Focus on the Good

Focus on the Good

I don’t know about you, but personally, I’m getting awfully tired of watching the violent protests that seem to be erupting almost daily around the globe. Sure, I understand that a lot of things need fixing in our world, and I appreciate dedication to promoting a worthy cause. But those who practice violence and destruction do nothing to further the betterment of our situation, especially when they utterly fail to carry any message proposing workable solutions to the problems they are railing against. What if, instead of focusing on perceived evils and shortcomings, we devoted ourselves to identifying and promoting the things that further the flourishing of humankind?

Almost 20 years ago, professional psychology asked itself the same question about its own direction. It had been focusing almost exclusively on illness and giving little attention to identifying the factors that promoted individual well-being. When it turned its attention to searching for the life-promoting traits in people, the science of positive psychology was born. And studies world-wide are now proving that we live happier, more productive, creative and satisfying lives when we focus on building our strengths than we do when we focus on trying to improve our weaknesses.

Remember the saying, “What we focus on expands.” Focus on what’s wrong and you get more of it. Focus on the good and it increases.

What Goodness Is

Don’t fall for the idea that goodness is relative, that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The good in life is what supports it, what lifts burdens and alleviates suffering. What’s toxic is action that produces suffering where it doesn’t have to exist.

When the founders of positive psychology got the idea to identify what things contributed to the Good Life, they looked at the qualities that people found most worthwhile across cultures and across centuries of time. They ended up finding six general categories of time-tested values that were held in high esteem all over the world:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity and Love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

These virtues form the pillars that uphold civilizations that give rise to the Good Life.

Under these virtues, the positive psychologists identified character strengths that were linked to each category. (See: The 24 Personal Strengths: An Overview)

Strengths and Virtue

These strengths are the vehicles by which we creatively and productively move forward in the world, the means by which we bring the six universal virtues into existence, both in our individual experience and in the world as a whole.

When individuals become aware of their signature strengths, they can use them as a channel for joyfully pouring energy into work that contributes to the well-being of all. Strengths such as curiosity and “street smarts,” for example, are expressions of the virtue of knowledge and wisdom. People who possess them invent new and unconventional ways to get things done. They value practicality and look for ways to make things work in the real world.

Instead of bowing to the mob or basing their choices and actions on currently popular slogans and memes, people who use their strengths to foster the expression of universal values discover genuine depth and meaning in their goals. They focus on creating the Good Life for all, and they work to understand more and more clearly what the Good Life truly entails. They look for ways to increase the deliciousness of life, to promote the things that make living worthwhile. The torches they carry are the torches of truth. The fires they build are the fires of freedom.

If we want to build a better world, one that is just, and balanced, and wise, we need to hone our focus on the Good and to promote it, each in his or her own way, each with his or her own strengths. The wrong is all too evident. The way out is to focus on the Good.

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Speech and Freedom

Free Speech

On this 4th of July weekend, as we in the United States celebrate the day that marks the creation of our nation as a free and independent state, I want to talk with you about a movement in western culture that I believe threatens our ability, as humans, to flourish. And that threat is the threat to the first freedom named in our constitution, which prohibits any law that would diminish our freedom of speech.

It’s a complex situation that we’re in, risen from a multitude of causes. Whole books have been written about it, both on its causes and its potential effects. And I certainly have no solution. But I believe that it’s important to talk about issues that endanger us in order to spread awareness and to encourage others to give the matter some serious thought, to decide for themselves what’s healthy and good, and to take a stand.

The Problem

That last sentence kind of sums it up. We can only think about things that we can talk about, that we can put into words. The threat I’m talking about is a movement to silence all speech that contradicts the prevailing beliefs of a promoted group of people.

Sixty-seven years ago, in a message to Congress, then President Harry Truman stated the danger this way:

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

Today, it is not only governments that are passing laws about what may or may not be said, but growing segments of the populace itself who would stifle free speech. When we are no longer able freely to state our beliefs without fear of violent repercussions, we will degenerate into fearful silence. New ideas will die before they can be given birth in the public domain. Time-tested wisdom will be buried beneath the rubble of restriction. Truth will be shackled by the chains of a mandatory ideology. And we will no longer be free.

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

Let Us Not Offend

One of the contributors to the current movement to suppress free speech is, ironically, based in kindness, or at least in a superficial understanding of what it means to be kind. It’s the idea that people are fragile and easily wounded by unkind words. We must, such thinking goes, root out from our language any words that have the potential to hurt another human being.

Thus, we have a Canadian government proclaiming that words such as “mother,” “father,” “him,” and “her” must be replaced by “gender-neutral and inclusive” language in all school forms, websites, letters, and other communications.  We have a Florida University banning the words “Mom” and “Dad.” We have schools banning classic books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. and publishers hiring “sensitivity editors” to edit out potentially offensive viewpoints and words.  And to take it to another extreme, we now have a Canadian law dictating what words you must use in referring to a person’s self-identified gender identity—or face punishment.

What We’re Learning

What this “do not offend” dictum is teaching us is that we’re so vulnerable that “authorities” of one kind or another must step in to protect us. And furthermore, we’re increasingly lured into thinking that those who use insensitive language or hold opinions different from our own are enemies, and even enemy combatants, against whom we must fight with any means at our disposal. Blogs and social media urge readers to jail, torture, rape, and assassinate people with opposing political opinions. No opinion but mine must stand…because it hurts me.

What to Do Instead

If we’re going to save the right to free speech, the fundamental right on which all freedom depends, we need to oppose regulations against it, whether they’re imposed by governments or institutions. We need to begin proclaiming that we value hearing opposing opinions, that we’re robust enough to hear—and even thoughtfully consider—opposing points of view. We need to understand that people are made stronger by confronting dissent, not weakened by it. Life is tough, and we grow more resilient by facing challenges. We’re broadened by the richness of diverse opinions. We move nearer to Truth only by viewing it from different angles.

Free conversation allows us to negotiate our differences. It’s the only means we have to prevent authoritarianism, tyranny and war. “Not to speak one’s thoughts,” Euripides said, “is slavery.”

So on this weekend, when we find ourselves thinking about what it means to be free, let us declare ourselves to be free to express ourselves and to allow others to do the same. Unless every person is free to speak his or her truth, none will be.

 

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The Wisdom of Restraint

When I was a little kid, my mother taught me a lot about dealing with people whom I didn’t especially like. Basically, there were only two rules. I them both under the heading, “The Wisdom of Restraint.”

The first one was about guarding what came out of my own mouth, and the second one was about unkind things that others said to me. And today, when the divide between differing opinions is so sharp and deep, I’m grateful for Mom’s teachings.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice . . .

The first one–the guide for how to speak to others–was, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It took me a while to understand that she didn’t mean I should never speak my truth if it was likely to offend. She meant I had to learn to express myself in a way that took others’ sensitivities into consideration and to respect them, no matter how silly or dumb their viewpoints seemed to be.

But until you’re mature enough to articulate your truth clearly and with tact, the “don’t say anything at all” part of Mom’s rule is a good guideline, and one which, it seems to me, a lot of us could well learn to adopt. If we spent less time mindlessly parroting slogans and sound bites and more time listening to reasoned, researched, and fact-based arguments, we might find that we had something worthwhile to contribute.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is adding fuel to already raging fires. And that’s no way to find workable answers to our world’s deep and complex problems. In fact, it makes them worse. It keeps us from even knowing what questions to ask in order to find solutions.

If you’re having trouble understanding how someone on the other side of a political argument could possibly believe what they believe, I highly recommend you take the time to listen to moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful Ted Talk, “Healing the Divide.” And heed his advice, too, about reading Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This time-tested guide will show you how to say things tactfully and help you communicate more effectively in all aspects of your life. You can download it for free here.

Mom’s Second Rule

Okay, I know it’s not well-understood in today’s victim-culture, but Mom’s second rule holds wisdom nonetheless. She didn’t make it up. She just recognized it as sage advice that I needed to know: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

That rule taught me that I didn’t need to be offended just because someone was being offensive. If I was secure in myself, I could take their words as an expression of their opinion and nothing more. And they were as entitled to their opinion as I was to mine.

Everybody lives in his own reality bubble. But we all share things in common, too. If what you say shocks me, I don’t need to react defensively. Instead, I can tell you that I don’t see things the same way. I can be curious about why you see things as you do and, if you’re open to talking about it, share my own viewpoint and reasoning with you. Who knows? Maybe we’ll end up being the best of friends. Maybe we’ll be stimulated to continue talking about the issue over time, and both expand our views in the process. Maybe we’ll cordially agree to disagree, to like all the other things there are to like about each other.

In essence, the “sticks and stones” rule is about learning how to respond rather than to react. It takes practice. It goes against our natural grain. But it’s a pathway to peace, both internally and between opposing parties. And these days, when our weapons are not sticks and stones but implements of total destruction, it’s the only pathway we can take and still survive.

Wishing peace and healing for us all.

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Why Fathers Matter

Father Matter

Sadly, in our throw-away culture, one of the things that’s increasingly being viewed as disposable is fathers.  Take a survey of people between 22 and 37—prime child-bearing ages—and you’ll find that only about half of them think kids need both a mom and dad to grow up happily1.   But the truth is that fathers matter.  A whole bunch.  Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson  says that it’s demoralizing to grow up without a father in your life.  You feel cast aside, as if you don’t matter much.  Without a dad the world can seem a dismal place.  “The good father,” he says, “helps you to become your best self.”

What Fathers Do For Us

Fathers are the encouragers in our lives.  They’re the ones who say, “Go ahead!  You can do it!” even when we’re pretty sure we can’t.  They believe in our potential.  They teach us to take risks, to try, to be daring, even in the face of fear.

They set limits and hold up standards, teaching us self-control and responsibility.2  And as Peterson says, it’s bearing responsibility that gives life its meaning.

Dads hold out expectations for us.  They push us to excel.  Feeling a father’s pride in your accomplishments helps you strive to do and be your best.

When I was growing up, I took piano lessons.  And even when I felt I had mastered a piece of music, my dad would nod and smile and say, “Keep practicing.  You’ll get it yet.”   In time, I became good enough to place highly in competitions.  Then I would get from him the words I longed to hear:  “Good job.”  And that meant more than any trophy or ribbon.

Unlike mothers, who tend to talk to us in our own language levels, Dads help us expand our vocabularies by talking with a broader, more adult range of words.

It’s the rough and tumble side of dads, who tickle and wrestle with us, who teach us sports and games and skills, that teaches us how to deal with the world head-on, to be independent and to assert ourselves.   We learn from their roughhousing how to be resilient in the face of defeat, and how to brush defeat aside.

They tell us stories from their worlds that show us the positive value of competition and take us to new  places that we wouldn’t dare go on our own.  They instill confidence in us, support us, and help us feel secure.

They’re the ones who say, “Enough is enough!” teaching us about rules and about what it means to be moral and fair.  It’s no wonder that kids with fathers do better in school, are more playful, and learn to use humor to cope with setbacks.

Fathers Matter

If you are fortunate enough to have had a father in your world, take time to tell him that he matters to you, that you’re grateful for all he has taught you.  And if you’re a father, a step-father, or a father-figure in someone’s life, know that your role is not only important, but irreplaceable, and take pride in that.  Dads make us better people and the world a better place.

Happy Father’s Day, you Dads out there.  A father’s love is fierce, and sometimes it’s not an easy job, keeping the balance between being strong and being harsh.  But that fierce love gives us our strength and courage.  And as Peterson says, the world would be a much more dismal place without you.

——

1 The Importance of Fathers (According to Science)

2 A Father’s Importance for Children: Thoughts for Father’s Day

 

 

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Focused Intention: Remembering Your Best Self

Your Best Self

 

Whether you’re trying to improve a relationship, get to the gym more often, finish that report, or clean out the garage, one of the keys to achieving your goals is remembering your best self—the you who you want to be. The things we’re aiming to achieve, after all, are a reflection of the values we hold and the traits we want to express. Maintain a focused intention on those things and watch the barriers to achieving your goals melt away.

Here’s a simple two-part process you can use to move more easily toward any goal.

Identifying Who You Want to Be

First, think about what you’re hoping to get from achieving your goal. Ask yourself the classic “WIIFM” question: What’s in it for me? Even if the result you’re aiming for is represented by something tangible, like that finished report or a clean garage, if you think about it, what you really want is the feeling that you lived out a value that you hold in high regard. You want the experience of holding the mindset or attitude that the process of achieving your goal asks of you.

Suppose, for example, that you want to improve your relationship with your partner who has been irritating you lately. What mindset or attitude could you adopt that might smooth things out? Who do you really want to be when you relate to her? Someone who is more patient, maybe? More caring? More empathic? More cheerful?

Imagine setting an intention to express those traits. Imagine how it would feel being that person in your relationship. Imagine how your partner would respond to a person like that.

Or suppose you have to work on an assignment that you’ve been putting off. Who would you have to be to dive into it? What traits could you express? More curiosity? Keener interest? A heightened sense of responsibility? More inventiveness?

No matter what you’re aiming to achieve, your goal is asking you to focus on being who you need to be in order to achieve it. When you identify the traits you want to use and develop a focused intention to live them in your daily life, they will carry you toward your goal. It’s just a matter of remembering who you want to be—and step two, below, will show you how to remember.

If you need a little prompting to decide what traits you might want to adopt, check out this handy little list: Positive Traits for Building Your Best Self.

Focused Intention

The second step in remembering who you want to be is creating a focused intention using a simple practice called the PARK technique. It anchors your intention to live out the traits you want to express, and doing it takes only a minute or two.

Begin by choosing two or three traits you think will work best for accomplishing your goal. Then say to yourself, preferably out loud, “My intention is to be filled with ___________ and _________ .”

Next, take a couple minutes to close your eyes and remember a time when you felt each of them and let yourself experience that feeling as fully as you can. Feel a little smile on your face and, as you feel your first intended feeling, say its name while you tap the heart region of your chest three times—“Capable. Capable. Capable.” Then do it with the next intended feeling.

Great! You have created your focused intention. Next, you activate and strengthen it with these two daily practices:

First, as soon as you wake in the morning, before you get out of bed, remember your intention, repeating the traits to yourself.

Second, as you go through your day, do the PARK exercise to reinforce and nurture it. (A great way to remember it is to do it on the hour, or to do it before each meal.) Here’s how:

PPause in whatever you are doing, momentarily setting it aside.

ABecome Aware: Allow yourself to become aware of the present moment. Do a quick body-scan, closing your eyes if you like, and let go of any accumulated tension. Then notice the data your senses are bringing to you: What are you seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Tasting? What is your skin feeling? Also, do a quick review of all you have accomplished in the past hour and acknowledge yourself for it. You can do all of this very effectively in a matter of a 10-15 seconds. If you can take a full 30 seconds with it, enjoying the richness of the moment, you’ll find it especially relaxing.

RRemember: Briefly touch your heart center and allow the feeling of your intentions to be in your awareness for a moment. Know that they are alive within you and gently guiding you. (If you’re in a public situation and uncomfortable touching your heart center, simply turn your attention to your heart.)

KKeep on Task: Return your attention to the task at hand or with the next one on your list.

That’s it! Choose two or three traits as vehicle for reaching your goal, install your intention to be immersed in them, do a morning reminder when you wake and practice PARK as you go through your day.

This practice is one of the favorites of my coaching clients, by the way. I hope you’ll give it a try and experience the wondrous well-being and success that it can bring you as you move toward your goals.

Wishing you delicious intentions!

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