How I Beat the Swamp Monster

Overcoming Negativity

Yesterday I fell into a pit of ornery crabbiness.  It was sticky and thick, and if I had to name a color, I’d say it was a dark and ugly grayish-green.  Sort of like the scum on the edge of a smelly swamp.

(Oh!  I hope you weren’t eating, were you?)

I struggled against it all day.  I hated it.  I kicked at it and yelled at and grumbled and growled.  But no matter what I did, it clung to me like some kind of rubbery slime.  It was awful.  And I was really ticked off, because, you know, I’m Ms. Happiness and I’m not supposed to be in such a state at all.

I tried all kinds of things to free myself from it, and just when I’d managed a breath of fresh air, Whap!  Another glob of it would come flying at me and spread all over my mood.

It was quite late in the day when I heard a little whisper in the back of my mind say, “Remember the music.”  I’ve been doing a little research on the effect that different musical tones have on us, both physically and mentally.  What was that wavelength I’d heard about again yesterday?  Oh, yeah.  528 Hz.

I entered the phrase into YouTube’s search and found a huge list of videos that played meditation music based on that particular frequency and picked one at random.  After about 10 minutes, I noticed that the air around me was soft and clear.  The light was, too, and all the colors were beautiful again.  It was as if some gentle cosmic fan wafted a cleansing breeze across the landscape of my mind.  I was relaxed, and open, and floating on a sea of contentment.  My sense of humor returned and I laughed at all the misery I’d put myself through during the day, acting like some little kid having a tantrum.  In my mind, I reached out to that crabby little self I’d been all day and gave her a big, soft hug.

“It’s okay,” I told her.  “Everybody falls into bad moods now and then.”  She wiped her tears and smiled at me.  Then I imagined that we put on some music and danced together, holding hands.

You know, the impact of sound frequencies on us isn’t some airy-fairy gooledegook.  It’s very real and the subject of some interesting research.  Sound waves alter our brains and our biochemistry.  Some sounds can heal, and some sounds can harm—even those beyond the range of our physical hearing.

Think about the way a person’s voice varies with the emotions being expressed.  The same words said in different tones can convey entirely different messages.  We can sometimes distinguish between a lie and a truth by the quality of voice in which it’s told.

Anyway, I wanted to turn you on the 528 Hz tone.  Just in case you find yourself wallowing in a pool of sticky negativity.  It will lift you out, clean you off, clear your mind, open your heart and set you free.

And even if you’re in a great mood to begin with, it will mellow you out and add some extra sparkle to your day.

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Are We Having Fun Yet? The Power of Humor and Playfulness

PlayfulnessIf you’re one of the lucky ones who rank high in the personal strength of humor and playfulness, chances are good you’ve had your fun and giggles today.   Good for you!  And good for the rest of us, too–because you brighten our slightly dimmer worlds.

If, on the other hand, you take life and your roles in it with a strong dose of grown-up seriousness, you may want to seriously consider adding more fun to your days.  Here’s why.

 

The Benefits of Grown-Up Playfulness

The idea that cheerfulness is good medicine has been around for centuries.  You have probably heard about the healing role that comedy and laughter can play in cancer recovery, and that cheerfulness contributes to a healthier heart.

But it turns out that an attitude of playfulness comes with a barrel full of benefits in addition to its medicinal value. In face, empirical evidence shows that it’s related to:

  • increased flow experiences
  • enhanced teamwork
  • greater creativity and spontaneity
  • better quality of life
  • decreased computer anxiety
  • more positive attitudes towards the workplace, job satisfaction and performance,
  • more innovative behavior, and
  • higher academic achievement

 

How to Lighten Up

Everybody ranks differently in terms of their personal strengths.  But all of us can build any strength that we focus on.  It’s really just a matter of making the decision and committing a little bit of regular time. And what could be more fun than learning to have more fun?

If you’re not inclined to playfulness in your daily life, you can find ways to add more fun to your days in ways that are comfortable for you.  Not all playfulness involves bubbling exuberance or silliness.  Experts in playfulness say that it comes in five different flavors – spontaneous and impulsive, expressive, creative, fun, and silly.  Pick one to cultivate that suits your personal style.

If the idea of being more spontaneous appeals to you, for instance, you might consider joining an improvisation class.  In his article “What I Learned from Improv Class,” blogger Scott Berkun busts some myths about Improv (“It’s not about being funny.”  “You don’t have to be a natural performer.”  “It’s not hard to learn.”) and makes the experience sound wonderfully worthwhile.

If you lean toward introversion, look for activities that let you combine playfulness with your sense of beauty and appreciation and find yourself splashing along a shore at sunset, or blowing soap bubbles out the window or at the park.  Spend time with your pet, or cuddle up with some Mark Twain or a comedy film.

If you’re a people-lover, put together a group or find a friend who enjoys similar hobbies or interests.  You can check out meetup.com to find existing groups in your locale that may appeal to you.  Join a laughter yoga group.  Or round up some neighborhood kids and head for the park.

Playfulness for you might involve sports or games, playing music or engaging in one of the arts or in a craft.  Look for classes or workshops in things that interest you.  If you enjoy music, for instance, take learn to play an instrument.  Join a choir, or a Sweet Adeline group, or a barbershop quartet.

Ask yourself what’s fun, and do more of it.  If you can’t think of anything, take a little trip back to your childhood for ideas.  How did you have fun when you were ten?  Could you do that now, or some version of it?

For more ideas, visit a craft or hobby shop, or an art supply store.  Wander down the aisles of a toy store and see what’s there.  Take home a few things to play with.

 Where to Start

The best way to begin adding more humor and playfulness to your life is to set an intention when you wake in the morning to see the humorous side of things and to let yourself be more playful.   In other words, make a commitment to lightening up.

Try stepping back from your day now and then and imagining that what’s going on around you is a scene from a sit-com.  See that irritating coworker, for instance, as one of its characters.

Go on a comedy binge.  Read funny books and joke books.  Go to comedy clubs.  Watch comedy movies and TV.   Train your mind to see what’s funny in everyday situations.

Humor and playfulness alleviate life’s monotony and give us perspective.  They provide us with the moments of pleasure that make our lives feel more meaningful and worthwhile.   We don’t, after all, call it “lightening up” for nothing.

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

And for more powerful ways to live a flourishing 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 “The Positive Power of Play” and “Raging Positivity: How to Be Happy Through and Through.”

illustration by  Cieleke at stock.xchng

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Living with Heart: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness

Hope
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  ~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

 

Of all the character strengths, one of my very favorites is the strength of “hope, optimism, and future-mindedness.”   When you have hope, when you believe there’s a reason to keep on, your life takes on a luster and an energy that encourages you even on the darkest days.

I’m talking about hope as a noun, a state of being.  Yes, sometimes it has an object attached to it and acts like a verb:  I hope he wins.  I hope it doesn’t rain.  But even then, what we’re really saying is that we have hope inside us, that it’s active in our lives.

Hope is a kind of positive expectancy that things will turn out well.  It believes that good outcomes are possible, even against all odds.  And it believes that even when the outcome we wanted doesn’t materialize, we’ll eventually discover that, in the long run. our disappointments contribute to our greater good.

The creators of positive psychology’s Character Strengths Survey describe someone who scores high in hope, optimism and future-mindedness this way:  “You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.”

The future is a pretty big place.  Maybe believing that we can influence it is a safer bet than believing we can control it.  But hope and optimism definitely give us stronger cards to play, and they motivate us to take the actions we can to bring our influence to bear.

How to Build Hope

If you’re a bit low on hope right now, I have good news for you.  Hope, like all the character strengths, is a bit like a muscle.  Give it some attention and exercise, and you can build it up.

Hope expert Dr. Anthony Scioli suggests five strategies for building hope:

  1. Set Goals.  Pick something that you would like to accomplish.  It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something you think is within your capabilities that you would feel good about accomplishing. Having a goal gives you some clarity in your life and a sense of purpose.
  2. Enjoy Good Relationships.  From your list of family members and acquaintances, pick one or two with whom you can be open, who won’t make you feel guarded or defensive.  As one of your goals, make a decision to spend time with them once or twice a week, even its just for a good chat on the phone.
  3. Manage Your Stress.  Dr. Scioli suggests that you identify your preferred way of coping with stress:  “Problem solving, seeking support from others, praying, planning in advance, or avoidance.”  Then, he suggests, “make a commitment to practice one or two strategies that are not part of your normal coping repertoire.
  4. Deepen Your Spirituality.  What feels spiritual to you?  Spending time in communion with your God, or higher power?  Involvement in a social organization?  Being with good friends?  Think about ways that you can spend more of your time in this area to build your sense of faith in life’s goodness.
  5. Develop a Personal Mission Statement.  What would you name as the central theme for your life?  What would give you a sense of purpose and meaning?  Accomplishing some larger goal?  Mastering a skill?  Serving others in some way?  Dr. Scioli suggests placing your written statement in a visible place to motivate you when life threatens to get the best of you.

Other practices that can help you build your hope muscle include:

  • Taking care of your health:  It’s a lot easier to feel hope when you’re full of vitality.  Get enough sleep and exercise, eat wholesome, unprocessed foods, and keep yourself well-hydrated.
  • Watching your self-talk:  Practice noticing what’s right in your life, what’s good in a situation, how well you did something, what traits you appreciate in yourself.  Learn to pat yourself on the back now and then.
  • Practicing gratitude:  It will help you notice the goodness that surrounds you and to develop your sense of life’s bounteousness and opportunities.
  • Practicing self-compassion:  Learn to be kinder and less blaming toward yourself.  Become your own best friend and supporter.  Give yourself credit for your efforts and positive attributes.
  • Accepting personal responsibility: When you accept that you’re in charge of creating your future success, you hopefulness naturally increases.
  • Keeping in motion:  Hope thrives on action.  Keep moving toward your goals.

Cultivating Optimism

Hope and optimism are strongly related.  Optimism actively looks for the good in situations, people, and things.  Optimism greases the wheels of hope and keeps it rolling.

Luckily, Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, researched optimism in depth and describes what separates the optimist from his negative cousin in his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

You can check out my article, How to Make Your Optimism Soar, to learn how to incorporate more of this hopeful viewpoint into your life.

Why Bother?

We live in fast-paced, challenging, often distressful times.  When you look around the world and see all the problems, it’s easy to lose your senses of optimism and hope.  The potential for doom can easily eclipse our perception of the powerful potential for triumph that exists as well.

Cultivating your own personal sense of hope and optimism is one way you can help tip the balance in a positive direction.  You can use this strength to help make the most of your own life, to motivate you toward greater creativity, service and productiveness, and that’s one more life well-lived.

And besides, it makes life a lot more fun. We used to call it “living with heart.”

To send you off with a taste of it, here’s a song extolling its virtue, from the 1958 movie, “Damn Yankees.”

If you found this article worthwhile, please share it on the social media of your choice.  Thanks!  And while you’re here, subscribe and get your free copy of our Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Well-Being with eight positive living exercises that will help you live a flourishing life.

Photo by robby m at Stock.Xchng

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What Ever Happened to Open-Mindedness?

In a time when we seem to be sharply divided on almost every public issue, I often find myself wondering what ever happened to open-mindedness.

ArgumentIn a time when we seem to be sharply divided on almost every public issue, I often find myself wondering what ever happened to open-mindedness.

Linked with judgment and critical thinking, open-mindedness is one of the strengths measured by the VIA Inventory of Strengths,
a free, scientifically validated self-assessment survey  that’s been taken by over 1.3 million people worldwide.

Let me tell you what I mean.

My colleague Lisa is a passionately political person.   You don’t need to spend much time with her to know exactly where she stands on the issues of the day.  And in most cases, she’s standing on the other side of the fence from me.

“I understand how you feel,” I tell her.   And even though I see things differently, I do understand.  I understand that she cares deeply, and that she’s an idealist, and that she wants the world to be better, more peaceful, more humane place.

It’s what we all want.  We just disagree on the means for making it happen.

Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts

I have close friends of all political stripes, all of them relying on their own interpretations of history and economics, each with a suitcase full of beliefs, facts and reasons to back up whatever opinions they profess.  And I’ve learned a lot from them.

I’ve learned what arguments are dominant for each side of an issue, for one thing.  That gives me an opportunity to consider both sides.

I’ve learned that when people believe something deeply, they don’t really want to hear ideas that contradict their own.  Even when they say that will listen to other opinions if they’re presented reasonably, they aren’t necessarily open to being persuaded to give up their own views.

We all like to believe that we’re seeing reality clearly, that our own view of the world is correct.

But for the most part, we’re like an old uncle of mine who would put his hands over his ears and shout, “Don’t confuse me with the facts!  My mind is made up.”   It’s a lot easier to stand firm in our beliefs than it is to examine all the facts.

Love Me, Love My Dog

Few of us have the time – or, it seems, the interest –  to deeply research all the issues of the day.  And we’re rarely exposed to genuine debates or discussions between proponents of opposing sides.   Most of us wouldn’t welcome them if we were.  We don’t like confronting facts that challenge what we believe.   Cognitive dissonance upsets us.

So we tend to latch onto a belief set that harmonizes with the one we picked up as a child, or the one that the teachers we most revered professed, or the one that some hero we found along the way said was true, or that our closest peers embrace.

Then we find the commentators and media outlets that stick fairly closely to that script and, barring some extraordinary revelation, pretty much let them be our guides.

We adopt them as our own.   We link them to our values, to our hopes for a more perfect world.  They become a part of our identities.

And because we do – because we feel that our beliefs define us – we defend them.  We put up caution flags or walls between ourselves and those who do not share our views.  Something about them, we think, must be morally defective or unevolved, or at best, woefully misguided or misinformed.  We fall into the trap of us-versus-them, and disrupt the very harmony that both sides want so deeply to create.

And this tendency of ours doesn’t just show up with political issues.  It extends to things as mundane as our fashion sense, or our preference for a certain sports teams, or our choice of pets.  “Love me, love my dog.”

Viva la Difference

But our differences don’t have to build barriers between us.   If we give some attention to increasing our quotient of that character strength of “judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness,” we can appreciate differences of opinion as educational.  Our differences can serve as assets that trigger our curiosity and our love of learning—both of which are additional character strengths, by the way.

A Definition of Open-mindedness

At first glance, the words “judgment” and “critical thinking” may not seem to go along with “open-mindedness.”  But “judgment” doesn’t mean “judgmental; it’s more like “to evaluate.”  And “critical”, in this context, doesn’t mean fault-finding;  it’s more like “discerning.”

Here’s how the VIA survey describes people who rank high on the “judgment, crucial thinking, and open-mindedness” strength:

“Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.”

The Authentic Happiness newsletter from the University of Pennsylvania gives this definition of open-mindedness:

“Open-mindedness is the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available.

“Being open-minded does not imply that one is indecisive, wishy-washy, or incapable of thinking for one’s self.  After considering various alternatives, an open-minded person can take a firm stand on a position and act accordingly.

“The opposite of open-mindedness is what is called the myside bias which refers to the pervasive tendency to search for evidence and evaluate evidence in a way that favors your initial beliefs.  Most people show myside bias, but some are more biased than others.”

The Benefits of Open-Mindedness

Why should you focus on becoming more open-minded?  Consider this description of benefits from Positively Present:

1.  You allow yourself to experience new ideas and thoughts, and that’s liberating.

2.  It gives you the option of changing how you view the world.

3.  It let’s you admit that you don’t know everything, and that there are possibilities that you may not have considered.

4.  It lets you give yourself permission to recognize mistakes that you’ve made and to correct them.

5.  The new ideas that open-mindedness brings you let’s you build on old ideas.  It’s hard to build on experiences without an open mind.

6.  It gives you a stronger sense of self, one that’s not confined by your beliefs, by allowing you to learn and grow.

7.  Because being open-minded let’s you admit that you aren’t all-knowing, it creates an underlying honesty.   You no longer have to pretend that you know something you don’t.

In other words, open-mindedness is freeing.

How to Build Open-Mindedness

To stretch your open-mindedness, clinical therapist Catherine Freemire suggests these three exercises for the Authentic Happiness newsletter:

1.    Select an emotionally charged, debatable topic (e.g., abortion, prayer in school, healthcare reform, the current war in Iraq) and take the opposite side from your own.  Write five valid reasons to support this view. . .

2.    Remember a time when you were wronged by someone in the past.  Generate three plausible reasons why this person inadvertently or intentionally wronged you.

3.    This one is for parents: Think of a topic that you consistently argue about with your teen or grown child.  Now, take their position and think of 3 substantial reasons why their point of view is valid.  (This could also be done with spouses or any family members for that matter!)

In other words, practice playing the devil’s advocate.

It’s worth the effort.   Practicing open-mindedness lets you live in a much bigger world.

If that sounds like a good idea to you, please share this article with your friends.

 

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Increase Your Happiness: Add Some Zest to Your Life

Zestful HappinessNo matter how badly the day was going, the energy in the room picked up whenever Jack walked through the door.

Jack was a big and boisterous man, whose face easily broke into a smile.  “How’s it going, Jack?” someone would ask him.  And, without fail, Jack would boom out, “Beautiful!”

 
Jack’s zest for life made us all smile.  Zest is like that; it’s highly contagious.

 
Positive psychologists say that zest is one of the five character strengths that contribute most to a sense of life-satisfaction.  (The other four are curiosity, gratitude, optimism, and the ability to love and be loved.)  If you’re looking for a way to increase your happiness, add some zest to your life.

 
Zest is defined as “a sense of expectation, intuition, hope, energy and excitement.”     The dictionary says that it’s gusto, liveliness or energy, the animating spirit.  Whooo-Hooooo!  Who couldn’t go for more of that!

 
In the strengths classification system developed by positive psychology founders Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, zest is equated with enthusiasm and falls under the virtue of transcendence.  People who possess zest/enthusiasm in a high degree, they say, “approach everything with excitement and see life as an adventure.”

The Benefits of Zest

In a wonderful post on enthusiasm, blogger and real-estate investor Matt Theriault (“The Do-Over Guy”) lists the benefits of zest :

  • It makes life more fun.  “It’s like an inner light,” Theriaul says, “an inner energy, and it really makes life easier.”
  • It’s attractive to people.  “Enthusiasm is probably one of the most attractive qualities any person can have.”
  • It makes you want to do things, and then you get better results and fulfill more of the potential of any situation or experience.
  • It makes for powerful communication.  It makes your message stronger.
  • It gets things done.  “Enthusiasm is the switch.”

Getting Your Zest On by “Acting As If”

Motivational speaker and author Mike Robbins gets to heart of the “transcendence” aspect of zest in a piece he wrote about “acting as if” for the Huffington Post a year ago a couple of years ago:

“Acting as if” is about believing in things that don’t currently exist and that there may not be much evidence for. This is about living a “faith-based” life, not an “evidence-based life.” The term “faith-based” often gets used in a political, social, or moral context when talking about initiatives or organizations that are connected with the church or some specific organized religion. However, being a faith-based person, while it can and often does encompass our religious beliefs and our spiritual practices, is even broader than this.

When we choose to live with a strong faith in things not seen, not proven, and not guaranteed – we tap into the power of the possible and we supersede the literal and predicable.

Wayne Dyer wrote a great book a number of years ago called You’ll See it When You Believe it. So many of us, myself included, live important aspects of our lives with the silent mantra of “I’ll believe it when I see it” and in doing so we hold ourselves back, limit what’s possible, and negate the power of our mind, imagination, and intention to allow and create things, situations, experiences, and outcomes that are new, unpredictable, and even miraculous.

If you can adopt that kind of faith-based attitude toward life, your zest is sure to increase.

But “acting as if” is more than attitude.  The key word in the phrase is “acting,” and it’s your physical behaviors—actions—that signal your zest both to others and to yourself.

Like any of the character strengths, you can build zest by practicing it.  In fact, it’s one of the easiest strengths to build using the “act as if” method.

Watch this trailer for a short documentary about Kathy Delaney-Smith, who embodies the “act is if” method and used it to coach her Harvard women’s basketball team  to championship status with it.  She used it, too, to overcome cancer.  That’s the kind of power it has.

 

Fake It Until you Become It

“Fake it ‘til you make it,” Delaney-Smith said.   “Fake it until you become it,” says social psychologist Amy Cuddy .

In her TED talk, “How Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” she shares research that shows how our body positions alter the chemistry that  produces our mental attitudes.  Then our attitudes shape the behaviors that produce our lives’ outcomes.

By adopting what Cuddy calls a “power pose” for as little as two minutes you generate an aura of “presence.”  And presence, she says, is “passionate, enthusiastic, captivating, comfortable, authentic, and confident.”   In other words, presence is zest embodied.

“Acting as if” by practicing the power poses that Cuddy demonstrates not only impacts how others see us, but changes how we see ourselves.

I challenge you to give it a try for a week.  Increase your happiness; add some zest to your life.  Think about the way that zestfulness looks, and moves, and thinks and speaks. Watch kids on a playground if you need a clue.  Then act as if you’re brimming with enthusiasm, too, with the faith that life is an adventure.   Because it is.

If you liked this article, pass it on.  Let’s spread some zest around!

 

Photo by marcos bh at stock.xchng

 

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