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

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


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

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.



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

Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University. Vision interviewed her about her recent book covering parent and adult-child communication.


Tags: family relationships, in-laws, extended family

Parenting Challenges: Playing With a Full Deck

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


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

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

The Best Man Wore a Tie

Posted on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 @ 06:09 PM

This week's post is from one of my frequent guest bloggers, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff. A friend and mentor from Brandeis University, Dr. Nemzoff offers valuable insight into some of the most challenging of family relationships. 

I once read that a dog was the best man at a wedding. I thought I was reading a spoof, but the story was real. I understand that your best friend may indeed be an animal, and you may want to honor that relationship by making the mutt the best man. However, man’s best friend can be a family’s worst enemy. Your in-laws, whether the parents, the siblings, or the extended family, may object to your choice because of allergies, fear, or the dog's behavioral problems. In fact, while animals give comfort to some, they give the sneezes, terror and trauma to others.

During interviews for my books about relationships between parents, adult children and in-laws, I heard the following complaints:

“I am allergic to the dog, but my brother-in-law insists on bringing the animal to the ceremony.” 

“I am terrified of animals and my adult children want to bring this beast to the wedding. They say I just have to learn to overcome my fear, but I think they are unsympathetic considering I was bitten as a child.”

“My fiancé’s sister’s dog jumps on the children, eats from the table, and barks—no way is he coming to the wedding.”

A great deal of sensitivity is needed if families are to recognize both the love and deep connection some members have with their pets, and the very real problems other members have.

Allergies are real. I did not believe it myself until I saw a young boy gasping for breath after entering a home with a cat. When we enter into a relationship with another person—whether it be a spouse, a partner or a friend—we can no longer assume that only we are worthy of consideration and love. The benefits of our connection come with the obligation to understand the needs of others. Allergic reactions are unpleasant for all. If you do have a family member who is allergic, ask them if their reactions are controllable with medicine and if they would be willing to take it so that you can bring your pet along. However, if their reaction cannot be tempered by medicine, or they are reluctant to take it, health trumps animal affection. Leave your animal at home.

When a family member fears animals, much sensitivity is required. Instead of disregarding their concern as trivial, acknowledge that they have a real terror of the animal. Ask them how you might work with them to help them overcome their fear. Some people are so scared that they are unwilling to approach the idea of loving your pet. But others may express an interest in coming to terms with their fear.

I, for example, was terrified of dogs. My best friend bred Briards—huge sheepdogs—and I was too scared to even walk into her house. I liked my friend so much that I was willing to tackle my fear to spend time with her. She, however, showed great consideration by always greeting me through the closed door, letting the dogs out of the house before I entered, then calming them down and letting them smell me while she held them by their collars. Instead of ridiculing me and reassuring me about how loving her dogs were, she helped me grow accustomed to them. I never grew to love them, but I did learn to tolerate them and to achieve my main goal, which was to enjoy my friend. I tried not to belittle her interest in animals, though I think she was perhaps more successful in understanding my fear than I was in understanding her passion. In families, acknowledging the full range of human emotion and reactions goes a long way toward enabling future connections.

In another instance, I realized my fear of animals was crippling me. I was afraid to walk in the woods. So I asked a neighbor to help me. She obliged by holding her dogs while I patted them on the back, then letting them sit quietly next to me. After several days, I found I could control my panic and could even understand the joy of having a dog look up at me, smiling.

As for the discipline of the animal, if your dog jumps on visitors, grabs food off of plates, barks incessantly, or interrupts dinnertime, you need to examine what you’re doing. In this instance, the discipline of animals is similar to the discipline of children. Would you allow your child to run all over the house, yelling and stealing food while you’re trying to have a nice visit with family? Though you may treat your dog as if it is your child, there is a need to rethink your frame of mind when your animal is more badly behaved than a two-year-old child.

The animal lovers feel their charges are part of the family. Those who don’t like them consider their owners rude and inconsiderate when they bring their much-loved companion to weddings or family events without even asking, while those who treasure their pet feel targeted when they’re not allowed to bring their pet to the wedding.

Just as you shouldn’t bring a baby to a wedding without asking permission, so too should you not bring your pet without inquiring. The tensions between one’s own needs and preferences and those of another are fundamental to human relationships. How we manage them creates or destroys our future interactions. There are no perfect answers, only imperfect people willing to put up with less than perfection. 

A dog can be the best man at a wedding, but I bet if he could talk, he’d tell both his lovers and his haters to be considerate of each other’s feelings.



Ruth Nemzoff,  Ed.D., Author and Speaker: Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

Tags: family relationships, pets and family

Dreading Holiday Family Blowups? Take a Tip from a BFF

Posted on Thu, Dec 13, 2012 @ 08:59 AM

We each have a "belief system" that arises in part from what we've been taught combined with other aspects of our environment, including the influence of relationships we value. When we consider that everyone does not grow up with identical influences, even within a single extended family group, it's no surprise that we stumble over so many areas of potential conflict between these belief systems. Add in-laws from entirely different cultures to the mix and the potential for fireworks becomes almost limitless. In this guest post, Ruth Nemzoff offers a perspective that can help us focus on the strengths, rather than the weaknesses, of our family relationships.

Best Friends ForeverBest friends forever, as in, "This is Ellie Sachse, we've been friends forever." I've known her since I was 17 when  Barnard College randomly placed us together as freshman roommates. At first we merely lived well together. She was kind, considerate, and could sleep with the lights on. We shared the births of our children and the deaths of our parents. She helped me write my books. But it turns out forever was only 54 years.

This summer, it was a time to comfort. I gave the eulogy and talked of her accomplishments—first woman division chief at the World Bank, board member par excellence, loyal friend and photographer.  Last week, I traveled to her home for the first time since her death, and it was a time to enjoy some of the wonderful people she added to my life: her husband, her daughter, her grandson, and her son-in-law.

Her husband graciously handed me some of her photos. Their subject matter offered me a time to mourn. They depicted what we had shared: cups of coffee, bottles of wine, and exquisite scenery. The song in my head was "Seasons of Love" from RENT. In cups of coffee, in activities shared, in miles walked, how does one measure forever?

Best friends yes, but forever, no. So this holiday season, despite all the stress, enjoy your friends and family whatever they believe or don't believe or whatever lifestyles they practice. Let the petty annoyances roll off your back, because time is rolling on and forever is just a moment and the moment is now. It is your time to enjoy and to treasure.


Books by Dr. Nemzoff

Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)

Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

"Do You Take This In-Law . . . ?" An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff 
In-Laws and Outliers
Parent Talk
If We Could Talk Like the Animals 

Tags: family relationships, in-laws, communication, holiday advice

Turn the Thanksgiving Food Fight Into a Gastronomic Tour

Posted on Mon, Nov 12, 2012 @ 12:59 PM

In my last post I talked about the latest book from Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). Today on Family Matters, just in time to help families plan a peaceful Thanksgiving, we are fortunate to have a guest post from Dr. Nemzoff herself. In this post, Nemzoff offers the same caliber of sound, practical advice that characterizes both her books:


Nemzoff RuthWhat is more American than apple pie? The Thanksgiving turkey, of course. Unless you are a vegan or a vegetarian. Then the turkey symbolizes our inhumane treatment of animals rather than the idyllic Norman Rockwell picture of family togetherness. Yet, for some family members a roasted parsnip and rutabaga just doesn't do it. Thus begin the Thanksgiving food fights.

Round one: A family member comes, doesn't eat, complains bitterly, and disparages the eating habits of the other guests.

Round two: The hostess is miffed. "I worked hard, and all I get are complaints."

Round three: Everybody's angry.

The all-American Thanksgiving—one of two holidays a year with no religious significance—is a holiday that should bring families together. But it can become instead a reason to instigate arguments as the universal appeal of coming together and eating is crushed by judgmental accusations and self-righteous attitudes. One family member won't eat at the table of omnivores and another demeans the ideology of Paleolithic eaters. Because the meal is the central altar on which we observe this holiday, the host is particularly sensitive to those who won't partake of the food and those who criticize the menu.

Many years ago, when I was a professor at Bentley University, I asked my students to write an essay about their Thanksgiving celebrations. I was looking for how family members interacted. Evidently, my instructions were unclear, because the papers I received described the meals in mouth-watering detail. Reading these papers, I discovered we are all putting our own stamps on Thanksgiving. The Vietnamese community added spring rolls; the Italians antipasto; the Jews knishes; and the Greeks grape leaves. Blending community customs with the traditional Thanksgiving fare has apparently been going on for years.

The lesson for today’s families with different dietary philosophy is tolerance. You can easily serve a platter of roast turnip and rutabaga, which contains no animal product or gluten in addition to the turkey. The host or hostess may need to make minor accommodations such as not putting the whole bird on the table, which looks particularly offensive to the animal-lover. Rather than digging in your heels to stick to an old tradition, blend the new with the old. Now that's as American as apple pie!

Those who do have special dietary needs might ask in advance if they could bring their own special dish or, if plane travel precludes that option, they could order from a local store or request time in the kitchen to make their specialty. The bonus is the host and new family member will spend time together and teach each other a thing or two.

If you're entering a new family, you can be sure the meal won’t be exactly like mommy used to make it. The stuffing won't be the same. The new family may use cranberry sauce from the can (a no-no in your family). You can choose to focus on the differences, or enjoy what you're served and treasure the new experience with your in-laws.

Maybe in your family, everybody pitches in to clear the table and do the dishes. Much joking and teasing and camaraderie accompanies these tasks. In other families, they may have hired help. In either case, both are demonstrating hospitality. If, at the end of the meal, everyone gets up to take their plates to the kitchen and you're used to being waited on hand and foot, don't pitch a fit about the extra work. Join in the fun because working together can be fun, and many hands make light work, as well as a much happier hostess.


Books by Dr. Nemzoff

Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)

Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)

Tags: family relationships, in-laws, communication, thanksgiving

Good In-law or Bad Outlaw: Which Are You?

Posted on Thu, Sep 06, 2012 @ 05:04 PM

ruth nemzoffIt’s just as well that a 2010 Federal court decision concluded you can’t sue someone for telling mother-in-law jokes. Otherwise, imagine the rush on the justice system: they are a staple of modern humor. Well, not only modern humor. In actual fact, mother-in-law jokes have been tossed around at least since Juvenal’s first-century work, Satire VI. “It is impossible,” he wrote back in the day, “to be happy while one’s mother-in-law is still alive.”

When you think about it though, it seems a bit unfair that mothers-in-law are the ones branded as the primary "outlaws" of the family. We all have a lot to learn about being good in-laws, whether we're a parent-in-law, sibling-in-law, or even an aunt-, uncle- or cousin-in-law. Fortunately Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family, the latest book by Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff,  explains how to navigate these unique relationships and smooth the way to making in-laws a gift rather than a curse.

Why are these relationships so challenging, in the first place?

Nemzoff points to a disconnect between reality and our expectations. When we choose to hitch our star to the wagon of our dreams, we aren't necessarily prepared for all the cargo in the back. In fact, sometimes it's hard to tell exactly how much cargo the wagon actually carries. How close is your new partner to his or her family members? How close will you be expected to be? Will the two of you interact mostly with his nuclear family, or will you be expected to spend significant time and effort on relationships with in-law aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents too? The answers to these questions will vary considerably depending on the situation, but the potential exists for unwelcome surprises—not only for the new spouse, but for the bonus relatives too.

"We become an in-law by a decision made by someone else," Nemzoff points out. "The younger generation makes the choice of partner, but they have no say in all the relatives who come along with their mate." Nor do the relatives. Suddenly there are all kinds of new relationships among people who are likely to come from very different backgrounds. "They have little idea which buttons they can push, what happens when they push one, and which buttons the new person will push in them," she explains. "They have not survived disagreements and arguments. In-laws do not share a common history. They are virtual strangers."

Obviously, this sets the stage for a whole slew of potential pitfalls. Fortunately, Nemzoff has done her research. Using interviews and focus groups, she has taken an audit of the myriad issues, disappointments and challenges that arise among in-laws and has offered viable strategies that are sure to counteract the familiar cliches that keep in-laws stuck in the mire of animosity. And she does not shy away from difficult topics, such as culture clashes, financial battles and issues that arise over disability or death.

Don't Roll Your Eyes follows very naturally on the heels of her first book, Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. "In the almost 300 lectures I gave around the world after my first book came out," she explains, "I had many questions about adult children, but the one that was most common was the in-law question." As readers related their personal experiences it became clear there was a need to dig deeper into the issue, and Nemzoff has addressed the task with wisdom, humor, and cultural competence.

This is not the pat treatment most often encountered on the topic of in-law relationships. Rather, it's a truly useful presentation of real perspectives and specific issues. And while it may not turn every outlaw into a beloved in-law, her advice offers the best way forward for those who are ready to make real changes.


For more about her book, see our interview with Ruth Nemzoff, "Do You Take This In-Law . . . ?" and the accompanying comparative review titled "In-Laws and Outliers."

Tags: family relationships, communication, in-law relationships

Too Good to be True? When Altruistic Behavior Becomes Pathological

Posted on Sun, Jan 22, 2012 @ 11:00 AM

Armenian Genocide

Armenian Genocide Monument
Imeni Tairova, Yerevan Prov., Armenia
Image by Gael G.

In the last post we saw that the ability to think critically requires that we have enough self-control to resist our initial gut reactions. This allows us time to root out any biases or distortions that may be obstructing our thinking. Unfortunately, sometimes we simply fail to entertain the notion that we have biases, especially if we are not used to thinking about how we are thinking—a skill referred to as metacognition.

In other cases, we may know biases are possible but (of course) we don't have any. And we "know" this because we believe we're capable of recognizing our biases even though our personal history may be replete with proof that we are not. For instance, let's say "Jane" has a bias toward expecting the worst of others. In nine encounters out of ten, the worst doesn't actually happen, but Jane is unable to apply that experience to changing her view of the people in her life. She misses the clues in her own daily experience that should help her see that her thinking processes are skewed: that she has a deep-seated bias operating. This bias is probably hurting many of her relationships. And even though she may be aware that biases in her thinking are possible, this one completely eludes her—a state of affairs which has been called metacognitive dissonance

This failure of metacognition, operating together with an array of potential thinking distortions, is believed to be at the heart of many mental health issues, including a state researchers are beginning to call pathological altruism. A pathological altruist has been defined by researcher Barbara Oakley (along with other experts who are pioneering this new area of study) as, "a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts, but who harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help, often in unanticipated fashion; or harms others; or irrationally becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions" (Oakley et al., 2012, p. 4).

Our example, Jane, may fall prey to pathological altruism in feeling as though she needs to step in and "help" everyone around her since no one is capable of performing up to her standards. As a result, her children may never learn to clean their own rooms, her husband may lose the motivation to participate in family planning and decision making, and her friends may stop offering to help in the kitchen after her dinner parties. To all appearances, Jane is a paragon of self-sacrifice, but there's a dark side to her helpfulness: she has created a situation that is potentially harmful to herself as well as to her family.

Of course, Jane's situation is relatively mild in comparison to that of some other pathological altruists one might meet. According to researchers, the potential results of pathological altruism might include animal hoarding, eating disorders, suicide bombings, dictatorships or genocide.

Can the human brain really be so susceptible to self-delusion that some of the world's worst problems can be traced to a mistaken belief in motivations of altruism? Do we know any pathological altruists personally? Ourselves, perhaps? (And before any of us instinctively answers "no" to that last question, we may want to resist that initial impulse long enough to reconsider the concept of metacognitive dissonance.)



Oakley, B., Knafo, A. and McGrath, M. (2012). Pathological Altruism—An Introduction. In B. Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhaven, & D. S. Wilson (Eds.), Pathological Altruism (pp. 77-93). New York: Oxford University Press.

Tags: family relationships, altruistic behavior, famous dictators

Parenting Issues: Can You Teach Critical Thinking Skills?

Posted on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 @ 11:33 AM

marshmallow test

Image by Mark S

Economists, educators and policy makers like to ask a basic question that parents should also be concerned about in terms of their children: What makes some people more susceptible than others to biases of judgment?

Perhaps you've heard of a famous experiment in which four-year-olds were given a choice between a small reward "now" or a larger reward "later," intended to  test their self-control? If so, you also know that the researchers kept tabs on the children. Ten or fifteen years later, those who had resisted temptation were not only less likely to take drugs, but they also had better executive control in cognitive tasks and attention, and they scored higher on intelligence tests. In other words, they had a higher capacity for critical thinking.

Why is self-control so closely connected to the ability to think critically? According to Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his research in decision making, one of the reasons is that critical thinking requires the ability to resist the "easy" or "intuitive" answer. Like the children who resisted the "easy" reward, people with good critical thinking skills are deliberate and thoughtful in their approach. They are willing to invest the effort to check their first instincts. Kahneman refers to them as more "engaged," and explains that "they are more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions."

In other words, they have the self-control to stop and think about how they think. Where did they get this self-control? Research suggests there are some genetic influences, but the same body of research also points to the importance of parenting techniques. 

Of course, even though we, as parents, may want to pass down strengths like self-control, critical thinking, and good decision making, the task will be nearly impossible if we don't possess these skills ourselves.

Just for fun, you may want to try the simple puzzle Kahneman includes in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. "Do not try to solve it, " he instructs, "but listen to your intuition":

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

A number came to your mind. The number, of course, is 10: 10₵. The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong. Do the math, and you will see. If the ball costs 10₵, then the total cost will be $1.20 (10₵ for the ball and $1.10 for the bat), not $1.10. The correct answer is 5₵. It is safe to assume that the intuitive answer also came to the mind of those who ended up with the correct number—they somehow managed to resist the intuition (Kahneman, 2011, p. 44).

Interestingly, many thousands of university students have answered the bat-and-ball puzzle in research experiments and the majority give the intuitive, though incorrect, answer. Depending on the selectivity of the university, the rate of failure to check intuition was between 50% and 80%.

"Many people," Kahneman concludes, "are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible." 

As tempting as it is to believe he's overstating the case, perhaps this is a good time to test your ability to resist temptation. The truth of the matter is that, even as we hope to teach our children the self-control required to resist thier intuition and become good decision makers, it's highly likely we have room for improvement in these areas ourselves.

More on this topic:

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo: Teaching Chidlren Decision-Making Skills
Self Regulation: Teaching Children the Art of Self-Control

Tags: family relationships, parenting issues, critical thinking