10 Things I Wish Someone Told Me as a Teenage Boy


One punch came at me, I ducked. Another punch came at me, I could not quite duck. The punch landed square on the side of my helmet. I turned starry eyed and fell back into the lockers. My teammates were standing around, cheering loudly — pushing me back into a boxing match with my senior teammate. The punches kept pummeling me. I tried as best I could to hit him, but I was a scrappy 140-pound freshman. There was nothing I could do but endure the punishment from my senior teammate — he was a good 8 inches taller and 60 pounds heavier then me.


I suffered through it, and then waited for the next week when I would be forced to box another one of the seniors on the team. This was how you “manned up” — all the freshman on Varsity lacrosse had to box all of the seniors on the team. It was our right of passage. It was brutal, scary, and certainly did not make me a better lacrosse player. In fact, it just made me scared shitless on my walk back from field to the locker room — “Would I have to box Josh or Andre today” — I never knew until we came back in the locker room and the seniors announced it was “boxing time.”


Is this Normal?

As a young man, I thought this was normal: men were just brutal to each other and going through punishing physical rites of passage was the way to man up and prove oneself. Many young men at my school created their own rites of passage — from racing cars to violent physical battles. I was lucky to make it through my adolescence without a serious injury but others as my school were not so lucky. Some died in gang violence; others died drunk driving.


Across our country, young men from all backgrounds are initiating themselves and the results are terrifying: There are over 1,000,000 adolescents in gangs around the country; over 90 percent of them are young men. Numerous young men  at fraternity hazing over the years. What young men need is for older men to put them through a curated, trying, but ultimately caring and safe rites of passage. They need older male mentors who have “been through the fire” to help guide them on their journey to manhood and teach them that being tough and loving are not mutually exclusive as our dominant cultural message of masculinity suggests.


To help young men on their journey through adolescence, I now work as a mentor, educator, and wilderness + mindfulness trip leader. Years of observing and engaging with adolescent men in their schools, their communities, and the backcountry have allowed me to see what was missing for me at that age. These accrued observations guide my work to ensure young men are equipped with the tools they need to step into manhood with compassion, self-awareness, and true power.


Below are ten things I wish one of the seniors on my team had told me when I was a freshman. They are lessons I now pass along to the young men I mentor and lead on wilderness trips:


1: How My Brain Worked

For young men in particular, it is important to teach them about hyperrationality — the balancing in your brain between perceived risk and consequences. According to neuroscientists, the adolescent male brain is the most susceptible to dangerous risk-taking. I used to take physical risks frequently — jumping off bridges, driving cars too fast, diving off moving boats. It wasn’t that I was unaware of the consequences (like crashing the car, hitting the river bottom, or getting in a boating accident), I just didn’t think any of it would happen to me. But bad outcomes do happen, especially to young men: They represent nearly 4 out of 6 teenagers that die every day in car crashes in this country. Because most young men are never taught how their brain development affects decision-making, they are more likely to make rash decisions. I teach my young men how their brains work. That way they can make smart, informed decisions — especially when those decisions could yield irreversible consequences.


2: Be Myself, Don’t Perform Myself

Young men want to be liked, accepted, and seen. To have all three, they feel they have to perform the person they think others want them to be. Young men are terrified they’ll be rejected if they reveal their authentic selves. I performed a lot in high school, but deep down, I yearned to be able to express myself fully — my love for dance and appreciation of the natural world. But I didn’t. I too was scared I would be judged as “uncool,” or not exciting enough to hang out with. Many of the young guys I work with feel the need to perform as well: they have to pretend to not care at school (even though they do) or disregard their emotional worlds (even though they yearn to express themselves). Interestingly, most of these young men have an awareness of the difference between performing versus being themselves, but they don’t stop performing for fear of losing friendship or face. I tell my young guys that if someone only likes them when they’re performing, that person isn’t a true friend. Your true friends are the ones you can be real with. And you won’t find out who that is until you stop performing.


3: How to Manage My Anger

As a young man, I often burst into violent fits of anger. Sports provided me with a culturally appropriate outlet for my anger: playing defense in a game of lacrosse allowed me to whack my opponents with a 6-foot titanium stick, for example. This is one of the most common things I find working with young guys: They have a lot of anger and don’t know how to deal with it. Young men express anger in different ways, but few young men have healthy ways of confronting this anger, which can lead to violence, even death. In 2013, males ages 15 to 19 were three times more likely to die by suicide, 7 times more likely to be victims of homicide, and 8 times more likely to be involved in a firearm-related death than were females of the same age.


But once I quit sports I had no outlet. The big shift came when I was 19; I learned to meditate. During my first ten-day meditation sit, I truly faced my anger for the first time. Introducing young men to mindfulness practices is a powerful and effective tool I use to help them address their anger in a healthy, direct way — not to squelch their anger, but to acknowledge it, sit with it, and most importantly make sure that you do not react from a place of anger to make a stupid decision that will harm yourself or someone else.


4: Accept My Range of Emotions

1When I was a young man, I tried to suppress everything. In the midst of playing sports and training my feelings into submission, I remember telling myself, you don’t have emotions. I thought that having emotions would get in the way of succeeding in sports, academics, and later, in my professional life. The older men around me didn’t seem to express emotions other than my anger or boredom, and it was rare that I allowed myself to fully experience emotions other than those I saw modeled. If I did, I would judge myself for it. I wish someone had taught me, just as I do to my young men, that it’s natural and beautiful to feel the full range of emotions; this what it means to be fully human. And there’s nothing “unmasculine” about it. In fact, the opposite is true. Really knowing what’s going on internally enables you to be a more powerful, self-aware man.


5: Stay Present

With all the pressure that I felt to go to a good college, I agonized all the time over the future. When I wasn’t living in the future, I would ruminate on the things that I had done wrong in the past. The dumb thing I’d said to a girl, the pass I dropped, or the easy test question I’d missed. I remember staying up late one night in my bed concluding that life was about collecting experiences, like trophies, rather than enjoying what is. The notion of living in the present wasn’t even a remote possibility because I was scared of what would bubble up from my interior. I have seen over and over in mindfulness retreats that young men are scared to sit still because they do not have the tools to deal with the feelings that naturally arise. They would rather play with their phones, move around, or do almost anything other than sit with uncomfortable inner states. In an extreme example, a recent study showed that men choose to give themselves electrical shocks rather than sit with their thoughts and emotions . Luckily, mindfulness meditation again offered help; the practice allowed me to understand dwelling in the present moment as a real possibility. This is why I incorporate mindfulness into the work I do with young men in the classroom, mentoring, and in the backcountry.


6: Live in Gratitude

There were so many things in life that I took for granted as a young man. My family did their best — we would take a minute of silence before dinners. But I did not have a relationship with the feeling of gratitude. Because I was so focused on getting somewhere or thinking of what I didn’t yet have, I never fully appreciated what I did have. As a young man, I was never taught how to practice gratitude — meaning how to actively develop and grow a sense of gratitude. Research shows gratitude is a practice that you can actually grow and cultivate. When one of my mentees came back from being in the wilderness for a long time he felt a sense of gratitude that he never had before. He appreciated his home, the clean water, his parents, and the food at the table. When he got home, we established a practice for him to access gratitude to ensure he didn’t slip back into taking all of the things in his life for granted, as it is so easy to do. One of the main reasons I take young men into the woods is to develop and cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for the natural world — and for everything in their lives back home.


7: Develop Real Relationships With Women

At my high school, it was all about the hook up. For me and my friends, the measures of success were how many girls you could hook up with and how “hot” they were. (It was not even a possibility for an athletic guy to come out as gay at my school — he would be hazed and isolated.) This hook up culture prevented me from having emotionally intimate relationships with young women. Without men who modeled this kind of emotional intimacy, it took me years before I learned how on my own. I talk a lot with my young guys who are exploring sexually with woman about noticing what different interactions with women feel like. Does it feel good to have an emotion-less hook up? What about emotional intimacy feels intimidating? What does a healthy relationship with a woman look like? By developing this awareness, they can start to learn how to develop healthy, loving relationships.


8: Build Intimate Emotional Relationships with Men

I had a lot of good buddies in high school, but it was not until late college that I started to develop truly intimate emotional relationships with men. This was in large part because of the stigma against emotionally intimate male relationships. Express vulnerability to another guy and you’re “gay” — meaning weak — the cardinal sin of masculinity in our culture. In a radical perversion of our culture, being emotionally open and real has been attached to gender identity. There is so much fear amongst young men of being called gay that they protect themselves by never showing vulnerability around other men. The result is young men who keep their inner lives hidden from one another. The consequences are deep and long lasting: Many young American men leave high school without knowing how to develop authentic male relationships and go through their lives never experiencing deep male friendship. I teach my young men that being open and real with their male friends is the best way to develop an understanding, compassion, and true brotherhood with one another.


9: Prepare for Life After Sports

Sports were my singular passion growing up. I played football, track, basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, and excelled in lacrosse. I swam every summer, and starting at age 12, I was determined to play Division 1 sports. I achieved my goal when I was recruited to play lacrosse at Brown University. But when I got there I realized my dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I thought that somehow if I played a Division 1 sport, I would’ve made it; I’d be happy. During my freshman year, I started hanging out with men outside of sports who valued sweetness, intellectual curiosity, and a deep focus on social justice. I realized that I no longer loved lacrosse and wanted to move on. During this transition, I had little guidance from coaches, friends, or family about how difficult this transition would be. It proved to be brutal: I derived my sense of self-worth entirely from being a good athlete. In the absence of mentorship, I went on a soul searching solo trip around the world. I now work with many young men now aspiring to play Division 1 sports. I remind them that there is much more to life to being an athlete; in the long run being a thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent man will be more important than anything they accomplish on the field.


10: Decide What’s Important to Me

I felt enormous pressure to go to a “good” college. But my parents and teachers didn’t put this pressure on me; I put this on myself. As a result, I did the things high schoolers are told to do to gain acceptance to elite institutions. I got good grades, became a member of National Honor Society, and took a ton of AP classes. I did do some things that I naturally cared about. I did actually love sports, some of my history classes, and spending time out in the mountains of Colorado and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. But since I was so “on track” I didn’t have time to really step back to ask myself what was truly meaningful to me. What did I really care about? Many students who are on “track” and go to good schools (and others who do not) bump up against these questions of purpose as they navigate life post-high school. I wish mentors had been asking me questions about what was important to me. Why was it that I went through high school without ever having to confront the most important questions in life: What kind of human did I want to be and want did I want to give to the world?


At the end of the day, how are you going to start crafting your own life after adolescence if you can’t answer the big questions about purpose and values for yourself? I tell the young men I work with that, ultimately, they’re going to have to decide what is meaningful to them — not their parents, not “society,” or what is expected of men in our culture. They must follow what makes them come alive, what’s good for the world, and what their heart truly cares for. If young men were taught to follow their hearts more, we would live in a very different world. Instead, most young male hearts are wounded and armored. Laying down the armor and opening up the heart is the first step to experiencing the true fullness of a deeply meaningful human life. True, it can be scary and ambiguous, but it is what I needed to hear most from an older guy on my journey though adolescence.



3 Choices to Bust You Out of Stress

There is not a day that passes without stressful situations, people or thoughts.  The fast pace of work, uncompromising drive to perform, competitive nature of people and lack of down time all contribute to what has become an epidemic of stress-related issues.  It isn’t just emotions that are affected either.


“Just talking about stress management… stresses me out.  I don’t want to manage stress. I want to  tame it, rise above it, get stronger and then move on.”  ~ Lane Michel


Our whole being is being depleted daily through dealing with stress the way we Bust out of stresslearned as we grew up in a world that doesn’t exist now.  Our emotions are stretched to the point of desensitization.  Our mind is exercised to the point of exhaustion, consuming negativity and narrowing focus.  Our body is a battery emptied before the end of the day when we are supposed to recharge… which doesn’t happen because sleepless nights from stress interrupt our natural process for regeneration.  Our spirit is disconnected and too far away too often leaving us confused, bewildered or hopeless.  It can easily feel like we are in a little life raft in the middle of the ocean experiencing one perfect storm after another while we bail out the raft and try to survive until rescue arrives.


In truth, the rescue comes from within us. We can be supported by tools, practices and others to learn new ways to rise above daily stress and extreme life events. A great deal of research has contributed to chart a course to thriving, not just surviving, through life’s stressors.


3 stress busting choices will change your relationship with stress, forever:

  1. Build resilience… to keep your energy up before and during stress
  2. Pause briefly… to rise above any stressor
  3. Hold appreciation in your heart… to positively shift your power



Our first choice is to build the capacity to be resilient during times of stress. New research over the last 10 years has established that emotions play a much greater role in our health than previously accepted. In fact, emotional intelligence is key to improving physiology, health, mental clarity and performance in every aspect of our life. Emotions and our heart as a regulator of emotions turn out to be key to building resilience.


The Institute of HeartMath, leading researcher for bridging the connection between our heart and mind, defines resilience as the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, challenge and adversity. Resilience is the most effective personal skill needed because without intelligently managing our personal energy, we cannot succeed in the world we have created today.


If the level of stress, challenge or adversity remains high without adequate tools for maintaining resilience, then:

  • Personal energy becomes drained
  • Perception narrows
  • Depleting emotions dominate thoughts words and actions
  • Performance declines
  • Burn out, poor decision-making and declining health result


The keys to energy self-regulation and improved performance are:

  • Self-awareness… what stressor is draining your energy?
  • Breathe… deeper, slower breathing establishes an inner calm
  • Learn personal practices to stop depleting and start renewing energy


Developing resilience skills enables greater capacity to store and efficiently utilize our human energy system. Building increasing levels of the physiological state called coherence leads to an optimal state in which heart, mind and emotions are aligned and in sync leading to sustained health and performance. Heart Rhythms, specifically Heart Rate Variability, provide a measurable window to monitor and manage resilience. Proven technology has enabled simple feedback apps and devices (such as those from HeartMath) that coach, train and support development of resilience skills.


The most important step in instantly building our resilience, while experiencing a stressful situation, is to remember to breathe.  No one even needs to know that we are taking a little slower, deeper breath.  Just choosing to breathe opens up the potential to rise above stress.


We can choose to quickly build skills and habits that harness the intersection of science and consciousness practices for significantly improved personal and professional effectiveness.



Just a simple pause will change our world.  We don’t have to react to everything so quickly.  We don’t have to fight every moment.  We don’t have to see everything as a battle or war or competition.  We don’t have to make sure that we come out ahead of everyone else.  We don’t have to be embarrassed, guilty, shameful or regretful because of our reactions.


We call this BreathPause for Choice” because this simple act of pausing for as little as a few seconds enables your higher intelligence to engage. You can override a reaction that is might be inappropriate, inflammatory, shameful or any other negative of a long list of the source of many regrets or guilty feelings that merely add to our stress. The time it takes to reverse the damage done — to correct the reaction and the resulting negative consequences — is so much greater than this short pause.


When we are in conflict, challenged or having trouble focusing but feel pressured to do something our stress levels rise further. If we aren’t being physically attacked, then we all have the ability to pause. When the pause is inserted after taking a breath and before opening our mouth, we all realize just how much wiser we can be.  We have so many ways to handle things better.


Some techniques for learning to insert a pause include:

  • Count to 3 before opening your mouth to reply or respond to others
  • Ask trusted friends to help catch reactions
  • While speaking pay attention to heartbeat; increased heart rate is a sign of reacting
  • When surrounded by anger, remove yourself to gain perspective
  • A rubber band on our wrist can be snapped when we should have paused but didn’t to remind us next time to take a pause
  • Practice role playing the pause with co-workers and friends


After learning to insert the pause, then listen and connect with what is around. What really is going on? Asking that question to our self in the pause enables us to listen for our own intelligence and intuition. It is far easier to choose the words to speak or the action to take when it comes from within us. If there is no insight gained yet, pause a little more to understand who is speaking and what they are really saying.  Often others or our reactions come from external and unrelated to situation we found ourselves.  A pause allows for clearer heads to prevail.  Diffusing any situation takes mental and emotional clarity that can be delivered quickly with a pause.


With practice and building confidence in the pause, it becomes so easy that people find them self unconsciously inserting pauses in conversations all day long. It just becomes a new normal. Can you imagine how much more kind and thoughtful our world can be if more people engaged their intellect more often by slowing down only a few seconds to pause?




One of the largest sources of stress is conflict.  A common thread to conflict is a lack of caring, understanding or compassion.  It is true that nearly all conflict can be traced back to unresolved emotions.  The depleting, heavy and negative feelings that hang out in our energy are felt by others near and far.  Most often, we are oblivious to the true emotions generating conflict.  Being unaware of these emotions builds stress within us and can easily trigger stress in others. It is helpful to remember Wendy Mass’ words, “be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about.”


Daily living induces stress as well. In any given day we can experience stress creators such as being cut-off while driving to work, children testing their parent’s patience past the limits, financial worries, negative media streaming bad news constantly or simply the “final straw“ of an accumulation of stress over time.  We are drawn in to what seems so very important in the moment.  Our perspective and attention narrows to the point where we may even forget that others are experiencing stress at the same time.  The daily adventure we call life pulls us away from our heart if we are not skilled in remaining centered, grounded and aware of our surroundings. What seems natural to focus internally actually works against us. The result can only be a collision of circumstances that will inevitably produce more stress.


In the very second when we feel like pulling away, the third choice to make is to hold appreciation for something, anything, in our heart. The appreciation can be for a person, place, experience or thing.  What matters the most is that we feel deep appreciation.  Most often the object of our appreciation comes to us without effort, but if there is a struggle to find something, here are a few ideas to illustrate how simple we can begin with appreciation and still have a positive impact:

  • The sun rising reminds us that “every day is a new discovery”
  • How a favorite food tasted
  • The scent of a flower, fresh rain, incense or another loved fragrance.
  • A moment in time you hold as dear
  • A childhood victory that delighted you
  • The smile on a child playing without a care
  • The unconditional love of an animal


You want to have a few of these objects of appreciation practiced before you make the first choice to Build Resilience and the second choice to Pause. This allows you to instantly shift your reality once you take the third step with Appreciation.


Simply by putting attention on the feeling of appreciation we are keeping our heart intelligence engaged in the situation we are facing.  Many studies have shown that by holding the feeling of appreciation in our heart a shift can be felt within and around us. Our heart’s electromagnetic field carries messages through feelings, thoughts and intentions that influence our environment. We can choose to either continue to transmit more stress, more heavy emotions, more confused energy or we can access and activate caring, understanding or compassion through this simple action to return to one of our most powerful emotions, appreciation.




Alleviating stress seems out of the question. Avoiding stress is impossible while we are still breathing. The best solution for stress then is to shift our self completely into a place where a new foundation for quickly busting through stress is possible. The great news is that with three quick choices, you can.


  1. Building resilience starts with a slow, deep breath allowing us to
  2. Pause in order to listen and connect with
  3. Appreciation held in our heart.


The most effective tools and practices in life are truly simple. The beauty of these three choices you can make is that they can be done in less than a minute having a positive impact on stress all day long… and for life.





VeraHeartYou are invited to join Lane Michel and Lynda Nguyen, certified HeartMath Trainers, for the Resilience Advantage™ Workshop.


In this skill-based program, you will learn practical tools and strategies to strengthen resiliency and improve decision-making. Based upon the Institute of HeartMath’s research into the physiology of optimal performance with expertise from VeraHeart, you will walk away with concrete practices that increase well-being, mental clarity and emotional stability.



How To Cope When Faced With Overwhelming Tragedy

Abby Madi (L) and Peterson Zatterlee comforts Zaterlee's dog Rippy, after a tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, May 20, 2013. Credit:Reuters

Abby Madi (L) and Peterson Zatterlee comforts Zaterlee’s dog Rippy, after a tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, May 20, 2013. Credit:Reuters

All of us at Project Happiness have been devastated by the recent tragedies in Oklahoma. In the wake of this disaster, one is struck by the sheer power of nature and the impermanence of everything we hold sacred. How can one possibly stay happy during times of extreme crisis or tragedy? Even if we are just watching events on the news, it is natural to get overwhelmed by things out of our control, especially in situations of this magnitude.

One powerful antidote is

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Good Night’s Sleep Linked to Happiness

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-puppy-dog-sleeping-image13312044The researchers analyzed data from 100 middle-aged participants in a longitudinal study of midlife in the United States that included telephone interviews about participants’ daily experience as well as subjective and objective measures of sleeping habits. The study looked at the overall levels of positive emotion that the participants experienced in their lives – those associated with more stable personality traits, as well as daily fluctuations in positive emotions in reaction to daily events.

The team found that, as expected, having a more positive general outlook on life was associated with improved sleep quality. However, they found that the more reactive or fragile a participant’s positive emotions were in relation to external events, the more their sleep was impaired, especially for individuals high in positivity to begin with.

“Previous research suggests that the experience of joy and happiness may slow down the effects of aging by fortifying health-enhancing behaviors such as restorative sleep,” said first author Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “Our study extends this research by showing that whereas possessing relatively stable high levels of positive emotion may be conducive to improved sleep, unstable highly positive feelings may be associated with poor sleep because such emotions are subject to the vicissitudes of daily influences.” Ong added, “These findings are novel because they point to the complex dynamics associated with fragile happiness and sleep that until now have been largely attributed to unhappy people.”

Ong co-authored the study, “Linking stable and dynamic features of positive affect to sleep,” with Deinera Exner-Cortens and Catherine Riffin, Cornell graduate students; Andrew Steptoe, University of London; Alex Zautra, Arizona State University; and David Almeida, Penn State University.

More information: link.springer.com/… -013-9484-8#
Journal reference: Annals of Behavioral Medicine
Provided by Cornell University
Article appeared originally in MedicalExpress.com

Project Happiness and Native Cry Team Up To Tackle Depression and Suicide On Reservations

SONY DSCBy Lynn Armitage

Sadly, people all over the world suffer from depression. According to the World Health Organization, depression will be the second most debilitating disease after heart disease by the year 2020; and unless something is done about it, by 2030, it will be the No. 1 health issue throughout the world.

It’s especially troubling when our own children battle the blues. More than 10 years ago, after Randy Taran’s then-14-year-old daughter said to her one day, “I want to be happy, but I don’t know how,” Taran soon learned that depression, stress and bullying run rampant among teens everywhere. Determined to help her daughter and others like her find happiness, Taran launched a global movement that went in search of it called Project Happiness.

“My background was in film, so that’s where I started,” explains Taran, who assembled a group of 25 teenagers from three different parts of the world—Santa Cruz, California, Nigeria and India—to make a documentary that tackled the seemingly impossible question, “What is lasting happiness?”

The students’ quest for answers led them to iconic thought leaders, such as director George Lucas, actor and humanitarian Richard Gere, and neuroscientist Richard Davidson. Their journey culminated with a group visit to the XIV Dalai Lama in India, a spiritual leader who is supposed to have all the answers.

With that concept in mind, Project Happiness has grown from an award-winning documentary that has been translated into seven languages into a handbook and educational curriculum that combines positive psychology, mindfulness and neuropsychology, and is available, free of charge, to schools and other educational institutions all over the world. Currently, the Project Happiness curriculum is being taught in schools in more than 55 countries.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Rayna Madero and Taran crossed paths. Madero, a Quechan native who lives in Las Vegas, founded Native Cry Outreach Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to suicide prevention within the Native American community.

Suicide rates in Indian Country are jaw-dropping. Read more at Indian Country Media Network.

When Gratitude Fills Your Heart

Gratitude is a big buzzword these days, and for good reason. Studies are showing that a” conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits” (Emmons and McCullough).

Today I am grateful that I get to work from home on Fridays. Being home today allowed me time with my two godchildren (I live with their family) this morning . While their mother took the toddler to preschool, I danced in the kitchen with the 11-month-old. As we bounced and swayed to the music, he put his head on my shoulder. In a matter of minutes he was sound asleep. I continued dancing with him, feeling gratitude fill my heart for this moment in the kitchen, on a morning when I could work from home.

No sooner had I put him down in the crib when his mother came home with a look of horror on her face. She had just heard on the radio about the shooting at the elementary school in Connecticut. In a moment, the sweet feeling in my heart shifted to one of pain and sadness. As I read the news accounts online, I sobbed for the loss of innocent lives, and the extreme loss of the parents whose children were killed.

Unable to focus on anything else, I went on Facebook and saw post after post responding to the shooting. There was comfort in reading my friends’ pain. I was grateful for this social network and the chance to connect with others in real time. It felt as if we were all in the same room crying together, even though miles apart.

Throughout the day, I kept coming back to this article I had started in my mind as I danced with my godson. Gratitude puts our minds focus on the positive. I began the practice of thinking of what I am grateful for, and felt my heart begin to soften and fill with peace again.

Yes, I am angry about what happened. I am angry that this man had access to guns to kill these innocent children. Yes, I want stricter gun control. And yet I know deep in my heart that the way to change the world is not through more laws. It is through acts of human kindness, generosity, empathy, love, and compassion. It is up to us to change the world.

Common Ground Magazine Sings Praises of Project Happiness

When Randy Taran’s eldest daughter was a teenager, she approached her mother with a very serious concern: she was stressed out, and while she wanted to be happy, she didn’t know how. Taran, heartbroken and unsure of how to respond to or guide her daughter, first sought the guidance of experts and soon ended up as a visionary leader in the happiness movement.

Her pain as a bewildered parent ultimately led her to found the Palo-Alto-based nonprofit Project Happiness which, through educational programming, guides students and adults alike on the path toward happiness.

Taran has since dedicated her life to this Herculean task – the pursuit of world happiness – and her journey led her to find a way to communicate how to thrive and be happy not only with her daughter but also with young people throughout the world. Extensive research led to the creation of Project Happiness, one of a growing number of educational programs focused on giving young people the tools they need to first find happiness in their lives ad then to share that happiness with the world around them. Project Happiness programs are now in place in thousands of schools in 48 states and 52 countries.

At the heart of Project Happiness is a simple message:

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What Do We Do in the Face of Senseless Tragedy?

Last week, in Aurora, Colorado, we witnessed one of the largest tragedies of its kind in U.S. History. 12 people died and 57 were injured, and it leaves us wondering, WHY? What propels an individual to be so tortured to resort to mass murder of innocent people in a public place? And how do we cope with the aftermath – the sorrow, the trauma and the sense that you never know…

In an odd replay of fiction come to life, so many of the characters in the Batman movie are flat out insane – disconnected from their community, their own inner compass and their very hearts. It’s one thing to watch that on the screen and another to see it acted out in real life with real life consequences. But where do we draw the line?

There is no denying that we are all influenced by the people and the emotional atmosphere we are surrounded with, whether positive and uplifting or harmful and toxic. In Aurora, 70 people have suffered because one person was at the point of no return. Let’s be clear that there is NO excuse for harming anyone. The challenge is what can we do as individuals and communities to try to plant new seeds so this tragedy has less of a chance of erupting again. We can point fingers to one young man who was so sick that he became a mass murderer. But that will not solve the core of the problem. The call to action is for each of us to look at our own lives, attitudes, choices and actions. The question is: can we make any internal changes that can help, both for us and the next generation? From this tragedy of lost lives, hopes and dreams, here are 5 ideas worth considering:

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How can you find happiness in times like these?

I have spent a ton of time lately thinking about how to find happiness in times like these.

I think about all the different situations that surround so many people in my life. So how can you find happiness when: you’ve lost your job, you’ve lost your house, your child is dying, your child has an incurable condition, you have cancer, your parent just died of cancer, or you are getting divorced? Those are just some examples.

How can you be happy amidst all the insanity that envelopes your life when you are dealing with just one of those things, let alone multiple things?

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Reflecting on Struggle: Reaching out to those with depression, Part 1

Reach out for help to get your brain moving againIn this second series of podcasts, I interview Nina Poe, the author of the blog “Reflection on Depression”

(at reflectionondepression.typepad.com). As readers of the Project Happiness Handbook know, there is no magic bullet for happiness and this is doubly true for those suffering from clinical depression. But as compassionate people — whether we are friends, parents, teachers or mentors — we can reach out to those struggling with depression and help connect them with the professional resources to heal. And if you are struggling with depression, reach out to those around you and start down the road to happiness and wellness that Nina talks about here.

Click HERE for Reflecting on Struggle: Podcast 1

And here’s a list of Nina’s favorite resources for depression:

  • http://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome — Mood Gym is a cognitive behavioral therapy site. It’s free, consists of several different modules, and walks the participant through CBT techniques. It’s not a replacement for live therapy, but it’s a good start.
  • http://www.narsad.org/ – NARSAD is my favorite mental health charity, and always gets me excited about the scientific and medical progress we are making in understanding mental health disorders. Also, 100% of donations go to research.
Books on Depression
  • Unholy Ghost:  Writers on depression, Edited by Neil Casey

How Teachers Can Tame the Elephant in the Room: Dr. Brooks on Resilience, Part 5

In this installment, Dr. Brooks helps teachers tame the elephant in the classroom: fear of making mistakes and being humiliated. This fear is so strong that it can severely interfere with learning. Dr. Brooks offers a proactive resilient approach in which teachers address these fears directly and lead students in problem-solving to make the classroom a safe space. He also gives some tips on true discipline as discipleship/teaching: using his latest book (‘Raising a Self-Disciplined Child‘) as a touch point, he talks about how discipline can engender resilience, not resentment:

Click here for Robert Brooks, Part 5

After listening, think about what a safe and nurturing classroom space feels like to you. Take a look at this website for some welcoming and open classroom designs. And then share some ideas for your dream classroom on Twitter — how would you makes space for that elephant with unlimited time and budget?

Why are Resilient People Usually Happy?: Dr. Brooks on Resilience, Part 4

Here Dr. Brooks and I finally make the connection between resilience and happiness. Some of the key components of resilience — identifying and displaying your strengths, helping others, and solving problems — are also things that bring satisfaction and long-term happiness.

Project Podcast: Take-Aways for Parents and Teachers

After listening to the podcast, fill out our ‘Mentoring Resilience & Happiness’ questionnaire. And keep working on appreciating your gifts and appreciating children’s gifts. Compassion for yourself and the kids in your life can only make you and those around you happier and more resilient.

We All Have “Islands of Competence”: Dr. Brooks on Resilience, Part 3

Swimming for Our Islands of Competence

Swimming for Our Islands of Competence


In the third installment of our resilience podcast series, Dr. Brooks explains his powerful metaphor, islands of competence (see this article on his site for a powerful story about a parent applying islands of competence in her life). As a strength-based model of psychology was starting to emerge, Dr. Brooks began to think about helping parents and children in terms of leading them out of the “sea of self-perceived inadequacy” onto an “island of competence.”

Dr. Brooks’ Podcast on “Islands of Competence”

Project Podcast: Take-Aways for Teachers and Parents

After listening, ask yourself:

  • What are my islands of competence? How can I change what I’m doing at home/in the classroom to highlight these strengths?
  • What are my kids’/students’ islands of competence? How can I change what I’m doing at home/in the classroom to highlight these strengths?
  • Share your ideas and plans for finding your and your kids’/students’ islands of competence through the “comments” function below and we can all learn from each other

In Search of the Charismatic Adult: Dr. Brooks on Resilience, Part 2

In this second installment of our podcast series on resilience, Dr. Brooks and I discuss the importance of the “charismatic adult” in a child’s life (a term coined by Dr. Julius Segal — see this article or check out his Amazon bibliography for more info): that adult who believes in and stands by a child through adversity. Dr. Brooks traces his career path as he began to ask, “Why do some children who grow up under poverty and racism, undergo trauma, or face some other kind of adversity do well while others don’t?” In other words, he was shaping the science of resilience.

Click HERE for podcast: brookssecondinstallment

Project Podcast: Take-Aways for Teachers and Parents

After listening to the podcast, take a moment to ask yourself these questions:

  • Who was the charismatic adult in your life? A parent? A teacher? A family friend? Several adults?
  • Are you a charismatic adult for the children in your life? Do you say and do things that make children feel stronger or depleted?
  • Have you observed — like Dr. Brooks — kids who have undergone adversity yet remain happy and well? How can you help other children in your life develop those traits of resilience?

For more in-depth discussion of how to raise resilient children, check out this article on Dr. Brooks’ website!

Project Happiness’ Podcast Kick-Off

Welcome to our very first podcast. This series of podcasts will give parents and educators tips for leading a happier, healthier life. And we’re starting with Dr. Robert Brooks (see his website for an archive of helpful articles, info on speaking engagements, and lots of resources for parents and teachers), a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, a world-renowned expert in childhood resilience, a national and international lecturer, and respected author of some extremely helpful and hopeful books (which you should check out!). Here Dr. Brooks talks a bit about his definition of resilience and why it is available not only to those who have been through traumatic events, but to everyone.

Project Podcast: Take-Aways for Teachers and Parents

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Why Linoleum is a Good Role Model for Kids Today: NOTE CHANGE IN WORKSHOP TIME TO FRIDAY A.M.

parentworkshopflyer4 To accomodate interested parents’ schedules, we have switched the workshop to FRIDAY MORNING. E-mail abby@projecthappiness.com and get signed up for a fun and innovative program!

Baby Feet on Linoleum

WHAT’S AHEAD: How are a resilient child and resilient flooring similar and how can Project Happiness help parents increase kids’ happiness and health? Here’s a blog about our upcoming parent workshop (See above) and advocating the ‘linoleum-ization’ of our children!

When I was a kid, linoleum must have experienced some giant technical breakthrough because I remember my mom and her friends talking about how good it looked and how resilient it was as they all remodeled their kitchens. Until coming to work for Project Happiness, that was my experience of resilience: really sturdy flooring.

But how quickly we all get used to the language of our surroundings! Because as we were designing our upcoming parent workshop I didn’t even question the use of ‘resilience’ to describe healthy, happy, kids who have the tools to overcome life’s obstacles. It took a few confused looks as we distributed the flyer to remind me that many parents might think we were advocating preparing kids for heavy foot traffic and frequent spills.

In some odd sense though, we are advocating the linoleum-ization of our children. Compare these 2 definitions of resilience from Dr. Brooks’ and Dr. Goldstein’s Raising Resilient Children site (check out their resilient parents quiz!) and the wiseGEEK flooring site respectively:

  • Resilience: “A quality…that facilitates the ability to overcome adversity.”
  • Resilience: “…designed to be durable, resistant to stains and water, and comfortable to stand and work on.”

Perhaps it’s the blizzard raging outside here in Maryland, but the 2 definitions of resilience here complement each other nicely:

  1. Resilience is a quality, something inherent in a person, but it’s a quality that the person has to design, to engineer, to create in herself. And we all want to help our children design that quality for themselves.
  2. Resilience facilitates getting through tough experiences, making one durable and resistant to the potential harm these experiences can bring (like big spots left over from spilled milk). But it doesn’t make someone bulletproof. And we don’t want that for our kids – we want experiences to get through to the inner core. Because that means the good experiences get in there, too.
  3. Resilience means the ability to overcome adversity while remaining comfortable to stand and work [on]. Okay, so this last one needs a tweak, removing the ‘on.’ Overcoming adversity is getting back to a comfortable standing and working state. To be resilient is to eventually get out of bed and go back to being comfortable in your day-to-day life after a devastating experience.

Resilience is a key component of both long-lasting happiness and long-lasting flooring and parents are in a unique position to be able to help their kids develop this quality.

If you’re interested in parent workshops on happiness, resilience, mindfulness, plasticity, either look into attending the upcoming workshop or download a brochure outlining how to bring Project Happiness into your school.

Throwing Kids A Lifeline

The timeless conundrum...

The timeless conundrum...

It probably comes as a huge surprise that someone with a Ph.D. in Slavic Linguistics was not the coolest kid back in high school. In fact, you will probably be amazed to hear that the secretary of the Latin Club (not even the president – it’s a geeky position inside a geeky organization!) was the butt of many of the popular kids’ jokes. My lack of self-awareness didn’t help: for instance, in order to find out how to be popular, I brought a notebook to a school dance and, following the scientific method, gathered data to find the ‘formula’ for popularity. My husband has pointed out, now many years later, that one of the observations I did not make was that…nobody else was taking notes!

Oddly, however, I was pretty happy in high school and, if asked, I would have described my social life as “pretty good.” On the whole, I was confident in my gifts and was connected to my friends (I won’t impugn any of them by calling them geeky, but they know who they are…you evil people who subjected me to endless hours of discussions of the relative worth of the various Dr. Who’s…). I was, to be sure, anxious about my academic performance and prone to overreacting, but I had a lifeline of friends, family, teachers and counselors. This lifeline helped me to weather the storm and maintain resilience through the cruelties of high school.

Bullying is a topic that has been overdone lately in the educational literature. And with SAMHSA’s (the federal government’s mental health branch) launch of their bullying prevention program, there are tons of resources out there for teachers, administrators and parents. But there was no Project Happiness approach, based on compassionate communication, finding your gifts, and self-nourishment…until NOW!

As I talk with more and more facilitators, one of the central needs emerging this year is parent trainings. Parents want to help their children – and bullying is just one of the more prominent examples – but they often don’t have the tools or the confidence to talk with their teens. In response to this need, Project Happiness has developed a number of parent trainings, including a special training on bullying complementing the SAMHSA program. Through experiential learning, we give parents a way to build a common language with their teens around social and emotional wellness.

Somehow, way back when, my parents instinctively spoke that language. They spoke to me without judging, were genuinely interested in my experiences, and nurtured the social relationships that were supporting me. Nonetheless, I was quite a difficult child and I was so socially out of place by the end of third grade that they had to make special arrangements to send me to school in another district. It was there that my parents and teachers nurtured my first set of healthy and supportive social connections. My little group of friends were not the class leaders or academic go-getters, but they taught me social management: how to show compassion, nurture collaboration, peacefully negotiate conflict, and make ethical group decisions. I lost touch with these friends (until now, thanks to the miracle of Facebook!), but they were the foundation of my resilience. And it was my parents who recognized and nurtured this connection.

If you’re interested in parent trainings for your school or program – either run by someone at your school or the Project Happiness team – please contact me and let me know. We want kids to have as many lifelines as possible: thrown by their teachers, their parents, their friends and, most importantly, themselves. Let us know how we can help bring some of these resources to your school or program.

Abby Konopasky, Ph.D.
Director of Education
Project Happiness
(650) 833-3882

Implementing Project Happiness: Paddling Downstream

(See the end of the post for important Handbook ordering info!)

September 21, 2009

By now almost everybody is back at school (including those people on the quarter system who like to make everyone else feel jealous in August and early September!) and in the thick of things. I am incredibly pleased to report that we have more than twenty schools using The Project Happiness Handbook so far and that there are even more getting ready to take the plunge. Meanwhile all of us on the Project Happiness team are gearing up and are excited to take the plunge right along with you!

As many of you know, however, our curriculum isn’t quite in yet… (I put that in a smaller font hoping it might get less notice!) Our Assistant Director, Rolando Sandor, has been hard at work for several months polishing the Handbook, from fixing typos to improving the layout to making it easier to reference different sections. The good news is that the Handbook is a lean, mean happiness machine! The bad news is that it will not arrive in our offices until some time later this week.

I have received e-mails from many of you and have talked to others, so I know that this is a bit of a setback. Moreover, it is difficult for me to dive in and help in the way that I want when you are not all up and running with a physical textbook. But, following the curriculum’s advice, I have decided to paddle downstream and try to go with the flow.

So as the school year gets started, here are some things I can do for you:

• Look at your objectives/goals for a class and make detailed suggestions about Project Happiness activities that might be the right fit.

• Help you brainstorm extension activities that work for your program.

• Provide you with excerpts from the first chapter to get you started.

Connect you with other like-minded facilitators for collaboration.

• Help you develop a fundraiser to raise money for the curriculum.

• Point you to resources on social and emotional learning, mindfulness and active listening.

• Even engage in geekiness around writing, language and Project Happiness as a fellow linguistics enthusiast!

And to facilitate my role facilitating the facilitators (!) I am establishing regular virtual office hours. From 1:00PT/4:00ET to 2:30PT/5:30ET on Mondays and Wednesdays, I will be available to talk. And, to make sure everyone gets to communicate with their favorite distance tool, there are three ways to connect with me:

• Via phone at (650) 833-3882 (I can call you back in the continental U.S. and Canada)

• Via Skype with the user name abbykonopasky

• Or via Google chat with the user name abby@projecthappiness

You can e-mail me ahead of time to let me know you’d like to talk or you can just go ahead and contact me. Also, if those times are inconvenient, just contact me and we can set up an appointment that works for both of us. I can’t wait to hear how things are going and how I can support your vision for Project Happiness.

Abby Konopasky
(650) 833-3882

Important info on Handbook preordering

An Invitation to Teachers: The Project Happiness connection

Catching up on some very important reading!

The new Director of Education catching up on some very important reading!

September 13, 2009

Hello to Current, Past, Prospective and Eternal Project Happiness Teachers:

I’m writing to introduce myself: my name is Abby Konopasky and I am Project Happiness’ new Director of Education. For those of you who have worked with Maria Lineger, she’s still on board, but we couldn’t keep her away from the hands-on, experiential work that is so critical to our program. I am fortunate to have her foundational work to build on and her guidance to do it.

Let me start by telling you a bit about my path to happiness, and Project Happiness in particular. I come from an academic family and I carried on the tradition by getting a Ph.D. in an obscure field: Slavic Linguistics. I taught Russian, then writing, then English, linguistics, pedagogy and ESL in my final academic position at the University of New Orleans. Then Hurricane Katrina not only wiped out my home, but my job and community as well. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child at the time and saw the obstacles to my happiness as insurmountable. My husband used the opportunity to change careers, starting law school at Stanford University the next academic year. I went with him as my daughter’s primary caretaker, unsure of precisely where I belonged: Mother? Educator? Researcher?

Without knowing it, I was completing a Project Happiness curriculum of a sort. I worked on self-awareness, identifying the things about my job and my parenting that brought me lasting happiness and developing self-confidence. I learned self-management and how to combat my Monkey Mind, particularly my feelings of depression. Through trial and error I developed a cadre of positive thoughts about myself and my future. I worked on social awareness and social management, finding joy in showing empathy and compassion to other mothers of young children at Stanford. We developed a loving and interdependent community, working together and negotiating our differences.

Nearly 4 years after the heartbreak of Katrina, I decided that I wanted to use my gifts to improve the lives of adolescents. That brought me to Project Happiness as a volunteer and, as they say, the rest is history!

It is not, then, the SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) research studies or the pilot program testimony that make me such a strong advocate for The Project Happiness Handbook. It is, rather, my own personal journey: the gifts of self-discovery are too precious and the risks of self-ignorance too great for us not to share these tools with our children.

And you will find that I am a strong advocate for the curriculum (perhaps too strong for some of you!). Adolescents need help finding the eye of the storm*, particularly in the face of obstacles like:



• And even national anxiety over things like the swine flu: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/health/08well.html?hpw.

While Project Happiness is not a cure-all, it is a way to start the conversation, a way to give adolescents, parents, teachers and even the community a common vocabulary to open the lines of communication.

This year The Project Happiness Handbook is being used in many locations (across the U.S. and Canada and in Rome, India, Nigeria, Guatemala, Australia and Nepal) and in many contexts (performing arts, leadership, yoga and meditation, living skills, adult enrichment and teacher preparation, to name a few). But we would love to spread it even farther and broader. And we want to help existing programs explore the curriculum’s rich resources and build new ones.

To that end, I’m putting out a call for connection. How can our team help? I can help you navigate our large curriculum, make lesson plans, facilitate project-based learning, make your classroom a more mindful and nurturing place, and create opportunities for your students to reach out digitally and in person. E-mail or call me any time.

Also part of this call for connection is an invitation to reach out to other like-minded facilitators. What are you doing with The Project Happiness Handbook? What is working for you? What are you struggling with? Would you like to connect or collaborate with another class? I invite you to either respond to this blog post (go to migration, click on Blog, and then on What do you think?) or join our Google group for facilitators by e-mailing me at project-happiness-facilitators@googlegroups.com.

I look forward to meeting, speaking with, or e-mailing with all of you over the course of this exciting and challenging school year. I wish you luck guiding your students on their journeys and continuing your own journey. I am still in shock that I get to work with such extraordinary teachers on such a remarkable project. So bear with me as I get used to ‘directing’ the program – I will be looking to you and your students for the true direction.

Abby Konopasky
(650) 391-7012

*See page 26 in The Project Happiness Handbook. “The Eye of the Storm” is an activity that teaches students to find the calm center in the midst of struggle.