Posts Tagged ‘Whitney Hopler writing’

Well-Being with Whitney: A New Year Revolution of the Soul

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

Have you made New Year’s resolutions? If so, have you already broken them? Change is notoriously challenging. The new year changes we hope to make in 2017 can truly become realities in our lives only when we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to pursuing them. We mean well, of course, by setting goals for greater well-being. But the work of doing what we resolve to do and resisting temptations to quit is hard. It’s not fun, either. So to really change our lives in 2017 requires passion that fuels ongoing commitment. In short, what we need is a revolution of the soul.

This New Year, I visited Boston, Massachusetts, where the American Revolution began in the 1700s and resulted in the creation of a new nation: the United States of America. The stories I researched there make it clear that true change must start in people’s souls — in their thoughts and feelings — and move from there into words and actions that make change happen. Before the first shots of the Revolutionary War was fired in Massachusetts (at Lexington and Concord) in 1775, many American colonists experienced revolutions in their minds that motivated them to try to change their relationship with their British government. Those changing thoughts and feelings toward the British gradually built up prior to outright war, leading to significant clashes between the colonists and the British authorities years before — such as the tragic Boston Massacre in 1770, and the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

It was transformation in the souls of colonists that motivated them to do the hard work of giving birth to a new nation. They took risks and made sacrifices with great courage as they worked toward their goals because they truly believed in those goals and in their ability to achieve them, with God’s help.  Eventually, the nation  they hoped would emerge from the struggle became a reality.

Years later, one of the revolution’s leaders (John Adams, who became the second U.S. president) wrote, “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

Let that inspire you as work to change your life for the better this coming year. Now that New Year’s celebrations have faded and the hard work of actually following up on resolutions begins, it’s tempting to just give up. In fact, although about 40 percent of Americans report making New Year’s resolutions, the majority of those who do (60 percent) abandon those resolutions before achieving the changes they had hoped to make in their lives, according to a University of Scranton study published in 2012.

You and I can overcome those statistics, however. The key is keeping our goals connected to our souls. We can stay in touch with God through prayer on a regular basis, listening to his daily guidance and relying on his Spirit to empower us as we slog through the hard work of change. Then, we’ll actually be motivated to keep exercising, organizing our homes, spending less money, getting more sleep, overcoming addictions, building better relationships, taking more risks in our careers — whatever he leads us to do to change our lives for the better!

Well-Being with Whitney: Setting Goals Together

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

New Year’s resolutions are notorious for fizzling out like exploded fireworks. But the 2017 goals we set stand a good chance of becoming reality if we work together to achieve them — encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable. Too often, we think of goals solely in terms of individual pursuits. But change doesn’t happen in isolation. Whenever we change our lives, we do so in the context of the relationships we have with others day by day. We affect each other as we interact, so we might as well do so with good purposes in mind.

I just spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Boston, Massachusetts, where a tradition began in 1976 that has expanded throughout the world since then: First Night celebrations. These are New Year’s festivities that include everyone, offering all sorts of creative events in a schedule that aims to appeal to the greatest diversity of people. It’s not just a dinner and dance with drinks, which usually only appeals to a certain group: couples who have disposable income and like to celebrate with alcohol. At First Night, anyone can find something appealing to do among the free or low-cost activities that are alcohol-free. All ages — from babies to seniors — enjoyed the First Night Boston events we attended: a skating show, concerts, an ice sculpture exhibit, and fireworks.

First Night celebrations emphasize the fact that we’re all entering the New Year together and encourage us to do so in a spirit of unity. That same spirit can help us achieve our New Year’s resolution goals now that the party is over and the hard work has to begin in order to make real progress.

What goals are you working to achieve this year? Maybe you’ve made one of the most popular resolutions, such as losing weight, gaining better relationships, spending less money, or spending more time helping others. Maybe your goals are less common, but no less important.

I don’t make formal New Year’s resolutions anymore. Instead, I simply carry over my goals from the previous year and keep praying for God’s guidance from day to day. Some of the goals I’m working on for 2017 include expanding my career and getting more organized at home. I can’t accomplish those goals alone; I need help from God and other people who care about me. The gratitude I feel for help from caring friends lights the fire of motivation in me to help them achieve their own goals for this year.

It’s the same for all of us. As the Bible puts it in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”

Working together, we can achieve much more in 2017 than we can apart!

Well-Being with Whitney: Silence Speaks During Times of Uncertainty

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Since the old year will soon transition to the new year, this is a great time to reflect on our lives so far and how we hope to change them going forward. It’s also a time of uncertainty that can discourage us, unless we’re intentional about centering ourselves in what never changes — God’s love for us — in the middle of uncertain circumstances. Spending time in silent reflection (through prayer or meditation) empowers us to discover something ironic: silence actually speaks.

What comes through in the middle of silence is God’s voice, which the Bible describes in 1 Kings 19:12 as a “still small voice” or as a “gentle whisper.” It’s an incredibly powerful voice — but quiet enough to inspire us to listen carefully for it. God doesn’t shout at us above the noise of our lives. Instead, he motivates us to pay attention to his messages by speaking constantly in a loving way that we have to care enough to seek out. Silent reflection is like tuning our ears and minds into God’s frequency that has been broadcasting all along.

One winter day seven years ago, I heard God’s whispering voice while taking a silent prayer walk and wrestling with great uncertainty. My husband Russ needed a lifesaving kidney transplant and a great guy from our church had volunteered to donate a kidney to him. Right before the surgery was scheduled, however, the plans fell apart. That unexpected change made it a real possibility that I’d be a widowed single parent sometime soon.

God didn’t answer any of my questions that I asked on that walk, but in the midst of my uncertainty, he did something else: He sent me a powerful sense of peace. I didn’t know what my future held, but I did know that I could trust God, no matter what. When worry crept into my life (as it often did) after that walk, silent prayer and meditation centered my soul back into the place where I could receive God’s peace again.

Thankfully, a few months later Russ underwent a successful kidney transplant thanks to another hero from our church who made the lifesaving gift. But even before I knew what would happen, I felt at peace, because God met me in the silence and spoke just enough for me to renew my trust in him.

Whatever scary uncertainty you’re facing right now, I hope you’ll make some time to reflect on it during silent prayer or meditation and listen for God’s response. Even in silence, he has something to say to you.

Well-Being with Whitney: Christmas Peace with Fractured Families

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

This is the time of year when the harsh reality of family estrangement hits the hardest. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression rates spike during the holiday season when family stress collides with hopes for Christmas peace. This when we feel the pressure to present the image of a happy family to others in our Christmas cards, letters, and Facebook posts. This is when family gatherings bring together people who don’t get along during the rest of the year, with relatives trying to be on their best behavior. Despite family dysfunction, many of us hope that somehow, Christmas magic will solve our family’s problems. But we can’t sugarcoat our fractured families as easily as icing a broken Christmas cookie.

It’s time to stop magical thinking and start pursuing Christmas peace — peace within ourselves, with our family members, and with God — in the midst of dysfunction.

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve dreaded Christmas even as I’ve looked forward to it, because of the tension in my family. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, setting in motion a stressful lifestyle for me that included listening to arguments and shuttling between houses. The Christmas season, while full of fun, exacerbated that stress by intensifying the arguments and complicating an already complex schedule. Figuring out who I would visit for Christmas, and when, became a tug of war in which I felt like a rope being pulled too hard. Eating copious amounts of chocolate Santas and singing along to Christmas carols on the radio distracted me somewhat from the stress. But no amount of Christmas magic could dissolve the sadness that settled in my soul like a black lump of coal in a stocking.

Now my family has new fractures in it, from a wide variety of misunderstandings, conflicts, and grudges. So as an adult, I still have never experienced the elusive magical family Christmas I’ve dreamed about experiencing. At least now I can see the situation through the eyes of grace. As an adult, I’ve learned that everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes all of us mess up even when we’re doing the best we can. Sometimes others hurt us so deeply that it’s hard to forgive. Yet still, I’ve continued to fall into magical thinking, naively believing every year when the holiday season hits that the stress will stop and forgiveness will prevail. Then I’m disappointed and frustrated when that doesn’t happen.

No more. This year, I’m giving up unrealistic expectations. I’m accepting that my Christmas experience will likely contain some pain that I simply can’t do anything to change. But that’s not a resignation; that’s a relief. I’m able to relax, having turned off the pressure of trying to make the family that I want happen, or of trying to pretend that it exists, at Christmas. I can finally enjoy peace at Christmas, despite family conflicts.

Families are complicated because people are complicated. People are complicated because they make a tangled mess of good and bad decisions, which God has given humanity free will to do. But we celebrate Christmas because God decided to live among us with unconditional love. That’s the true source of peace. No matter how our family members fail to love us and we fail to love them, we can live in peace because nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, as Romans 8:38-39 promises.

So this Christmas, don’t worry about the dysfunction in your family. God’s love is big enough to cover it all with a beautiful blanket of peace.

Well-Being with Whitney: Fasting from Comfort Food

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Who doesn’t love comfort food? Chips, brownies, macaroni and cheese, ice cream — it’s all fun to eat. Holiday food (from casseroles to cookies) is often comforting. Indulging in comfort food is fine once in a while. But eating comfort food regularly is a sign of using it for something it can’t reliably provide: good feelings. God designed food to nourish our bodies in enjoyable ways, but not to be the source of our comfort, as emotional eating leads us to believe. So fasting from comfort foods to lessen our dependence on them is a healthy choice to refresh ourselves in body, mind, and spirit.

That’s easy for me to say, but not to do.

Potatoes, cheese, and gravy sat before me at the table, all piled on top of each other in a deliciously squishy mess of a meal called “poutine” — the signature dish of Montreal, Canada. As I dug into it on a recent trip there, I savored every bite of that tasty concoction featuring not just one, but three of my favorite comfort foods.

Poutine was so comforting, in fact, that I found myself seeking it out whenever I felt stressed on the trip. Wait a minute, I finally reminded myself, poutine isn’t a friend — it’s just food!

Once again, I’d fallen into the trap of emotional eating. That’s something I’ve struggled with since childhood, when I began rewarding myself for finishing school homework by eating chocolate candy. Fasting from comfort foods from time to time is a great way to remind myself that food is meant for my body — not my emotions — and get back on track with healthy eating habits.

What foods do you turn to for comfort, and why? Do you tend to eat brownies when you’re worried? Do you relieve stress with a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV screen?

After you’ve identified what you’re feeling when you eat, you can choose new ways of dealing with those feelings — ways that don’t involve food. So instead of eating a brownie when you’re anxious, you can pray about what’s worrying you, and rather than eating popcorn to try to relieve stress, you can take a walk. Both prayer and walking can actually help you achieve your emotional goals, unlike comfort food, which may make you feel better for the few minutes you eat it but do nothing to help you in the long run.

Try fasting from your favorite comfort food for at least three weeks, since it takes at least 21 days to develop a new habit. Then, when you return to it, do so only in moderation and after you’ve already filled up on a healthy meal or snack. You can still indulge once in a while — just not in an emotionally dependent way. Enjoy a treat occasionally, but get your comfort from more reliable sources: God and caring people.

Well-Being with Whitney: Take Stress Out of Your Holiday Schedule

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Christmas is my favorite holiday, so for years I tried to pack all the Christmas activities I possibly could into my holiday schedule to enjoy as much Christmas season fun as possible. But that approach to holiday planning ironically diminishes fun, because it leads to holiday stress. I learned that the night I drove around for 5 hours to see prize-winning Christmas lights, only to return home exhausted and wishing I would have just stayed home.

The newspaper I worked for as a reporter held a contest each holiday season for readers to choose the best Christmas lights in area neighborhoods. After helping to compile the results, I got so excited that I set a goal for myself to visit each home in a single evening. I carefully planned my route with a map of the winning homes, then set out on my adventure after work. Inside the car, I blasted Christmas carols and munched on popcorn and chocolate candy to add to the festive atmosphere. For a while, it felt like a traveling party. But after an hour or so, I had driven myself deep into a holiday haze. All of the nativity scenes, Santas, wreaths, snowmen, angels, and other decorations started to blur together in my mind. A myriad of blinking lights on houses, driveways, trees, and bushes twinkled so relentlessly that the details of their award-winning designs escaped me and all I saw was yet another bright thing. Yet I still drove on, determined not to miss anything on my frantic quest for fun.

By the time I returned home late at night, I wasn’t feeling the fun at all. I was just exhausted.

Years later, I experienced the most Christmas fun I’d ever had — while stuck in a hospital! That year I had to cancel many of the holiday activities I’d hoped to enjoy, because my son was due to be born around Christmas. His birth was the reason I was hospitalized over the holiday. I couldn’t even go to church for Christmas that year. Yet the simplicity of that Christmas with God, family, and friends was full of joy.

The Christmas season brings so many opportunities to experience wonder that it’s easy to fill up your December calendar completely. But too many good activities can have a bad effect on you. Cramming too much into your schedule affects your soul like gorging on candy affects your body: it causes harmful stress.

So this year when you’re making holiday plans, intentionally schedule some downtime between activities so you’ll be able to rest and reflect just as much as you celebrate. That way, your soul can fully absorb the wonder of the season — and most importantly, connect to the One whose birthday is the reason for it.

Well-Being with Whitney: Napping Away Holiday Stress?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The “napping pod” swung gently back and forth while the person inside slept in darkness (wearing a sleep mask over his eyes) and quiet (thanks to noise-canceling earphones). Although the pod looked like a giant cradle, the person sleeping there wasn’t a baby — it was a businessman wearing a suit. I laughed at that sight when I saw it in an airport lounge. But naps are a serious trend right now, fueling lots of new businesses offering customers places to take “power naps” for stress relief and greater well-being. And now, during the holiday season, naps are more popular than ever. Big meals and Christmas cookies tend to make us sleepy because of the way carbs affect our brains, and naps help us manage stress during the holidays, as well.

I have to confess that I don’t usually take naps. When I worked at The Salvation Army’s USA headquarters (which had a designated napping room), I failed miserably every time I tried to use it, because I worried that I’d be late going back to my desk if I overslept, so I could never relax enough to go to sleep in the first place. Not only that, but I still have a lingering sense of guilt about napping whenever I do (rarely) take an opportunity to do so. It just seems lazy, somehow, to me.

But sleep studies say otherwise. According to the National Sleep Foundation, brief naps (those that last only 20 to 30 minutes) can help improve people’s moods, alertness, and performance. So I shouldn’t worry about naps harming my productivity when they can actually improve it.

In fact, Psalm 127:2 dismisses concerns about skipping sleep in an effort to be more productive and encourages trusting God enough to simply sleep when our bodies and souls need rest: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves.”

This holiday season, I’m going to try taking some brief naps from time to time, as a way of trying to manage stress better. I won’t be shelling out money to rent a fancy napping pod (and certainly not one that looks like a giant baby cradle!) but I’ll make some time to relax on my bed during some afternoons at home, set an alarm for 30 minutes, and see what happens.

Do you take afternoon naps? Why or why not? How could you reduce your  holiday stress this year by improving the quality of your sleep?

Well-Being with Whitney: Your Holiday Stress Detox Prescription — Patience

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Warm mineral waters from a mountain spring in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia swirled around my husband Russ and me during a recent visit to the place that George Washington helped make famous as a stress relief destination. By “taking the waters” we were hoping for a fun time together and a stress detox. For centuries, people had raved about the water’s power to relax the soul and cleanse the body of toxins. All thoughts about the current pressures in our lives evaporated like the steam that rose from 102-degree water, even though it felt like we were being boiled like tea or mulled wine for a holiday party.

It took patience to stay in such hot water long enough to experience its well-being benefits. We had to stand up, move around, and drink multiple cups of cold water to stay alert while immersed in the pool. But the healing results were worth the effort. By increasing our blood circulation and making us sweat, the water helped our bodies get rid of toxic chemicals that had collected in our muscles. By lowering our blood pressure and immersing us in a peaceful environment, the water signaled our minds to relax and enjoy the present moment.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to be able to achieve such benefits without having to visit a special place? This holiday season, I’m trying to take home the healing lesson I learned at the famous mountain spring: that stress relief doesn’t really come through quick fixes, but through patiently nurturing good health.

So often during the holidays, I’ve been tempted to think that a quick fix of something fun — like eating another Christmas cookie or watching another TV show — will magically relieve stress. But quick fixes only leave me feeling more broken down by stress.

It’s common to respond to holiday stress in unhealthy ways such as eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol, and missing sleep, according to research from the American Psychological Association. For a short while, it feels good to lull on a sofa in front of a holiday movie drinking craft beer and eating chocolate Santas. But once the movie ends, the buzz fades, and the sugar high crashes, you’ll feel worse than you did before. Stress will only surge back when you try to cover it up with a quick fix.

What really works for holiday stress management is the same strategy that works any time of year: patiently taking good care of yourself.

Instead of reacting to the holiday stress that hits you, be proactive by developing a plan to renew your body and soul on a regular basis. Build some margin into your schedule for rest and reflection that will help you stay strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually during the busy holiday season. Don’t slack off on healthy habits that help you maintain your physical well-being — habits like getting enough sleep and exercise.

Make time to think about what’s causing you the most stress, and then be intentional about doing whatever you can to change those factors. The American Psychological Association research showed that the factors most often causing stress for people included time and money pressures, diet concerns, and family gatherings gone wrong. Let go of unrealistic expectations about these issues and simply try to get through them gracefully. Perfect holidays never actually happen for anyone. But so what? You can still enjoy the season in the midst of imperfect circumstances. Just do your best to reduce stress in advance (like setting a holiday budget, letting go of activities that aren’t really meaningful for you, and enjoying truly meaningful traditions). Then go with the flow for the rest.

Have fun, but in moderation. Instead of having another piece of pie, stop at one. After enjoying some alcoholic punch, drink water for the rest of the party. Go ahead and see a movie, but don’t binge watch several in a row. Make time for enjoyable activities that truly nurture your well-being, such as taking walks, listening to music, and praying or meditating. You can even sit in a hot bath to relax, no mineral springs required (just turn your faucet to a high temperature and throw in some bath salts).

Be patient enough to nurture yourself well. The more patient you are, the more strength you can build to manage stress well this holiday season!

Well-Being with Whitney: What are Your Strengths?

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

How much more could you accomplish if you focused on your personal strengths rather than your challenges? In a world where disappointing situations and discouraging words from others hit us regularly, finding and using our strengths builds our confidence. It’s never too late to get to know our top strengths and learn how to use them well. In fact, it’s an ongoing process.

Recently, I took a the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, which revealed that my top 5 strengths (out of 34 possible options) are: achiever, ideation, input, intellection, and learner. While the results didn’t surprise me (I already knew that I achieve goals well, love to learn, and enjoy working with ideas and information), the report gave me valuable guidance on how to incorporate those strengths into my decisions. Just like others I interviewed for a story on the assessment at George Mason University (GMU), I found that focusing on my strengths helped me make wise choices. Reminding myself of what I most enjoy and am best at doing also silenced the echoes of old thoughts that had made me anxious in the past about my weaknesses. It’s just that kind of empowerment that I love to write about in my work for GMU as writer-in-residence at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.

We have to be intentional about thinking of our strengths in the stress of our day-to-day demands, which can easily draw our attention to weaknesses that make us feel inadequate. But the more we purposefully focus on our strengths, the more we can do with them.

In the famous Parable of the Talents, Jesus Christ tells the stories of some people who used their strengths well, and some who didn’t. The people who put their strengths to good use got more opportunities to do so. Focusing on strengths opens doors!

Do you know what your top strengths are? If not, take a personality test and talk with people who know you well for clues. Then reflect on, and pray about, those clues to figure out your core strengths. Once you know your strengths, use them as often as you can! Why not enjoy what you do, while making your best contributions to our world in the process?

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: New Ideas and Walt Disney

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Remember the last time you had an unconventional idea that excited you? What happened when you tried to pursue it? All too often, people can discourage those who express innovative ideas, or a lack of opportunities to act on those ideas can disappoint and frustrate them. It’s easy to feel excited by new ideas, but it’s challenging to bring them to fruition. They key to overcome those challenges is persistence. Thankfully, one many who became famous for his unconventional ideas was relentlessly persistent in his efforts to express them: Walt Disney.

Imagine how much less joy there would be in the world without Disney’s pioneering ideas — from beloved animated characters that have entertained generations of children, to the concept of the modern theme park — that have become so popular around the world. I visited the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California to learn how Disney succeeded — and what his life can teach all of us about pursuing our own innovative ideas.

One of Disney’s most famous quotes is, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” But he experienced his fair share of obstacles to overcome while trying to pursue his pioneering ideas.

Disney had to start over numerous times during his career when he lost progress that he’d made on a project. He was laid off from his first job as an artist, opened his own company but couldn’t find enough customers so went out of business, then eventually earned enough money to invest in a new business — only to lose his first popular animated character (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) to a dispute with a film producer. Finally, after much determination and persistence, Disney created the Mickey Mouse character and enjoyed some success.

But despite many years of success after that, Disney still had to overcome challenges to bring his innovative ideas to life. There were always difficult circumstances to work around, such as having to explain fanciful ideas to skeptical people and taking on financial debt for new projects.

In the end, though, Disney pursued his ideas because those ideas made him happy, and he believed they would make other people happy — which they did!

Here’s a challenge: Choose one new idea that’s come to your mind recently, and reflect on why it brings you joy and how it can bring joy to other people. Then plan some specific steps you can take to pursue that idea, even if it doesn’t seem practical. Pray for guidance about it, and ask for help from God to turn it into a reality if it’s meant to be. You’ll never know how much joy you can bring into the world until you try!