Holidays: 7 Tips for Getting Along with Your Difficult Relatives Over Thanksgiving.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for getting along with your difficult relatives over Thanksgiving.

For many people, Thanksgiving is a joyous holiday; for many people, Thanksgiving is a dreaded holiday. One factor that can make it tough is spending time with difficult relatives. Here are some strategies for keeping Thanksgiving dinner pleasant:

1. Before you join the group, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. Don’t just react in the moment; consider how you want to act. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about WHY they were unpleasant and what YOU could do to change the dynamics of the situation. You may tell yourself that you want everyone to get along – but if so, you need to do your part to contribute to a harmonious atmosphere. In particular…

2. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a boyfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…

3. Avoid strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bob’s views on Sarah Palin are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring it up! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc. There is a time and a place for everything.

4. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent.

5. Play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to the possibility that you might not come home for the day. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so that you can enjoy the day, whatever happens.

6. Don’t stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays – but then they never lose it. You’ll have more fun if you’re not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people.

7. Remember it’s THANKSGIVING. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studes show that gratitude is a major happiness booster.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell you how to deal with your difficult relatives — they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. Also, in many situations, people behave a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she’s furious because she thinks you’re needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will too.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult Thanksgiving situation? What more would you add?

I was astonished to see that the New York Times decided to stop running my friend Marci Alboher’s blog, Shifting Careers. If there’s ever been a time when a lot of people were facing the issue of how to shift careers, it’s now!

Marci decided to tackle the issue head-on in her blog, and her discussion of Laid Off From My Non-Job, about how she’s dealing with this career shift, herself, is fascinating. Her reactions, her thought processes, her analysis — all this is helpful to her readers. Marci’s ability to be generous and thoughtful at a difficult time is a reminder that even when we can’t control what happens, we can control how we behave.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Happiness Interview with Therese Borchard.

Today’s interview is with Therese Borchard. As happens so often with friends from blogland (practically none of whom I’ve actually met in person), I can’t remember exactly how we got to know each other. Her terrific blog Beyond Blue about managing depression is stationed on beliefnet, a site that I really like – so maybe it was through that channel.

Also, like me, she’s an ardent devotee of St. Therese of Lisieux – in fact, she was named for St. Therese. It’s hugely gratifying, and fairly rare, for me to connect with someone who loves St. Therese’s spiritual memoir Story of a Soul as much as I do. So maybe we “met” through that interest.

Therese Borchard has a book coming out soon, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety, and Making the Most of Bad Genes. She’s also the editor of I Like Being Catholic, I Like Being Married, I Love Being a Mom, and The Imperfect Mom. She’s done a lot of thinking about the nature of happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Therese: Exercise is crucial for me. Bad things happen to my brain without it. Even more powerful is exercise outside. I almost always think better when I’m running, biking, hiking, or kayaking in nature. Especially when I get to my favorite stretch of my run—where the campus of the Unites States Naval Academy follows the Severn River—I can help but breathe a prayer of gratitude.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Therese: That success doesn’t guarantee happiness. In fact, it can often times get in the way. I think my real “happiness breakthrough” came the morning I cried to my mentor and good friend Mike over the phone as I sat in a room at Johns Hopkins Psych Unit. I bemoaned to him how I went from a success to a failure within a year, and that I didn’t know how to get back my accolades. He told me they didn’t matter. Success didn’t matter. Writing didn’t matter. None of it. And the miracle of that moment was that I could hear his sincerity and believe him. I imagined the worst—my never being able to work again, to function like I used to—and there I was … okay, and loved by my husband, mom, and a few friends. And that was more than enough.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Therese: Comparing! I try to remember the wisdom in “compare and despair,” or to not compare my insides with another person’s outsides. But I do it over and over and over again. And I always seem to come up short. Which is why, if I really HAVE to compare, I should take Helen Keller’s advice: “Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.”

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Therese: Three words: God, take it. It’s a reminder of the third step (of most 12-step programs): “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God,” and a summary of the Third Step Prayer, which I say constantly during the day: “God, I offer myself to Thee–to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!”

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity?
Therese: I hold on to my blankie: a medal of St. Therese. I squeeze it and I pray with it, and I let it remind me that even though I thought I had control at one point, I don’t. It’s in God’s hands.

Gretchen: Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Therese: I’ve found that folks with a good sense of humor tend to be happier. People who can laugh at life’s frustrations and hurdles. Studies have showed how humor can actually heal … both physically and emotionally. I love G. K. Chesterton’s quote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Therese: I work very hard at being happier, or at least staying out of the black hole of depression! I work at changing my thought patterns: at identifying the forms of distorted thinking (like all or nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, and so forth), and using different cognitive-behavioral techniques to untwist the thoughts: examining a situation more realistically, getting my friends to help me snap out of obsessive thinking, recording all of my blessings so that I can see, on one sheet of paper, all of my gifts. And I have to remind myself many times a day that happiness doesn’t come with high page views (blog traffic) numbers or an appearance on Oprah.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Therese: I used to think all I had to do to be happy was to publish a book. So I published a book and I still wasn’t happy. So I published another. And another. With each publication, the stakes were higher, next time it had to sell at least 10,000 copies for me to be happy. Then it had to be a Publishers Weekly bestseller. Of course this kind of accomplishment never brought happiness. Ironically, it was that day inside the psych ward crying to Mike, when I had fallen apart at the seams, that I experienced true peace.

A friend of mine who wrote a New York Times bestseller made into a movie (and a whole movement) told me the other day that the best years of his life were those when he was homeless and practically penniless. He said that his success was a total nightmare. Friends and relatives (family members he never knew he had!) came to him asking for money. He was immediately hit with all this responsibility that he resented.

I try to remember that when I’m in the midst of a networking craze (as I am lately with Facebook and LinkedIn): that 550 important connections and contacts won’t bring happiness. In fact, chances are greater that they will bring me a headache.

Speaking of friends from the internet, I met – face to face – with terrific print journalist and blogger Nancy Rommelman, who has a great eponymous blog. We were introduced by another internet friend, the indefatigable Jackie Danicki. The world is small, and getting smaller, in a way that makes me very happy.

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An amazing example of “Enjoy the process” and “Take time for projects” — from France.

Two of my happiness-project resolutions are to Take time for projects and “Enjoy the process,” and following those, I’ve had a huge amount of fun working on the Boy Castaways project with one of my close friends.

A reader from France emailed me to tell me about a similar (but much larger) project she did with a cousin. I loved this idea so much that I asked her if I could post about it, and she said yes. Here’s her email:

I’ve been reading your blog for a year and a half from now, and it has really helped me to focus on certain things to make me happy. It is incredible how very little things can make a real change.

I wanted to tell you a story about your “Enjoy the process” commandement. 7 years from now, my cousin who is just the same age as me (22 years old) has been very much influenced by the saga “The lord of the rings” and started to think about making his own movie about it. He talked to me about this project 3 years later, and as I love to write stories (historic or fantasy novels) I said “Ok, why not try to write a scenario?”

So we started to spend our family meetings writing this scenario, we even made descriptions of each important character. We spent something like one year writing it, and then on the summer 2006 we started to shoot the movie (my cousin and I were also actors). Of course, it was a Lord of the rings-like movie, with medieval rooting and magic and such. My cousin was especially attracted by the fighting part and needed me to enrich the “story” part and I also pushed him to introduce some magic. My other cousin (who is 3 years younger) was taking care of all the technical aspects.

The shooting was so much fun. We went into the forest, in a church, in a medieval pub, we created a fire for a night scene, we also went several days in a country house to find good spots…The next summer we had to re-shoot some views to make the making better, to record some voices that weren’t clear, etc. My cousins have been working on it since then and last Saturday, on november the 8th, we made a public projection for all the actors, some of our friends and family; we were about a hundred people. There was a show of the movie, than a making of and then a little cocktail so that we could talk with our guests. People told us they really enjoyed it and found it amazing. But the interesting fact, is that all the people who took part in it and the ones who saw the making of told us that it was clear we really had fun making it. Which is so true, it wasn’t actually the final product that was fun to have, but all the time spending preparing everything, the post-making meetings to say “You should rise the music here, put some more blood there, add some steps sounds at that time”, and of course all the making-off bits that were recorded.

So finally, while I was so excited about the show last week, and slept so badly and could only talk about it, I was thinking “this is also part of the fun”. It was also good to expect that evening, and to get excited about it, which means that I enjoyed it much longer than the single evening.

If you want to have a look at it, the website is Opeprod. Everything is in french, we are french.

The exact link of the trailer with the english subtitles is here. While on the page, you need to click on the link “Anglais” below the pictures in order to have the English subtitles he made.

The name of the movie is “La Pierre de Drakil” [The Drakil’s Stone].

So I’d like to thank you for helping me to enjoy this project as much as possible. I thought it was the same kind of big project as your Boy Castaways project and I wanted to share it with you.

What a fabulous undertaking! It makes me happy just to read about it.

I love Unclutterer, and this post about Preparing for Holiday House Guests is hugely helpful.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Happiness quotation from Aristotle.

“Men are what they are because their characters, but it is in action that they find happiness or the reverse.” –Aristotle

Current scientific research indicates that happiness is about 50% determined by genetics, and about 30-40% is a product of how a person thinks and acts. In other words, you are what you are because of your inborn character, but it is in action that you push yourself up to the top of your range or down to the bottom of your range.

Check out Productive Magazine — a free online magazine, with lots of great articles (including one from me) about how to live more productively and happily.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Your Happiness Project: Abandon Your Self-Control.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One challenge about keeping my happiness-project resolutions is that it takes a lot of self-control. “No nagging,” “No fake food,” “Exercise better,” “Sing in the morning”…so many of my resolutions require me to control myself.

Relying on will power is very hard – so whenever possible, I abandon it. Instead of resisting temptation, I avoid it entirely.

Studies indicate that we have a limited amount of self-control, and it can be depleted. If you use a lot of self-control at work to resist the urge to yell at a co-worker, it might be harder to push yourself to go for a run when you get home.

So, because self-control is a precious resource, try to use it as little as possible. Look for ways to engineer situations so they don’t test your will power at all.

If you don’t want to get into the ice cream, don’t buy ice cream. If your family insists on having dessert, buy a dessert you don’t like much. If you have to buy ice cream, tie it up in a bag so it’s a pain to open and so you don’t see the enticing tub when you open the freezer. Maybe you’ll even forget it’s in there.

If you don’t want to spend money, don’t go into stores. If you don’t want to add to your credit card debt, leave your credit card in your sock drawer. If you have to shop, take a list and go by yourself. If you don’t want to get drunk, don’t meet your friends in a bar. If you don’t want to spend your Sunday morning sleeping, put your alarm clock across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off.

Sometimes the easiest way to abandon self-control is to give something up altogether. Like Samuel Johnson, who said, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult,” I find it much easier to abstain rather than to indulge moderately. When you NEVER do something, it doesn’t take self-control; when you do something SOMETIMES, it takes huge self-control.

Examine the occasions for your self-control. Maybe you need to re-think them entirely. For example, my weight-training instructor told me about a client who was trying to lose weight, who said, “Can’t I have a single-serving bag of potato chips each day? After all, what am I going to eat when my kids are having their potato chips after school?” Her answer: “Your kids should be eating something else, too!” Instead of trying to resist ordering fries with your burger, maybe you should stop eating at McDonald’s.

Another reason to abandon self-control is that – at least in my case – just thinking about self-control tends to weaken it. If I think, “Congratulations, Gretchen, what good self-control with not buying Tasti D-Lite!” the next thing I know, I’m buying three mini Tootsie-Rolls. This happens to a lot of people when they try to economize: they’re so pleased with themselves for looking for the best buy on tuna fish that they splurge by buying a DVD. Not an efficient outcome!

Try to avoid situations that test your self-control. Instead of exercising will-power, forget about it.

Have you found any good strategies for maximizing your self-control? Self-discipline, I think, is one of the KEYS to happiness; it shows up in many different ways, and not always in the way that you’d expect.

Several thoughtful readers sent me the link to the interesting New York Times article, What Happy People Don’t Do. In a nutshell: happy people don’t watch as much TV as unhappy people. However, as the article points out, the study doesn’t show that correlation is causation (especially given the fact that TV-watching depends a lot on whether a person has a job, and unemployment is a major happiness challenge). I think the relationship between TV and happiness is a bit more complicated than most people say…

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.