Happiness, Part 2

Last post I mentioned that we all have an individual natural set point for happiness. That set point, determined by our genes, determines about 50% of our happiness levels. Our circumstances account for only about another 10%. (People generally overestimate how much good or bad experiences will affect them.) So that leaves a whopping 40% of our happiness to be controlled by our intentional activity! Think of happiness as a skill to be learned. The formula is not the same for everyone, but the research shows it usually involves the following:
1. Play
2. Developing strong relationships with friends and family
3. Having new experiences
4. Participating in meaningful activities
5. Appreciating what we have–Gratitude
Let’s take a look at each of these habits.

The brain chemical dopamine is essential for experiencing happiness, so we need to seek out experiences that produce it, such as physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise. Also any activity that puts one “in the zone” or in a state of FLOW. That is, participating in an activity where you forget all else but what you’re doing–running, yoga, gardening, playing or listening to music. People who engage in activities where they experience FLOW are happier than those who do not.

Developing strong relationships with family and friends

Happy people tend to value relationships and have a strong sense of community. They spend more time nurturing their relationships with family and friends and set that as a priority in their lives. They are there for their friends when things go wrong AND when things go right! They regularly celebrate their friend’s accomplishments.

Having new experiences
Happy people tend to be curious. They go for adventure outside their comfort zone in order to have an experience that is new and exciting. When searching for happiness, variety is indeed the spice of life.

Next time we’ll look at how participating in meaningful activities and gratitude makes us happier. And did you notice what is not on the list above? Notice there is nothing there about making more money! We’ll also look at why that’s so.

Food for thought: When was the last time you engaged in an activity where you were “in the zone” or when you stepped out of your comfort zone for a bit of adventure? Maybe today’s the day!

Posted in mental health, Well Being | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Have you noticed all the recent hype about happiness? Books, magazine articles, film documentaries, everyone seems very intent on getting happy. I see it in my practice more than ever. Parents want “happy” kids. Spouses want “happy” marriages. I believe this is new for our generation. I don’t think my immigrant grandparents spent much time thinking about being happy. They focused on supporting their family and raising responsible children who would turn into good citizens. I’m not sure that this shift in focus has been an altogether healthy one for families-but that’s a topic for another day! Let’s stick with the search for happiness for now. I have a confession to make. I don’t especially like the word happiness. It seems shallow to me. I prefer its more substantial cousins- joy, peace, contentment. So when I refer to happiness I am referring to the combination of all these feelings and emotions. With all the recent happiness hype comes lots of new research. Some of it is presented in the August 2013 Psychology Today. Let’s take a look at some of those findings.

Did you realize that human beings have an individual natural set point regarding happiness? That is, that although positive experiences can give us a momentary boost, it’s not long before we each swing back toward our natural set point. That set point is probably part genetics and part personality. But your habits and choices can have an effect. Next time we’ll take a look at some of the habits and choices that can have a positive effect on our happiness.

Food for thought: What is your natural set point for happiness? What is the set point of your family members? Do you know people who seem to have a high set point for happiness? What habits do you think they may engage in to keep it there? Good dinner table discussion for tonight!

Posted in mental health, Well Being | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Sometimes we just need to switch things up a bit!

Welcome to my new website!  You may notice a few changes.  First of all, I have combined my blog and website into this one site.  It’s now possible to follow my blog and access information about my psychotherapy practice all in one place.  I have also added what I hope will be valuable information for those visiting.  Some of that information includes:

  • A welcome video on the “About Gretchen” page
  • Information for parents on topics such as ADHD, divorce, limit setting, and when to find help for your children
  • Testimonials from clients about our work together
  • A list of recommended reading on various topics

New information will be added frequently and I will continue blogging on topics related to families and mental health.  Thank you very much for visiting.  Let me know if you have any questions about my practice or any topics that you’d like me to address in future blog posts.

Posted in adolescent mental health, child mental health, mental health, parenting, Well Being | Leave a comment

7 Steps Toward Becoming a Fabulous StepParent

In my last post I shared some thoughts on the important role of stepparents.  Today I’m  adding these specific steps toward becoming a fabulous stepparent!  I’m sure there are more, but this is a good start:

1.  Respect the role of the biological parents. Make your role a complement, not a competition.  Move slowly into your new role!

2.  Defer to the biological parents in decision making.  Don’t take over the parenting role.

3.  Allow the biological parents to do most of the discipline, especially at first.  Support the rules they make.

4.  Say nothing negative to the children about their biological parents— even if they say something negative about them to you!   And do not let the children hear you and your spouse criticize the other parent.

5.  Allow the children to decide what to call you.  However, it’s best that they don’t call you the same name they use for their biological parent.  For example, if they call their biological father “Daddy” perhaps they could call you “Papa.”

6. Develop your own relationship with the children. Find things to do that you both enjoy without encroaching on the other parent’s activities.  For example, if the biological mother always takes the children swimming, you could take them biking or bowling or something other than swimming.

7.  If you are the stepparent encourage and support your spouse’s relationship with the children.  Allow them to have time alone together without you, occasionally, especially at first.  The children should be reassured that you are not trying to take the parent away from them.

Remember that children benefit from having healthy relationships with all their parents. Support those relationships in any way you can and in the long run your relationship with your stepchildren, and probably your marriage, will be stronger for it.

If you are a stepparent and have other tips to add please share!

Posted in Family Life, parenting | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Introduction to my Practice -Video

My First Video:

An introduction to my Practice

Video | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Thoughts on Blending Families

Last month Jada Pinkett Smith, the wife of Will Smith, created a bit of a stir on Facebook when she posted her thoughts on what it took to happily blend families.  This is what she wrote:

A letter to a friend: Blended families are NEVER easy, but here’s why I don’t have a lot of sympathy for your situation because… we CHOOSE them. When I married Will, I knew Trey was part of the package…Period! If I didn’t want that…I needed to marry someone else. Then I learned if I am going to love Trey…I had to learn to love the most important person in the world to him…his mother. And the two of us may not have always LIKED each other… but we have learned to LOVE each other.

I can’t support any actions that keep a man from his children of a previous marriage. These are the situations that separate the women from the girls. Your behavior is that of an insecure child who needs to recognize her own weaknesses that MUST be strengthened to take on the task at hand. We can’t say we love our man and then come in between him and his children. THAT’S selfishness…NOT love. WOMAN UP… I’ve been there…I know. My blended family made me a giant… Taught me so much about love, commitment and it has been the biggest ego death to date. It’s time you let your blended family make you the giant you truly are.

Wow. I have to say I am impressed and I agree with her on so many points here.  First of all, blending families is not easy.  It is hard work. Couples considering it should know that it will require all the patience, determination, and commitment they can muster.  I also find it impressive that she is able to have a healthy relationship with her husband’s ex-wife.  I believe that is so important for the sake of the children and also for the marriage.  But what  pleases me the most is that she took such a strong stand on supporting her husband’s relationship with his child from his first marriage.    I see so many families where the new spouse makes it difficult for their husband or wife to maintain a strong, healthy relationship with their children, often forcing them to choose between their children from their first marriage and their second. This is a situation where everyone loses.  This kind of commitment requires a big dose of healthy self esteem and the “ego death” that Jada mentions above.  That’s almost always a good thing in my book.

What are your thoughts about or experiences with blending families?  What have you found most challenging and most helpful along that journey?  I’d love to hear.

Posted in mental health, parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Depression in Adolescents

Recently a friend told me about a middle school child in her  town that took his own life.  Few had noticed the severity of the depression before the tragic suicide.  Sometimes adults overlook the symptoms of depression in teenagers and attribute the behaviors to normal teenage angst or moodiness.  Unfortunately, adolescent depression and suicide is increasing at an alarming rate.  The number of  adolescents between the ages of 15-24 that commit suicide annually has tripled since 1960. Suicide is now the 3rd cause of death in that age group and the 2nd cause of death in college age students. Below are some of the symptoms of depression for adolescents. Pay special attention if these symptoms last longer than 2 weeks:

  • Avoiding family, friends, or activities they previously enjoyed
  • Often angry, irritable, even about minor things
  • A decrease in school performance
  • Sadness, hopelessness, lack of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Overreaction to criticism
  • Poor concentration
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Substance abuse
  • Frequent physical complaints
  • Neglecting appearance
  • Self-harm, such as cutting
  • Talk of suicide

These symptoms along with some of the risk factors of depression are important to watch for.  Those risk factors include:  1) a family history of depression, alcoholism, or other mental illness, 2) having a family member who has committed suicide, 3) experiencing family dysfunction or a stressful life event or trauma.

If you believe your teenager is depressed take him/her to see a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible.  Counseling, with sometimes medication, is a highly effective treatment for teenage depression.

There is also help available at the suicide hotline 800–273-8255.

Posted in adolescent mental health, mental health, parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Limit Setting with Children, Part 2

Last week I shared my favorite limit setting technique:

  1. Acknowledge the feeling
  2. Communicate the Limit
  3. Target an alternative

I believe it is an excellent beginning to setting appropriate limits with kids of all ages.  Over the last couple of decades working with families, I have noticed several pitfalls we parents fall into when we attempt to set appropriate limits.  Here are a few of them:

Giving Directions

  • Give kids some lead time when they’ll need to make a transition.  For example, ” In 10 mins it will be time to pick up the toys.”  Then, “You have 5 more minutes.”  This is especially helpful for kids who have difficulty with transitioning between activities.
  • State the directive rather than ask, unless you are really giving the child a choice.  For example, “It’s time to pick up the toys now” is better than, “Tom will you please pick up the toys now?”  The latter was a request and sounds as if you are asking for a favor rather than giving a direction!  No wonder kids often respond with, ” No. I don’t want to!”
  • Also related to the above, is ending your request with an “Okay?”  For example, ” It’s time to pick up the toys now, okay?”  What’s that “okay” for at the end??  What if the child says, “Well no, mom, it’s really NOT ok!”  Does that mean they don’t have to pick up the toys?  The truth is that it really doesn’t matter if it’s okay with them or not.  It’s time to pick up the toys now!

Following Through

Only set limits you are prepared to follow through with.  For example when you say, “If you choose to keep yelling we will leave  and go home.”  Then you  must be prepared to do just that.  Otherwise your words are meaningless.  Be prepared to be tested.

Use a Calm Voice

If you get in the habit of yelling, your kids won’t listen to you until you yell.  It’s as simple as that.

No Arguing or Debating

When you argue with a child you put yourself on his level in the family hierarchy.  Is that where you want to be? Kids argue with their siblings and their friends.  That is normal.  They should not be allowed to argue with adults.  That does not mean they can not express their feelings.  (That is the “A” in the ACT above).  But after the parent makes the decision, it is over.

Parents should be Partners 

If there’s a significant decision to be made, decide in private what the decision will be and present it in a unified manner.  Don’t make your spouse the bad guy in an effort to ally with your kids. Your kids will notice it. What are you teaching them about intimate relationships and marriage?

Parenting is hard work. But I firmly believe that the more parents are in charge of their households, the more relaxed their kids will be and the more harmonious the home will be.  And you don’t have to be a tyrant!  You can be both firm and loving.  You can follow all these guidelines with a smile on your face, a kind demeanor and enjoy each other.  Isn’t that what we all want?

Let me know your thoughts and what pitfalls you find yourself falling into from time to time.

Posted in adolescent mental health, child mental health, mental health, parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Limit Setting with Children

We’ve all been there. We’re shopping in the grocery store or roaming the aisles of Target and we hear it.  Child whining, or maybe having a full blown tantrum.  The parent, usually mom, is trying to calm him so she can finish her shopping.  She’s trying to be firm and not give in to his demand for a new toy, but he is wearing her down, probably embarrassing her.  Will she give in just to quiet him?  Would you? Have you?  Most of us have at one time or another.  But when we do, we make it harder for ourselves and the child next time.

If you have children or work with children, you know the importance of setting appropriate limits.  Limits provide children and adolescents with security as well as an opportunity to learn self-control and responsibility. For years I have coached parents in using this limit setting technique.  I used it with my own kids when they were young, and it’s what I use with children in my office.  If it is used consistently it is highly effective.  It takes practice and you should be prepared for children to test you to see if you are serious, but stay consistent and usually you will see results!

3 Steps A.C.T.

  1. Acknowledge the child’s feelings, wishes, and wants.  Verbalizing that you understand the child’s feelings often helps decrease the intensity of the feelings.  For example, ” I understand that you want…” OR ” I hear you feel strongly about…” OR “You really want…”
  2. Communicate the Limit.  Give clear specific limits.  For example, “But we are not having candy this close to supper time.” OR “We’re not buying a toy today.”
  3. Target an acceptable alternative.  For example, “We are not having candy this close to supper time.  You may have an apple if you’d like.”

Patience is key. Stay calm.  You may have to go through the sequence 2-3 times (or more at the beginning) before the child understands that you are not giving in.  If after the limit is set, the child breaks the limit, then the ultimate choice is given.  This step must be carefully stated so the child clearly understands he/she has a choice and that whatever happens will be the result of his/her choice.  For example, “If you choose to throw that toy again then you choose not to play with it anymore today.”  OR ” If  you choose to hit your friend again then you choose to have her go home.”  Then follow through.  No debates or lengthy explanations.  At this point, it is important that apologies, tears, tantrums do not undo the choice the child has made.

Good luck!  Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

ACT Limit setting technique is from:

Landreth, G. (1991).  Play therapy: The Art of the Relationship. Bristol, PA: Accelerated Development.

Posted in adolescent mental health, child mental health, parenting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Helping Children Cope with the Tragedy in Connecticut

We are all reeling from the scenes of the horrendous school shooting in Connecticut yesterday.  The footage of parents running to the school to look for their children, children being led from the school in single file while being escorted by officers carrying huge weapons.  It is horrific even for adults to watch, but for children who do not have the coping skills and the maturity to put it in any kind of perspective, it can be overwhelming.  This kind of flooding of their coping skills can lead to increased anxiety in many children. Here are a few ways we can minimize the effects this kind of experience can have on our kids:

  • Cut off the television when young children are present.  The 24 hour news coverage is simply more than a young child can deal with.
  • Don’t talk about the event in front of very young children.  There is no need for them to know about it if at all possible.
  • If they hear others talk about it, answer their questions using minimal  and  age appropriate details.
  • Reassure your children that they are safe.  If they ask about safety issues at their own school, remind them of the measures their school takes for safety.
  • Keep their normal routines.
  • For older children, listen to their worries and fears and allow them to ask questions.
  • Monitor how you are dealing with the tragedy yourself.  Your kids are watching you to see how they should be handling it.
  • Incorporate your family’s spiritual beliefs into your discussion where appropriate.

If your young child begins to get anxious, you may see symptoms such as, fear of sleeping alone, increased clinginess or whining, increased nightmares, bedwetting, or school refusal.  If you begin to see these symptoms,  pay attention to what they are being exposed to and increase your reassurance while keeping their normal routines.  These symptoms will likely dissipate  shortly.  If they do not, consult your pediatrician or a counselor who specializes in working with children.

Posted in child mental health, mental health, parenting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments