How to Stop Painful Looping Thoughts (“Nourishing the Brain in Pain”)

nourished ann voskamp 2

(Becky, the Mama.)

We have all had times when our brain seems to get stuck in painful, upsetting thought loops.  I’ve noticed this happens most often when there has been a deep loss (as in grief) or a slight or betrayal (perceived or real) in a significant relationship.   Or if we feel wrongly accused and powerless to defend ourselves. Fear and worry can also kidnap us in a grip of terrorizing thought loops.

Often the brain goes back and forth in a ping-pong fashion, playing out imaginary scenarios or what we would say to someone — if only we could.  Or how we wish things were as they once were, if only we could turn back the clock.  Or how we could help or fix or cure… if only we were able to do so. Your body is in the world, but your mind is stuck in an alternate reality.

What can you do, today,  to ease the pain in your brain?

I wrote of several techniques, in detail, that have proven helpful to many in our book Nourished, in a chapter titled “Nourishing the Brain in Pain.”   If you were sitting at my kitchen table today and going through a rough time with a brain stuck on a Bad Thought Loop, here’s what I would share.  (Based on a ton of research-based reading, good therapy and experimenting with what really worked for me.)

sue swing

My friend Sue, a brand new mother, taking time out to rock her baby, and her own exhausted frazzled self on our porch swing.

  1. Rock Your Soul. If you are in a state of exhaustion, overwhelm, upset, feeling triggered and perhaps shaky and unable to process,  I’d urge you to do something physical that rocks your body back and forth, first.   Get out on a porch swing, rock in a chair, talk a walk, swing your arms and head back and forth like rag doll.  This technique works on adults the same way it works on a baby or child.  We instinctively know to rock or swing a baby back and forth when it is upset.  I won’t go into all the neurological reasons this helps, but trust me, any kind of rhythmic movement tends to release trauma.
My niece Whitney..we spent a fun, memorable day painting on my back porch together.

My niece Whitney..we spent a fun, memorable day painting on my back porch together.

  1. Healthy Distractions. Once calmer you can ask yourself, “Do I want to think about this situation right now, or can it wait until a better time?”  If you don’t want to think about it right now, do a Healthy Distraction.  Do something that is of great interest to you, something that absorbs your mind and focus.  Or better yet, try to do or learn something brand new.  This keeps the brain so busy it can’t ruminate.   Take a painting class. Listen to an intriguing or uplifting Ted Talk for 20 minutes.  Go to a brand new restaurant. Learn to tango.  Volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Adopt a pet.  Whatever sounds fun and absorbs your mind and/or body. In fact, it is a good idea to make a list of Healthy Distractions so that when you find yourself kidnapped by a painful series of thoughts, you have some ideas to try at your fingertips.

3D man near red question mark

  1. Self-Questioning/Processing. If you are in a good spot to process and think, then grab a pen and paper and get to a quiet place.   Notice the feeling that is currently most painful.  Is it jealousy?  Anger? Hurt? Grief?   Now follow that feeling down to just one thought that is underneath it all.  It is often a thought that begins with,  “(name of person) should not have…”  or “(name of person) should have…”  or (Event) should not have happened…”  Or perhaps it is a worry.  “I am afraid that if I don’t get this job…. I will…”  Or “I worry that if my adult child doesn’t stop using drugs he will….”       Don’t edit yourself to sound nicer or more spiritual, just write down the thought that is under the pain.

 

  1. Play with the Painful Thought. Now, play with that thought a bit. Try saying the opposite of it.  Or switching up the sentence in various ways.   Do any of these new sentences speak to you?  Sound as true or truer than the painful thought, but make you feel lighter, more hopeful or happy? For example,  let’s say you are feeling hurt and angry and beneath these feelings  is the thought, “My  brother should have given me something for my birthday.”    You can play with this sentence in several ways.  Here are a few examples:

“My brother should NOT have given me something for my birthday.” – Stay with this thought for a bit.  Can you think of anything positive that came from your brother NOT giving you something for your birthday?  Could this event, however painful to you now, be leading you to a new level of freedom in learning to give up expectations of others?  And wouldn’t you be happier if you stopped giving others the power of disappointing you? What if you stopped expecting them to be like some perceived image of a “good brother” or a “good person” – and just accepted and loved them as they are? Does that make you breathe a little easier?

* “I should give me something for my birthday.”  — Hmmm…this is a great turn-around for many of us.  Are we asking someone else to do what we could be doing to love and appreciate ourselves? Maybe you need to treat yourself to exactly the sort of gift you’d love.  Afterall, who knows better what you really want than YOU   I know someone who even planned her own surprise party!  Had a blast.

* “I should give my brother something for my birthday.” – Well, there is an interesting thought.  What could you give your brother to celebrate your birthday?  What about the gift of letting it go and not holding this perceived slight against him, and therefore freeing yourself as well from the painful state of resentment?  Can you give the gift of generous forgiveness to him, and for your own benefit, too? Or maybe you send HIM a card telling him all the things you remember that are good about him.

* “I should let God give me something for my birthday.” What do you think God is wanting to give you that is better than any human being could give you today?  Can you see it? Accept it? Be thankful for this gift? Is it a sunset?  The taste of a just  ripe mango?  A baby’s laugh?  Now that you aren’t focusing on what someone else should have done, it allows room to open your eyes to the gift God is handing to you today.  Is there a verse of scripture or phrase from a song or hymn that comes to mind as you pray and ask God what He longs to give you?

sunset 1

5. Create a comforting image to go with the thought that lifts your mood.  When we create a word picture the thought becomes “stickier” to the mind and it will give the new positive thought more power over the old, painful one.   So, in the example above perhaps you visualize God handing you a sunset wrapped in a bow with your name written across the sky.  Perhaps attached to the sunset is a verse of scripture chosen just for  you – your “birthday card” from heaven.  Whenever you start to think a thought leading to a painful loop (“my brother should have given me a present, he doesn’t love me, he is so unthoughtful” ) switch to this clear  image of God handing you a gift from heaven.   Or perhaps the image is of you giving your brother a gift of a card that says, “I love you without expecting anything in return.”  Or an image of you lovingly and cheerfully buying yourself a bouquet of Gerber daisies or a pair of earrings or a new computer gadget or workshop tool.

view-from-porch-swing

6. Practice Self-Care. Ask yourself, without judgment, “What do I need right now?” And continue to ask this question as you regularly check in on yourself.   This is how we heal bodies and brains after a slight or trauma or loss.   The worse the painful event, the more you need to tend to and pamper yourself.  Do you need to sit in the sunshine and do nothing at all for 30 minutes?  Do you need to nap? A hike? To watch a silly comedy?  Meet a caring friend for lunch?  Go on a mini-vacation?  Browse a bookstore?  Go on a bike ride?  Did you remember to eat well? Take your vitamins or supplements?  Reading Matthew 6 and Philippians 4 and of course Psalm 23, are go-to comforting scriptures for me.  (Try reading old familiar passages in a new version sometimes. It may awaken you to fresh thoughts.) Finally, practice the art of saying no, with grace and without guilt.  Remember: you do not need to burn yourself out in order to be a warm presence for others.

Meme Burn Out

meme question


Laughter: The Key to Any Child’s Heart

meme kiss 11

(Nourishing Smiles, by Becky Johnson)

Sometimes words just get in the way,  especially when pictures tell their own story so well.  Here is a series of snapshots that my daughter (and co-author), Rachel, took one morning as we sat visiting and clowning  around the dining room table where our big blended family had played a rousing game of poker on New Year’s Eve, the night before.  To set the scene: I had been drinking coffee in the kitchen,  when Rachel’s three-and-a-half year old son Jackson hollered, “Hey Nonny, there are cup holders in here!”  (Meaning, “Come put your coffee in one of the cup holders around the table and play with me.”How could I resist?)

Rach happened to have her camera handy and here is what happened next.

kiss 10

kiss 2

kiss 5

kiss 7

kiss 11

Victor Borge once said, “The closest distance between two people is a laugh.”  I  have discovered this to be unfailingly true.  Not just with friends, but also with my kids and grandkids. In the excerpt below, from our newly released book,Nourished: A Search for Health, Happiness and a Full Night’s Sleep, I expound a little on the blessing of laughter to both grease the skids and brighten the joy of parenting and grandparenting.

 (Excerpt from Nourished…)

I’ve discovered that a kid will follow you to the ends of the earth if you make them laugh. And I will follow any child who makes me laugh to the ends of the earth as well. There’s something irresistibly contagious and fun about parents and kids who enjoy comedic repartee.

I read that comedian Billy Crystal used to wash and blow dry his two little daughters’ hair. Using the voice of Jose Eber he invented a flamboyant personality he called Mr. Phyllis. He would style their wet their hair into funny forms. Twisting it into a horn for example, he’d say, “This is a good look for you. I call it the unicorn.”

Let’s face it: there is no better audience in the world for adult silliness than children. As tiring as little children are, they give us regular endorphin boosts with their smiles, giggles, and funny antics. When my kids were young I scribbled the cute, funny things they did in a blank book. Over time, I began to look at everything my children did through the eyes of Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry (the 80’s & 90’s version of  today’s Jim Gaffigan), imagining how the latest maddening or messy event might be funny if I wrote about it later.

So the day I found my two-year-old pouring the contents of a large box of powdered milk on the head of his seven-month-old little brother, who sat on the floor blinking like a bewildered snow baby, I grabbed my journal and jotted notes about what I was seeing, before stepping in to clean up the mess. Those few seconds bought me time to think, and often to chuckle, before reacting. Over time, searching for the “funny” in the frustrating became a habit and not only helped me find more fun in mothering, but eventually led to a career in writing humor.

These days I try to “catch and keep” the cute things my grandchildren say and do on Facebook, knowing I have a treasury of their “adorable funnies” to re-read, enjoy and share. One of my favorite funny grandkid quips was when my oldest grandson, Nate, was young and asked me, very seriously, if I knew that TV could “rot your brain.”

“Oh, dear,” I said. “Should I turn it off then?”

He answered, “Yes.” Then, wrinkling his brow he appeared to be studying me with concern. Finally shaking his head slowly, he added, “I just hope it’s not too late.”

For awhile, our grandson Georgie lived with us and it like having a short, bright, happy Forrest Gump in the house. He never tried to be funny, his innocence was complete and sincere. Which made him endearingly hilarious. Even this day-dreamy six year old was impressed by how many things his grown-up grandmother could lose or forget in one day. So he was always on his toes with me. The first week I drove him to Kindergarten, I missed the entrance and had to loop back a couple of times. By the second week, he was sitting up in a state of alert as we neared the school. “Nonny! We’re almost at the turn-in place to my school! Stop! LAND HO!”

I cracked up, remembering he’d been watching a lot of Jake and the Neverland Pirates. “Georgie,” I said pulling over into the drop off zone, “I am sorry Nonny is so bad about forgetting things.”

Always looking for a way to encourage me he cheerfully said, “Actually, Nonny. You are really GOOD at forgetting. You are a GREAT forgetter!”

                        A good laugh is sunshine in the house.  William Makepeace Thackeray

Read more about our book, Nourished, and find ordering information by clicking the link on the picture below:

grunge image of a field


The Pocket Guide to Narcissism: Nourishing Recovery from Crazymakers (or Becky’s Kitchen Table Therapy)

nar 4

Nourishing Yourself When Recovering From Crazy-making Relationships

As the title of our first book says, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cook, sometimes we cry. Today, I (Becky) sit at my virtual kitchen table,  and turn a face of compassion and empathy to those who cry, particularly to those who’ve been a part of a crazy-making relationship with someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

I spent some time this past week with several sweet souls who’d become entwined with a person who exuded what felt like genuine warmth and charm; then they woke one day to realize they had been discarded, maligned or emotionally abused by this very same friend, lover, spouse or relative. So this particular  brand of pain is deep on my heart this morning. If you or someone you know has been hit and run-over by someone with NPD, this post is for you.  I’ve put the kettle on, and offer you the kitchen sink:  all I’ve learned and gleaned on the subject.

The fall from a Narcissist’s pedestal is often shocking, sudden, disorienting, and excruciating.  If the relationship was long-term or involved a close relative, it is not an easy recovery, and nearly always leaves the victim with some form of post-traumatic stress. (It isn’t called a “crazymaking disorder” for nothing. You may question your sanity and sense of reality for awhile.  Which is often the unstated goal of an NPD. )

The healing path will involve a lot of self-nourishing:  surrounding yourself with the love, affirmation, caring, and space to be human as you recover. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you may feel as though your head is in a blender, and need help unraveling truth from fiction, reality from their fantasy.

Below is a list of NPD traits to help you get clarity whenever you feel caught in the whirl of their “special kind of logic” — in fact, you may want to print out this list and keep it handy when you need to extract yourself from their convoluted web.  The list is long, but in my experience, those who are in recovery from this brand of dysfunctional relationship are hungry for all the information they can get.  So here’s the whole enchilada.

nar 3

1, The Narcissist’s Image is the most important thing to them.They do not have a true sense of self, only the self that appears when “on stage,” receiving fresh applause or “narcissistic fixes.” These hits of praise, from increasingly new sources are the food that keeps a narcissist alive. (Often referred to as Narcissistic Supply.)

2. They lack true empathy. However, they can mimic it when it serves their purposes for a period of time,  usually while they are courting your attention. The smarter they are, the better they are at mimicking things like caring, authenticity, warmth and even vulnerability. However, they can’t keep up the act forever,  and when they’ve gotten all the narcissistic supply they can squeeze from you,  you’ll a) be dropped while they search for new sources of admiration or b) treat you as an “object of contempt”  and possibly actively seek ways to hurt, disparage and belittle you.

3. You may notice a lack of congruency in their facial expressions and words. They may be saying, “I’m so sorry for what you are going through…” but their body language doesn’t line up. No tears in eyes, no touching, no emotive natural expression of empathy.  No deep listening. Their delivery can be oddly detached. You have a feeling in your gut that you are not being truly seen or heard.  (Unless it is a performance at the beginning of the courtship dance, or an act for the benefit of on-lookers.) You may feel as though they are pushing you into a mold of their own making, an image that does not resonate with the way you and others see you.

4. They value people they perceive as cool, special, successful or attractive and spend lots of time winning their notice, seeking their approval. People who they perceive to be leaders of influence, or a little hard-to-get are prime targets.  They hope to gain significance by association in order to validate their own fragile sense of worth.

5.  NPDs eventually show contempt for people who actually love and show authentic empathy for them. Their unconscious internal dialogue goes something like this, “If you love and accept me and treat me well, you obviously don’t know who I really am. I now despise your lack of true insight.”

6. If you make the mistake of giving unsolicited advice, or don’t believe and express that everything they do is flawless, or they perceive you as slighting them or preferring another person in any small way, you can trigger an internal “shame response” in them that is unbearable for them.  (There is a lot written about narcissists and their responses to “perceived slights” and shame-based world views.) Your dismissal from their favor will thus be fast and furious.

7. You cannot win with a narcissist. Love them unconditionally and they will  eventually despise and feel contempt for you. Reveal who they are (human beings with flaws), try to draw boundaries, and they will retaliate or move on to fresh sources of narcissistic supply. They hate it when their “image” is uncovered.  They will do desperate, manipulative things to try to prop their image back up, and tear you down.

8. Intimacy is impossible. Intimacy requires mutual giving and receiving.  Mutual caring.  Mutual understanding and forgiving.  You cannot create intimacy when only one person in a relationship is giving, caring, listening, admiring, understanding and patient.

9. They spend large amounts of time fantasizing about their attractiveness, power or success, significance or coolness. (Image polishing.) They construct their world to feed these fantasies

10.  If you are a spouse or a child you’ll often feel as if you are walking on eggshells. Some Narcissists make surprisingly good parents to small children, because little ones can be manipulated to give almost unending supplies of affection that feed a narcissists’ need to be constantly adored. But when children grow and become independent or show affection for others,  the problems begin.  Narcissists see their kids as extensions of themselves, and take personal pride and kudos when their children do well or become a “mini me”.  But they may over-react with contemptuous behaviors when their children show flaws, independent thinking, love others in widening circles and no longer supply the parent with unconditional admiration.

11.  They are always right and fail to recognize how their actions, words and behaviors impact others. Don’t even try to argue, to explain your viewpoint or your feelings.  Your feelings and impressions do not exist or matter in their world.  A waste of your precious limited energy.

12. They are often articulate and sound logical, but when you step away from their conversation you realize that they are not following normal reasoning. You must “follow what they DO” and not “what they SAY” or you’ll feel lost in their alligator roll.

13. Narcissists vary in tactics but their underlying core needs are the same: to keep their image constantly propped up. Sometimes, narcissists were treated as the center of their parents’ universe. But more often they were abused, shamed or neglected as a child and got emotionally stuck there… (known as “the narcissistic or pyschic wound”).  They may have begun life with an open tender heart. Therefore shame from the abuse or neglect was so painful they went emotionally numb, losing a sense of identity.Their internal life is about seeking intense feelings that help erase that sense of numbness or lack of a clear sense of self.  Praise from fresh sources, or anything that gives them a rush of adrenalin, helps ease this internal state of pain or worse: no-feeling.

14. NPDs tend see politics and religion in black and white extremes.  There is rarely middle ground. They can become addicted to the power-rush provided by extreme political views in media or extreme-exclusivity in their religion.  They tend toward viewpoints that allow them to look down in superiority on large groups of others who don’t believe exactly as they do. Feeling superior is a big adrenalin hit to their psyche.

15. NPDs  often shine in careers that put them in a one-up position.  They are drawn to professions of power, are often lawyers, doctors,  actors. They do best when they don’t have to submit to authority; so they are often entrepreneurs or bosses. They can also be clergy (as long as they can escape real accountability) who prefer pontificating to the masses over one-on-one ministry  Some thrive in helping professions because this allows them to prop up the image of being a benevolent, though condescending, savior.

16. Some narcissists are openly grandiose. Others, usually those who are brighter, may actually know how to put on an act of humility… but watch their actions, not their words and you’ll see they are seeking a constant, nonstop flow of praise; or be attempting associate with others who they perceive as being popular, beautiful, smart and successful – as props to their own ego.  (You may have  once been their “trophy spouse” or “trophy friend” or “trophy child”…)  Those who have often loved and given them the most often find themselves suddenly the object of their contempt.

17.  They will often treat you one way in public (with an audience), another in private.  They tend to be nicer to you when you are down than when you are up and happy. In fact, they will often “bring you down” when you are happy or feeling good about a job well done, in order help bring you up once you are decimated or depressed  by their condescending or critical responses. Pay attention to the pattern of them “bringing you down” (putting you in your place) so they can “bring you up” (be the rescuer-hero)… happening in regular cycles.

18.  Conversations tend to wind up being about them, listening to their opinions and stories and angst and insight.  “That’s enough about me. Now, let’s talk about what YOU think about me.”  You’ll be expected to give 100% whenever they need you.  But you must not have any expectations of them.

19. Jealousy and envy are prime emotions.  They are either actively jealous of others or wanting to make others envious of them.

20.  Their need to always be right makes it impossible for them to step back and do self-evaluation or take an internal inventory. Therapy is seldom successful since they do not see themselves as needing any kind of  real help, with such a strong need to appear already perfect.

21. Emotional Grenades — NPDs are masters at diversion. When you get close to the truth about them, they’ll throw an emotional bomb (perhaps with a hint of truth) by bringing up you’ve done in the past, or a flaw you are sensitive to, and get you to  stop looking at them and start self-examining.  This is a powerful technique to keep all prying eyes off of them.

22. Accusations — they will most often accuse you of doing the negative things they are actually doing. In fact, if you want to know what a narcissist is up to, ask yourself, “What  bizarre thing are they accusing me of?”  Therein lies what they are doing.

23. Lying is as common as breathing for many NPDs.  Though they will guard their “lie” as the “truth” to the very end. Because “their truth” is THE truth.  (Think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, or Ric hard Nixon’s interviews with David Frost.)

24. Gas Lighting — this phrase comes from an old movie where a husband tricks his wife into believing she has lost her mind. If you feel your grasp on sanity is becoming more fragile when around this person,  they could be “gas lighting” you.  (I.E  Tell you that you did not see something you saw, hear something you heard, etc. There is a book by this name that could prove helpful is this is happening to you.)

25.  Intermittent Abuse/Affection – psychiatrists have found that some of the most damaging abuse is emotional abuse, where there appears to be no real pattern or rhyme or reason to someone’s sudden 180% turn away from you after a time of great affection.  The carrot of your expected performance is always moving, shifting, without warning or reason.  This is truly crazy-making.  Lab animals can go insane or into despair  when they cannot figure out a pattern to avoid mistreatment and to receive rewards.  It can also make people form “trauma bonds” to their intermittent abuser.   (See “Stockholm Syndrome”)

nar 2

Loving a narcissistic is a tragedy for all involved. You may get windows, or glimpses of the NPDs original wound and feel deep empathy for what you see there, and put up with all manner of neglect or abuse hoping to help or save them. The tragedy is that a narcissist is often called “unfixable” because they cannot be helped by even the most loving, consistent, patient and insightful of people. The pattern is too deeply embedded and even the most skilled psychiatrists admit that these are the most hopeless of cases, psychologically speaking.

Relationships with true NPDs can be managed, but they cannot be healed. They can function in certain scenarios better than others, they may do better with some personality types than others, and they may even mellow with time. (NPD men may see lessening of  anger and impulsive behaviors as testosterone wanes in later years.)  They CAN show love and feel affection, but it is within strong limits.  (They love you as much as they can, but it may still come very short of what a normal person needs.) Medication can be helpful to ease some of the depression and agitation that often go with the disorder, but few narcissists will seek it out or take it, as this is an assault to the pride. (Though self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is okay somehow.) Most professionals agree that, as of now, there is no known cure for someone with true Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (There is, however, improvement possible for people with narcissistic traits who don’t have a full-blown disorder.)

As a Christian,  this has been a hard truth to swallow, but I believe some invisible wounds to the brain and psyche, like losing a limb, will not be restored until heaven. Loving someone who has NPD, keeping realistic expectations of their limitations (psychological handicap) and their inability to love normally, is actually freeing. You can love them with detachment; but you have to remember they cannot love you back in return, not in all the true meanings of the word “love.”

If you recognize an NPD early and can simply avoid and “Run, Forrest, Run”… do so. If they are someone you are close to, and can’t escape from, expect all of the above scenarios, and guard yourself. Stay smart with your heart. Minimize time with them if you can and most of all, minimize their influence over you.

Then surround yourself with normal, healthy, upbeat, stable people  who are able to show real  give and take caring and true authentic emotion.  If you must be in regular contact with a narcissist be sure to get regular support from a therapist or support group trained in dealing with NPD to help you remain clear, at peace, and out of the alligator roll.

And may I just say, with all the empathy and compassion in my heart: I am so sorry for the hurt and bewilderment you’ve experienced in this relationship. You did not and you do not deserve this treatment. What you do deserve is lots of self-care as you recover from it.  You did nothing wrong, the true colors of someone with NPD often don’t show themselves until you are in some sort of committed relationship.   If you’d never heard of Narcissism and its traits, there is no way you could have done any better than you did to survive at the time.  We do the best with what we know to do,  we do better as we know more.

nar 1

Three basic steps to healing from a crazymaking relationship are:

1) Educate yourself on NPDs and the effect they have on others (and techniques to minimize this effect). There are many wonderful books, but the one I recommend most is titled When the Object of Their Affection is Their Reflection.

2) Detach and minimize contact as much as possible (Al-anon literature is fabulous for this,whether or not your NPD has addiction issues.  Learning how to detach-with-love is an emotional life saver. You may also find help from books on co-dependency, though sometimes these can be a  bit condescending and that’s the last thing a person in recovery from NPD needs.  I always recommend the book, Why Does He Do That? to women who have been severely emotionally and physically abused by a dangerous narcissist.  After you heal, you will have very little if any tolerance for the slightest forms of belittling, because it can trigger painful past experiences of helplessness.  (And you won’t be helpless anymore!)

3) Prioritize your own emotional nourishment; make your well-being at the top of your list.  (I often recommend Lucille Zimmerman’s book, Renewed, to women who need to call a time-out and learn the art of self-care. If you can find and afford a therapist who is familiar with NPD and how to help those recovering from it, it will be a huge investment in your well-being. )

Please pass along this blog post to anyone you know who is caught in this web.  It may be “Ah-ha” revelation that leads to the “Ahhhhh….”  of a  more healthy, happy, nourished life.

nar 5


Nourish Your Soul: New Study Shows Optimistic Spouses Make Happier, Healthier Marriages

Greg's Birthday 009

(Becky, the Mama.)

Departing from recipes for yummy healthy food, I had to offer this recipe for nourishing relationships –especially after reading some fascinating research making the news today.

I love it when science finally catches up with my long-held theories. In my experience, the happiest marriages I have seen have  been marriages of two optimists. A new study out of the University of Michigan has found this to be true, with some additional benefits as well: “Having an optimistic spouse predicted better mobility and fewer chronic illnesses over time, even above and beyond a person’s own level of optimism. The study tracked adults over age 50 for four years and reported on their mobility, health and number of chronic illnesses.”

There is a growing body of research shows that the people in our lives can have a profoundly positive influence on our health and well-being, but this is the “first study to show that someone’s else optimism could be impacting your own health.”

The opposite has already proven to be true. In the book I co-wrote with Dr. Earl Henslin, This is Your Brain in Love, we spent a chapter warning of the health risks for a spouse who is married to an Eeyore-at-the-Core. As it turns out, depression and pessimism can be catching in marriages.  A pessimist partner can pull their once-optimistic mate down into the mire of despondency as well, over time.

My husband, Greg, easily qualifies as one of the most perpetually upbeat, positive people I have ever known. Being married to him these past ten years has easily been the most joyful time of my life, thus far. Until I married Greg, I assumed what so many of us hear: “Marriage is hard work.” It was certainly my experience until I married Mr. Positive, later in life.

My Husband, Possibly the Most Pleasant Person on the Planet

My Husband, Possibly the Most Pleasant Person on the Planet

This doesn’t mean our life has been easy. As a couple, Greg and I have been through some terrible trials and sorrowful times, but 99% of these times were due to difficulties outside our marriage. My husband has always been my safest haven, and inside his arms is the Happiest Place on Earth. He tells me often that “Loving you, Becky, is the easiest thing I have ever done.” We each brought our own naturally sunny temperaments into our union, and the resulting happiness has been significant.
I must confess, however,  that this past year brought a season of profound grief as we suffered the loss of a precious and significant relationship in our family. It was my first experience with months of chronic “situational depression” and it took its toll on both of our normal levels of joy. In fact, we both experienced significant stress-related health issues as a result. Thankfully, the worst of this sorrow is fading — and as we are both prioritizing a “return to joy,” we are experiencing more emotionally sunny days again, and our good health has also returned.

A close friend of mine went from a painful marriage to a classic Eeyore, to marriage to a man who took responsibility for his own joy and took difficulties in stride. Like Greg, her husband saw the best in my friend and downplayed her flaws. We conversed about this one day over the phone.  Both of us, stuck in amazement, were having the same reaction: “Wow. Love can be easy? Really?”

We decided right then, if we were to give young women and men advice on who to marry in order to enjoy their life to the hilt; both of us would say, “Marry a guy who makes his own sunshine. Love a person you can lean on for both comfort and joy. Marry a woman who smiles a lot, who has a reputation for kindness and optimism. If you want a happy marriage, do all you can to be a happy person and marry a naturally happy partner.”

(If being positive and joyful is a struggle for you, I would unabashedly recommend the books I wrote with Dr. Henslin a few years ago: This is Your Brain on Joy and This is Your Brain in Love. And if you want to read something humorous and uplifting, that will just generally add to your joy bank, I gotta recommend We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook!)

Add a little "happy" to your days with this funny, uplifting mom-daughter memoir. (Perfect gift for Mother's Day, too.)

Add a little “happy” to your days with this funny, uplifting mom-daughter memoir. (Perfect gift for Mother’s Day, too.)

My parents, blissfully married almost 60 years now, are living examples of the fun, health, and longevity that comes from a union of two natural optimists.

Two Optimists Equal a Happy Marriage.  My blissfully wedded parents, George and Ruthie

Two Optimists Equal a Happy Marriage. My blissfully wedded parents, George and Ruthie

A few years ago I came across a old poem that sounded as if it were written for my husband. I want to share it here as a toast to those people in our lives who are “pleasant to live with” and bring us joy, comfort and, as the latest research shows, good health as well!

(I dedicate this poem to my husband, Greg; my father, George; my mother, Ruthie; my sister, Rachel Ann; my daughter (and co-blogger and co-writer), Rachel Praise and her happy husband, Jared; to my youngest son, Gabe and his cheerful bride-to-be, Aleks – people in my family who are the epitome of this poem in my life, who beckon me onward and upward, consistently, to The Sunny Side of the Street. I love you all!)

Blessed Are They

Blessed are they who are pleasant to live with —
Blessed are they who sing in the morning;
Whose faces have smiles for their early adorning;
Who come down to breakfast companioned by cheer;
Who don’t dwell on troubles or entertain fear;
Whose eyes smile forth bravely; whose lips curve to say:
“Life, I salute you! Good morrow, new day!”
Blessed are they who are pleasant to live with —
Blessed are they who treat one another,
Though merely a sister, a father or brother,
With the very same courtesy they would extend
To a casual acquaintance or dearly loved friend;
Who choose for the telling encouraging things;
Who choke back the bitter, the sharp word that stings;
Who bestow love on others through the long day —
Pleasant to live with and blessed are they.      Wilhemina Stitch