framing troublesome moments in a fresh, more agreeable light, transforming the sour lemons life can hurl our way into lemonade. But even if we can’t reframe our situation, or we don’t want to, a dose of comedy helps us to elevate our spirits and soothe our disquiet. It was self-enhancing humor that mercifully came to the rescue in my moment of need. And The Dalai Lama XIV held out a shining gem of self-enhancing humor for us to draw from when he said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Affiliative Humor

We’re using affiliative humor as we bring light jokes and clever comments to the social mix. This beneficial brand of humor acts as a relationship glue, helping us to reach and connect with others, to entertain, to comfort, and to poke a little gentle, humble fun at ourselves. Steve Martin used affiliative humor when he said, “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” Oscar Wilde’s observation that he can “resist everything except temptation” is another delightful example. 

Aggressive Humor

Aggressive humor is exactly what it probably sounds like. It’s an unhealthful type of humor that tears others down. Jokes that target any group of people (e.g., sexist, racist, ethnic, heterosexist, ageist, religious jokes) fall under this category. Mockery and sarcastic comments count too. Unsurprisingly, aggressive humor is associated with emotional distress, not only for people on the receiving end but also for those who use it. In other words, it’s a clear lose-lose for everyone involved. And, sadly, it’s also commonplace. As a case in point, I easily found plenty of sexist jokes, including this one: “Q: How do you know a woman is about to say something smart? When she starts her sentence with, ‘A man once told me…’”

Self-Defeating Humor

Self-defeating humor is another damaging form of comedy. It involves degrading and belittling ourselves or going along with others as they put us down. This kind of humor goes beyond making light-hearted fun of ourselves, which is akin to affiliative humor. It’s self-ridicule in the hope of winning people over, and it’s linked to emotional distress, feeling less satisfied with life, lower social self-confidence, and greater depression. Rodney Dangerfield gave us an illustration of self-defeating humor when he quipped: “My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I wanted a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.”

Making Humor Work for You

OK, let’s be honest—2016 has been a highly eventful and stressful year, and it’s not even over yet. We still have the holidays coming, which understandably bring their own strains and snags for many of us. So how can we call upon our amusing right-hand helper to uplift us and give us just what we need as we step toward the holidays and 2017? Here are a few strategies:

Rising Above the Political Swirl

Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we’re living in a time of intense political division. If you’re like most folks, that sentence probably seems laughable. We’re not only living in a time of stringent political division, we’re steeped to our ears in it. No matter whether we see ourselves as Republicans or Democrats, research reveals that many of us carry unfavorable biases, both consciously and unconsciously, against people who don’t identify with our party. And these biases can lead us to treat others unfairly based on their political beliefs alone. In 1960, roughly four to five percent of us found the notion of our child marrying someone across party lines bothersome. In 2010, between 33 to 49% of us nursed notable disquiet at the idea.

And in the 2016 election cycle, we’re diving even deeper into the divide. On the face of it, our descent makes sense. This election isn’t like others (not in recent memory anyway). It’s gotten more personal. Regardless of whom we’re supporting, it’s difficult to deny that most people dislike Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and that both candidates arouse powerful feelings

But the impact of this election is more profound than how we feel about the candidates. It’s seeping into our closest relationships. There are about seven percent fewer friendships out there, thanks to this election cycle. And married couples have threatened divorce, quarreled, and evaded political discussions when they used to explore them merrily. 

Indeed, it can feel like an upstream swim to wrap our minds and hearts around the knowledge that someone we know, respect, and love actually supports a candidate we despise and would loathe seeing in the White House. On top of that, the mental traps of a) equating the person with the candidate or b) buying into faulty, unflattering stereotypes tempt our human brains. 

Honestly, what’s the matter with you, voting for Clinton/Trump?

I thought I knew you! I don’t know if I can see you in the same way if you vote for Clinton/Trump.

If you vote for Clinton/Trump, I won’t be able to handle it. 

If you vote for Clinton/Trump, then you must be like her/him.

If you’re willing to vote for Clinton/Trump, then you must be_______

  • Ignorant
  • Stupid
  • Clueless
  • Racist/sexist
  • Elitist
  • Gullible/easily fooled by the media
  • Fill in the blank…

The thing is, friends, soon this highly divisive, hostile election is going to be over, but our relationships, the people we care about, and our communities will still be there. It’s easy to get caught up in the swirl of negative notions about people who support that other candidate or that other party. That’s right, we’re human and our minds make mistakes. Thankfully, we have the capacity to choose whether to remain in the storm or pull ourselves out of it, turning the dial down on these unflattering judgments while turning up the dial on what shines within people. Let’s not allow the venom of this election, or any other, to undermine our relationships with people or our willingness to give our fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt. We can rise to whatever level we set for ourselves. Let’s ascend higher. 

If you’re wondering how you can turn up the dial on your esteem for someone you love, or how you can challenge stereotypes based on party, here are some ideas: 

  • What do you appreciate and admire about your loved one? Remind yourself that the person you loved before the election is the same person now, with the same endearing, praiseworthy qualities.

  • Remember that your loved one is an individual with his/her own reasons for supporting a candidate. The reasons other people give may not map onto your loved one’s rationale. Similarly, your loved one is not the candidate and may not support all of that candidate’s positions. Consider listening to your loved one’s point of view with the goal of truly understanding, not judging or convincing him/her to see things your way. 

  • Look for the positive elements attached to your loved one’s stance. For instance, you might choose to see his/her willingness to share a different opinion from yours as a sign of independence, honesty, integrity, or trust in you.

  • Try to flip the situation around and see it from your loved one’s point of view. What kind of understanding and acceptance would you want?

  • Step back and look at what’s truly important to you. How much does your relationship with your loved one mean to you? Is an election worth the distance and discord? 

  • Think about the long view and imagine yourself 20 years in the future. Do you want an election to have so much power that it becomes a turning point in your relationship?

  • Envision the person you most want to be. Do you want to be someone who stereotypes people, judges them, or treats them unfavorably because of whom they vote for or their political party? If not, challenge yourself to separate the person from the candidate or the party. 

  • When you meet someone who identifies with a different political party, try remaining attentive rather than tuning out. Strive for good-natured, constructive communication that makes the conversation feel enjoyable and allows you to get to know the individual beyond party membership.

  • If it seems like politically hostile zingers and stereotypes are swarming through your social media world, give yourself permission to turn the dial down on caustic negativity and practice the art of disengagement. For example, you might choose to take a little break from social media or pass over posts that reinforce political bad blood.       

  • What stereotypes exist about your party? Can you be boiled down to those stereotypes? Is everyone in your party the same? If you said no, challenge yourself to extend this same charity to folks in the other party, seeing them as unique individuals.   

 

 

 

 

Advancing Towards The Light

Originally published on www.addictionblog.org

As a psychologist, people grant me the awe-inspiring gift of letting me into their inner world where I walk alongside them as they take on what stings, saddens, and constrains. Certainly, there are sundry moments of laughter, celebration, joy, and simple amusement, but hardship hovers like twilight. And the journey’s aim is to advance toward daybreak.

In the resolute words of Winston Churchill,

“When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

We keep going…

But, what about the forms of social and inner stigma that people face when struggling with drug or alcohol problems? This article highlights how humans are united in both their efforts to ward off emotional pain as well as their use of unhealthy coping tools for that purpose (at least at times), with alcohol and other drugs being one such device.

Continue reading to learn how to think about addiction in a more humane way. At the end, feel free to send us your questions. We try to answer or respond to all comments personally and promptly.

Addiction Is A Widespread Problem

Put most simply, addiction is an extremely widespread problem. One of the hells that humans live is the consuming grip of alcohol and other drugs. Over my work and life, I’ve known, connected with, and helped a number of people who’ve struggled with their relationship to substances. Right here in New England, an opioid epidemic is robbing hundreds of people of their lives, prompting measures to expand treatment availability and reduce stigma.

Thank goodness.

Judgment Turns People Against Themselves

Stigma smears people. When we stigmatize people we transform them, as the sociologist Erving Goffman once said,

“…from a whole and usual person to a tainted and discounted one.”

And sadly, stigma customarily targets people grappling with alcohol or other drugs. Examples of common perceptions and reactions include:

  • Substance dependence is a character defect.
  • It’s not safe to be around people with a substance addiction.
  • It’s best to stay away from people who have a problem with drug or alcohol use.

Individuals can also turn stigma inward on themselves. I’ve heard exceedingly good people talk about themselves in incredibly bad, judgmental, disparaging ways because of their addiction. Phrases such as:

  • “I’m weak.”
  • “I’m messed up.”
  • “I’m not normal.”
  • “There’s something wrong with me.”
  • “Why can’t I drink like a normal person?”

… these ideas float in the air at some point or other.

Essentially, stigma is a destructive and tragic epidemic in itself, burdening and sapping people in its wake. It’s linked to discrimination, diminished health and wellness, and lowered odds of reaching out for help.

And it also reflects a collective denial of one crucial truth: People who struggle with alcohol or other drugs are no different from anyone else. The self-protective attempt to evade psychological pain is one that all humans share.

Why Addiction Is A Human Adaptation

It’s instinctive to recoil from what hurts. Touch a hot stove and you’ll get burned. The next go around, you’ll don oven mitts if you’ve got a glimmer of self-preservation. And just as we attempt to guard ourselves physically, it’s natural that we strive to protect ourselves psychologically as well.

In fact, we need the ability to turn down the dial on what emotionally sears us. It’s the mental equivalent of oven mitts. Sure, we don’t want to turn down the dial all of the time, just like we wouldn’t want to perpetually wear oven mitts. But we need to be capable of turning down the dial, and we have varied ways of doing it. Some ways are healthy, other less so. Most of us have a blend of both. For example, we humans can evade life’s emotional hot stoves through:

  • sex
  • work
  • exercise
  • the internet
  • gaming
  • binge TV-watching

Some tactics even get popular names. “Stress eating” and “retail therapy” might ring a bell.

Moreover, people without substance use difficulties also use alcohol and other drugs to cope. The phrase “I need a drink” is culturally well-known. Here are some sobering stats:

– Virtually all of us (90%) in the United States have had a drink.
– Within the last month, 25% of us have binged on alcohol.
– And 7% of us heavily drank.
– By the time we’re 25, almost 65% of us have tried an illegal narcotic, and about a quarter of us have taken opioids for non-medicinal reasons.

People who wrestle with substance use aren’t weak, hazardous, or somehow different from other folks. We’re all united in the well-intentioned, self-protective, human endeavor to ease distress when it becomes too weighty. Virtually all of us have moments when our efforts take a less than healthful turn. And when it comes to inherently addictive substances, the odds of getting stuck on an unhealthy path are arguably greater.

Support And Understanding Instead Of Social Stigma

Not only is stigma toward people with substance use problems damaging, it embodies social denial of the humanness of addiction and substance misuse.

Alcohol and other drugs are a widespread method of turning down the dial, as are other unhealthy strategies that people lean on. The path toward troubles with substance use is complex but ultimately understandable, and people touched by it deserve empathy, kindness, and support. In the end, as we strive to buffer ourselves along the sometimes rugged road of life, we’re all traveling together.

And we keep going…

Humanness Of Addiction Questions

What’s your standpoint on the social stigmatization of addicted individuals? Please feel free to post your questions and personal experiences regarding addiction stigma in the designated section at the end of the page. We value your feedback and try to provide a personal and prompt response to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to your questions, we will gladly refer you to professionals who can help.

Invigorating Your Style of Life

Lifestyle. It’s a word that we sometimes skim over because it seems like a generic, catch all term. Understandably, people get mixed up when they try to define lifestyle. Go ahead—try and define it, and then see if your definition matches a friend’s. Spoiler alert—it won’t… 

But don’t underestimate this little seemingly ho-hum word. If you really go back and pay attention to it, it’s cooler than you think. Let’s try it again, only a little bit differently: Life-style: The style of how we live our lives. We don’t just live (an amoeba can do that—no offense to amoebas…). We each have a way of living our lives, one that is unique to us. And, we create that way from the choices we make on a daily basis.

So, what are the types of choices that forge our style of life? Well, there’s a good reason why people lose their footing when they try to define lifestyle. It’s because our life-style encompasses several elements:

  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Sleep
  • Close relationships
  • Sense of purpose and meaning
  • Involvement in the community
  • Recreation and leisure time
  • Relaxation and stress management
  • Being out in nature and appreciating natural beauty. 

That’s a lot, right?

 And believe it or not, our style of life, the choices we make across these domains again and again, mightily sways virtually everything. We’re talking about how happy we are, how we think, how we work, love, and live with others, our ability to get up and look forward to the day (or most days anyway), whether we feel that life is worth living, and how comfy we feel in our own skin. Although this may seem surprising at first glance, it makes solid sense when we think about it. We don’t live separately from our style of life. We’re embedded in it, like a fish in water. High quality water = happy fish. Cloudy, dirty water = we don’t want to think about that. And sadly, we often don’t talk about it—the impact of lifestyle on our mental health and quality of life, I mean. It’s not that we don’t talk about it because we’re unaware that our lifestyle is vital. That’s rooted in old wisdom. For example, Thomas Jefferson said that “exercise and application produce order of our affairs, health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends.” Thomas Jefferson had never even seen sneakers (missed them by about 80 years—he never even got to see a rubber-soled shoe…) and he knew this truth. And yet, despite these wise, old insights, the notion that our style of life could have a tremendous impact on our mental health was not taken very seriously until recently. 

Now, there is vast and growing amount of scientific research on the power of lifestyle to elevate our emotional wellbeing and the caliber of our life. In fact, there’s even a bunch of research on the use of lifestyle as an actual intervention for stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, and challenges with sexual functioning. Yet despite all of this, often we view more traditional forms of mental health treatment, namely medication management and psychotherapy, as the go-to, main treatment. And what of lifestyle-based interventions? We tend to view them as handy extras on the side that we throw in for good measure. It’s not hard to understand why though. As the anthropologist Ralph Linton once noted, “the last thing a fish would ever notice would be the water.” We don’t talk about lifestyle because it’s all around us. Whether we’re trained in the mental health field or not, most of us get the message that our treatment options are molded from what is focal and not around all us—medication management and psychotherapy. 

If we care about total wellness and quality of life for ourselves and others (I’m talking emotional, physical, and social wellness) we need to think about the water: Lifestyle interventions. It’s crucial to change the shift in how we define treatment. Let’s progress from seeing psychotherapy and medication as the front line of treatment to placing lifestyle interventions more at the helm (or at least on par with traditional mental health treatment). Don’t get me wrong. Traditional forms of mental health treatment (i.e., psychotherapy and medication) definitely have their role in helping people to live happier, healthier lives. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t feel that way! However, interventions that target a person’s style of life counts as treatment too, not just an accessory.

These interventions are holistic, taking the whole person into account, and that’s as it should be. We humans have dynamic, full lives with relationships, routines, habits, aspirations, joys, concerns, and a mind and body that profoundly influence each other amidst all of this. I have yet to meet anyone who can be boiled down to a set of problems or issues to be addressed within the confines of a therapy hour. 

And what about your therapist or physician? Not surprisingly, when they upgrade their own lifestyle, they’ll become happier, better providers too. Actually, this applies to anyone in any field, right? Health at home translates into health and vitality at work, a clear win-win.

So here’s a little, spirited challenge: I triple dog dare you (really—why do a dare halfway?) to choose one small, doable step that you can take today to augment your style of life. It could be going for a 30-minute walk, fitting in an extra piece of fruit into your day, going to sleep 15 minutes earlier, flipping on soothing music or a comedy station in your car rather than flipping out in gridlock traffic, or taking an extra minute or two to share a cozy hug with your partner when you first come home (aaah, so nice!).

If you’re up for it, continue finding enjoyable ways to give your style of life a little extra oomph. It takes very little change to see a gigantic difference. But don’t trust my word. Check it out for yourself. 

No matter what you do to revamp your style of life and regardless of when you do it, I hope you’ll go beyond cleaning the water for yourself. I hope you beautify it. That’s the very least you deserve.  

 

 

 

  

Standing Up to Ageism

Once upon a time, I served on the conservation commission in a town where I lived. And every so often, the members of the various commissions and boards would get together to shoot the breeze at a local restaurant. Prior to one of these gatherings, I was particularly excited to meet a former member of the commission who I knew would be attending. In the commission’s entire history, he was the longest serving member. He was also a legend with a reputation for being a real character—bold, outspoken, informal, willing to take chances and utter controversial statements, and deeply passionate about conservation. I couldn’t wait to meet this revered figure in the flesh and pick his brain about the history of the commission, his work on it, and his vision of the town’s future. Yet, when I met him I realized that he did not reflect the man people chronicled. He was soft-spoken and, although he was extremely polite and pleasant, it felt like the proverbial tooth-pulling to get anything out of him. He then made it clear why, stating, “Old people should be seen, not heard.” What?! Astonishment and sadness filled me. This man was once a lively, opinionated tiger who used his voice for a great cause. What happened?

What happened is ageism. It encompasses a jumble of biased ideas and practices related to a person’s age. The especially slippery part about ageism is that we can witness it in action time and again throughout society, often without anything triggering our internal antennae that tells us “Hey, something is deeply amiss here.” It’s sort of like a plant that seems harmless on the surface while legions of thorns sprout underneath, piercing skin once you grab hold. The sorts of thorns we’re talking about include:

  • Unflattering stereotypes about a person’s age (e.g., unattractive, less capable, “uncool”)
  • Agreeable yet nonetheless paternalistic stereotypes (e.g., unassuming, sweet)
  • Views about how people should behave based on their age (e.g., don’t speak out, hide your sexuality, don’t wear that, don’t go there, get out of the way of younger people)
  • Discrimination toward people solely based on their age (e.g., hiring and promotion decisions) 

Unfortunately, the prejudice and discrimination of ageism remains hidden, by and large, flying under the proverbial radar even though it’s culturally pervasive. But why? In all likelihood, because many of us smoothly accept ageist beliefs as clear-cut reality. It’s not hard to find good-hearted people who passionately denounce bigotry in its many forms, yet breezily utter blatantly ageist comments. Undoubtedly, this does not come from a place of malice in most cases. We can’t see bias when we think we’re describing a fact of life. For instance, I don’t think I’m voicing colorist speech when I say the sky is blue; that’s just the way things are, right? 

What’s even more disquieting than ageism itself is its impact. Science tells us that ageist attitudes can have a profoundly harmful impact on older adults’ employment, their economic and social opportunities, and their mental and physical well-being. People who are older face ageist attitudes in the very system they entrust their healthcare to (including many physicians and psychologists), which ends up reducing the quality of care they receive. Problems that erode quality of life are apt to receive less active inquiry, attention, and treatment from healthcare providers. For instance, if you’re an older adult with a brain injury, providers are more likely to fail to notice your needs for services compared to a younger person with a brain injury. What if you’re an older woman who is experiencing abuse at the hands of your intimate partner? Sadly, social workers are less prone to look on your what’s happening to you as abuse compared to a younger woman in an abusive relationship. Even many of the textbooks used to educate and train the geriatric healthcare providers of tomorrow are rife with ageism. One study analyzed the language in textbooks written for physicians and professionals specializing in geriatrics. It revealed that over half (55%) of the geriatrics textbooks painted a broadly unfavorable portrait of older adults’ cognitive abilities, and roughly one third (32.5%) depicted a somewhat adverse image of the intellectual abilities of older people. Only 12.5% of the books offered a truly evenhanded view of cognition and growing older. And if you’re doing the math, you’ll realize that no books illustrated an optimistic take on aging. When the very tools we use to train healthcare professionals reflect ageism, it’s hardly staggering that we’re churning out providers who hold ageist views themselves.   

There’s also a medley of damaging, ageist biases in daily life. True, people tend to envision older individuals as warmer than younger folks, but this doesn’t mean that the overall picture is an approving one. The big picture is one that portrays older adults as less capable people to feel sorry for. Interviewers will give an older job applicant lower ratings even though their qualifications are comparable to a younger applicant. 

Regrettably, many older individuals also come to take on ageist stereotypes themselves, moving through life in lockstep with those biases, elevating the odds they’ll actually come true. If you doubt this, take a moment and consider what limitations you place on yourself because of age. Have you ever thought that you were too old to do something that younger adults do and then stopped doing it purely because you accepted this belief? 

We used to love going out dancing at nightclubs together, but we can’t do it anymore. We’re just too old to go—we’d look ridiculous…ah, to be young again…

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

What about the flipside? Have you ever found yourself telling someone they were too old for something? If so, I bet you were coming from a well-intentioned, concerned place. 

You can’t take up surfing, grandpa! You’re too old! 

But if grandpa listened, that would be another self-fulfilling prophecy. When we unquestioningly accept and follow ideas about what behavior is kosher for old people, then we become the old people we envision. Not only does this confirm our own ageist beliefs, it fuels others’ age biases too when they see us acting out the stereotype. 

Ageist notions can even lead young people to move more sluggishly, in line with a common stereotype. People who anticipate that aging means feeling down and being infirm and absent-minded are more likely to have such problems as they age. And unfavorable expectations about aging are more common than you might think. For example, no one says a word when younger people have an absent-minded or forgetful moment, but toss a batch of years into the mix and now it’s a senior-moment, considered part and parcel of aging. Personally, I’ve been having senior moments since I was a child! As the American Psychological Association observed, “For the human brain, there’s no such thing as over the hill.” This isn’t to say that brains don’t change at all with time, but our dismal stereotypes about memory loss and aging do not map onto reality for most folks. So the next time I forget, I think I’m going to call it a human moment

Indeed, bleak predictions on aging can set us up for a gloomier reality over time. If we harbor cynical attitudes about the ticking of the clock, then feeling older saps the enjoyment we get out of life and how healthy we feel. And ageist beliefs about sex (e.g., older people aren’t sexual) are linked to a dimmer sex life. Ladies and gentlemen, if you never had a reason to vigorously tackle ageist notions, you have one now! 

 Happily, we don’t have to hold onto our stereotypes about aging, and we don’t have to make them come true. Actually, research suggests that we have a lot to look forward to as we hold hands with Father Time. Despite societal ageism, our overall emotional health tends to rise as we get older. We evolve and become more sophisticated artists of living over the years. 

Ageist norms about what we’re supposed to be doing (or not doing), or what we’re supposed to be like or look like are woven throughout our culture. Thankfully we have the choice to bring ourselves back to the big picture of life, reminding ourselves that the experience of growing old is gift not all of us receive. And for those of us who get it, what better way to take advantage of precious added time than by enjoying a healthy, connected, meaningful, and fun life on our own terms, rather than buying into ageist stereotypes and weighing ourselves down with them? 

My thoughts sometimes turn to the conservation legend I met that night. I hope he’s happy and creating more space to be his outspoken self. I know he’s in there somewhere. 

 

The Bright Side of Regret

In the wake of the United Kingdom’s historic Brexit vote, millions of astonished citizens dashed to social media to add their name to the Regrexit petition, hoping to reverse the reality of it all. The surge was so great that the server for the petition crashed. And we’re not just talking about folks who originally voted to remain in the European Union. A number of those who are taking a stand for the Regrexit petition now are those who originally voted to leave. What happened? What lead them to change their minds? It turns out that many people didn’t fully understand the potential consequences of their vote. Many saw the vote as a way to protest, never believing that the population at large would vote to leave the EU.1 And scores of others didn’t really seem to grasp what they were voting for, which we can gather from the most popularly Googled phrase after Brexit passed: “What is the EU?”2

Now I know it may seem as though this is all a windup to a trash session on the people who voted for Brexit without realizing the true nature or impact of their vote. It’s not. Actually, I give them a world of credit for being honest with themselves, sharing their sense that they made a mistake, and signing the Regrexit petition. It takes colossal bravery to openly own up to an error. Besides, who hasn’t made one? Virtually every single human being (and I’m only saying “virtually” because I’m not a big fan of absolutes in language like “always” and “never”) has made at least one decision, no matter how big or small, that spawned regret. Perhaps it was a moment when you had a chance to offer a little extra kindness to someone, but didn’t. It might have been the conversation you ached to start or that playful adventure you yearned to take, yet held back and played it safe. Of maybe it was all of the days you spent making choices that pulled you farther from the life you truly wished for, rather than nearer to it.     

We all make mistakes. Some little, some massive. 

But now that the Brexit decision and the regret following it are a reality, perhaps it’s worth stepping back and making sense of regret—what it is, how it influences us, how we can cope with it, and even how we can use it. In other words, is there a way to make regret work for us? 

What is Regret?

We’re decision-making machines. From the small-time daily decisions to the major league judgment calls, we’re constantly faced with options to choose from—all day, every day. Will we get coffee in the morning or not? Do we want sushi or the sandwich for lunch? Will we watch Game of Thrones or The Preacher tonight? (OK, that one was mine…) Will we hit the gym or lie on the couch today? Do we want to marry our partner or not? Do we want to become a lawyer or a florist? Do we want to join this club or that organization? Will we answer this email now or later? Will we work on that project in three hours or in three days? Will we vote to leave the EU or remain in it? Will we vote for Trump or Clinton? Will we travel to Spain or Puerto Rico this summer? Will we have children or remain childfree? Do we want to live in San Francisco or iParis when we retire? Do we want to utter that angry phrase in our head or say a more vulnerable, loving one instead? Will we get a degree or chill in the job we have? Do we want to advocate for civil rights or fight for environmental causes? See what I mean? It’s endless.  

When we make a decision, our mind often conjures up an image of what we believe would have occurred if we had chosen differently. And when the alternate reality we’re imagining is more desirable than the one we’re actually in, we’re more apt to feel regret, whether it’s just a tiny bit or a great deal, for the decision we made. It’s possible that our mental picture of the lane we didn’t walk is accurate, or it could be wildly off the mark. But that’s not really what matters here. All we need to cultivate regret is to buy into the idea that another decision would have been better for us or others in the end.3  

And you don’t need me to tell you that when regret blooms, it’s distressing and we’d rather not feel it. Unlike the emotion of happiness, no one is waving at the front of the line, eager to infuse life with more regret.4 Yet it comes up A LOT, holding the grand distinction of being among the most commonly mentioned emotions in everyday life.5 People experience regret in cultures around the world,6 and it arises in a variety of ways. We feel regret for actions we took (e.g., a harsh comment) and for those we didn’t take (e.g., not making a risky yet highly appealing career move). We experience regret for choices we made in days gone-by and for decisions we’re putting in motion in the here and now (e.g., leaving a job and moving elsewhere). We feel it when we stumble into unfortunate circumstances and when we pass over a happy break that could have uplifted our life.7

Regret is also distinct from disappointment, another emotion we feel, even though they seem to be much the same. We feel regret when we envision what might have happened if we’d made a different choice, whereas we feel disappointed when we make a choice and set the results we wished for against the reality. When we feel regret, we’re more inclined to wish we could undo our choice than if we feel disappointed.8 For instance, if you decide to try a trendy new diner for breakfast and wind up with flat, underwhelming pancakes, you’ll probably feel disappointed. However, if you imagine how much tastier your breakfast would have been if you’d just gone to your usual Saturday breakfast spot, then you’re more apt to feel some regret. 

We also tend to start experiencing regret fairly early on in life, at around six years of age. By the time we’re eight, we can even imagine what kinds of decisions will lead to regret.9 This ability to imagine the regret we would feel before even making a decision is known as anticipated regret, and it affects how we make choices.10 On that note, let’s turn to the impact regret has on our lives.

How Does Regret Affect Us?

If you’ve heard thoughtful, earnest people encourage you to live life without regrets, you’re in good company. But is this advice that we really want to follow? Well, it depends on what the advice means. If someone is telling us to literally live life without ever feeling the emotion of regret, it would be unwise for us to heed this idea. At first glance, regret appears to be a futile, ineffective emotion. After all, why allow ourselves to entertain such an unpleasant feeling when the decision we’ve made is in the past and there’s no time machine in sight? This is an entirely understandable perspective, but let’s delve a little deeper. If we treat regret as a source of vital information that we can learn from rather than a fruitless irritant to dismiss, we can better understand the mistakes we make and grow from them, preventing ourselves from making similar mistakes in the future.11 Indeed, children who are capable of feeling regret make choices that are more beneficial compared to kids who don’t feel regret, irrespective of how old they are and how skillful they are with language.12 At the same time, regret needs to play a supporting role in the theater of life to be useful to us. If we allow regret to take up too much space and run our show, then it starts becoming an albatross rather than a friend.13 Take major regrets in life, for instance. They have the potential to pull us downward into despair and powerlessness based on how we handle them.14   

But what if the advice to live life without regrets means something different? If someone is telling us to try to steer clear of regret, as least as much as we can, by imagining how much regret we’d feel before we actually make our choices, then we’ve just received some sage counsel. Our anticipated regret—the level of regret we picture feeling after a possible choice— has a potent impact on the decisions we make. It can affect how chancy our choices are. If we believe that taking a risk will lead to less regret, we’re more prone to leap into uncertain waters. On the other hand, we’ll be inclined to remain on terra firma if we think that leaning away from risk will bring less regret. In essence, we’re playing a regret avoidance game as we navigate the choices of our life.15 Anticipated regret can also motivate us to make vital changes such as stashing extra money in a retirement account16 or turning our life around toward a more refreshing, enjoyable, gratifying direction.17

So arguably, we need a certain amount of regret in life. But how do we keep the amount of regret we feel in check while using it to uplift our lives? Let’s explore this question next.

How Can We Make Regret Work For Us? 

Here we have a two-part question: 1) How can we manage regret so that it doesn’t squash us underfoot, and 2) How can we use regret to help us make effective choices that will serve us down the road? Let’s start with the first part. 

How can we cope with regret when it arises? According to a 2016 study, if we treat ourselves with compassion, kindness, and empathy in the face of regret, we’re more likely to forgive ourselves and accept the regret we feel. In turn, this newfound acceptance of regret predicts our sense that we’ve grown and developed as an individual.18 

In a related vein, when we can find the upside in the choices we regret, the feeling eases.19 This doesn’t mean that we attempt to con ourselves into believing that our decision was a sound one after all. That’s actually linked to stronger feelings of regret!20 Instead, it means finding the shiny spots and hidden advantages behind a mistake. For instance, let’s say you made a highly impulsive move that backfired terribly, landing you in an apartment you detest and a job you loathe. As much you feel tempted to kick yourself for breaking your typically deliberate, cautious style, you also see that the move taught you how hardy and resourceful you are, and you would never have met the love of your life otherwise. Our ability to see the plus sides in our less than sterling choices helps us to lighten the regret we feel. 

Our coping options also depend on whether we can remedy our regrettable choices. If we can’t rectify what’s been done, then we’re better off taking a self-compassionate approach or searching for silver linings. A fitting illustration is a study showing that people who released themselves from struggling with regrets they couldn’t mend were less at risk of being unhappy in their retirement years three years later.21 But what if we have the capacity to fix what feels broken? Then efforts to make different choices and repair our mistakes are linked to less regret.22 People who adopt this strategy in their retirement years are more likely to feel content and to be more energetically involved in their lives.23 

This brings us to the second part of our question: How can we make regret serve us rather than disempower us?

We can choose to see the opportunity inherent in regret, treating it as a stepping stone to learn about ourselves and others and remodel our lives in sublime ways.24 We can also practice the art of slowing down, taking a little time to envision our possible choices, and anticipating the regret we might feel with each one. This kind of thoughtfulness toward our decisions can inform and improve a number of the choices we make.25 And if we listen to the lessons regret offers and use them to make higher quality choices in our future, regrets can even transform from disheartening to affirming.26 

I hope the good people of the UK will take heart and find worthy, beneficial lessons to carry away with them from the Brexit vote that will serve them and others in time. But Brexit aside, let’s aspire in our own lives to face our missteps and regrets with kindness and mercy. Let’s move forward and thrive rather than stew in regret, mired in the doldrums as we beat ourselves up for what we cannot undo. So the next time you feel that seemingly absurd emotion with the bad rap, consider inching a little closer and treating it as a tool that’s there to serve you. Ultimately, regret has a bright side.


Prejudice Toward Relationships

I enjoy looking at aspects of life in a holistic, broad way, to the best of my ability. Without question, I have plenty of blind spots because, well, I’m human and we all do. But I relish the never-ending journey of trying to question unchecked assumptions and make out what I didn’t spot before. And a big picture outlook on romantic relationships helps us to recognize that they don’t exist in a bubble. They live in a multilayered social and cultural context that touches and affects them. For that reason, when we explore relationships in this blog, sometimes we’ll zoom into the dynamics between two people, and other times we’ll pan out and consider the larger habitat that relationships thrive, survive, and die in. This post is dedicated to one piece of that wider backdrop: Social bias and prejudice toward relationships. 

    Many of us tend to think of prejudice as a negative stance toward individuals because of some quality they possess or a group they belong to, such as their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, or religious affiliation, to name just a few. But relationships can face prejudice too, as society also passes judgment on couples whose pairing falls outside the lines of what it defines as customary and appropriate.1 Exemplars of such unions that have received attention in relationship science include same-sex couples, interracial relationships, and unions with a notable age difference (defined as more than 10 years). At one level, this may seem a bit far-fetched and outdated. Marriage equality for same-sex couples is the law of the land and now the majority of people are in favor of it. Most folks don’t appear to bat an eye at the idea of people dating and marrying across racial lines. And we see plenty of examples of couples with distinct age gaps in popular culture. No big deal, right? Why are we even thinking about this? 

Let me be clear. I’m not trying to say that social attitudes toward couples who go against the grain haven’t dramatically progressed—they have. A mere 50 years ago, interracial marriage wasn’t even legal throughout the United States, and it took the 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving vs. Virginia to change that. Then fast forward to 2013, and we see a Gallup poll showing that 87% of the country approves of interracial marriage.5 And just 13 years ago, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the United States.6 Unquestionably, society has marched forward in its attitudes toward relationships. But does this mean that relationships that don’t quite fit the conventional mold of opposite-sex, matched-age, monoracial couples don’t endure prejudice and discrimination compared to more typical unions? Absolutely not. Such couples are still more apt to face unfavorable attitudes, to feel less accepted, and to experience dismissive or demeaning treatment. Prejudice toward these relationships exists; it’s just gone a little more underground than it was in the past. Here we’ll take a closer look at each of these three relationships. Of course, there are couples who fit more than one of these categories, but in the interest of clarity and attention to each type relationship here, we’ll focus on them separately.  

Interracial Relationships

First, consider the 87% interracial marriage approval statistic we just saw. On the surface, this number seems to tell us that nearly everyone is wholeheartedly in favor of it. But do these poll results truly reflect a virtually universal embrace of interracial romantic relationships and marriage? Unfortunately, when we dig a little deeper, the answer seems to be no. When you ask people about how they feel about interracial marriage, the answer you get depends on how you frame the question. Sure, 87% of people say they’re in favor of it in principle. But what about when it comes to a family member marrying interracially? According to a 2010 survey, only 66% are comfortable with it.9 And among college students, although those who date interracially are apt to improve their attitudes toward other racial groups by the end of their college years, they’re also more likely to feel a greater sense of pressure from people they know to date within their own race.10 In other words, most people approve of interracial dating and marriage, but not quite as many do when it’s in their own backyard. 

On top of the social pressure that people may encounter to date members of their own race, according to a 2009 study of internet daters, a personal preference to date within one’s own racial group strongly remains.11 And although the percentage of people who interracially marry is increasing, only 12% of all new marriages in 2013 were interracial. So even though we’ve come quite far in our willingness to cross racial lines in marriage and dating, as a whole most of us still marry and date in pretty racially segregated ways. 

And among couples who do cross racial lines, they face challenges that monoracial couples generally do not have to consider. One study found that interracial couples are less inclined to show physical affection toward each other in public compared to same-race couples. Interracial relationships are also linked to concerns such as:

  • Fears of how friends and family members will react
  • Rejection from loved ones
  • Public stares
  • Resentment of other people for dating outside one’s own race or for diminishing another racial group’s dating pool
  • Fear that a person of another race may be too culturally incompatible

Moreover, interracial couples experience poorer physical health than monoracial couples. This is consistent with other research showing that people in relationships that do not feel socially validated or supported are at greater risk for health problems, worsened mood, and low self-esteem. 

Same-Sex Relationships

True, most people support same-sex marriage, but most just means over half, which is unfortunately accurate when it comes to current approval numbers. Only 55% percent of people support same-sex marriage. If we consider this statistic from the viewpoint of the progress we’ve made as a society, then it probably feels like a big number. But when we think about the daily lived experiences of same sex-couples, this means that almost half of their fellow citizens see their relationship as invalid and unfit for marriage. What’s more, almost 40% of people see same-sex relationships as not only ineligible for marriage, but immoral. From that vantage point, 55% approval feels far too small. 

Unlike many heterosexual couples, same-sex couples face the stereotype that they can’t cultivate a deeply emotionally connected, ever-lasting union. They also have to contend with the dilemma of whether to reveal their relationship to family members, friends, and colleagues, risking censure and disapproval, or hold on to acceptance and keep their bond a secret. And in the midst of a culture that tells you that who you love is not “normal,” which lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals frequently deal with , it can be hard to resist soaking up that attitude over time and directing it inward toward yourself, a phenomenon known as internalized homophobia. This kind of inner stigma as well as the prejudice from others that same-sex couples must go up against are connected to greater problems within the relationship. Internalized homophobia can also present an agonizing conflict for some, as the person who they dearly love is also a reminder of what they’re ashamed of. Yet even for people who are burdened with this kind of self-reproach, if they don’t believe they’ll encounter prejudice in their own social world, they’re more apt to take an optimistic view of their relationship. And when it comes to having children, even though the road has become much smoother for same-sex couples who want to adopt, it remains bumpier than it is for opposite sex-couples. For example, you could take the greatest, most loving would-be parents ever who are yearning to adopt, but if they live in the state of Mississippi, they’re still not allowed to do so.  

Age-Gap Couples

According to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau survey, 90% of all heterosexual married couples in the United States involve a husband and a wife who are no more than nine years apart in age; in almost 77% of marriages, there’s no more than a five-year age difference. These numbers also map onto the age difference that people say they’re looking for in a partner, with men and women generally partial to a three-year age gap. Among those who love and marry across a wider age divide, they can encounter social difficulties that more similarly aged couples do not. Notably, they face widespread skepticism and stereotypes. Common examples include the notions that relationships with notable age gaps simply can’t go the distance, and that the couple must be too different to find common ground and thrive together. Other popular ideas are that the person who is younger must have a financial motive, or that the younger partner desires the relationship in a misguided attempt to resolve parental issues. In light of these notions, it’s probably not surprising that age-gap relationships face pervasive social condemnation, and the partners are all too aware of it. Across interracial, same-sex, and age-gap relationships, we know the least about the latter, as very little research has attended to these couples. But what we can say is that relationship science doesn’t support the myths that age-gap relationships reflect unfinished parental issues or are less happy than age-matched unions. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Most of what we know about prejudice centers around individuals. So we have much to understand when it comes to how, when, and why prejudice and discrimination target and impact relationships. We do know from relationship science that how we feel about ourselves has an impact on our relationship with our partner. When we see ourselves in a positive light, it makes it easier for us to let someone else in and accept their love and affection. So as we strive to elevate our sense of self-esteem, we make a potent investment in our relationship and offer it some protection in the face of prejudice and discrimination. But according to many researchers, when the strain of social prejudice and discrimination weighs down, it can seep inside and tear down how people feel about themselves.

And here we come full circle, back to our social environment and the fact that relationships don’t live in a bubble. The social web that couples face can have an impact on their sense of self and their relationship. For instance, for people who are members of racial or sexual minority groups, discrimination is linked to lower self-esteem and diminished relationship wellness. And among interracial and same-sex couples, social disapproval of their relationship is linked to lower devotion and confidence, among other problems. Although couples who are on equal footing in the relationship and handle stress well together can insulate themselves from this a bit, they still have to contend with social obstacles that could hamper their bond, obstacles that many other couples do not have to consider. 

True, it’s not possible to socially insulate couples from everyone who holds prejudiced against their relationship. But to the extent that we as individuals and as a society can question negative stereotypes about diverse couples and extend more positive and supportive messages to them, we can start to turn the social tide they swim into. The media can also be a potent helper here. For instance, positive media portrayals of interracial relationships are connected to improved, more favorable mindsets toward interracial couples. Arguably, more favorable, recurring media depictions of same-sex and age-gap couples would also serve to enhance attitudes toward these relationships as well. And thankfully, if we’re in a relationship that falls outside of traditional bounds, we can choose to seek out and cultivate social networks that approve of and support our union.

    Of course, we’ve just scratched the surface of what I believe is a vital topic. If you’re in a relationship like the ones we’ve explored, I wish you every happiness as you move forward with your partner, and hope this post offered a bit of recognition and validation. Perhaps you’re not in such a relationship, but are having a hard time supporting one. In that case, I’d like to invite you to open the door to exploring whether there may be just a little room to move toward greater acceptance. 

Thank you for reading.


Let's Talk About Orgasms.

Orgasms are ________. 

Go all out. Insert whatever descriptors you like in the blank. It’s cool—I’ll wait. If you said blissful, powerful, pleasurable, or insanely mind-blowing, you’re not alone. Then again, if you said almost painfulmehfleetingconfusing—have I ever had one?, or I wish I knew!, you’re certainly not alone either. And if any combination of these words sprang into your brain (a la mind-blowing and fleeting, for example), you’re in good company there too. Orgasms are less trusty visitors than you might imagine. Sure, 75% percent of men and 29% of women say that they can count on an orgasm every time, but this also means that a quarter of men and nearly three out of four of women cannot.

Does this mean that we must be defective in some way if we don’t climax regularly, find it troublesome to get there, or have never experienced one? Of course not! Yet, perception is reality. All we have to do is buy into the notion that we’re broken in some way, and the self-doubt piles on.  

People can place enormous pressure on themselves when it comes to sex and orgasms. It’s easy for the Big O to become a Big Pain in the A when climaxing turns into a must-have goal…or else. 

Or else what? 

Well, that varies from person to person. For some folks, an orgasm is a sign that they’re functioning normally, and that something is amiss with them if it doesn’t happen. Other people feel pressure to climax to show that they’re turned on, or to send a message to their partner as if to say, You’re getting it right and I’m loving it! The tricky part is that when we view orgasms as the primary way of showing our partner that they’re ringing our bell, we raise the stakes of achieving an orgasm tremendously. I mean, who in a healthy relationship doesn’t want to show a partner that they’re doing a bang-up job in the sack and raise their self-confidence? On the flipside, many of us carry around the notion that it’s incumbent upon us to make our partner reach that glorified peak. This arguably reflects the belief that a) orgasms are an essential, must-have part of sex, or else it isn’t satisfying, b) we’re not great lovers if we don’t make our partner climax, and/or c) we’re just not doing the trick for our partner. Wow! Talk about pressure galore, particularly considering that we don’t actually have full-scale control over whether ithappens. After all, there are two people involved. 

Unfortunately, reassurance that it’s common and gasp! okay not to have orgasms all of the time isn’t always at hand. Take what we see on TV and in movies, for example. It’s hard to imagine that those steamy scenes of passionate sex and rocking orgasms do a whole lot to hearten the many, many people who don’t find it easy to get there. No offense to scenes with hot sex and glorious orgasms. Californication and Game of Thrones are illustrative examples, and they are both exceptional shows, in my humble opinion. It’s just that if we’re looking for guidance on what to expect when it comes to orgasms, the screen isn’t our best resource! 

No, the best resource to have a sincere dialogue about sex and drain the air right out of these hyped-up, Big O notions is your romantic partner, right? I’m a huge fan of couples talking about their sexual experiences, their wishes, and their questions and concerns in an open, caring, and authentic manner. The hitch is that this doesn’t happen a great deal. According to a Durex survey, even though 84% of the surveyed couples admitted that talking with their partner about sex would bring a boost to the bedroom, only 27% actually sought their partner’s advice about it. As an aside, 42% of couples said they went to their friends for guidance. Although our friends may not be our primary wellspring of information (hint: It’s our partner!), if we’re unwilling to turn to our partner to talk about sex, then it is an excellent idea to seek counsel from someone rather than wonder all alone. That said, our partner is generally the best person to confide in—and in case you were keeping score at home, I said it three times just to highlight the point! 

Unfortunately, it can be an uphill battle for people to have a transparent discussion about sex, orgasms, and naughty delights when their partner clams up too. And then, if we throw sexual deception into the mix, the blockade to open communication gets taller. According to a 2010 study, 25-28% of men and 50-67% of women admitted to faking orgasms. Why did they do that? Here are some popular rationales:

  • To protect their partner’s feelings
  • To make their partner feel good
  • To stop having sex 

Moreover, there’s a sexual playbook that a number of heterosexual couples believe they’re supposed to follow. The woman has to climax first (no pressure, ladies), followed by the man, with the man being primarily responsible for the woman’s carnal peak (no pressure, gentlemen). 

So, to sum up what we’ve been talking about, let’s do into a little sex math, shall we? Partners who feel like they’re on the hook to have an orgasm or make their partner climax, along with a sexual script that may be layered over it all + a lack of sexual communication = greater odds of faking it. 

And it’s not just in the bedroom (or the room of your choice, let’s not limit ourselves…) where couples are less than up front. Couples fake it when they’re sexting too. Forty-eight percent of couples who sexted admitted to veering from the truth when they typed what they were doing and/or what clothes they were wearing (or, um, not wearing). More women (45%) than men (24%) lied while sexting, and although the main reason people gave for their deception was to heighten their partner’s pleasure (67%), a third of those who lied did so to enhance their own pleasure or relieve boredom.   

Faked orgasms, scripted lovemaking, zipped lips, and falsehoods. Great Scott! That doesn’t sound like heaps of fun does it? 

What can you do if you’re in this boat, along with so many others? 

Number One: For heavens sake don’t be hard on yourself or your partner. Insecurity wields a heavy hand at times and when it does, the idea of faking orgasms or remaining closemouthed can seem rather tempting. So it’s understandable how you got here. The key is not to stay put. 

Number Two: Take the pressure off of yourself and your partner to have an orgasm every time. Even better, change your aim from orgasms to relishing sex-play with your partner in the moment. See what happens if you focus less on the outcome and more on enjoying the journey. Arguably, much of sex is mental, like just about all of life. So, if you’re laser focused on

  • Needing to orgasm
  • What’s wrong with you because it’s taking you so long
  • Questioning what kind of a lover you are if your partner doesn’t climax
  • A host of other places your mind could wander (e.g., worrying about external problems, questioning whether you look sexy enough, planning your to-do list, doubting whether your partner is into it, etc.)

then it’s no wonder your body won’t cooperate. It starts with the mind, and if you mentally tune in to the present and let go, you’ll be much more likely to have great sex. Ironic, I know, but true. 

Number Three: Take a chance and genuinely communicate with your partner. Undoubtedly, this can be hard to do, as open communication entails a certain amount of vulnerability. But it’s also how relationships become closer. For example, partners who share more about themselves when talking to another couple feel more bonded to each other as a result. 

Of course, the upside of openness doesn’t minimize the fear that can creep in when it comes to authentic communication about sex. If you share what you like, what turns you on, or your hopes and fears, what if your lover were to judge you, to feel hurt, or dismiss or reject you? Even as these questions and the unease that accompanies them are totally understandable, try to remember that those fears may not reflect reality. Just imagine: What if your lover reacted to you with acceptance, appreciation, responsiveness, love, and passion?   

If it helps, a 2011 study by Temple University researchers shows that you have good reason to be optimistic about openness. Not only does talking about sex with your partner improve your sexual enjoyment together, it turns out that sexual authenticity extends to your whole relationship. Couples who talked openly about sex were more likely to be happier together in general. 

So, if you take a chance and talk about sex with your partner, think of it as a worthy investment in the two of you. Besides, you just might make it easier for your partner to reveal more to you too. A wealth of research shows that when we allow others to see more of us, they allow us to see more of them too. So why not open the door to deeper sexual communication yourself? Someone has to make the first move.   


Sources

Drouin, M., Tobin, E., & Wygant, K. (2014). “Love the way you lie”: Sexting deception in romantic relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 542-547.

Durex® Encourages Couples To Communicate Openly Through Honest Pillow Talk. (2014, March 21). Retrieved March 13, 2016, from http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/durex-encourages-couples-to-communicate-openly-through-honest-pillow-talk-251419741.html

Marter, J. (2014, July 28). Mindfulness for Mind-Blowing Sex: 5 Practices. Retrieved March 13, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joyce-marter-/mindfulness-for-mindblowi_b_5608649.html

Montesi, J.L., Fauber, R.L., Gordon, E.A., & Heimberg, R.G. (2011). The specific importance of communicating about sex to couples’ sexual and overall relationship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28, 591-609. 

Muehlenhard, C.L., & Shippee, S.K. (2010). Men’s and women’s reports of pretending orgasm.Journal of Sex Research, 47, 552-567. 

Slatcher, R.B. (2010). When Harry and Sally met Dick and Jane: Creating closeness between couples. Personal Relationships, 17, 279-297.

The Kinsey Institute - Sexuality Information Links - FAQ [Related Resources]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2016, from http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/resources/FAQ.html#orgasm

The Myth of Relationship Decline

“You’re happy now, but just wait until you’re married for (fill in the blank) years.” You may have heard this phrase, or something like it. You may have said it yourself. Regardless of who says it, they are not alone in that view. It is commonly believed in our culture (and, until relatively recently, in relationship science) that relationships are wonderful in the beginning, filled with a romantic love that people should enjoy while they can, as the decline in relationship happiness and romantic love will inevitably come.

Sadly, because this is a widely held idea, it is may also be commonplace for people to get married or enter long-term relationships believing at some level that the beginning is as good as it’s ever going to get. Just imagine making a new friend or having a child with the notion that your best years with your friend or child are at the beginning, and that it’s all downhill from there. What a dismal vision!

According to recent research on long-term marriages and partnerships, it is also an untrue vision. It turns out that there is more than one path relationships can take from their start to their finish (i.e., divorce/breaking-up, or death). Relationship scientists have found that the waters were a bit muddied in previous relationship research because couples who would ultimately follow different long-term relationship paths got mixed together into a single group. This created the illusion that relationships generally decline (Lavner, Bradbury, & Karnet, 2012). True, a number of couples will follow that declining path. However, research shows that what most strongly distinguishes couples whose relationship happiness will decline from those who will remain stably happy (58% of husbands and 69% of wives) over time is actually what they were like at the start of their relationship. What this means is that people whose happiness declines are actually the ones who had more problems to begin with (Lavner, Bradbury, & Karney, 2012). So, if you  want to get a sense of where your relationship may be heading, you might want to consider how it was at the start. As one of my wise former psychology mentors always used to say, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

A nationwide study supports the idea that many couples can and do enjoy enduring close connections and intense romantic love (Acevedo, Aron, Huddy, & Mashek, 2012). Among people who were married for at least 30 years, 35% of husbands and 40% of wives said that they were “very intensely in love” with their spouse. Those who said they were intensely in love also tended to be physically affectionate with their spouse, to think positively about their spouse, and to share in enjoyable, engaging activities.

Now, what if those who said they were intensely in love only did so because they wanted to put on a positive front to the person interviewing them? As the study’s authors pointed out, when people talk about their marriages, they generally admit if it isn’t working. So, the idea that these were people pretending to be in love isn’t a likely one.

Research aside, it just intuitively makes sense that not all relationships follow the same long term path. Why would they? Although it is possible that you will be less happy and in love with your partner over time, it is also quite possible that you will enjoy a deeply enriching, loving, passionate, secure connection with someone that is as at least as good (or better!) at 30 years as it is at three months. A relationship’s opportunity to grow to a deeper, more loving and meaningful place happens with time (e.g., 30 years), not with a few initial dates (i.e., three months).  So if you’re with someone who you love deeply, who you like greatly, and who you’re grateful to have in your life, allow yourself to let go of myths that say the good times won’t last. Focus instead on enjoying and savoring each moment.

5 Tips for Healthy, Loving Relationships

Published on the Harvard Extension Blog

Romantic relationships, in all of their complexity, are a fundamental component of our lives. And as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke mused, “There is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another.”

So this Valentine’s Day we’re asking, what makes a good relationship? To that end, Holly Parker, a clinical psychologist and instructor for the course The Psychology of Close Relationships, offers her advice on how to have healthy and loving romantic relationships.

1. See the best 

Research on perception and attention shows that we see more of what we look for, so if you’re looking for signs of kindness, that’s more likely to stand out to you. How you think about and interpret your partner’s actions, intentions, and words also affects how you feel and understand a situation with them, which in turn affects how you behave toward them.

Put it into practice: Spend a week looking for anything and everything your partner does “right.” You can even jot down anything you notice for each day if you choose.

2. Have fun

Couples who engage in exciting and enjoyable activities together have greater relationship satisfaction from before to after the shared activity. As several studies have shown, couples who play together stay together.

Put it into practice: Choose an activity with your partner that you’ve never done together before that you would both find engaging and fun, such as taking dancing lessons, staying the night at a new town and exploring it, or indoor skydiving. You can also try something with your partner that he or she enjoys that you’ve never done before.

What else is related to long-term passionate love? Sexual intimacy, shared affection, and happiness in life.

3. Have good sex

Increasing research is pointing to a great sex life as predicting better relationship satisfaction—but not the other way around. One such study published in the Journal of Family Psychologyexamined data from hundreds of couples to determine the relationships among sexual satisfaction, marital quality, and marital instability at midlife.

4. Be grateful for your partner

Studies on appreciation in romantic relationships show that expressing gratitude to your partner predicts an increase in your relationship satisfaction. The gratitude you feel inside also predicts your partner’s level of satisfaction. Feeling appreciated by your partner seems to increase how much you appreciate him or her in return—which positively affects how much you feel committed to the relationship and want to do things to meet your partner’s needs.

Put it into practice: Spend time saying “thank you” and letting your partner know how much you truly value him or her. Also, remember to increase the gratitude you actually feel toward your partner, because this also makes a big difference. Reflect on why you appreciate having your partner in your life or what you would miss most if he or she were not in your life.

5. Have a good relationship with yourself

The relationship you have with yourself is arguably the foundation on which your other relationships are built, and studies are supporting this notion. High self-esteem predicts better relationship satisfaction, and high self-esteem of both partners is an even better predictor of strong relationship satisfaction. Moreover, people with high self-esteem appear to respond more constructively and positively during conflict when they think their partner is committed to the relationship, whereas people with low self-esteem don’t do this even when they believe their partner is committed.

Put it into practice: Like most things, increasing the quality of your relationship can take time. Begin from a place that you can believe. It’s okay if right now you have a hard time believing that you’re a worthwhile person. You don’t have to tell yourself that yet if you don’t believe it. Start by identifying at least one thing you like about yourself or one thing you’re good at doing. Then, look for other things from that starting point. Remember, more of what you look for tends to pop out, so look for not only what your partner does right, but what you do right.