It’s the little things that count the most

If there’s one thing that watching celebrity “reality” shows teaches you, it’s that rich and famous people aren’t any happier than the rest of us. You’d think that having all that money and notoriety would make people wildly happy. But it doesn’t. And if you’re walking around thinking, “Well, if I won the lottery, I’d be gloriously happy for the rest of my life,” nope, you wouldn’t. Practically everybody who comes into sudden wealth gets happy momentarily and then returns to their former level of happiness (or unhappiness) as before. So what does bring lasting happiness?

dttsp869_600In a nifty little study, Daniel Mochon of MIT (now at Tulane University) and his colleagues asked if small, repeated actions might be the best way to improve your sense of well-being over the long term. The researchers looked at two sorts of behaviors that they imagined might increase people’s sense of well-being: spiritual expression (in the form of attending some sort of religious service) or engaging in physical activity (either at a gym or practicing yoga). In before/after comparisons, the participants reported an increase in their sense of well-being.

Happiest over all were Mormons and people of Baha’i faith.   The least happy were Catholics and Quakers. But “least happy” here was still pretty darn happy (an average of 70 on a 100 point scale when rating themselves on questions like “How happy are you with your life in general?”) The biggest before/after boost was experienced by the Greek Orthodox; people placed in the generic “Christians” category experienced no change in their sense of well-being (~82/100).

While their results aren’t that surprising (to me, anyway, since I both attend religious services and practice yoga), the researchers themselves were surprised. That’s because they subscribe to the “hedonic treadmill” idea, which posits that you have a “set point” of happiness that neither good nor bad events effects very much. Their conclusion: “…people who engage in these activities often enough will end up with higher well-being.” Put another way, regular, small boosts will increase your sense of happiness over the long term.

Here’s how to put these results to work for yourself:

  • Find an activity to try. It could be taking a walk, attending a religious service, or taking a yoga class. The choice is up to you, just make sure it’s something you can participate in regularly.
  • Keep track your sense of well-being before and after the activity. A scale of one to five works just fine. After you’ve attended several sessions (say three to five), evaluate. If you’re seeing some increases, then make a longer term commitment. If not, try something else.
  • If you want an even bigger boost, add in the “three good things” exercise. Personally, I keep a gratitude journal, which I find keeps me focused on positive emotional experiences on a daily basis (and probably provides the same kind of small boosts).

Behind the Scenes: My TEDx


OK, so yesterday, I took a deep breath and shared the video of my TEDx talk. One of my friends on Facebook (she’s a former client, actually) watched the talk and wrote, “Fabulous! You’re so cute and endearing when you’re nervous. Well done!” Ah yes, I was nervous. Very, very. Here’s the backstory.

Several months ago, my dear and beloved friend Augusto invited me to apply for TEDx Ft. Wayne. I told him “yes!” but in my heart, I was saying “no!” Deep down, I didn’t want to apply but I thought I had no chance whatsoever of being chosen. Because I thought they’d turn me down, I felt safe in putting my application in.

Yep, a couple of weeks later, I was invited to audition.

Drat! But I had an out. They wanted the applicants to audition in person. In Ft. Wayne. Indiana. I’m on the West Coast so again, I had an out. Yay! I told them in the nicest way possible that I couldn’t come to Ft. Wayne to audition. And they told me: No problem! You can audition on Google Hangout. Okay. Hmm.

I was a nervous wreck on the day of the audition. I put on makeup for goodness sake. Makeup is a sure sign I am out of my comfort zone. But there I was in my lipstick and mascara with my five minute audition spiel. I gave my talk and felt pretty good about it. By then, I actually was pretty sure I was going to be invited. And sure enough, a week or so later, I was.

And then, I sort of lost my mind.

Two things were freaking me out. First, it was a freaking TEDx. Like a TED talk but with an x attached. Oh. My. That’s deep water. And I am a so-so swimmer. I dog paddle and tread water and I don’t like to get my face wet. And second, there was a strict time limit: eighteen minutes. I was very, very freaked out about going over. Because of my anxiety over these two conditions, I did something I don’t normally do. I wrote my talk and tried to memorize it.

Something you should know about me, should you ever see me live on stage: I never write my talks. Essentially, I never know exactly what I’m going to say until the words exit my mouth. I know kind of what I’m going to say. I have an outline and I usually have a few simple slides. I usually have some notes but I rarely use them. I just stand up and start talking. So why did I think writing my talk was a good idea? Oh yeah: TED with an x and eighteen minutes.

I wrote the talk and hated it. I rewrote it and liked it. Actually thought it was pretty good. So I went about memorizing it. When I started practicing, I imagined how I wanted the audience to feel and what I wanted them to do. What I didn’t want the audience to do was stare at my slides, so I selected one key image to make one particular point and that was it. My slide deck consisted of three slides: a black blank slide, then the image slide, and then another black blank slide. This proved problematic, as you’ll soon see.

As the date drew nearer, I got more and more anxious. When I get anxious, I get insomnia. When I get insomnia, I have little memory blanks—I forget words, names, and why I went into a room to get…what was going to get in here? Those kinds of memory blanks.

Yay! I had a new fear to add to the first two: that I would blank out in the middle of my talk. Side note: Should you find yourself worrying about forgetting something in the middle of a presentation, give yourself a small but simple crutch like a little note or a helpful slide. But of course, that’s not what I did. I just went on trying to remember everything. Groan.

The night before my TEDx, I did exactly what I’d been doing every night for the previous two weeks. I woke up about 1 AM and started fretting. But this time, I had a moment of clarity. I woke up, so to speak. I never write talks! I never memorize talks! I believe that being over-rehearsed makes me seem like a phony which is worse than being awkward or nervous. I would rather die a thousand deaths than present myself as someone that I am not. So I decided to do what I usually do: wing it.

The day of the presentation, I was freaking out. Yep, I put on makeup. Mascara, lipstick, foundation, for goodness sake. But I also put on my favorite cowboy boots, which was a good sign that I was still me, underneath all that Clinique.

As I was standing off stage, waiting to go on, one of the organizers read my bio. And he read the last sentence wrong, which is to stay, he garbled what I’d written. In the midst of my “What the heck did he just say?” moment, I walked up the steps and on to the stage. Did I mention that I was the last speaker? I was the freaking closer for goodness sake.

I smiled at the audience and got my bearings. Located the slide remote and looked up to see that my slide deck had been advanced to the image slide. Keeping my cool, I backed up to my blank starting slide. Then the guy in the control room advanced it back to my image slide. Seriously? I looked across that huge room to the dark control room and said, “I know you’re trying to help. But stop.” I got a laugh, which was nice. Deep breath. I started talking.

Have you ever had an out of body experience? Let me tell you what mine was like. I was there but not there. Words were coming out of my mouth. Very heartfelt, authentic, vulnerable parts of me were expressed. I know that because I remember feeling heartfelt and authentic and vulnerable. However, I don’t remember what I said.

I sort of came to at about the nine minute mark and thought, “Where am I going with this?” Oh yeah: three destructive myths about time. Better cover those. That’s when the lack of slides interacted with the memory blanks. What I feared was exactly what I got: I forgot what I was going to say. Now folks, I just wrote an entire book on this topic. You know I know this stuff, right? Yet there I was, blank. Twice. It happened twice. And my beloved husband prompted me and I would find my place and be off and running again. And then it was over.

When my boots hit the floor as I exited the stage, I thought, “Well that was a total freaking train wreck.” And then people in the audience started high-fiving me as I walked back to my seat. Afterward, people asked me for my autograph. I am not kidding: I signed a nice man’s t-shirt and event posters. And there were authentic, heartfelt conversations, too. Everyone was really nice. No one said anything about my memory blanks or that I seemed like I wasn’t really present in my own body while I was up on stage.

One other thing you should know about me is that even when public events go well, I tend to go to a shame place anyway. And I felt the temptation to run from the room and hide after my TEDx. But somehow, I didn’t. Partly, I think it was because I decided to take the post-event audience reaction at face value. I decided that they were high-fiving me because they enjoyed my talk, not because they were just being nice. (And if the latter was true, screw it, I’m still taking their positive feedback at face value, so there.)

When I think back to my intentions for my TEDx, I wanted to stand in front of my audience and be truly myself. In spite of the makeup and the out-of-body sensation, I was successful.

One thing I’ve learned is that success is rarely all one thing. Usually, my successes are a heady mix of fun, terror, delight, joy, and awkwardness. If I could go back and do anything differently, it would be to focus more on the x than the TED, to not make such a big deal out of it, to relax and enjoy the experience more. And to stop worrying so much about time because that, after all, was the point of the talk.

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Tara’s TEDx: Three Destructive Myths About Time

Recently, I went way out of my comfort zone and gave a TEDx! Here it is. Enjoy!

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