We love telling stories. We’re captivated by dramatic tales of danger faced, love won and lost, good guys and bad guys.

Our brains are hard-wired for story-telling, and for listening to stories. We love stories so much that it’s normal for us to make them up all day long.

And stories that give meaning to our experience are the most compelling. No one likes not knowing why something happened or how things fit together. It turns out that every time we find a storyline that makes sense to us, we get a hit of dopamine (happy-juice for our brains) as a reward for solving a puzzle to our liking.

Unfortunately, that same chemistry is not tied to accuracy. We get the happy-juice reward, whether the story is true or false, as long as it provides an explanation that is plausible to us. We just need to believe that our explanation is the most logical one. In order to minimize uncertainty in the face of incomplete information, we guess about whatever is missing.

Once we have created a story that makes sense to us, we usually stop looking for alternatives. We’ve got our answer, we’ve been rewarded with dopamine, and now we can get on with our day. Almost immediately, we forget that we made up the story and come to think of the imagined motivations of the other person as true. The next time we talk to, or about, that person, this new “truth” about them will influence that conversation. If we share our story with others, that will influence how they see that person. This is an excellent recipe for conflict.

For example, if we discover that our great-aunt has given our older brother a larger gift than she gave us, we can create a number of stories to explain that reality. One version is that our aunt plays favorites and isn’t fair. Another is that she’s not paying attention and doesn’t even realize that the amounts were different. Maybe we even worry that our brother is pressuring her for more money. Those stories naturally affect our relationships with our brother and our great-aunt.

Not surprisingly, of the stories that would explain the behavior we see, we tend to favor the one that puts us in the best light. Whether we are the Innocent Victim (a perennial favorite) or the Brave Carrier of the Light, we lean toward stories that cast us as a basically good person.

What if the truth is something we didn’t think of? Returning to our example, our sister tells us our great-aunt may have given a larger gift to our brother because he calls her regularly to check-in. She naturally feels inclined to give him more because he shows that he cares for her. Hmmm. It’s clear why we might not have considered that possibility – it puts us in a less favorable light.

What can we do to compensate for these tendencies? As usual, a good starting point is to begin with ourselves. Begin to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves about others. Do we know they’re true or do we just think they are? Try embracing the most positive interpretation of their motives. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Then reality-test – check out other sources of information. Ask yourself what makes you think this version is true. A straightforward step is to check with the person and ask them what was on their mind. This has to be done respectfully, but they may welcome the chance to have the conversation and clear-up any misunderstandings.

So, as we go into the thick of the holiday season, let’s experiment with questioning the stories we tell ourselves about other people. We may find that it’s just a bit easier to get along if we do.

We work hard. We navigate the challenges of parenting, work, relationships, and everything else. We do our best to put forth effort to improve our lives. But so much of what our lives look like is due to pure fortune, good or bad.

There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Besides the myriad unseen ways we’re helped by others’ efforts, we’ve all had unearned advantages that have propelled us forward. By appreciating the many ways we have been lucky, we can increase our compassion and reduce our judgment of others.

Our advantages can range from gifts of birth to simply being in the right place at the right time. Some of us were able to get a college education back in the day without incurring huge debt. Many of us were born into families who had enough food every day. We got an encouraging word or a gift at just the right time. Those of us born with lighter skin have reaped all the subtle benefits of having the deck stacked our way, without even recognizing it. Living in this beautiful, free country has allowed us to say, do, and be so much more than we could in a more repressive society.

Luck can also be what didn’t happen to us. For example, most of us have not had our house burn to the ground, as some did in the Taylor Bridge Fire and the recent infernos in California. Consider what that means: We did not have to rebuild from the bottom up and we do not have nightmare memories of our material lives going up in flames. While having insurance is critically important, anyone who has lost even a few insured belongings knows the incredible amount of time and hassle involved in replacing those things. Not to mention the toll of losing irreplaceable items like grandma’s quilt or old photos. Just think – we didn’t have to go through that; our lives have not been pushed back to that extent.

Why celebrate something over which we have no control? When we acknowledge that we have received advantages that we have not earned, it helps us have compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, have had a more difficult time. It’s human nature to give ourselves perhaps more personal credit for how our lives have turned out. Likewise, we often blame others for things over which they actually had no control – it was just their bad luck. Recognizing our good fortune fosters humility and helps us dodge smugness, as we realize how much we’ve gotten “for free”.

We can certainly make bad choices that have large ongoing impacts. Perhaps we stupidly start drinking alcohol when we’re young. But if we’re one of the people who carry the genetic susceptibility for alcoholism, that mistake can be life-changing. Our genetics are outside our control, as are the genetics of everyone else. Does it help anyone to judge the difficult lives of others or to judge ourselves against those who had different good luck than we did?

Of course, we can’t keep this awareness in mind all the time, nor can we make a complete list all of our good fortune. But every once in a while, it’s good to remember our unearned blessings.

Let’s celebrate all that is right in our lives. Let’s be grateful that we are alive in this world. Let’s remember all the good luck that has gotten us where we are. If we reach out, perhaps we can be part of the good luck of others.

“Commit random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Anyone remember that phrase from the ‘90’s? It’s still a wonderful sentiment a couple of decades later. Let’s go retro and show more kindness.

Take a moment and ask yourself: Where can I be more kind? At work is a good guess – many workplaces are so busy that the “niceties” get lost in the quest for productivity. So, pay a compliment to a co-worker (extra credit if you don’t usually get along well with them or don’t like them). If a compliment is too much of a stretch, at least refrain from a criticism. Kindness can be as much what we don’t say as what we say.

Home is prime territory for increasing kindness. It’s easy in the rush of life to take our family members for granted and become short with them. To counteract that, we can make the effort to notice and acknowledge the everyday things that family members do right, rather than the things they don’t do to our liking. The more good we look for, the more we’ll see.

Don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Most of us say mean stuff to ourselves that we would never say to others; things like “you’re so fat”, “that was stupid”, or “what an idiot”. When we’re mean to ourselves, it’s harder to be kind to others. We’re happier if we try to only say things to ourselves that we would say to someone we love very much.

What about when we’re out and about? At first it may seem difficult to meet the outer world with kindness – there is a lot of nastiness being expressed in public spaces both physical and electronic. We can start by cutting others a bit of slack. We don’t know what is going on in their lives. They’re likely stressed – maybe they are sandwiched between raising children and caring for aging parents. Maybe they or someone close to them is battling cancer. Or maybe they just didn’t get enough sleep the night before.

If we cultivate kindness as our first response, it will leave that little opening for compassion to slip in. Our small act of kindness could make their day. Kindness is contagious, so receiving it will encourage others to respond likewise and pass it along.

Kindness can begin to displace fear as the filter through which we see the world. It helps us knit back together the rips in our social fabric. Kindness is apolitical and not dependent on religion or skin color – it’s an across-humanity thing. And kindness can be a balm after unpleasantness.

Kindness does not necessarily have to be quiet and calm, either. Sometimes, it’s kind to make someone laugh uproariously or take them out for a night on the town.

Our kindness to another could make our day, as well – being kind feels good. There’s a glow we carry with us after we’re especially considerate with others. Yes, occasionally being snarky in our thoughts lets off steam, but, on balance, we feel better after kind thoughts and acts. Research shows that kindness is one of the things that contributes to our own happiness. Given the obvious benefits to others, being kind is both selfless and selfish, a lovely combination.

We can focus on quick acts of kindness or go all-in, spending an entire day volunteering on a worthy project. Or maybe setting up a regular volunteer gig would work best. The possibilities are delightfully numerous. Let’s all model kindness for each other. We could certainly use it.

We all have needs. We need to avoid harm, move toward good stuff, and have positive connections to others. That’s how we’re wired. There are lots more specific needs within those general ones, such as the need for food, shelter, joy, individuality, purpose, respect, and on and on. How we meet those essentials are as unique and varied as each of us.

It’s easy to confuse what we need with our means of satisfying it. There are many ways of meeting any given need. For example, we need to clothe ourselves. That does not mean that we need to have the latest fashion. Having the latest fashion, however, may function to meet both our need to clothe ourselves and our need for self-expression.

In another example, we all need some level of order in our lives. Some of us have routines for what we do when, some keep our homes very clean, and still others can tolerate a messy house, but make sure their cars are clean.

If we can’t follow our preferred strategy, we can still find healthy ways to meet our needs. It takes adjustment. If we normally straighten the kitchen completely after every use, hosting visitors for a few days may disrupt those habits. So, what do we do with our need for order?

We can try to insist on having our guests follow our usual routines, but that is unlikely to succeed. We have to be flexible in our strategies for fulfilling our requirements. It might be more reasonable to get everyone to agree the kitchen will be clean and straightened at the end of the day. That way, we can have some order while still enjoying the company of our guests.

Of course, some universal human needs feel more important to us than to others. The freedom to make our own way independently may be a guiding need for one, while following group norms may be supremely important to another. That doesn’t mean we don’t all need both to fit-in and express our autonomy, just that one may usually be accentuated. In our diverse country, with the vast majority of us descended from immigrants, there are many cultural differences in what needs are emphasized.

The smoke and growing fires in our little patch of the world are calling into question some of our usual ways of attending to our needs. Some of us who are used to being autonomous may need help. It’s important for those of us facing that situation to take a few moments and consider just what would be most helpful to us – temporary shelter, guidance about what to take in case of evacuation, or perhaps childcare while we take care of other details. In order to avoid harm, we must accept help and we must communicate our needs clearly.

Likewise, those of us who want to help should listen carefully to what others ask for, rather than forcing on them what we think they need. It is so easy for us to try and take control of things, when what is usually necessary is to help others find their own way to what they need – a much more challenging goal. By being sensitive to the needs of ourselves and others, we can make the tough reality of smoke and fire into an opportunity to strengthen our community.

Relationships take a lot of work. We have to nurture them, spending time and attention on those we care about. We do our best to listen to them carefully, share our needs honestly, and work things out. This is very good, of course – it’s crucial for getting along. But it’s also necessary to relax and play.

Having fun together builds resiliency for the relationship. If we think of relationships like an emotional bank account, there can be deposits and withdrawals. Fun times we share make large deposits into the account. This positive balance in the relationship account gives us a cushion to soften the effect when we inevitably do something difficult like forget a birthday or make an unnecessarily crabby remark. Relationships with a little “give” are stronger than those in which we always have to be on our best behavior. A history of shared good times helps us give each other the benefit of the doubt about whether someone meant harm by an offhand comment that didn’t land well.

As we laugh and play together, we internalize how it feels to get along well. This gives us an anchor, an experience we can rely on when things are less fun. It also reduces stress and helps us relax. Talking about past fun times can bring back some of the magic, too. This helps remind us about the better phases of the relationship, helping us get through any rough patches.

When we’re relaxed, we’re more likely to let trivial things slide-off our backs. If we don’t take offense at a small affront, probably unintentional, we don’t have to make the effort to get over it. We’re all human and we all do and say stupid things more than we would like. With some extra points in the account, those things will make less of a negative impact.

Likewise, when we’re relaxed, we can be more creative in finding ways to bridge differences between us. After laughing over a game of Bocce Balls with our neighbors, we can more readily listen to them express an opinion opposite ours. And perhaps they’ll be more likely to hear us out.

Even playing with a pet can bring about some of the same good outcomes, as we relax and laugh at their antics.

With all the items on our to-do lists every day, it’s easy to forget that playing is an important use of our time. Whether it’s playing tabletop games, watching movies, sharing a hike, or taking a trip to the big city, summer is an excellent time to spend important playtime with those we love.

Conservative. Liberal. Academic. Redneck. Student. Lawyer. Senior.

These are just a few of the words we use to describe people. Labels can refer to physical features, groups people belong to, ways they behave, their beliefs, or how we think they think.

This tendency to label is normal, a shorthand for referring to those who have some similarity. Generalizing about likenesses helps us see patterns. It helps us make sense of our world and communicate broad characteristics.

The trouble comes when we start thinking that our labels define everything important about people in a group. We’re on shaky ground when we decide that everyone in a group has all the characteristics implied by that label. We miss so much and make many mistaken assumptions when we think and speak of individuals as only those stereotypes. A group of burly men with longish hair and scruffy beards roaring up on Harley’s are the picture of dangerous Hell’s Angels. Yet, there are identical-looking groups who spend lots of time and money every year helping make sure disadvantaged kids have Christmas presents.

In addition, many times we simply get it wrong and the categories we use aren’t the least bit accurate. Was someone with Middle Eastern features born in Iran or Iowa? Do those tattoos on a young man indicate gang membership or a strong artistic bent? Is the woman in the long skirt a hippie or simply uncomfortable showing her legs?

People are complex. Each of us is a unique blend of our heritage, the experiences we’ve had, the beliefs we hold, and the thoughts we think. Are you just like everyone else who calls themselves a republican or a democrat? A Methodist? A Catholic? Of course not. So, we shouldn’t expect everyone from another group to be all the same, either. When we lump everyone with a given label together and decide they’re uniformly defined by what we think they think, it creates distance. We are “Us” and those odd people are “Not Us”. At best, this causes misunderstanding and the attendant frustrations. At worst, we think of others as so different from us that it’s okay to bully, mistreat, or harm them.

Labels are too often used to put others in a box. All of us have had the experience of being judged unfairly because we share one thing with someone who is otherwise completely different. When we’re treated as a stereotype, stuffed into a box someone else built for us, it doesn’t feel good. We can feel confused, frustrated, angry, and certainly not seen for who we really are. It makes us less inclined to cooperate, or even interact with them. They can feel the same way. A downward spiral of disconnection and fear happens. We don’t feel like we belong in the same community. Yet, the citizens of this country carry a huge range of characteristics and beliefs, and we have to coexist.

To counteract this separation and fear, we need to see beyond the labels we give others, to the full individual. We must question our assumptions about who someone is. This takes effort and a certain courage. It helps to start with respect. We must suspend judgment and learn what they really believe, and why. Yes, a few people may turn out to be fairly true to the stereotypes we hold. But for most people, we are likely to find we have much more in common than not.

Labels pigeonhole us and hide our uniqueness. It doesn’t feel good to be stereotyped and it doesn’t foster getting along. We can do better.

Knowing how much is enough makes a big difference in how well we get along. Constant busyness leads to stress, which leads to increased conflict. In terms of gathering more money or stuff, the quest itself can lead directly to conflict, as we compete for a finite amount of stuff, fearing that if you get more, I get less. Also, when we’re always wanting more and focused on what we don’t have, we feel unsatisfied, less happy, and so have less energy available for others.

And what counts as “enough” – enough activities, money, friends, stuff? This is an important question, but we’re usually so busy that we don’t stop to ask ourselves if we need to do all of it. Or whether we’d be happier if we let some of it go.

The kicker is that we only have a finite number of hours in our lives and we don’t know how many we’ll get. It’s something we don’t often think about until something happens to our health or the health of someone we love. While it’s not helpful to dwell on this reality too much, when we view life from this angle, it’s clear that each hour is precious. How do we want to spend our precious hours? Are we pretty much spending them the way we would choose?

It doesn’t have to be a big deal to start answering those questions. First, we become aware of how we’re filling our days, and then look at whether that’s what we want to be doing. For most of us, a good chunk of our day is spent working to support ourselves and, often, our families. While we might wish for the life of leisure depicted on TV shows about the unemployed wealthy, we choose the reality of working, if we can, rather than not having what we need to survive.

Beyond working to pay for the basics, how much work is enough? How many of our precious hours do we want to spend on making more money? More money can be great – it allows us to live in comfort, have fun experiences traveling, get or provide more education, get the latest tech gadgets, etc. On the other hand, the more we work, the less time that leaves for relationships and other things that are important to us. Where we draw that line is different for each of us. It’s important to follow our own sense of what’s enough, rather than comparing ourselves to what others have or what they do.

It takes time to make and maintain close family ties and friendships, strong indicators of satisfaction in studies of happiness. Are we tending to those connections well enough? Or perhaps we’re even spending too much time wrapped up in the dramas of family and friends. That’s part of the balance, too – enough is that sweet spot between too much and too little.

We may also be booking ourselves with activities that, by themselves, would be fine; it’s just that we are trying to do too many of them. As part of exploring what’s enough for us, we can look at which activities have given us the most satisfaction and be intentional about scheduling more of those.

We’re the only ones who can say for sure how much is enough for us. Given the importance to our happiness and our ability to get along, it’s a good question to answer. How much is enough for you?

Tolerance is a good thing, right?

In many cases, yes. We all have our annoying quirks that we hope others will overlook for the sake of harmony. We have bad days that spawn bad behavior. We do and say things we wish we hadn’t, all the while hoping our friends and coworkers will disregard our shortcomings. Similarly, if we want to get along, we regularly need to put up with such things in others.

Talk about personally sensitive subjects like land-use, politics, religion, and changing weather patterns can be particularly challenging. It’s necessary to tolerate differences of opinion, even when the opinions of others don’t make sense to us. A wonderful thing about our country is that our constitution strongly supports the right for anyone to express their opinions in public. Opinions run the whole gamut –  one person’s wacky idea is another’s cherished belief.

Even when discussions become divisive, or devolve into gripe sessions, we can usually either change the subject or find an excuse to leave. Some work groups create guidelines about when and how certain subjects are discussed at work. Managers and others with higher-level positions need to be particularly careful not to impose their opinions on those lower in the work hierarchy. People we have power over may not feel they can change or leave the conversation.

The concept of tolerance changes when ideas move into action. There’s a big difference between listening to divisive opinions and tolerating bad behaviors, especially when the actions threaten the safety and well-being of others. Bullying is a common example: While we may choose not to argue with someone who speaks poorly about others in private, we must not stand by and watch, or look away, while someone harasses or intimidates another. When we see harassment and intimidation, tolerance is not the appropriate choice; we need to identify what’s going on and take steps to stop it.

Before intervening in a bullying situation, there are several important points to consider. First, we need to make sure direct interruption is safe for us and the person being bullied. It’s possible that we may become the new focus of the bully’s attention. Likewise, we don’t want to create a situation where the harassment of the target worsens once we leave.

Intervening can feel scary; interrupt in a way that feels safe to you. In situations where we can safely intervene, one effective strategy is to ignore the bully and engage the target in friendly conversation, as though they were a friend of ours. This breaks the isolation of the person who is the target and keeps the bully from portraying them as ‘the other”. It also avoids confronting the bully and becoming the new target.

It’s not surprising that we might tend to avoid “getting involved”. But choosing not to act is an action as well. There’s just no way around that – if we’re there, we’re already involved. Many studies over the last couple of decades have shown that the behavior of bystanders is an integral factor in how both verbal and physical attacks play out. Allowing bad behavior to continue in the name of tolerance just encourages more of that harmful conduct.

So, we can look at the possible consequences of a given comment or behavior and ask ourselves: Does tolerating this increase or decrease harmony in the long-term? Listening to a friend vent about a recent governmental action can increase connection with them. Tolerating a neighbor’s loud music over Labor Day Weekend may allow us to get along the rest of the year. Leaving actions like intimidation, discrimination, and harassment unaddressed guarantees that they will happen again and again.

Trust is crucial for getting along together. We trust others to keep their word and depend on them to do their part in our community. Others trust us to do the same. It seems so basic that we don’t notice it most of the time. But without trust, we would devolve into chaos, with no connection, only suspicion and discord.

When we trust someone, we have confidence that we can rely on them. We can depend on them to be able and willing to do what they say they will. We know they have integrity, honesty, and good intentions.

When trust is there, successful communication is much easier. People who trust us will give us the benefit of the doubt when we say something wrong or say it badly. On the other hand, with those who don’t trust us, not matter how carefully we phrase something, they will assume the worst. They may even twist our words to mean something we didn’t ever intend.

The current lack of trust in our political climate is a great example of this. Instead of assuming a politician is in the position to make the world a better place, we immediately suspect their motives. Many of us expect the worst until they prove otherwise, which is very difficult for them to do. This dynamic isn’t uncommon in the workplace either. Just one person who is not worthy of trust, especially if that person is in a position of leadership, can poison the work environment. As a result, productivity falls and colleagues start to dread coming to work.

Trust is part of the foundation of society, but it’s also hard to know who to trust and about what. We shudder when we hear stories about those who trusted too much, losing their life savings, or even endangering their lives. Yet we likely also know someone who does not trust enough and has become isolated and bitter.

How do we find that balance between trust and wariness?

A good place to start is to trust openly, but conditionally. If we start by assuming trustworthiness in small matters, we can then increase trust as it is earned. It’s interesting that those who research trust tell us we have the best odds for trusting wisely by starting out trusting most people, rather than automatically suspecting them. Expect the best at first, but then take your lead from how the other person acts. If we give our trust and they show trust for us, we continue to trust. If they react by not trusting us, we stop trusting them. Using these guidelines, we would reap the benefits of deepening mutual confidence, while minimizing misplaced trust.

Most people respond positively to trust, working to live up to it. Occasionally someone will abuse that confidence and that’s not fun. We feel anger and shame that we believed the person and got “taken”. Even though betrayal is the exception, we humans are wired to remember painful times better than ordinary moments, so we tend to inflate the risk of deception. We forget that there are also significant dangers that come with suspicion, which brings missed opportunities for synergy, fun, creativity, collaboration, ease, learning, joy, love, and all sorts of other things that make life worth living.

Rely on your ability to discern how much to trust in a given situation. We usually know the answer if we stop and ask ourselves if a person is to be believed. Assume the best, but don’t ignore warning signs, like words at odds with a tone of voice or actions. Our bodies also send us messages about whether to believe someone, based on subconscious signals we’re picking up. Who we are inclined to distrust has a lot to do with our unconscious biases, so we should question our reactions to someone who looks or sounds significantly different from us.

When we rely on someone, we open ourselves to the possibility of disappointment. There is always a risk in trusting, but when trust is warranted, it usually pays big dividends in connections with others. And it is a necessary risk in order to get along and function as a community.

Some days it seems that everyone wants to share their stories and opinions. In the morning, we’re assailed by a friend sharing her outrage over what she read on Facebook last night. A co-worker takes every opportunity to share the unfolding drama of his divorce. Someone behind us at the store loudly shares their opinion on who’s to blame for this or that problem, trying to engage us in an argument about it.

Listening all day can be draining, it can be a major time-taker in our already busy lives, and it can leave us feeling trapped. Overly talkative people can turn a quick trip to the grocery store into a head-down race to get our items before getting waylaid. Even positive stories about a friend’s daughter’s wedding can feel overwhelming when relayed in too much detail, at the wrong time.

Getting along doesn’t mean we have to listen to everyone as long as they want to talk. Conversation can create connection, but only when it’s balanced. When we’re hearing more than we can take in, we can feel irritable. Once we’re triggered, we can start passing along the frustration – irritation is contagious.

So, where do we draw the line? For the most part, each of us gets to decide for ourselves. That’s right, we each get to decide how much conversation we participate in and the topics discussed. (If it’s the boss whose talkativeness is a problem, that’s a different story for a different column.)

When we’ve decided that we’ve had enough, how do we stop conversations? It depends on the nature of the relationship. If the talker is an acquaintance, a simple, “Thanks for the update, but I’m afraid I have to run.”, followed by leaving, will do it. Of course, we need to make sure we’re not misleading others in how much we want to hear, too. If we don’t want to hear how a person is doing, it’s best not to ask them.

If the talker is a good friend or family member, the ongoing relationship requires a bit more openness. It’s okay to interrupt the person talking and let them know we can’t take in any more at the moment or can’t listen as well as we’d like. Let them know that we’d love to hear their comments at another time (but only say it if that’s true). Then, later, when we have a chance to really listen, ask them about what they wanted to tell us.

Each of us has different levels of comfort with talking and listening. We may be more open to listening on some days than others, too.

Overwhelm from too much input can come from virtual contact, too. Give yourself permission to unplug from Facebook, or the internet, or Twitter. Those endless streams of news and views are specifically designed to draw us in, so conscious limits are often necessary.

To be fair, each of us also needs to look honestly at whether and when we’re corralling others to listen to our long or often-repeated stories. It’s important to feel heard, but we don’t always get to choose who hears us, or when. If there’s no willing listener at the moment, we can write what we want to say. Writing a long email, or even a letter, can balance our need to be heard with the listener’s desire to have control over when they give us their attention.

We each have the freedom to limit the subject, when, and with whom conversations happen. Tell your friend that you can’t talk politics with her today. Sympathize with your coworker’s difficulties, and then politely, but firmly, end the conversation with him. Ignore the invitation to argument from the overly loud shopper. Give yourself some quiet space in the midst of the day.