A Portal to Middle Earth

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I thought I had to go to New Zealand to see Middle Earth. I was wrong.

Birmingham was my home base while in England. It was only after I arranged to stay here that I discovered that at one time, it was Tolkien’s home base too.

As a small child, around the turn of the 20th century, John Ronald Reul Tolkien lived with his mother and brother in an apartment on Wake Green Road, just across the street from what he called “a kind of lost paradise”.

One paradise he refers to is Sarehole Mill.

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Sarehole Mill

Little John (no reference to Robin Hood here intended, *wink wink*) and his brother would sneak into the woods and pond around the mill and play games until the miller chased them out. I imagine them tailing it like Peter Rabbit after he ate Mr. MacGregor’s vegetables, the miller waving his fists and shouting “You rascals! Stay off my property!”

Tolkien’s memories of these idyllic times were inspiration for his imagination of the Shire. Today, the mill is a museum dedicated to his legacy.

My friend Nikki was kind enough to take me on a tour of the mill and its surrounding areas.

The Mill Pool

The Mill Pool

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You can see how Tolkien might have been inspired by these surroundings.

 

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A handmade carving of a crocodile lurking in the woods around the pond.

An even more beautiful lost paradise of Tolkien is the mysterious forest of Moseley Bog. Tolkien said that these woods were his muse for the Old Forest surrounding the Shire. It’s just a green pasture’s walk away from the Mill…

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A look back at the Mill’s chimney rising above the trees as we crossed the pasture.

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Mosely Bog or “The Old Forest”?

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A lovely little stream lined with an organic fence

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There were more handmade carvings in the Bog. This one is a dragonfly!

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“Swamp, yes yes. Come master. We will take you on safe paths, through the mist.”

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Perhaps my favorite picture of the day.

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My friend tells me these wooden planks were laid along the pathway by convicts. You can see the imprints of wiring along the wood, colored and dampened by moss. I felt as though I were walking on top of dragon scales.

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This tree looks like a fiery phoenix nest.

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A gnarly, wizened old tree, perfect for climbing…

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And for sitting…

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A glance back at the meadow in the waning afternoon light as we head back to the streets of Birmingham.

These sites were among the best of those spontaneous and serendipitous gems that sometimes accompany exploring the world. I certainly never expected to find such beauty tucked away in what is the the second largest city in England. What a magical experience.

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Holiness to the Lord: The Preston England Temple

I had the great privilege of visiting the Preston England Temple twice while I was in England. It is such a lovely temple with an important history. Preston was the first town in England to receive the news of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the earth. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I felt the sanctity of that humble beginning and the holiness of this beautiful structure. This site is also home to an LDS church, a distribution center, and the England Missionary Training Center, none of which I captured in pictures, but are nevertheless worthy of mention.

Here are a few pictures of the temple and its surrounding areas:

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Walking toward the temple from the Missionary Training Center and Distribution Center. You can see the temple’s steeple rising in the background.

 

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More of the gorgeous landscaping on the way to the temple.

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The temple itself. This picture pales in comparison to the actual structure.

There are 159 operating LDS temples around the world. I’ve visited several of them, and I’ve even worked as a volunteer in one of them. Whatever temple I go to, the feeling is the same. It is a symbol of peace, a place of revelation, and a house of holiness to the Lord. Here families can receive sacred ordinances that enable them to be together forever. Here the opportunity to serve God is always open. The comfort and clarity I’ve received in this building have been both powerful and healing. How I love the temple.

Tales of an Oxford Admirer

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Once upon a time I went to Oxford, England.

As I walked from the bus toward my lodgings, I wondered, “Where’s the university?”

Answer: all around me.

Oxford University is really a series of 38 colleges within a 17.6 square mile radius. All of them are independently run and offer a variety of subjects to study. Each college is quite exclusive and requires excellent grades and a strong work ethic. About 18,000 hopefuls apply to Oxford every single year and only 3,000 students are accepted.

I walked until I noticed a particularly interesting alleyway. I admired this doorway, but I didn’t understand its significance until the next day. If you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia, you will understand. Look closely:

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C.S. Lewis attended and taught at Oxford. My tour guide later told me that he used to visit people that lived in a flat beyond this door. And here’s a lone lamp post just beyond the door.

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We’ve entered Narnia, folks.

It was a suitable beginning to my Oxford exploration. Those who know me well understand that I am a great admirer of C.S. Lewis.

Just past and to the right of the lamp post is the entrance to the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, complete with steps climbing up to a bell tower.

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There is an enclave there with a style that is not unusual in Anglican and Catholic churches, but it’s usually there for choir stands and a place for the priest to preach his sermon. The enclave here had been turned into a place of prayer. Visitors are able to light a candle and sit on one of the benches along the wall. There are cushions and railings in front of the benches to allow for comfortable, contemplative kneeling. I am not a member of the Anglican faith, and I disagree with many of its teachings, but I did feel a sense of holiness there. I lit a candle and I sat on one of the benches for a half hour or so to meditate and pray. I had the privilege of being the only person in that area of the church.

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Just across from St. Mary’s is the famous Radcliffe Camera.

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This building was designed to house the Radcliffe Science Library. No one is allowed inside unless they have exclusive permission. It was named after John Radcliffe, who was a member of Parliament in the 1400s that donated quite a bit of money to Oxford upon his death. Yes, the building is that old. The oldest building still standing in Oxford is Saxon Tower, which was built around 1040 A.D. That’s over 700 years before the United States was even founded.

Not far down the same street is the entrance to the famous Divinity School and Bodleian Library. Here my dreams of visiting a dusty Oxford library came to fruition. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed so I cannot show you pictures of that library, but I can at least tell you about it.

The books in the Bodleian are mostly from the 17th century. They can only be touched by those with special permission. They used to be connected to the walls by chains to ensure that they would not leave the library. Nowadays the Bodleian is part of a network of twelve million books, most of which are stored in a warehouse in Swindon. A van travels between Oxford and Swindon every day bringing book requests to those which are so blessed as to have access to what is the second largest network of libraries in England.

For all you Harry Potter fans, both the Divinity School and the Bodleian were used in scenes in Hogwarts, depicting the infirmary and the Hogwarts Library. Christ Church Hall, where I ate breakfast, was used as inspiration for the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Here are pictures of Christ Church Hall, my breakfast (For the foodies), and the Divinity School, respectively.

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breakfast

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The Divinity School was a place of theological debate, and for a time it was considered to be the most important place in Oxford. Oxford is historically an extremely religious school. In fact, before 1870, its students and faculty had to be members of the Church of England to attend. That’s why there are churches everywhere. Nowadays, however, it’s become rather secular.

The Weston Library, not far from the Bodleian, had some lovely treasures on display. First of all, there was a Jane Austen exhibit, filled with her old letters, first editions of her books, and various other pieces of memorabilia. For me, this was one of those tender mercies – those moments where you just know God is thinking of you. I love Jane Austen. Again, no pictures were allowed.

But in the next room, I could take pictures of these:

The Magna Carta

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A first edition Shakespeare folio

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The book in which Handel composed The Messiah, complete with some mistakes he scribbled out as he hurriedly composed an entire symphony in 24 days:

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And the original handwritten version of Hindu scripture. This was actually the most expensive item in the room:

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I also had the privilege of visiting the Eagle and the Child, a local pub where a group called the Inklings met weekly to discuss their plans.

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Here in the Rabbit Room, C.S. Lewis met with J.R.R. Tolkien and others to develop the ideas that led to the creation of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and many of his non-fiction apologist works. Here Tolkien developed themes that led to his mythological creation of Middle Earth. A whole genre was created here. Before this, fantasy was just fairy tales.

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I had a delicious mac and cheese.

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I visited several sites connected to C.S. Lewis, such as the Eastgate Hotel, where “Jack” (Lewis’s nickname) first met his wife Joy.

Jack married Joy so she could get a green card, but they ended up falling in love. I even found a copy of their marriage certificate in an office which used to be the city hall and is now a Quaker Meeting House:

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Here’s a lovely garden where Lewis may have walked. The Quakers take great care of it:

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I stopped for a bit to have citrus ginger herbal tea at the Randolph Hotel, where Tolkien and Lewis sometimes entertained their guests. Here’s a picture of what tea at the Randolph really looks like:

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Here’s the door and the inside of the University College, where Lewis studied English, Latin, Greek, Philosophy, and History:

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And Magdalen College, where Lewis became a fellow:

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By the time I reached Magdalene, most of the Oxford sites had closed for the day, and it was close to the time my bus left for home.

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Shortly before this trip and shortly thereafter, I was working through some pretty tumultuous emotions. This experience was a kind of refuge from those emotions. It expanded my perspective of the world, but in a very different way than my trip to Scotland the week before. It was like a lighthouse in a storm – enlightening and secure.

Whether I get my happy ever after remains to be seen, but I’m grateful for the joy along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Undesirable Adventure

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My adventure on The Isle of Skye in Scotland turned out to be way too adventurous for my taste.

So what happened? To put it in the words of an onlooker, I “drove [my] car off a cliff”. That’s…not quite accurate.

Yesterday I drove into a trailhead parking lot on top of a steep hill. Then I did something incredibly idiotic, or rather failed to do something: I did not put my car in park and took the keys out of the ignition. When I let go of the brake, the car slid out over the edge and down the hill.

The car stopped halfway down due to the underbrush, a broken tree trunk, and the miracle of God.

I’m okay. Physically, that is. I’m working on the emotional, financial, logistical and spiritual aspects of the situation.

I don’t have a picture of the car after the wreck, but here’s what the car looked like before. It’s a tiny Kia Picanto – a classic European size. The car’s make and model was fine for any the roads in on the Isle of Skye, but it probably didn’t help to have such a tiny car for sliding down a hill.

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So what was this experience like? Rather excruciating, to be honest. The aftermath, in particular, was worse than the initial event. It seemed designed to trigger all my pressure points, weaknesses and fears.

I’m going to share all the details with you. I’m not leaving anything out. Putting all of this on a public website was not easy for me. But I feel the need to be vulnerable–no matter who reads or doesn’t read this. I believe there is healing in vulnerability. Granted, what that looks like in each situation varies, but here I feel that this is the right choice. I welcome any who may be able to offer comfort or encouragement. I will accept it the best I authentically can.

So here are the pros and cons of the situation. Like most growth experiences, there was light and dark. I believe in being honest about how I see the situation. I’m not going to fake happiness. I’m working through my emotions and that starts by facing them. So I’ll start with the bad news and end with the good.

Cons:

-Minor injuries. A cut on the inside of my lip, cuts and bruises on and around one knee, a sore back, and a jaw that hurts on the left side of my mouth

-I feel that God is chastising me. I have been chastised before and most of the time it ultimately feels like love. But I’m mostly just feeling the harshness of it now.  I don’t really understand the implications of this.

-I feel betrayal. I came to Scotland as a giant leap of faith. The night before I left, I suffered a legitimate panic attack. My fear was that great. Driving, in particular, was a major source of stress, but I didn’t see a way around it in Scotland because of the very limited transportation, so I chose to trust that all would be well. I felt God’s support in this matter, when I could see beyond the fear. He kept me and the car safe all the way to the Isle of Skye, and then this happened. I recognize that I made a mistake, that it was MY stupid mistake, and I know God protected me and anyone else from serious injury, but irrationally, I feel betrayed.

-I am alone. I have friends and family in the U.S., but they are thousands of miles away. I thought about just giving up and going home early, but that would cost me like $700.

-It took 22 hours to get a tow truck to the accident site – and not for lack of trying to direct it there earlier. Several phone calls were involved.

-Wi-Fi here is spotty and cell reception nonexistent, making it difficult to get information and get things done. It took all day today to resolve things.

-I ignored a prompting to get full coverage car insurance on the rental car. It was 140 GBP for four days and I didn’t want to pay that much. So my deductible on the car is 1500 GBP with tax. That’s more than $2000. My regret in this matter is rather intense as it may mean that I will need to cancel much desired trips to Italy, France and/or Greece to pay off my debts. I do not yet know the cost of repairs, and this not knowing is a source of anxiety. We shall see.

-My travel insurance company told me over the phone that they would pay for travel to the hospital. I went to make sure I was ok. I took a taxi because no ambulance was available (believe it or not). The insurance company later said that their coverage only included ambulance visits. That’s 90 quid down the drain….

-I traveled 1 1/2 days through thick and thin to go hiking on the Isle of Skye, but I could not go hiking because I had to be near a phone all day to resolve car concerns. Most of this involved waiting. Lots of waiting. I attempted to distract myself with other things but all I could think about was the accident and the consequences. I stared at nothing for most of the day. Then I started writing this.

-I hurt a dear friend of mine, who in turn hurt me deeply. I reached out to this friend for support, making them aware of the situation, and when I didn’t the support I wanted, I lost my patience and wrote a single sentence with an accusation that was somewhat selfish and unfair. That person in turn called me verbally abusive and has not contacted me since. I lost my patience three other times, though I don’t believe I hurt anyone in the process.

-I slept only 4 hours last night.

Pros:

-I slept 4 hours last night. That I slept is a miracle in and of itself.

-No major injuries. I am certain that God sent angels to my aid to protect me and anyone who may have otherwise been hurt by a car sliding down a hill.

-Some very concerned strangers rallied together at the trail head to help me and make sure I was alright. These were young people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Poland and India. Three of them gave me a ride back to the hotel just down the road from my bunkhouse.

-The employees at the Sligichan Hotel have been incredibly nice to me. They let me use their landline several times today and asked me frequently how I was doing.

-The landscape in Scotland and on Skye is absolutely remarkable. I did not know that brown and green could be so rich and lush. I have never seen such rugged beauty. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Here’s a sample of what I mean – though my skills and equipment could never capture it:

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-Liam, the tow truck driver, was kind to me. He was also extremely helpful in answering questions.

-The rental car’s make, Kia, offers free towing to anyone who owns or rents their car as long as no special equipment is used. Long story short, the tow was free.

-I am able to get back to Glasgow tomorrow in time for my evening flight to London. I will take a bus there tomorrow morning, thanks to my parents booking it on my behalf at my request.

-Ionut, a friend of my family, is driving 50 miles to Stanstead Airport bring me a large luggage bag I left in London.

-I have had kind words from friends, coworkers and family back home.

Thank you so so much to all who reached out. It means so much to me. I am so grateful to have you in my life. Your prayers are especially appreciated. I am grateful to be alive. My faith in humanity has been renewed and strengthened. I love you all.

10/4/17 Update:

I discovered that according to the car rental company, Easirent, I do indeed owe the maximum amount allowed through my rental insurance – that’s over $2100, factoring in exchange rates. I am disputing the charge because the car rental company has failed to provide me with a bill. As the repairs on the car are apparently not complete, so they do not know the complete charges and therefore should not be charging me yet. This means Capital One will take the charge off my card – for now. But I’m pretty certain that a large charge is coming. In the meantime, I am faced with the choice between paying off my credit card debt as soon as possible and going on the trips I planned.

I know I simply cannot do all that I’ve planned. My frugal nature tells me I shouldn’t do any of it. I have cancelled my trip to Greece and have discussed with my travel partner, Jaylee, about turning Paris and Italy into weekend trips. I no longer know if this is a good idea. I had planned to see various places in the U.K. such as Wales, Preston, Stratford on Avon, Stonehenge in Salisbury, Bath, and York. I feel ambiguous about these as well.

After one individual with whom I was staying in Birmingham learned about me likely cancelling my trips, they advised me to return home early to America. I looked into plane prices and seriously considered it. This same family is not sure that they are comfortable with me staying with them until December if I am no longer going on my trips. Though I now understand their point of view, this was rather upsetting to learn. I am now staying with a kind woman in the Sullihull ward here in Birmingham. The length of time I will spend here is uncertain.

I am rather ashamed to admit that for a time after I wrote the portion of the blog above that my attitude and faith were not as they should have been. I felt a great deal of anger and betrayal. I believed that one mistake had turned all my hours of planning and excitement into nothing. I was exhausted after all the travail I had experienced on my so-called “vacations” – not to mention all the blogs I had to write to make up for it. The troubles seemed to far outweigh the good. I didn’t want to be in England anymore; I didn’t want to be anywhere.

It just so happened that this past weekend was the time of a General Conference for Latter-Day Saints. Here prophets address the world. The timing of this Conference was no coincidence in my life. It renewed my faith and brought peace back to me after several days of darkness.

During this Conference, I repeatedly received nudges telling me that I am here in England for a reason, and that I need to stay. The message was reinforced again and again that I need to trust in God and that I am here to serve others – in His way, not my own.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s address entitled “A Yearning For Home”  – the very first talk of General Conference – opened the floodgates of light into my heart. Click on the link if you haven’t read it or seen it or would like to do so again.

I realized that in my trip planning I had failed to consult God on many occasions – especially on where to go and how long to stay. Honestly, He is the one that made this trip possible, but I, like a spoiled child, assumed that I could take this gift and do what I want. I do not say this self-deprecatingly – or if I do, it’s in the sense that Moses perhaps felt after God unveiled a vision to him of His plans for the world (this is found in the Pearl of Great Price, a book of LDS scripture). He said that “Man is nothing.” Maybe Moses realized how much greater and expansive the Lord’s plan was than His own. God’s “rebuttal” was to say that His plan was to “to bring to pass the immorality and eternal life of man”. Moses was a part of that grand plan. And so are we all.

I received a priesthood blessing a few days after the accident wherein the speaker stated that I would understand “where I am called to go.” I know that if I turn to God He will provide a way for me to accomplish His plan for me. I am not yet certain what He wishes me to do or where I am called to go – but I trust that He will reveal His will in time. Meanwhile, He will take care of me – as He cares for the lilies of the field, for the sparrow in the nest. I will do what I can, and He does the rest.

 

10/10/17 update

Friends, I have some great news. I believe that my Capital One Venture credit card will probably cover the damage to my vehicle for which I am liable from my car accident in Scotland – amounting to over $2000. This will totally revolutionize my plans in Europe.
I am flabbergasted that my credit card would cover such a thing. I am so grateful to my expert travel friend Java Plum for telling me about the possibility. I have since checked with two different customer service agents and read the terms and conditions several times. I won’t know for certain until the claim has been processed 8-10 weeks from now, but I know as much as I can know and it seems like it will happen.
While the claim is processed, I have decided to go forward in faith and plan trips throughout Europe, confirming my decisions with God as I go. It doesn’t feel right to go back to my original plans, but I am certainly going to travel! I’m going to Preston next week to see some church history sites and visit the temple. I’m going to Paris next month with Jaylee Willis during my birthday and will likely go to Italy with her in December as well.
This trip experience has been such a whirlwind of emotions, and most emotions have revolved around how much I trust God and myself.
When I went to Scotland, I was desperately afraid, but I knew God told me it was okay to go, and it was even ok to go in a rental car. And despite my questionable driving history, I believed because I had the ok I would not get in an accident. That was not actually His plan. And for the majority of two weeks, I felt quite a bit of anger and betrayal and doubt.
My decision to go on the trip was not wrong, and I did actually consult Him in the matter–perhaps not so much on the other trips, but that’s another story. And He did not betray me. Rather He had a plan to teach me about mercy, patience, and trust.
I am thankful that I chose to trust Him again before I found out about this amazing financial rescue. I am so grateful to Latter-Day prophets, friends and family who helped me to get to that point.
Perhaps someday I will have enough trust that even when there is no magical credit card company to pick up my debt, even when I don’t see a way out for months or years, I do not lose faith in Him. In the meantime, I know He loves me and that He forgives me for my weakness.
I feel so incredibly blessed.
I have been told that whenever God bails us out like this, it means He has a work for us to do that would not be possible otherwise. I am still not quite sure what that is, but I am looking forward to the work He has for me to do here in Europe.

Beauty and Trepidation in London

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My dear friends, this is a long blog. It’s also an interesting one. If you want the truly exciting stories, I advise that you don’t just skim through and look at the pictures. The more gripping stories have no pictures. That’s the beauty – and the trepidation – of raw experience. It consists of more than what the senses can discern.

FRIDAY, 9/15/17

I woke up to news of a terrorist attack on the subway. Someone set off what the press called a “bucket bomb” – literally a bomb concealed in a bucket. It the fifth attack to occur in London that year. Fortunately no one died. 29 people were injured.

Since the subway was still open and two terrorist attacks in one day seemed unlikely, I chose to travel the way I had planned. The London underground was open and commuters were calm. The only indication of terrorism was a consistent announcement over the loudspeaker that Parson’s Green, the station where the attack had occurred, was closed that day.

My suitcase had experienced some issues at the airport, so my first stop in London was a luggage store. Yes, I know, it was very exciting. They were not able to fix it long term, but they did show me how to keep the handle up, which is all that matters.

This luggage store just so happened to be on a street that is world famous…Baker Street. It occurred to me on the way that I should check out what is actually on 221B Baker Street. So after visiting the luggage store, I left my luggage with them for awhile while I went to…

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Can you read that sign backwards?

You guessed it – a Sherlock Holmes Museum. For 15 GBP, fans can see a replica of what Holmes’ apartment might have been like. Here’s a glimpse of the inside and me in a deerstalker cap:

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What a lovely surprise the museum was. It was a beautiful start to a beautiful day. After a few errands, I decided to follow the Sherlock Holmes theme and eat fish and chips at the Sherlock Holmes diner:

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I got my fish and chips to go because the sit down menu cost way more than the carry out menu. Apparently that’s a thing in London. I took the subway to my next stop, and ate my fish and chips on the steps close to the ticket office, looking out at the bustle of London and feeding some chips to a flock of pigeons.

Here’s a picture of what I ate. You can see the cod barely peeking out underneath the fries–excuse me, the chips:

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Not exactly pretty, I know, but it doesn’t have to be pretty to be good. I’ve never had real fish and chips before. This was absolutely delicious. And I don’t even like seafood.

I walked into the House of Parliament ticket office. As soon as I entered the doors I observed a security checkpoint. There was also a trashcan. I dumped the leftovers of my meal into the trashcan. Two security guards immediately retrieved it. One shook her head at me. “What?” I asked.

“What were you thinking putting a mysterious bag into a trash can in a government building on a day like today?”

I blinked and gave her a blank stare. I knew she was referring to the terrorist attack, but it took me a little bit of time to realize that they thought my restaurant leftovers might be a bomb.

“I thought this was the ticket office,” I finally said.

“Nope, that’s down the street.”

I believe I entered a highly regulated government building by mistake. Considering the suspicion of the guards, I didn’t stay long to find out.

I located the ticket office, wherein I obtained a ticket to tour the Palace of Westminster, or the House of Parliament. The audio tour was absolutely fascinating. I highly recommend it. Most of the most beautiful and historic rooms inside did not allow photography, like the House of Lords or the House of Commons, but here’s a glimpse of the Palace of Westminster building:

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And a view of a portion of Westminster Hall on the inside:

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I spent a few hours in there. By the time I finished it was around 5:30 pm. I had planned to get my luggage from the store before it closed at 6 pm, so I left. Unfortunately, I could not find the right route on the subway and missed closing time at the store. It took me quite awhile to find my way back to the apartment of my hosts, Vitalina and Igor, but thanks to Google Maps and well marked Subway maps, I did so successfully. Vitalina offered me pasta with homemade pesto. We had a nice chat. She was very kind to me during my stay.

SATURDAY, 9/16/17

The next day, a Saturday, I wanted to set out to do more site seeing but felt it was more important to take care of some research and future trip planning at the apartment. Unfortunately, I did not make it outside until sometime in the afternoon. I did, however, get a chance to tour the Tower of London for about two hours before it closed.

Right next to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge over the River Thames:

me at the Tower of London

And very modern looking Shard and surrounding buildings in contrast:

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I rather loved the way the light broke through the clouds here. As novice photographers and dinky cameras often do, we failed to capture its full beauty, but here, perhaps we came the closest:

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I also like the contrast between the old and new buildings in this glimpse of the shard from inside the Tower of London.

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After taking photos of the sites, I took a tube to the West End where one of my dreams was fulfilled. I saw Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre. That’s the original location for the first London premiere. This show has been running nonstop for almost exactly 32 years! It opened just one month before I was born.

I had intended to see it the night I arrived in London, but due to delays had missed it. I am in the process of seeking a refund for that ticket. In the meantime, I didn’t want to miss out on an amazing opportunity, so I bought another ticket.

Here’s my face just outside the theatre:

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And my view from the balcony before the show began:

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The show was absolutely worth it. I was especially impressed by Jean Val Jean, Eponine and little Gavroche. Their voices were beautiful and their performances striking and dynamic. I had never seen the musical live before; it moved just as quickly as the feature film due to a wonderful revolving stage which enabled prop masters to create scenes for the actors astonishingly fast. It was fascinating to watch.

SUNDAY, 9/17/17

The following day was Sunday. I traveled to a Latter-Day-Saint church in the historic Hyde Park building in London. This is where one of only two existing Young Single Adult wards in England is located (the other is in Manchester).

Unfortunately, due to a miscalculation about subway and walking times, I was late to Sacrament Meeting. I arrived at the time that the sacrament was being passed. I discovered upon my arrival that there was a visitor center just outside the chapel doors, and due to a history of rowdiness with previous visitors, the bishopric had ruled that they would not pass the Sacrament to people in the hall.

After Sacrament I asked the bishop if there was another way I could get the Sacrament. He said there wasn’t. There were no churches in the area who met at a later time and he could not allow priesthood to bless it just for me. I explained my point of view and asked if he could make an exception in my case. He said he could not.

The burden and distress I felt at that moment was more than I could have anticipated. In fact, it was fairly overwhelming. I went to the bathroom to cry. A kind lady followed  me, an elderly missionary. Though she tried to comfort me, I would not be comforted.

I’m being uncomfortably vulnerable here: despite attempts to collect myself at various points, I found myself crying throughout the entire duration of church and a good deal afterwards. I missed most of Gospel Doctrine but I attended Relief Society. I had planned to meet people and make friends, but due to my emotional state I could not do so.

I don’t know that I wish to fully explain the reasons behind my acute stress and anxiety. Emotions don’t really have reasons, after all. However, those of you that are LDS might understand some of the sadness associated being unable to take the Sacrament, whatever the cause of the inability may be. The Sacrament is an opportunity to reflect, change, and renew one’s faith in Christ. It is a gift wherein one receives spiritual strength for the coming week. The day following I was to go to Scotland, and for various reasons thoughts of this impending trip filled me with great anxiety.

There are other details relating to my distress as well, but for the purposes of a public blog, I will only leave it at that. I only share this experience with you out of a desire to be at least somewhat transparent. I don’t want to gloss over the details of the trip and pretend as if I was happy the entire time. There were some rather difficult moments. Plus, if I didn’t share the distress, I couldn’t tell you what happened afterward.

During and after church I prayed for some solace. I felt spiritually guided to sit on a couch on the third floor of the church building (the Hyde Park building is taller than it is wide). A man walked past me toward the stairs. He soon turned around and asked “Were you waiting to talk to me?” I didn’t answer. He stood there for awhile with a kind smile. His appearance reminded me of a young Henry B. Eyring, a modern-day LDS prophet. He introduced himself as the stake president, which is a leader over several LDS congregations.

I took courage and told him briefly about my experience. I could tell that he was really listening to me and that he really understood. He said that he had traveled in countries where it was simply impossible to take the Sacrament, and that he felt that the Atonement of Jesus Christ was sufficient  for those living righteously to feel clean in such circumstances without the Sacrament. He believed that those circumstances extended to me. I knew what he said was true; I knew it before he said it, but the way he said it and the kindness behind the words made all the difference. I know God sent him to speak to me. It was a great tender mercy. For a time, I felt peace.

But the adventure wasn’t over. Oh no. Not by a long shot. Stay tuned for more Melanie fun in the next blog, “The Undesirable Adventure”.

 

An American’s First Flight to Europe

 

Hello friends. It’s about time I document the events of my first flight to Europe, don’t you think? Well, let me tell you, it was an adventure in and of itself. In fact, it deserves its own blog.

Early Tuesday afternoon on 9/12/17, my sister-in-law dropped me off at the Denver airport. I caught a flight to Detroit where I was to take a connecting flight to London. On the flight I was able to have a nice chat with the man next to me about religion, particularly about what distinguishes the LDS faith from other Christian denominations.

Our layover in Detroit was intended to be just one hour, leaving around 9:30 pm (?), but some time after arriving at the gate the other passengers and I discovered that the flight was delayed. We gradually learned that the plane had hydraulic issues. Somewhere around 4 a.m., the airline announced that our flight was cancelled. We were given free hotel vouchers and a new flight was booked for 6:15 pm that evening.

I found myself to be uncharacteristically calm throughout the entire experience. I can only attribute this to a priesthood blessing I received before I left as well as the prayers of my family.

It was interesting to observe the various reactions of the other passengers. Some were irate, others mildly frustrated. One particular American family I met seemed to be rather  cheerful and unphased. Two parents accompanied four children, the youngest no more than 8, they planned to backpack Europe. They had a distinct sort of light in their faces – one that you come to recognize if you have my religious background. This was appropriate because their last name was literally Light. And I was right; they were devout Christians.

We flew from Detroit to London from Wednesday night into Thursday morning. During the flight I sat next to an English not much younger than I who had spent some weeks in America visiting her dying father and then attending to his funeral arrangements. I expressed my condolences. She told me that she wasn’t terribly close to her father, as he had lived a country apart much of her life, so her grief wasn’t terrible. Though I found that a bit odd, I decided to accept that statement at face value. After all, it is not necessarily our blood that ties us to one another so much as our emotional connection to one another. I hoped that I would have the opportunity to share the gospel with her in some way but unfortunately I never found a way to casually slip it in. She shared with me some wonderful tips about life in England. We both attempted sleep; she was more successful than me.

We enjoyed both a sunset and a sunrise. The picture below is of the sunrise.

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It was certainly more picturesque than that. My 10 year old camera simply does not do it justice. But it will have to do.

We arrived at the London Heathrow airport Thursday morning. I am happy to say that I crossed the border into the U.K. successfully.

I then took a subway to East London. Navigating the subway with a large suitcase was another adventure, but I was able to do so with little incident. Here’s me about to enter the subway tunnel from the airport, a little worn but mostly filled with adrenaline and excitement:

subway to London

My hosts, Vitalina and Igor, friends of my sister-in-law Iuliana, graciously welcomed me into their home. I slept off jet lag most of Thursday.

I’ll tell you about my adventures in London in the next blog. Stay tuned.

 

“May it be a light to you in dark places…”

 

May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Does the future seem enigmatic? Are you seeking illumination? You may have heard stories of inspired people who were suddenly absolutely certain of what to do and did it. But let’s face it: there are times we find ourselves stumbling around in the dark.

Not long ago,  I journeyed to the wilds of Northern Arizona with a few close friends. Due to a series of unwise choices and unusual circumstances, one friend and I found ourselves alone in the desert at sunset with only one headlamp.

It wasn’t long before we realized we were lost.

The body’s natural reaction in this situation is fear. Yet at that moment I looked inside myself and felt nothing but peace.

We decided to pray aloud. It was a simple prayer. We asked our Higher Power to direct us where to go. After the prayer I remember looking back at a particular rock formation in the distance where we had been and feeling that we should go back there.

Then my friend spoke up, pointing and saying, “The sun sets in the west. We can still see the lighter sky over there. Our campsite is southwest of the rock formations, so it must be there.” What she said made sense. “Ok,” I replied, and we set to trekking.

Another half hour passed and we seemed more lost than before. We prayed again and received no discernible answer.

We continued to move in the same direction for another stretch of time with no results. Here the discouragement and fear first began to penetrate my soul. We stopped underneath a tree and prayed a third time, this time on our knees.

When the prayer was over, I stayed on my knees and listened. I felt a simple nudge of hope and a desire to continue walking. I told this to my friend, who said she needed to use nature as her restroom first. Later she told me that her thought had been that we needed to wait for our friend Justin to find us. She didn’t tell me this in the moment because of what happened next.

As we were about to continue our journey, we saw a bright light in the distance. It was coming from the Northeast, the opposite direction of the way we were going. Immediately I felt that we should walk toward the light. I pointed it out to my friend, who exclaimed, “That doesn’t make sense!”, referring to the fact that the light was coming from the Northeast, when our campsite was supposed to be in the Southwest. Nevertheless, we walked towards it.

As we traveled, I felt doubt and fear try to creep their way into my consciousness, but I chose not to mind them. I kept my eyes riveted on the light. The minutes inched by and the light continued to shine, like a lighthouse beacon to lost sailors. There were moments when, due to the lay of the land, we lost the ability to see the light. But we continued to look in that same direction, and it wasn’t long before it returned. And gradually, oh so gradually, it grew brighter, until I was almost certain it was…

“Justin,” I called out, “is that you?”

“It’s me,” he replied.

Our dear friend, Justin, had recognized that we had lost our way, and having a wilderness navigation app and an excellent sense of direction, he had set out to find us. We reunited in joy and relief, and he led us back to the campsite.


Each of the results of the three prayers in the story contains a principle:

Principle One: Trust the Divine more than man.

After the first prayer, I felt we should go back to a specific landmark. My friend said we should travel Southwest, which seemed logical. After it was all over, we realized that by the time we had decided this, we were too off course from our original landmark for that logic to help us.  

Looking back, I wonder if my first thought after our first prayer to head to a particular rock formation was actually inspired. I wonder if I let another person’s opinion cause me to doubt. Occasionally, others are inspired on our behalf, but oftentimes they are just sharing their own thoughts. How often do we let the ideas of people override our connection to the divine?

Principle Two: Keep the Faith, even when there is not yet an answer.

The second time, my friend and I had no divine direction whatsoever. Sometimes this happens. Whether we lack the preparation needed to receive the inspiration or our Higher Power delays the answer for reasons unknown, we can know that eventually answers will come. In the meantime, Keep the Faith.

Principle Three: When the Light comes, follow it–whatever it may be.

When I saw the light in the distance, I wasn’t absolutely certain who or what it was or where it would lead. Yet I felt at a level deeper and clearer than my own thoughts and feelings that we needed to walk toward it. I did not let doubt or fear cloud my resolve. We followed the light and it led us where we needed to go.

May your ability to see and receive Light grow gradually brighter. And as you journey in the dark, may you trust in the Source of the Light, for He will always come.

PERMA: Achievement

achievement

It is no secret that successful people are happy. But how do we get to the success? And what about being happy even in the midst of struggle? Researchers all around the globe have studied how achievement works and its relationship to happiness. Today I will to share three different models for success and two practical exercises to bring more achievement into your life.

The Sustainable Happiness Model

We all know goals are good to have. But what kinds of goals are most effective?

Ever gotten a runner’s high? Professional or college cross country runners will tell you that the more a runner trains, the longer they have to run before the endorphins kick in. There are two psychological concepts that apply the same idea to the broader scope of our everyday lives. And appropriately, both are called “treadmills”:

  1. The satisfaction treadmill says that when you successfully improve your life circumstances, you encounter raised expectations and standards, and you start to take other positive aspects of your life for granted.
  2. The hedonic treadmill tells us that sometimes even when those standards aren’t increased, we still start to devalue the good things in life.

So what do we do about that? Just be more grateful? Sure, that’s one answer. Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests another. Her Sustainable Happiness Model (SHM) is composed of two hypotheses, one for each treadmill:

  1. Rather than having goals to change your life circumstances (e.g. health, income, the place you live), it is better to change your current activities (e.g. exercising regularly, accentuating the positive, trying to gain admission to a graduate program). These activities must require “a will and a proper way”. In other words, you have to be explicitly aware of what you hope to achieve and have a plausible way to achieve it.
  2. Create goals that sustain an inflow of rewarding experiences over time.

Self-Determination Theory

Let me tell you a little more about setting effective goals. Self-Determination Theory says that all humans have three basic needs in order to thrive. These are:

  1. Autonomy: needing to feel that one owns and agrees with one’s behavior.
  2. Competence: needing to feel that one can do things well or at least improve
  3. Relatedness: needing to feel meaningfully connected to other people.

Lyubomirsky and her colleagues conducted a six-month study to test the effectiveness of goals supporting autonomy, competence and relatedness. They compared three goal-setting groups to a control group which was directed to only change its circumstances. After two months, all three goal-achieving groups were happier overall in than the control group, as long as they achieved their goals. In other words, this works!

Hope Theory and Positive Psychology Exercises

Charles R. Snyder developed a unique perspective he called hope theory. He defined hope as “the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways”. A high-hope person pursuing a specific goal thinks of one plausible route and has a strong sense of confidence in this route. High-hope individuals often repeat mantras like “I can do this,” or “I cannot be stopped.”

How do we increase our hope and thus the level of accomplishment? Try one of these effective writing exercises:

  1. Count Your Blessings: Write about the many things in your life, both large and small, that you have to be grateful about. We sometimes believe that gratitude brings satisfaction and thus complacency, but it can actually bring an optimistic view of life and one’s future and thus be a great motivator.
  2. Visualize Your Best Possible Self: Imagine and write about yourself in the future as someone who has worked hard and accomplished all your life goals. This one is especially effective.

Repeat one of these exercises at least twice in two weeks, and the research says you be happier and more hopeful. In both of these exercises, you create your world simply by recognizing who you are and what you can become. This will give you renewed determination to turn this world into an even greater reality.

Sources:

Sheldon, Kennon M.; Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2006). Achieving Sustainable Gains in Happiness: Change Your Actions, not Your Circumstances. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(1).

Sheldon, K. M., Abad, N., Ferguson, Y., Gunz, A., Houser-Marko, L., Nichols, C. P., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). Persistent pursuit of need-satisfying goals leads to increased happiness: A 6-month experimental longitudinal study. Motivation And Emotion, 39-48.

Synder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.

PERMA: Meaning

 

creativity-as-a-search-for-meaning

“What is the meaning of life?” Philosophers, religious leaders, scientists and even businessmen and construction workers have sought answers to this question. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.” This may be service to a religion, a cause, a family, or organization. Today we’ll focus on two common sources of meaning: one’s religion and career.

Religion

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Why is it that religion has so often been an integral part of thriving civilizations?  What purpose do they serve in the community?  Does it really make people happy? Let’s look at the research.

There’s a term in psychology called subjective well-being, or SWB. SWB has three gears: the frequency of one’s happiness, the intensity of happiness, and meaning. In 1991, The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) surveyed 1,473 Christian respondents on the strength of their religious affiliation and other life components. The analysis revealed that religious affiliation was strongly associated with SWB (Reed, 1991).

Another study measured the relationship between religiosity and SWB in 101 college students and came to a similar conclusion. However, when meaning was factored out of SWB, there was no longer a significant correlation. So religion doesn’t make people happy directly. It gives people a purpose–a sense of meaning–and THAT in turn makes them happy (French & Joseph, 1999).

It can also offer us healing and solace in the wake of traumatic events. Christopher Peterson, a positive psychology pioneer, evaluated the effects of prayer, spiritual support and positive attitudes on the distress levels of college students after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Higher initial levels of distress were associated with those who used prayer to cope, but led to lower levels of distress after a period of three months (Ai , Tice, Peterson, & Huang, 2005).

There are other studies I could write about here, but I’ve run out of room. Just know that the evidence of religion as a source of meaning and thus happiness is overwhelming.

Career

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Is your career meaningful to you? If not, would you like it to be? Or perhaps you don’t yet know your life calling. Kosine, Steger and Duncan recommend a purpose-centered approach when considering and developing a career. They identify five strength-based practices:

  1. Form your identity: know who you are.
  2. Gain self-efficacy: believe in your abilities.
  3. Raise metacognition: Have an awareness of your own thinking processes.
  4. Consider how your career can serve the greater good.

Here are some free online resources on applying these principles:

  1. Christopher Peterson’s VIA Inventory of Strengths: This empirically validated survey will test 20 strengths and order them to fit your personality. An understanding of your strengths can help understand your identity and thought processes, believe in yourself and lead you to consider how your unique gifts can serve your community. You can go to https://www.viacharacter.org/Survey/Account/Register and take this survey free and it will tell you all your strengths in order for free. If you want tips on how to better use your strengths, you can purchase various reports for anywhere from $20-$50. There are also several courses and research articles available on the site for anyone who wants to delve a little deeper.
  2. The Career Interest Game: Not sure how to incorporate your strengths into an actual career? Check out https://career.missouri.edu/career-interest-game. This site categorizes a career personality into 6 different types based on strengths and suggests several careers for each type, with a description of the career responsibilities, average pay, growth rate, and education needed.

 

Journal References

Ai, A. L., Tice, T. N., Peterson, C., & Huang, B. (2005). Prayers, Spiritual Support, and Positive Attitudes in Coping With the September 11 National Crisis. Journal Of Personality, 73(3), 763-791.

French, S., & Joseph, S. (1999). Religiosity and its association with happiness, purpose in life, and self-actualization. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 2(2), 117.

Reed, Kimberly (1991). Strength of Religious Affiliation and Life Satisfaction. Sociological Analysis, 52 (2), 205-210.

 

PERMA: Positive Relationships

 

Image result for positive relationships

A few months ago I asked several friends how they define happiness. More than one person’s response included meaningful, fulfilling relationships with partners, family, coworkers and friends. The individuals who responded thus understand that we are not meant to live this life alone. We want to be understood—to be validated—and to provide that same gift to others. We humans are social creatures. When we unite in a good cause we thrive.

Do you ever wonder how you can better connect with someone you know? Whether you consciously think this or not, ultimately this is a question all humans are asking.

Here are a few tips from the latest research:

Speak Kindly

The first is called the Critical Positivity Ratio, and is based on an intriguing question: can we mathematically calculate the ratio of positive to negative comments in order to deem a relationship healthy? The question was first addressed when John Gottman, a world famous researcher on marriage, questioned and studied dozens of couples. He was able to predict with over 90% accuracy whether these couples would divorce. One of the key factors in his prediction was counting the amount of positive to negative communications. Then an organizational psychologist named Marcial Losada took this question into the world of work. He observed several workplaces in business meetings and pinpointed exactly what level and kind of comments causes a business to be productive. Finally, Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychologist, applied the idea to education, testing hundreds of college students. Want to know the results?

In marriage and at work, the critical positivity ratio is 5:1. At college, it’s 3:1. In general, if you have 3-6 more positive comments than negative ones, you will do very well.

Just in case you’re wondering, it is in fact possible to have too much positivity. By and large once the ratio hits 9:1, that’s when the positivity becomes counterfeit and thus counterproductive. That’s a rather high number, isn’t it?

For more information, including an informal test to find your personal daily ratio, visit http://happierhuman.com/losada-ratio/

Celebrate Positive Events

The second tip is about “capitalization”, or responding well to the positive life events of others.

Shelley Gable, a forerunning researcher on this topic, categorizes receivers’ responses into four categories: active constructive, active destructive, passive constructive and passive destructive.  Picture this scenerio: a husband shares with his wife that he got a raise at work. Here are examples of each category of response:

Active constructive response: “That’s so great! I’m proud of you! How shall we celebrate?”

Active destructive response: “Are you sure you can handle that responsibility? Managing that money is just going to be another chore.”

Passive constructive response: “That’s nice,” stated without enthusiasm or eye contact.

Passive destructive response: “That’s not enough to pay the bills,” stated without enthusiasm or eye contact

Gable tested how each of these responses affected the relationship. Only an active constructive response was associated with statistically significant relationship well-being.

But what about when we confide in each other about what is going wrong? Doesn’t that enhance a relationship as well? The short answer is maybe. It depends on one’s gender, and the effects don’t seem to last as long. In a follow-up study, Gable and her colleagues studied how capitalization affects dating relationships in the long term when compared with negative event disclosures. They found that for men, sharing a negative event with their significant others had no effect on the relationship’s well being whatsoever, while positive event disclosures did. For women, both initially affected the state of the relationship, but when they interviewed the couples eight weeks later, the effects of sharing the negative event had disappeared, while the effects of capitalization stayed.

In short, sharing and responding well to good news is a powerful way to enhance a relationship. So try it out!

Here are two psychology journal articles on the topic:

Gable, S., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 91(5), 904-917.

Gable, S. L., Impett, E. A., Reis, H. T., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 87(2), 228-245.

Express Their Love Language

Gary Chapman, a Marriage and Family Therapist, has observed from decades of experience a pattern in how we express love. He has identified five categories. Here they are:

  1. Quality Time: Giving someone one’s undivided attention.
  2. Words of Affirmation: Using words to validate and lift.
  3. Acts of Service: Actions speak louder than words.
  4. Physical Touch: Touching someone in proportion to how one feels.
  5. Receiving Gifts: Offering visible and tangible symbols of love.

Most of us have felt loved one way or another in all of these five ways, but each of us has a primary love language. It is the way we most often demonstrate love and the way we most often like to receive it. This applies not only to romantic relationships but also our interactions with family, friends, coworkers and others.

There are dozens of books and articles on the topic. To discover your primary love language and tips on how to understand that of others, go to http://www.5lovelanguages.com/