Happiness is a Mindset Derived From Our Actions

Happiness is a mindset that is derived from our actions

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy. Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

– Dalai Lama

We all want happiness, but many of us waste a lot of time and money before we figure out how to get it. We’re all seeking something better in life, but we often end up chasing the wrong things. Happiness is much like success in that it eludes us like a rainbow if we chase after it. Happiness is a mindset. As Thích Nhất Hạnh puts it, “There is no way to happiness—happiness is the way.”

In 2014, I was fortunate to be able to attend a full-day, “Eight Verses of Mind Training” session with the Dalai Lama in Boston. It was just me and the Dalai Lama … and I guess there were two or three thousand other attendees. There was a heavy contingent of Vietnamese and Tibetan monks, and the rest were a bunch of yahoos like me who were along for the ride in the nosebleed seats of the Wang Theatre. In preparation for the class, I read through several of the Dalai Lama’s books, including The Art of Happiness, to get a sense of where he stands on the topic. Here are a few tidbits that stood out from the Dalai Lama’s books and train­ing course on the subject of happiness:

From a Buddhist perspective, there are four factors of fulfillment that people seek in their quest to achieve happiness: (1) wealth; (2) worldly satisfaction; (3) spirituality; and (4) enlightenment. This list correlates nicely with Western studies that offer the following components of happiness: peace of mind, good health, financial freedom, worthy goals and ideals, self-knowledge, and a sense of self-ful­fillment or self-actualization.

The different approaches to inner contentment can be broken down into two paths. One path is to strive to obtain everything that we want and desire, such as money, houses, cars, the perfect mate, and the perfect body. The problem with this approach is that there’ll eventually be something that we want but can’t have. An alternate path is to want what we already have. Care to take a wild guess which path the Dalai Lama suggests we pursue?

Yes, the Dalai Lama shockingly chooses Answer B: Want what we already have. However, he takes this to a deeper level than you might initially consider. The Dalai Lama reminds us that we already have everything we need to experience happiness and joy, regardless of external influences. Just like any skill, happiness is something we can deliberately cultivate by training our mind. We train our mind to be calm and at peace, with the realization that how we choose to interpret, feel, and respond to external events is our choice. In other words, Event + Response = Outcome. We may not be able to control the event, but we can control our response to it, and therefore change the outcome.

The greater the calmness of your mind, the greater your ability to enjoy a happy and peaceful life. A calm, disciplined mind doesn’t mean that you zone out in a cave in some apathetic, insensitive trance. To the contrary. The Dalai Lama suggests that peace of mind is rooted in affection and kindness with a high level of engagement, compassion, and feeling. External things will not bring you hap­piness if you lack a calm, disciplined mind. When you possess calmness of mind, then you have everything you need to experience happiness and joy.

The Dalai Lama also writes that happiness is highly contagious and spreads like a virus, which in this case is a good thing. If you want to build a better world, then it’s your duty to be happy and keep the virus spreading. If it seems like nobody else around you is happy, then “be the change”. After all, happiness is an inside job and, as Gandhi put it, “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … we need not wait to see what others do”.

So how should you respond when you come across people who are rude, ag­gressive, and unkind? In these cases, the Dalai Lama suggests that we should feel deep gratitude. Huh? Come again? Yes, gratitude. There aren’t that many people like this in the world, he explains, so when we do meet these unpleasant people, we should be grateful for the rare opportunity to practice patience and tolerance. I like that approach, and I find that it really does help to keep it in mind when I meet people who are in the “not so pleasant” category.

On the topics of meaning and purpose, the Dalai Lama says that each of us is seeking something better for our life, and none of us was born to cause trouble or harm others. In order for us to consider our lives to be meaningful, we must de­velop the basic human qualities of warmth, compassion, and kindness. Our basic nature is to be gentle and compassionate. When we pursue these positive human qualities, our lives will become more peaceful and happier.

The Dalai Lama wrapped things up with a reminder that our present expe­rience—positive or negative—is a consequence of our past actions. If we change our actions today, then we will change the experiences that we will encounter in the future. What happens in the future depends on the activities that we pursue today. “The secret to our own happiness is in our own hands right now. We must not miss this opportunity.”

“I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” (How to Apologize)

“Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.”
Tryon Edwards

To build on last week’s post on “How to Fight a Good Fight in a Relationship”, it might come in handy for us to review some best practices for the art of the apology. Apologies are simple in theory but can end up being difficult in practice. I’ve certainly botched my share of apologies over the years. Usually this was due to my peacemaking nature. My desire to avoid conflict in my younger days resulted in making apologies for the weather. I would apologize even when I didn’t think that I did anything wrong and had no intention of changing my behavior in the future. I had not yet internalized this lesson: When we don’t really feel sorry or don’t feel that we share any responsibility for what happened, then our apology will fall flat.

People are looking for sincerity in an apology, and different people have different ideas about what a “sincere apology” looks like. What follows are some key points taken from Gary Chapman and Jennifer M. Thomas’s book, The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships.

To cover all of the bases, a good apology boils down to a few simple steps and one important caveat. We’ll start with the caveat. You must truly feel sorry, and you must feel that your actions or words played a role in the situation. If these conditions are not true, then hold off on your apology. You’re not ready to apologize yet. If, after some genuine reflection, you truly believe that you are innocent, then you may first need to practice your constructive confrontation and nonviolent communication skills. However, if you agree with the caveat’s conditions, then follow these four simple steps:

Step 1: Express regret, accept responsibility, and initiate restitution. While that might sound tough, it’s actually very simple. Say each of the following sentences to the person you hurt: “I am sorry”; “It’s my fault” or “I was wrong”; “What can I do to make it better?”. Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Step 2: Listen. Listen to the response, and thoughtfully consider what is said. Reflect on the requested amends, determine if you are willing and able to follow through on the requested amends, and take legitimate steps to prevent it from happening again.

Step 3: Verbalize your intended amends and request forgiveness. Okay, now it’s time for you to speak again. Thank the person for sharing his or her feedback with you. Verbalize what you intend to do to make amends and prevent it from happening again. Then request—not demand—forgiveness. This goes something like, “Will you please forgive me?”

Step 4: Take action. Now it’s time to follow through on what you said you would do to make amends. You may not be able to address the issues right away, and you may continue to slip up. However, the important part is to make it clear that you are taking concrete steps to improve the situation, and you are serious about it. If you apologize but don’t do anything to change your future behavior, then all of your efforts in Steps 1 through 3 may be wasted.

Different people place greater value on different steps of the apology. Some people really want to hear the other person ask for forgiveness before they consider an apology to be genuine and sincere; others are more interested in the “I am sorry” and “I was wrong” part of the apology. There is a large group of people who are much more interested in action, not words. Many people want to see each step take place. That’s why it’s best to go through all four steps to ensure that your apology will be interpreted as genuine and sincere.

That’s it … apology complete! If you make a genuine effort to go through each of these four steps, then chances are high that you’ll be forgiven, although it might take a long time in some cases. In the unfortunate cases where the other person refuses to forgive you—despite your honest attempts to apologize and make amends— then you need to move on while doing your best not to repeat the offense.

With experience, you’ll get better at identifying when your actions might have hurt others. You’ll be able to more quickly identify and acknowledge your role in something that went wrong. This awareness shortens the gap between your action and your apology and makes it much easier to address.

In some cases, you may catch yourself as soon as the words leave your mouth. When you call it out on the spot, you may prevent it from becoming a big issue and may even be able to laugh about it with the person you offended. As the gap in time increases between your action and your apology, you give resentment and anger time to fester. It’s good practice to apologize as soon as you are aware of a wrong that you have done.

In situations where there are mutual feelings of bitterness or resentment, consider the following words from Lao-Tzu: “Someone must risk returning injury with kindness, or hostility will never turn to goodwill.”

In Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book, Change Your Thoughts—Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao, he shares the previous quote from Lao-Tzu, along with the following words to consider: “As the storm of a quarrel subsides, you must find a way to disregard your ego’s need to be right. It’s time to extend kindness by letting go of your anger. It’s over, so offer forgiveness to yourself and the other person and encourage resentment to dissipate. Be the one seeking a way to give, rather than the one looking for something to get.” At the termination of any argument or dispute, choose to end on love, no matter what.

Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!

How to Fight a Good Fight in a Relationship

Best practices in effective communication and how to “fight a good fight.”

“What comes easy won’t last long, and what lasts long won’t come easy.”

—​ Francis Kong​

Communication breakdown

Given that many of us are spending a lot more time hunkering down at home with our loved ones to do our part to minimize the spread of COVID, it’s easier than ever for us to get on each other’s nerves and end up in an argument. We know that the goal of communication is to give and receive in a loving and compassionate manner. But when we’re confronted with judgment or criticism in our relationships, we often resort to knee-jerk reactions of withdrawal, attack, or defensiveness. So for today’s topic, let’s explore some best practices in effective communication and how to “fight a good fight.”

I recently attended a “SMART Conference” (virtually) hosted by Dave Ramsey, and one of the speakers was Dr. Les Parrott, Professor of Psychology and a prolific author of books such as The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer. In his presentation, Dr. Parrott shared four things that we should avoid in a fight, based on decades of marital stability and divorce prediction research conducted by Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute. In a 1992 study, Dr. Gottman was able to predict which couples would divorce, with 93.6% accuracy, by looking for the presence of the following four behavior patterns:

Criticism: Criticism is when we state our complaints in the form of a defect in our partner’s personality, and it’s typically how conflicts begin. “You’re always late!”, the bell rings, and the fight begins!

Defensiveness: Defensiveness refers to self-protection strategies that come in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. “You don’t know how busy my schedule is!” This is not a winning response as we’re basically saying “The problem isn’t me, it’s you!”

Contempt: Contempt refers to any statement that belittles the other person, putting the speaker in a relative position of superiority. “Are you ever going to learn how to tell time?” According to Dr. Gottman, contempt is the number one predictor of divorce and therefore is a big red flag.

Stonewalling: “What do you want me to say and I’ll say it.” Stonewalling is a strategy we adopt once we have retreated mentally and emotionally. We may withdraw from the interaction or simply stop responding to the other person. Not to brag, but I was particularly good at that last strategy and was on track to turn pro at one point in my life but then that relationship shockingly fell apart. Dr. Parrott did mention that guys are usually quicker to arrive at stonewalling.

Dr. Gottman’s studies found that that the presence of these “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” predict early divorcing, with an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. The characteristics of emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorcing, with an average of 16.2 years after the wedding.

Don’t worry if you feel like your relationship occasionally features some of these behavior patterns! We’ve all been there. But if Dr. Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” are a recurring theme in your relationship, then it’s probably time to experiment with some other strategies that have been shown to result in more productive, healthy conflicts. Let’s turn our attention to those strategies now.

Nonviolent Communication

A good place to start is to consider guidance provided by the late Dr. Marshall Rosenberg (1934 – 2015), a psychologist, mediator, author and teacher who founded The Center for Nonviolent Communication. In Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s classic book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships, Rosenberg encourages us to develop and practice deep listening skills that reflect an awareness of what we perceive, feel, and want, rather than an impulsive reaction to a statement or event. Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication process has the following four components:

1. Observation: Observe what is actually happening in a situation without judgment or evaluation.

2. Feeling: State how you feel when you observe the action. This can include positive or negative feelings. Your statement should take the form of “I feel … because I …” instead of the reactive response of “I feel … because you …” Focus on discovering the needs of each party rather than point out what’s wrong with each other. By focusing on your needs, you’re more likely to receive a compassionate response to your needs.

3. Needs: State which of your needs are connected to the feelings that you identified. When you express your needs, you have a better chance of getting them met. Communicate your needs in such a way that it’s clear you’re equally concerned about the other person’s needs.

4. Request: Immediately follow Step 3 with a very specific request, indicating what you want from the other person. The goal of the nonviolent communication process is to build a relationship based on honesty and empathy and to obtain a positive outcome that will enrich both of your lives.

Each of the four pieces of information can be stated verbally or by other means, such as through physical touch. It’s even possible to do each of the four components without uttering a word.

Rosenberg offers the following simple example between a mother and teenage son to illustrate how the four components are carried out in practice: “Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common. Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?” It’s that simple. But, as we see in so many areas of life, what’s easy to do is easy not to do.

If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is angry, Dr. Rosenberg offered this memorable piece of advice: “Never put your ‘but’ in the face of an angry person.” Answering with “but …” to an angry person will usually make matters worse. Instead, take a deep breath and focus your attention on the angry person’s feelings and needs, and then empathize with that person. This empathic approach will often disarm an angry person and get you both on track to find a positive outcome that will enrich both of your lives.

Repair Attempts and Preventive Strategies

Repair Attempts: For the inevitable situations we encounter when communication breaks down into an argument or disagreement, emotionally intelligent couples use what Dr. Gottman refers to as “repair attempts”—statements or actions that prevent negativity from escalating out of control. They can take the form of a statement, a joke, a hug, or anything else that brings feelings of love, compassion, and connection back into the room. Dr. Gottman believes that, “The success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether their marriage is likely to flourish of flounder … and what determines the success of their repair attempts is the strength of their marital friendship.”

The XYZ formula: During the recent SMART Conference, Dr. Parrot suggested another strategy that we can use when we are responding to a conflict. He called it the XYZ Formula. The formula is as follows: “In situation X, when you do Y, I feel Z.” He gave the example, “When we are driving down the road, when you turn the radio station without asking me, I feel like you are not paying attention to me”, rather than the more tempting option of “Who made you King of the Radio?” This guidance is very similar to Dr. Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication suggestion that we covered earlier which suggests that we should create a statement in the form of “I feel … because I ….” With either approach, we are sharing how we feel when we observe the action, which opens up the possibility of a more constructive discussion.

Sharing “withholds“:  An effective preventive strategy that Dr. Parrot shared was something he called “sharing withholds.” Dr. Parrot believes this strategy has the power to transform our relationships. So what the heck is a “withhold”? Each day, we typically observe many positive behaviors and negative behaviors in our relationships, but we never say anything about them. If we see someone doing something good, but we don’t say anything, that is considered a positive withhold. If we see someone doing something that we don’t like, but we don’t say anything at the time, that is considered a negative withhold. Thus, positive and negative withholds are observed behaviors that register with us throughout the day, but we don’t say anything out loud.

Now that we know what a “withhold” is, here’s how the “sharing withholds” strategy works. Set aside time each evening with your partner to “share withholds.” To start, each person gets a piece of paper and writes two positive withholds and one negative withhold that they observed from the other person in the past 24 hours. Then one person agrees to start by sharing one positive withhold, followed by one negative withhold, followed by the second positive withhold. The person who is listening is only allowed to say two words in response to the presentation of the three withholds: “Thank You”. No other words are permitted.

Now, it’s the other person’s turn and the same process is repeated, with the caveat that the second person must stick to the withholds that they originally wrote down on the piece of paper … we can’t adjust them based on what we heard from our partner (Darn!). After the second person finishes their presentation, there is one additional ground rule that both people must follow: For the next 30 minutes, nobody is allowed to talk about the negative withholds that were shared. Not one word. This provides time for the feedback to sink in and it removes the opportunity for us to go into defensive mode or lash out with a response that we might regret. Instead, let the feedback marinate your brain for 30 minutes and perhaps consider how you might respond in a loving way that will bring you closer together.

Parting Thoughts

In this post, we’ve only skimmed the surface on the vast topic of communication in relationships. Fortunately, there are plenty of great resources available on the subject of effective communication, and I encourage you to read advice taken directly from the experts on this all-important topic. After all, I’m a divorced, single guy! But rest assured that I’ve done a lot of homework on this topic after failing miserably and learning from my mistakes.

There is one point that the experts seem to agree on: conflict is the price we pay for a deeper level of intimacy in our relationships. When we fight “good fights”, the end result is a decrease in tension and an increase in intimacy. There’s only one way to find out if the suggestions in this article will work for you and your partner … give it a try!

Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse (Part 2 of 2)

“Civility is not not saying negative or harsh things. It is not the absence of critical analysis. It is the manner in which we are sharing this territorial freedom of political discussion. If our discourse is yelled and screamed and interrupted and patronized, that’s uncivil.”

– Richard Dreyfuss

Ethical Arguments

It’s a pretty safe bet that few people would consider the current state of our political and social landscape in the U.S. as a role model for civil and ethical discourse, unless we’re using it as an illustration of what not to do. But what do we really mean when we talk about a “civil and ethical argument”, and how can we take steps to move in the direction? That will be the focus of today’s blog.

When we talk about “civility” in the context of an argument, we’re not just talking about being polite. That should be a no brainer. Instead, we strive to present our needs and beliefs without degrading the needs and beliefs of others.

I recently attended a lecture series hosted by The University of Notre Dame (my alma mater) called “Bridging the Divide“, that expanded nicely on this concept. In one of the lectures, Dr. John Duffy (Professor of English, specializing in ethics, rhetoric, literacy, and writing pedagogy) started the conversation by defining what we mean by an “argument.” He defined an argument as a set of reasons given to critique or defend a proposition that is uncertain. Professor Duffy also pointed out that interruptions, insults, personal attacks, and contradictions are NOT arguments. For an argument to be considered “ethical”, it must be grounded in principles such as truthfulness, trust, accountability, integrity, intellectual generosity, and open-mindedness. Those aren’t exactly the adjectives that come to my mind when I think of recent events in politics and the corresponding coverage in news and social media.

How did things get so bad?

I’m sure there are many reasons that have contributed to where we find ourselves today, but I’ve narrowed it down to just two big issues for this post.

Issue #1: Living in Our Customized Cocoon

Today, we have an unprecedented ability to choose the information we consume and the types of people we want to include in our life. Not so long ago, we had just a few TV channels, no internet, and no mobile phones. While we still chose our social groups, newspapers, and entertainment, we couldn’t imagine the level of customization that is available to us today.

These technology advances offer us some amazing benefits, but they also have some serious drawbacks. Today, it is easy to limit our exposure to ideas and people who bring us out of our comfort zone. When we do encounter these people, we tend to think they must be from another planet because they approach issues from such a different perspective. Of course, they feel the same way about us. Which brings us to the second major issue that is contributing to our current state of affairs.

Issue #2: The Media Trap

News media and social media are businesses that thrive on divisiveness and polarization. These businesses are competing for our attention, with the goal of generating more money through advertising. News and social media also have the ability to subtly manipulate our behavior, gradually causing us to become more comfortable with certain ideas and less comfortable with others over time. Thus, it’s no surprise that media can be a very powerful ally for politicians, businesses, and others who are seeking to shift the balance of power or market share in their favor. Pop culture adds to this by promoting TV shows, movies, and other entertainment that gets us accustomed to certain behaviors, such as seeing people yell at each other or engage in violence.

In reality, society is not nearly as divided and polarized as the press leads us to believe. When we meet people face-to-face and get to know them as human beings, we quickly learn that the vast majority of people are good, caring, smart, and compassionate. Similarly, we discover that the vast majority of people share the same set of negative traits, such as being insecure, selfish, lazy, and naïve, traits that we attempt to dial down as best we can. Finally, we uncover the fact that we share a lot of common ground on topics such as healthcare, education, national security, racism, infrastructure development, and even controversial topics such as abortion and gun laws.

However, when we look at the news, it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that the fabric of our society is falling apart and we’re at the brink of civil war. When those thoughts cross our mind, it’s important to remember that the media attempts to capture more of our attention by fostering feelings of fear, anger, and divisiveness. They fan the flames by showcasing extreme activities on the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum, a place where perhaps 10-20% of our population fall. The left-leaning media outlets highlight the worst, most radical activities of the right, and the right-leaning media outlets highlight the worst and most-radical activities of the left. This is how we end up with a ridiculous perception that anyone who voted Republican is racist and anyone who voted Democrat is a Marxist / Socialist. Yes, there are radical people out there on both sides of the political spectrum, but they do not represent the ~80% of people who fall in between the fringes.

We all know that negative media sells. It sells because it plays to our strong emotions of fear, anger, and insecurity. From a financial perspective, it’s in the “best interest” of media companies to stir things up and whip everyone into a frenzy because this will grab more of our attention, which translates to higher ad revenue for the media company. Elections are a boon for media companies. It’s a primo opportunity to traffic in stories about corruption, scandal, controversy, and crisis. These types of stories attract more viewer attention and therefore more ad revenue. When we hear of the billions of dollars spent in an election, where does the majority of that money go? The Media. Ramping up on negative stories attracts more and more of our attention, which the media views as positive reinforcement that their approach is working. Never mind the collateral damage it causes in the form of society’s negative view of “people in the other political party” and the overall state of the country and the world.

However, after an election, there is a window of time where media outlets on the winning side will start featuring positive stories of how everything is miraculously getting better, now that their politician of choice won the election. Meanwhile, the media on the losing side ramp up on doom and gloom stories about the future of our country. The winning side takes the bait, and then we’re back in our death spiral of negative content that serves to further increase our feelings of fear, anger, insecurity, divisiveness, and polarization.

Social media takes all of this a step further by optimizing their suggestion engines to capture our attention. Social media companies are just like any other company that wants robust growth each year. The way to grow is to generate more ad revenue. The way to generate more ad revenue is to sell us (our attention) to their clients who want us to buy their products and services or modify our behavior in some way.

What is the Path Forward?

Fortunately, there are some strategies that each of us can take to help move our society in the direction of civil and ethical discourse.

Media Literacy: Many of us could benefit from learning more about the inner workings of media. Consider taking a course in media literacy to become more savvy about the world of fake news, media bias, deepfakes, out-of-context photos, and the perils of only reading headlines. If you want to specifically learn more about the inner workings of social media companies, I highly recommend the movie “The Social Dilemma” (Netflix). For a broader understanding of how algorithms are created and used (often with unintended consequences), check out Cathy O’Neil’s book “Weapons of Math Destruction“. I’m sure there are lot of other great resources out there. Those are just two sources that I happen to be familiar with. If you have other recommendations, feel free to send them my way as I’m always eager to learn more.

Get Out of Your Echo Chamber: It’s all too easy for each of us to comfortably settle into our customized echo chamber. Heck, it feels good to see, hear, and read things that make us feel good and intelligent. Keep in mind that there are a lot echo chambers out there with people who feel like they have the right answer, and that answer is very different from yours. Aren’t you curious to learn why others think they have the right answer? Break out of your media cocoon and diversify your news feed. Move beyond the tribal mindset of being a “Democrat” or “Republican”. Rather than accept the party line across the board, learn to think for yourself and form your own opinions. Avoid a “cancel-culture” knee-jerk response, reserving that tactic only for egregious circumstances that truly warrant it … disagreeing with your political party or views doesn’t cut it. We shouldn’t be shouting people down so their voice can’t be heard. We can’t silence people into submission. In order to make any progress, we must engage with others in open, civil, and ethical dialogue. Diversity is not just a skin color, gender, or country of origin. We need diversity of opinions and perspectives in order to help us solidify our ideas and identify the best path forward for our life and for society. Let’s seek out opportunities to establish connections and friendships with people who are different than us and hold different perspectives. We will only grow from the experience.

Get Comfortable With Uncomfortable Conversations: Building on the previous suggestion (Get Out of Your Echo Chamber), attend lectures, conferences, and other forums that that encourage a variety of different perspectives and provide you with an opportunity to practice having ethical and civil discussions with people you disagree with. For example, one organization that does a good job with this for college students is called BridgeUSA. BridgeUSA is a group found on many college campuses today (and even some high schools) that has the “radical” idea to reach out to people on all sides of the political spectrum and host lectures and small-group discussions on a broad range of topics. Each group has a facilitator to help keep things civil. It’s a great alternative to the “us vs. them” mindset commonly found in Democrat and Republican organizations and it’s a great way to help you solidify your own position on the issues. In the words of the BridgeUSA:

“Political polarization is damaging to the health of American democracy. For most in our generation, a broken democracy is the norm. Young people are forced to choose between disengaging from politics or fitting a partisan mold. Democracy is in danger if the next generation is disengaged and polarized because young people are the future of our country.  BridgeUSA empowers young people to solve problems. BridgeUSA is developing the next generation of engaged, informed, and constructive citizens. Our movement catalyzes the passion of the next generation to invest in the future of democracy. The BridgeMindset defines our work. We champion ideological diversity, promote a solution-oriented political culture, and teach constructive engagement in order to develop a generation of political leaders that value empathy and common purpose.”

On a side note, if you know of organizations similar to BridgeUSA that cater to adults for whom college is a recent or distant memory, I would be interested in hearing about them!

The Gold and Platinum Rules: When in doubt, let’s always remind ourselves that the vast majority of people in the world are genuinely good, caring, and wonderful people who are doing the best they can based on their unique set of experiences in life. Cut other people some slack. We all have our strengths and flaws. That’s part of what makes life so fun and interesting. As the Golden Rule says, “Treat others as you would like others to treat you”. Better yet, consider the Platinum Rule, “Treat others the way they would like to be treated.” Or perhaps best of all, “Love one another as I have loved you”. Yes that last one is a Bible quote (John 13:34), but placing love as the foundation of our relationships with our nearly 8 billion neighbors on this planet is a good recipe for moving us forward. If Bible quotes raise your hackles, then here’s one from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse (Part 1 of 2)

Political Hot Dog-Making and How to Move Society Towards Ethical and Civil Discourse

“If government were a product, selling it would be illegal.”
P.J. O’Rourke

Politics 101: How Hot Dogs are Made

About 10 years ago, I made the mistake of watching a video clip about how hot dogs are made. It wasn’t pretty. Since that day, I’ve only eaten hot dogs when under duress. The political process, on the other hand, makes hot-dog processing look wholesome and tasty. But, like it or not, politics as we know it is unlikely to change anytime soon, so we might as well develop strategies on how to play nice with others when it comes to this potentially explosive topic.

Like religion, many of us get so attached to, or repelled by, a person or political party that all reason goes out the window, and it can be difficult to engage in open, honest discussions. We lose sight of more important goals because we’re too busy trying to protect our team and win the argument, even when we don’t agree with half of what our team stands for. Independent thinking gets lost in the process. Rather than throw food or insults at family and friends whenever the topic of politics rears its ugly head, here’s my strategy on how to keep cool—no matter what kind of pink-slime political horrors I inadvertently encounter.

My rose-colored political glasses enable me to view politics in the following simplistic way: Politicians have a large pot of money, collected via taxes from citizens and businesses, to manage our country. Each politician has an opinion on how that money should be divided and spent. Similarly, politicians have at their disposal a mind-bogglingly complex set of laws and incentives that they use to maintain a peaceful society and a semi-free market. Some politicians feel that the government needs more money, more regulations, and more government programs to effectively run the country; other politicians feel that government should have less money, fewer regulations, and fewer government programs; the rest fall somewhere in between.

The issues that politicians tackle can be extremely complex. Most issues are not black and white but rather many shades of grey. There are significant, legitimate differences of opinion about which programs should or should not exist. Politicians use a variety of means to push their agendas. The means can be sleazy, virtuous, or somewhere in between.

The money, time, and resources spent on one issue can impact the ability to effectively address other issues. Given the complex regulatory framework that we have created for such things as taxes, healthcare, and environmental issues, it’s not easy for anyone to be well informed on more than a few key issues. This means that politicians must rely on “experts” to provide them with sound advice based on available data—a mix of scientific, socioeconomic, and political—that provide a sense of what science suggests they should do and the political fallout they would suffer if they choose to do it. Some of the expert advice is based on solid, objective data; some is based on flimsy or biased data; and some is completely subjective.

Add to the mix public opinion polls, advocacy groups, lobbyists, current events, and pressure from other politicians to steer a given politician in one direction or the other. Each politician weighs the pros and cons, and then makes the final call on how he or she will vote. In some cases, the politician decides not to show up to vote at all.

Along the way, the full spectrum of human character traits will surface, and the media uses the most sensational stories to paint someone as good or bad. Each media outlet has its own biases, and most choose to focus on the bad stuff, regardless of bias. This translates to public character assassinations in print, on the traditional airwaves, or online.

Rather than offer solutions, some politicians focus their attention on trashing their opponent. Close to election time, things start to get really ugly, and the personal attacks are well below the belt. The press loves this, and apparently the public does too. We’re left with a cynical sense that all politicians are scum.

In the end, we may feel that we’re faced with the option of voting for either “bad” or “worse.” When our preferred candidate has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in a primary election, we may choose not to “throw away our vote” and instead vote for someone whom we don’t really like because that person has a better chance of winning against the opposing party candidates, some of whom we may despise. Alternatively, we may choose to “throw away our vote” in a primary election because we want our vote to be aligned with our core values, or we really detest the other candidates. In the final election, we may decide to adopt a mindless political robot approach and simply check the box for “democrat” or “republican” across the board without the faintest idea about the candidates or issues.

Finally, it’s time to vote. After a day of drama and speculation, the winners are announced. The loser makes a concession speech, the winners celebrate, and there is music and dancing in the streets. After the dust settles, and it becomes clear that it’s just going to be business as usual in Washington, D.C., we may be left with a feeling that the system is broken and that all politicians are corrupt, unethical, self-absorbed manipulators of public opinion, no matter what side of the fence they’re on.

Rather than get mired in the hot dog-making process we call “politics,” there’s another approach to take. Ignore it. Go on a “media fast”. Don’t waste your limited free time reading about political squabbling and scandals. If you are passionate about certain issues, great! Get involved at a local, state, or national level, and help influence change. But, if following the negative political saga just inspires you to be angry, depressed, or fearful, without taking any positive action, then it might be best to ignore politics and focus on keeping your own house and relationships clean and healthy. That’s a decision that I consciously made about 6 years ago and I’ve been happily residing in the “media fast” camp ever since.

Despite my media fast, I do break it for a narrow window around election time. I research candidates and issues, discuss them with other people, and submit my vote. It takes me about three weeks to do this. After that, my work is finished. I put my blinders back on and focus on the priorities that I have set for that year. I’ve made the choice to be a semi-informed voter at the time of the election, cast my vote, and then move on to what I consider to be my highest priorities in life. For me, politics is very far down the list.

Don’t get me wrong, I regularly read books and articles that support my career and personal growth, and I research other topics of interest during my media fast, but it is nearly always for a specific purpose. When I do this, I tend to go deep, with a focus on primary sources – aka stuff that is typically jargon-filled, painfully dry, and loaded with data and quantitative analyses. These papers are usually free of the typical headlines we see that are designed to manipulate our emotions … the stuff marketing copywriters come up with that play on emotions such as fear and are designed to be irresistible for their target audience. If anything, primary source articles have titles that elicit the opposite effect, with fear coming in the form of “fear of having to read that technical paper.” Fortunately, these days we also have options to watch on-line lectures and conferences that feature the authors of primary source articles. These forums are particularly useful when there are panels that include multiple speakers and perspectives. More on that topic in next week’s post.

My Media Break-Fast for 2020

On September 29th, 2020, I reluctantly climbed out of my cave to see what is going on in the world of politics … starting with the first Presidential debate. Wow. Straight into the fire with that decision. Let’s just say that I was feeling pretty darn good about my choice to be on a media fast after watching that car wreck of a spectacle.

After the “debate” finally ended, I turned off the computer and sat down for a few minutes in silence. I was actually feeling a bit stunned. The main question I found myself asking was “How did things get so bad in terms of engaging in ethical, civil discourse?” I decided to dive a bit deeper into that topic over the past few weeks and that will be the subject for Part 2 of this blog post: my two cents on how we got to where we are today and how we might dig ourselves out of this hole to arrive at a place where ethical, civil arguments become the norm.