Mental Health and Happiness: What's Gratitude Got to Do with It?

Posted on Fri, Dec 04, 2015 @ 01:00 PM

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Gratitude and generosity might be thought of as flip sides of the same coin: someone who has learned one is likely to also practice the other. At least, we'd like to think so. However, if you were in an American shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving—known in this country as "Black Friday"—you could be forgiven for assuming otherwise. Traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, although I don't suppose I would be alone in the observation that retailers have been relentlessly pushing this line ever earlier in an effort to amplify their jingle bells with a bit more cha-ching. Nevertheless, the last Friday in November is still quite an event in its own right. Shoppers queue up before opening hours—sometimes arriving straight from Thanksgiving dinner equipped with sleeping bags and cookstoves—ready to camp out as long as necessary to ensure they will be the first to grab "doorbuster" specials and score the most coveted items on their shopping list before stores have sold out. 

The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving with a day associated with unapologetic—and almost imperative—greed has spawned its fair share of social media commentary. My personal favorite is this sentiment seen on a Facebook poster: "Black Friday: Because only in America people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have." 

This sentiment is too true, as far as it goes. But while these paired events may be a distinctly American phenomenon, greed, it must be observed, is not. Every nation in the world has an interest in the dividends it pays. Nevertheless, we might agree that gratitude's dividends are more beneficial to humanity, even if they may be less interesting to economists.

What are these dividends?

Taking a number of studies together, it seems gratitude may be a fundamental key to happiness. One of the more intuitive ways gratitude contributes to happiness is by strengthening our relationships with family and friends. This is not simply because we evoke positive feelings in others when we thank them—but also because we feel pleasure ourselves when we make others feel appreciated. We also feel a higher degree of responsibility for their future welfare which encourages us to invest in strengthening the relationship further. This is a boost for us in all kinds of ways. We’re social beings, of course, so the stronger our relationships, the happier we tend to be in general. But there are more specific ways gratitude puts our happiness balance in the black.

Among the many researchers who have studied the effects of gratitude are Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. In 2003, they compared three randomly assigned groups of subjects over nine weeks, each of which had a distinct commission: Some were to report on five things they were grateful for in their lives. Others were told to record events that had irritated or annoyed them. A third group were given the neutral assignment to report on any events that had simply “had an impact.”

As you’ve likely guessed, the “gratitude” group reaped the most positive outcomes, both physically and psychologically. They were less likely to be ill, more likely to exercise, felt more positive emotions, slept longer and better, were more optimistic and felt more connected to others than those in the neutral or negative groups. They also were more likely to reach out to help someone else, or to offer emotional support to others. A few years after this, Emmons conducted a similar study with recipients of donated organs. Patients who kept “gratitude journals” scored higher in measures of mental health, general health and overall vitality than those who journaled about routine daily events.

Like Emmons and McCullough, researchers Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey J. Froh, authors of Making Grateful Kids, have also studied gratitude extensively, focusing particularly on children and teens. In thier study presented to the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012, Bono and Froh discovered that “grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.” As parents we can be grateful that it's never too late to help kids develop the habit of gratitude—or to develop it ourselves.

This capacity to change is especially welcome news in light of Todd Kashdan’s 2009 study suggesting that gratitude may not come as easily to men as to women.  Men seem to have been brought up to feel more burden and obligation when presented with gifts . . . leaving them to experience less gratitude. This sense of obligation was especially pronounced when the gift came from another man. “The way we get socialized as children affects what we do with our emotions as adults,” says Kashdan. “Because men are generally taught to control and conceal their softer emotions, this may be limiting their well-being.”

It must be acknowledged that there are sometimes more serious limitations that challenge our ability to find reasons for being grateful. In the wake of terrorist attacks, school shootings, natural disasters, interpersonal abuse and other tragedies it can seem almost an affront to those who are suffering to speak of gratitude. How easy it is to stand on the sidelines and suggest that people can be helped by looking for good in the midst of evil. And yet sometimes it's those who have suffered unspeakable evil who teach gratitude to those on the sidelines.

This is how researchers at the University of Southern California came to a greater understanding of how gratitude works in the brain. Their research, published September 30, 2015, in the journal Fronteirs In Psychologywas inspired by the stories of Holocaust survivors. 

“In the midst of this awful tragedy, there were many acts of bravery and life-saving aid,” said lead author Glenn Fox, a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. “With the Holocaust, we only typically associate the awful things. But when you listen to the survivors, you also hear stories of incredible virtue, and gratitude for the help they received.”

According to USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith, Holocaust survivors said they found reasons to be grateful, "whether it was because of a stranger offering a bit of food or a neighbor providing a place to hide. These small acts of generosity helped them hold on to their humanity. That Glenn has been able to use testimonies in his incredible research on gratitude shows why it is so important to preserve the voices of people who lived through these dark times.”

This concept underlies the advice passed along by Fred Rogers, host of the long-running kids' TV show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Always look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" Certainly that is something to be grateful for. The supportive care of these "helpers" not only contributes to the immediate physical wellbeing of those they are helping, but also supports the survivors' psychological resilience—as well as that of observers—in the face of traumatic events.

Human nature being what it is, we haven't seen the last of such events. Journalistic nature being what it is, when they do occur we'll continue to see them played out over and over on platforms that intrude increasingly into the intimate spaces of our lives. With this in mind, we could do worse than to take some cues from the above research. Not only because it helps us, but because it inspires us to become "helpers" to others in times of trouble (remember the work of Emmons and McCullough).

In short? Look for things to be grateful for. If this is a tremendous effort for you, practice by journaling about the positive things in your life. We tend so easily to pick up on the negative, no matter how small its influence. Work at becoming just as adept at noticing the small positive things around youEven if you can only come up with five things a week, you stand a chance of improving your outlook.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, express gratitude for these positive things directly to those around you. As Westley observes in the classic movie, Princess Bride, "If you didn't say it, you didn't do it." You might feel grateful to someone, but if you don't tell them, you've omitted the most important key that unlocks the power of this crucial emotion. The human connection part.

 

More from Vision:

What's Good about Greed?
Healthy Families: Silence Is Not Golden
Society and Culture: Thanks, but No Thanks?
Family and Relationships: Raising Well-Connected Kids

 

 

 

 

Tags: family relationships, health benefits of gratitude

Family Food Fights: Communication Skills May Save the Holiday

Posted on Tue, Jun 02, 2015 @ 06:35 AM


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Today's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.

 

Q: All my children and grandchildren are gathering for a week at a beach house we rented in Florida. We all get along well, but I worry that differences in lifestyle will lead to tensions. One of my daughters eats only organic foods, another is a vegetarian and allows no meat to touch her table, and the third eats anything in sight. Obviously, each set of grandchildren is brought up with very different dietary practices. My six grandchildren range in age from 3 months old to seven years. My fantasy is that we will have wonderful meals together as I believe that sharing a meal is a great bonding experience. For me, cooking for my family is a way to show them my love. But I fear that our table will turn into a battlefield. We have not all been together in several years, so I have not had the opportunity to confront this situation before.

A: You will not be able to please everyone, so don’t try. Instead facilitate a conversation amongst your children, which will help you all figure out how to manage. Let all your children know that you desire to have some family time, and ask for their suggestions as to how this might be accomplished. Make it clear that you are trying to respect the needs of each of your daughters and their families. You are not trying to change anyone’s practices.

While all three families have agreed to spend their break with you despite their different culinary needs, the dining table is a most contentious place in your family and therefore not the best place for family bonding. You might need to forego your dream of meals together, but you enjoy your higher goal of unifying your family by bonding in other ways such as playing games, going for walks, or going on a trip to the beach.

In order to make sure this week is pleasant for all, you must raise your concerns in advance either with each child individually or with all of them by email or conference call/video chat. Ideally, two of your daughters might agree to be strictly vegetarian for the week so you could all sit down in the same room. However, this compromise may not be acceptable to your daughters and their husbands. You will not know unless you ask. The following are five essential questions that must be answered for this experiment to succeed:

  1. Can we come to a compromise or do we need to have family times that do not involve food?

  2. Who will buy the food and for whom?

  3. Is everyone willing to pitch in for the expense of organic foods, or are you willing to just buy organic for the whole family?

  4. Are the others willing to follow each other’s most restrictive rules? If not, how will the kitchen be managed?

  5. Are the carnivores willing to forego meat for a week?

  6. Are the vegetarians comfortable eating in the same space where others are eating meat?

You may find that your daughters come up with some innovative ideas just like they did when they were young. In any case, this is good practice for all of them and their families as they negotiate our complex society.

Sometimes we need to modify our dreams to achieve them.

_______________________

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.

 

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Do You Take This In-Law . . . ? An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff

Gina Stepp interviews Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff about her latest book, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.

 

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Tags: relationships, communication, extended family, holidays

Relationship Advice: Help! My Grandmother is Dating

Posted on Mon, May 04, 2015 @ 06:36 AM

Dating GrandmaToday's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.

 

Q: My 72-year-old grandmother is dating and the family is up in arms. Some of my aunts find this unseemly, though my grandfather died three years ago. My uncle is worried that this man will take all her money, which isn’t a lot. My cousins worry she will be too busy for us. I think my grandmother has a right to live her life. Any suggestions on how we might integrate this man into the family?

 

A: While it’s always wise to plan ahead, a few dates won’t necessarily lead to a long-term commitment. Some of your family members’ worries may be premature. However, it’s never too early to reflect on the complexity of extended family relationships.

Three years is long enough to mourn. Your grandmother has fulfilled her obligations to her husband. She is entitled to choose life. She is to be commended for not sitting around moping in her loneliness. Instead, she is being proactive in attempting to enrich her life. At the same time, she is relieving the extended family of the sole responsibility for her happiness. After all, with life expectancies high, she might have 20 or 30 more years. Why should she not have daily companionship?

Rest assured, it is not uncommon for adult children of any age to be miffed when their parents are not available on-demand. Many adult children fear abandonment when their parents have a new love interest. There is a two-year-old in each of us that expects our parents’ full attention, even when we are adults. Your grandmother has put a lot of time into the family. It is unlikely that your grandmother will forsake her children and all of you.

Family members express their love in many ways. The concerns of your aunts and uncles indicate that they care about their mother. Like parents, adult children can be overprotective and out of date. On the other hand, like parents, some of the children’s concerns have validity. 

Whether your grandmother marries this man or a different one, it’s time to make sure your grandmother’s financial affairs are in the order she wants them. Estate lawyers can help her protect whatever money she has, if she so desires. This will not only make your uncle feel better, it also gives your grandmother a chance to talk about other end of life issues. Paradoxically, though she is choosing life, it’s an opportunity to talk about death.

Fortunately, we live in times when women are more than the matriarchs of their families. They are also individuals. Your grandmother is both a loving presence and a person in her own right. Value and respect her for both her contributions to your family and to herself.

 

_______________________

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.
 

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Do You Take This In-Law . . . ? An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff

Gina Stepp interviews Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff about her latest book, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.

Parent Talk - An Interview With Ruth Nemzoff

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Tags: grandparents, extended family, dating and relationships

Relationship Advice: Dealing With an Overindulged Daughter-in-Law

Posted on Mon, Apr 13, 2015 @ 03:57 PM

Indulged daughter in lawToday's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.

 

Q. My son is engaged to a nurse from a wealthy family that gives her whatever she wants. I think it’s overindulgent, and fear that she will expect my son to support her in the same manner.

 

A. Just because parents give their children financial assistance into adulthood does not mean that they are necessarily spoiling them. Each family deals with money in its own way. Some parents believe they “spoil” the kids if they give them everything. Others, particularly families with disposable income, feel it is their joy and duty to share whatever they have to make their children’s lives easier.

The danger of giving too much money to children is that they will lack ambition. The girl in question is a nurse, which is hardly the profession of a spoiled brat. It seems that whatever her parents did with money, it did not squash her drive to achieve. She trained for a profession that is demanding and requires nurturing skills.

While to you she may seem entitled, she and her family may view it differently. Many parents these days subsidize rents and give money to their children while they are getting established in their careers. There are many motivations for financially helping one’s children.

You may fear that you will lose your son if he becomes enveloped in a family that can provide so much. Focus on the wonderful things you have to give the couple. While her parents may provide financial assistance, you can provide love, for example. Don’t assume that her parents are trying to manipulate your son. They may just be sharing their good fortune.

You may fear that your son’s fiancée will force him into debt, since she is used to a higher standard of living. Every couple must confront differences in lifestyles.

Monetary differences in lifestyle are no different than cultural divergences. Just because her family deals with money differently from yours does not imply that they are wrong and you are right. Harping on the dangers of having too much money will only alienate you from your son.

Instead of worrying and judging, try to enjoy this happy time in your son’s life. Your son is a grown man, and he must make decisions in his life.

 

_______________________

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.

 

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Do You Take This In-Law . . . ? An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff

Gina Stepp interviews Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff about her latest book, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.
 

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Tags: family relationships, in-laws, extended family

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: A Quest to Free the World

Posted on Mon, Jan 12, 2015 @ 09:41 AM

HumanTraffickingToday's guest post in honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Month is written by Shannon Keith—an abolitionist, speaker, and the CEO of International Princess Project.  Ten years ago, she left her successful career as a corporate sales representative to start a global non-profit, to provide training and jobs for survivors of human trafficking in India. 

 

We are well into Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which brings light to the terrors that still exist in nations across the world. As U.S. President Barack Obama noted, “Today, millions of men, women, and children are victims of human trafficking. This modern-day slavery occurs in countries throughout the world and in communities across our Nation. These victims face a cruelty that has no place in a civilized world: children are made to be soldiers, teenage girls are beaten and forced into prostitution, and migrants are exploited and compelled to work for little or no pay. It is a crime that can take many forms, and one that tears at our social fabric, debases our common humanity, and violates what we stand for as a country and a people.”

Unfortunately, there are some key facts about human trafficking that may not always be understood by the general public. For instance:

1.  Human trafficking and forced prostitution have many different faces.  

Of the approximately 20 million slaves worldwide, there are an estimated 4.5 million people enslaved in the sex trade, according to the International Labour Organization. The news stories that talk about children who are kidnapped, sold, and raped, are true. But not all of the stories unfold the same way, except that victims almost always come from extreme poverty and extreme brokenness. Some are sold by their own families, desperate to feed their remaining children. Some are young brides who become widowed and have no other way to support themselves. Some are born into prostitution, the children of sex-workers, and given no other options. Some try to escape the life and succeed temporarily, but are lured back due to lack of family support, drug addiction, or not having anywhere else to go.  

2.  Survivors of sex trafficking don’t choose to be prostituted, and therefore, the word “prostitute” shouldn’t really be a noun.  

Women and men, girls and boys, are prostituted—not prostitutes.  All of them have come to that life through victimization and abuse. This is contrary to the Pretty Woman Hollywood narratives, or the semi-derogatory notion that people would make an informed choice to prostitute themselves. Human trafficking organizations have made huge strides in telling the truth of how desperation, objectification, abuse, addiction, and poverty can make people vulnerable to becoming enslaved.

3.  The problem is endless and overwhelming and impossible for one person or entity to fix.  

To truly make a dent in the problem, and move toward abolition, there are multiple wars that would need to be waged. Laws must be changed. For example, in many U.S. states the prostitute is arrested for the crime, but not the “customer.” Corruption in law enforcement and the judicial system must be exposed and ended. Rescue organizations must have more safe houses and recovery programs to place women and children in once rescued. Prevention strategies must be put in place, such as making sure children are able to stay in school to receive education and job-training. For this to happen, collaboration must happen between government, non-profits, businesses and educators. Each holds an integral piece of the puzzle of ending the cycle.

4.  Until the “consumer” of prostitution is addressed, and the trafficker is stopped, sexual slavery cannot end.  

Underlying the problem is simple supply and demand. Sex-trafficking is a global 99 billion-dollar industry and a trafficker can make $21,800 per victim of commercial sexual exploitation, according to the global anti-slavery organization Not For Sale. Typically it is the victim of trafficking, not the trafficker, who is prosecuted if arrests are made. Tougher laws are needed for traffickers. Also, in the last ten years, there has been an outpouring of help for the victims of prostitution. There is not, however, a lot of discussion about how to stop or prosecute the (typically) men who are drawn to buy sex. And until the sellers and consumers are stopped there can be no end in sight. 

5.  Awareness is increasing; now there must be more energy and resources placed into solutions. 

In the last 10 years, much awareness has been raised. Awareness was needed, in order to inspire action. But it is now time for action and workable solutions for people. Awareness without action can lead to further exploitation of survivors. Internet readers can access detailed accounts of the sufferings many of these people endure. If these accounts are not used to bring justice, aid, and prevention, they become only sensationalist stories which border on exploiting these victims again. Their stories must be told, but they must be told in hope of bringing justice to those still trapped in sex-work—and ultimately—to prevent others from ever being brought into it.  

6. There is hope.

Amidst the tragedy and hopelessness involved in this topic, there is much to encourage us.  Students, mothers, fathers, police-officers, teachers, film-makers, celebrities, doctors, therapists, activists and business-leaders are working together to increase the impact they can have in solving this problem. Women and girls are coming to safe houses and learning viable trades in order to support themselves with dignity. Lives are being healed and rebuilt. Laws are being changed. Cases are being prosecuted. However, there is much still to be done and many minds and hearts to be changed before there can be any kind of complete solution.

Organizations that are currently working toward abolition include: Not For SaleFree the Slaves, and DoSomething.org.

From Vision.org:

Special Report: Enslaved

Can the world be freed from slavery? The 200th anniversary of British and American legislation outlawing human trafficking came and went in 2007. Yet, in these nations and throughout the world, slavery and the slave trade are flourishing realities. Vision.org interviews Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves, child soldier Ishmael Beah, and Michael Wessells, who has dedicated his life to transitioning child soldiers away from violence and into peaceful, age-appropriate civilian roles. 


Tags: Social Issues, slavery, human trafficking

Parenting Challenges: Playing With a Full Deck

Posted on Tue, Apr 01, 2014 @ 06:00 AM


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When we as parents see unwanted behavior in children, one of our first unspoken reactions may be "How can I use my authority to stop this behavior?" But is the authority card always the most effective one in the parenting deck? 

Following on from that question, if parents don't play that card in a given instance, does it mean they're giving up their authority in an attempt to become their child's "best friend"?

The answer to both questions, of course, is no. There are many more than two alternatives available to parents. Sometimes there's no scepter on the most powerful trump card, and "heart cards" can often be our best friend without undermining our position as parent. In fact, we can opt to use the unique bond we form with our children to help them make a number of important adjustments in attitude and behavior even when—or perhaps especially when—it's clear that the authority card isn't working.

One of the most important things for parents to keep in mind is that kids pick up the attitudes and behaviors they see in us, and not only the good ones. To a great degree, you might say, we've dealt them their hand. Have they seen us pout, or even melt down, when we don't get our way? Do we express disrespect for other people, whether in our face-to-face interactions or behind a friend’s back when we're alone with our children?

If we stop to wonder why kids pick up our attitudes so easily, we might come to the conclusion that they admire us—that they want to be like us. But whether they admire us or not, they have a deep-seated need for our love and approval. If we don't express positive messages in equal measure to the negative feedback we tend to offer with excessive generosity, that missing dimension in their lives will have a detrimental effect on their ability to function in relationships and in society.

On the other hand, a child's intense need to bond with us can actually be our parenting ace in the hole. If we remember to give them positive attention and approval when their behavior is appropriate—or, in some cases, when it has simply improved (for instance, if the behavior we're trying to change was deeply entrenched)—we can help them make swift and permanent changes even in behavior that has resisted the most consistent use of our authority card.

Unfortunately, most of us tend to ignore behavior until we see something we don't like, and of course, by then it's too late in the game to have much hope of easily changing its course. 

What's a good winning strategy? Shape good behavior by identifying the positive behaviors you want to see, setting the stage for them with the right cues, and then responding quickly to reinforce positive behaviors as soon as you see them by offering the affection and approval your child craves. Appropriate punishment, used sparingly, has its place; but if punishment is your primary childrearing strategy, you're only playing with half the deck.

What if your child is an adolescent? Is it too late to change a reactive approach and begin laying the groundwork for better behavior? 

If the whole family commits to making some changes, it's almost never too late. But some families have become so entrenched in negative cycles of interaction that finding the way out can be very difficult. It's rarely enough to send the "problem child" to a boot camp for an attitude adjustment. While we're all responsible for our own behavior, we are also deeply affected by others in our relationship network. People within family systems don't just act, they interact; we decide which card to play based to some degree on what others have played. 

Authentic, long-term change requires that parents engage in some honest introspection, taking as keen an interest in their own behavior as they do in their teen's. Your adolescent may be playing badly, but he or she is not playing solitaire.

As a plethora of research tells us, the bond between parents and children from birth all the way through adolescence is crucial to their brain development and to the quality of their mental and physical health as they mature. Considering that our children are our legacy to the future, it's clear that this is a high-stakes game, and when we teach our children well, everyone wins. Parents, are you in? It's time to ante up.

 

 

Parenting the Challenging Child
Difficult. Headstrong. Stubborn. If any of these describe your child or teen, an innovative set of parenting ABCs can help toward solving the problem. 

Tags: parenting, family relationships, child development

A Grain of Truth in a Slice of Pizza

Posted on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 @ 10:16 AM

FamilyMattersPizzaPost2Today's guest post comes to Family Matters from Dr. Ruth Nemzoff and Dr. Ellen Rovner, both Brandeis University scholars.

 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio caused a stir when he ate pizza with a fork, reported The New York Times on January 11, 2014. This tidbit is not as newsworthy as the criminal activities of Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Nor is it as juicy as Bill Clinton’s White House liaison with an intern. But it gives us all a chance to examine how even small details of eating can cause big brouhahas.

De Blasio defended himself, “In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and a knife.” True enough, every culture has its manners. We shudder to think how many of us have used the wrong end of the chopsticks to take from the serving platter or have not understood the subtleties of politesse when we eat curry with a chapatti and our hands.

It is more than obvious to state: Different families eat differently. While the way one eats is a marker of one’s background, it is not a marker of one’s character. So, then, how does a run-of-the-mill political outing to a pizza joint on Staten Island end up as a scandal now known as “forkgate”?

The obvious answer is that de Blasio’s latest job, leader of the oft-claimed (especially by New Yorkers) “Greatest City in the World,” means that whatever he does is news, whether he’s taking out his garbage in his pajamas or eating pizza with a knife and fork. But the fact is that similar “scandals” are played out every day between family and friends at ordinary dinner tables around the world.

The food we eat and how we eat it tells us loads about who we are, so it’s no wonder that we often conflate eating habits with personality and morality. Indeed, food behaviors often lead to judgments about a person’s character. How many times do we hear people sanctimoniously espouse their own nobility in eating environmentally correct or animal-rights-sensitive food? The implication is that bad people eat everything else. Those obsessed with eating healthy and local foods may sometimes have contempt for others who even occasionally chomp down fast food. Yet one person’s “healthy eating” is another person’s definition of orthorexia, a severe phobia about eating impure or unhealthy food.

Indeed, different backgrounds, different values and different definitions of hospitality, as the pizza fiasco shows, can lead to hostility. Often, name-calling follows: we cast one another as “snobs,” “show-offs,” “not like us” or “uncivilized.”

And the kinds of food we eat are only the beginning.

As de Blasio’s aghast supporters on Staten Island demonstrated, not only what one eats but how food is eaten can lead to vexing criticism and even more heartburn than pizza. Some of us prefer to sit down together to eat, while others like to grab a meal from the fridge. Some families follow Emily Post’s etiquette instructions, while others follow their own cultural conventions. None of these behaviors are bad. They just are different. What is bad, are supercilious attitudes toward manners, customs and ideas that are different from our own.

Pizza and de Blasio, regardless of culinary or political preferences, have much to teach us: a little understanding and a lot of respect go a long way to help the pizza go down more easily, even with a knife and fork.

RUTH NEMZOFF AND ELLEN ROVNER

 

Ruth Nemzoff is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children, and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children, intergenerational relationships, and family dynamics. 

Ellen Rovner is a cultural anthropologist who began her professional career working with adolescents and incarcerated youth. She has directed a delinquency prevention program and battered women's advocacy project and is currently studying the cultural and emotional impact of food.

Tags: relationships, family, Ruth Nemzoff, Ellen Rovner, cultural differences, etiquette, manners, family conflict

Thoughts for Thanksgiving: Greed, Generosity, and Gratitude

Posted on Wed, Nov 27, 2013 @ 12:27 PM



Thanksgiving2013It's that time of year again, when gratitude becomes a topic of conversation all around us. Canada and the United States are not the only nations to pause in gratitude at some point during the fall season, and as it turns out, this is such a healthy activity that we might want to engage in it far more often than many of us do.

Studies highlighting the importance of gratitude and giving to personal well-being are piling up like autumn leaves, and they're hinting at some interesting connections.

When we express gratitude, say researchers, we experience fewer symptoms of physical illness; we exercise more; we sleep longer and better and report higher levels of positive emotion, greater optimism and a greater sense of connection to others. This sets off more than one beneficial cycle. For instance, improved sleep quality is not only a result of gratitude, but also a predecessor: as we sleep better we actually increase our capacity for gratitude. As our capacity for gratitude increases, we begin to focus more on our positive experiences than on our hassles and complaints. We're also more likely to help others with their personal problems and offer emotional support, thereby evoking feelings of gratitude in those we touch. 

Gratitude spreads, and so does generosity. People who receive benefits in "pay-it-forward" situations give to others more generously than in situations where they can just give whatever they want, say some studies. On the flip side, of course, greed is also paid forward. Unfortunately, the research tells us, the pay-it-forward effect of greed is even stronger than the pay-it-forward effect of gratitude and giving.

If only greed and competition could offer the same benefits to mental and physical health. Something that spreads its seeds as far and fast as greed should at least have something worthwhile to offer.

Those who think primarily in economic terms often suggest it does, of course. Remember Gordon Gekko's speech in the 1987 film Wall Street? His point of view would coincide with some economists and anthropologists who have long assumed that people make decisions in far more "cost-effective" ways than they may do in actual fact. Whole economic theories are based on the belief that people choose their behaviors through a sort of situational cost-benefit analysis. Yet psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics as a result of his research in judgment and decision making. What he found is that human beings (and that includes you and me) are not the rational agents economists and decision theorists have traditionally assumed. We are ruled by emotion at least as often as we are ruled by logical economy. Most often, we decide using a mixture of emotion and logic.

This opens the door to the idea that sometimes we make decisions, not on a cost-benefit basis, but on the basis of altruism, empathy, gratitude, generosity. Admittedly, we reap mental and physical health benefits when we decide to give rather than receive, or be thankful rather than judgmental and critical. But these benefits don't always look great on paper. Good health, happiness, rich relationships and a good night's sleep are hard to quantify. They are, however, some of the things that make life worth living. 

With this in mind, I decided to have a little fun with Gekko's Wall Street speech. Just a few minor edits that mostly entail substituting the word "gratitude" for "greed." The changes might not be all that relevant to the movie, but as a life creed I find I like it this way much better:

"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that gratitude, for lack of a better word, is good. Gratitude is right, gratitude works. Gratitude clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the most fundamental spirit. Gratitude, in all of its forms; gratitude for life, for money, for love, knowledgehas marked the upward surge of mankind. And gratitude, you mark my words, will not only contribute to the health of each one of us individually, but to our malfunctioning institutions and society in general. Thank you very much."

Sleep well, be grateful, and give others a reason to be grateful too on this Thanksgiving and in the year to come.

Tags: greed, social relationships, gratitude, thanksgiving, generosity

6 Family Characteristics That Can Contribute to Bullying

Posted on Tue, Oct 15, 2013 @ 06:47 PM

AuthoritarianParentingIt's Bullying Prevention Monthtime to ask whether we've learned anything new over the past year about what contributes to bullying behaviors and whatif anything, we may be able to do to prevent them.

Since this is a blog focusing on family relationships, it makes sense for us to put aside our curiosity about what schools and communities should be doing and instead ask the question, "What can families do to help prevent bullying?"

By way of addressing this, one study published in April of this year suggests there is quite a bit we, as families, can do to help. The University of Warwick researchers who led the study found that when parents give their children opportunities to learn how to solve problems constructively in a warm, supportive atmosphere with clear boundaries (known as “authoritative” parenting) the likelihood of becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of bullying is reduced. In contrast, authoritarian parenting (characterized by harsh, negative parenting practices, including neglect) was associated with increases in bullying experiences.

While the effects of harsh (authoritarian) parenting were associated with both victims and perpetrators of bullying, children who are exposed to negative parenting—including abuse and neglect, but also overprotection—are more likely to become victims of bullying.

These findings back up research going back at least 30 years and suggest that researchers Ronald Oliver, Neal Oaks, and John Hoover were right in most of the essentials of their 1993/1994 list of six characteristics often found in families of bullies. As James R. Holmes rewords them in "The Bully in the Family: Family Influences on Bullying," families of bullies tend to have

  1. "Cool-to-cold emotional environment" with lack of involvement from the primary caregiver;

  2. Permissive parenting style—few rules or limits for behavior, little family structure

  3. Isolation of family from the community, and active social life or social involvement of family is lacking;

  4. Conflict between parents, and disharmony within the family;

  5. Inappropriate use of discipline—parents fail to punish aggression or may even reinforce it; and fail to reward prosocial behavior or may even punish it;

  6. Authoritarian parenting with high use of controlling and punitive discipline—parents try to maintain order with rigid household standards and rules.

Notice that two seemingly opposite characteristics are on the list: permissive parenting styles and authoritarian parenting styles. In fact, later research has likewise suggested that families of bullies may have both characteristics at the same time. They may be permissive (or even neglectful) in some circumstances and hostile and controlling in others. George Batsche and Howard Knoff's 1994 study of bullies and victims also found that parents of bullies sometimes have poor problem-solving skills and "teach their children to strike back at the least provocation."

This list notwithstanding, not all bullies come from families with poor problem-solving skills. If your child is on either side of the bullying dynamic (or both sides, as is sometimes the case) it isn't necessarily because you're doing something wrong as a parent. Nevertheless, you are likely to be the person who is best situated to help your child work toward change. 

As you do so, it is important to beware of messages that will undermine your efforts. These include messages like, "Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and you need to learn how to deal with life in the 'real world.' Don't be so sensitive."

The inescapable truth is that the best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. Bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school or online. And these are skills parents can begin to instill long before their children go to school.

  

 

Tags: family relationships, bullying, parenting styles

More Than Simply Feelings: Emotions Are Us

Posted on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 @ 03:26 PM

RobotWithFeelingAs a family activity, we like to pick a TV series and work our way through it on Netflix a few episodes a week. Among our favorites have been such greats as Firefly, Dr. Who, Monk, and Psych—but our current series is the classic version of Star Trek. You know, the one with William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy as the imperturbable and flawlessly logical Spock (whose first name is purportedly unpronouncable).

In the most recent episode we watched, the Enterprise and her crew had stumbled upon a wayward probe which had been lost in space for who-knows-how-long (having been originally launched in the year 2,000). Programmed to scan the makeup of any encountered life, its purpose had been accidentally altered to eliminate any life form that was found to be imperfect. The crew's mission, whether they chose to accept it or not (and yes, I'm old enough to remember that Nimoy also appeared in the series Mission Impossible) was to deactivate the probe before it realized all humans have imperfect thought patterns.

Fortunately, the probe scanned Spock's brain first and was suitably impressed by its order and efficiency. On the other hand, it was completely stymied in an effort to scan the brain of a female crewmember. In its even, emotionless robot cadence the probe noted, "That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me."

"That unit is a woman," Spock offered, as though no other explanation was needed. In metallic monotone the probe seemed to understand, "A mass of conflicting impulses," it acknowledged.

This was, after all, the sixties, I explained to two of my daughters, when they turned their wide eyes to meet mine in bewildered indignance.

But I wasn't only referring to the fact that the gender stereotype was outrageous. Just as outdated was the idea that an orderly brain was one in which logic had banished the messiness of emotion. Spock, the pinnacle of intelligence, was of a species that was free of the primitive feelings that held humans captive to illogical thought patterns and inferior decisions. Human males may have been flawed on that basis, but women were rated as even more emotionaland by extension even less capable of logic—than their male counterparts.

Fast-forward to 2013, and welcome to a new understanding of the role of emotion in human thinking. We now know that without emotion, logic fails. People can't actually come to a final decision using logic alone, however certain they may be that they can.

Not only that, our entire personalities rest on the basis of what researchers are now calling "emotional style."  Goodbye personality tests. Hello emotional style!

Feeling shy? Shyness is related to where you fall on the "social intuition" dimension. Notice I didn't say "extroversion" or "introversion." It's time for us to get dichotomies out of our head when it comes to personality traits. We aren't extroverts or introverts. We aren't optimists or pessimists. Rather (we are learning) we fall at various points on six dimensions, each of which has a neurally-based signature and each of which has partially genetic and partially environmental origins. Meaning that we can change where we fall on them if we want to. (Read: If our current position is cramping our ability to be productive in our lives, and keeping us from contributing to the welfare of othersa prerequisite to true happiness according to recent studies.)

Now hang on—no one is saying that emotion doesn't need to be regulated. But this is something we are best able to do with the help of others: within a setting of warm, compassionate, responsive interpersonal relationships.

Will it be easy to get over ideas that have been entrenched in our thinking for half a century or (perhaps) much more? Not likely. But we won't even take the first step in the process until we realize that there's no shame in emotion. More than simply feelings, emotions are at the center of who we are: our personality, our potential and our relationships.

You know this is true, right? Deep down, after all, who doesn't feel sorry for the efficient but emotionally bereft Spock? 

Tags: mind and brain, decision making, emotion