martha beck on happiness
Photo: Ann Cutting
You've heard Tolstoy's old line about all happy families being alike, and all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way? Sorry, Leo, but I'm not sure you have that right. And when it comes to individuals, you've got it completely backward. Happy people are as unique and beautiful as snowflakes, while unhappy people are tediously, monotonously, excruciatingly the same. In fact, though I deeply respect therapy, I became a life coach rather than a therapist because I suspected I'd go crazy having to dole out the same basic remedy to every patient. You see, most unhappy people need to learn just one lesson: how to see themselves through the lens of genuine compassion and treat themselves accordingly.

The compassion I'm referring to isn't about narcissism. It's about giving yourself the acceptance, love, and esteem you'd give your best friend. And it's such an effective cure for so many ailments that I've come to believe it deserves its own acronym. Personally, I like the term SALVE: self-acceptance, love, value, esteem. No matter what problem you're facing, from a dreary commute to the end of your marriage, a little SALVE never hurts, and it almost always helps. Here are seven reasons why, if I were you, I'd be reaching for some right here, right now.

1. Applying SALVE is way less bothersome than killing yourself.
We all know that being accepted unconditionally feels wonderful, while being hated, rejected, and shamed is devastating. And since you're the one person whose company you'll never lose, using SALVE means there will always be someone in the room who accepts you, even on your most sleep-deprived, bad-haired, hormonally imbalanced days. Reject yourself, and you're permanently embedded with an emotional abuser. After a few decades (trust me on this), life with such a relentlessly judgmental critic can feel worse than death.

If you've reached this dreadful pass, please recall that suicide is logistically taxing, and (as Hamlet pointed out) may not even work as a pain reducer. Wouldn't you rather steer away from the logical extreme of self-destruction, and toward the conviction that your life is worth living?

2. Applying SALVE is the only way to break negative patterns and improve yourself.
Many people believe that self-hatred is a catalyst for positive change. Au contraire. Reject anything about yourself—your bad habits, your appearance, your impulse to laugh uncontrollably at funerals—and you'll get brief, white-knuckle attempts at self-improvement that consistently end in relapse.

This is why rehab programs try to connect addicts with people who can love them exactly as they are, and can teach them how to apply SALVE. (FYI, this isn't the same as enabling the addiction. You can accept someone who craves alcohol without buying her a drink.) Tough love and unconditional acceptance, not blame and rejection, ultimately ease an addict's inner pain and its accompanying compulsions. Ditto for anything you want to change about yourself. SALVE is the magical habit-breaking ingredient.

Next: How to make your loved ones actually feel loved