Adopting Healthy Habits for Happiness and Wellbeing

How Therapists Can Teach Habits for Happiness

Katy Butler

Once in a while---perhaps inspired by therapy or a retreat or a friend's heart attack---we may make concerted attempts to be kinder to our spouses, less impatient with coworkers, more loving with our children, or more attentive to our own self-care. But our chaotic 21st-century lives often lack the structure, discipline, and even the raw physical energy required to make the changes stick. After a few weeks of trying something as simple as swimming at lunchtime---never mind reforming our characters---we sag beneath the weight of too much distraction and too little sleep. We know everything except how to live.

In this postmodern world of infinite choice and incoherent structure, what practical steps should we take now---a personal trainer? More therapy? Feng shui? Life coaching? Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous? Martial arts? Zen meditation?---to become the self we see shining in our best moments?

What Really Matters?


Such questions have long preoccupied the writer Tony Schwartz, who paid a price in the mid-1980s for failing to live in accord with what he valued most. He was a tennis player and a 35-year-old former New York Times reporter---quick, angular, pessimistic, thoroughly psychoanalyzed, and driven---when real estate developer Donald Trump offered him a quarter of a million dollars plus royalties to ghostwrite a book that became a bestseller, The Art of the Deal.

Not long afterward, Schwartz woke up in the bedroom of the house he'd bought in Riverdale, just north of Manhattan. The Art of the Deal was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and well on its way to selling a million copies in hardcover. He'd achieved much of the fame he'd hoped for, and earned enough to think he'd never worry about money again. "And I felt bad, I felt lousy," Schwartz says. "That was what prompted me to write What Really Matters. It was my penance."

For the next eight years, Schwartz abandoned the art of the deal for the heart of the matter. “What's a truly meaningful life?” he asked. And who could show him how to live it?

What Really Matters was published in 1995. But Schwartz still sometimes woke up in the bedroom of his house in Riverdale feeling pessimistic and driven. And he found his thoughts returning to one of the most prosaic of the people he'd interviewed---a former tennis coach named Jim Loehr.

Loehr---a careful researcher and gifted amateur athlete with no patience for New Age spirituality or wishful thinking---left his agency in the early 1980s to become a sports psychologist in Denver, experimenting with a broader technology of human change. His first private clients were two demoralized professional athletes who went to see him, literally, under the cover of darkness, because they were choking during important games. Cobbling together cognitive approaches and guided imagery, he tried to apply conventional psychotherapy principles to high-stakes athletic performance.

Positive Rituals


True to his Catholic upbringing, Loehr also addressed what a less practical person might comfortably call the spirit. He listened to the kids and tried to discover how becoming good tennis players could serve deeper values, like sportsmanship and courage, rather than simply their parents' ambitions---or their own---for trophies, one-upmanship, and fame.

Loehr got his first clue to the significance of what he calls "positive rituals" in 1987, while studying hundreds of hours of videotapes of professional tennis matches to find out what set champions apart from also-rans. It wasn't their raw talent or their strokes, he discovered, but what they did during the seemingly unimportant 15- or 20-second pauses between points.

During these breaks, the less successful players---both among the kids at the training camp and on the professional circuits---dragged their rackets, muttered under their breaths, dropped their heads and shoulders, looked around at the crowd distractedly, or even threw fits. Giving vent to energy-draining emotions like anger and fear, they looked either demoralized or tense.

Tennis champions like Chris Evert, however, would concentrate their gazes on their rackets or touch the strings with their fingers and stroll toward the back court---focusing, avoiding distraction, relaxing, and effectively letting the past go. After this mini-meditation, they'd turn back toward the net, bounce on their toes, and visualize playing the next point.

A Larger Self

Over the next couple of years, extrapolating from what he'd learned from Loehr, Schwartz designed three rituals. Every Saturday morning at 8, he'd talk privately with his wife for an hour. Every morning, he'd get up and write down his pessimistic thoughts, and then find the opportunity and challenge within each perceived threat. Before he went to bed at night, he'd make a list of what he was grateful for.

Over the course of a year, the pessimism Schwartz had assumed was indelibly stamped into his character began to melt. He and his wife grew closer; they've since voluntarily extended their "intimacy hour" to two 90-minute sessions a week. "I could've spent 15 years in therapy talking about my reluctance to be intimate," Schwartz said. "Guess what? I just did it and I got better. Once you say---'This is just a muscle that's weak in me---if I developed it, I'd be more productive, I'd feel better, and I'd make other people feel better'---once that's clear, it's common sense. Push the weight."

The book Schwartz and Loehr cowrote chronicling this work---The Power of Full Engagement ---touched a nerve. If The Art of the Deal promised something to a culture obsessed with the free market, The Power of Full Engagement spoke to the quotidian chaos of our present lives and their lack of self-care.

Reshaping Lives

Mechanical as these ways may seem, they confirm what ancient folkways, religious custom, and the old joke about Carnegie Hall make clear: change requires not just inspiration, but practice. We don't simply paint a rainbow into the sky and climb it. We paint the rainbow over and over again until it's strong enough to bear our weight.

Therapy, as practiced in the 20th century, placed many of its bets on inspiration, even on a single session. But even the most dramatic emotional expression and healing is a consolation prize if clients don't or can't then shape a life that satisfies them. People don't just want to understand themselves better, have a paid friend, or quiet their demons. They want to shape their lives. They want to know how to live. And if therapists wish to be seen as experts in the technology of human transformation in the 21st century, they must help them.

This blog is excerpted from “Living on Purpose." Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Mind/Body | Children/Adolescents

Tags: add | addict | coaching | ED | EFT | emotion | HEAL | intimacy | kids | meditation | parents | psychologist | psychotherapy | success | talking | technology | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | transformation | money | sleep | clients

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