"Live a good life, and in the end, it's not the years in the life, it's the life in the years."

Set a better goal for a happier 2021

By on December 28, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments

By June Darling

Some may have found 2020 useful in some way, but I am simply congratulating myself on staying alive. 

I am ready — maybe you are too — to shift toward having a much better 2021. 

How are we going to do that when there is still a lot we cannot control?

First, DO make a goal about something you can control. 

Last year, according to YouGov, only three in 10 even planned to make a New Year’s resolution. Of that 28 percent making goals, only 19 percent were in the upper, more “mature” age brackets. We can change that.

Second, consider changing the primary focus of your goals. 

Last year, as usual, the goals were all about exercising more, saving more money, eating more healthily and losing weight. All great stuff, no disputes there. 

This year, I propose a better goal. This goal could magically make all your other goals more achievable PLUS improve your sleep, attract more friends, deepen the relationships you already have, decrease stress, AND improve our community and country. 

What is this SUPER magic goal? It is the foundation for, if not the essence of, goodness. 

See if you can figure it out from this true story about James Doty.

James (Jim) grew up in poverty. Family life was a chaotic situation with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother. Jim tried to get away from his situation as much as possible by going off on his bike and fiddling around with magic tricks.

One day he went to a local magic shop. There he met an older lady who warmly welcomed him and seemed keenly interested in him. The woman, Ruth, after a good deal of chatting, offered to give Jim some real magic, magic much better than all the shop tricks. 

Jim did go back to the magic shop for six weeks and learned (and saw modeled) the magic — which included what Ruth called “open-heartedness.” 

He used the magic to become a neurosurgeon and to make tens of millions of dollars. A few years ago, Jim used the magic to make a better world and fulfill his promise to Ruth to teach the magic to someone else. 

Dr. Doty founded and now directs the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, an affiliate of the Stanford Neuroscience Institute. 

And now you know what the Super magic goal is… practicing compassion. 

How does it work? 

Compassion (or kindness) aimed toward ourselves, helps us be good stewards of ourselves — our values, our bodies, our health and our minds without becoming self-absorbed. 

Self-absorption (or narcissism) leads to many nasty outcomes including losing rewarding connections to friends, colleagues and family. 

Self-absorption also leads to focusing on our narrow interests so that we lead meaningless, small, stress and anger filled lives. 

After inevitable failures, self-compassion helps us get back up, learn a lesson, and try a new strategy.

Do not belabor the definitions and distinctions among altruism, empathy, compassion, love, kindness, or what Ruth and Jim call “open-heartedness.” 

Essentially, they seem like cousins to me; they all orient us toward being “good” — seeing ourselves and others as worthy of respect, care and attention.

What if this coming year of 2021, our overarching goal is to be “good” or at least “good-ish” — a better, more compassionate, kinder, more open-hearted (I like the term “warm-hearted” as a vivid image) person? 

We read all the possible benefits. But how would we do it? These first two ideas work for anything you want to change.

Begin with what Dr. Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” Teachers and coaches know all about this. We must give up the outmoded belief that change is not possible. Research supports the idea that we have an amazing capacity to change. 

Second, keep the benefits of why you want to change foremost in your mind. Researchers have found that if we want to make a change, we need to continually remind ourselves of our “why.”

Often, compassion comes very naturally to us. We see suffering, we want to help, and we do. Sometimes, however, we get blocked. The usual culprits are apathy, anger, or being overwhelmed. 

n Overcoming apathy. Use your imagination to help you help others. When you want to be more compassionate simply imagine what is going on for the person who suffers — imagine their fears, their longings, their wounds. Researchers have used this simple and commonsensical technique even with psychopaths to activate their empathy.

n Dealing with anger and reactivity. These are usually the result of negative judgments we make about others. Ask yourself these questions to get you back on track — What if this person is suffering (what might be their fears, longings, aching wounds) and doing the best they can? What in me needs compassion (what are my own fears, longings, wounds)?

n Working with being overwhelmed. The big problem with overwhelm is that we get stuck in distress and cannot muster our resources to help. We begin avoiding those who might be suffering. 

I have been both apathetic and angry, but overwhelmed is more often my issue. When I am feeling overly distressed, I have learned to aim my attention primarily on connection, understanding, and discerning what I can do to help. 

Last, keep learning and practicing. 

Top-notch scholars and practitioners to watch on YouTube or to read include: Drs. Paul Gilbert, Stephen Post, Jamil Zaki, Paul Ekman, Thupten Jinpa, Kristen Neff, Paul Ekman, Frank Rogers and James Doty. 

Hang in there after inevitable screw-ups. Mistakes are a part of our common humanity. 

I am appalled by some of the “bad” stuff I have done in the past. This quote by Alain de Botton helps me: “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”

No matter what is going on out there in the coming year, how might we bring some magic to it by practicing more open-heartedness — being a better person, and move up to The Good Life?

June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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