Something to Crow About

In nearly all urban and suburban areas across the US—even those with abundant wildlife, no creature seems more ubiquitous than fat black crows, wandering in front of our cars, cawing each other to “murderous” conventions, and brazenly opening our trash bins to scatter rejected contents along the street.

With the intelligence, scientists say, of a seven-year-old child, crows use tools and plan multiple actions to reach food. They mate for life, and even hold funerals for their deceased brethren. And they recognize our faces, pecking mean neighbors and leaving gifts for kind ones—a fact made famous in 2008 by University of Washington professor John Marzluff, whose lab used a Dick Cheney mask to portray an aggressor. He’s still studying those same birds— crows typically live for a dozen years, commonly up to 20.

Yes, these corvids have something to crow about, talents matched only by the parrot. On the other hand, when proven wrong, one might admit to “eating crow.”

The origins of such expressions are tough to trace. Eating crow, according to the Grammarist blog, shows up around 1850, possibly from a Saturday Evening Post story “about a farmer who is challenged by his boarders to eat a crow. The original phrase was to eat boiled crow,” certainly an unappetizing prospect. The Free Dictionary compares such cuisine to “humble pie,” and dates the corvid catchphrase to “a War of 1812 encounter in which a British officer made an American soldier eat part of a crow he had shot in British territory.” The entry adds that crow meat “tastes terrible,” as do “umbles, a deer’s undesirable innards,” source of the deferential pie.

How this comports with “something to crow about” is uncertain. But no matter where go, you’re likely to hear plenty of cawing, reflecting crows’ US population of  31 million. They adapt well to cities, enjoying a mix of various trees, plants and tasty trash. And they soon become friends—my husband made the acquaintance of one he called “Mr. C,” who would follow Michael as he patrolled our neighborhood with grabber and bag, cleaning litter. Mr. C would greet him with a familiar “caw,” and perch daringly close as my husband moved along.

As for corvid funerals, well, I still feel terrible about inadvertently causing one. Driving home slowly, about a block from my house, a crow sauntered before my car in the street, presumably looking for insects on the pavement. Normally, the birds jump out of the way, knowing not to dally in front of oncoming machines. This one didn’t. In my rear-view mirror I saw it lying there, motionless.

An article in Seattle Met details the experiment to discover more about crow funerals by biologist Kaeli Swift, who works in Dr. Marzluff’s Avian Conservation Lab. She placed a dead crow on the grounds of UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture, and watched the reaction.

The first crow to see it summoned others: “Suddenly crows flew in from all directions. Their plaintive entreaties soon combined into a chorus…” and then “a cacophonous dervish of black silhouettes swirling directly above…” Thirty crows, emitting “nerve-fraying shrieks blast from every direction.” Not that all the attendees were friends of the departed. Swift explained to Seattle Met that the ceremony helps crows process death, and importantly, warn of danger.

Dr. Marzluff best details the complex brains of corvis brachyrhynchos in Gifts of the Crow: How perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans (with Tony Angell, 2012). He anesthetized crows (carefully) and imaged their brains, finding they use the same structures that humans do when thinking. A recent Science article reports crows plan out their actions, and are capable of analytical thought. For example, a video posted on Facebook by Britain’s Daily Mail shows a crow protectively prodding a hedgehog out of the middle of a street.

My husband, a sports fan, points out that no teams are called Crows. Plenty of birds receive naming honors, including our own Seahawks (other football teams include Eagles, Falcons, Cardinals and of course the Baltimore Ravens).

Why ravens? Edgar Allen Poe, whose raven said “Nevermore,” resided in Baltimore. Ravens are a different species from crows. They’re larger, with a ruffled collar and wingspans up to 5 ½ feet. Crows have a smooth silhouette, and a breadth up to 3 ½ feet. Ravens sound hoarse or croak, while crows’ higher pitched “caw” typically repeats twice or more. You may know that three or more crows are called a “murder;” a group of ravens is called an “unkindness” (really!) or a “conspiracy.”

Professor Marzluff and his wife Colleen have made “Crow Scientist,” a free app to help kids (and adults) spot, identify and count crows. I was surprised to see how many different behaviors we crow spies can observe. For example, “allopreening” is when one crow starts “pecking the back of the other’s neck” to clean its feathers. “Bill-wiping” happens when a crow swipes its beak on branches or even a curb to clean it—but also to get out frustrations. When a solo crow makes a soft sound like “uh-oh” or “hello,” he’s communicating something, but we humans don’t know what, yet. And if you see a few crows harassing an eagle, they’re “mobbing” him so he won’t steal their eggs or young from nests.

Since we know crows recognize faces, you can become buddies by simply leaving out a peanut or two every day. The crows you’ll befriend will likely be a territorial pair. Crows roost at night in huge gatherings of thousands of birds—two throngs in the Seattle area, and the largest nationally in Danville, CA. Then they commute back to their territories for their day jobs.

But beware that too chummy an avian relationship can turn hostile—not with the crows, but with the neighbors. Six-year-old Gabi Mann in Portage Bay, WA began leaving peanuts and dog food for the appreciative corvids in 2013. In return, they left her “dozens of trinkets…shirt buttons, paper clips, an earring, a blue Lego piece…” writes Seattle Met magazine. News of her grateful flock went viral, a “heart-warming tale of wildlife and human life converging, featuring a cute, charismatic girl with a penchant for natural science.”

The Manns’ two next-door neighbors were among those whose hearts weren’t quite so warmed. The bird treats drew rats, “more abundant than I have ever seen in my 44 years living in this house,” groused a neighbor on a local online forum. The cawing was nerve-shattering, the droppings copious, claimed the 51 signers of a petition to the city. Finally the next-door neighbors filed suit asking for $200,000 to cover the crows’ damage, plus a court order limiting the Manns to providing no more than 4 ounces of wildlife food daily.

The Mann family objected, their attorneys saying (according to the Seattle PI) they’d “not engaged in any unreasonable activity, and there is no evidence to support (the neighbors’) claims.” The lawyers added that the claimants “believe bird feeding is an insufficiently sophisticated or classy hobby for their tony neighborhood. “The suit was settled in 2016, the Manns paying an undisclosed sum and agreeing to restrict their corvid-feeding for eight years.

We live with crows, but I can’t say I’m a fan. I find them creepy and somewhat frightening. Their powerful beaks pick apart squished squirrels on roadways. Their murders of thirty, forty or fifty cronies fill the tops of nearby firs with ear-splitting evening dissonance. They cleverly open heavy trash bin lids, dissecting wrappers. I’m not going to salute Mr. C, or lure them with tidbits. But I do respect them. And since they live about 20 years, we might as well make peace. I’m sorry, guys, for running over one of your cohort. Will you forgive me?


What and who defines happiness?

Here’s the guy who actually did define happiness, and measure it and describe it–so we could all find it.

“In a recent study, sex was the most rewarding activity for a group of Texas women.  I believe that is because they have never analyzed data.”

 This from the 2006 autobiography book chapter written by Edward Diener, known as “Dr. Happiness,” who passed away April 27 from cancer at age 74. He was as much in love with finding, defining, quantifying and proselytizing happiness, which he called “subjective well-being,” as he was with his wife of 54 years, Carol. Dr. Denier, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Washington in 1974, credited his mother’s interest in Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking” for orienting him toward research we can use to uplift ourselves and everyone in our orbits.

Dr. Ed Diener
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, Univ. of Illinois News Bureau

Before offering his findings, a bit about this remarkable individual, who lived a playful and exuberant life, mostly as a professor at the University of Illinois (though his final home was in Salt Lake City). Born in 1946 the youngest of six children to a farming family in Glendale, California, his father sent him to Fresno State College with the hope of furthering the family business. “Bored to death” with “weeds and seeds,” he cleaved to the “less predictable” field of psychology, which his dad said would be unnecessary if people just worked harder. But his supportive parents soon got on board, and later Ed, then married to Carol (his high school sweetheart) applied to UW “because Seattle was very green and pretty.”

He got turned on to measuring behavior by his UW professors Irwin Sarason and Ronald E. Smith. His professor Scott Fraser steered him toward studying “de-individuation,” how people lose self-control while in groups, and a study Dr. Diener did with fellow grad students about kids’ willingness to steal extra candy made the news every Halloween. Those were the days before ethics committees, and the Psych department, distracted by its share of internal scandals, didn’t consider the need to get subjects’ approval for studies like “Beat the Pacifist” where, playing a pacifist ostensibly being tested for his resolve, Dr. Diener got assaulted with rubber bats to assess group aggression.

Studying positive feelings was considered “flaky” at the time, with psychology centered on anxiety and depression. It was only when he received tenure at the University of Illinois in 1980, that he was free to study the field that always lured him. As a Fresno undergrad faced with a final project, he’d proposed a study about farmworkers’ happiness, to his advisor’s response, “Mr. Diener, you are not doing that research project for two reasons. First, I know that farm workers are not happy, and second, there is no way to measure happiness.”

So that’s what he set off to correct. During a Sabbatical year in the Virgin Islands, while his psychologist wife taught nine college classes, Dr. Diener read the sparse literature about subjective well-being—and published his first paper discussing it, now cited thousands of times.

He specialized in measurement, as previously no gauges of happiness existed, inventing many, including the five-statement “Satisfaction with Life Scale,” the basis of polls that become headlines. His specialty remained obscure until picked up in the late 1990s by the respected psychologists Daniel Kahaneman and, separately, Martin Seligman, with whom he has since collaborated on numerous projects. He did hundreds of laboratory and cross-cultural studies of well-being, and earned more than 12,000 citations in scientific works. He edited several professional journals, and founded two; he wrote books, including Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (2008), co-authored with his psychologist son. He won awards for mentoring and joining with colleagues in research, and sought opportunities to amplify his work and findings to fulfill his goal of improving the world.

Yet, consumed as he was by his work (and he admitted it often kept him awake at night), he announced that a major “project” for the rest of his life was “to make Carol’s life as happy as it can be.” He said: “Although it may seem strange to mention Carol’s happiness in a professional biography, I want to ensure that young, ambitious psychologists do not forget the point that one should not excel at their jobs at the expense of being decent human beings.” He writes proudly of Carol’s accomplishments, including earning a law degree “for fun” in the mid-1990s while a psychology professor and raising their three children, twins Marissa and MaryBeth, and son Robert. In the same time stretch, the Dieners took in five foster children, adopting two, Kia and Susan.

Here was someone who enjoyed life, noting “when talent and passion are combined, we are most effective.” He savored equally his family, friendships and mentor relationships. The New York Times obituary recalls, “He was known for hosting parties that included activities like carving Spam into various shapes and walking on glass, and for hiding cash in the pages of books for his family to find. He once greeted his son’s wife’s sister in full pirate regalia, wearing a beard and using a hook for an arm that he bade her to shake.

“Then he excused himself, came back as Ed Diener and never mentioned it again.”

So, what did Dr. Diener find are the ingredients for happiness?

Where you live makes a huge difference. We in the US are set up for happiness (and report highest levels of it), with a secure, non-corrupt government, and bountiful resources. Dr. Diener’s world map of happiness, as presented at a University of British Columbia talk in 2017, shows the US and Canada rating even higher than Denmark.

Genetics also determines happiness. Dr. Diener cites findings that identical twins reared apart for 40 years are more similar in their levels of happiness than fraternal twins raised together.

Money can aid happiness, but only to a point. Once basic needs are covered, additional wealth enhances well-being only slightly. As he puts it in his talk, “Meeting needs is important; going from a Ford to a Mercedes, not important.”

Surprises: Self-esteem only enhances happiness in cultures that value it. In the US, self-esteem does predict happiness, but Dr. Diener’s daughter Marissa found in her studies that Indian women minimized thoughts of self but derived their happiness from the well-being of their families. Similarly, being religious only enhances happiness in cultures that value religion. In Scandinavia where religion isn’t important, both high and low-religiosity respondents were equally happy—to the same level as religious people in a religious country. The key here is being “congruent with your culture;” standing out diminishes happiness.

Attitude and outlook are major influences on well-being. Dr. Diener found that gratitude, compassion, seeing the good, and “not catastrophizing” the current situation all contribute. He says it’s important to see negatives in context, and realize that over all, things in the world are getting better—longevity, violence, and resources for the poorest are all improving.

That’s not to say that very happy people don’t have negative feelings. Dr. Diener once asked the Dalai Lama, “Do you have to be happy all the time?” Answer: No. Dr. Diener says that for optimal happiness, negative emotions in some situations are beneficial. Happy people are still concerned about worrisome things—though they may worry less, and are more likely than depressed people to take action.

Most important is strong social relationships. Dr. Diener evaluated the top 5% of happiest people and one thing stood out: Every one of them had strong social relationships and social support. However, it’s not only having support, but being a support-ER. “People find purpose and meaning in that,” he says. “It’s not what you’re getting, but what you’re giving that brings happiness.”

Dr. Diener and his son in their book propose “The AIM Model” to increase happiness. The initials stand for Attention (what you focus on matters—note good things and skip over bad), Interpretation (spin events positively) and Memory (happy people remember pleasant aspects from their lives). As a psychologist myself, I notice much of this overlaps with the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model I was taught—Replace habitual, unconstructive responses with more useful and empowering reactions. Dr. Diener researched and endorsed a program called “Enhance,” consisting of ten weeks, each practicing a different happiness-promoting skill.

Dr. Diener also encouraged companies to provide a setting conducive to their employees’ happiness, with research showing lower turnover, better co-worker cooperation, more customer loyalty, fewer sick days, more energy and greater creativity resulting when workers are content.

Happiness, Dr, Diener concludes, is not a consequence of doing good things—it’s the beginning and a cause of good things. Happiness, ideally, should start at the beginning of life, rather than arriving “if” or “when” criteria are met. The rewards are longevity, more productivity at work, fulfilling social relationships, better health—being happy brings more happiness in a self-perpetuating cycle. Interestingly, I watched several videos of Dr. Diener giving lectures on happiness, and while he proffered some jokes that got his audiences guffawing, he never cracked a smile throughout. He writes that “I am extremely high in life satisfaction but I am only average in levels of positive moods.”  He then notes that “happiness is a process, not a place,” continuing, “happiness requires fresh involvement with new activities and goals—even perfect life circumstances will not create happiness.”

Dr. Diener felt his insatiable curiosity and wonder at the world would fuel ongoing productivity. “This is yet another lesson for young readers,” he insisted, “life is not over at 50. Or 60. Or 70.  …Scientists often continue productive careers into their 80s.” Dr. Diener leaves behind a rich legacy, and one can envision him, busy assessing the happiness of angels.

New in Paperback: God’s Hand on America

My husband’s latest book, describing mind-boggling incidents in American History from Lincoln to the present time, just came out in paperback. Here’s a review by blogger Dean George that gives you a real flavor of the book.

God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era – Book Review

Now in paperback! Want to be engrossed and uplifted? Who doesn’t? Thanks to Dean George for the review!


In light of the 2020 COVID chaos, and the subsequent political train wreck because of voting irregularities that would make Machiavelli blush, Americans could be forgiven for asking if God is no longer blessing America.

Americans have often wondered during troubled times throughout our history if the providential protection we’ve been blessed with since before our founding has been withdrawn by the Almighty.

Best selling author and nationally syndicated radio host Michael Medved addresses that concern in God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. In his 14th book Medved recalls several instances in modern history when divine intervention helped protect the country from impending doom and helped us thrive as a global power designed to pursue “higher ends and loftier goals.”

Medved shares in fascinating detail ten stories rarely found in the history books, illustrating how the Almighty used people and events to mold American history. At times provocative and reflective, Medved has a gift for making seemingly random events come alive with new purpose when stitched together with other panels in the quilt of American history.

As he shared in an earlier work on the same subject, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, Medved again deftly pieces together providential portions of our history which has infused our founders from the beginning with the thinking of the Apostle Paul: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

One example occurs in Chapter 2: North to the Future where Medved describes how Abraham Lincoln’s sixty-three-year old Secretary of State William Seward survived a dangerous carriage accident in 1865 that completely fractured his lower jaw on both sides and his right arm days before Lincoln was assassinated

It was on Good Friday nine days later that the special brace of metal, canvas and wires holding Seward’s jaw together helped save his life during a frantic nighttime knife attack when 20-year-old Lewis Powell, in league with the plot hatched by John Wilkes Booth, attempted to kill the Secretary of State while Booth dispatched Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Because of the brace Powell was unable to get a clear thrust of his Bowie knife on multiple attempts, and while suffering a severe cut to his right cheek, Seward fared better that fateful Good Friday than the president he served.

Medved’s point is that had Seward died during either of those two catastrophic events occurring over a nine-day period, the United States likely would never have acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867 in what became known as Seward’s Folly.

A more recent example of God smiling on America is detailed in Chapter 5: The Reaper and the Bull Moose concerning the failed assassination attempt of Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1912 during a campaign stop as a third party candidate Roosevelt was shot at close range with a .38 Colt revolver.

Ignoring his aides and doctor’s advice, a weakened but determined former president, still bleeding through his shirt, refused medical attention and insisted on proceeding to a campaign rally to deliver his planned speech days before the presidential election.

With the bullet still lodged in his chest and a handkerchief staunching the flow of blood, Roosevelt spoke for an hour to a Milwaukee assembly that October evening. Chicago doctors examining him the next day credited the bulky 50-page speech and his eyeglass case with deflecting the bullet away from his heart and into his rib.

Fearing removing the fragmented bullet would cause a fatal infection, it remained inside Roosevelt’s rib the rest of his life.

Here’s Michael at his studio microphone.

Chapter 7’s The Five-Minute Miracle Medved analyzes the remarkable series of events involving a Hail Mary play by the U.S. Navy over the Midway Islands.

At dawn on June 4th, 1942 a mission involving an array of fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo bombers were dispatched to engage the Japanese Navy in sorties over an extended period to delay or eliminate an expected crippling counterstrike by the enemy.

Due to the diverse maximum speed capabilities and characteristics of the assorted planes, Admiral Raymond Spruance (newly assigned to the carriers involved), ordered the pilots to approach the Japanese fleet from different routes and engage on their own schedules.

As it happened, after many planes overflew their targets and got lost, and others ran out of fuel, the Japanese fleet was suddenly located by the remaining planes. Perfectly spaced and approaching from three directions, the American sorties converged on the Japanese simultaneously in an act of “uncoordinated coordination” over a devastating five-minute period.

The American “kamikaze” attack crushed the bulk of the Japanese fleet in the loosely orchestrated attack that proved to be the turning point of World War II in the Pacific theatre.

As a side note, the small but strategic Midway Islands were also purchased for the United States by William Seward – five months after the purchase of Alaska in 1867.

In Chapter 10’s Forever Upward Medved shares a personal anecdote from when he was a 19-year-old volunteer working for the Robert Kennedy for President campaign in June 1968. The author took a leave of absence from his junior year at Yale (he entered Yale a few months before his 17th birthday) and was on site of Senator Kennedy’s assassination at LA’s Ambassador Hotel with a crowd of 1,500 others at what he wryly called, “the world’s worst victory party.”

Medved said that Kennedy had just concluded remarks calling for an end to the bitter splits infecting both the Democrat Party and the country itself when he disappeared into a kitchen passageway to head upstairs for a televised press conference. The author was preparing to exit himself and was about 20 yards from the door to the kitchen when the crowded ballroom turned as one to what was thought to be the sound of popping balloons in a staccato pattern before piercing screams froze the crowd in its tracks.

“My most vivid memory of the evening involves the sound of that crowd, as all its members instinctively grasped what had happened without being told. The moaning, shrieking, and gasping started at the front, where I stood, and spread to the back of the big ballroom, each individual cry blending into a terrifying animalistic roar.

“The panic hit the far wall, and then bounced back again, rolling like an all-engulfing tidal wave that gathered deadly force, with sobs and pleas now layered above the instinctive noises of fright and horror.”

An exhausted and devastated Medved was informed by his tearful father 26 hours later that Kennedy had died.

Later in the chapter Medved recalls that during a few chaotic years many Americans believed that “God was on vacation” before American optimism and idealism bobbed to the surface again of the national consciousness.

In this fascinating book, Medved not only makes a convincing argument that God has always had a master plan for America, he does so in an engaging voice and optimistic tone that is contagious. Readers are left with the hope that the current emotional valley in which we find ourselves as a nation in 2021 isn’t a permanent state of affairs as long as we the people seek the Almighty’s blessing and help.

When Abraham Lincoln was asked if God favored the Union in the bloodiest conflict in American history, Medved writes Lincoln purportedly responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

Thanks for reading Dean Riffs. Welcome to all those who love American liberty, free enterprise, and who believe God has blessed our country. 

Photo sources: The Michael Medved Show, The Seattle Times

Copyright 2021, Dean A. George©

How we’re Adapting to “the New Normal”

This is my column from the September, 2020 issue of Mercer Island Living, pictured here.

These months responding to the coronavirus have brought most of us to a new reality. We work and play from home. We look at others with uncertainty about the expressions under their hygienic masks. We’ve shrunken the circle of people we see regularly, the width of places we casually visit. We may say “hi” to others on the paths of Pioneer Park, but we’re stepping off the trail and into the brush to be sure we’re at least six feet from them. We miss the automatic hugs of greeting and especially the prolonged embraces of children and grandchildren.

At the same time, we’re replacing our usual activities with new exploration, sometimes due to necessity of home-schooling. Businesses that were languishing suddenly burgeoned, causing shortages of implements like pianos previously found in the “free” column of Next Door. Here are a few activities and interests that have found new popularity in these surreal months.

Taking up an Instrument

That old upright piano formerly collecting dust and doodads became beguiling for a large number of coronavirus stay-at-homes. The New York Times says piano dealers have had their best quarter in years, especially with increased demand for digital pianos “which allow players to channel the sound through headphones, a key feature in households where working-from-home parents share space with distance-learning children.” Part of the allure is that with few concerts, the yearning for music needs an outlet. The Yamaha piano company sold 60 percent more digital pianos this year than last, with a large chunk of purchasers figuring this is their chance to start out for the first time, or expose their kids to music. Online YouTube videos can offer the basics.

   That’s certainly true for the legions of newbies to ukulele and guitar. “The lessons are a way to step out of the Groundhog Day-esque existence we’ve recently found ourselves in,” writes Christy Karras in the Seattle Times. “…it’s a way to use my brain for something other than puzzling out how to string words together, and my hands for something other than typing on a keyboard,” she says of her newfound ukulele skills. Guitar World reports instruments flying off the shelves; the merchant Guitar Center says its sales have “more than doubled since shelter-in-place orders were put into effect,” with guitar accessory sales and private virtual lessons also exploding.

Poring over Puzzles

If the family’s stuck at home, you might as well work together on a joint project—like a puzzle you can lay out on the coffee table and add as little or much as patience allows. When we heard that jigsaw puzzles became scarce, we offered one to our neighbors with five kids, gratefully received. Puzzle companies were unprepared for the sudden demand. Artsy puzzle-maker Ravensburger’s sales went up 370% beyond the same time in the previous year, and NPR devoted a story to the puzzle sellout, with tips for puzzlers to “tackle the edges first, sort out non-edge pieces by shape on separate trays, don’t start with a puzzle that’s too big, and take your time.”

    Vanity Fair reports that the idea of profiting from a pandemic had caused guilt to some puzzle designers. But artist Aimee Stewart came to see the work as helping others. “It takes your mind off everything and it gives you control over something you can accomplish in a time when it feels like you can’t have control over much,” she explains. “You can’t understate the value of that right now.”


Bread is comfort food, perfect for social isolation. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to get a call from my daughter, asking if I might share my stash of yeast, since markets on the island, and around the country, were out. I make challah for Shabbat weekly, so yes, I could supply not only vials of yeast, but 5-lb. bags of King Arthur Flour to my daughter and daughter-in-law, both of whom yearned to knead. Sourdough starter became widely desired; my friend Laura Macht offered me another Covid-time favorite, banana bread (with walnuts, made kosher).

Baking bread, cookies, scones and other doughy delights provides a physical outlet for anxiety and frustration. Using hands to mix, twist, roll and shape loaves becomes excellent psychological therapy. Apparently, front-line healthcare workers across the country use baking for release. When the pandemic raged at its worst in New York, Dr. Craig Spencer turned to his kitchen. “The thing I think about when I’m making my bread is only my bread,” he told the New York Times. “I’m not thinking about coronavirus or anything else.”

When Island Synagogue asked its members for “Covid Stories” covering months when Shabbat services were suspended, its president, Jon Newman and his family submitted mostly photos of their culinary creations, including a cake on which they’d stenciled in powdered sugar, “So much love.”

Brain and Body Improvement

 With gyms closed, where can workout devotees congregate? Online, of course. My favorite Zumba teacher, Jen Hintnaus  (“Zumba by Jen” on Facebook), lost just one day in transitioning to free, online classes from her home. She was recently feted in a TV News spot celebrating a decade of teaching Zumba to her local fans. Many studios have taken their classes to Instagram or Facebook, as well as Zoom. Participants, including the 75-100 who tune into my daughter’s “Studio 3” daily High Impact Interval Training group, develop a camaraderie through comments or chat, with the teacher acknowledging who’s there. While some instructors charge to enter their classes, most have Venmo or other voluntary means to contribute. And of course I’ve written before about the increased popularity of walking, especially given the beauty of our hometown.

    Kids aren’t the only ones using the computer for lessons. Adults with reduced or no commute time can add in some self-improvement. Ted Talks cover current topics—including Bill Gates’ now- famous conversation of five years ago imploring we prepare for a pandemic—as well as an array of self-help and “how I did it” lectures. Udemy, Inc, a San Francisco company with 57,000 instructors, covers practical skills like software development, Pilates and professional certifications, and according to the Wall Street Journal saw growth between 300 and 400% between February and March. The Journal notes that Coursera, which charges for its offerings by famous instructors, saw a 600% annual increase for classes between mid-March and mid-May. Of course, many specific skills can be mastered via YouTube videos, free.

Making the most of these strange coronavirus times has brought surges in other activities, some you wouldn’t expect:

  • With hair salons closed for months, home-styling clippers and hair dyes became necessities. Photos of lengthy Covid hairstyles began appearing on Instagram, along with self-stylists’ “oops” results.
  • With the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd coinciding with coronavirus concerns, anti-racist books have taken over best-seller lists. Including one my newborn grandson was gifted, called Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi, an author whose antiracist reading list appeared in the New York Times.
  • Springtime quarantine gave folks with soil handy opportunity to plant and sow, and as restrictions continued, they could tend their gardens and now harvest the fruits of their labors. Charlotte Mendelson, writing in the New Yorker, found the process itself brought peace: “Look down as well as up: at the weirdness of what Thoreau called ‘the tonic of wilderness,’ the patterns in lichen lobes and leaf veins, tree branches, bark. Wilderness is everywhere…”
  • I was surprised to learn that gun sales started climbing along with unemployment and lockdowns. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation processed 7.8 million background checks for gun purchases from March to June,” the New York Times notes. In June, such checks were up 136% compared to a year earlier. Traffic at firing ranges is also up, says The Times, perhaps because people are feeling insecure.
  • RV camping is suddenly the way to vacation, since travelers can control their exposure and avoid airports and other crowded environments. A Bloomberg report on the phenomenon is aptly headlined, “Scared Americans Desperate to Travel are Buying Up ‘Covid Campers.’” I know one family who is taking their kids on a tour of national parks, viewing it as part of their home-schooling.
  • Bicycling is now the exercise of choice for many, as it’s outdoors, solitary and allows for a constant change of scenery. If you’ve tried to drive on West or East Mercer Way, you’ve come across a constant parade of cyclists, sometimes making car navigation of our island’s curves slow or risky. Even clunky bikes are hard to find for sale, with waits of months for some models. Bikes are helping workers commute without the risks of mass transit where sitting six feet from other passengers is impossible.

Life is different now, there’s no denying it. The “new normal” is also morphing incrementally, but, since we’re all in this together, we’ll cope and grow and continually find new ways to make the most of each day.

Three Lessons from the Coronavirus Crisis

Julia in her work-from-home outfit

Here in the northwest in the midst of the frightening coronavirus crisis, I saw so many heartening acts of kindness:

  • Two neighbors brought folding chairs and sat in a driveway 10 feet from an elderly woman living alone, visiting in open air.
  • Markets provided special hours and deliveries with smiles for seniors and the immune compromised.
  • Friends collected food orders, shopped and delivered to families with vulnerable residents, sparing them potential exposure.

Living through this glorious spring and now into summer in the United States, we’re acutely aware that we are among the most fortunate. We see tallies from around the world–the plague leaves no one unaffected. Orders to shelter in place forced us–and millions around the globe–to retreat behind walls.

Perhaps the most unique and encompassing event of our lifetimes has inspired both beneficent and atrocious behavior. Opportunists hoarded toilet paper and jacked up the price of sanitizer in March, but at the same time, individuals sewed masks for healthcare providers, and checked on suddenly-shut-ins. This has been a difficult slog, so we might as we well look for lessons that can infuse our futures with gratitude and positivity. Here are three.

  1. We need each other. Confinement to our homes turned our attention to those intimately around us—or our yearning for loved ones we wish we could see.

About 28% of households consist of just one person, and the largest proportion of these are older Americans—the group most susceptible to the perils of COVID19. While “aging in place” is touted, remaining in a home without one’s spouse can, even in normal times, become a sad reminder of loss. Add that to urgent warnings in the news, and even the most active elders, afraid of the virus, may withdraw. I heard a heart-wrenching anecdote from a young woman headed into a Mercer Island market who’d turned toward a soft voice. Sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked vintage sedan, with the window rolled nearly to the top, was a frail, white-haired lady. She’d been softly calling, “Excuse me… Excuse me!” When my friend responded, the lady shoved a shopping list and $100 bill through the space in the window, saying, “would you please bring me these items? I’m afraid to get out of my car.”

If the woman hadn’t had the courage to wait in the parking lot for a harmless-looking helper, she might not have had any food. (Since then she receives groceries and regular calls about her welfare.)

While being alone needn’t bring loneliness, forced solitude, especially for weeks at a time, redefines the experience. Couples and even families can feel cramped and frustrated. It’s one thing to embrace the chance to organize photos and shred old files, but another to feel restrained from normal routines and cherished human contact. It’s consoling to FaceTime your grandkids (Hi, Julia and Emmy!) but these brief encounters only amplify a craving for real hugs. And parents suddenly responsible for kids’ educations while trying to conduct their own work from home face double the pressure.

As a psychologist specializing in marriage, I’ve been asked whether the involuntary proximity during this strange time encourages divorce. If the couple was already adversarial, then problems certainly can be exacerbated. But in most cases, couples feel “we’re in the same boat,” equally stuck at home, and equally blameless for the predicament. Much better to have a caring partner with whom to weather travails, per the maxim “misery loves company.”

Most people tend to appreciate their marriages, children and community more when uncertainty and difficulty strike.  They check up on each other; they reach out on social media and can be seen in families and pairs, walking down sidewalks approximating a proper six feet apart. The local website Next Door reflects renewed unity, offering less snarkiness and much more generosity.

Another factor drawing us together is the nature of this emergency. We’ve never seen this type of personal, life-and-death possibility, and contemplating that—even for healthy teenagers—is frightening. We don’t want to lose our parents; we don’t want to die, and when we think about it, we quickly realize what’s most important to us. In our family’s case, our children insist we socially distance, and don’t mind a parental role-reversal, as it’s for our protection. Which is a way of saying how desperately they love us. After the virus ebbs, we should hold tight to the precious love of our families.

2) It’s all about your viewpoint.

One of the major determinants of happiness in any relationship—or any individual—is his point of view. In my book Don’t Divorce, I talk about the effect on marriage of a spouse who sees life as the proverbial “glass half full” versus one whose glass is half empty. We don’t always realize this tendency in ourselves, as it’s often an ingrained product of upbringing, but a negative slant tends to wear down others, and thwart our own success.

There’s no getting around the fact that a pandemic is horrific, or that so many people are ill and have died. Or that restrictions on our behavior impose major inconvenience and stress. But more important is to ask what acknowledging these truths produces in us. As a fan of Dr. Martin Seligman’s “Positive Psychology,” I believe we have power to let our emotions control us—or we can orchestrate them. One useful tool is to step back and see the larger context.

I was stuck by a wise post on the Facebook page of Chanala Kornfeld, mother of 8, who moved not long ago from Mercer Island to Atlanta:

If I was the only mom in Atlanta whose kids couldn’t go to school and couldn’t go to the park and couldn’t go to a restaurant for weeks, my attitude would be different, way different. And this would feel like backbreaking, mood sucking labor. The actual physical work would be exactly the same- a 6am-11 pm bustling kitchen with me as resident busboy, online school monitoring, preschool activitying, craft making, storytelling, organizing, cleaning, fight breaking- but it would feel so much worse.
The knowledge that so many people are in this together, the shared humor and the camaraderie that develops through a familiar situation eases the mind into acceptance and allows it to focus on the dealing (sometimes even happily) rather than the ‘why me’ rabbit hole.
It’s amazing that new thoughts produce new outcomes without the circumstances changing.
Things are as bad or as good (or as not so bad)as you think them to be.

So our first point, about being in this together, dovetails with the second—that we can see this as a burden and punishment, or as an effort in which we join with others for a common good.

There’s a difference in having an underlying mentality of “do your duty” versus “follow your heart.” While the second one sounds romantic and confident, it can also result in selfishness. You’re more willing and able to give if you have a firm sense of duty to others—placing them above yourself often—rather than a basic belief that your emotions are the standard for deciding what you’ll do. The Greatest Generation went through a challenge even more dire than our pandemic—the nation endured a four-year war, and everyone had to sacrifice in order to support the military. This cultivated a feeling of solidarity that allowed for a “power of many” much more potent than the “me-first” ideology that intrigued following generations. I maintain that the shift toward feelings primacy ultimately caused the divorce rate to skyrocket to its 1981 peak.

3) We realize there’s something bigger than we are.

You may be among the growing group who mark “none” when asked about religious affiliation, but the coronavirus reminds us that we don’t know everything. We don’t know—really—how it started and why it’s so virulent and deadly. We don’t know yet how to stop it.

Just realizing how little we know furthers the useful virtue of humility. The president at a press conference personified the virus, dubbing it “the invisible scourge.” Religious people might instead look to “the invisible source.”

Those of faith naturally turn to God when feeling powerless, beseeching relief and seeking to repair spiritual flaws. People who haven’t kept up a religious connection or are unsure about it, are still confronted with the mysterious nature of our plague—which perhaps coincidentally burgeoned during the Passover season that highlights the biblical Ten Plagues.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, an internationally-respected speaker and former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, notes that the COVID19 pandemic arrived as the Jewish people reached in their yearly Torah-reading cycle the portion of the bible in English called Leviticus. In Hebrew, the word is “Vayikra” and means “and he called,” referring to God calling Moses to the Tent of the Meeting. But significantly, in the Torah scroll, the word “Vayikra” ends with a final letter always written peculiarly small.

This oddity, Rabbi Sacks says, relates to the final section of this biblical book, where the same word appears an astounding seven times—with the difference of that one final letter. In those cases, the final letter changes, completely reversing the meaning of the word. Instead of suggesting calling to come closer, the word means pushing away, rebellion, or anger. Rabbi Sacks suggests that if we in our coronavirus isolation view the crisis as random, something that “just happened,” then we close off a larger perspective. But if we listen reverently, we can hear in our solitude the spiritual call to come closer to a greater purpose.

May we all stay well and connected, and appreciate our beautiful world and both its loud and whispered messages.

Why Staying Married is So Worth It…

Marriage is the cushion for life’s setbacks…Sure glad to have this guy!

Staying married is so beyond “worth it”–a good marriage is the staff of life (better than bread!), the gateway to self-confidence, the reason to relax, the pride of one’s past, and the promise of one’s future, no matter its length.

Michael and I have gone through lots of years, almost all of them excellent; the non-excellent ones were due to unexpected, “imposed” challenges.

Like cancer. When Michael got throat cancer, that was the worst year of our lives together, because together we went through it (though I knew I couldn’t even fathom the pain and physical difficulty he was experiencing).

And the entire world is reeling from the impact of a virus, the power of which comes from our complete uncertainty. Even if vaccinated, people sometimes catch Covid, and can be left with “long Covid” symptoms. Asymptomatic victims can spread the disease, and it keeps evolving to new variants that are more transmissible. We wear masks because nobody knows who will contract it; we get boosters in case our first doses are losing strength. Children seem to be less vulnerable, though they may carry illness of others, and now we’re hoping vaccinations will make kids’ inevitable close interactions safer. 

Facing isolation and radical, instant but then prolonged changes from Covid-19, affecting the most basic fundamentals of life, is much more endurable with another person, and even more so with a family or group.

Marriage is the bedrock, the one thing that grounds us as the rules of the entire world shift.

The political world is in chaos. It’s almost surreal how radical Democrats and die-hard Republicans cling to wildly conflicting world views. I am agog that so many people can accept conspiracy theories and believe our democratic system has been completely undermined. I have faith in the founders’ vision. Our constitution remains strong.

Pardon the political aside; people in good marriages care about the work their partners do. They provide support and sometimes correction, all within an inviolate commitment to the relationship, and I try to be that reliably loving and strong support when my husband’s work requires it.

Good people become collateral damage in a milieu where there are only friends and enemies–rather than perceiving a variety of opinions from people who share the same aspirations and simply disagree on the means to achieve them. That’s when a solid marriage provides an essential anchor.

Key in any relationship is respect for others’ dignity.  A leader–and a spouse– must be strong, and the Jewish “Ethics of the Fathers” admonishes: “Who is a strong person?” “One who can control his inclinations.” For our own benefit, we should strive not to act impulsively (and so much more should the person responsible for the well-being of 327 million).

Marriage encourages becoming a respectful person who is in turn worthy of others’ respect. When irritants and insults would otherwise set off angry reactions, a happy marriage to a trusted partner becomes the counterbalance. In a marital team, both work for the betterment of the combination; both choose to give even when inconvenient, and this inspires giving in return. A good marriage provides the steady, sturdy resource for dismissing anger and behaving reasonably–the antidote to jumping onto Twitter in retribution,

Marriage gets you through. It provides highlights in a dark night of lowlights. If you’re in a good marriage, you always have a safety net. You always have something and someone to appreciate. The most poignant stories of the pandemic tell of devoted long-married couples who succumb to the virus, occasionally within hours or days of each other. The stories are heartbreaking, and somehow heartwarming, of sharing everything right to the end.

I’m grateful for my husband, whose generosity and integrity continue through insecure times. We just don’t know how a virus or the political scene–or any other worrying concerns– will impact our prospects for the future. But we both wake up saying “I love you; I appreciate you,” and trading those words lets the rest fade, at least for awhile.


Bezos’ Divorce & the Value of Barriers

jeff & mackenzie bezos
Jeff & MacKenzie Bezos in happier days

The richest couple in the world, Amazon’s MacKenzie and Jeff Bezos, posted on January 9 an artfully-crafted Twitter statement to announce their impending divorce after 25 years and 4 children. The split made every newscast, and was swiftly followed by an Enquirer expose of Jeff’s marital transgression with Lauren Sanchez, whose husband worked with Bezos on the film “Manchester By the Sea.”

Jeff had everything–not just money, but the kind of wife who seems ideal. She is intelligent and accomplished, Princeton-educated, winner of the American Book Award for fiction, and founder of organizations to prevent bullying and help homeless families. She is beautiful, with a slender, fit form. Most importantly, she is the mother of Jeff’s four children, three sons and an adopted daughter from China, the eldest of whom is 18.

It makes no sense that Jeff hurts his children, discards his vows, and pursues a married mother of three who is no younger than the lovely wife with whom he built a business and a home. To be fair, we do not know the dynamic of the Bezos’ marriage, nor anything about MacKenzie Bezos’ behavior or perspective, all of which may be relevant. The whole thing is really no one’s business, except that Amazon has become so much more than just the Bezos’ business.

But the news reminds us of what everyone intuitively knows that in romance, emotions trump logic. Jeff  wasn’t trying to be reasonable or prudent or decent or kind. The explanation for his irrational act is that the thrill of forbidden love, the excitement of new, passionate sexuality, is so strong it over-rides every shred of sense.

I write about the supremacy of emotion over logic, even when the detriment is clear, in my book Don’t Divorce. Succumbing to attraction is most likely when people “have everything” (including boredom), like Jeff Bezos, and when they’re feeling weak and vulnerable. But flirting and following through happen all the time, no matter the state of philanderers’ marriages.

What can we learn from this? First, awareness. If the world’s richest man would part with half his wealth, stop living with his family, subject himself to ridicule and pity to pursue someone with equally difficult entanglements, then we need to keep foremost in mind that sexual attraction is dangerous and powerful. Better to count our own blessings, and protect them–using unabashed gratitude.

If you’ve got a loving partner, children with whom you want to be close, a home and rhythm that is predominantly pleasant, don’t just coast. Tell your spouse and kids specifically what you appreciate. Remind yourselves actively and often that you love each other and that furthering the welfare of your family is your most precious commitment. Say flat out that keeping your family relationships healthy is priority number one.

And show it by putting up protective barriers. Not a wall costing billions of dollars and causing a government shutdown–but your own personal standards for behavior.  If your conscience gives a twinge, ask outright, “would I want my mate to see me right now?” If you wouldn’t be comfortable with your partner knowing about or seeing you in this or any situation, it’s probably wrong. Just cut it off; no half-way; turn right around, before you even start anything.

If love conquers all, it sure conquered Jeff Bezos. The case is compelling because most people occasionally fantasize about having his kind of unlimited wealth, or being able to attract any person they fancy. But no one wants a divorce. No one wants to see his or her family, a long-term emotional investment and the hearts and hopes of beloved children crushed.

So we keep watching from the outside as details of the Bezos split emerge. It’s sad and sordid, and a reminder about what’s important…useful to us normal people, who will just keep on summoning Alexa and ordering from Amazon.


The Three Divorce Magnets


(Adapted from Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage) 

Nicole and Tim thought they had the strongest marriage ever. They’d been married five years, no kids yet, and everything seemed so solid. But when their closest friends Laura and Daniel—their matron of honor and best man—announced their split, everything felt called into question. How could Daniel just start up a months-long affair with someone he’d found on Bumble? Dana wondered if even Tim could betray her.

No marriage is safe from peril in our pro-divorce culture. Three big magnets constantly tug spouses apart, and in moments of ennui, frustration or anger can pull them toward a Divorce Industry of counselors, lawyers and financial advisors seeking customers.

Once conscious of these destructive forces, you can be on your guard against them.

Divorce Magnet Number 1:  Sympathy and Support for Divorce

When wedding vows were iron-clad commitments, divorce was a failure that brought “shaming” followed by long-term stigma. Mention you’re “going through a divorce” now, and you’ll collect comforting embraces and caring reassurance, in a striking cultural flip that took just a single generation.

In fact, you’ll get a lot more sympathy by splitting than by announcing that you’re working on problems in your marriage. Friends assume a divorce leaves you shattered and bereft, requiring their compassion, while working on your marriage implies you’re facing your demons, and the issues could be temporary.

If it’s you in a marital crisis, wouldn’t you choose commiseration and a warm embrace, when the alternative is a difficult process with an angry or hurt spouse?  Friends think they’re helping by being “non-judgmental” about whether you should stay married, but their unconditional support makes divorce look like an equally legitimate choice. They think they’re empowering you by saying you shouldn’t take whatever it is that’s causing the rift, or by offering you a place to stay. Instead they’re making it easy to bolt, and placing you on the conveyor belt to a decree.

At work and with other obligations, divorcing is a convenient excuse for slacking, fudging on promises, and behaving badly. If you miss a deadline or take a long lunch, the assumption is you’re emotionally strained.  With so many accommodations, divorcing when your marriage feels bad becomes a more attractive option.

Divorce Magnet Number 2: Sex is Everywhere (Except in Marriage)tinder

When Paul called off the European vacation Brittany had planned down to the minute because his ex was in a major car accident, she felt less than loving. Not only because Paul put his ex first, but because he threw away the carefully orchestrated trip that was supposed to be the honeymoon they never had.

When you don’t like your spouse; when you’re angry or betrayed or verbally abused, sex in marriage is either completely selfish or manipulative. And when a couple perches on the verge of divorce, usually there’s no sex.

But intimacy is available everywhere else. Just the existence of the phone app Tinder and its many variants keeps non-marital sex and physicality a constant possibility. Business Insider reports that 12 percent of those using the app are in a relationship.

While apps furnish contact with a live person, pornography offers thrills without the bother of a close encounter. Most younger men routinely access porn–despite evidence that private viewing hurts relationships. A 2014 study by the Barna Group found that “eight out of ten men [in the general U.S. population] between the ages of 18 and 30 view pornography at least monthly.”

And “three out of ten men view pornography daily,” the study found, even though many realize it’s a problem. Asked if they’re addicted to porn, a third of younger men say yes or that they’re “unsure.”

Pornography undermines commitment to an existing relationship in both the short and long term, according to a series of five studies by Brigham Young University researchers. And the more porn the subjects consumed, especially men, the greater the magnetic pull out of the relationship.

Divorce Magnet Number 3: Workplace Priority and Proximity

“In college and grad school, the whole push was to succeed in my career,” Leslie, an engineer for a cloud-based software firm told me. “I was urged to take science and math, and told how to compete for jobs. Being a wife or mom full-time was dismissed as wasting my potential.”wedding ring

The implication of “leaning in” is that maintaining a harmonious marriage and raising sane kids are nice accessories to real achievement, even though Sheryl Sandberg herself admitted in a UC Berkeley commencement speech a year after her husband died that her family meant more than career.  No collegiate institution teaches students that their most worthwhile accomplishments are at home, even though plenty of academic research shows this.

For example, a 2012 study of twenty-five thousand graduates of Harvard Business School—whose education puts them in immediate demand for top-notch positions—found that over time, definitions of success shifted. “For me, at age twenty-five, ‘success’ meant career,” responded a woman in her forties. “Now I think of success much differently: Raising happy, productive children, contributing to the world around me, and pursuing work that is meaningful to me.” The researchers noted, “When we asked respondents to rate the importance of nine career and life dimensions, nearly 100%, regardless of gender, said that ‘quality of personal and family relationships’ was ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important.”

If that’s the case, why do we celebrate professional success over the value of marriage? That difference encourages neglect of relationships and ultimately foments divorce.

Workers who devote a huge proportion of their waking hours to their jobs steal that time, and with it communication and concern, away from their families. Next comes emotional distance between spouses, a gulf exacerbated by the temptations of physical proximity to colleagues of the opposite sex.

Combine these vulnerabilities with a little casual fraternization, and the result becomes marital infidelity. A survey of 31,000 persons on “office sex and romance” commissioned by Elle Magazine found plenty of threats to monogamy:

  • 92 percent of respondents said a co-worker they found attractive had flirted with them;
  • 62 percent admitted at least one office affair (while 14 percent said they would never date someone from work);
  • 42 percent were married or in a relationship at the time of an office affair;
  • 41 percent had sex on the job, and 16 percent used a boss’s office. Seven percent got caught in the act, but 87 percent got away with no consequence.

With divorce magnets from friends and a pro-divorce culture, easy sex and porn, career demands and workplace chemistry, how can a marriage survive and thrive?

The first defense is to be open about your experiences and reactions. Talking about potential hazards, and deciding the behavior boundaries you’re comfortable with can deflect perils before they intrude. Vice President Pence was chided for his rule to avoid after-hours dinners with women alone, but since the #MeToo revelations, eschewing impropriety suddenly seems prudent. By increasing communication with your mate, and honoring policies you jointly decide, you can create a barrier around your relationship that allows it to remain strong. Continue reading “The Three Divorce Magnets”

The Power of a Smile

cropped at our wedding reception 1-27-85
Bride and Groom flash Duchenne smiles at this 1985 wedding as celebrants dance around them in a circle

My gosh, there’s a lot to put one in a crummy mood. The political scene is discouraging, the news tells of division, racial conflicts, war and corruption. Our own families provide the counterpoint, but everyone’s going a hundred ways. How do you keep things positive?

Start by shaping your own face.

Here’s an example. Walking down the hall at the gym, you see someone you don’t know coming toward you. There’s that awkward second when you wonder if you should make eye contact, ignore the person and keep going, or smile and say ‘hi’ as you pass. What’s your response?

If you chose to smile, you’re increasing your own chances for a pleasant workout, and in fact, a great day.

By now everyone’s familiar with the many studies that show smiling alone causes physiological reactions in the body, releasing dopamine, endorphins and serotonin that lift your mood and the moods of everyone who sees you, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and act as natural pain relief. Other research shows myriad social benefits. Your smile makes others think you’re more attractive, and causes them to respond with a smile of their own. In the workplace, your smile makes others deem you more warm and approachable—and tilts customers toward greater satisfaction (though there’s conflicting data about whether your grin makes others think you more competent).

Merely moving your face into a big smile brings emotional and health perks, whether or not it’s sincere. In a clever University of Kansas study, subjects misled to think they were in a multi-tasking trial were measured for stress while holding chopsticks various ways in their teeth. With the sticks creating a wide smile, subjects had less stress while completing difficult tasks than when their mouths held neutral or less broadly-smiling poses. But even the less-wide smilers recovered from stressful tasks more quickly than subjects with unsmiling mouths.

This study shows that just the formation of a smile, even if it’s unrelated to genuinely happy emotions, has a positive impact. Forcing a smile against a person’s will—such as employees required to offer “service with a smile” even when annoyed—is less beneficial than when you embrace the act, other research shows. In our everyday lives, when we choose a happy countenance for whatever reason, we’ll reap several levels of reward.

This is particularly true in family life. When a couple is enduring a conflict, or a difficult situation that tests their relationship, they can mitigate a schism simply by consistently greeting the other with a smile. It’s a strategy for overcoming nearly every type of sourness. Even when tough situations require deeper resolution, you can build a partnership in tackling them by showing regard in this painless way.

Julie looks down at her phone and sees the incoming call is her husband. “Hey, it’s the sweetest guy in the universe!” she answers, rather than just saying “Hi, hon.” The smile implicit in her enthusiastic greeting sets the tone for the interchange, as Julie’s spouse instantly envisions her smiling face. As explained in my book Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage (2017), if you’re feeling bored with your relationship, or irritated at something your mate has done, you can regain some positive feelings instantly just by raising your lips.

Do a “Duchenne”

But did you know that you can get the best reaction with one particular type of smile? Even a perfunctory grin improves any encounter, but the configuration formed by the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi muscles together, called the Duchenne smile, most effectively brings an uptick in joy. The French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne wrote in 1862 that the orbicularis oculi acts in response to “the sweet emotions of the soul,” involving the upper face, eyes crinkling while twinkling. His namesake grin was finally quantified in the 1970s by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, who developed muscular coordinates for 3,000 facial expressions–allowing subsequent researchers to validate the power of the Duchenne smile.

Diane's high school photo, name cropped out
Duchenne smiles in a college yearbook were found to predict life success

A 30-year longitudinal study found that women wearing Duchenne smiles in their college yearbook photos turned out to have greater marital satisfaction and overall well-being at age 52. A related study correlated low-intensity smiles in youth with later propensity to divorce. A third piece of research found that professional baseball players flashing Duchenne smiles in their 1952 yearbook were half as likely to die by 2006 as their more somber-looking cohort.

This type of smile conveys and creates its sincerity. If you truly want to engender happiness, do a Duchenne.

Being Jewish, I’m conscious of the mitzvah—commandment—called in Hebrew “sayver panim yafos.” Jews are instructed to greet others with a happy countenance, a directive thousands of years old that has meant greater odds for positive interactions.

Sometimes we eye someone and normally don’t think to smile. In our culture, old or infirm people tend to be marginalized. Children, too, are often disregarded. We’ve got an unconscious bias toward the potent and strong. One exercise I’ve found spiritually uplifting is to intentionally smile and look in the eyes of all whom I encounter—especially if it means facing downward toward a wheelchair. Each person is worthy and valuable, and our power to enhance their moments—while adding to our own—is as close as a smile.

References: Study on ‘service with a smile’: being forced to smile lowers job satisfaction (most useful source for writing this), by Eric Jaffee Study on reactions to Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles Study showing Duchenne smilers are more successful, less divorce study showing impressions of smiling women higher than if not smiling study shows smiles predict longevity.


My uncut “National Review” interview: From puppies to the dirt on divorce

Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review asked me to respond to some questions about my book Don’t Divorce, which they published as “Resisting the Divorce Momentum.” However, they trimmed the piece for space, and I thought I’d post the interview in its entirety, which includes some extra nuggets.48286-puppies-basket-of-puppies

You wrote one book warning against divorce only to be excoriated. Wouldn’t you try something else this time? Raindrops on roses or puppies – or any kind of dog (people seem to love dog books!)?

Though I love dogs, I don’t really have much to offer about them, I’m afraid. I did write books on other topics since The Case Against Divorce which came out—I hesitate to reveal my age here—24 years ago. That title is still in print and selling, and over the years I continue to receive article requests and speaking invitations on the topic.

But just as marriage has changed drastically since that book, divorce has also transformed, and simply discussing the downside of divorce is no longer enough.  At this point, we’re seeing the damage parental divorce has wreaked on now-adult children, who refrain from marriage (pushing the mean age at first marriage up to 29 for men) lest they endure or cause for their children the heart-wrenching divorce experience. I started to observe the underlying values changes that demolished divorce stigma and lets people put their desires and emotions ahead of their commitments, and that was the clincher—it was time to broaden the discussion and revisit the topic.

Why do you “confess” your own divorce early on?

I’m embarrassed and sad about my early marriage ending in divorce, so my strong initial inclination was just to leave it out. After all, I’ve been married to my husband Michael for 32 years. But the truth is that one can never live down nor forget a marriage, even if it’s without children (as mine was), a phenomenon so common it’s now blithely dismissed with the term “starter marriage.” The inescapable lifelong pain of divorce is one of my messages, and so rather than omit or hide a fact that would probably emerge anyway, I just laid it out there at the onset. Also, I think I gain a measure of credibility, having experienced both divorce and long-term marriage.

Telling people not to divorce and declaring that there is no good divorce can make people who have been divorced feel lousy and judged when there’s probably a lot of pain surrounding it already and there may have been good reasons. Why do you do it – knowing the pain yourself? 

My book is aimed toward people suffering in a tough marriage who are not divorced, though they may be thinking about it (as well as for their therapists, pastors, friends and families). I discuss the fact that once someone’s divorced, he should and needs to feel that the divorce was necessary. The bromide “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” applies here—though no divorce is fun, and every divorce brings pain, once it’s done, it’s healthy to move on and even to view that difficult chapter as part of the journey that brings someone to a better, more aware place.

That said, I was still surprised at the anger that arose when a friend of mine suggested that I come speak to her Divorce Recovery Group. Understandably, they were still suffering and struggling to extricate themselves emotionally from their marriages. The group facilitator even wrote me an email with quotes expressing group members’ ire. I should mention that my book includes a whole chapter on justifiable, unavoidable divorce, even suggesting how to leave, in cases of abandonment or where an offending spouse won’t admit or address physical abuse, addiction or personality disorders like full-blown narcissism.

Why is it so important to stop “The Divorce Momentum”? 

Once couples start using “the D-word,” escalating emotions kick in, and often they’re sucked into a Divorce Industry (well-meaning therapists, financial and law professionals, coaches, etc.) primed to spiral them down the funnel to a decree. Few couples even realize they’re in that well-worn groove. That’s why it’s useful to name and describe the process and suggest a step backward in order to realign to long-term goals and understand the consequences of immediately responding to rising emotions.

How is everyone who is married at war with the menace of divorce? 

Unfortunately, we find ourselves now in a culture with ubiquitous hazards to marriage and few countervailing safeguards for it. We’re offered constant gratification and no incentive to ride out dissatisfaction. I discuss three “divorce magnets” pulling couples apart: 1) The Divorce Industry and “non-judgmental” friends and family who offer sympathy and accommodation to divorcing people, 2) convenient technology that facilitates hook-ups and porn, fomenting “the grass is greener” syndrome, and 3) a competitive, egalitarian workplace that pulls attention to career and away from marriage and offers proximity for fraternization.

Are people not getting married somehow out of the fight? Part of the problem? 

“People not getting married” is a strange way to recognize a generation of victims of no-stigma, prolific divorce. I mentioned before the huge numbers of adult children of divorce, who became skittish about commitment, afraid to repeat what they saw their parents endure. They also fear inflicting their own children with the rootless dual identity fostered by shared custody that they suffered. Still, 96% of the population is either presently married or would like to be. It’s nearly everyone’s desire to form a permanent, loving bond with another. Therefore, nobody’s “out of the fight.”

What is it about divorce and the opportunity for men to “have it all” that should get feminists banding together with those talking about its dangers? 

A feminist view is that men and women both juggle work and family to “have it all,” and that neither gender can attain it.  Because “it all” is a high bar of success in three spheres: career, raising children, and constructive personal and family time.

True, gender roles seem to have stayed largely the same—men in general want to achieve in careers and prefer to entrust their wives with child-related responsibilities. And in general, women want to compete in the work-world and at the same time want and choose close involvement with their children. So, we still see women arranging their lives to address two careers, mother and paying job, and if the husband decides to decamp the marriage, she’s left with the bigger load (plus having to compensate for any slowdown in career momentum because of her child-rearing choices).

So in that sense, it’s more fair, more pro-woman, if spouses honor their marital commitments with the seriousness with which they’d honor a business contract.

I should add, however, that men who are closely involved with their children—like the women who do so—report that the rewards of parenthood exceed the work-related accolades they might have received. So the juggle is worth it.

“Everyone has the potential for joy.” Why did you feel the need to write such a sentence? 

Astute you picked up on that. As I wrote Don’t Divorce, I was often saddened thinking back to my clients in unhappy marriages. Sometimes I’d find myself in therapy sessions with sobbing spouses, trying to disguise my own tears of sympathy for what these people were going through—such as years of verbal lashing, lack of affection, or of unheeded pleading to address hurtful habits. Some, women in particular had been completely devastated by a betraying spouse. They couldn’t see their way to ever regaining joy, especially with the person they’d come in some measure to hate. Perhaps people in the depths of marital turmoil and depression should have those words on paper. There’s always hope.

How should married couples and the marriage minded think about happiness and joy? 

Very simply: in the long term. My friend Dennis Prager distinguishes between happiness and fun. They’re both wonderful, but you earn happiness through investing time and by exercising your virtues. Happiness comes with setting a goal and accomplishing it, and a fundamental life goal is to pair with another in mutual support and love to create a shared history, especially with the legacy of children. In the last chapter of Don’t Divorce, I describe “The Five Unique Rewards of Marriage.” The final point is that “marriage makes soul mates.” Though many couples claim to be soul mates at their weddings, I hold that only by jointly facing challenges and triumphs over a span of many years can you develop an understanding of the other person on its deepest level, the type of closeness where you can anticipate the other’s reactions and accept that person even when circumstances (or behaviors) might be far from ideal.

“Your marriage is more significant than you realize,” you write. Why is this so important to convey? could it even have an effect on politics? 

It’s important to emphasize the significance of marriage because at a vulnerable moment, it’s easier to succumb to the popular “wisdom” of “you deserve to be happy.” Especially in a painful situation, the urgency is to assuage negative emotions, without considering the impact of a split on any future for the marriage, and on children, parents, friends and culture.

As an aside, in Jewish tradition, a newly-married couple doesn’t go off on a honeymoon, but instead spends seven days in their community, each night being feted by a different group of friends and neighbors. The idea is to cement in the couple’s mind that their joy is shared by a large group of people who will be there to support and care for them, in good times like a wedding celebration, and in tough times as well. In other words, it’s to make sure they know that their marriage is significant in building the community and its long-term continuity.

When divorce becomes a trend, it becomes normalized, which encourages others to follow. Though the divorce rate has never topped 30% according to the Census Bureau, the myth of the 50% divorce rate, which you see without attribution everywhere, serves to offer permission for marital break-up. After all, says the departing spouse, we’re just in the wrong half. With divorce accepted, single parenthood became common, and then no big deal, creating a large number of children raised with no husband-and-father role model.

There are policy ramifications to the weakening of marriage. When President Obama wanted to tout his all-encompassing social programs, he invented a character, Julia, who was cared for by government programs, cradle to unwed parenthood to grave. On the conservative side, pro-marriage “family values” continues as an approved buzz-word. Policies will be different if the goal is supporting married families versus supporting individuals. The expectation is that families pull together and rely on each other (often with differentiated roles), so government should enable them to be self-sufficient; unmarried individuals tend to rely more upon the government, and therefore benefit from expansive programs.

Does same-sex marriage complicate things? 

I don’t think so. Marriage is a stabilizing force for both individuals and society, and that’s a good thing. I assume partners in same-sex marriages enter them with the same hopes and aspirations, and suffer from the same heartaches and problems as anyone else who bothers to get a wedding license, hold a ceremony and take vows.  Among all types of couples, you’ll find a long continuum of attitudes toward and behaviors within marriage. I hope that I can spare spouses and especially children from the disruption and pain of divorce, and thereby inspire them toward honoring commitments and caring for others rather than simply responding to selfish emotions and desires. The more honorable and responsible people in America, the better.

How can a couple struggling make use of this book? If a husband or wife is reading this interview right now, how might they go about approaching their spouse to consider something of your suggestions. Besides buying your book obviously, what’s the first step you’d recommend?

Don’t knock buying the book—sometimes just one partner leaving it on a nightstand inspires communication that’s been long avoided. Keeping hurt and suspicion bottled inside can feed misconceptions and fuel an outburst, so I’d probably say the first step is to approach the other and admit to problems and aspirations. Expressing thoughts in a letter is often the most constructive way to do this, and if the situation is delicate or explosive, the letters might best be exchanged in the presence of a counselor.

Usually at least one person wants to revive the marriage, even if one wants out. The tendency is to accept that if one partner is no longer in love, it’s over—but a partner who wants to save the marriage can’t just nod and accept rejection; she needs to seek out support and push back, even if uncharacteristic or difficult for her.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about marriage in all your experience personally and professionally?

Tough to pick just one idea! First off, the notion of “winning by letting go.” Too many marriages get caught in stubbornness. You can stop an escalating argument by saying outright: “Normally I’d respond, but right now I’m going to let go. We can do it your way.” Usually the other person is flummoxed into backing down, too.

Then there’s the idea of “the power of the preface.” If we just preface tough conversations with our internal thought processes, we’re much more likely to get a good reception. For example, “I’ve been thinking about how to tell you this. It’s really difficult for me to say anything that might hurt your feelings because despite it all, I do love you, but…”

I also like the idea of “behaving as if you’re happily married.” That’s a version of the cliché “fake it till you make it,” because if you (even insincerely) behave lovingly, eventually your feelings will fall in line with your actions. This is a Jewish principle, by the way. Anticipate what would please your partner and do it. Maybe you won’t get much reaction until the third, fourth or fifth effort, but pick a time frame (like a week) and don’t let up.

And as far as the tired maxim “don’t go to bed angry,” NO. Go to bed angry; the problem won’t seem nearly as bad in the morning. One of the pieces of advice from The Legacy Project at Cornell University—1,500 stories from long-married elderly—is when you’re having a fight, make a sandwich. It could be that you’re hungry, and even if that’s not the problem, taking a break to break bread stops the conflagration. It’s like taking ten deep breaths but better.

There are plenty more suggestions where those came from. (Buy Don’t Divorce.)

How might we all start thinking differently about marriage and family, in the midst of all the political and cultural and personal challenges? 

The reason divorce rates ascended was because of a sea-change in national attitude fomented by spoiled baby-boomers. The Greatest Generation’s motto was “do your duty,” pulling and sacrificing together for the sake of the nation. This morphed into the Disney mantra of “follow your heart,” meaning if today you’re bored or “missing something” or feeling disrespected, you’re entitled to leave. We need to start discussing honoring commitment and ideals broader than those in our personal microcosms.

We should start looking at our marriages not as two people in love, because when that love falters for one person, as surely it will, then the basis of the relationship crumbles. Instead, we should take a long-term view of marriage, understanding it as a “Family Project” in which each person—husband, wife, each child and the extended family and community—plays a valuable role. If we see things in the long-term rather than the feelings-oriented “right now,” we become empowered to weather difficulties, knowing that the larger goal and ultimate outcome is worthwhile.

Probably the most important and inspiring research in Don’t Divorce offers hope for everyone in a troubled marriage, and even for anyone observing our bizarre political scene. Two major studies assessed hundreds of thousands of married couples, asking their levels of marital happiness. Of the spouses who said they were unhappily married, five years later two-thirds in one study, and three-quarters in the other reported being happily wed. And the couples who were most unhappy at first measurement became the most happy five years later. In other words, “this, too shall pass,” and with trust in God and our Constitution—and in the importance and worth of wedding vows—we can surmount and get past our problems and regain equilibrium and confidence in the future.