Thursday, December 10, 2009

Become a Philanthropist with a Mission

How many of you consider yourselves a philanthropist? The word conjures up super elite icons like Bill Gates, Oprah and Warren Buffet. However, the true definition of philanthropist is "lover of humanity." It is simple kindness. Bottom line, anyone who cares enough about others to give their time, attention and energy IS a philanthropist.

'Tis the season for giving: a few coins into the Salvation Army bucket, cans for the soup kitchen, extra toys for the hospital, or supplies for the troops. Local and national non-profits send out their appeals this time of year to coincide with year end tax deductions. Ever stopped to really think about what charities mean the most to you and why? Often holiday giving is closely tied with guilt or obligation, as many feel they aren't giving enough, and the whole experience is less than Ho-Ho-Ho.

What is the difference between giving money to a cause you barely know, vs. opening your wallet for a friend who can't cover her grocery bills in line, or running a race for your mother who survived breast cancer? The impact is greater when our personal investment is higher.

I had an opportunity to attend a workshop called "Philanthropy with Passion and Purpose" by Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- a proprietary program to help individuals share, learn and discuss how personal values connect to philanthropic mission and actions. Who would think a bank would offer a quasi personal growth workshop? It was a fascinating process, and I was truly inspired.

Claire Costello is the National Foundation Executive for Bank of America Merrill Lynch Philanthropic Management, and explained why having a mission statement for you values and causes is so important. "Figuring out what you are passionate about, helps you give the way you live," she said. "By developing a personal credo for yourself it affects everything; the way you raise your kids, the friends you make, the business deals you conduct, and how you give your money away."

The process begins with an exploration of your values. What guides the decisions you make in life, and what values drive you? Examples of common values include loyalty, independence, honesty, excellence, diversity, community, spirituality, respect, and so on. Grab a piece of paper and jot down three or four personal values that really resonate with you.

Next, think about the issues that catch your attention, stir your passion or call you to action. Is it conservation and the environment, healthcare, education, science & technology, domestic violence or civic engagement? Again, take that sheet of paper and identify a couple of issues that have deep meaning for you.

Finally, the values and causes you have identified are combined into a formative mission statement of your philanthropy -- stating what you stand for, who you want to impact, and how to accomplish it. Think this is easy? It is actually a challenging and profound experience. I highly recommend trying this with your partner, group of close friends, or as a family exercise.

"Once you begin this process, there is a point of no return," said Costello. "Most people are reactive in their giving, and is has little meaning. If you give based on what you care about, there is much greater personal fulfillment." Aligning values and issues creates a powerful incentive to make a difference, and keep making a difference. It also establishes a graceful way to bow out of requests for causes that are not on the list.

For example, if I identified "family and community" as my top values, with "youth education" as top causes, donating to a startup biotech would not be nearly as fulfilling as helping build and support a Read to Grow program, sponsoring a child to go to school in Africa or mentoring a child once a month as the best investments of my time and money.

How can you express your philanthropic mission statement in a depressed economy? Here are three suggestions:

Writing a check is one way. Many of us have money we spend mindlessly -- a pair of shoes here, latte there, dinner out with wine and dessert -- need I go on? If conservation is your key issue, and loyalty is a high value, choose an eco friendly or green cause, and carve out a small amount of money to give to them each month.

The second way is Time. Volunteering is invaluable -- be a coach, mentor, or helping hand to the causes that represent your deepest commitments. A consistent allotment of time helps the organization to know they can count on you, and often becomes a lovely blossom in the daily grind.

The third is through Advocacy. "In tough economic times, we can still make an impact by simply talking about the causes we believe in and raising awareness, whether it is at a book club, meeting or at work," said Costello. "Sharing your passion can potentially enlist a new donor, or a new volunteer."

Next week, I will highlight a few organizations that offer a variety of causes to engage, so get that "Mission Statement of Philanthropy" going this week, and let me know how it goes. If you have one now, I'd love to hear it in the comments below.

Helene Robbins is the Chair of the Community Fund for Women & Girls and a Vice President at Wells Fargo Private Bank, and helped organize the event I attended. She reflected on the deep generosity Americans share, when a cause is dear to our hearts.

"On September 10, 2001, there was no reason to raise millions of dollars for the survivors of 9/11," she said. "The money that poured in, and volunteers that arrived in droves, were for a cause that literally did not exist the day before."

A crisis brings us together. For many out there, this holiday season IS a crisis. Millions are losing their homes, and more Americans are without jobs than ever. Whether it is time, money or advocacy -- give the way you live.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving is Over- Do I Still Have to Be Grateful?

Here we are, the weekend after Thanksgiving. The leftovers are gone, black Friday is past, and everyone can resume normal activities. Does this mean I don't have to be grateful anymore?

Being "Thankful" or grateful, gets top billing this time of year, and there are untold articles on the subject. Is it just a fad? Are we only grateful in November? The purity of the Thanksgiving holiday, in sharing an abundant meal with people we love is a lovely ritual, but how many emerge as relaxed and filled with warm fuzzies as anticipated?

I am a big fan of gratitude - it works for me. I filled out a gratitude journal for a solid year when Oprah touted its benefits, and I have read studies that demonstrate cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" can literally help you sleep, decrease stress and improve the overall quality of life. I subscribe to the 42 day "World Gratitude" online affirmation program, I love the new field of positive psychology, and I even took the online gratitude test, and got an A. (If you want to take it too, here is the link).

Apparently, it is ok to "fake it 'till you make it" with gratitude. Just thinking of any old thing you are grateful for is supposed to help rewire your system to keep the Scrooge away. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, the key with gratitude is consistency. Just being grateful at Thanksgiving is not going to cut it. "If you don't do it regularly you're not going to get the benefits. It's kind of like if you went to the gym once a year. What would be the good of that?"

Yet still, I wonder if that is really true. What is the difference between being thankful and grateful? One area that I have yet to see explored is the quality or depth of these emotions. Saying "Thanks" is one thing, but how often are we overcome with such a deep visceral emotion of authentic gratitude - that it takes the breath away? At our Thanksgiving table, everyone goes around and shares what we are grateful for. It warms my heart, and it is a practice I think is vitally important to teach my children. But, is it a whole-bodied experience of gratitude? Not really.

I sat down and tried to think of the times I was utterly and truly overcome with gratitude. Two stories came to mind: one was earlier this year when we hired a team of housekeepers to come to my disaster of a house with 4 kids under 14 trashing it daily - and give it a thorough cleaning. When I came home, I had never seen my house looking so sparkling and organized. I burst into unexpected tears. The tears were of sheer and utter gratitude.

The second moment of unforgettable gratitude was when my infant twins were a month old. I was beyond sleep deprived, and a woman I barely knew showed up at my door with a rotisserie chicken, a bag of rolls and some salad, so I wouldn't have to make dinner. I will never forget how my jaw dropped and how I held those bags like they were made of sheer gold. I really could have kissed her hands.

Am I grateful for my husband and my kids? Of course. I am grateful to have a house, car and our health too. So, how come the moments that stuck out were about such minor things? I believe the true alchemy of deep gratitude is unleashed - when paired with the unexpected. The kindness of strangers, the helping hand when you were not looking for it, the turning of the tide just when you were on your last breath- that is gratitude in full glory.

According to Margaret Visser, author of the new book, Giving Thanks, the Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, other cultures are a bit wary of the American preoccupation with gratitude. We seem to be conditioned to say the words, "thank you," so often that Spaniards think us insincere. In their culture, if you have to say the words, it means you are distancing yourself from the one's you love - as it is unnecessary to express thanks for that which is automatically done.

If you lived in Japan, the equivalent of expressing gratitude literally translates to the words, "I'm sorry." The Japanese culture is so polite, that when someone offers you an act of kindness, the appropriate response it to be apologetic that you have put them out in any way.

Even if gratitude is a uniquely American obsession- only good things can come from such a lofty focus. Maybe Congress can practice a little Gratitude and see if it helps induce a little cooperative progress, and maybe American's at large can lead the way in demonstrating the outward benefits. In the meantime, have you experienced any of those particularly poignant moments of "Unexpected Gratitude?" Love to hear them!

You can follow this story on Facebook and Twitter, and click on Become a Fan to receive weekly updates. Thanks to all my regular readers, and the new friends I meet each and every week! Writing this column is one of my great sources of joy, and something of which I am abundantly grateful.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Health Care: Make An Offer on PriceDoc

Remember the days of travel agencies, with brightly decorated offices and exotic posters of far off places? It was the only way to book a trip. Yet, in a few short years, the entire field has been replaced by Expedia, Orbitz and other sites for individuals to find the best price, and book it themselves. A total paradigm change that is here to stay.

Guess what: health care is going in the same direction, and just in time -- with or without government backed plans, or insurance companies who deny care, and rip off doctors. Almost 46 million Americans, from our youth to elders and veterans, don't have health insurance, and millions more carry high deductibles. No one knows the true cost of health care services, and the public certainly does not have a way to find a doctor who offers services at a reduced fee, right?

Wrong. Not as of this week. A brand new company, PriceDoc, is hitting the national market, and is sure to transform everyday health care with the same momentum that brought us Google, Facebook or Priceline. Move over William Shatner! PriceDoc's website gives patients greater power as healthcare consumers by identifying local providers, reviewing credentials and patient referrals, and finding competitive pricing for high-quality healthcare.

By advertising their services and prices on PriceDoc, healthcare providers gain access to "cash-paying" patients who optimize their office scheduling, secure fees for service and offer cash payments that reduce paperwork and overhead costs. Services include dental, vision, chiropractic, and general care. PriceDoc has stringent guidelines to attract high quality doctors and health providers who are willing to offer reduced fees for the same level of care.

George Halvorson, Chairman and CEO of Kaiser wrote a blog for Huff Po this week called We Need an Orbitz for Health," and while he may have been referring to the government, his concept is right on. He said,
Real competition between the best caregivers can happen if those exchanges are set up appropriately and if the real goal is for the provider participants in the exchanges to compete in meaningful ways.


I had a chance to personally interview a few folks who have used PriceDoc during the preliminary launch in Seattle. Katie Kyser is a new mom who left her job, and the health insurance that came with it, because she wanted to stay home with her baby. "We felt, as a family, that it was more important for me to be home to raise our baby at this time, than for me to be gone - just to have insurance coverage."

Kyser needed an OB/GYN, so she called around, and the price for a general visit was $200-400; including Planned Parenthood. After seeing an ad for PriceDoc, she logged in, punched in her zip code, and instantly was able to research a variety of doctors. She selected a well respected women's clinic that would see her for $75.

At first I was skeptical that such a low price meant low quality. However, the clinic was immaculate, the staff was amazing and the quality was much better than the super expensive health care group I used to use.


Medina Blanchette, the nurse practitioner at Woodinville Women's Clinic, said their practice listed their top services, at a significant discount. This concept is wonderful and really is a win-win," she said. "We have found it builds a very positive relationship with our new patients right from the start."

After a positive experience at the women's clinic, life moved on, and Kyser lost a crown in her tooth. She went to a local dentist, who said the tooth would have to be removed, and it would cost over $1000. Panicked, she went to PriceDoc, conducted a thorough search, and found a reputable dentist who would remove it for $175. "I have found there is absolutely no difference in quality, and I am so confident I am willing to use their services on my own child."

Shane Harris is a craftsman for traveling Renaissance Fairs, has not had health insurance in decades, and is not computer savvy. He has experienced severe dental pain for over five years, and could not afford to have it addressed.
Normally, my only option to find a doc is to open the yellow pages, throw a dart, and that's it. But, I saw an ad for PriceDoc, and was surprised I could get on the site easily. I needed a dentist who specializes in tooth implants - because not having any teeth may look good in a medieval show, but not in real life!


Harris found a well qualified dentist, Dr. Swanlund, with specialty training, good credentials and positive endorsements. During his appointment, the dentist found a deep abscess, extracted four teeth and replaced a root canal- for a mere $1086. "All I can say is being out of pain for the first time in five years is euphoric."

Check out both Dr. Swanlund and Shane Harris in this news clip from October:

A few weeks later, Harris found himself battling an excruciating ear infection - and returned to PriceDoc for help. "When I get sick like that, normally I have no choice but to go to a 'doc in the box' or the ER. And with all this flu going around that is the last place I wanted to go."

He found a solo practice physician within ten miles of his home.
This doc was amazing. He could have easily just given me a prescription for antibiotics and thrown me out the door, but instead he spent over an hour clearing my ears to get me out of pain before the meds -- and only charged me $113.


What a refreshing change of pace to hear positive stories from 'Main Street' about health care. Doctors aren't the bad guys -- they really want to help people far more than they want to run complicated businesses. Patients want to find someone they can trust, and are happy to pay a price they believe is fair.

PriceDoc is opening up to cities across the country, and the site includes a blog and Facebook page with interesting health related stories, and regular updates on Twitter. Check it out and encourage your health care providers to participate. Maybe they need to run a contest for the best celebrity spokesperson?

How about you, Huff Po readers? What creative ways have you found to get health care needs met? Feel free to comment below.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How to Reclaim Spare Time

There is something nostalgic about spare time. Like an old friend you knew once and somehow lost touch. Spare time sits on the side of a broken fence, wheat stalk between its teeth - daring us to watch puffy clouds, or go kicking through Autumn leaves, instead of hen-pecking at the keyboard. Spare time beckons, yet few can hear the whispers over the whir of cpu's and blare of CNN. How do we rope, lasso and reclaim Spare Time?

For many of us, having a moment or two to spare has been replaced by the unending bleeps of text messages, incoming email, unending tasks, hectic schedules of work and family, and constant financial pressure to survive the recession. Most of us cannot make it through a day without drifting to the computer half a dozen times to check email, or carry the cell phone around for a constant fix. Clearly the impact of such a lifestyle cannot be good for us long term.

When I was growing up, the TV shows on air included Andy Griffith- the ultimate in spare time. Remember the theme song whistle during the opening shots; Andy heading out fishing with little Opie? Everyone stood around a lot, talked to each other and managed minor small town incidents. We certainly couldn't have a cop show like that now, with a lot of hanging out, instead of busting up drug rings. Does anyone have time to whistle anymore?

My other favorite childhood show was the Brady Bunch, (which I heard was Michelle Obama's favorite too). They had a LOT of spare time- even housekeeper Alice. All those kids hung out together after school, went on vacation, sang in a band with matching costumes; and those of us watching had enough spare time to memorize every single episode within the first five bars of the opening scene.

What if the Brady Bunch was set today? Imagine Carol running with her super size Starbucks in her super size mini van, conducting a meeting on her cell while in route to take Bobby and Cindy to soccer practice, Jan to her violin lesson, Greg to football, and Marsha to cheerleading. While Mom is multi-tasking; the kids are plugged into iPhones, cell phones, texting, and checking emails. No one is talking to each other, unless it is to pick a fight, and they certainly are not singing, "We're Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Dancin' All Through the Night."

The temptations upon our time are not in the same stratosphere as they were a generation ago - hence spare time is relegated to the back pasture of our lives. However, I suspect a lot of the activities that consume all hours of the day and night are not as important as we think they are, and learning to step back and evaluate priorities could help generate some vital time... to do nothing.

There has been a lot of news coverage about our declining happiness levels. No wonder we aren't happy - we don't have time to be. A recent UPenn study found that women are categorically less happy than they were 30 years ago. Russell Bishop wrote a piece exploring the fact that men aren't that much happier, and Cara Barker this week conducted some interviews with children, discovering that many of them were unhappy at the lack of contact and connection with their parents.

Sometimes being "happy" is kind of like realizing your nagging headache is gone. The insight is not dramatic, like a bolt of lightning, but comes in a quiet, gentle awareness of relief. Happiness is like that. It takes a healthy dose of spare time to find it. I think Spare Time and Happiness are "BFF", don't you?

Here are a few tips to reclaim Spare Time:

Email Self-Control- declutter your inbox by unsubscribing to anything you don't need or read regularly, and try not to continue long email conversations that aren't necessary. One of Therese Borchard's tricks is to take weekend breaks from her computer. Imagine! This is a great way to scrounge up a ton of free time - think of it as email Sabbath, (Reading this column, however, is an acceptable exception).

Social Networking is junk food, plain and simple. Let's face it - Facebook is the Doritos of friendships and Twitter is a super size box of Fries. Both are tempting, and both are ultimately not all that healthy. Take the time for some "slow food": home-cooked friendships that require face-to-face time. If you are IM'ing someone in your office, get up and try walking over for a change. Facebooking your best friend? Pick up the phone or stop by; imagine how you look from space, hunched over terminals sharing the daily chatter.

Find the "in-between" moments of the day to embrace as spare time. Driving is a great opportunity to do some deep breathing, turn off the noise in your head, and notice the scenery around you, rather than listening to talk radio, eating, or talking on the cell phone. Find the moments in the shower, doing dishes or walking the dog to flatten out as buffer zones of nothingness.

Force yourself to be bored. Remember being bored? It is the MacDaddy of spare time. Kids today think five or six seconds of spare time equals being bored, and many adults' tolerance for unfilled moments is not much better. Set aside several hours once a month with nothing particular to do - and see how it affects you.

Spare Time sauntered into my life last week when swine flu blew through my house. With sick kids, life comes to a grinding halt. Spare Time roped me in by force- and it was not comfortable. To rebel, I filled it with all sorts of backlogged projects like putting together good will donations, painting peeling trim, and clearing up the yard. At long last, I surrendered (the key) and just hung out. It became rejuvenating, and felt great.

We are not wired to go 24/7 with mental chatter. Sometimes just listening to the wind blow is enough to keep you from going over the brink. How does good ole' Spare Time show up in your life these days? Love to hear your comments, and please click on Become a Fan to receive weekly notices, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Are you a Skinny Fat, a Treadmill Rat or a Classic Guy? Find Your Fitness Profile

Welcome back to the third installment of fitness tips for those of us who are not marathon runners, gym rats, yoga gurus or health nuts. The first blog in the series was "Neighborhood Fitness for Workout Flunkies" and the second, "Top Ten Tips from a Personal Trainer." Maybe you are like me when it comes to fitness: a little lazy, and looking for some new sources of inspiration.

It appears this subject hit a chord with many of you. Thanks to your incredible readership, last week's blog was the #3 most read - with over 51,000 views. Wow! The comments were fabulous and included other ideas, tips and personal stories. Clearly I am not the only one wondering or worried about this subject.

This week is about the secrets of being comfortable in your own skin. My muse of inspiration for this series is Terri O'Hara: an incredibly inspiring mom and personal trainer, who is bringing the idea of fitness and lifestyle back to the basics. No gimmicks, not hype, no false promises - just simple information and refreshing common sense.

The question of how you feel in your own skin translates both physically and emotionally. Physically it can mean fretting that the triceps under your arms flop around, and your backside droops. Emotionally it can be feeling tired and lousy during the day, even with enough sleep. Your answer to the question becomes the starting place for your own fitness program.

Part of lifestyle fitness is gaining a sense of 'well being,' and everyone has their own unique definition. For some, 'well being' may have to do with the inner experience of feeling calm, balanced and connected. For others, it is our physical fitness. And for most, it is a combination of the two. How is your well being lately?

Bottom line, many Americans do not feel comfortable in their own skin, and do not rank their "well being" very high. The tabloids paint a picture of fitness and glamor that is impossible for most people to attain. Over 67% of Americans are overweight, and facing debilitating illnesses like diabetes in record numbers. Clearly the concepts of dieting just don't work.

Think of the French: fabulous, breezy, fashionable - comfortable in their skin - and what do they eat? Bread, cheese, wine and chocolate! What are we missing over here? Check out the wonderful book, "French Women Don't Get Fat" by Mirelle Guiliano for a wonderful read on the secrets of eating for pleasure.

"It is so important to know where we stand with our body." stresses O'Hara. "The only way to figure out how to be comfortable in your own skin is to know where your body needs support, and then you can create a list of what to address first."
When it comes to nutrition - some people need to eat less, or different foods, and others actually need to eat more. When it comes to exercise, according to O'Hara, variety is the key, and the genders have to trade places!

Here are three classic fitness profiles of everyday folks who need a little change in their health and fitness routines, as well as a few expert tips:

#1 The "Skinny Fat" - This is someone who is thin on the outside, but has a high fat content on the inside. They have mastered the ability to starve themselves through most of the day, with coffee and a granola bar, and then pig out on a pound of oysters and camembert cheese in the afternoon. They can look thin, but have a 35% fat level, and do not have effective energy or muscle mass. "These people forgot to maintain nutrition!" said O'Hara, "if they start eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day, as well as adding resistance training, they will lose that high percentage of body fat and increase their muscles."

#2 "Treadmill Rat" - A classic example of a treadmill rat is Mom USA: she has kids in school, goes to the gym and gets on the treadmill 3-4 times per week, or takes an aerobics class - and is convinced she is making a big difference in her health. "80% of women at the gym are 'doing their thing' on the treadmills or elliptical, and are in a total fitness rut," explains O'Hara. "They are not building any muscle or strengthening their bones, which is so critical in later life. They need to switch with the boys and get on the free weights,and for a great nutrition tip: divide your weight in half and try to eat that many grams of protein each day." (For example: if you weight 120 lbs. you would try to eat about 60 grams of protein each day.)

#3 "Classic Guy"- The classic guy goes to the gym to 'push around some weights.' They have protruding bellies, and love to do arm curls, bench press and build their calves with leg presses. They hang out on the "macho side of the gym" with the free weights. "These guys need to introduce some movement into their routine," said O'Hara. "They need to increase cardio as well as multi-joint, multi-muscular, and functional resistance training."

Here's the bottom line for any fitness profile: strengthen muscles through resistance training, strengthen the heart through cardio, change your weight by keeping a food log of what you eat, and get back in the kitchen. It's that simple.

A great tool to help figure out where to focus is to check out the state of the art website: www.realage.com and take the real age questionnaire. It takes about 30 minutes, and you receive an instant report that shows your real age vs. your physical age. You can be 80 and living like a 50 year old - or vice-versa. It is 100% free, and has some inspiring tips about fitness, health, and lifestyle with the infamous Dr. Oz.

After writing about this for a month straight, I am happy to say I am back in the gym, and gingerly trying to steal a bench press from the guys. I have reassessed my guilt over working out, into a positive movement towards how I want to feel every day. Love to hear your thoughts, inspirations or questions!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Top Ten Tips from a Personal Trainer

Personal fitness is one of my ongoing challenges to balance in life. Last week, I wrote about how I am a "workout flunkie" and my pursuits of neighborhood fitness - with the help of personal trainer, Terry O'Hara. Most of us can't afford a personal trainer, yet the ideas, support and insights are real gems that have me rethinking the investment!

This week, I want to share her "Top Ten Tips" - and I'll bet you will be surprised they have nothing to do with money, struggle or pain:

1. Your mental image of yourself defines what you will work toward. What is your reason for getting out to exercise in the first place? Is it so your clothes fit better, or to be able to ski this winter without dying on the slopes? Developing a strong mental image that is specific and positive will help motivate and guide your decisions.

2. Nobody eats enough good food. This one is huge, as most of us are on a perpetual diet, and pride ourselves by not eating, or skimping along with a minimal meal in order to splurge later. Wrong! "By 1pm, you should have already eaten breakfast, a snack, lunch, and be getting ready for another small snack," said O'Hara. "You need to take a counter intuitive approach to your diet and until you start eating, the diet cycle can trap you."

3. Your body adapts to everything. This applies to your diet and exercise, or lack of it. If you start walking a route in your neighborhood and think you can just do that forever- wrong! Ever noticed you start on new cardio equipment at the gym and it is hard to get through 20 minutes, but after a month you are hardly out of breath? That means it is time to mix it up and do something new. Try rowing, or stairs.

4. The word "Carbs" is a misnomer for dieting. If you are taking all carbs out of your diet, you are depriving yourself of one of the four necessary nutrients for your body, as well as vital B complex vitamins and critical fiber. Complex carbs contain valuable nutrients responsible for energy production. Cut out the simple processed carbs like cookies or crackers, and replace with plenty of whole grains, oatmeal, or brown rice.

5. Memories dictate bad habits. Ever wonder why you buy the same things over and over again at the store? Do you buy chocolate Oreos because your mother did? "Time to change up the menu," says O'Hara. "Replace those frozen waffles with homemade with fresh blueberries, or forget the top ramen and make a quick soup that is simple and delicious."

6. Face up to your personal statistics. This one really woke me up. Rather than just knowing your weight on a scale or your size of clothes, do you know your body fat percentage, your basic heart rate or the number of maintenance calories you should be eating for your age? "For less than $100, you can hire a personal trainer one time, to help you assess exactly what you need to know," said O'Hara. Or, for absolutely free, O'Hara steers clients to the website: sparkpeople.com to get all your info and ideas on exercises to do. Check it out and get informed!

7. All or nothing exercise gets you nowhere, (or hurt). Lots of people are like me; the pants just get WAY to tight, so we all fired up about working out again, go out and buy new sneakers, and start running everyday like we are old pros. Then after a week, shin splints kick in, and then we quit. Others may hear about a new type of exercise, and try it without building up first, and get injured. O'Hara encourages starting with a solid, organized plan that can keep your progressing and organize a workout schedule you can use for the rest of your life.

8. We are not supposed to get weak and incapacitated as we get older. It is not true that we should stop being physically active as we age, but continue with cardio, resistance training and core building for a lifetime. Tennis, swimming, golf, yoga and power walking can be done forever.

9. It's all about PUSHUPS baby! Come on, be honest, how many "proper" pushups can you do? "If you can't do a push up properly, it means you lack core strength," explains O'Hara, "and that is the most important area to maintain for posture, back support, and ongoing health." For the ultimate challenge (and one that I am going to start myself) check out the One Hundred Pushups website for a full six week program to help you reach the seemingly impossible goal of being able to do 100 consecutive pushups. Wow!

10. There is a fountain of youth!
"Strength in life is the fountain of youth," said O'Hara, "strength in keeping the muscles strong and building them, strength in what you choose to eat, strength in your character - it is the absolute secret to a long life."

Next week, to complete the three part series, O'Hara and I will talk about why "French women don't get fat" and more on the power of simple strength. What are some of your "Top Ten Tips" for the workout flunkies to get motivated, and inspired? Love to hear your comments below! Join the conversation, and click on "Become a Fan" to receive weekly updates of this post, and share on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Neighborhood Fitness for Workout Flunkies

I have a funny relationship with fitness, and working out. I never caught on to aerobic classes, kick boxing or the zumba craze. I felt like a dork - stepping left when everyone else was stepping right. I couldn't afford personal pilates lessons with those crazy contraptions. I ordered the "at home" equipment so I could look like Christie Brinkley - forget it. I like yoga, but couldn't make the classes consistently - and I am down right bored with the drone of the gym.

I still get out and bike sometimes, hike sometimes, swim sometimes, ski sometimes -but creating a consistent fitness routine eludes me. If you want to get right down to it, having coffee with a friend trumps working out any day of the week. Apparently, I am known as one of those "in-between" people: not a total couch potato, but not in top shape either.

Does this sound like you? Bored with the gym, or need to save money on monthly dues? This week I am starting a three part series on how to incorporate fitness into your everyday life, with the guidance of personal trainer, Terry O'Hara. In the next three weeks we will explore "neighborhood fitness," followed by tips from the pros, and nutrition basics.

The national guidelines for fitness from mypyramid.gov state that to maintain established fitness levels- you must be vigorously active for a minimum of thirty minutes per day - every day. If you want to lose weight, or to maintain weight loss, vigorous activity is required for 60-90 minutes per day.
"That's pretty aggressive," said O'Hara. "All the articles that say you can get flat abs in 10 minutes per day are wrong. To affect change, you have to make it a part of your life."


O'Hara took me on as a bit of a pet project last year, and created a "neighborhood fitness" program for myself, and a group of girlfriends. Instead of going to the gym or a class, we met in a local parking lot, and spend an hour jogging through neighborhoods, huffing and puffing up stairs, stopping at a nice view for group squats, using park benches for push-ups, and ending with plank style ab crunches, and giggle-filled kegel tightening exercises. Think: "Desperate Housewives Does Basic Training."

It was one of the toughest workouts I had ever done, and a total paradigm shift for me. Everyone loved it; we felt energized, sore and happy. We got our cardio, strength training, and all the week's gossip in one tidy little hour! The numbers grew each week, and all of us were challenged in some particular way. Some could hardly jog a block, while others zipped along. Some struggled with the push-ups and others with stretching. We learned that the gym had actually decreased our overall fitness level - by becoming stagnant with the same exercise pattern over and over again.

"Everyone has to find the goal of what their body needs the most," explained O'Hara. "For some, the goal is to lose body fat to expand their range of movement. Some forgot to do resistance training their whole life - and can't do a single push up. Others have a difficult time running, because their heart is so tired and weak. In a group of relatively fit people, there is a huge difference in what they need to develop."


In between group workouts, the concept of getting in that sixty minutes per day became something to achieve in short increments. I discovered there were plenty of ways I could sneak something in. While waiting for the school bus, I could stretch and do push ups in the yard. In the evenings, I started doing exercises during the commercials of my favorite show - and made it a contest to see how much I could do, before flopping back on the bed for the next installment of Grey's Anatomy.

One of my challenges is running. I could not keep up with the group, even though I was the tallest. I do not like to run long distances, and consistently cramp with a side stitch. I asked O'Hara for other ideas to help me get that "vigorous exercise" under my belt, in the shortest amount of time. She surveyed my neighborhood for options, and noticed I have a fairly steep hill on my street. Viola! My "neighborhood fitness" homework was to run up the hill, and then walk back down again about 4 times. Running UP was the opposite of what I wanted to do!

It worked. I could jog up the hill without a side stitch, and got to the top gasping for air. Running up a steep hill is just enough to get the heart pounding, and walking down offers time to get the breath back. The unexpected challenge of my hill inspired even the most fit to show up and give it a try. Imagine plenty of moans, groans and expletives as middle aged Facebook junkies heaved themselves up and down a sleepy suburban hill. The rewards were quick; the hill got a tiny bit easier to manage each time, if we kept it up.

I am still a work out flunkie. I still don't exercise every day, or nearly as much as I should. However, I now know that I don't need a gym, yoga mat or fancy equipment to be healthy. In fact, I can strengthen my body more than I ever imagined on the swing set, park bench or the municipal building's concrete stairs.

How about you, Huff Po readers? Do you have any "neighborhood fitness" ideas, and are you a fellow work out flunkie? Love to hear your comments below, and be sure to click on Become a Fan if you would like weekly reminders, and Huff Po picks if you are a thumbs up. Time to lace up my sneakers - after my latte, that is.....

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Women Moving Millions- the Girls Give Back, Big Time

Hey ladies: imagine the rush of being able to give one million dollars to the charity of your choice. Think of it: any cause that mattered to you could be the recipient of your gift. Who would you pick? How would it feel? Not to leave the men out here, but I found a sparkling story of women stepping up like never before to flex their financial muscle, and pool their money to fuel a fundraising revolution - despite the drop in the Dow.

Two sisters, Helen Lakelly and Swanee Hunt are scholars of the feminist movement, and discovered that women with money have historically stood on the sidelines of social change. Together they co-founded the Women Moving Millions Initiative, and challenged women to use financial muscle power to lift women's voices in the culture. They set a gigantic goal of raising $150 million over three years, via private one million dollar gifts. Women heard the call within, made their commitments, raised a whopping $180 million for women and girl's foundations world wide - $30 million more than anticipated. 101 individual women and 41 women's funds made gifts of $1 million or more.

"I think we earned the unique status of being the only philanthropic story that surpassed their goals last year, as women began flexing a muscle that had been dormant for centuries," said Lakelly Hunt in a recent interview on NPR.


The initiative is a part of the Women's Funding Network, a collection of over 145 funds for women and girls worldwide, with collective assets of over half a billion dollars. Over 70% of the world's poverty victims are women and children. According to Idealist.org:

"this massive infusion of million dollar investments, spurred by the Women Moving Millions campaign, will be a force for lasting change for women and girls across the globe, with major reverberations for entire communities and countries. Together, women's funds will advance everything from community leadership and education improvement to poverty eradication and increased healthcare access."


I know, I can hear readers lighting up the comment box like a Christmas tree - grumbling about how I can they possibly be writing about million dollar giveaways when most of us are pinching pennies until it hurts. I hear you, believe me. But when hundreds of women ponied up $1 million each - that is a story of empowerment, courage, capacity and vision.

In Dallas, the Dallas Women's Foundation had never had a single $1 million gift before. They sat down and thought maybe they could hope to receive one or two. One year later, Dallas had secured 19 of the $1 million donors - and the women giving were empowered to a level they agreed was 'life changing.'

Here is a short YouTube clip from some of the organizers and donors:



Studies from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University also show that women are more likely than ever to contribute to charity. In the last 30 years, women's median income has increased over 60%, and more women are becoming educated, and dedicated to giving back. Their studies report that women are less likely to seek recognition, and more likely to want to be involved directly in the causes they support.

This trend of women giving together has trickled down to those of us who don't have such a lofty capacity to give away a million bucks. More and more women are forming "Giving Circles" in their local area. Together they are researching what causes they can support in their local communities, and pooling their charity dollars together for greater impact.

The money they are raising often goes directly into programs and services that impact their neighborhoods and most needy. They gain social benefits, and raise funds with a handshake and a "roll up the sleeves" attitude of barn raising days gone by. Ironically, according to studies from Indiana University, those in the lower income levels historically donate a whole lot more of their net worth to charities than the higher incomes. "The lower income women are the heroines," said Lakelly Hunt.

You go girls.

Women Moving Millions- the Girls GIve Back, Big Time

Hey ladies: imagine the rush of being able to give one million dollars to the charity of your choice. Think of it: any cause that mattered to you could be the recipient of your gift. Who would you pick? How would it feel? Not to leave the men out here, but I found a sparkling story of women stepping up like never before to flex their financial muscle, and pool their money to fuel a fundraising revolution - despite the drop in the Dow.

Two sisters, Helen Lakelly and Swanee Hunt are scholars of the feminist movement, and discovered that women with money have historically stood on the sidelines of social change. Together they co-founded the Women Moving Millions Initiative, and challenged women to use financial muscle power to lift women's voices in the culture. They set a gigantic goal of raising $150 million over three years, via private one million dollar gifts. Women heard the call within, made their commitments, raised a whopping $180 million for women and girl's foundations world wide - $30 million more than anticipated. 101 individual women and 41 women's funds made gifts of $1 million or more.

"I think we earned the unique status of being the only philanthropic story that surpassed their goals last year, as women began flexing a muscle that had been dormant for centuries," said Lakelly Hunt in a recent interview on NPR.


The initiative is a part of the Women's Funding Network, a collection of over 145 funds for women and girls worldwide, with collective assets of over half a billion dollars. Over 70% of the world's poverty victims are women and children. According to Idealist.org:

"this massive infusion of million dollar investments, spurred by the Women Moving Millions campaign, will be a force for lasting change for women and girls across the globe, with major reverberations for entire communities and countries. Together, women's funds will advance everything from community leadership and education improvement to poverty eradication and increased healthcare access."


I know, I can hear readers lighting up the comment box like a Christmas tree - grumbling about how I can they possibly be writing about million dollar giveaways when most of us are pinching pennies until it hurts. I hear you, believe me. But when hundreds of women ponied up $1 million each - that is a story of empowerment, courage, capacity and vision.

In Dallas, the Dallas Women's Foundation had never had a single $1 million gift before. They sat down and thought maybe they could hope to receive one or two. One year later, Dallas had secured 19 of the $1 million donors - and the women giving were empowered to a level they agreed was 'life changing.'

Here is a short YouTube clip from some of the organizers and donors:



Studies from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University also show that women are more likely than ever to contribute to charity. In the last 30 years, women's median income has increased over 60%, and more women are becoming educated, and dedicated to giving back. Their studies report that women are less likely to seek recognition, and more likely to want to be involved directly in the causes they support.

This trend of women giving together has trickled down to those of us who don't have such a lofty capacity to give away a million bucks. More and more women are forming "Giving Circles" in their local area. Together they are researching what causes they can support in their local communities, and pooling their charity dollars together for greater impact.

The money they are raising often goes directly into programs and services that impact their neighborhoods and most needy. They gain social benefits, and raise funds with a handshake and a "roll up the sleeves" attitude of barn raising days gone by. Ironically, according to studies from Indiana University, those in the lower income levels historically donate a whole lot more of their net worth to charities than the higher incomes. "The lower income women are the heroines," said Lakelly Hunt.

You go girls.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Resiliency Tips from the 100+ Crowd

With so many tragic deaths in Hollywood the past few months, Billy Joel's song, "Only the Good Die Young" never seemed more poignant. Watching Patrick Swayze and Farrah Fawcett lose their public battles with cancer makes me wonder - what is the secret to living a long life? What are the tricks from those who beat Father Time at his own game? This week I decided to explore the "centenarians" - people living to be over 100 years old, for clues to resiliency and joie de vivre. Last week, the world's oldest living person, Gertrude Baines, died in Los Angeles, at age 115. She was a lesson in resiliency, and should be considered a national treasure.

Baines was born in 1894, and grew up in Georgia- the daughter of a slave, and lived under Grover Cleveland's administration, and Jim Crow segregation laws. I am sure she has seen hardships that make the recession and the health care debate look like a walk in the park. She received her 15 minutes of fame when she voted for Barack Obama for president. On her 115th birthday, her greatest health complaint was some arthritis in her left knee.

While her story is amazing, Gertrude's status as "supercentenarian"- being over 110, is going to become more and more common, as living to be 100+ is not longer reserved for the select few. With our medical advances, the number of centenarians is expected to reach the one million mark by 2030. 85% of our centenarians are women, and 15% are men.

According to the New Scientist, those who break through the barrier of age 90 are the "physically elite." They somehow escape a full range of diseases that kill off their peers, and enjoy relatively good health. Only 4 per cent of centenarians die of cancer, compared with 40 per cent of people that die in their fifties and sixties. Curiously, centenarians have remarkably low rates of Alzheimer's.

Supercentenarians - people like Gertrude Baines, who are aged 110 or over - are even better examples of aging gracefully.
"As a demographic group, they basically didn't exist in the 1970s or 80s," says Craig Willcox of the Okinawa Centenarian Study in Japan. "They have some sort of genetic booster rocket and they seem to be functioning better for longer periods of time than centenarians."


A comprehensive study of those born in 1905 who are still alive, showed over one third of them were entirely self sufficient. The New England Centenarian Study (NECS) showed that even the supercentenarians - 40% of them, are able to look after themselves even after age 110. Clearly with so many "eldest of the old" managing on their own for nearly a century, one of the keys to resiliency is independence.

Gerontologists point to four key factors for living a long life: diet, exercise, "psycho-spiritual" and social as key elements to survival. Thomas Perls, who heads the NECS, believes that up to 70 per cent of longevity is due to non-genetic factors (New Scientist, 3 June 2006, p 35). The old fashioned ways; simple foods, faith in a higher power, and close friends, will take us a lot farther down the road than promotions at work.

According to the National Centenarian Awareness project: resilient Centenarians are known to have positive attitudes, an adventurous love of life, strong will, a keen sense of humor and an ability to renegotiate life when necessary. It is not enough to rely on good genes, or good circumstances, to enjoy a long and happy life. Often these elders withstood tremendous adversity, and learned positive coping skills that set them apart from the rest.

Here are a few "Resiliency Tips" for any age:

* Never Stop Learning and Growing -
- engage the mind by reading books, doing the NYTimes crossword puzzle or make a goal to learn a new hobby every year. Life long learning is one of the highest valued elements of resilient people.

* Eat the Old Fashioned Way- very few, if any centenarians were ever obese, and most are accustomed to hard physical activity. Eat foods that are unprocessed as much as possible.

* Be a Doer and not a Complainer- Help a friend, take that class, and take small steps forward every day to manage a challenge. That stubborn attitude keeps the dangerous tide pool of complacency at bay.

* Simple Pleasures- Hobbies are not just moments of wasted time - leisure is vital to our health. Whether it is woodworking, knitting or bird-watching, the simple pleasures is time well spent.

* Well, Um, Sex!- My father-in-law is 101. One of his only medical maladies is a benign condition that makes his hands shake- making it difficult to hold a cup or small objects. When offered medication to help correct this problem, his doctor explained the usual list of side effects. One of them was erectile dysfunction. Needless to say, he refused the medication - and my 87 year-old-mother-in-law nodded her head in absolute agreement. An active sex life is a blessing and a gift you can take to the grave, baby.

Do you have any "wise elders" in your life, or know any centenarians? What are their special qualities that contribute to their longevity? Love to hear your stories. Feel free to click on the "Become a Fan" to receive weekly updates of this column, and you can follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Taking Back Labor Day- a "Lost Decade" for Youth

Labor Day has lost its luster as a holiday. First celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City, the day consisted of a parade and celebrations to exhibit "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations." Now the holiday has been downgraded to back yard barbecues and end of the summer getaways. The question is: who is resting on Labor Day? Certainly 15 million American's aren't taking the day off- because they don't have job, as "real unemployment" rates have climbed to 16.8%.

Many of the older generation aren't resting on Labor Day. They can't afford to quit their jobs and retire. And, according to new data, our youth aren't resting either. Nearly one in three workers under age 35 will be laboring on Labor Day, and almost half of them are working more than 40 hours per week. A full 50% do not have family leave time, at an age most likely to be growing a new family, 40% do not have sick leave and 33% don't have any vacation time at all. (AFL/CIO, 2009). Not much "esprit de corp" to celebrate this year.

These grim statistics, and many more, were released in a landmark report called, "Young Workers A Lost Decade" conducted in July 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO and their affiliate Working America. The nationwide survey of 1,156 people follows up on a similar survey the AFL-CIO conducted in 1999.

The survey states; "young workers, (in 1999), were economically insecure, concerned about deteriorating job quality, distrustful of corporate America--and yet stubbornly hopeful about the future. Ten years later, the change is shocking. The status of young workers not only has not improved; its dramatic deterioration is threatening to redefine the norm in job standards. Income, health care, retirement security and confidence in being able to achieve their financial goals are down across the board. Only economic insecurity is up."


An astounding one third of workers age 35 and under live at home with their parents - because they cannot afford housing on their own. Our best and brightest are frozen in place, while simultaneously running in circles. Many can't afford to go to college, yet, those who do have upper level degrees can't find jobs in their field, and are overwhelmed with student loans. Workers age 35 and under can't afford health care, can't get ahead, or save for the future.

AFL/CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka summed up the report's findings this way:
"We're calling the report "A Lost Decade" because we're seeing 10 years of opportunity lost as young workers across the board are struggling to keep their heads above water and often not succeeding. They've put off adulthood--put off having kids, put off education--and a full 34 percent of workers under 35 live with their parents for financial reasons."


Check out this short You Tube video clip of young professionals most affected by the economy speaking their minds:




The findings from this study are significant, and deeply distressing. The days of securing a job as a bank teller or in sales; settling down, buying a house and starting a family are over. The upcoming generation will emerge as the first to be worse off than their parents, and something must be done.

I have written previously about how the United States is one of the few countries that does not mandate paid vacation time for workers. We give a nod to Labor Day, but we do not believe in it. Stress related illnesses from our overworked population are the greatest burden on health care, but we do not support any measures for prevention. We complain to our government to fix our problems, but we don't eat properly, exercise and meditate - what's wrong with us anyway?

On Labor Day, while it is important to rest our bodies, we cannot rest in our determination to change the climate and opportunities in the work force. We cannot put our heads in the beach sand and ignore the far reaching implications of the "Lost Decade". It is exactly the fire, imagination and energy of our nation's young professionals that will carry us into a new era of prosperity.

While the outlook looks pretty grim for this bunch, there is a bright side to this group- they are incredibly resilient, creative and interested in service. Our working class, age 35 and under are unusually politically active - at the polls and in civic affairs, and are resoundingly optimistic President Obama can help turn things around for them to move forward as future leaders.

If we can give our youth a little room - they can get the job done. Let's look at the health care reform issue from their perspective. While the politicians are punting sound bytes like Hail Mary's, check out a creative approach in the "SuperMom Healthcare Truth Squad." Picture a bunch of young women donning bright red capes and flocking in major cities across the nation to distribute information about why health care reform will help bring economic security to the nation. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, founder of MomsRising.org writes,
"why do moms care (about health care reform?) Not only are families struggling with getting children the healthcare coverage they need for a healthy start, but 7 out of 10 women are either uninsured, underinsured, or are in significant debt due to healthcare costs."


Julia Moulden writes about the "New Radicals" who are making money - and making a mark on the world, through social change and empowering disadvantaged workers world wide. Recently, she highlighted a new "30-something" company that helps fund entrepreneurial projects, via mini pledges instead of investors, called Kickstarter.

The original Labor Day was born in during the peak of the Industrial Revolution as a backlash to workers being on the job 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to make a basic living. Hmmm. Sound familiar? Let's take back Labor Day for the purpose it was created, and address the basic worker's rights to a decent paying job, health benefits, paid leave time and a positive work environment in which to thrive. And, yes, let's remember to Rest.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Tribute to Ted Kennedy's Call to Service

As Senator Kennedy was finally laid to rest yesterday, the weight of his passing hit me much harder than I thought. I can feel the collective heartbreak of losing the last of our royal line. It is as if the round table has finally been broken, and all the knight's swords laid to rest. I am 42 years old, and Ted Kennedy was a state Senator longer than I have been alive. My generation has never known anything else but to live under the legacy of the Kennedy's 'American Camelot' influence. How do we pass this flame of public service to our children, and spark the next generation of leaders?

I think Andy Ostroy said it best in his piece, featured on HuffPo earlier this week:
"Ted Kennedy's contribution to American culture and society can be seen in virtually every historic issue fought in modern American politics, including health care, social security and Medicare, minimum wages, education, immigration, aid for senior citizens, civil rights, voter's rights, women's rights, gay rights and human rights. And he accomplished all this as a gentleman and a respected bi-partisan leader, with civility, grace and humor. A larger-than-life Washington character. Sadly, there's no one to step in and fill his shoes....on either side of the aisle."


I was sobbing listening to Vice President Joe Biden give the best speech of his life remembering his old friend at the memorial service, held at the Kennedy library. He spoke of the countless times Teddy had been there for him, and for so many. Beyond his historic accomplishments, it was in the 'little things' that Senator Kennedy shined his humanity onto all who were in his giant wake and, "makes you want to be better than you are," as Biden said.

The grief floating around America this week has been palpable. We have spent a lifetime grieving again and again with the Kennedy family through the years of unending tragedies. Losing Eunice Kennedy Shriver earlier this month reminded us what a fiery feminist can do; and her gift of the Special Olympics is as a legacy beyond measure. When Maria Shriver spoke at her funeral a few weeks ago, she said her mother would have pounded her fist at the podium - asking what we did today to make the world a better place.

The tenacity, compassion and drive to champion the under privileged moves me to want to be a better citizen, and a better parent. All of the Kennedy siblings, and so many of their children, are working in public service. We may never see such a family again. They had their faults, their mistakes and their issues, just like the rest of us. But there is one thing they did not do: stop or give up.

Senator Joseph Kennedy, Teddy's nephew, reflected on this determination at the memorial.
"He was telling me, never, ever, ever, ever give up. You stay in the race. And if people don't have health care, you stay in the race. If people don't have adequate housing, you stay in the race. If people aren't being treated properly you stay in the race," he said.


In contemplating the death of Eunice and Teddy, I asked my four kids this week, while driving to get school supplies, what we were doing as a family to make the world a better place. The six year old twins slurped their organic juice boxes and gave me a blank stare, while the older ones tossed it around. My 14 year-old son offered up, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?" This seemed to be his attempt to show me the full scale of his Kennedy knowledge.

We finally decided the best way they can "give" to their country, is to develop their character. To try their best, to help someone out that needs it, and to be grateful for what we have. The new generation of children will never know the Kennedy influence. Who is their champion now? Who is going to dare us to be the first to fly to the moon? Who is going to stand up and pound their fist, roar like a lion, and make us want to be better? Where is our fire, our sense of competition, our collective conscience that serving the lesser among us is a right and a responsibility?

The answer for leadership is not just in Barack Obama, although he has the potential - it is in all of us. Everyone must do their part. The current first family is laying the foundations to inspire a new generation in big ways, as well as small ones. From planting an organic garden outside the White House, daring to touch the Queen of England, or encouraging American's to volunteer - the legacy or making a difference does not have to die.

On Memorial Day, the White House offered a call to service, and at the HuffPo, on the right hand side of this page, you can find links for the "All for Good" campaign. Check it out for opportunities to be in service within your zip code as a great way to get your kid's engaged.

Arianna Huffington wrote a fantastic piece earlier this week, reminding us that the national conversation about helping the least among us needs to remain the center of bipartisan attention.

Right now, Kennedy's Health Care Bill is on the precipice, just like the Civil Rights Bill, when JFK was shot. Ted Kennedy introduced the first legislation for health care in 1969, when I was two years old. Let's get it done as a tribute to our favorite family, and revitalize our momentum as a country. Teddy said,
"the dream lives on."
Let's all work together to make sure it does.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

5 Tips to Overcome Burnout

Whew. Things are heating up out there, aren't they? Temperatures are in full summer swelter, political tempers are sky high, and the hurricane season is only just beginning to swirl. I'm almost afraid to turn on the TV, or see what the latest Huff Po headline is breaking. With the intensity boiling in Washington and on Main Street, something's going to give.

Several of our featured contributors have felt the heat, heard the warning bells, and are offering some sound advice on what to do:

Dr. Judith Rich posted a hilarious blog addressing some of the tensions of the times in her piece: "From Birthers to Death Panels: Blame it on August." I like that one, pointing the finger is always fun. Dr. Cara Barker also has noted the rising tensions in her piece "Town Halls: 7 Tips for Handling Conflict"

Karen Leland offered her: "8 Steps For Cooling Down Your Anger"

Jason Mannino posted a great piece on the "7 Tips to Maintain Energy While Doing the Job of Four People" and wrote: "I am witnessing severe burn-out and heightened levels of exhaustion and frustration."

Clearly the stress barometer in our country, and around the world, is escalating. The reaction to the recession has moved from shock and fear, into anger and rage. The honeymoon of President Obama's 100 days has evaporated into gun carrying dog fights, screaming matches, and the high hopes of "Yes We Can" have deteriorated into, "Is This Ever Going to End?"

Research shows that some stress is important in our lives. It keeps us on our toes, helps to strive toward goals, and makes us feel alive. The hormones related to feeling stressed are designed to get us out of danger - like a fire or enemy attack. Yet the body will also surge adrenaline when driving down the highway and some jerk cuts you off. Stress hormones are not selective - they activate whether the threat is perceived or real. We are not meant to be living with the pedal to the metal 24/7 - and we are pushing our proverbial panic buttons far more than is healthy to maintain.

If stress continues to operate at full scale for an extended period of time, there is an increased risk of burnout. What is burnout? I have taught classes on stress and burnout, with Ceridian development experts who define burnout as: "a constant depletion of mental, physical and emotional energy - without expected or real needs being met."

Burnout is a normal response to putting out too much effort, without taking in what you need to balance and restore yourself. Signs of burnout include feeling overwhelmed with things that used to be exciting, thinking work or personal problems will never end, or having a pit in your stomach of constant dread. When too much of life is draining and not enough is fulfilling, a sense of hopelessness creeps in.

How many of you feel burned out at the end of the day? Studies show well over half of us do- in a steady economy. I have not yet found data for the increase in numbers of disability cases related to burnout and stress. Burnout happens with over commitment, or unrealistic expectations that lead to a feeling of powerlessness or hopelessness. Periods of stress can last for a while without long term affects, but burnout is a more serious and chronic condition. The good news: burnout is preventable - if warning signs are recognized, and actions taken to reverse the cycle.

Some of the physical symptoms of burnout are: low energy, muscle tension, headaches, digestive disorders, frequent colds, or changes in sleep patterns. Mentally, symptoms include feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, loss of meaning, bored, frustrated, sad, irritable, unappreciated or trapped. The outcomes of these symptoms can include withdrawal, increased sick days, accidents, crying or increased used of alcohol or food to self soothe.

Burnout is a cycle of negative emotions, withdrawal and paralysis. Getting out of a crash course with burnout requires putting your hands back on the steering wheel, realigning with your personal vision, surrounding yourself with support, and making time for humor.

Here are a few tips for reducing burnout:

Clear the Clutter- both in your office and in your head: One of the first steps is echoed in the uprising of personal organizers- clear the clutter! There must be a reason that helping people organize their "stuff" has become a recognized and valued profession. The clutter of emails, paperwork, projects and obsessive to do lists, increases stress, and is an easy place to start. There is a great relief to tackling one small project, when the world seems overwhelming.

Stop Eating Crap - Believe me, when I am stressed out, Snickers bars and Starbucks are my best friend. It is hard to cozy up to a chopped salad and lemon water, but your body will thank you for it later.

Walk- How many of us take about 15 minutes to park at the grocery store circling round and round to get a spot right up front? Jeez. Park in the back, walk a bit during lunch, get up a few minutes early and walk around the block. Nothing strenuous, just breathe some fresh air and clear the mental cobwebs.

Take a One Minute Vacation!- This is one of my favorites as a stress management tool that can be done literally anywhere- in your car at the beginning and end of each day, in the elevator before meeting the boss, or at your desk before answering a rousing email.

Here's how it works: close your eyes and think of your absolute most favorite vacation spot - it can be a lovely white sand beach, a gorgeous mountain path by a stream, or rocking on a chair at the family's cabin in the woods. Choose a spot and sharpen it's image in your mind's eye. Check out all the details you may not have remembered. Now turn on the sound: notice what background noises are present in this place. How about the sensation of the temperature on your skin? How does it feel to fully surround yourself with a favorite place?

Once all the "dials" have been set, give yourself a full 60 seconds to enjoy it - literally set a timer on your watch or cell phone! I guarantee if you try this exercise at home, you will be amazed at how LONG one minute actually feels. I have taught this many times, and afterwards, everyone blinks their eyes as if they had a long sleep, yawns, stretches and have a softness to their faces - it works!

Burnout Management for the Girls vs. the Boys: new research in brain development show that men and women react to stress differently. Men usually respond with the classic "fight or flight" response, and can reduce stress by engaging in some sort of activity. Cleaning out the garage, fixing a broken appliance or taking a long bike ride are classic examples of letting off some steam.

For women, finding ways to trigger oxytocin is the fastest way to reduce symptoms of stress, rather than the "fight or flight" tricks, they need more of the "tend and befriend." Women often need to talk, sort, clean, cook, or nurture in some way to feel balanced and calm.

If you have a friend who appears to be on the fast track to burnout- be compassionate. Lend a hand, offer to help. We're all in this together and our country has too much on the line to lose momentum, or hope.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reviving the Dinner Party and "Serial Socializing"

Ask yourself this question: what percentage of time do you spend communicating with friends in person, vs. IM, Tweet, email or text? Has it shrunk considerably in the last few years? Finding yourself 'too busy' to get together? Creating and maintaining quality and lasting friendships is a challenge these days. I have a whole pile of books on my desk touting the importance of social relationships as key to our health, but how do we find the time?

How about this question: when is the last time you invited someone over to your house for dinner? According to Jeanne Martinet, author Life Is Friends - A Complete Guide to the Lost Art of Connecting in Person, reviving the dinner party is a key to putting our wheels back on track to a proper social life. She claims it is much more intimate than a restaurant, will keep you smiling for a week, and is the fastest way to deepen connections with those people you would like to know better.

Her book is funny, light, and practical - filled with reassurance that most of us have a 'virtual' social life or a 'sound byte' social life, as well as tips on getting over hosting phobia, initiating adult style 'play dates' with new friends, and embracing the ebb and flow of friendships.

I had a chance to speak with Martinet this week. A hard core New Yorker, Martinet noticing that most of her friends were "socially regressing" by spending too much time networking online, less time in person, and operating under a fear that having friends over means hosting a gourmet blow out ala Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray. She said her favorite dinner party recently included chili and Sara Lee cheesecake -simple and easy.

"Our increasing social isolation feels like we've all 'gone to our rooms' and stayed there," said Martinet. "And yet, like children, the way to make a friend is to go to each other's houses and play. In the beginning it takes some effort to focus on having friends over. It feels weird, but eventually you get addicted to it."
Here are Martinet's tips from her book on how to get over "hosting phobia": 1. Invite People 2. Buy Food 3. Clear off the dining room table/move laundry off the piano 4. Make sure there is enough booze 5. Get dressed (I often forget this last one)
I can relate to hosting phobia. I hate to clean, am comfortable with messes here and there, and do not have a lot of elegant dining room regalia. I tried some of the fancy style dinner parties and nearly worked myself into frenzy. I cannot bake - at all. I even manage to screw up rolls of pre-made chocolate chip cookies. Once I tried to make gourmet chocolate bird cage cookies for a fundraiser, and they ended up looking like delicate piles of dog poo.

It is now the running joke that Kari cannot bake, and I get around my messy habits by hosting a lot of outdoor backyard parties pot luck style. We bring pizza, lots of beer, and the laughter is easy. Then I only have to clean the bathroom.

After mastering the art of having friends over to dinner, it is time to "go steady." Serial Socializing is the next, and one of the most important steps, to developing a true sense of belonging in your community, and to ease the ache of loneliness. Some people take vacations with the same families every year, some have a monthly poker club, others have coffee every week - the key is to create a routine with the same faces that can extend into the future.

Dr. Cara Barker, a fellow Huff Po featured contributor, created her own form of serial socializing by starting "Sunday Gatherings" at her house. They went on for years and offered wonderful memories for all. There is something particularly calming, rewarding and inspiring in having a group of people who come together regularly. Everyone knows each other's histories, quirks, and inside jokes. The warm feelings after these gatherings are like a slow release anti-depressant; with memories to savor, and anticipation for the next time.

Not sure how to get started with some serial socializing? Try to find a way to socially engage in three categories: daily, weekly and monthly. Each takes a slightly different focus and each offer its own rewards.

Daily: set a goal to make a heartfelt connection to at least one person each day that you do not normally run into. 'Reach Out and Touch Someone' - via email, phone call or in person. Think of this as a chance to check in, ask how they are, and offer help if it is needed. When you extend a hand, the return is always there. Maybe someone you know just had a baby, or lost a relative, or is feeling blue.

Weekly: find a small group of people you enjoy and make a weekly commitment to get together. For the social types, try coffee once a week. For athletic types, take a walk, jog or yoga class together. For the spiritual types, try a weekly meditation group to keep everyone relaxed, centered and connected. Make it short- one to two hours, so it is easy to keep the commitment.

Monthly: join or develop a group that may be a bit larger, that shares a common interest. Maybe it is a book club with a twist, a motorcycle riding group, a social action group, a 'going green' group, poetry slam, or a poker night. Monthly gatherings are often the easiest to schedule, and to maintain long term.

Think of each of these social commitments as individual roots you are planting in the ground, and as something sacred to cherish. Our lives are marked by the connections we have, not the accomplishments of our careers. Battling loneliness requires sacrificing time that could be spent elsewhere, but the payoffs are worth it.

Martinet described the comforting routine of serial socializing to be like a security blanket in the ever-changing configurations of our lives. "Think of it as one long dinner party, broken up by your life."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Unlimited Vacation Days, Dogs at Work and Pet Projects- Innovations in the Workplace

For those of you who follow my posts, I have been writing about vacations - and our attitudes about taking time off. Two weeks ago I explored America's poor report card on paid vacations (here) and last week I wrote about our personal challenges with being busy, and turning off the noise when we have a chance to get away. (here.)

The United States ranks far behind other countries in offering vacation time, and millions never use the time accrued. Taking off the month of August for "holiday," like the Europeans, will never fly in the US. Yet, leave it to Americans to come up with some interesting innovations in the work force that are redefining vacation time, as well as improving daily work environments.

At a hearing on July 23rd, the congressional Joint Economic Committee reported that among employers with more than 1,000 workers, there has been a 25 percent increase in flexibility programs. Clearly, in the recession, offering flextime, compressed work weeks, and telecommuting is the best way to save jobs. As the workforce continues to technologically evolve, more employees are able to complete their work from remote locations. The upside of this trend, is an increased flexibility to bring work home and not feel 'chained to a desk.' The downside of working from home, is finding the discipline to walk away now and then for a much needed break

Ultimately, how we take, and how we use our vacation time, is a matter of personal responsibility. Beyond the concept of flex time, some trendsetting companies are tossing out the HR manual altogether - eliminating any sort of set vacation days, sick days or personal days. Employees simply take off what they need, as long as their work is getting done. Sound crazy?

This innovative concept is being implemented quite successfully. Some of the leaders in this "open vacation policy" are Best Buy with their "ROWE" policy, which stands for "Results Only Work Environment" allowing their 4,000 staff to work anywhere, anytime - as long as their work is completed. Imagine the possibilities! To further inspire their staff, Best Buy has just started a "venture citizen fund." Employees are invited to submit social change ideas for creative and financial consideration by the company.

So smart. Let's face it, if you feel valued, are able to take time off, and are encouraged to serve the planet, why would you work anywhere else?

Netflix is another trendsetter, with an "unpolicy" that does not require staff to take allotted days off. Their HR department does not keep track of vacations, tardiness or sick days and still manages to be one of the most successful companies of the past few years. Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings, says traditional means of keeping track of employees time are "a relic of the industrial age."

"The worst thing is for a manager to come in and tell me: `Let's give Susie a huge raise because she's always in the office.' What do I care? I want managers to come to me and say: `Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done' - not because she's chained to her desk."


One in three Americans don't use all the vacation time they have earned, and barely one in 10 takes a break for two weeks straight, according to the non-profit research firm Families and Work Institute. But at Netflix, it's estimated that most employees take off about 25 to 30 days per year, using the time to stay at home, take a vacation, or work on pet projects.

Besides trends in time off, how about innovations in the quality of our time at work? With increased pressures, what can be done within the work environment to offset the daily grind? Google operates with the sound belief that individual passions can become a great asset to the company's growth. With this in mind, they offer all engineers a "20% policy", where employees can use 20% of their work week, (which is about one full work day) for special projects outside of everyday responsibilities. The new product Google News is a result of this 20% program.

Small businesses are under tremendous pressure, yet with creativity, they can also be wonderful places to work and grow. I spoke with Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True about some of her highly acclaimed, yet simple, management philosophies. Simon founded the company in 1985 with a mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom. Starting out with an idea and a tape recorder, the company has grown into a multimedia publishing company with more than 80 employees, a library of more than 600 titles featuring some of the leading teachers and visionaries of our time, and customers from around the world.

Simon admits it is harder to create flexibility in the workplace for a smaller staff.
"As a for-profit company in today's economy, it is simply impractical for unlimited time off. However, I think the key is how we can work together to find creative solutions."


For example, one of the staff who had worked at Sounds True for seven years, wanted to take three months off for an extended maternity leave. Simon reflected on the dillema.
"I knew it would be hard for three months, then I realized: would I want to have a staff member in the office that is not present and available? This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for them, so we made it work - with a combination of vacation time, unpaid leave time, and time she spent training a contract person to work in her place."


To increase daily "sanity," Simon has a meditation room on site for staff, and encourages dog owners to bring their pets to work. With a staff of 80, about 20 dogs are roaming the office at any given time.
"The dogs give us something to care for," Simon explained." They need to go out for a walk, which is kind of like an old fashioned equivalent to a smoking break!"


During staff meetings, everyone at Sounds True start with a moment of silence, followed by a short personal 'check in,' before starting the business at hand. Simon explained why this practice has made such a difference:
"People may think to themselves, 'taking a minute- what does that do?' But during that time of quiet, we can all become much more present, and we don't feel like the day is one long sentence. It provides a feeling of punctuation."


Simon concludes: "I want to make work life something that does not take the life out of us, but is a place that let's us take life back in."


Let's hear it readers! Do you have any innovative stories to tell from the workplace? How do you find the time to rejuvenate yourself- either on site or off? Always love to hear your comments. Be sure to hear more about this subject on Monday morning on NPR's "The Takeaway" radio show, where I will be a featured guest.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Are We Obsessed with Being Busy?

Despite the fact this summer has been filled with searing economic pains, deaths of too many, crazy weather disasters and money laundering scandals, warm temperatures beget a yearning to slow down. An agrarian throwback, summer is supposed to be a time to relax, enjoy a meal outdoors, have a few friends over, or nap in a hammock. In my last post, of "Why American's are the Worst Vacationers" I explored our reluctance to truly unwind.

While we may want to slow down, most of us cannot shut the madness off. It is as if our collective CPU's are running on overdrive, and our brains are whirring like the fans behind the home computer on a hot day. We are working harder, faster and without stopping for so long, the idea of just shutting down is barely comprehensible.

Have you ever noticed the typical answer to the question, "How are you?" has shifted from "I'm fine" to something like; "Fine... but busy." Busy. The word flies around like the black flies in my kitchen. Being busy has become something of an expectation, a badge of honor. If you're NOT busy, you must either be a loser, or in a slump.

According to a survey of 6,500 executives, conducted for Sheraton Hotels and reported in the Daily News (9/15/08): 85% of professionals feel compelled to be on call around the clock, occasionally get up in the middle of the night to check their e-mails, 87% bring their BlackBerrys into the bedroom at night, and 84% check their e-mail right before going to sleep.

Aside from work, we have created a great pressure to be "busy" filling the social calendar. Arrangements for lunch, coffee, drinks and exercise have replaced just strolling over to the neighbor's to hang out for a couple of hours. Today, more American's are living alone than ever before, and the protocol for "dropping in" has shifted from the norm to downright rude. Everyone is "too busy" to be bothered with an unexpected guest.

Today's families operate with "busy" as standard fare. From infants on, each day is broken into segments filled with "something to do." There are baby fun centers all over the country just for toddlers. As they grow, most 3-5 year olds are scheduled with several activities that sets a pace, and an expectation to be busy. It never lets up through the school years. In fact, residents in my town are fighting to change a policy that does not allow middle school children any time for recess during the day. Clearly the school supports "busy" too. At what price?

The allure of being engaged and busy is seductive - yet living in a chronic state unravels our emotional equilibrium and puts our health at risk. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her essay "The Cult of Busyness," said that being busy has become the new status symbol, more than cars, homes, clothes, or money. Admitting you don't like busy must mean you are depressed. And, if you stop being busy, you may just have to face deeper feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Dr.'s Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz have a new book called, The Lonely American- Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century. The married pair of therapists has found many of their clients are coming to them with a powerful experience of loneliness, yet it is a state they barely recognize, and are reluctant to share, as if it were somehow shameful. It is more acceptable to be depressed than to be lonely-yet loneliness appears to be the inevitable byproduct of our frenetic contemporary lifestyle.

"Americans in the 21st Century devote more technology to staying connected than any society in history, yet somehow the devices fail us: studies show that we feel increasingly alone," they write. "Unfortunately, talking about loneliness in America is deeply stigmatized; we see ourselves as a self-reliant people who do not whine about neediness."
Olds and Schwartz continue; "People in our society drift away from social connections because of both a push and a pull. The push is the frenetic, overscheduled, hypernetworked intensity of modern life. The pull is the American pantheon of self-reliant heroes who stand apart from the crowd. As a culture, we all romanticize standing apart and long to have destiny in our hands. But as individuals, each of us hates feeling left out."

I struggle with being busy vs. being burned out on a regular basis. I like to drive fast, eat fast, read fast, type fast and can multi-task with the best of them. When I finally do stop, I often walk around in circles, trying to figure out what to 'do' with myself! Sound familiar?

The only way to have enough energy to properly develop those connections is to get off the merry-go-round and slow life down. There is even a whole, "slow movement" - complete with categories like slow cities, slow food, slow schools and slow money. Think Italy...ahhh.

The founders of Slow Movement recognize the trend of being to busy as "time poverty," and write,

"We are searching for connection. We want connection to people - ourselves, our family, our community, our friends, - to food, to place (where we live), and to life. We want connection to all that it means to live - we want to live a connected life."

While going slow may not be completely appealing, I ran across a word recently that I love: "Downshifting." It has been drifting through my mind quite regularly. The whole idea is desirable in a deeply primal way. I could potentially see idling down from 5th gear to 4th now and then. Tracey Smith started a movement for downshifting, and promotes a "National Downshifting Week" every Spring. Downshifters are those trying to recover from a credit crunch, live more sustainably or consciously spend less in order to have more time with the ones they love.

Like any fast car, downshifting cannot happen all at once. No one goes screaming down the highway at 90 mph and then throws it into first. Downshifting requires one gear at a time. How can all of us downshift just one gear this week? Here's some ideas:

- Make a meal at home instead of eating out.
- Make a point not to check emails after 6pm and dust off a book.
- Go for a long walk before work- even if you get a little sweaty...
- Let the house get a little disheveled
- Use some of that vacation time and take a half day off.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why American's Are the Worst Vacationers

Ahhhh, summer's here, and with it come trips to the beach, bar-be-ques, fireworks and vacations. Been on a vacation yet this summer? How was it? Did you come back feeling rested and refreshed? Good for you. Or, did you get swept up into a modern 'American-style' vacation: unable to forget about work, anxiety about email pile-up, tweeting every moment as it happened, and returning home wiped out, cranky and desperate to get back to the desk and routine? Taking time to unwind is hard enough, and knowing how to unwind properly is another matter.

What has happened to our vacations? We work all year, and save up our hard earned dollars for a getaway, only to spend far more money than we intended, race around, and get annoyed with each other. For families, the trends are mega watt destinations like Disney, Great Wolf Lodges or all inclusive resorts with constant stimulation, plenty of places to burn cash, and little in unstructured relaxation or spontaneous adventure.

Many are not able to take a vacation at all this summer - can't afford it. Sadly, these are often the times we need it the most. A vacation can be created with very little money; the commodity we are all lacking is time. Whether the job doesn't allow it, or workers are afraid to leave; Americans take fewer vacations than most other countries, and the ones we do take are getting busier, more expensive and consumer driven. Are we the worst vacationers in the developed world?

Only 14% of Americans took two weeks of vacation last year, and the number of Americans taking family vacations has dropped by a third in the past generation. The price we pay, by not getting away to unwind, is huge on our physical health, relationships, and emotional sense of well being.

Why are we reluctant as a culture, to support taking time off? Are vacations too costly to our GNP? Turns out job stress and burnout is said to cost our country over $300 billion per year. Our European friends have managed to compete in the modern era while continuing to take their month long "holiday"- are they just slackers?

As much as we'd like to think so, the answer is, no. The level of productivity per worker is the same, or slightly higher that ours, despite the fact they work 300 fewer hours per year. Europeans spend half the amount on health care as the US. They are requiring less health care, partly because Europeans are 50% less likely to have heart disease, hypertension or diabetes before age 50 than Americans.

Rethinking the importance of time off yet? Vacations are not just luxuries, or pithy pastimes for the rich. Statistics are showing that other countries who take regular vacations are happier, and live longer than we do. In 1980, people in only 10 other countries lived longer than we do. Now, people in 41 other countries live longer. Wow. That's a pretty compelling reason to make sure that all Americans are getting some R&R, and that we learn how to truly "get away."

As a matter of fact, 137 other countries are ahead of us in guaranteeing at least some vacation time. We have none. Zero. No required vacation time or paid holidays. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 28 million Americans -- or about a quarter of the work force -- don't get any paid vacation. We are the veritable Ebenezer Scrooge of the world for R&R. At a minimum, every European worker is guaranteed four weeks paid vacation by law; most get six or more.

Fortunately, there is a new bill, called the H.R. 2564: THE PAID VACATION ACT OF 2009, introduced by Congressman Alan Grayson, to offer one week of paid vacation time for companies with over 100 workers, increasing to two weeks after three years, for all employees working at least 25 hours per week. Grayson proposes more vacation will stimulate the economy through fewer sick days, better productivity and happier employees.

Keep in mind seven days is modest, compared to the required 20-30 days of vacation time required in Europe and Australia. Canada and Japan offer 10 days minimum to start. According to an article in Politico, "the United States is dead last among 21 industrial countries when it comes to mandatory R&R."

John de Graaf is the national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, an organization challenging time poverty and overwork in the U.S. and Canada, and is a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and over-consumption in America. DeGraaf is fighting to make sure this bill is seen, understood, and pushed to pass to President Obama's desk. He is hosting the first national "Vacation Matters Summit" conference on August 10-12 at Seattle University.

DeGraff states on his site, "A new poll finds that more than two-thirds of Americans support a law that would guarantee paid vacations for workers. The poll found 69% of Americans saying they would support a paid vacation law, with the largest percentage of respondents favoring a law guaranteeing three weeks vacation or more. Take Back Your Time advocates for three weeks paid vacation or more."

Supposedly, the "idea" for advocating for paid vacation time came to Senator Grayson when we was at Disney World. He said,
"there's a reason why Disney World is the happiest place on Earth: The people who go there are on vacation."
He went on to admit that,
"as much as I appreciate this job and as much as I enjoy it, the best days of my life are and always have been the days I'm on vacation."


I found this rather funny and ironic. While Disney is an amazing place, I am not sure it is the ultimate place for a relaxing vacation. I believe there are two types of vacations these days. One type is to "see-do-buy." Enchanted by ads with pyramid water slides, entertainment and activities, these vacations clock a mile-a-minute pace, and usually run a hefty bill. They are fun for sure, but I am not convinced they provide the type of deep unwinding our bodies require to combat stress and fatigue. Our family has taken several of these vacations, and by the end, I am ready for a break!

The other type of vacation is just to "be," with plenty of time to read, sleep, walk, and downshift. The recession is creating an interesting vacation trend this summer- a huge spike in camping trips and visits to National Parks. Cheap, full of fresh air and untold beauty, a trip like this is sure to help gain perspective on what matters, exercise the body, and offer time for more thoughtful conversations than, "Dad, can I have a few more tokens?" A national park, local hike or gazing at scenes of natural beauty, is a key component to unhook our nerves and reset the proverbial clock for any age, single, young couples, families, or retired.

I asked about the difference between consumer vs. natural vacations to Bill Doherty, the Director of the Citizen Professional Center, and Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. He said,
"Given the trend towards shorter and shorter vacations, it does seem to be the case that American families are packing in more activities into shorter time periods: fly to Disney World, run around for several days, and fly home. That's different from the traditional long road trips and the trips to the ocean where they family holed up for a couple of weeks. The biggest benefits from family vacations come from down time and family members entertaining themselves, not from crowded entertainment schedules and consumer festivals. It's kind of like the difference between a family dinner at home and a quick trip to McDonald's."


Moral of the story? If you believe vacations should be required, write to your local congressional leaders and express your support. Then, carve out a little sunshine for yourself, spread out a blanket, close your eyes and relax. Think of it as your own personal stimulus package.