Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Put Down Those Rocks You're Carrying

Imagine that as a child you were issued a large backpack to wear at all times. At first you didn’t know what it was for, but then the adults around you started putting rocks in it that you then obediently carried around. After a while you followed their example and began to put rocks in there yourself. Over time, some of the rocks disappeared, but most didn’t, and by now that pack’s really, really heavy.

            You often pull out some of the rocks and look at them. They don’t make you happy. In fact they make you miserable. Some at the bottom you never pull out—you might not even remember you have them--but still you carry them. This seems inexplicable. Why would anyone voluntarily bear such a burden?

Unfortunately these rocks are not chunks of shale or granite or sandstone. Those would be easy to get rid of! Instead they are bits of residual resentment, hatred, anger, guilt, and shame from injuries or injustices or mistakes you can’t or won’t or haven’t tried to let go of. The backpack is your mind; the weight of the load burdens not your back but your soul.

What follows are tips for cleaning out that backpack. If the pack’s stuffed full, it’ll take some mental elbow grease to do a good spring cleaning, but trust me, it’s worth it for the sunlight that will pour into your life. After that, there’ll be some ongoing maintenance to keep your pack light and your steps jaunty. Yes, there’ll be surprises. Rocks that you’ll swear you never picked up will somehow get in that backpack, and a few rocks will keep reappearing even after you put them down and down again. Still the effort’s worth it.

So how to get rid of these rocks? The first step is to realize that anger, hatred, resentment, guilt, and shame are not just weight, they’re toxic, poisonous to a healthy life. They cloud your judgement; they sap your attention and energy. They lead to bitterness, depression and despair. If you feed these toxic emotions, the rocks will grow until they’re all you have left. At its most basic, carrying around these rocks is a form of self-harm.

Instead when these emotions arise, acknowledge them, learn from them. Take action if appropriate. And then let them go. This doesn’t mean you should allow people who’ve injured you to do so again. But caution, wisdom, and courage prevent injury better than anger and resentment.

Back to spring cleaning. All of us have childhoods that involved rocks. Some of us had really bad childhoods with backpacks that are overflowing. I’m so sorry. Our families and our society should treat children so much better. But if you’re reading this, you’re likely an adult with a lot more control over your life now. Carrying a heavy psychic backpack helps nothing.

The first rocks to get rid of are those pertaining to parents. You can forgive or not forgive, but either way the weight’s killing you. You have to let go. One way to do this is to imagine your five-year-old self. What do you need? What do you wish you’d gotten? More love? What would that look like—more hugs, more safety, someone to read to you at bedtime, someone to tell you you’re wonderful? Whatever it is, imagine your adult self taking your child self by the hand and giving them whatever they didn’t get. Yes, this doesn’t seem rational, but the inner child in you isn’t rational, just needy. Re-parent yourself. Take five minutes here, five minutes there and imagine giving that five-year-old what he or she needs.


It's big. It can take it.

When that five year old is calm and happy, slip him or her gently into your heart for safekeeping. (If there was another time in your life when you were especially needy, say as a teenager, then do the same for that self.) With your child selves safely tucked away, imagine standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s so vast, so deep, it can absorb and neutralize all the negativity you have to give it. Then imagine dumping out your whole backpack over the edge. Not all the rocks will fall out. Many will stick. Over the course of the next month, take these stuck ones out one by one as they arise in your mind. Say, “What did I learn from this?” The answer may not come right away. Be patient. Once you hear it say, “Okay, thanks. I don’t need you any longer.” And throw that rock as far as you can. See it dissolve as it falls towards the earth. You may have to take out nasty rocks you didn’t ever want to touch again. Get the learning and toss. And if these rocks show up again, know there’s a little more learning to squeeze from them and then toss once more. If there’s abuse trauma that you don’t want to examine incident by incident, mentally put all those rocks in one bag, decide what the life lesson was from the cumulative experience. Sit with it, grieve, and then heave ho the entire sack. That there might be a life lesson doesn't imply that the abuse was in any way your fault. Far from it! The lesson may be that damaged people damage, or that you have a ferocity to survive. Whatever it is, you'll know it when it the weight lifts.

When you’ve got most of your parent rocks cleaned out, try to find one memory from each parent when they showed love, or at least kindness, towards you. Let that memory gleam, and put it in your heart. And from now on, when you think of your parents, don’t trot out all the garbage from your childhood--pull out the gleaming memories because that is what’s going to let you be at peace. It doesn’t mean rewriting history. All the crapola happened, but you let it be. Maybe you feel some sadness, but you don’t carry the toxicity around with you anymore.

Are these yours?

When that’s done, you can start with your siblings, peers, and teachers. Or you can just say, “I’m going to let go of all rocks formed before 1990.” (Pick a year appropriate to your age.) I’m fifty-nine. Sometimes I’ll find a rock in my pack I didn’t realize was there. I’ll examine the date and then say, “Holy hell—am I really still carrying around something that happened forty-five years ago?” Once you hit fifty, you can let go of everything that happened before you were thirty. You were young, they were young, and you were all stupid and didn’t know better, or they were old and now likely dead. Let it go. You’ll be so glad you did.

So let’s get to guilt and shame. Those are not so much rocks as sticks that you beat yourself up with. And some of this is so deep in your subconscious you might not know what memory is triggering your suffering, only that you are bad, unworthy, don’t deserve to live, etc. This is not pleasant, but you have to pull out the mistakes you feel worst about--the ones you're most ashamed of--and say, “What should I learn from this?” Sit with the transgression and genuinely absorb what needs to be integrated. Because that’s why you still carry it with you. If you really dig into your subconscious (be warned--shame pushes things deep), you’ll likely be amazed at the fairly trivial stuff you use to convince yourself during your low moments that you’re a horrible human being. The thing is, you don’t need shame and guilt to control your behavior. Once you’ve absorbed the lesson, wisdom will keep you from repeating the mistake. No more punishment needed. You, yes you, deserve to enjoy your life.

Given how much work it is to get rid of rocks, it’s a good idea not to load up with new ones. One way to prevent new rocks is to see someone currently pushing your buttons not as your enemy but a lesson knocking at your door. This is admittedly not easy to do in the heat of the moment. But with some reflection you may realize that what you’re annoyed with in another person is a characteristic you don’t want to recognize in yourself. This applies to current political figures or even entire groups of people that have different views from you. You don’t have to stop caring about the issues important to you, you don’t have to agree with those you’re ideologically opposed to, but you have to not turn them into rocks. Which means not hating them. Which means letting go of the anger and resentment. Which means wrestling with what is the larger lesson being presented--to you personally, to your country, to humanity. What are we human beings struggling to learn? Harm is harm, so of course try to prevent or mitigate it, but hatred and anger (not to mention contempt and loathing) are not the tools.

If you can manage to get in dialogue with those you're opposed to, even better. It's true that some people are so engulfed by negativity that there's no way to communicate through it, but this not the case for the vast majority of people despite what the media might tell you. You may find some of them believe you are the source of harm. Dialogue and recognition of our common humanity is the only way to work through this. We absolutely have to start laying down our rocks and dealing with others as human beings, not as members of a group. There is much to learn from all this. Will we do it? If you're reading this article, this means you have to take the first step and put down your rocks, not wait for others to go first.

When I struggle with this advice (and I do), I think of the Dalai Lama’s response to whether he hated the Chinese for what they’d done to the Tibetan people. He responded to the effect that when you’re angry or unforgiving your mental suffering is constant. If he developed bad feelings towards the Chinese it wouldn’t solve anything, it would only destroy his own peace of mind, which would make him less capable of serving his people and humanity.

Another way to think about this is that the negative actions of any person/group are almost always symptoms of underlying problems, usually structural ones. The problems humanity faces are not due to too little anger and hatred. Indeed, our negative emotions are used to divide and exploit us, to confuse us from seeing who (or what) is behind the curtain pulling the levers. You can stop that cycle, at least with your own life and your own consciousness. If you can manage to feel compassion, empathy or even love towards those who have caused harm, more power to you. It’s a spiritual achievement that will ripple outward to benefit us all. But for now at least get rid of the negative emotions that are poisoning your soul.

Even after you get good at rock tossing and rock avoiding, now and then rocks will still get into your pack. You will get annoyed, irritated, perhaps even irate. That’s okay. Catch yourself, laugh, examine the lesson, and chuck the darn rock away. A light backpack is a joyful thing.


“You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”—Albert Einstein


Note: If your rocks are really stubborn, a counselor or other mental health professional can assist with tossing the worst ones.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Social Cohesion and Public Health

Mask: a device worn to disguise, amuse, or terrify
Social cohesion makes societies work, and once squandered, it’s difficult to rebuild. It requires trust, goodwill, and shared values, but also fairness and agreed-upon social norms. Without some level of social cohesion, groups and even society itself cannot function. Most well run countries (ones with low wealth inequality, low corruption, and high life satisfaction) have social cohesion born of a sense of trust that society works for the well-being of all its members. Though this is perhaps more difficult to achieve in racially and culturally diverse societies, Sweden and Canada have high levels of social cohesion even with 20% of Sweden's population being foreign-born and 27% of Canada's population of non-European/white background. Smart societies foster social cohesion and build social capital constantly; foolish ones fritter both away as if they have no consequence.

There's a dark side to social cohesion, especially if it devolves into rigid conformity. The Nazis created social cohesion by vilifying Jews and promulgating their thesis that Germans were the master race. But let’s look at the flip side. In societies with little or no social cohesion, fear, distrust, corruption, and animosity rule. For decades now, American social cohesion has been falling, directly correlated, in my view, to our burgeoning wealth inequality. As a result, we don’t have a lot to fall back on now when we need it.

Right now much of the world faces a public health crisis with COVID-19. So far this disease has killed over 100,000 people in the United States and will likely kill another 100,000 in the next 100 days. This disease is largely fatal only to people who already have an underlying illness. Looking at the NYC data, it’s worth noting that even for those over sixty-five, most of those that died had one or more co-morbidity factors. The most common co-morbidities are heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and obesity.

Flu Experts
The US hasn’t had a pandemic this deadly since 1918. We are unprepared, inexperienced, and learning how to deal with it on the fly. In order to combat this pandemic, local officials have resorted to the blunt tools of physical distancing, voluntary quarantining, mass stay-at-home orders, the closing of all but essential services, and mandatory use of masks. (There’s finally widespread testing available, and talk of contact tracing, although from what I can tell, very little of this has happened.) I live in San Francisco, the first city to impose many of these restrictions before a single case of COVID-19 was discovered. Because of the initial promptness and a high level of compliance, both the case and death count here has been remarkably low. Now, although much of the country has opened up with far higher continued case and death rates, pandemic measures continue here and mask use has gotten even stricter.

I would posit that these public health measures prevent deaths but also cause them. I also believe we should be talking about loss of life-years. As painful as it may be to consider, the death by COVID-19 of someone 95 years old with kidney and heart disease might mean the loss of one life-year. The death by suicide of a 35 year old with depression worsened by social isolation might mean the loss of 50 life-years. There is a difference in magnitude that ought to be taken into account.

For public health measures to be effective, officials had to get the public’s compliance. In some countries this was literally done with soldiers challenging anyone who walked the streets. In United States, the approach was to 1) appeal to people’s compassion to prevent the disease from spreading to the vulnerable population (i.e. those with co-morbidities) and 2) make people believe they were personally at risk. As a result, the ultimate tools for fighting this epidemic have been fear and social isolation.

Your stressed brain
Fear creates stress. Stress creates emotional, psychological and physical problems, including heart disease, the number one killer in the US (648K deaths/year.)Fear also makes people do stupid things like drink bleach. Social isolation creates stress and strongly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, the number five killer (146K deaths/year.) In fact social isolation is known to increase the risk of early death by two-thirds. It increases the risk of dementia by 40%. In a study of 20,000 Americans in 2018, 40% of adults reported being lonely. Just imagine what the number is now. And then there’s all the quarantine drinking. Cirrohsis/liver disease, the result of copious alcohol use, is US killer # 11 (42K deaths/year.) And that’s when people weren’t locked down. So while our stringent public health measures have prevented COVID deaths, we’ve also undoubtedly increased the number of future deaths due to heart disease, stroke and alcohol addiction. And let’s also remember that social isolation is profoundly bad for anyone suicidal (killer #10, 47K deaths/year.)

This is not to say that physical distancing and the closing of all but essential services weren’t necessary. But we need to realize that each week of doing so comes with a cost of lives just as real as the COVID deaths. Opening back up too soon (or never really shutting down at all, like some states) guarantees more deaths, yes, but continuing lockdowns past the point of benefit harms rather than helps the public good. There are also only so many weeks of lockdown that most Americans (even San Franciscans) can stand, so they should be used when they have the most benefit (i.e. in the fall, when we’re bound to see cases increase again.)

Continued lockdowns also harm the public good in terms of social cohesion. Fear of an enemy might create social cohesion, but in this case, public health measures have made us afraid of each other. This is absolutely terrible for social cohesion. Every person walking down the street becomes a supposed assassin likely to breathe inappropriately. Neighbors scream at each other for not wearing masks. People post death threats on Facebook against outsiders coming into their neighborhood bringing disease. People who used to get along become cranky, suspicious, and unforgiving. Add to this people who are irritable from not getting enough exercise or sunlight or being able to go anywhere or see anyone, and trust and goodwill pretty much go out the window. Add to this rage over social injustice, a divisive President, and bored (or paid) numbskulls itching for mayhem, you can see we’ve got a difficult summer ahead. (As I write, San Francisco is under mandatory curfew to prevent looting.) And every week of lockdown makes it worse.

Now let’s consider masks. Indoors, especially in poorly ventilated areas, it’s indisputable that COVID-19 is highly contagious by people just breathing on each other and that masks prevent dispersal of vapor droplets containing active viruses. Outdoors, there is so much immediate dispersal in the air that the risk is negligible. Indeed, there has been only one documented instance in the entire world where the virus was transmitted outside. Experts agree that because of low viral load exposure there is little risk of outdoor contagion even when a jogger exhales within a few feet of you. Indoors, yes, masks are still a good idea, and indoor events with singing (choirs) or cheering fans (basketball games) might need to be prohibited for a while longer. (Okay, jam-packed outdoor pools and concerts might not be good ideas either.) But in general as long as people aren’t crammed together, the social cost of mask-wearing outdoors is high and the benefit low.

One of the reasons wearing masks outdoors does social harm is because masks make the wearer anonymous, and anonymity in daily life destroys social cohesion. Because basic social cues such as smiles or at least an agreeable expression cannot be read, every passerby seems more threatening. People don’t make eye contact. Sometimes even friends and well-known neighbors cannot be identified, and the casual positive interactions that are the social glue of our society become impossible. Fear and loneliness are reinforced. And every week this continues makes it worse. Quarantine exhaustion is real.

Potential Covid Deaths
What would actually improve public health is reducing the number of people at risk of dying by COVID-19. That means reducing the number of people suffering from heart disease, hypertension, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and diabetes. How can we do that? A third of the country is obese! Half of US adults have heart disease! Half are pre-diabetic! Wouldn’t it be ridiculously expensive to make people healthy enough that COVID-19 is no longer a threat to them? (Of course, hasn’t shutting down our entire economy for two months been a tiny bit expensive?)

Luckily there’s a way to make the entire population of the United States healthier in a few short months. And it will cost almost no money. And it will improve mental and emotional health. And it will improve social cohesion. However, no corporation will profit, and no politician will gain campaign donations because of it, so no public official will suggest it.

The magic answer? Simply have every American adult walk for 30 minutes a day. Among trees, if possible. Every day. Without masks. Without fail. No matter how old you are, how sick you are, how much you weigh, your health will improve. (Cutting out all soda and eating some vegetables will help, too. Just saying.) Walking moderately briskly 30 minutes a day reverses heart disease, reverses Type II diabetes, reverses hypertension. It reduces stress and chronic pain. It prevents strokes and Alzheimer’s; it reduces the risk of dying from breast, colon, and uterine cancer and can stop prostate cancer in its tracks. It reduces inflammation in the body. It boosts brain health. It reduces anxiety and increases happiness. Plus it relieves moderate and major depression better than pharmaceuticals or psychotherapy. Walking in your neighborhood creates local social cohesion better than just about anything. (Even more so if you smile, nod and give little waves.) Plus, it stimulates your immune system so you'll be less likely to come down with COVID-19 even if directly exposed to it. (The exception is those front line workers getting a heavy viral load, like health and transit workers. It’s criminal that they didn’t get serious personal protection at work from the very beginning.)

In cities, as many streets as necessary should be closed to cars to allow comfortable walking by large numbers of people. (They are not all going to fit on the sidewalk!) News media should remind people daily to go walk; social media should be full of encouragement as well. Instead of fear, fear, fear, the message should be walk, walk, walk. Walk our way out of this pandemic. Walk our way to health.

If we did this, the overall US death rate would drop by half, US health care costs would plummet, US life expectancy would increase, and people would be remarkably calmer and happier. Pharmaceutical companies and health care providers might be less than thrilled, but you can’t please everyone.

So let’s walk our way out of this pandemic. Walk our way to mental, emotional and physical health. Walk our way back to social cohesion. Walk our way back to a functional society where anger and suspicion aren’t the normal ways we interact with each other. Yes, it’s actually that simple. It won’t solve wealth inequality and social injustice, but if we don’t do it, given our running-on-fumes social cohesion and the deep unhealthiness of the American population, casualties are going to be high.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Fourteen Low-Tech Ways to Stay Healthy (Besides Handwashing)

Health is not just an absence of illness. At the very least health includes a well-functioning immune system, our bodies’ first defense against pathogens that cause disease. This includes COVID-19, the coronavirus.

We are all constantly exposed to bacteria, viruses, and parasites even if we wash our hands twenty times a day. If our immune system is working well, it creates a barrier that stops the antigens from entering the body altogether. This is the first line of defense. If this fails, the second line is for the immune system to produce white blood cells, chemicals and proteins that find, attack and destroy the antigens before they can reproduce. If that fails, the immune system destroys the antigens as they multiply. If the antigens are able to multiply a lot you will feel lousy as your body fights the disease in earnest. You will have unpleasant symptoms. A large part of your energy will go towards your immune system's battle. You will be sick.

I don’t know about you, but I want to stay at defense levels one and two. And this is more than possible, even with the coronavirus. Don’t get me wrong—handwashing and not touching your face does reduce the amount of pathogens that make it to your immunity barrier, but it doesn’t eliminate them entirely unless you live in a special isolation bubble. To be healthy, you also need your immune system functioning robustly. The following suggestions (to do before you become sick) may strike you as common sense, but, to paraphrase Voltaire, in the middle of a pandemic common sense is sometimes not so common.

1.   Walk. Walking is a miracle remedy that, among its many wonders, boosts the immune system in a dramatic way. Other physical activities are also good, but if you’re reluctant to go the gym or yoga class due to exposure concerns, a brisk 30-minute walk won’t require you to get close to others or touch anything. To keep the immune system on high function you need 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. Not three hours on a weekend. 30 minutes every day.
2.   Cut out sugar. Yes, this includes donuts. Sugar is addictive and hidden in every nook and cranny of the standard American diet. High blood sugar suppresses your immune system. Even food items that say "healthy" often have added sugars. Read labels and don’t buy anything with more than 2 grams of added sugars per serving. Don’t drink anything with added sugar or high fructose corn syrup. If this seems like agony, give yourself permission to have one tiny sweet thing a day. But really, once you cut added sugars out of your diet, your taste buds will recalibrate and you’ll find many things in a healthy diet are naturally sweet and satisfying.
3.     Don't binge drink alcohol. Remember that alcohol is addictive and toxic to the human body. I’m not saying don’t drink at all—I like my wine, too—but treat it with the caution it deserves. Three drinks in an evening impact the immune system. Five drinks in an evening really mess up the immune system.
4.   Cut out junk/fast food. An unhealthy diet generates a cascade of negative biological effects that extend over a surprising period of time. One of those effects is a messed up immune system. If you want to be healthy, you have to eat for nutrition, not for convenience, not for emotional comfort, and not to satisfy cravings for salt/fat/sugar. But this doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. Healthy foods cooked with healthy fats can be delicious, truly.
5.   Stop smoking. Smoking damages immune response and especially increases susceptibility to pneumonia. This is one of the reasons that COVID-19 is killing so many more men than women in China—men are fifty times heavier smokers there.
6.     Sleep enough, at least 7 hours a night. Any less and your T-cells are affected. T-cells are especially important for your immune system to effectively fight viruses. Ways to get more sleep—go to bed 30 minutes earlier, cut out caffeine and alcohol, exercise during the day, sleep in a cool, dark room without electronics, don’t have cats that wake you up in the middle of the night like I do.
7.   Sweat/steam—Isak Dinesen said the cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears or the sea. Fifteen minutes in a sauna will increase white blood cell count and stimulate your immune system. If you feel chilled or a little off, it really can head a virus off at the pass.
8.   Avoid wood fires except in high efficiency wood stoves or fireplace inserts. Breathing wood smoke is surprisingly bad for you, and wood-burning fireplaces tend to create a lot of smoke, both indoors and out. Among other things, the chemicals in wood smoke impede pulmonary immune response and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Also a good idea to avoid car and diesel exhaust.
9.   Don’t get chilled. Don’t go outside with wet hair. Don’t allow your feet to remain wet. This is different than don’t go out in the cold or don’t walk in the rain. Proper clothing will keep you warm and dry. But if your body temperature drops, key immune system proteins are impaired, making it more likely for viruses to replicate. Dry your hair! Change out of wet shoes/wet socks as soon as you can! (Yes, I know I sound like your mom. I still say these things to my adult children.)
10. Listen to your body. Sometimes, if you feel a bit off--on the verge of coming down with something—if you give your immune system a boost right then you can kick whatever’s looming. A nice walk might work, or a hot bath, or an early bed. Or some form of tonic or pick-me-up might appeal. Some things I’ve found that work for me (your mileage may vary): chicken bone broth with lemon and cayenne, cherry bark syrup, fire cider vinegar, three roots tea (licorice/ginger/turmeric). What works for you? Put it in the comments!
11. Healthy food. Brightly-colored veggies, berries, mushrooms, and garlic all have immune boosting properties.
12. Reduce stress. Chronic stress hammers the immune system. Reduce the impact through meditation, exercise, counseling and/or social support. Just to note: chronic fear creates chronic stress. Wigging out about the corona virus is not what you want to spend your day doing.
13.Increase happiness/kindness. Depression and loneliness suppress the immune system, happiness and kindness boost it. For ways to decrease your unhappiness and increase your happiness read this.
14.Get out in sunlight/nature. Huddling inside obsessing on the internet is not good for your health. Being outside in nature and sunlight is.

Your health is not random, nor is it predetermined. You have immense influence over it. Don’t just stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer—take active steps to bolster your body's built-in, sophisticated disease-conquering mechanism. Most healthy people under 70 who are exposed to the coronavirus either don’t get sick or are ill just a few days. If the horse is already out of the barn in your area (i.e. the virus has already been circulating for weeks,) for your family’s sake and for your community’s sake, you want the virus to bounce right off you if you’re exposed to it. In this way you won’t fill a hospital bed or need a ventilator or require drugs that might be in short supply. In this way, you can take care of family members who fall ill. In this way, you can go shopping or prepare meals or mow the lawn for a neighbor in need. Plus, being healthy, you’ll feel great! Taking time for your health is not selfish, it’s how you can actively contribute to the greater good. If schools end up closed in your region, feed your kids healthy food and let them be active. If playgrounds seem a risk, take them on bike rides and hikes in nature. It will be good for you all!

Note: This is not medical advice. If you are ill, consult your health care provider.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Habits of Unhappy People (and What You Can Do About Them)

Some habits make us unhappy. Others reveal unhappiness. Some do both. A healthy society strives to nurture the well-being of its members, because secure, stable people who find satisfaction in life can work together, innovate, adapt to change, and problem-solve effectively. A country full of miserable, angry people who spend their time blotting out their pain or lashing out at others can cope with almost nothing.

Because unhappiness is stigmatized, it’s very possible for someone to be in denial of their unhappiness even when evidence abounds. Indeed, we are all likely in denial of at least a few habits that actively increase our unhappiness.

There's lots of research on what makes people happy and unhappy. Lots and lots. (Click on the links below if you're interested.) What follows is a partial list of the habits of unhappy people and what instigates them. To be sure, these behaviors don't affect everyone in identical fashion. Whether these habits contribute to your unhappiness is entirely for you to decide.

The Habits

--Name dropping, bragging, exaggerating your achievements and talents (Evidence of insecurity.)

--Holding grudges, obsessively hating. (Evidence of anger and also fans its flames.)

--Blaming others, denying responsibility, complaining, being helpless or passive, always framing oneself as a victim (Evidence of fear/anxiety/insecurity/shame/guilt.)

--Insulting/bullying/mocking/demeaning others others. (Evidence of insecurity/shame.)

--Lying, cheating. (Evidence of insecurity/fear/shame/anxiety.)

--Being sedentary, long commutes, driving in traffic. (Cause of stress, depression, anger, anxiety, poor health.)

--Watching a lot of TV/commercials (Cause of poor health/insecurity/frustration/ passivity, sometimes evidence of anxiety, grief, depression.)

--Stewing in existential angst, including climate change angst. (Evidence of anxiety/fear/despair, can reinforce all three.)

--Spending hours each day watching or reading news (Evidence of anxiety, cause of anxiety/anger/frustration/hopelessness.)

--Arguing a lot, angry tweets, going off in rages, horn honking, driving recklessly or with hostility. (Evidence of low self-worth/anger.)

--Enjoying the pain of others, inflicting pain on others, fantasizing about inflicting pain on others, cruelty to animals. (Evidence of anger/self-hatred/perhaps shame/inability to empathize, cause of anger/guilt.)

--Prone to aggression, domestic violence.(Evidence of anger/insecurity/low self-esteem.)

--Frequent impatience, frustration, feeling stressed (Evidence of anger/unhappiness from lack of control.)

--Ruminating on the negative, negative self-talk, being pessimistic. (Evidence of fear/grief/low self-esteem, cause of fear/depression/low self-esteem.)

----Eating junk food/processed food/too much caffeine. (Cause of poor health/irritability./depression.)

--Garden-variety selfishness. Being inconsiderate, rude, not taking one’s turn, not taking into account needs of others. (Can be evidence of fear/insecurity/anxiety/depression. Can also be evidence of bad upbringing that didn’t cultivate empathy.)

--Artificial mood lifters--binge eating/sugar/carbs/smoking/alcohol/drug use/compulsive shopping. (Evidence of anxiety/anger/depression/psychic pain, cause of shame/anger/addiction/poor health.)

--Frowning, slumping when sitting or walking (Evidence of anger/stress/sadness, cause of/amplifies depression, stress, sadness)

--Chasing status, material goods, spending lots of time on social media. (Evidence of insecurity/fear/low self-esteem/loneliness, cause of resentment/fear/insecurity/low self-esteem/anger/anxiety/depression/loneliness.)

--Hoarding, living in chaos/mess (Evidence of anxiety, cause of shame/stress/anxiety)

--Social isolation, prolonged grief. (Evidence of fear/depression/anxiety, cause of depression/poor health.)

--Little time spent in nature, too little exposure to sunlight. (Cause of depression/poor health)

--Carrying around big bags of emotional rocks/not letting stuff go. (Cause of depression/frustration/low self-esteem/anger.)

--Black/white thinking—us/them, winners/losers, good/evil, etc. (“If only they (insert group of choice) didn’t exist, everything would be fine.) (Evidence and cause of anger/fear/resentment)

Hey, we’ve all done some of the above. I’m guilty of many myself at one time or another. The point is not to be perfect or eliminate every possible negative action from our lives. Nor is the point to excuse these behaviors, which can often be quite hurtful to others. The point is to recognize and reduce the ways we contribute to our own unhappiness and increase the ways we boost our well-being.

Our level of well-being is a byproduct of how we live our lives. It's the result of the big decisions we make but also the cumulative behaviors that fill our days. You can think of your mood as your emotional weather, and your level of contentment/discontent as your emotional climate. There are two important ways in which this metaphor fails. You can’t change the weather but you can change your mood. And unhappiness tends to beget more unhappiness. (There’s a reason Eeyore walks under a perpetual rain cloud.) So breaking the cycle  helps. Regardless of anything else, you deserve to enjoy your life. Being miserable will not solve your problems, it won't solve the world's problems, but it will sap your energy and your health. Sure you won't always walk around in perpetual bliss, and chasing sheer hedonistic gratification can be a great way to ruin your life. Still, eliminating habits that make you unhappy really does help.

Unhappiness is usually a byproduct of stress, anger, insecurity, unhealed trauma, frustration, low self-esteem, poor health, hunger not under your control, lack of belonging/connection, or lack of life purpose/meaning. Sometimes tackling an unhappiness habit requires addressing the underlying emotion/cause, but sometimes just changing an external habit brings about remarkable internal change. Of course there are many factors outside of one’s personal control that cause unhappiness. They include wealth inequality, being abused as a child, sexual abuse, death of a loved one, a dangerous environment that prevents walking/exercising outdoors, living in a food desert, no access to or money for food, no access to nature, being the victim of violence, loud noise, lack of control at work, unloving parents, physical pain, toxic people you can’t escape, being harassed, shamed, demeaned, threatened or intimidated, incarceration, grief, pollution, litter, and ugliness. (Partial list! What would you add?) There are good reasons for our society to prevent or reduce the above factors as much as possible, and it’s true that sometimes getting oneself away from a toxic situation or person can reduce unhappiness dramatically. But people tend to vastly underrate the power of personal habits that are within our direct control.

Habits that boost well-being: walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, sports (if emphasis is on fun and camaraderie), time in nature, tree canopies, flowers, being grateful, keeping a gratitude journal, being kind, being optimistic, limiting time on social media, not eating processed food, eating enough healthy protein and vegetables, meditation, dancing, gardening, being optimistic, limiting alcohol, limiting caffeine, positive connection with others, smiling, sitting and standing with good posture, acknowledging but not dwelling on negative emotions, reframing problems, calming techniques, frustration reduction techniques, massage, sunlight, creating art, meaningful work, finding meaning in life, cutting out sugar, community service, pets, and music that you like. What happiness boosters work for you? Making a list like this for you in particular and holding it close to your heart (metaphorically) is a very good idea. For unresolved trauma, counseling or deep internal work can help you heal. It's important to notice what's not on this list: money. That's because beyond a certain level of income, money doesn't make people any happier. (It depends on family size and cost of living, but in the US happiness starts plateauing around $75K.) People who win the lottery two years later are no more or less happy than random people selected from the phone book.

We unconsciously perceive unhappiness as contagious (in some ways it is) and avoid those who are obviously unhappy. This is one of the reasons people deny, ignore, or conceal their unhappiness. But not everyone who is unhappy is toxic. Indeed, some go on to live admirable lives despite their unhappiness, a good example being Abraham Lincoln who had a raft of private and public sorrows but still managed to be an exemplary human being. (Maybe because, remarkably, he had very few unhappiness habits.)

I’m writing about unhappiness for two reasons. The first is because I want to live in a world full of functional people that aren’t committing slow suicide in misery. We are all connected, every single living thing on this planet, so even if we never meet, your well-being affects my own.

The second reason is that if you can recognize the habits of unhappy people for what they are, you can step out of the drama and be far less affected by them. Often the behavior that drives you the most crazy is the one that resonates with you unconsciously. The one you’re in denial about. Yep, you’ve got to look at it. Becoming conscious of a habit is both a necessary and powerful first step towards addressing it.

When you interact with people who are unhappy, you don’t have to solve their problems for them. You probably can’t anyway. But you can be kind. And the first principle of being kind is to not take their negative energy, wad it into a ball, and throw it back in their face to teach them a lesson. If the person is harming you or others, you may have to intervene, but most unhappy people hurt themselves more than others. If you can manage not to participate in the drama, you can defuse it. You de-escalate. You make it possible for the other person to make a shift. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but not reinforcing their negative spiral has more power than you might think. And once you understand that their behavior comes from unhappiness, it will make you less frustrated and crazy, which means your happiness will increase. Benefits all around.

Bonus tip #1: If alcohol is adding to your unhappiness, a powerful book is This Naked Mind.

Bonus tip #2: If you want a surefire way to increase your happiness, get an electric bike. I’m not kidding. Try it.

Karen Lynn Allen is an author working on a new set of novels, a trilogy called The Radiant Engineer about a society that goes into a descent and then climbs out of it.