The Gratitude Solution

Gratitude“The struggle ends when gratitude begins.” ~Neil Donald Walsh

Take a problem, any problem.  Pour some gratitude on it, and watch it begin to dissolve.

If that sounds like a stretch to you, all I can say is give it a try.

Regardless of the nature of your problem, look for something in the situation for which you can be grateful.  If you’re deeply enmeshed in it emotionally, it may take a little effort; but the effort is well worth making.  And always, you will be able to find things to be grateful for.  Always.   Once you find a few things, center your attention and your breathing in your heart area, and let yourself actually feel your gratitude for them.  You’ll return to your problem with a lighter, more resourceful frame of mind.

The power of gratitude is proven, not only by personal testimony that stretches back into the mists of time, but through empirical evidence generated by researchers in positive psychology.

What the science shows is that, as one of the key positive emotions, gratitude expands your view of things, giving you a broader, more resourceful perspective.   The spaciousness it creates lets you soften the tight focus you had on your problem and to open yourself to clues or comforts that may have been hiding just out of sight.

Gratitude is more than emotion.  Positive psychology classifies it as one of the 24 basic character strengths.  And like all strengths, you can increase its play in your life simply by giving it more attention and creating an intention to apply it more fully in your life.

The Amazing Benefits of Gratitude

It’s worth the effort to build more gratitude into your life.  Not only will you be happier – and able to more easily deal with your problems – but you’ll gain a wealth of additional benefits.

Grateful people, for example, sleep better and have better relationships.

Positive psychology tells us that gratitude involves both acknowledging good things that happen – being mindful of present benefits – and recognizing that the sources of goodness are outside us.  It helps to keep us rooted in the present moment and to experience more peace.

In his essay on gratitude for Positive Psychology News Daily, David Pollay quotes University of California psychology professor Robert Emmons as saying:

“Our groundbreaking research has shown that grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”

Read slowly through that list of qualities again, and just for a moment, close your eyes and imagine being filled with them.   Imagine how enriched you would feel if they were buy valtrex nz your default way of experiencing life.

How to Build Gratitude

All the personal strengths are like muscles; exercise them and they get stronger.   Here are a few fun practices, many of them from the wonderful little book, Gratitude: How to Appreciate Life’s Gifts,  that you may enjoy for inviting more gratitude into your life:

  • Set aside time for gratitude.  Before you get out of bed in the morning, take a few minutes to remember some of the people, things and events that you value.  End your day with the “Three Good Things” exercise, or by making an entry in a gratitude journal.
  • Take time to make a list of the people and things that you value in your life.  Include people and events from the past that helped you become who you are today.
  • Notice when things go well – your car starts, your coworker smiles at you, your report goes well, your family enjoyed their dinner together.   Be grateful for events.
  • Look around and see what you’re taking for granted: running water, electricity, working plumbing, food, clothing, fresh air, health, soap, razor blades, towels, toilet paper.  What would your life be like without them?  What if you had no access to them, or even the hope of any?
  • Be grateful for talents, skills, abilities.  Wow, I can read!  Isn’t that a miracle?
  • Savor happy memories.
  • Be thankful for bad things avoided and for things you haven’t lost.  It could have been worse; it was worse in the past.
  • Think about where things came from and what it took to invent, create, package, transport, and market them.  Think about all the connections involved, all the people and systems and materials.
  • Express your gratitude.  When you receive good customer service, look the other person in the eyes and express your appreciation.  Both of you will be pleased.  Praising people for what they do motivates them.
  • Use focused gratitude to improve a negative situation.  If your hands are hurting you, appreciate your strong legs or that you can see well.  If you’re struggling with your job, try keeping a gratitude list of the things about it you can find to appreciate.
  • To build the gratitude skills of your children and to generate a more positive work environment, practice expressing your gratitude for good efforts out loud.   Positive moods are as contagious as negative ones.  By practicing gratitude you literally make the world a happier place.

Need some inspiration to get your practice started?  Enjoy this beautiful video, written by Buddhist monk written by Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, founder of the uplifting website

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

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Appreciation: Positivity’s Power Tool

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The Wow Factor: Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence

Swallowtail on White BlossomsWhat sets off the Wow inside you?  A breathtaking sunset?  An extraordinary sports play?  A masterpiece of music or art?  Witnessing an act of surpassing kindness and generosity?

The appreciation of beauty and excellence finds its focus both in nature’s beauty and in every endeavor known to man.  What brings it forth in you may be entirely different from what triggers it for me.  But whatever its focus, the feeling of it is universal – a thrilling sense of elevation and awe.

It’s no accident that positive psychologists classify the personal strength of appreciating beauty and excellence as one of the transcendent strengths.

When the Wow Factor strikes us, we’re momentarily swept into a world that’s higher and headier than simple emotion or thought.  In fact, it’s the kind of peak experience that’s often beyond words.  Beauty and Excellence speak to the very best in us; they raise us up.   Experiencing them with full appreciation adds more joy and meaning to our lives.

Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence Defined

Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman,the developers of  the personal strengths classification, define the appreciation of beauty and goodness as “the ability to find, recognize, and take pleasure in the existence of goodness in the physical and social worlds.”

They go on to describe three types of “goodness” that can trigger this strength:

  • 1. Sensory beauty, such as a natural scene or a symphony, a work of art, or dance or architecture.
  • 2. Skill or talent, such as we might see in a sports performance, or in any field of human endeavor.
  • 3. Virtue or moral goodness, such as the dedication of Mother Teresa.

You may personally be drawn more toward one type than another.  Or, if this strength is one of your top strengths, you may find that your sensitive to all three.

How to Enhance Life’s Meaning

In our high-tech, achievement-oriented society, it’s easy to turn into “a head on a stick,” and to be so caught up in our internal, intellectual worlds that we overlook the beauty and excellence that life has to offer.

But cultivating the strength of appreciating them makes our lives more meaningful and worthwhile.  It allows us to get back in touch with our sense of wonder.

That’s not to say that we can’t find beauty and excellence in the intellectual world as well, if we choose to look for it.   In his book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins says,

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

The time we have for living is indeed finite.  So why not fill it with all the richness and beauty we can?

Yeats said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  We can intentionally sharpen our senses and the strength of appreciation for beauty and excellence in many ways.

The key word is “intentionally.”   Each of us possesses all of the personal strengths to greater or lesser degrees, and by paying attention to any one of them, we can raise its degree of functioning in our life.  The first step is to make a commitment to yourself to look for beauty and excellence.  Remind yourself when you wake in the morning that this is one of your intentions for the day.

Psychologist Ben Dean, founder and CEO of Mentor Coach, suggests that you can increase your appreciation for beauty and excellence by keeping a nightly journal in which you record  “something you saw during the day the struck you as extremely beautiful or skillful.”  Or visit a museum and hunt for something that especially touches you because of its aesthetic value.  Afterwards, write down your impressions.

Dr. Clare Wheeler has some suggestions for increasing your appreciation for beauty and excellence, too.

  • Take a mindful walk, she says, where you stroll slowly, opening all your senses to the world around you.  Even if you do this for only a short while, say, from your house to your car, it will enrich you and clue you in to all that can be observed and enjoyed.
  • Add variety to your daily routine.  If you take a different way to work, for example, or to the store, you’ll be more apt to notice new things.
  • Create more time in your life for the things that you find beautiful and moving.  Buy yourself flowers or plant a garden.   Surround yourself with coffee table books about the things that you enjoy and find inspiring.  Read biographies of people who have excelled in their fields.  Attend more concerts and sporting events if they draw you and watch for the moments of high skill and artistry.
  • Use the camera on your phone or a compact digital camera to capture the beauty you spot in your daily life.  “Make a deal with yourself to take one photo of something you think is beautiful every day for a month,” she says.  “Before long, you’ll find yourself seeking, and finding, beautiful people places and things every day.

I have to admit that the last one is my personal favorite.  I started doing it three years ago and the result is my daily blog, “High on Happiness,” where I share my photos and the thoughts they inspire, just for the joy of it.  And I can attest that the activity has indeed added more happiness and meaning to my own life.

However you choose to develop it,  and whatever aspect of life’s goodness creates a Wow moment for you, the time you spend cultivating appreciation for beauty and excellence will enrich you beyond measure.

If you found this article worthwhile, please do pass it on.  And while you’re here, subscribe and get your free copy of the Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Well-Being, along with my Sunday morning letters – both special ways to add more uplift to your life.

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

You may also enjoy How to Live a Meaningful Life


Photo: c. 2013 Susan K Minarik


The Hidden Strengths of Modesty and Humility

Modesty and HumilityIn today’s celebrity culture, where glamour and fame ride high, the traits of modesty and humility seem more like throwbacks to some dusty, forgotten age than qualities to be desired.

But don’t let their unassuming nature fool you.  The hidden strengths of modesty and humility sing to our hearts and appeal to our highest nature.

Modesty and Humility Defined

To understand why, let’s start by defining them.  If you look them up in the dictionary, the two words generally describe the same kinds of attitude and behavior.   “ Modesty” applies more to the way we express ourselves in our speech or dress.  It’s concerned with standards of decency.  “Humility” focuses more on the way we value ourselves compared to others, including the level of authority we have in a given situation.   But both of them are about freedom from arrogance, showiness and excessive pride.

The developers of positive psychology’s VIA Character Strength Survey say this about someone who ranks high in modesty and humility:  “You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.”

In other words, you don’t need to be the center of attention and you have a sense that your personal qualities and abilities, while they may be exceptional in some way, don’t make you more special as a human being.  You recognize that we all have our worth.

Humility’s Essence and Depth

Writing about humility in the now discontinued magazine In Character Wilfred M. McClay calls humility “foundational to the very possibility of human flourishing.”  That’s a pretty big statement to make.   But he may be right.  He describes humility’s task as one that allows us to “reorient ourselves to our proper place in a larger reality, which, for all its vastness and unfathomable mystery, is the ground of any genuine human happiness.”

What that means is that humility is the quality that lets us see ourselves honestly, as small sparks in an endless stretch of time and space, as one of several billion human beings who share this one particular moment on this one little planet.   It means that we keep things in perspective, that we recognize our limitations as well as our strengths and don’t overestimate either of them.

I like the way that Brett and Kate McKay put it in their article at the Art of Manliness:

“The definition of humility need not include timidity or becoming a wallflower. Instead, humility simply requires a man to think of his abilities and his actions as no greater, and no lesser, than they really are. Real humility then mandates that a man knows and is completely honest with himself.  He honestly assesses what are, and to what magnitude he possesses talents and gifts, struggles and weaknesses.”

In essence, humility is keeping a balanced view of ourselves and of our place in the larger whole.

Because the whole is so large, someone somewhere will always be better than we are at some things, worse than we are at others.  That means there’s no need for arrogance about what we do well or for shame over what we can do only poorly.  It also means that we give credit to others where it’s due.  It means we can genuinely celebrate others’ achievements without feeling personally lessened by them in some way.

The whole is not only large, but it’s interconnected.  It’s all once piece, and we, individually, are just its parts.  We’re dependent on each other for all that we are.  All the material goods and services we enjoy come to us through the efforts of other people.  All that we’ve learned, we’ve been taught or led to by others.  Other people shape our cultures, our institutions, our world views and our beliefs.  Humility is the conscious recognition and appreciation of the contributions of others.  It’s a kind of gratitude for our fellow man.

What’s So Cool About Humility?

Humility makes you more likeable.   When you’re focused on seeing that other people get what they need instead of only looking out for your own interests, people develop trust in you.  When you sincerely applaud their achievements and contributions, people feel acknowledged, validated and seen.

Lately, humility has been identified as a top quality of strong leaders.  According to leadership expert Jim Collins, a great leader loses his or her greatness when it becomes all about that leader. In almost a biblical sense, greatness comes when those who could be first decide to be last.

“We found that for leaders to make something great,” Collins says, “their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.”

Humble people tend to be confident and to have a strong sense of purpose.  Research
shows that people who rank high in humility seem to have “a sense of security grounded on feelings of self-worth.”   They’re “less driven to impress and dominate others” and “to collect special benefits for themselves.”

Because they’re confident in their self-worth they tend to be flexible in their opinions and open to the viewpoints of others.

Self-Worth vs. Self-Esteem

Self-worth is different from self-esteem.  Self-esteem is ego-centric and competitive.  It measures how good you are compared to others.   It can be boastful and arrogant, and it’s sometimes built on a less than honest appraisal of your true attributes, talents, authority, or skills.

Self-worth, on the other hand, acknowledges that you have deep-rooted, built-in value – just because you are -while respecting the value of others as well.  It holds onto its perspective of the larger whole.

What’s so cool about humility, in the final analysis, is that it’s about love and respect.  It’s about loving and honoring yourself, just as you are, so fully that you love and honor others as well.

And that, I believe, is why it’s the foundation for all human flourishing.

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”


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You may also enjoy How to Develop Your People Smarts
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The World-Changing Power of Kindness

Photo: Heath Brandon/Flickr.

Tucked away in positive psychology’s list of character strengths is one, little gentle one that, when applied, has the power to improve your day, build healthier relationships, slow aging, improve heart functioning, and make people happy.  That’s what the research shows about kindness.

But the positive power of kindness is even wider and deeper than that.  Embracing, as it does, our inborn empathy for one another, our compassion for suffering, and our longing to contribute in some, small way to the well-being of others, kindness speaks of the best in us.

It’s a quality so profound that the Dalai Lama even named it as the basis for his entire belief system.  “This is my simple religion,” he said; “There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy.  Our own brain, our heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

Mark Twain said, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can read.”   It’s a universal language that speaks to us all.

The Contagious Nature of Kindness

One of the characteristics that positive psychology researchers have recently demonstrated about happiness is its tendency to spread among people.  Reporting on a recent study conducted by James H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis, an article in Wired magazine said,  “In findings sure to gladden the heart of anyone who’s ever wondered whether tiny acts of kindness have larger consequences, researchers have shown that generosity is contagious.”

Dr. David R. Hamilton explains the contagious nature of kindness this way:

“I believe that kindness is contagious in three ways. The first is that we feel elevated when someone helps us. We’re on the crest of an emotional wave for a short time and from this state we feel inspired to help other people.

“Depending upon the situation, we might also feel relieved when someone helps us, especially if the situation we’re in is stressful. This reduces the stress or worry and we feel a surge of relief. Stress and worry often obstruct our real nature, which contains strong undercurrents of compassion and kindness. When stress goes away and is replaced with a feeling of relief, we’re more likely to act on opportunities to help others.

“The third way is that when we see someone being kind, something inside tells us that this is what we should be doing and so we are inspired by the observation of another’s kind behaviour. This is called social contagion.”

As Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip said, “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness  Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

We do ourselves good with kindnesses given as well.  Acts of kindness increase the happiness of both the person who does the kindness and the recipient of the act.

How to Increase Your Kindness Quotient

You can increase the amount of kindness you spread by simply setting an intention to be kind.  Opportunities to help others are everywhere.

You can find a wonderful list of ways to be kind at Random Acts of Kindness if you need some inspiration.

And here’s a description of a kindness activity from Positive Psych. Webs that you can try out just to see how expressing more kindness impacts your own life:

Perform a new act of kindness each day for a week. Create a list of potential acts of kindness you can do. Use this as a guide but feel free to change it as long as you do a new and different act each day. Reflect upon how you feel after doing each act of kindness and the reaction of the receiver, if applicable.

Note: research has found that the good feelings produced by doing acts of kindness actually last longer if you do all 5 acts in one day rather than spread out throughout the week. (If you do only one a day, it may start to feel like a chore.) Try it both ways and see if this makes a difference for you.

What science is finally confirming is wisdom that, in our hearts, we’ve always known.  Way back in the 4th Century, Saint Basil, Bishop of Cesarea, said, “A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”

Put the power of kindness to work in your life, beginning right now.

One way to do that would be to pass this article along to your friends.  Do share!

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You may also enjoy: Self-Compassion: Being Your Own Best Friend  – how to be kind to you.

Photo: Heath Brandon/Flickr.


The Meaning of Courage

Man Scaling MountainCourage.  The very word conjures up images of acts of bravery in the face of life-threatening danger.   We envision roaring flames, mountainous drops, raging rivers, a hail of bullets, a screech of wheels, and some heroic soul putting it all on the line to save the life of another or reach the heights.

We love the stories.  They sing of the best in us.  We feel larger just for hearing them.  They inspire us and make us proud that we are human beings.

And rightly so, because each of us is courageous in his or her own way.  You may doubt that, and whisper to yourself, “Not me.”  But let’s talk a little bit about the meaning of courage, and the ways it shows up in our everyday lives.

 A Definition of Courage

The best way to start is to consider a definition of courage.   The one I like best is the one that Robert Biswas-Diener came up with, in his wonderful book The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver:

“Courage,” he says, “is the willingness to act toward a moral and worthwhile goal despite the presence of risk, uncertainty and fear.”

I particularly like it because he adds the phrase “toward a moral and worthwhile goal” to the definition.   It has to “contribute to some good for oneself or others without taking away the dignity or well-being of others,” Biswas-Dienr says.

Not all risk-taking signifies courage.   A mugger might be facing risk, uncertainty and fear; but to call him courageous would be to defame the trait.  Good intent is an essential component of courage.   It’s the part that lets us admire it and that touches us when we see it in action.

Interestingly, it’s that goodness that keeps us from recognizing our own courage.  When Biwas-Diener interviewed courageous people in his research, most of them didn’t see their actions as anything special.   “Anybody would have done the same thing,” they’d tell him.

We’re courageous because it seems like the right thing to do, because it’s what we expect of ourselves, or what we believe that others expect of us.

How to Grow Your Courage

Courage is one of the 24 character strengths identified by positive psychology founders Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman.  And as with all the strengths, you can learn and develop it through practice and attention.

Biswas-Diener found that courage is made up of two processes.   The first part is the willingness to take action, and the second is the ability to control fear.   Developing courage is a matter of learning how to manage fear so it doesn’t prevent you from action, and of finding ways to motivate yourself to act.

Learning to Manage Fear

The first part of learning to be more courageous is learning to handle fear, and Biswas-Diener  offers a wealth of information on how to do just that.

Because a big part of fear is often uncertainty, he suggests that we learn as much as we can about the situation that we’re facing.  Gather facts.  Prepare as best you can.  Rehearse.

Learn to relax so that you can stop “the runaway locomotive of irrational thinking.”  Try mentally putting yourself in the danger you’re imagining and figure out what the best way to handle it would be.  Then rehearse that.   Learn how to do progressive muscle relaxation; practice mindful breathing or youga regularly; practice meditation or prayer.

Surprisingly, one of the ways to overcome fear is to get angry.  It’s the one emotion, Biswas-Diener says, that’s strong enough to overpower fear.  But you need to use it strategically in a limited number of situations.  Otherwise it can backfire.  Anger makes it difficult to think clearly, so you only want to ignite when you need it.

One of the last suggestions you might expect from a scientist is to use magical thinking.  But Biswas-Diener makes a strong and logical case for adopting a talisman—a lucky token of some kind—to bring you “good luck.”  It could be anything from a “lucky” piece of clothing, to a photo, or a stone, or a coin, or a small toy.  Whatever works for you.

He also suggests that you convince yourself that you’re a lucky person.   Tell yourself that you are.  Keep a lucky journal and regularly write down the lucky things that happen to you, such as bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen in ages or finding a ten dollar bill on the ground.  Thinking of yourself as lucky boosts your confidence.

Motivating Yourself To Act

One of the best ways to increase your motivation to act is to think about those who would benefit from your action.  Open yourself to feeling their need and how your action will help them.

If, for example, you’re about to give a speech or presentation and you’re shaking in your boots, think about how useful and worthwhile the information you have to give will be to your audience.

In an excellent article on the types of courage, blogger Brett McKay refers to this other-orientation as moral courage.  He gives this advice for motivating yourself to act:

“Moral courage thrives on empathy and compassion, the ability to understand the needs and hurts of others. .  . If you weekly work with the homeless and poverty-stricken, you will have the courage to fight for policies and programs to help improve their lives.

“Thus, the best way to develop moral courage is through offering regular service to others. When you work with people face to face, you gain the courage not to turn away and to fight for the right thing for them. You will find that this courage will not only apply specifically to the groups of people you directly serve, but will expand your compassion, and thus your courage, to do what is right for all people and in every situation.”

Another way to boost your willingness to act is by putting yourself in brave roles.  Tell yourself that your job is to help others in need or to take initiative and small risks to serve others; then practice acting boldly.

You can avoid being trapped by the bystander effect, where you stand by while someone needs help, by following what Biswas-Diener identifies as The Five Steps to Lending Aid:

  1. Notice the event.
  2. Understand that the event is urgent.
  3. Assume responsibility; decide that you are the one to step in here.
  4. Know what kind of aid to deliver.
  5. Decide to act.

He also tells us that when we’re lending aid and need the help of others, instead of saying “Someone call for an ambulance,” point directly at one person and say, “You! Call for an ambulance.”

Fear of Failure

Few things rob us of our courage more than the fear of failure, especially when the failure will be public.   “By accepting, even actively embracing, the possibility of failure, you can boost your willingness to act and increase your overall courage quotient,” says Biswas-Diener.

Sure, failure is always painful.  But learning to frame it as a part of a larger process, such as learning or developing a skill, can definitely help us cope with it.  Learn to focus on the process that you’re involved in rather than looking at the ways it can go wrong, and keep reminding yourself of what you’ll gain by taking the next step forward.

The Payoff of Courage

Having courage helps you have better relationships, perform better at work, and feel more fulfilled.  But it goes beyond that.  It’s contagious.  Your courage builds courage in others.

In the conclusion of his book, Biswas-Diener shares this beautiful description of why courage matters:

“Of all our basic virtues, courage is the one that helps us to live exactly the way we want and provides the psychological fuel we need to create, take risks, help others, and face hard times.  I am not overstating the case when I say that courageous action is humanity at its finest.”

In expressing the meaning of courage, perhaps poet Maya Angelou says it best:

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.  You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

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This article is part of a  continuing series based on the 24 Character Strengths.   To find the others, click the “Articles Index” tab at the top of the page and scroll down to “Strengths, Individual.”

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