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Civility, a Word No Longer Used

September 10, 2010 Leave a comment

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D. 

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California–So much anger in Washington, such acrimony and hatred out of control! What is happening to normally rational people to push them over the edge and make them act out? We read about fanatics and zealots in Africa and in the Middle East, who are extreme in their views, bent on killing, whose passions for a cause or a territory or a religion send them into a frenzy of irrational behaviors.

As a child, I remember feeling murderous against Hitler, but I have not had the wish to kill since then. Perhaps, if my home were threatened, or my family, I would defend them to the best of my ability, but I would always opt first for a peaceful meeting to discuss differences. I believe in civility—a word which, like the civil behavior it describes, has fallen into disuse.

The lack of civility in America today, is one of the factors of the breakdown of family life, unethical practices in business, and dishonesty in politics.

Civility is civilization at its best. It is control over one’s negative impulses, delay over the desire for instant gratification. It is the antithesis of “letting it all hang out,” it is the quest for calm, for rationality as opposed to shouting incendiary remarks.

Civility is the opposite of unbridled passions, the opposite of rhetoric or lies. It is more than mere politeness, it is the knowledge that personal well-being and the pursuit of personal goals cannot be separated from the well-being and goals of others, whether members of our family, our friends, our organizations, or our country.

Civility requires listening to others with an open mind and responding with an open heart. It requires knowing ourselves: our tendency to manipulate others, to serve our own interests first. Civility is learned at home by example. Children observe their parents in interaction with themselves and others and they imitate.

We are not born civil. We are born to grab from others, to hit the child whose toy we want, to have tantrums when we are denied a wish. Parents are the first teachers of civility, then schools continue when they do “time out” for unruly behavior in the classroom or the playground and never allow bullying.

Civility should continue in the place of work where people are respected whether the relationships are among peers or up and down the hierarchy.

Next time you feel anger and wish to strike out either physically, verbally, or emotionally, ask yourself whether you can predict the outcome of the lashing out as something positive. In other words, will that other person see the light, be convinced, and change the behavior to suit you? Perhaps all you want to achieve is to make the other person feel bad, guilty, hurt, punished. Will vengefulness make you feel better in the long run, or will a postponement of your reaction to a calmer time when discussion can ensue be a wiser choice?

Civility is a sign of true maturity, so let us resolve to remain civil no matter what the circumstances, to be aware of what triggers us to spin out of control and help others do the same by projecting calm, attentiveness, and thoughtfulness, understanding others’ points of view even when disagreeing with them. Allowing them to think differently from us is the road to world peace.

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A Different Lens

by Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

One of my hands
is being held
by someone
who agrees with me
and I smile
and feel comfortable

My other hand
is being held
by someone
who disagrees with me
and I sigh
and feel challenged

because I have an opportunity
to see the world
through a different lens
I am given the chance
to learn

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Preceding column and poem appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice

The Three Types of Fears

August 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Natasha Josefowitz

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

LA JOLLA , California –The newspapers are full of traumatic events—from wars to fires to floods to earthquakes, civil unrest seems to be everywhere, all contribute to understandable paranoia. I started thinking about the kinds of fears we all experience and have categorized them under three different types.

First, there is what I call the personal fears: the everyday kind of anxieties that many of us experience, usually as a foreboding that does not pan out. For instance, every time my husband was late coming home, I immediately visualized him in a car crash or having a heart attack, usually alone on a deserted road. Or if he was at a meeting in a hotel or an office building, I visualized him lying ill on a lobby floor. When I know that my children are flying, then there is the plane crash anxiety. Now that all of our grandsons are old enough to drive, I worry about their driving with friends (I read that the more kids there are in a car, the more likely an accident will occur). The personal fears can also be mild anxieties about a talk to be given at a conference or concern about the forthcoming dinner party where the mix of guests won’t work and the food won’t be good and the weather won’t cooperate.

Obviously being anxious about events that probably won’t happen is unpleasant and bad for our immune systems; feelings of anxiety impact our health. So instead of planning for a worst-case scenario, we should try to let go of the negative thoughts and think only about positive outcomes. If this is difficult, occupy your mind with tasks that need concentration. Being physically active also helps.

Then there are the universal fearsthe kinds we’re all afraid of: getting sick, dying in pain, having Alzheimer’s (every time I misplace something I think, “This is it, dementia has set in!”), having a spouse die or dying before a spouse and leaving him or her bereft, or burying a child. Universal fears are shared by most people and are part and parcel of being human. In some parts of the world, fear of hunger is predominant, in others it may be fear of droughts or floods or of locusts, fear of war or civil unrest. In other words, there are realistic fears which may come to pass and about which we have little control except to prepare for disaster whenever possible. I go to the doctor for checkups and have a bag of emergency supplies in case of an earthquake.

The third type are the global fears:. These are fears of  buildings bombed, water reservoirs being poisoned, houses of worship being burned, germ warfare, economic collapse, war, and now even fear of pirates. Fear of the dizzying challenges we face as a species in the next few generations.

I worry about our grandchildren’s children—with coastal flooding seemingly inevitable due to global warming, by mid-century, where will those millions of newly homeless go but more inland—inland into already overcrowded places where they will not be welcomed—will there be strife or will there be a solution before it actually happens? What about our coming water shortages? What will happen if the aquifers are eventually drained? Here in San Diego, we are planning for desalination plants—a good thing!

These are the global fears, those that threaten our planet and about which we can prepare with wind farms, solar panels, artificial lawns, alternative fuels, new vaccines, recycling, going green, and generally making our voices heard for better planning for the inevitable problems that may occur not in our lifetime, but in the lifetimes of our descendents: leaving a legacy of a viable earth.

And so whether our fears are personal: just some of us—universal: that’s most of us—or global: that should be all of us, we need to acknowledge the reality of those fears and deal with them by being there for each other and there for all of us—all of us inhabitants of the same home.

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Josefowitz is an author and freelance writer based in La Jolla, California.  This article appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.

 

Inner Voices of Reason and Emotion

July 16, 2010 Leave a comment

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California– It starts in the morning: Voice 1: “Get up!” Voice 2: “I’m still sleepy.” Voice 1 impatiently: “You’ll be late for work!” Voice 2, pleading: “Five more minutes.”

It goes on at breakfast: Voice 1: “Whole-wheat toast and fruit!” Voice 2: “There’s a doughnut left in the fridge.” Voice 1: “It’s all fat and sugar!” Voice 2: “Just this once.”

And so the voices continue throughout the day with every decision we have to make—from “Shall I walk up the three flights to my office or take the elevator?” to “Shall I criticize my colleague’s report or let it go?”

We all have many voices that send us very different messages—there is a worrier voice that always says “Be nice, don’t make trouble,” another that tells you to have fun and forget about the consequences, and an often loud one that is always ready to criticize: “You shouldn’t have, you’re stupid, don’t believe that compliment, you haven’t tried hard enough, it is not good enough, you’ll never make it.” etc.

It is important for all of us to identify the different voices in our heads so that we can decide which ones to listen to and when, and which ones are too critical or too inflammatory or too protective. Among all the static, there is a self, an inner core, the ego that is the decision maker, who decides what voices will be listened to and which will be told to shut up. When facing a decision, ask yourself which voice of yours seems to be loudest, and then pay attention to the other one too.

The voices sometimes do not get heard in time—like when we lose our temper and then regret it, the rational voice too soft to stop us, overshadowed by the stronger voice of emotion. Generally, the emotional voices are louder than the voices of reason. Emotions flood us, we react impulsively, unable to lower the volume of the hurt, the anger, the frustration. Remember the advice of counting to ten before responding? It is to give time for the emotional voice to quiet down and allow the rational one to be heard.

It is the emotional voice that gets us into trouble, yet it is a voice that needs to be taken into account. It gives us clues as to what is going on inside of ourselves. People who have shut down their emotional voice cannot connect to these voices in others and thus may be missing important information as to the emotional climate around them. People who have dimmed their voice of reason are prone to the seesaws of their feelings, buffeted by the both ill winds and soft breezes of emotional ups and downs.

If you watch and listen to people, you will be able to figure out which voices control them and you will be able to better predict their behaviors. Knowing this will also help you find the best ways to communicate with them and to appeal to their predominant ways of thinking.

And if you can figure out what your voices are trying to achieve, you’ll never again say, “I don’t understand why I did (said) that.” You’ll be able to blame that mischievous voice of yours.

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Josefowitz is an author and freelance writer based in La Jolla. This article appered previously in La Jolla Village Voice

How to Make Yourself Happy

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — Yes, it’s possible to make yourself happy even when you’re not feeling it. Some things you should know:

• Contrary to popular opinion, satisfaction with life increases with advancing age.

• On average, men and women experience emotions similarly, even though women have more fluctuations between positive and negative moods.

• Married people are happier than unmarried people, but people in unhappy marriages have lower levels of happiness than unmarried or divorced people.

• Most people who face a serious tragedy, such as an illness or loss, return within a year to their former level of contentment.

• Conversely, people who win the lottery or have a successful experience revert to their former level of satisfaction. Studies show that we are genetically programmed to live within a fairly narrow range of possible happiness. An inherited positive attitude will help a person in dire circumstances to deal with these events in a more positive way.

This said, we are not stuck in that range for life, just as many other genetic tendencies are influenced by our environment, so is our potential for feeling and expressing negative or positive emotions. In other words, the same news may impact me positively, you negatively, and someone else indifferently. However, if my life is made up of mostly good events and a supportive environment, even if I’m programmed to look at the down side of life, I will be able to overcome this to a certain extent.

Even though there is much that is not within our control, there are significant variables we can influence. That is, we can learn to control our thoughts and feelings; we have control over how we feel over the past, the present, and the future.

1. The past: Do you dwell on past grievances? Can you forgive the transgressors who caused the pain? Can you move on from past injustices?
Visualize the negative events while taking deep breaths and try to understand the perpetrator’s point of view. Create a story he or she might tell. Decide to forgive and move on. Sometimes writing a letter forgiving the person can help, even if you don’t intend to mail it.

2. The future: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you always dwell on the worst-case scenario? The difference is that pessimists believe bad events are permanent while optimists think they are temporary. Also, pessimists overreact to adversity; expecting the worst makes them experience events as worse than they are. Optimists tend to see the world in positive outcomes and are able to get over negative events quicker. They are also more tolerant of their own foibles as well as those of others.

3. The present: Do you enjoy the moment, grateful for the sunshine, the good friends, the good meal, the good book you’re reading? Take a few minutes each evening to write three things from your day you are grateful for. Mine for today are my granddaughter called, I read a good book, and I walked on the treadmill for twenty minutes. Do you live fully today, not worrying about past misdeeds nor being anxious about an unforeseeable future? Of course we learn from past mistakes and prepare for the future, but it’s important to appreciate the moment.

Meditation calms the brain and physical exercise reduces stress. Adequate sleep and good nutrition are important factors in our feelings of well-being. If you feel cranky and out-of-sorts eat a piece of chocolate to boost your serotonin; peanuts, bananas, and turkey contain tryptophan, which has a calming effect. And, finally, laugh more—be with jolly people, keep funny things around, send jokes so that you will also receive them.

“Put on a happy face” is not an old wives’ tales. Research has shown that by changing your facial muscles you set off different physiological changes that will in turn affect your mood. Even when you don’t feel cheerful but you smile, the blood flow to the brain increases production of the neurotransmitters which make you feel happier.

So, if you can’t laugh, then smile, and if you don’t feel like smiling, fake it. Your brain won’t know the difference, and it will send you a message that something pleasant is going on. You might just believe it and feel better.

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Josefowitz is a freelance writer based in La Jolla. Her column appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.

Too much to do or not enough?

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — One of our more difficult endeavors is to find a balance between being so challenged that we lose sleep over it and being so bored with a familiar routine that we are depressed.

What makes people satisfied with their lives is the opportunity to grow, gain mastery, and have some control over their lives. In other words, both challenge and autonomy are the two most needed ingredients for job satisfaction. A little child’s first sentence is often, “Me do it” and the aging residents in nursing homes who can make even trivial decisions live longer than those whose lives are totally regulated and prescribed.

People who cannot find challenge in the workplace look for it elsewhere in their hobbies. For those who are challenged beyond their abilities, failure is the only outcome; for those who are not challenged enough, boredom is the result. Pushing oneself to one’s limit cannot be sustained forever without stress and eventual illness. So when we go to the limit, it must be balanced with some respite. The optimum would be to work within a range of comfortable performance with intermittent pushes to higher levels of new mastery which, although difficult, remain achievable.

There are problems with both success and failure. With continued success, many people keep setting their goals higher and higher, so that they end up living their lives totally engrossed in their work, immersed in achievement to the detriment of family, friends, and health. These are the people whose names appear at the top of their corporations; they say it takes that kind of commitment to make it to the top.

In coping with failure, there are two options. One is to lower our expectations in terms of quantity (less of) or quality (not as good as). The other is to give ourselves more time to achieve our goals. Instead of this week, it can be next week, or if not this year, then let’s try again a couple of years from now. How all this translates into the world of work is important.

A supervisor or manager can keep checking with employees as to whether they are finding enough challenge in their jobs, whether they are learning new skills, and whether they also have enough success and enough time to perform routinely, giving them a rest from constant pressure.

Our language speaks of the need to stop a while and not always keep pushing: “Stopping to smell the roses.” “Enjoying the fruits of our labor.” “Resting on our laurels.”

Successful CEOs are those who can work with their staffs, providing enough excitement to motivate them without so much unrelenting pressure that they will burn out. In fact, “burn out” has become a common ailment, meaning too much challenge, either in the amount of work that needs to be done before a deadline or the too-high standards the work needs to meet.

Individuals too can learn to pace their activities in terms of their goals. There are several types of goals. Life goals such as “Someday, I’ll write a book,” yearly goals such as “By this time next year I will have achieved X,” and daily goals such as “I’ll have the bills paid by 5 p.m.” Each of them must have a realistic component and a time frame. Some are challenging, others are routine but must be done. Finding a balance for ourselves and for those who depend upon us means frequent reappraisals of those goals. Socrates said it best: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This is also true for life outside of work. “Where are we going and is it still where we want to be headed” needs periodic re-examination.

When our three daughters, who all work fulltime, had school-age children at home, they were constantly exhausted and wished for less pressure. Our friends’ daughters who are stay-at-home mothers look for something meaningful to do outside of the family. Many of our friends who are self-employed, such as psychologists and consultants, bounce back and forth constantly between having too much work and worrying when there is not enough. It’s either too many clients or too few. Making a decision ahead of time as to how one wishes to lead one’s life sounds simple, yet, events take over, and we bend to circumstances often outside our control. So vision and flexibility are the key ingredients for a balanced life.

Socrates also said: “Know thyself.” He must have meant thy ambitions and limitations.

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Josefowitz is a freelance writer and author based in La Jolla. This article previously appeared in La Jolla Village Voice

Turning around one’s life in the worst of times

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California–“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” So starts the Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. That was 1859.

This is 2010, and it is the worst of times. We’re talking foreclosures and unemployment reaching double digits in California. We’re talking corrupt politicians and oil spills.

Besides the hard economic realities, there are psychological issues to be considered. There was a time many people lived to work as opposed to working to live. Those are the people who kept working beyond the retirement years even though there was enough wealth accumulated for several life times. Because so much of human identity is tied to the job, the role, the position, they are at a loss of what to do with their time. Loss of position frequently also means loss of colleagueship, loss of perks, loss of status. Controlling resources and people is heady, while time on one’s hands sitting at home, can lead to depression, especially for those who have been out of the house all of their adult lives.

And there are also the people who need to work in order to support their families—they work to live. This is not a matter of choice but of livelihood. Being fulfilled by your job is not a priority, making enough money is.

For some men, masculinity is tied to success; and for many, success means bringing home the bacon. The situation becomes even more difficult for some men if they cannot get work, and their wives become the main wage-earners. On the one hand, it is lifesaving to still have one earner in the family. On the other, it can be felt as demeaning or just bewildering for some men to become stay-at-home dads even if that is the best solution for the family.

And now, all of a sudden, the economy is dictating who will work and who is let go, who is looking for a job and who has given up.

So what is the solution? For the person who still was living to work and who was laid off but has the means to retire, finding volunteer opportunities in order to get involved with projects is the solution. It can be an opportunity to re-invent yourself, to change direction. For the person who had to work to make ends meet and who lost their job, there are several possibilities. One is retraining for another occupation—researching the job market , where people are still being hired. It could mean a longer commute or even moving to a different location. Chances are that you will make less money and will have to seriously cut expenses.

The devastation felt due to intense financial stress cannot be overestimated. Watching what was thought of as a secure future disappear has led to increased depression and even suicides. To make matters even worse, Bill Gallo, a research scientist at Yale University, has shown that older laid-off workers are twice as likely as those who still work to suffer strokes and heart attacks. Many don’t yet qualify for Medicare and cannot afford health insurance.

It’s indeed difficult to maintain a positive attitude while sitting in an unemployment office with no available work and going from a managerial position to a blue-collar job may not seem doable, but it is often the only opportunity that will be available with the new government push for infrastructure: rebuilding our roads, bridges, and schools.

Although the tendency is to withdraw from accustomed social interactions, it is important to maintain one’s friendships and to partake in activities that don’t cost—such as walking, or meeting friends at a park—or to find entertainment at a discount.

It is the people who don’t give up that find a way out. As hard as it is to keep a positive attitude in these dire circumstances, we must remember that we are a nation of immigrants and our ancestors crossed stormy seas and faced bleak futures in unknown and often hostile environments to learn new ways, work at jobs with no experience, and make it. If they could, so can we—after all, we have their genes.

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This column appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice

Looking for the Feel-Good Hormone

May 29, 2010 Leave a comment

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California– This will be a bit complicated, but I think it’s an important insight, and it helped me. I recently received an award as “the most outstanding resident” from SCPH (Southern California Presbyterian Homes) at their annual meeting. Several SCPH communities sent in names of residents, and I was thrilled to be selected by White Sands. But that’s not the whole story. It was bittersweet, because when I came home there was no one to celebrate with me, no one to tell who would be happy for me. I really missed my husband, who would have been thrilled. I e-mailed my children, and they responded with perfunctory “That’s great, mom.”

So I worried that I’m a narcissist, always needing validation. I called a psychologist friend of mine who said something that really hit home. She said it is human to need validation, because every time we are noticed for some accomplishment we get a surge of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Dopamine is a chemical compound found in the brain that transmits nerve impulses. It is part of the reward system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment. It rewards good experiences, thus regulating emotion. Having had continuous surges of dopamine for the thirty-five years I was married to Herman, my brain misses that hormone.

I wonder whether one can be addicted to dopamine. If so, then I am in withdrawal, and withdrawal accentuates feelings of depression, looking for a fix that is not forthcoming and not understanding and underestimating the hormonal impact on our brains and our bodies. Conversely, when bad things happen, we get a hit of cortisol, the stress hormone, and it too impacts our brains and bodies.

The lesson to be learned here is the importance of noticing, of congratulating, of showing appreciation to our family, friends, and colleagues for their achievements, and of letting them do the same for us by sharing our triumphs and accepting their praise.

A few columns ago, I wrote that all children wear an invisible sign that says “admire me.” I did not realize that what it really said was “please give me a bit of dopamine,” and that we still wear that sign as adults.

When I used to give talks on male and female differences, I used to say that men think they’re OK unless criticized, but women think they’re not OK unless praised. Do women then need more dopamine to feel good than men do? Or are men in denial of their needs for dopamine? Or perhaps many women just have a harder time accepting the subtle acknowledgements given by those around us and therefore don’t hear the praise unless it is spoken clearly.

Many of us have had pets that died, and we mourned as if it were a person. Non-pet owners did not commiserate and did not understand the extent of the grief. I now think that what pets give us are surges of dopamine every time they greet us, happily bark or purr, every time we pet our furry friends. So when they die, we miss not only their presence, their constant companionship, but also the dopamine that they provided.

What is interesting to me is also the fact that we can get a surge of dopamine not only when we receive an accolade, a gift, a hug, but also when we give it. In other words, whenever I tell someone how well they look or how clever their remark was, I not only give dopamine, I also receive it.

So what this insight does for me. It makes me realize that I can look for ways of getting more dopamine, and it is not by sitting home alone and moping, but by actively reentering like with its pitfalls and rewards. I can get a surge of dopamine when I write, see a good play or movie, listen to music, read a book, talk to a friend, go for a walk.

What gives you pleasure, i.e., dopamine? Look for it, make it happen. Now I understand why volunteering increases our immune system—it gives us a fix of the reward hormone, why living in a community is healthy—it gives us the possibility of getting some of this feel-good hormone through constant interaction.

We can all try to look for ways to get some dopamine into our lives. By writing this, I just did.

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Josefowitz is a freelance writer based in La Jolla. This article appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.