When it rains gratitude…

We’ve had a rainy spell lately and, along with it, the inevitable complaints and wishes that it would stop.  Mark Twain said, “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”   That quote – for all its irony – may be the best illustration ever of the futility of complaining. 

In spite of all the rain we’ve had lately, what we’ve forgotten is that the Southeast has been in a drought pattern for what I’d say is about twenty-five years.  Even with all the rain we’ve had lately, our area is still classified as drought-stricken (http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu).  So, we’ve actually gotten used to a lack of rain to the point that a few periods of normal rainfall seem like the great flood to us, much like the rain of gratitude brought on by the Happy LIFE.  No matter how much gratitude we had in our lives in the past, it’s easy to fall into drought.

I’d say that I’m pretty comfortable and free with praise and recognition.  However, now that the Happy LIFE and a couple of other projects are well underway and requiring a little less attention, I’m a bit more free to take a minute to look around, realizing just how many people I’m thankful for having a positive impact in my life.  The first happy habit of sending an email every day to someone who makes my life better is really growing on me.  What I’m finding is that there are so many people to thank, it’s really hard to limit it to just one a day.  In fact, it’s proving impossible.

It’s only been a week and already the gratitude is falling like rain, touching everyone around me, making them glisten with reminders of what they do at LIFE to make it all work.  The rain of gratitude is essential to the Happy LIFE.  Nothing can survive without the rain and living things need to get an ample supply of it in order to thrive and flourish. 

And, so it is with the rain of gratitude. 


On Second Thought

I’ve been noticing how often my first thought isn’t a positive one – and I’m also noticing I’m not alone.  How many times do we assume the worst about a person or a situation?  I’m discovering that I really need to think twice about a lot of things and make a conscious effort to have that second thought be more positive.

In the parlance of psychology, this kind of negative thinking is called “making negative attributions” and, if you’ll start taking a look at your own assumptions, you may well find you could benefit from thinking twice, too.  How many times have you done something like one of the following?

Negative Attribution #1

Student:  Why has Dr. So-and-so has been banned from speaking at Assembly?

Assembly Coordinator:  “Dr. So-and-so hasn’t been banned.  Why would you say that?”

Student:  I requested him six months ago and he still hasn’t spoken at Assembly so he must have been banned.

Assembly Coordinator:  Do you have any idea how many speakers are on the list and far out they’re scheduled?  A year-and-a-half to two years!

Comment:  It’s a pretty negative jump to assume that “banning” is a more reasonable explanation that “long waiting list,” isn’t it?

Negative Attribution #2:

I saw on caller ID that a friend at work had called me but hadn’t left a message.  So, I played a bit of unsuccessful phone tag.  Then, she texted me, asking if I was on campus and I texted back that I was.  Then, I missed another call from her and she left a message, saying she needed to talk to me about something and she was sorry but it was weird.  Well, here came my first thought:  What did I do wrong; what had I screwed up?  I started fretting right away.  Well, I should have thought twice because it turned out to be not even remotely negative.  In the end, I was touched that she had called me because she needed help with something and thought of me  – her friend – as someone she could count on.  That’s a pretty great feeling and my first (negative) thought hadn’t served either of us very well.

Negative Attribution #3

An employee gets an error message logging into Facebook from work that says it’s a dangerous site.  So, his first thought is to assume Facebook has been banned and proceeds to post that negative attribution on Facebook – that his employer has banned Facebook.  But that wasn’t true at all.  It turns out to have been a server error that was corrected by the employer’s IT team pretty quickly – and might have been corrected even more quickly if the employee’s first thought had been a positive attribution that resulted in positive rather than negative action: (as in, “Oh, maybe this is a mistake.  I’d better shoot an email to the IT Help Desk).  I get it, though.  Been there, done stuff just like that, got jack nothing to show for it.

All three of those situations are pretty good examples of the kind of limited thinking – and limited problem solving – that negative attributions cause.  Positive thinking expands our available options.  The best news of all is that positive thinking can be learned by first cultivating awareness of our negative thinking, and also cultivating gratitude, compassion and mindfulness.

And, today, I’m grateful to know that it can all be good…on second thought.

The Masks…

I’m old enough to remember when happiness first became a fad represented by the then-ubiquitous and now-iconic smiley face and the oft-repeated mantra, “Have a nice day!”  The more curmudgeonly among us were often tempted to say, “Don’t tell me what kind of damn day to have, Perky Puss!”  Or, maybe, we weren’t curmudgeons so much as just rebels without a clue.

Because now I find myself, lo these many moons later, on a more mature positivity journey of my own with the extra added benefit of a couple of decades of scientific research into the idea of happiness.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think science has all the answers and recognize its limitations in finding answers to questions that are immeasurable (or hypercomplex).  But, it did lead us out of the Dark Ages and all so, clearly, it’s a pretty useful tool.  And, it’s been very inventive, particularly in the soft, social sciences at exploring the immeasurable using theoretical constructs as stand-ins.

What that research suggests is what common sense tells us:  No one can be ecstatic or gleeful all the time and that it only increases our misery to believe that we can.  However, with some work on our parts, using gratitude, compassion and mindfulness, we can learn to increase our awareness and appreciation of the positives in our lives.  Therefore, the smiley face is probably not as good an icon as the comedy and tragedy masks that represent the theatrical arts (and, speaking of “theoretical constructs,” could anything be a better stand-in for real life than theater?).

In terms of a “scientific” formula for happiness, it might be best expressed as:

“H (where “H” equals “Happiness”) ≥:)+:)+:)÷:( ”

Or, perhaps, even better, in the Internet age, we might use:

“H ≥ 🙂 + 🙂 + 🙂  / 😦 ”

Because, what the research is suggesting is that, in order for human beings to flourish or achieve optimal performance, every negative experience needs to be balanced with three or more positive experiences.  That’s where the work – and The Happy LIFE – comes in.  By committing to simple activities of conscious focus on positives – like the people we’re thankful for in our lives, gratitude for our many blessings – and the development of mindfulness – through meditation and specific types of exercise – we’re making investments in a consciousness portfolio that has the most adaptive flow of positive to negative.

In short, it does not benefit us to ignore or avoid the pain that inevitably finds us.  Rather, we are more capable of true happiness when we fully experience our pain and also overcome the natural, unconscious tendency to dwell on it.  And, we can do that by conscious action that focuses on the far more numerous pleasurable experiences that life has to offer us.

“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.” Author and Educator, Helen Keller

Heart of hearts…

Dearest Sarah,
I think I told you we’re starting this program of “happy habits” at LIFE and the first habit is writing an email or note each day, thanking someone who makes our lives better.  Well, the first email was to Daddy because, well, I’ve known him longer than you.  For day two, I want to thank you because you, my precious love, don’t just make my life better – you’ve made my life complete.  There has never been – and there will never be – a day I’m not grateful for the gift of you in my life.
You are the remarkable child who talked before she walked, who carried on full-out conversations with grown-ups from the time you were two – and you can still hold your own with anyone.  You are the gifted artist who, one Halloween when she was three and hanging out in the frame shop with me, scribbled on a discarded bit of mat board with a ball point pen – in what clearly turned out to be a full-blown witch, streaking through the sky on a broom (not the most flattering portrait of your mother ;0).
You are the bright young woman who reads and thinks and wonders and learns – and who will never stop.  You are the thoughtful person who has made lifelong friends wherever you’ve gone – and has even had the courage to risk losing them by refusing to stay silent when it mattered most.  You are loyal and kind and do what you promise.  And, perhaps as much as anything, I love that you are a terrible liar.  Truly – you’re really bad at it – even when it’s for a good cause, like a surprise party.  Start working on that, would you?  You have a little over five years to work on how to surprise me for my 60th birthday – and it might just take you that long to learn how to keep a straight face.
I’m going to close now and, even though I went goofy on you (shocking, right?), I’m sure you know that I’ve cried about five times writing this – and I never even came close to saying what I mean.
I love you, Sarah.
Thank you for being exactly and perfectly you.
Yo mama ;0)

The first day of the rest of my Happy LIFE…

Dearest David,

Today, I begin the Happy L.I.F.E., taking the first step to make the expression of gratitude to one special person each day a habit in my life. So, clearly, you’re at the top of my special people list. I can’t help but think how much richer our life together might have been – and it’s been pretty rich already – if I’d been sending you one of these every day (or even every week) for the last thirty years.

Thank you for being the other half of my life. Thank you for being my best friend. Thank you for making me a better person, even in ways that we’re not meant to understand in this lifetime. Thank you for being so freaking smart that you amaze me on a daily basis. Thank you for speaking the love language of “acts of service.” And, because a thank you is most effective when it’s specific, thank you from the bottom of my heart for “speaking” laundry ;0).

All my love,

Good, good, good…good vibrations

Why did the Beach Boys have to repeat the word “good” so many times as they were “thinkin’ ‘bout good vibrations”?  Because bad vibrations are what really set our emotional tuning forks to humming – and that makes sense, when you think about it.  It’s only natural that we would be more aware of threats because, in an instant, our survival could suddenly hinge on our ability to detect threats.  It’s called “negativity bias” and it’s been a long time in the making.

Historically, our ancient ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: 

1)   Be suspicious that a predator is lurking in the bushes just in case and/or successfully defend oneself against attack

2)   Fail to be suspicious and become the evening entrée at the Saber Tooth Café

So, basically, we’re built to be on the lookout for the tiger because our lives could depend on it.  And, we dwell on the threat of the tiger because if we forget, the next time we’re walking past the bushes, bam!  We’re tiger food.  And, even when the threat – or negative or painful thing – isn’t life threatening, our brains still want us to be sure and remember it so that we can avoid being hurt by it the next time.  And so we do. 

We not only store negative information more quickly but we recall it much more readily.  It’s been suggested that our older brain structures, the “lizard brains” (or amygdalae) jump on and snatch up negative information instantaneously while our newer, more uniquely human brain structures take much longer – up to twenty seconds – to process and store positive information.  That may say our brains are still more lizard than human – but I like to think we’re getting there.

The questions for us modern humans, then, as we continue to evolve and grow over the course of our lives are:

1)   Do we want to continue to live reactively, controlled by our unconscious lizard brains, predominantly storing and recalling negative information?

2)   OR, do we want to more actively develop our conscious human brains and take steps to “broaden and build” our ability to store and recall positive information?

Tomorrow, I’m taking the conscious first step of broadening and building my sense of gratitude by committing to send an email each day, for the next twenty-one days, to someone who has made a positive difference in the quality of my life.

It’ll be the first step toward the Happy LIFE – and I can’t help but believe it’ll part of the good vibrations that help keep the ol’ lizard brain at bay.

Collaborative Driving

Or, How to Maintain Positivity Behind the Wheel and Leave the Gun in the Glove Compartment.

No, it’s a joke; I’m not really packing heat in the car and there’s a reason for that:  I’m afraid I might use it.

I grew up riding in unassuming-looking Chrysler products, hopped up and driven by the man who may have invented road rage.  I myself had been driving a few years before I realized that a motor vehicle would in fact continue to operate without a stream of invectives steadily hurled at one’s fellow drivers.  That whole “share the road” deal?  Um.  No.  Not in Daddy’s world.  By God, that was his road.

After I became a parent, though, I began to realize just how aggressive my driving was and noticing how actually unproductive it is, especially when it comes to city driving.  I mean, if you’ll take time to notice all those people who floor it when the light changes to green, you’ll start to also notice that they’ve just raced to be the first one to have to stop at the next light.  But, hey, they still beat you and apparently that’s what matters to the driver using the competitive – and I’d go so far as to say “negative” – mindset.  Why negative?  Well, because it makes driving very stressful, said the woman who has found herself white-knuckling it in Atlanta traffic on a regular basis.

I’d like to think that the key phrase here is:  “Atlanta traffic.”  I think that I was a recovering “road rager” until I moved to Metro Atlanta at which point, I must now confess, I relapsed.  But, since I’ve been on this positivity journey, it has occurred to me that competitive driving is an expression of selfishness.  It’s not my road.  So, one day recently, it occurred to me how much more relaxing it used to be – and could be again – if I opted to take a more collaborative approach to driving.  And, I have to tell you, it’s really working.  By simply being more considerate of others and their need (and right) to use the road, I find I’m far less stressed and feel more like a fellow traveler than an offended party.

So, now, when I see someone driving so competitively, I just figure they’re in a really big hurry to get to the scene of their accident – and hope that they never make it.

Appreciating Poor Behavior?

What do you do when someone behaves so poorly that it scares you?  How do you use positivity to address poor behavior when what you want to do is slap the pee-bo-snoddy out of the person?

For me, given my Scots-Irish ancestry in what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a “culture of honor,” it’s easy to go from cool as a cucumber to hot as a pistol when somebody offends my sensibilities and does something so potentially dangerous as intentionally going at a fairly high rate of speed the wrong way against one-way traffic.

Especially when it’s someone in a leadership role.

With students in the car along for the wrong-way ride.

For what I later discovered was the second time in the same week.

At the time, I was absolutely floored by the behavior and communicated my disbelief and displeasure with clear (though still polite) signals; you may be surprised to learn that I did not communicate my displeasure “uni-digitally.”   Rather, I held up both hands, and mouthed in startled astonishment, “Really? Really, dude?”

And, what happened then, you might wonder?  The driver stopped, rolled down the window and said, “The facilities people do it!  And they have the University logo on the sides of their vehicles!”  My astonishment found yet a new peak – and pique, for that matter.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  This was a grown person, making excuses for poor behavior on the same level of maturity level as the kindergarten students I used to teach.  Wait – that’s an insult to some of the kindergarten students who had a little home training and knew how to admit when they were wrong and maybe even learn something from it.

So – here I am now, trying to figure out – on this positivity journey – what I should do about a fellow University community member having such a blatant and unrepentant disregard for others’ safety.  I’ll tell you, my Scots-Irish ancestors have been yelling in the back of my head for two days to find out how to file a honor code violation charge against a fellow employee.  Or, to write to the Powers-That-Be, naming the person and asking for their help in curbing such anti-social, me-first behavior in someone who really ought to be setting a better example.

But, I’m on this journey of positivity and I’m reading about Appreciative Inquiry.  In short, Appreciative Inquiry is a method of discovery and change with a basis in expressing appreciation for strengths rather than focusing on and expressing disappointment and chastisement for weaknesses.

So, here’s what I intend to do:  Send a message of appreciation of the many good things – and the great value – the driver brings to the University community.  It will read something like this:

“I want you to know how much your contributions mean to our campus culture and to me personally.  You were such a great help and so very gracious in your welcome when we first became a members of the University community.  The knowledge and history you shared and the introductions you made were invaluable in making us feel like “lifers” from day one.  The assistance you give to students both inside and outside of class is impressive and knowing that you’ve been recognized and rewarded for those contributions clearly tells me that I’m not alone in understanding how important those contributions are to our students and to our campus culture.  Your long association with an institution and a profession that are based on service to others is further evidence of our community’s faith and belief in your abilities and your capacity to serve others.  You are an integral part of what we do at the University.  I look forward to a day when you are assured of your importance in the larger scheme of the University and know that you are appreciated for what you have to offer.”

There are four stages of Appreciative Inquiry:  Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny.

It is my fervent hope that such a note might help the driver discover a calling to respect the safety of others, to dream of a day when safety supersedes self-centeredness and design a life worthy of our students’ emulation on the way to fulfilling a destiny of concern for others.

P.S.  It is not lost on me that sharing the entire story with you, my no doubt single-digit number of blog readers, and the conflict I felt as I struggled to formulate a positive response violates the purity of the appreciative response I’ve sent to the driver.  It’s my hope that there is something sufficiently helpful in it for others who are also seeking to increase the positivity in their lives and responses that you’ll forgive the incongruence.

What’s (Not) in a Name?

Names matter.

Isn’t it a more accurate (not to mention positive) practice to name things for what they are rather than for what they are not?

For instance, rather than naming employees “non-management,” wouldn’t it be more inspiring to call them “action teams”? 

In the case of Life University, I’d like to propose that we no longer refer to it as a “non-profit organization” in favor of calling it what it really is:  a “people-profit organization.”

Names do matter. 

In a people-profit organization, we all matter.

Tipping the scales of positivity

I had a whirlwind day yesterday, as I do most days, really.  It was full of challenges, excitement, apprehension, fun, fondness, gratitude, fear – a wide ranging emotional smorgasbord.  The proverbial “even keel” may not be my strong suit and, although I don’t mind being a person of strong feelings, I like to think I don’t stray too far from the center point when you average all those strong feelings together.

It turns out, I’m probably doing too good of a job staying close to the middle – and could be better at – and benefit more from – tipping the emotional scale toward positivity.  In order for us to be happy – to flourish – we need to experience three times more positive emotions than negative emotions.

Being happy – or flourishing – is not about burying our heads in the sand or ignoring the negative.  As Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, whose “broaden and build” theory is well supported, says (and I’m paraphrasing a bit): Negativity screams; positivity whispers.  We all know how easy it is for a negative thought – something that really ticks us off or embarrasses us – to get caught in a loop in our heads, replaying over and over.  And, we know how easy it is to take the positive things in our lives – those we love, our good fortune at having rewarding work – for granted. The Happy L.I.F.E. Is about taking simple steps to help hear those whispers over the screams.

As you may know, Life University is engaged in The Happy L.I.F.E., a project to increase participants’ focus on positive emotions, and incorporated five activities suggested by motivational speaker Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage and his very entertaining TEDx talk.

So, back to my own personal positivity scale.  I just took the “Positivity Self Test” and discovered that I came out to a 1:1 ratio, having had just as many negative as positive emotions.  I’ll tell you this, though, this whole Happy LIFE deal is already helping me be a lot more aware of the ways I self-sabotage and make negative attributions and, much more importantly, that awareness allows me to begin making changes.

I’m grateful today for that awareness.