Happiness

Here's Why You Need A Relationship Contract (And What To Put In It)

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“Congratulations, Neil!”

I was sitting across from the SVP of HR at Walmart a few years ago when he offered me his hand and a new sheet of paper with all the terms of my new promotion spelled out. I shook his hand and left his office doing mental cartwheels down the hall.

This was it!

The dream job.

More money, bigger team, fancier title, more interesting work.

And more actual work, too.

Because isn’t that how promotions usually work?

A few more meetings. A few more hours. A few more business trips. A bigger job isn’t just a bigger paycheck. It’s got more responsibility, too.

With the job offer in hand I popped my head into the office of one of my mentors at the company and said:

“Guess what! I got the big promotion.”

“Congratulations!” he said. “Are you going to accept it?”

His simple question caught me off guard.

“Well, it feels like a slam dunk,” I replied, with a bit of a confused look in my eyes, wondering what he was getting at. “Everything improves here — salary, benefits, title. Great for future employability, too. If I get turfed I have a nice “top line” on my resumé. A good benchmark for going somewhere else. I feel like I should sign this right now and head straight back to the SVP’s office.”

“Go ahead and sign it,” he said with smile. “But it’s a big job! You’ll be leading a large team and on the road a lot. So, before you hand it back in, make sure you take the contract home, share it with your wife, and write up another contract, too. A family contract. One between you and your partner. The company is changing all your terms, aren’t they? So make sure you revisit all your home terms, too.”

His message rang a bell.

All of us have contracts with our employers.

Very few of us have contracts with our partners.

We have detailed sheets of paper spelling out exactly what we’re supposed to do on the job. But we have no similar piece of paper for our families, do we?

Maybe it sounds a bit strange, but that night I went home and sat down with my wife Leslie and we thought writing up a family contract was a good idea. We spent a long time that night discussing and writing out the terms of the contract and it has four bullet points that we still use today.

Number of nights away

It breaks my heart to miss bath time. Combing my son’s wet hair. Reading books under the covers. Goodnight kisses. There are a finite number of these nights in our lives so it should hurt to miss them. The biggest thing for Leslie and I to discuss was how many nights I was going to be away per year. We came up with a number that worked for us and began tracking it. It was a number that was easy to break down per month so if I had a really busy month (say, a conference out of town or something) then I knew I had to say no to a business trip next month to make up for it. Can this hamper your career? Absolutely. But can business trips away hamper your family? Absolutely. Let’s not pretend you can have everything. Come up with a number that works for your family and stick with it.

Family Day

We decided it was important for us to have one Family Day every weekend. What’s a Family Day? A full day with no cellphones, no extended family, no friends, nothing. Just me, my wife, our two little kids and zero interruptions all day. We had so many weekends blurring by in a smear of gymnastics, birthday parties and extended family dinners. Fun weekends! But no deep family time. Is this tough to do? Of course! Think about how many days you have with a sports practice or somebody’s big birthday. Those are beautiful things. But prioritizing one Family Day a weekend creates energy, helps you be choosy about what activities you’re signing up for and helps avoid saying a passive yes to every invitation.

NNO/LNO

This is a fun one. Once a week I get an NNO. Neil’s Night Out. Watch out, town! Seriously though, whatever I want to do that night, I do it. Dinner with a friend, live music by myself, spinning in circles in empty parking lots. It’s my night off. I can do whatever I want. What’s an LNO? That would be Leslie’s Night Out. She gets one a week, too. Energy is the priceless commodity here. It’s too easy to crash into Netflix comas on the couch once the kids are in bed. “Oh, look, we have only three Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts left!” NNO/LNO helps us plan and prioritize ourselves and our other relationships, too. I feel like a great father and husband before and after I go away because I get energy from those nights. Plus, I get my own stories and experiences to bring back into the home while continuing to develop my life as an individual. The best part is there’s no guilt, since my wife has a night off, too. So in a way these two nights “pay for” each other. She can go to a yoga class, work on her pictures in a coffee shop, try my spinning parking lot thing, whatever. The two nights end up feeling like a gift to each other, which helps, though sometimes we do find we need to push each other to take them.

Number of vacation days per year

I know work contracts generally have a number of vacation days spelled out. But most of us aren’t taking real vacation. We either don’t take all our days or we work while we’re away. It’s also worth noting that most companies have policies where you can buy more vacation days or take unpaid personal days. What’s my point? My point is it’s nice that the company tells you what you get, but it’s more important you discuss and write down the number that works for your family and then plan it out. For me, this meant every year at Walmart I used the company policy to apply for an extra couple weeks of unpaid leave a year and took the 5 per cent annual hit to my salary. It was a worthwhile trade-off for the extra time together and I never noticed the funds that were being skimmed off the top.

That’s the contract I have with my partner.

We printed it up, signed it and keep it in a file.

The goal is to have a contract in a desk at home that creates a healthy tension with the contract you have in a desk at work.

Everybody will have different terms, of course. Maybe you include points about school drop-off and pickup or whether or not you work from home on weekends.

Now, I didn’t tell my work I had this contract. I didn’t wave it in their face and say, “Sorry, I can’t travel next week.” But the home contract helped me articulate my values, which enabled speedier decision-making and a better acceptance of the decisions I did make later on in my new role. I didn’t sweat every business trip. I simply counted them towards an annual number. Plus, if I cheated on one of the bullet points, I knew I had to make it up. If I travelled on a weekend (and missed Family Day) then we needed two Family Days next weekend. Good excuse for a road trip.

Now, as you think about a contract that works with you and your partner, let’s make sure we remember that the goal is never to be perfect.

It’s simply to be a little better than before.

I’d love to see your contract if you’re willing to share at neil@globalhappiness.org 

Too hardcore? Check out this video on the power of the ‘quarterly relationship meeting’ instead:

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

7 Science-Backed Ways To Be Happy Right Now

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Let’s start with some bad news.

The happiness model we’re taught from a young age is actually completely backward. We think we work hard in order to achieve big success and then we’re happy. That’s how I grew up! That’s what my parents taught me.

We think the scribble goes like this:

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Study hard! → Straight A’s! → Be happy!

Interview lots! → Great job! → Be happy!

Work overtime! → Get promoted! → Be happy!

But it doesn’t work like that in real life. That model is broken.

We do great work, have a big success, but instead of being happy, we just set new goals. Now we study for the next job, the next degree, the next promotion. Why stop at a college degree when you can get a master’s? Why stop at Director when you can be VP? Why stop at one house when you can have two? We never get to happiness. We just always push it further and further away.

Now what happens when we snap “Be happy” off the end of this scribble and stick it on the beginning? Then these important six words look like this:

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Now everything changes. Everything changes. If we start with being happy, then we feel great. We look great. We exercise. We connect. What happens? We end up doing great work because we feel great doing it. What does great work lead to? Big success. Massive feelings of accomplishment and the resulting degrees, promotions, and phone calls from your mom telling you she’s proud of you.

The research shows that shows happy people are 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales, and are three times more creative than their counterparts.

So what’s the first thing you must do before you can be happy?

Be happy.

Be happy first.

Being happy opens up your learning centers. Your brain will light up like Manhattan skyscrapers at dusk, sparkle like diamonds under jewelry store lights, glow like the stars in the black sky above a farmer’s field.

American philosopher William James says, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.”

The Happiness Advantage author Shawn Achor says, “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.”

William Shakespeare says, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Now, it’s one thing to say “Be happy, everybody!” and leave it there.

But we all know it’s not that easy.

Why not? Because our brains get focused on negative things. We can’t stop! I do this all the time. And you know what? Everybody does. Every single person gets stuck focusing on the negative sometimes. I’ve spoken on stages with the best-known motivational speakers, Fortune 500 CEOs, and political leaders from around the world. Do you know what they’re all doing backstage? Freaking out. Sweating. Thinking something might go wrong.

The problem isn’t that we get stuck focused on the negative sometimes.

The problem is that we think we shouldn’t.

And that prevents us from taking action.

Action? That’s right. I’m talking about intentional activities. Studies show these happiness hits work like little happiness hacks that slowly shift our brain to being more positive focused.

I’ve sifted through positive psychology studies to find what I call The Big 7 ways to train your brain to be happy. Many of these studies have been discussed in journals, conference keynotes, and research reports, but I’ve brought them together here. These activities all meet my “3 S” criteria of being simple enough that I can do it, shareable enough that we can do it together, and short enough that they can be done in less than half an hour in middle of a busy day.

So what are The Big 7?

Let’s break it down:

3 Nature Walks

Do you suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD)?

I do. I am developing a hunchback. My thumbs occasionally get fried from too much texting. We are all becoming addicted to our cell phones.

We need to take more breaks and get outside.

Pennsylvania State researchers reported in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology that the more physically active people are, the greater their general feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. The American Psychosomatic Societypublished a study showing how Michael Babyak and a team of researchers found three thirty-minute brisk walks or jogs even improve recovery from clinical depression. Yes, clinical depression. Results were stronger than those from studies using medication or studies using exercise and medication combined.

And why nature? Less keyboards. Less screens. More fresh air. More perspective. More reflection. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it turns out trees release a chemical called phytoncides which are actually shown to help reduce cortisol levels. Other benefits? Lower blood pressure, greater activity of parasympathetic nerves that promote relaxation, and a reduced activity of sympathetic nerves associated with “fight or flight” reactions to stress.

The 20-Minute Replay

Writing for twenty minutes about a positive experience dramatically improves happiness. Why? Because you actually relive the experience as you’re writing it and then relive it every time you read it. Your brain sends you back. In a University of Texas study called “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words,” researchers Richard Slatcher and James Pennebaker had one member of a couple write about their relationship for twenty minutes three times a day. Compared to the test group, the couple was more likely to engage in intimate dialogue afterward, and the relationship was more likely to last.

Seriously? Journaling? Aren’t journals just a pile of blank paper stapled together with a picture of a cat on the front of them for twenty bucks? Yes! Yes, they are. Total ripoff, right? But they work. Turns out an area of your brain called your visual cortex has an area within it called area 17 which actually replays the highlights of your day as you recall and write them down. (This is partly why I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit The Journal of Awesome has outsold most of my books. Yes, a book I’ve written with no words in it has outsold many books I’ve written with words in them.)

5 Conscious Acts

Carrying out five conscious acts of kindness a week dramatically improves your happiness. Depending on your personality it’s not always natural to think about holding the door open for a couple minutes as a room exits, shovelling our neighbor’s sidewalk and walkway, or writing a Christmas card to the apartment building security guard we see every morning. But Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, did a study asking Stanford students to perform five acts of kindness over a week. Not surprisingly, they reported much higher happiness levels than the test group. Why? They felt good about themselves! People appreciated them.

In his book Flourish, Professor Martin Seligman says that “we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

High-Challenge, High-Skill Tasks

Get into a groove. Be in the zone. Find your flow. However you characterize it, when you’re completely absorbed with what you’re doing, it means you’re being challenged and demonstrating skill at the same time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this moment as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Do you get that feeling from painting in the basement? Leaving your cell phone and watch at home and going for a long run before everyone wakes up? Taking nature pictures? Hitting the batting cage? In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi describes it using a wonderful image which I’ve redrawn below:

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Ten Long Deep Breaths

A research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at brain scans of people before and after they participated in a course on mindfulness meditation and published the results in Psychiatry Research. What happened? After the course, parts of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness grew while parts associated with stress shrank.

Studies report that meditation can “permanently rewire” your brain to raise levels of happiness. If you’re having trouble getting started, try an app like Calm or Ten Percent Happier.

Five Gratitudes

If you can be happy with simple things, then it will be simple to be happy.

Find a book or a journal, or start a website, and write down five things you’re grateful for from the past week. More if you have them! Once you get going it will become easier. But the key here is actually writing them down. I wrote five gratitudes a week for four years on my blog 1000 Awesome Things. Some people write in a notebook by their bedside.

Back in 2003, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked groups of students to write down five gratitudes, hassles, or events over the past week for ten weeks. Guess what happened? The students who wrote five gratitudes were happier and physically healthier. Charles Dickens puts this well: “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, not your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

20 Pages Of Fiction

There’s a Game of Thrones quote I love that says:

“The man who reads lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”

We need to read books — real books on real paper — more than ever before. We spent over four hours a day on our cellphones right now. In a world of endless dings and pings we need to get back to single-tasking.

A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology showed that reading triggers our mirror neurons and opens up the parts of our brain responsible for developing empathy, compassion and understanding. What does EQ help with? Becoming a better leader, teacher, parent and sibling. Another study from Science Magazine in 2013 showed that reading literary fiction helps improve empathy and social functioning. And, finally, a 2013 study at Emory University showed MRIs taken the morning after test subjects were asked to read sections of a novel showed an increase in connectivity in the left temporal cortex. What’s that? The area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. The MRIs were done the next day. Just imagine the long-term benefits of cracking open a book every day.

So those are The Big 7.

We know it’s important to be happy first, and these are the seven ways to get there.

Remember: Just like riding a bike, doing a somersault, or juggling — you can learn to be happier.

Happy people don’t have the best of everything.

They make the best of everything.

Be happy first.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Quiet Revolution and Thought Catalog.

Why You Should Never, Ever Retire

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“He’s dead.”

Staring in shock at my high school Guidance Department secretary, I thought that it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true. I’d just talked to him last week.

“It happened so suddenly,” she whispered, tears shining through thick glasses, glossy red lips quivering silently in slow motion. “I am so sorry.”

Mr. Wilson was my guidance counselor. He had a shiny head holding two fluffy-cloud patches of gray hair on the sides and wore thick glasses and loose-fitting gray T-shirts while helping students with timetables, college applications, and personal problems.

Everybody loved Mr. Wilson.

I talked to him about summer jobs and he calmed me down during exams. He had a quiet, big-picture worldview that helped us get above ourselves and see beyond life in our hometown.

You could tell Mr. Wilson loved his job by the way his eyes twinkled as he bounced through the halls, spouting hellos and high-fiving students, calling everybody by name. He was always smiling, and our school was his home.

Back when I was in high school, the government had mandatory retirement. You turned sixty-five and poof! The government yanked you out of the workforce in a cloud of smoke and moved you straight on to old-age pension. You had no choice. And let’s face it — almost everybody wanted to retire way before sixty-five, anyway. TV ads preached “Freedom 55” with gray-haired couples skipping town to swim at the cottage, play golf, and sail into the sunset.

Retirement is a good thing. A great thing! What everybody wants, dreams about, wishes for, over and over and over and over . . . until it finally comes.

Do whatever, whenever, wherever . . . forever?

Sounds like a good deal!

The funny thing is that when Mr. Wilson retired . . . he didn’t look happy. None of us did. We had the big celebration with cake, music from the band, and teary speeches from former students. It was like the final scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus. Mr. Wilson said he was excited to be retiring, but his thin smile and wet eyes said the opposite.

But mandatory retirement came at age sixty-five . . . and so he retired.

The next week he had a heart attack and died.

The horrible idea the Germans had that ruined things for everybody

Every day there’s another article about how all of our retirements are doomed. Public pension promises in the U.S. vastly exceed their ability to pay. We now need nearly $400,000 at age 65 just to cover health care costs. And retirement itself increases your risk of depression by 40%.

For many of us, it’s starting to feel like the light at the end of the tunnel of life has been blocked by a triple-bolted steel door. Who’s to blame for this mess?

The Germans.

Yes, back in 1889, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented the idea of retirement, establishing the concept for the rest of us. “Those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state,” he said at the time. He wanted to address high youth unemployment by paying those 70 and older to leave the workforce, and other countries followed suit with retirement ages around 65 or 70.

But there is one big difference between 1889 Germany and the world we live in today: The average lifespan then was 70 years. Penicillin wasn’t discovered for forty years! Now we’re all living much, much longer. And many of us would like to retire much earlier. But the scary headlines — and the realities that we see around us — cast doubt on our ability to ever retire. The entire concept of retirement is starting to feel flimsy at best.

So what are we to do, short of working the rest of our days away?

What can we learn from the healthiest 100-year-olds in the world?

To get to the root of the issue, let’s look past the North American shorelines (where I live) all the way to the beautiful sandy islands of Okinawa, in the East China Sea. According to the Okinawa Centenarian Study, men and women in Okinawa live an average of seven years longer than Americans and have one of the longest disability-free life expectancies in the world.

Dan Buettner and fellow researchers from National Geographic studied why Okinawans live so long. What did they find out? Among other things, Okinawans eat off of smaller plates, stop eating when they’re 80% full, and have a beautiful setup wherein they’re put into social groups as babies to slowly grow old together.

But they also have an outlook on life that is very different from those in the West. While we think of retirement as the golden age of golf greens and cottage docks, guess what they call retirement in Okinawa?

They don’t. They don’t even have a word for it. Literally nothing in their language describes the concept of stopping work completely. Instead, one of the healthiest societies in the world has the word ikigai (pronounced like “icky guy”), which roughly translates to “the reason you wake up in the morning.”

It’s the thing that drives you most.

Toshimasa Sone and his colleagues at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine wondered whether having an ikigai could actually help extend longevity, health, and late-life stability, so they put the concept to a test. They spent seven years in Sendai, Japan, studying the longevity of more than 43,000 Japanese adults with regard to age, gender, education, body mass index, cigarette use, alcohol consumption, exercise, employment, perceived stress, history of disease, and even subjects’ self-rated scores of how healthy they were. Then they asked every single one of these 43,000 people, “Do you have an ikigai in your life?”

Participants reporting an ikigai at the beginning of the study were more likely to be married, educated, and employed. They had higher levels of self-rated health and lower levels of stress. At the end of the seven-year study, 95% of the folks with an ikigai were alive.
 Only 83% of those without an ikigai made it that long.

The 4 S’s

To put it another way: We don’t actually want to retire and do nothing. We just want to do something we love. And I’m not talking about endless days of back nines, fishing, and sailing into the sunset. While we might want some time to do those things, you’d be surprised to learn how quickly the bloom can come off of that type of rosy retirement. I believe that we’d all be better served by taking the concept of ikigai and distilling it into what I call the 4 S’s:

Social: Friends, peers, and coworkers who brighten our days and fulfill our social needs.

Structure: The alarm clock ringing because you have a reason to get up in the morning, and the resulting satisfaction you get from earned time off.

Stimulation: Keeping our minds challenged by learning something new each day.

Story: Being part of something bigger than ourselves by joining a group whose high-level purpose is something you couldn’t accomplish on your own.

Now, am I saying that if you’re six weeks away from your final punch-out after 30 years at the meatpacking plant, you should suddenly skewer your dreams and ramp up for 30 more? Of course not. What I’m saying is that retirement is a Western invention from days gone by that’s based on broken assumptions that we want — and can afford — to do nothing.

If you’re already struggling to pay bills and your career’s sitting on tectonic plates that are threatening to shift below the labor market, my recommendation is to dig deep into your natural passions to find a second act that aligns with your values.

There are far more problems and opportunities on this spinning planet than there are people to help with them so if you feel lost, follow your heart, find your ikigai, and remember the 4 S’s.

And stop worrying that you won’t ever be able to retire.

You’ll be far better off if you don’t.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review

I expand on this idea in The Happiness Equation