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 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 Gratefulness.org:

http://youtu.be/kTdKH9AXYTg

If you found this article worthwhile, please click one of the social buttons to share it.

And for more powerful ways to add zest to your life, be sure to grab your free copy of our Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Living from the top of this page.

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:

Appreciation: Positivity’s Power Tool

Getting in the Gratitude Groove

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Seeing with Fresh Eyes: The Power of Curiosity

Baby Blues“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”  ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

If I could change Mrs. Roosevelt’s beautiful wish in one little way, I would insert the word “undying” before “curiosity.”   Curiosity is a gift that we’re all given at birth.  The trick is to keep it alive as we mature.

Instead of seeing with fresh eyes, we see through a veil of memory and assumptions as we become familiar with the world.  By reviving our sense of curiosity, we can penetrate that veil, see things anew, quicken our interest in the world around us and make new discoveries.

Positive psychology tells us that curiosity (along with gratitude, optimism, zest, and the ability to love and be loved) is one of the five character strengths that contribute most to our sense of life-satisfaction.  It links to all of the areas that positive psychology founder Martin Seligman identifies as key to a life of flourishing: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement.

And George Mason University psychology professor, Todd Kashdan, agrees.  His book on the topic is titled, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. In an interview with Kathryn Britton for Positive Psychology News Daily,  Kashdan says:

“In my book, I call curiosity the engine of growth. You can’t find your passions or purpose in life without trial and error experimentation. Curiosity is a mechanism that helps you create and discover meaning in your life.”

The Benefits of Curiosity

When she called curiosity “the most useful gift,” Mrs. Roosevelt revealed her keen powers of observation.  Exercising curiosity brings us a host of benefits:

  • It’s fun!   The new experiences that curiosity brings us are a source of stimulation and pleasure.
  • By letting us see even familiar things with fresh eyes, it lets us find new meanings in the familiar.
  • Curiosity roots us in the present.  It lets us be more open, engaged, and to exercise our creativity by making new connections between things.
  • Curiosity fuels creativity and innovation.
  • Contributes to neurological health and may even reverse natural degeneration in older adults.  “In short, a regular dose of the unexpected helps keep your brain healthy.”
  • It make you smarter.
  • Curiosity about others keeps relationship open, interesting, more vital.  And it makes forming new relationships easier.
  • Curiosity increases your happiness level.   “The more curiosity you can muster for something, the more likely you are to notice and learn about it, and thus the more interesting and meaningful it will become for you over time.”

How to Revive Your Curiosity

If  your sense of curiosity has dimmed—or trained out you by someone who told you not to be so nosy!—don’t despair.

In his interview with Britton, Kashdan says, “Curiosity is strength people can wield. I can decide to go and seek new things. I can decide to look at a person from new perspectives. I can ask somebody about what they were like before I met them. I can ask my romantic partner what she does when I’m not there.”

So one key is to seek out new things.  Add more novelty to your day.   Get out of your rut.  Try doing things differently.  Take a different route to work.  Sit in a different chair or a different part of the room than usually do.  Park in a different part of the parking lot.  Make a game of discovering ten new things that you notice or experience, or that you experience differently.

Accept the scariness of doing something new, of taking risks.  Go in baby steps.  Try labeling the feeling of “scary” as “excitement” instead.

Think of yourself as an explorer, a detective, an adventurer.

Look for the details that most people miss.

People watch in a restaurant or mall.   What does a person’s dress, or posture, or facial expression tell you about them?   Why do you think so?  Is your assessment likely to be true? Where did your judgments originate?  Are they likely to be true?

After you watch a movie or TV show or read a book, ask yourself, “ What did I discover from that experience?  What did I learn?”

Above all, learn to ask questions.  “Curiosity is questioning. By training your brain to question more, you can train your brain to be more curious,” the folks at New and Improved suggest in a newsletter issue about energizing curiosity.

They give these great tips for learning to question more:

  • The great sage Alex Trebek, the host of the TV game show Jeopardy, provides great wisdom every time he says, “Please phrase it in the form of a question.”  We can use that advice to put our problems in jeopardy of going away by phrasing them as a question. Twist your complaint (I work too much.) to a question (How might I work less? In what ways could I make work more fun?) Read more about this technique here.
  • When you hear someone say “it can’t be”, ask, “why not?” Our colleague and genius researcher Andy Aleinikov likes to say “’Why not’ every not.”
  • Hang a reminder question on your bathroom mirror: “What am I curious about today?” or “What am I interested in learning about today?”
  • Google or Yahoo search “Curiosity” and see what you find. (Make sure your cat is nowhere near your computer screen when you do this.)

What would happen if you put some of these suggestions to work in your life?  Are you curious about finding out?  Do you wonder how the world would look if you were seeing through fresh eyes?

Do you know somebody else who would enjoy reading this article?  I’m curious: Will you share it?

Photo by bluebetty at stock.xchng

 

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How to Smell the Roses: The Art of Savoring

Savoring the Peace Rose“Stop and smell the roses,” the old adage goes.  And we take it to be good advice. But the fact is we often let life’s joys pass by without much notice.

The cure for that is to learn the art of savoring.

Not only can savoring let you gather more of life’s goodness, it can give you better health, increased optimism, lessened depression, and even the ability to make better decisions.

Defining ‘Savoring’

“Smell the roses,” doesn’t mean take a quick whiff and then get on with the game.  It means that you notice its petals’ velvety texture and see the tiny, shimmering drops of dew lingering there.  It means that you bury your nose in it and inhale the scent as if you were taking in the last fragrance you would ever inhale.  It means allowing the scent to fill your whole being until you are quivering with pleasure.  That’s savoring.

To put it less poetically, savoring is defined as “any thoughts or behaviors capable of generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment.”

The editors at Positive Psychology News Daily define savoring this way:

According to Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff  (Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.), savoring involves noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life – the positive counterpart to coping. Savoring is more than pleasure – it also involves mindfulness and “conscious attention to the experience of pleasure” (p. 5). You can savor vicariously, enjoying another person’s pleasure.

There are numerous savoring processes that regulate other positive experiences (p. 14): to name a few:

  • Marveling regulates awe.
  • Thanksgiving regulates gratitude.
  • Basking regulates pride.
  • Luxuriating regulates physical pleasure

Three Timeframes of Savoring

Each of us tends to favor savoring in a preferred timeframe.   Some of us especially enjoy reminiscing about pleasures that we have enjoyed in the past.  The future-oriented among us enjoy savoring as anticipating coming events.  And many, especially those who delight in practicing mindfulness, savor life’s pleasures in the present, as they unfold.

Increasing Your Pleasure

Because practicing the art of savoring is so broadly beneficial, try to identify your own preferred style and then reinforce it.

For example, if you enjoy savoring your pleasant memories, set aside time now and then to go back to your childhood or young adult life and see what new memories you can discover.   Get out old photographs, souvenirs, date books and journals and let them remind you of good times you experienced in the past.  Call an old friend or a family member and make a lunch date to walk back together down memory lane.

If you enjoy looking forward to future events, plan them as early as you can so that you have more time to anticipate the coming experience.  If you’re planning a trip, you may enjoy making a collage or scrapbook of photos of the things you’re looking forward to seeing, or doing an internet search to find out what side trips might be fun.

You can intensify the enjoyment of present experiences by journaling about them or by taking photos of things you come across that particularly delight you.

Combine All Three

Douglas B. Turner, Master of Applied Positive Psychology, says he loves to reminisce.  But he doesn’t stop there.   In his post on “Savoring for Your Health,” he gives us this wonderful example of how to combine all three timeframes:

So the next time you gather your friends and family together, let the savoring roll! As the reminiscing (past) picks up steam, take a moment and savor that very moment (present) and notice the positive emotion in the room. Afterwards, you can look forward and start planning for the next savoring party (future).

The Balancing Power of Savoring

If you usually avoid thinking about the past because it holds painful memories, looking back through the lens of savoring can help you discover that it held good times, too.  You may want to ask yourself to poke around a little in those stretches of your life that were difficult to see what pleasures are tucked away there as well.

On the other hand, learning to anticipate what might be enjoyable about a future event that’s causing you apprehension or worry can balance out some of your stress.

Decision-Making: The Practical Side of Savoring

Besides making us feel good, savoring brings the added benefit of contributing to good decision making.  By increasing our awareness of what went well for us, what we enjoyed and found motivating, and what worked for us in the past, savoring helps us make better decisions.

According to positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory,  just by remembering the good things from the past, our current mood and perceptions expand, allowing us to more clearly see positive possibilities.

How to Practice the Art of Savoring

The way to add more savoring to your life is simply to become more aware of it.   Ask yourself the positive affirmative question, “What am I savoring so many things now?” at random times throughout your day.  Keep a “Three Good Things” journal.  Tell stories about the things you have savored to others. Trade “savoring moments” with your family or friends over dinner.

Then the next time you hear someone say, “Stop and smell the roses,” you’ll sigh a deep and happy sigh and say, “Oh, I do! I do!”

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The Positive Power of Loving Kindness Meditation

As I write this, Christmas is only a few days away, with its universal proclamation of the hope that all of us–regardless of our personal spiritual orientations–hold in our hearts:  “Peace on Earth; Goodwill to Men.”

Given the tension in the world, it’s a hope that may seem nearly impossible these days.  But there is a way to make it real within our own lives–and to extend it to others.

Gandhi counseled, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  If we truly wish for peace and goodwill, it’s up to us to live them.  And to the extent that we do, we tip the scales in their favor, while experiencing their soothing warmth in our own hearts.

With that in mind, and as my holiday gift to you, I want to share with you a powerful practice called “Loving Kindness Meditation.”

Rooted in Buddhism, it’s been the subject of positive psychology studies as well, conducted by world renowned researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson.

What she discovered is that Loving Kindness Meditation increased both how often and how powerfully participants experienced  a wealth of positive emotions:

  • love,
  • joy,
  • gratitude,
  • contentment,
  • hope,
  • pride,
  • amusement, and
  • awe.

Not only that, but the participants experienced more mindfulness, self-acceptance, positive relationships and good health.   And over time, the good feelings strengthened their sense of satisfaction with their lives and built the resources available to them to live fully and well.

What is Loving Kindness Meditation?

The phrase “loving kindness” comes from the Pali word metta.  Its meaning embraces the concepts of friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, inoffensiveness and non-violence as well.

In his article titled, “Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love,” Acharya Buddharakkhita  says, “True metta is devoid of self-interest.  It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grows boundless with practice and overcomes all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers.  Metta is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love.”

Loving Kindness Meditation is a practice of sending loving thoughts to all breathing beings, starting with you.

How Do You Practice It?

Although practicing it will reveal many layers of yourself to you, the process itself is simple.

As with any meditation, you begin by relaxing in a comfortable position, with eyes closed, in a place where you can be undisturbed.  Then, putting a gentle smile on your face, let go of any negative thought or feeling.  Begin by saying to yourself, “May I be safe from danger;  May I be healthy; May I be happy; May I live with ease.”  Just breathe for awhile and sincerely wish yourself these blessings.

After you have practiced wishing yourself well for a several sessions, practice sending your wishes for safety, health, happiness and ease to your circle of loved ones, imagining each of them one at a time and speaking your wishes to him or her directly in your mind.

The next stage is to move on to those people whom you know casually—neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, members of your community.

After that comes the challenging part: to send your four wishes to those toward whom you feel anger or resentment or hostility.

And finally, you send your well-wishes to everyone, everywhere, as sincerely as you can.

Another variation is to begin with yourself, then, in the same session, to send your wishes outwards to others in the same order listed above, ending with your wishes circling the entire globe.

The Many Layers of Loving Kindness Meditation

The article by Buddharakkhita mentioned above beautifully describes the power and practice of loving kindness meditation.  It’s a graceful, easy read and gives a couple methods as well as the original phrases used in the meditation.  It explains how wishing is willing, and how willing can have causal effects, bringing about genuine reconciliation and healing.

Sharon Salzberg, co-founder and senior instructor of Insight Meditation  Society, has a CD set, Lovingkindness Meditation, that I, personally, have very much enjoyed and that has helped me with my own practice and understanding, as well as books on the subject.  She introduces you to the nuances of the meditation and guides you past the obstacles you face when you try sincerely to love yourself, and when you’re dealing with those in the “enemy” category.  And she makes it all feel so human and natural and puts you at ease.

Even if you decide that a steady practice of it isn’t for you, doing a few casual rounds of it in the morning when you think of it can make a tremendous difference in your day.  That’s what the participants in Dr. Fredrickson’s studies discovered.  They also found that it was easy to stick with because each session had its subtle variations; it didn’t get old.

“May you be safe; May you be healthy; May you be happy; May you live with ease.”  That’s all there is to it:  A wish from your heart for peace and goodwill for everyone, everywhere.

And this holiday season, and always, that is my wish for you.

Pass it on!

 

 

Photo: stock.xchng
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The Power of Positive Praise

Smiling Office WorkerFor two hours, Bob had been tearing away at his inbox, tossing outdated notes and junk mail, filing papers in relevant folders or creating new ones.  As he went along, he listed the projects and tasks that needed his attention.  When ideas came to him about one of the tasks, he jotted that down and tossed the note into the project’s file.

Finally the basket was empty, and he did a quick review of the list he’d made, prioritizing its items.

Now that he had a clear idea of what needed his attention, he took a break, grabbing a cup of coffee and a snack from the vending machines.  He felt really energized and ready to give his attention to the top item on his list.

He opened the folder on his newly cleaned desk and was just starting to make some notes about where to pick up the work when Steve, his new manager, stopped at his door.

“Wow, Bob!” Steve said, grinning.  “What happened here?  Your inbox looked like a mountain when I walked past here this morning. “

“I decided I needed to get organized,” Bob said, smiling.  He was surprised that Steve had noticed, and even more surprised that he stopped to comment.

“You must have been really focused to demolish a pile that big!” Steve said. “Have a great afternoon.”

Steve’s going to be a super star as a manager.   In terms of giving positive praise, he did everything right.  He noticed a good piece of work when he saw it and expressed his recognition right away.  He was specific about what impressed him, and he praised the focus Bob had demonstrated instead of just saying, “Good man!”

If Steve’s style is consistent, the chances are high that his department will do well.  Praise from our superiors is, sadly, still rare in the workplace.  Only 12% of employees feel that they receive meaningful appreciation, says an article at http://appliedappreciation.com/resources/     In fact, the US Department of Labor and Statistics shows the number one reason people leave their jobs is that they do not feel appreciated.

When Praise Poisons

We all love to hear that someone noticed something we did well, that our efforts are appreciated.  And because we love to make other people feel good, most of us try to be liberal with our praise.  We believe it builds self-esteem and encourages good behavior.

But praise is a tricky thing.   Done wrong, it can backfire and produce the opposite of its intended effect.  It can discourage and demean the recipient, leaving them feeling worse about themselves than if we hadn’t said anything at all.  And it can actually diminish the very behavior we’re trying to reinforce.

We say things like “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so graceful!” or “You’re so strong!” thinking we’re making someone feel good about themselves.  We’re especially guilty of doing this with our children.

But research by Carol Dweck  on the effect of praise on mindsets clearly shows that when we praise a person’s traits instead of their efforts, we push them toward the fixed mindset that inhibits effort, diminishes motivation, promotes risk-avoidance, increases anxiety and

Take the phrase “Good job!” for example.  We might mean it as praise, but is it really?  Especially when we use it with our children, it’s more of a judgment, a statement of our approval.  Rather than expressing appreciation for the other person’s efforts, it’s often said as a reward, given in the hope that we’re reinforcing a behavior.  Then it’s not really praise at all, but an attempt at manipulation.  And the recipient isn’t fooled.

According to a wonderful article titled “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good job!’”    by Alfie Kohn, the phrase is a kind of “sugar coated control.”   It’s giving someone attention and approval, Kohn points out, “for jumping through hoops, for doing things that please us.”  It can addict people to the reward of approval, making them work not for the joy and satisfaction of the work itself, but only for the reward—and only as long as the praise is forthcoming.

Steve, the manager who recognized Bob’s efforts, avoided merely saying “Good job.”  Instead, he pointed out that Bob must have been really focused to accomplish as much as he had in a couple of hours.  It showed that he noticed Bob had exerted himself.  To Bob, that was meaningful and motivating praise.

Positive Praise

The kind of praise that encourages and builds someone recognizes their efforts and their strengths.  It’s not about how it met your expectations or satisfied your demands.  It’s about genuinely appreciating the care and attention and effort they gave something, about how they applied themselves.

“You must have worked really hard on that!” you say, and they swell with pride.  “It sounds like you really care a lot about your family.”   “You kept on trying even when it was really hard.”  “You were so patient with that client.”

Another way to show someone that you noticed their achievement simply by saying what you observed:  “You put on your shoes all by yourself!”  “You put so many solid details into your report.”  “Look at that!”  “You used so many colors!”

Or you can ask questions about how they accomplished what they did:  “How did you figure that out?” or “How many ways did you try that before it worked out?”  “How long did it take you to do that?” “What was the hardest part of that?” Or ask about how they feel about it:  “Are you pleased with what you did?”

You can show a genuine interest in their work or achievement:  “Tell me more about it!”  “Show it to me.”

The key to positive praise is to focus on the process, not the product.  We want to love people for who they are, and to praise them for the amazing things they do.

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