On “The Habits of Highly Cynical People”

1342548285858004Rebecca Solnit has a powerful essay in the May issue of Harper’s that gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism” — a pervasive cultural tendency to predict the worst, as if somehow that will protect us or make us seem smarter.

“We live in a time when the news media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past,” writes Solnit, and “use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures.” The problem with this mindset isn’t just that it’s not accurate, but that it “bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.”

I’ve noticed this attitude pervade so many conversations these days, as people assume political movements or other signs of collective interest and action will ultimately go nowhere, so that even if they believe in the goal, they feel no need to actually participate. It’s why so many people don’t even bother to vote. “They’re all the same, what’s the difference?” is a common refrain about political candidates. As if Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton were actually interchangeable.

This “naive cynicism,” Solnit notes, is “first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish.” But refusing to look at the details of one policy or another, or to acknowledge nuances in different positions or values, is really just refusing to engage with reality. Not because the details and differences don’t matter, but rather, because they’re complicated. And to acknowledge those complications and uncertainties makes people feel uncomfortable.

“Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards,” writes Solnit. “But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.”

I agree with Solnit’s message wholeheartedly, but I’m troubled by her tone. Solnit’s essay suggests a certain contempt for these “naive cynics” who declare activists’ efforts a failure long before their outcome is clear, or assume victory must be immediately visible to be worth acknowledging. But while their view may be simplistic, it’s also understandable.

I have a certain sympathy with cynicism, not of the kind Solnit’s talking about, but the historical kind, the cynicism that’s skeptical of powerful institutions and entrenched traditions, not of individuals’ ability to act virtuously and to effect change. To me, that’s “mindful cynicism.” But I can see how, particularly if you’ve tried participating in collective actions that don’t yield the outcome you’re after, one can unwittingly slide into a more profound cynicism about the possibility of change at all.

It’s a form of hopelessness, really, and it’s not just self-aggrandizement, but also fear that underlies that mindset. It’s a fear of hoping for something better that may not change within the foreseeable future; it’s the fear of looking foolish for trying to change something that often looks like it’s not going to budge. It’s a very natural inclination to look for solid ground to stand on, in a world that’s ever-changing, never standing still. It feels safer to predict the worst for the world, and to focus instead on self-improvement, or at least on making our own lives more comfortable. That may seem, at least, like something over which we’d have more control.

That kind of mindset is ultimately a recipe for misery. Our self-improvement is never good enough, and neither are our material comforts. Philosophers and then psychologists have long understood that human beings need to believe in and strive for something more meaningful — something that transcends ourselves. Naive cynicism – or hopelessness, which might be a more accurate word – discards the possibility of all that. It is profoundly depressing.

At the same time, to proclaim our dominant culture naively cynical, as Solnit does, is to buy into a similar mindset that assumes a static entity. Yes, we’re surrounded by forces that encourage a cynical mindset: simplistic and extremist punditry that boosts individuals’ careers, the pronouncement of disasters and exaggeration of fears that boosts audiences and ultimately ad revenue. But to some extent, even those institutions are on the decline: the proliferation of news sources saps the influence of television stations like CNN or Fox News that peddle cynical sensationalism; and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign suggests a groundswell of support for renewed engagement in civic life, especially by a new generation of voters.

I agree with Solnit that “what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.” That applies to the phenomenon of naive cynicism as well. It means not writing off those who feel hopeless, but engaging with them. Which requires first understanding their fear and discomfort, and then, rather than dismissing it, helping them see that a mindlessly defensive response does not serve them — or anyone else.

How To Deal With Annoying People

rackmultipart-18124-0_crop_340x234I was on a conference call the other day, when a familiar voice started talking. Within seconds, my blood started to boil. It wasn’t so much that the person was saying anything particularly wrong or offensive; what she was saying triggered me for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with her. In this case, I was annoyed because she was talking about her Herculean effort to do something that was taking her forever to accomplish, and that I’d essentially already done months earlier. In my view, all the work I had put into the project already was being ignored.

We all have people or situations that push our buttons, whether because those people represent something we don’t like, or those situations reflect an uncomfortable reality we’d rather not face. Maybe it’s someone’s tone of voice that you interpret as disrespectful, or a group dynamic that doesn’t seem to adequately acknowledge your contributions. Whatever it is, the knot in the stomach, the constriction in the throat, all those things that indicate anger arising are very real – yet often based on something we’re not completely aware of.

I’ve recently started dealing with this in a new way that’s been extremely helpful, and have been recommending this to my coaching clients. The New York Center for Nonviolent Communication, led by Thom Bond, calls it “The Exercise.” It’s a really effective way of connecting to and dissecting the emotions you’re feeling, and using those to help clarify the needs you have that are not being met. From there, you can figure out a more constructive way of meeting them.

I’ve summarized before the underlying premise of Nonviolent Communication, a method of improving communication and connection developed by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. His book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, is essential reading for anyone looking for healthier and more effective ways of dealing with anger and other strong emotions we tend to direct outwards.

Rosenberg’s idea, carried on now by Bond and many others through NVC centers around the world, is that underlying anger, frustration and related emotions are usually a host of other feelings we’re not aware of, such as fear, sadness, insecurity, etc. And those emotions are usually a signal that some basic human need of ours is not being met – say, a need for security, support, connection, or effectiveness. The NY center actually provides this very handy list of common feelings and needs here. It’s useful to refer to these, both to help clarify our own feelings and needs, to differentiate our own feelings from assumptions we may be making about others, and to help understand just how universal these basic feelings and needs really are.

The point of “The Exercise,” as explained more thoroughly here, is to practice stepping away from the strong emotion before you react to it, and consider (and actually write down) the full range of feelings coming up for you in that situation, and your underlying needs that are not being met.

In the situation of my conference call, for example, I was feeling frustrated, irritated, impatient, resentful, insecure, envious and even a bit ashamed. (It’s amazing how many emotions can underlie what at first just feels like anger, and how difficult it can be to acknowledge some of them.) My unmet needs included appreciation, belonging, respect, understanding, contribution, and effectiveness. (Also very surprising to see and difficult to acknowledge the broad range.)

The second part of the exercise involves writing down what you imagine were the feelings and needs of the other person, who in the particular situation had just pissed you off. The purpose of this part is to develop some empathy with that person: to realize that just like you, she has feelings and needs she’s trying to satisfy, and her actions or words, effective or not, are an attempt to meet those needs.

Of course, some situations require a fast response, and you can’t necessarily take the time to leave the room and go write down all your feelings and needs. But many situations where we get angry don’t require an immediate response. In fact, an immediate response, in the heat of anger, is usually not the most effective response, once you consider what your goals actually are. So one of the key things this exercise does it get you to stop and NOT react immediately.

I’ve found that when I do this, I’m able to acknowledge and experience my emotions, but also move through them and not get stuck there. As I consider what needs I have that are not being met, it usually becomes pretty clear why that is, and whether or not I should expect to get them met in this situation at all. If not, how else can I meet those needs? Now I’m on to developing a more constructive strategy for addressing the real problem.

Meanwhile, after imagining what the other person’s feelings and needs might be, my anger at that person usually dissipates. I still may not like her words or actions, but I don’t usually hate the person herself. And in imagining what she’s needing, I might find that I can help provide her at least some of that, in a way that circumvents this whole anger-producing process. And in the end, that’s a better situation for all of us.

Love and Activism

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A few years ago I was on a nonprofit leadership training retreat, when everyone had to go around the circle and declare their “purpose.” This was the sort of exercise I dreaded, so I scrambled to come up with something plausible I could say that wouldn’t be too embarrassing. Then I heard one of the retreat leaders announce that her purpose was “love.”

My eyes widened and it took all the energy I could muster to keep from rolling them. “Love?” I thought. “Really? And this is a professional leadership training?”

It’s easy to be cynical about the word “love.” It’s exploited to sell products and convince us we need lots of self-improvement to be worthy of it. In Hollywood movies or on TV, it’s mostly young beautiful women who find it (the movies are much more forgiving to men), prompting the rest of us to feel we should rush out and buy whatever we can be duped into thinking might allow us to make ourselves over into that image. The obsessive focus on the self that creates actually leads to the opposite of love: self-consciousness and self-loathing, as well as a cramped and defensive view of everyone else.

The popular view of nonromantic love, meanwhile, is the perfect immediate family, consisting of mother, father and several children, all happy, attractive, posing perfectly for their envy-inducing snapshot on Facebook.

I’ve since gotten to know that retreat leader better, and I don’t think she meant any of those things. I think she was talking about a far more expansive, and healthy, understanding of love, one that leads to the opposite of self-consciousness, narcissism, and envy; one that instead helps dissolve the boundaries between ourselves and the world around us, opening up greater possibilities for engagement, and for joy.

The research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls this “positivity resonance.” Fredrickson is a professor at the University of North Carolina and a leading researcher in the study of positive emotions. Her book, Love 2.0, offers an intriguing and I think really useful look at the whole concept of love: what it means, when it occurs, and the powerful physical and psychological effects it has on us – and its potential to connect us to a much broader range of people in the world.

Not surprisingly, Fredrickson finds that love is nothing like what we see in the movies. It’s not something you fall into or have unconditionally or need to find from that one special someone you’re searching for. It doesn’t require commitment or long-term bonding or even shared values, although those things can help create conditions that encourage it. But in itself, love is an often fleeting feeling you can have when you connect with almost anyone, including a complete stranger, under the right circumstances. It has a powerful impact on our bodies and our health, and literally synchronizes people as their brain functions mirror one another’s. Studies show the experience of this sort of love actually creates a broader perspective and understanding, of ourselves, of the other person, and of everything around us. What’s more, its quantity is unlimited; it’s an emotion we can develop and increase, regardless of our current relationship or family circumstances.

Obviously, this isn’t specifically romantic love, although that’s one form of it. But the kind of love I’m talking about doesn’t depend on finding any one perfect “soulmate” somewhere out there in the universe. It’s simply, as Fredrickson defines it, “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being, and is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

What I like about this view is that it so clearly corresponds with actual human experience, and defies the silly cultural expectations that love be everlasting, unconditional, or limited to one person at a time. Rather, just as we experience it, love is an ever-shifting emotion that comes and goes, arises and fades away. It’s not exclusive. It’s not a unique feeling you reserve for one partner, or for immediate family or friends.

Positivity resonance is literally a “back and forth reverberation of positive energy.” Indeed, brain imaging studies done by Princeton professor Uri Hasson have shown that connection between two people actually creates synchronized changes in both people’s biochemistry. Hasson and his colleagues have shown that parts of people’s brains literally into sync during emotional moments – what Hasson calls “brain-to-brain coupling.” It’s how we understand each other.

The impact of this emotion on our bodies is astonishing. Love or positivity resonance strengthens the vagus nerve, which reaches from the brain down through the body to the abdomen, and touches most major organs along the way. The vagus nerve plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s stress level. A strong vagus nerve, or high vagal “tone,” as its measured, means the parasympathetic nervous system is working effectively to reduce the negative impact of stress on the body — slowing your heart rate after a frightening experience, for example. Scientists view vagal tone as a reflection of the strength of the immune system; a strong vagal tone make us more resistant to a broad range of diseases, including heart failure, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Love also affects our bodies by increasing levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has long been known to be critical to mother-child bonding and sexual connection, but it’s also been found to increase during much more subtle emotional and social interactions. Oxytocin triggers the release of serotonin, which leads to increased feelings of happiness and reduces levels of stress. (Most anti-depressant medication similarly tries to increase the brain’s serotonin levels.)

The encouraging thing about all this is that it’s largely within our control. Increasing this sort of love is ultimately about letting yourself be open to it. Sure, there are formal practices designed to induce loving feelings, like lovingkindness meditations, or reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, which can be very effective. (Fredrickson has studied these practices and finds that if done over time, they actually increase vagal tone.) So, too, can simply increasing awareness of the positive impact true connections can have.

Daily interactions, with colleagues at work or neighbors in the dog park, for example, can take on a new meaning. Instead of merely awkward small talk by the water-cooler or bleary-eyed encounters picking up dog poop in the morning, they become opportunities for increasing positivity resonance and better health.

Positivity resonance can support social activism as well. Instead of focusing only on achieving a particular outcome, which may be elusive, the possibility of connecting in a real way with others doing the same thing –- and experiencing the same frustrations — can give our advocacy work a whole other purpose.

This sort of “love” can help counter the burnout advocates so often feel in another way, too. Focusing on the problems of the world and seeing few easy solutions can quickly lead to pessimism, despair and depression. Focusing on positive feelings for those who you might benefit, on the other hand — what lovingkindness meditation does — can really lift the spirit.

Meditations on love and kindness or positive interactions with neighbors, colleagues or clients won’t stop wars or save the planet or directly help those suffering the consequences of those disasters. But if practiced regularly and sincerely, they can renew our sense of hope by changing how we feel towards other people, including those most harmed by the world’s problems. And that can help keep us motivated to do what we can to help.

The Demoralizing Science of Success

063b6cfOne of the most interesting subjects in the field of Positive Psychology is the science of human motivation and success. Why are some people so motivated and so successful? Why do some people not even bother to try? And how does that correlate with human happiness?

I find this all fascinating. But I also find it tends to make me crazy. The other night, for example, I listened to a lecture by psychologist Tal Ben Shahar, who explained a range of psychological studies showing that high expectations of ourselves leads to higher self-esteem and higher levels of happiness in the long run, even when we fall short of those expectations. It was somewhat counterintuitive, since I would have thought that lowering our expectations would make us feel better, because we’d be more likely to meet them.  Studies show, however, that seeing ourselves try to meet our own high expectations actually changes our view of ourselves, which raises self-esteem, even if it also means we fail more often.  Higher expectations, if grounded in reality, also tend to lead to eventual success.

All good as far as it goes. But the longer I listened to the lecture, the more I found myself in turmoil. Were my expectations high enough? I wondered. Had I settled for too little in my life? Should I be setting my goals higher, and if I did, what would they be?

Ben Shahar went on to explain the impact of our environment on achievement, and how we can create an environment that “primes” us for success, even subliminally encouraging and cheering us on. That’s good news.  Still, I found myself in a bit of a panic: is my environment encouraging enough? Should I have more photos of friends and family on my walls?  Would that feel supportive, or oppressive?  And what about inspirational quotes? Would those subconsciously help me even if I tend to find them cheesy?

By the end of the lecture I felt like crap. Now obsessing about my lack of achievement, I looked up one of my favorite positive psychologists, Ellen Langer. A researcher and professor at Harvard, Langer has published 11 books on mindfulness and is an accomplished self-taught painter. I can never be as successful as her, I despaired.

The science of success wasn’t motivating me, it was deflating me.

It’s great to want to be your best self, but knowing what or who that even is can be a lifelong work-in-progress. I think the key to making that process “successful” is to learn to enjoy the ride along the way. Comparing yourself to your role model of the day, on the other hand, is a recipe for despair, depression, and demoralization.

The Beat Generation writer Seymour Krim has a wonderful essay called “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” that encapsulates what I’m talking about.

“At 51,” he writes, “believe it or not, or believe it and pity me if you are young and swift, I still don’t know truly ‘what I want to be.’ I’ve published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who’s Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I’m as open to every wild possibility as I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat. One life was never quite enough for what I had in mind. “

“That’s because I come from America,” Krim continues, “which has to be the classic, ultimate, then-they-broke-the mold incubator of not knowing who you are until you find out. I have never really found out and I expect what remains of my life to be one long search party for the final me. . . . and I don’t really think that the great day will ever come when I hold a finished me in my fist and say here you are, congratulations.”

Positive Psychology seems to arise out of that American tendency to take advantage of every possibility available to us. Which is a lot of pressure. With all this psychological understanding, now, it’s not enough merely to be successful by conventional measures, but we have to realize our truest deepest visions, too. It’s a nice goal, but trying to meet it can be exhausting.

This is where I think we can learn a thing or two from Buddhism. Unlike positive psychologists who speak of unmasking your true, best self and then succeeding wildly, Buddhism speaks of the self as a constantly evolving and changing, ephemeral concept. There is no fixed self to unmask, no core we need to improve. Sure, we have tendencies and inclinations and strengths and weaknesses based on causes and conditions in our past – whether our genes, family, society, education, or whatever. And those may or may not be helpful to us now. But the goal is not to try to remove all those to reveal some true self that you then have to shine and polish. It’s to see them all as clearly as we can and to work with them. Acknowledge their influence, and then, with the wisdom we have today, choose what we want to develop, let go of or build upon.

The purpose of mindfulness practices like meditation are to learn to see and discern the various thoughts and influences that have led you to this place, so you can make clearer and wiser choices from here. That may include choosing more helpful influences in your future.

If you approach your own efforts with heartfelt compassion for the self you have become, you’ll be much more able to take advantage of the wealth of scientific studies on happiness and success. Because only by seeing and accepting who we are now can we begin to truly consider who we want to be and where we want to go.

Success, then, means simply continuing to move in our chosen direction.

Some Simple Career Advice

images-4I sometimes hear from recent college graduates struggling to start their careers. They want to know how they can get into human rights work, or journalism, or some combination of the two, and they think that because I’ve done both I’ll have the answer.

I don’t, of course. Career paths are rarely linear, and both public interest law and journalism have changed so much over the years that my own circuitous career path hardly seems relevant. Inevitably, I’m afraid, I end up dampening their enthusiasm with my cynicism about most jobs these days, particularly in law or journalism. Not that some aren’t great, but many people in their 20s have a lot of illusions about what they imagine to be their ideal careers, based on very little actual knowledge. The sooner they rid themselves of those the better.

There are really only two pieces of advice I end up giving: the first is to let yourself be drawn toward what you really enjoy. Try to shield yourself, at least somewhat, from other people’s expectations and your own insecurities, and think about what you really love to spend your time doing. Then go learn about what kind of work would allow you to do mostly that.

Once you’ve figured that out, try things out. You may really care about the environment, for example, but find that working at an environmental agency or advocacy organization is a total bore. You might really care about justice, but find that working at a law firm or even the social justice organization you admire most just keeps you stuck in front of a computer all day and feeling isolated. Don’t decide how you want to spend your life based on an abstract topic or issue: find out what the work entails doing all day. If that doesn’t inspire you, don’t do it.

These sounds like really obvious points. But it’s taken me many years to learn this myself; and I have to keep re-learning it.

I went to law school wanting to fight poverty and inequality; I ended up, seduced by the prestige of judicial clerkships and “impact litigation,” in a public interest job that sounded great on paper, but which I couldn’t stand.

I quit and went to journalism school. After that I did some interesting work that I’m proud of, and I took a lot of risks. But after ten years, the field had changed far more quickly than I’d expected and I was no longer excited about pitching stories to elite newspaper or magazine editors so they could pay me a pittance to do a lot of really hard work. My interests, my admiration for the field, and my tolerance for that level of insecurity, had all changed.

I’ve tried to combine the two fields of journalism and public interest law in my human rights work, and I’ve had some success doing that. But all work has its limitations, and I am still learning to appreciate what really interests me and the types of work I need to do to feel fulfilled. Coaching has been an important part of that.

All of which comes down to this really obvious but frequently-ignored advice: find a way to do the things you most enjoy and care about.

The psychologist Kenneth Sheldon and his co-authors Richard Ryan, Edward Deci and Tim Kasser flesh that out a bit, based on a wealth of psychological studies, including their own, about what makes people happy. They conclude:

“People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of: a) goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and popularity; and b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue.”

My own 20 + years in the workforce certainly bears that out.

Bernie Sanders, the Optimist

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One of the most common criticisms I hear of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is that he’s too angry.

Americans are famous for being upbeat and optimistic. We’re raised to believe in “the American Dream” in which anyone can rise up from poverty to be a huge success. Anger –- particularly about the reality that lots of people don’t have access to that dream — doesn’t fit so well into that equation. (Unless, perhaps, it’s satisfied by scapegoating other people — the Donald Trump strategy.)

Hope, on the other hand, has always been a runaway bestseller. Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope” – his hometown in Arkansas – is still one of the most popular American presidents ever. And Barack Obama got himself elected promoting “the Audacity of Hope,” as he called his 2006 memoir. His vague promises of hope allowed the electorate to project all sorts of their own hopes and dreams onto him. Seven years later, many are sorely disappointed.

Thomas Frank, in his 2014 Salon essay The Hope Diet, cynically dismissed all the hopefulness in American politics as a way of duping the citizenry into complacency while leaders do what they want. Rather than a motivating force to engage the public, hope is something politicians “bring with them…ensuring this fanciful substance flows our way doesn’t require them actually to, you know, enact anything we’re hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton’s deregulation or Obama’s spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, the definition of hope is you still believe, even when it’s hard… This is the opposite of accountability.”

Perpetual war, extreme inequality and rampant injustice seem to be the norm these days, so one can be forgiven for feeling a little less hopeful. I think that’s why Bernie Sanders’ anger can seem, at least to some of us, highly appropriate.

Anger makes us uncomfortable, but it can be motivating. It signals something is wrong. And being on the lookout for something wrong may be the appropriate approach to the systems and institutions that hold so much power in our society. One can be angry at, or even cynical about, those institutions, and still be optimistic about individual human potential for change.

It’s a stark contrast to the approach of Donald Trump. Like Sanders, Trump is angry and cynical – but his wrath is aimed at specific groups of people, such as immigrants and Muslims. He’s not a cynic about our institutions, which have helped him amass huge wealth while providing only a $7.25 federal minimum wage that Trump has suggested is “too high.”

Although the media doesn’t generally tout Sanders as an optimist, it strikes me that his views are highly optimistic about human potential. This sort of view is encapsulated by the work of leading “positive” psychologists, such as the Harvard researcher Ellen Langer. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer explores how beliefs about aging affect and in some cases dictate our physical and mental experience of it. (This is also relevant to the criticism that Sanders is “too old” to be president.) Langer is not concerned with the statistical probability of something happening. She’s interested in what can happen. That’s far more motivating and relevant when you’re talking about make change. For example, I don’t really care if it’s statistically unlikely that I’ll run a marathon next year. If I really want to do that (I don’t, particularly, but you get the idea) there’s a lot I can do to make it happen.

That to me is what hope is about, whether personal or political. It’s what motivates and encourages us to improve our lives and our world.

I think it’s why I like Bernie Sanders. There’s something about his willingness to see and state clearly the powerful influence of concentrated wealth in our society and its control over all of our major systems and institutions that’s refreshing. It may come across as angry, but it’s not pessimistic. His candidacy is all about offering the possibility of a new form of governance that roots out that outsized influence.

Of course, his ability to actually accomplish that within the existing American political system is another matter – and may reasonably influence whether voters wants to place their hopes in him. Still, it’s a good example of how one can be appropriately cynical about systems and institutions, and still be optimistic about the possibility of well-meaning individuals to join together to change them.

The Happy Lawyer?

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The other night I attended a training session at the New York City Bar Association called “Happiness for Lawyers: Mindfulness and Emotional Skills to Improve Our Professional Life (and Make us Happier).” As I was leaving, the security guard remarked that all the participants walking out of the room had a smile on their face. “That’s not the way they looked when they got here,” he said. “I guess it works.”

I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s rare that I leave a meeting of lawyers smiling. I guess it’s pretty rare for others, too, since this security guard works at the City Bar Building, which houses events for lawyers all day.

There’s something about gathering a roomful of people, whether lawyers or anyone else, for the purpose of observing and settling your minds that has a naturally calming effect. Instead of focusing on some external problem to be battled or solved, which is what lawyers normally do, we were focused on just being aware of the anxiety caused by always having to solve people’s problems.

Lawyers are famously depressed and anxious, compared to people in other professions. Robert Chender, a longtime mindfulness teacher and lawyer who led the bar association training, explained why: our role as lawyers is mostly to worry. It’s to anticipate the worst that can happen and try to prevent it. While that may sometimes work to the benefit of our clients, it tends to spill over into our lives and make us chronically stressed out. Not only is it stressful to always focus on the worst that can happen; you come to believe that bad things predominate – in other words, you become a pessimist. (Or you already were a pessimist, and that’s why you were attracted to being a lawyer.) Ultimately, it’s a stressful and depressing way to live.

On top of that, lawyers have a tendency toward perfectionism. We might like to call that “detail-oriented,” and it can be useful if you’re writing a brief or researching a legal argument. But if you insist on everything being perfect in every aspect of your life, and that those around you have to be perfect as well, that’s a recipe for misery. Nobody’s perfect. You’ll always be disappointed.

We’re not doomed to depression or anxiety, though. By becoming aware of how our minds work and the thoughts that lead us astray, we can develop the capacity to have a choice: in a particular situation, do we want to assume the worst, or demand perfection, or not?

Context matters. If you’re drafting a contract you might well want to at least consider the worst, and protect against it, and triple-check the details. But if you’re home with your family or out with friends, worrying the worst will happen or demanding a perfect experience can put a real damper on your (and others’) ability for enjoyment. The key is to be aware when you’re mind is automatically taking you there.

The antidote to all this, of course, is mindfulness training. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see our thoughts and consider whether they reflect something real or imagined, and whether an impulse that follows them is one we want to act on or not. Mindfulness training usually includes some form of sitting meditation, as well as other simple practices you can use throughout the day. One is just to stop yourself when you feel a strong emotion and an impulse to act on it. Before acting, pause, take a deep breath, and let yourself feel the emotion as a physical sensation. Drop the story you’re telling yourself about it. Just experience the sensation. Now, you’ve calmed the stress centers in your brain enough to more carefully consider how you want to respond.

In fact, researchers have found that regularly practicing mindfulness can create physical changes in the brain, increasing gray matter in parts of the brain responsible for memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

There’s a growing movement of mindfulness for lawyers — one I wish had existed back when I was first entering the legal profession. It’s more than self-help, though:  mindfulness not only makes lawyers happier; it helps our clients and colleagues as well.

 

 

It’s Not a Package Deal

images-1One of the problems with being a cynic is that, when you’re trying to learn something new, it’s easy to focus on all the things that sound wrong or silly or otherwise questionable and to disregard the entire lesson or experience as a result.

I was sitting in a meditation class recently, for example, when the teacher said something about past or future lives. I don’t even remember what he was talking about -– probably something about karma and our minds -– but it didn’t really matter. My internal alarm bells went off immediately. I thought: “That’s ridiculous. I’m not coming back here.”

The thing is, I know and like this teacher, and I know he’s very good at explaining meditation, its practice and purpose, in an accessible, down-to-earth and engaging way. And I know, from personal experience, plus all the scientific studies backing it up, that meditation can be very helpful. I hadn’t been to that particular meditation center for a while, and I was enjoying being back and laughing along with his painfully accurate descriptions of how absurdly our minds work sometimes, and how they often cause us distress. Until he said the thing about multiple lives. At that point, my internal critic leapt to attention and immediately dismissed the value of whatever it was he was trying to say. I didn’t hear it. And chances are, it was something interesting.

Aware that he was talking to a group of mostly secular Brooklynites like me, the teacher quickly interrupted himself to let people know they didn’t have to believe in past and future lives to learn to meditate or reap its benefits. But I was aware of how easily and quickly my mind was ready to dismiss him and the whole meditation project, simply because the teacher — who was, after all, teaching at a Buddhist meditation center with a big golden Buddha statue behind him — had briefly mentioned something that is a basic tenet of Buddhism.

I’ve written before about how our minds have evolved to focus on the negative aspects of our experience, largely in order to protect us from mortal dangers. The part of the brain that reacts to fear, centered in the amygdala, also steps up when something isn’t physically threatening, but just doesn’t sound quite right. But it’s important to learn to step back a bit, and let the more developed, discerning part of my brain –- centered in the prefrontal cortex -– play its part, too.

I may not believe I’ll have multiple lives to live, although sometimes I wish I did. But I’m capable of distinguishing that piece of the teaching from the larger point, which is that our minds are influenced by all sorts of things –- including past experiences — that we’re often not aware of. Whether it’s something I did in my past life or something my mother said to me in grade school doesn’t really matter. The point is it may or may not be helpful to me, or to anyone else, today. The purpose of meditation is to develop more awareness of what’s going through my mind so I can choose how I want to respond rather than letting unconscious habits choose for me. And one of my habits is letting a cynical mind quash any new ideas that come packaged in or accompanied by something that makes me squirm.

As my positive psychology instructor, Tal Ben Shahar, pointed out in a recent class: “this is not a package deal.” I was in the middle of a week-long immersion for my Positive Psychology certification course, and struggling with some of what at the time seemed like really dumb, pointless exercises. More than once sitting in that lecture hall, I wanted to flee. But it helped me to hear Tal acknowledge that that’s okay. “You’ll hear things here that don’t make sense to you or just sound silly or unconvincing. If you don’t like them, forget about them. Pay attention to what resonates with you, and use it. Leave behind the rest. This is not a package deal.”

It was an important reminder for a skeptic like me. I too easily dismiss things as irrelevant or meaningless because some piece of it doesn’t jibe with me. This aversive reaction may feel immediately comforting, because now I don’t have to bother engaging with new material and can stay safely ensconced in my own cocoon of imagined superiority. But it’s ultimately extremely limiting, and really kind of silly. It’s a bit like dismissing Freud as irrelevant to psychology because I don’t believe in penis envy. But he did develop our modern understanding of the unconscious, which underpins much of our understanding of the human psyche today. So maybe there’s some value in his work after all.

Our culture of cynicism and irony is so focused on mocking and disparaging what we think is wrong that we tend to overlook or outright dismiss ideas that may be really valuable. The criticism might make us sound really clever — especially if we can express it as a witty 140-character commentary on Twitter. But in the process, we may find ourselves flushing a lot of really helpful wisdom down the drain.

Don’t Tell Me What To Do

Since starting my training in Positive Psychology, I’ve been bombarded with all sorts of helpful suggestions about what I ought to do to make myself happier. “Make a daily list of five things you’re grateful for,” or “meditate every day,” or “exercise regularly,” or “clean your closets.” All good ideas, and I’m sure if I did them all I’d be a happier person. But as soon as someone else tells me what to do, I find myself resisting it. I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve noticed that when I try to tell other people what to do to be happier, they don’t follow my instructions, either.

I guess I’ve always been suspicious of adopting other people’s rituals, which remind me of religion, which reminds me of manipulation. And I’m equally suspicious of the self-help gurus and celebrities that promise a quick fix of all my problems if I’ll just follow their five steps. It all feels fake and simplistic to me.

Still, as I’ve delved deeper into the scientific studies of how people actually make lasting change, I’ve become convinced by the experts’ view that the best way to change old habits or create new ones is by establishing new rituals. According to psychologists and neuroscientists, by practicing something new over and over, we create new neuropathways that eventually turn that new behavior into a pattern — a new habit. At that point, it takes much less energy (what we often refer to as “willpower”) to keep doing it.

It turns out human beings have very limited amounts of willpower. It’s why most people give up pretty quickly on New Year’s resolutions and other promises to change. The psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied this extensively, and found that creating new habits is far more effective than attempting to muster enough willpower each day to do something new. (His findings are explained in an excellent book he co-authored with journalist John Tierney called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)

So while I’ve resisted adopting other people’s rituals, I realized recently during a week-long Positive Psychology training immersion that to get the benefits, I don’t have to follow someone else’s practice; I can create my own. In fact, I’m much more likely to adopt a new habit if it’s something I came up with that suits my schedule and temperament than something someone else devised to suit theirs. In other words, I don’t have to clean my closets or make daily gratitude lists or write in a journal if I don’t want to. But if there’s something I do want to change – whether it’s developing certain qualities or dropping bad habits – I’m far more likely to be successful if I establish a daily practice that moves me in that direction. And I can use the wealth of evidence about the effectiveness of rituals to create a ritual that feels not like I’m fulfilling some external obligation imposed upon me, but one that I’ve chosen and created to help me pursue my own goals.

It may sound exhausting to have to do something new every day. (Another reason I’ve generally resisted it.) But making one decision in advance to do something and making it part of your daily routine drastically reduces the amount of mental energy involved. It would take far more willpower to re-convince yourself of the value of a new practice and to have to re-commit yourself each day to doing it.

And the truth is, we’re always practicing something. If we’re not consciously deciding what it is we want to practice, then we’re usually letting old habits decide for us. And often those aren’t taking us where we want to go.

Willpower, then, is not something that requires heroic strength. It’s simply a choice to use our awareness to make conscious choices. Creating a new ritual doesn’t have to demand Herculean effort. As Anthony Trollope, the prolific writer who never wrote more than three hours a day said: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” A new ritual can take all of five minutes to complete, depending on what it is and how you want to implement it. But it can make a big difference.

Don’t try to change too much at once, though. People who try to take on too many new behaviors at once often end up abandoning them all. Studies show that people who implement small changes, one or two at a time, are more likely to sustain them. Committing to them in the presence of someone else (such as a friend, spouse, coach, etc.), to whom you’ll feel accountable, also greatly improves your chances for success.

The biggest effort required is the decision to create and practice the new ritual itself. To overcome your inner skeptic’s resistance, make it your own.

 

 

A Hole in the World

images-4I came across Portia Nelson’s wonderful “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” recently and wanted to share it here. It encapsulates perfectly the challenging and often painstaking process of changing our most entrenched and destructive patterns of mind.

 

“There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk”

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve also been thinking it applies equally to how we collectively, as a society and political order, approach our most vexing problems — only it’s not clear we ever get past the first couple of chapters.

“I would bring back waterboarding,” declared Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on ABC News’ Sunday show, This Week with George Stephanopolous, talking about how he would respond to terrorism if he were president.  Surely Trump doesn’t think that’s the answer, given the wealth of evidence that torture undermines rather than promotes national security. But with so many fearful Americans eager to see leaders do something, anything, to ensure their safety, Trump probably figured it would grab more headlines and score him more votes.

Donald Trump is an extreme case, of course, but whether it’s global warming, income inequality or terrorism, there seems to be a general societal instinct to respond immediately to our most entrenched problems with a defensiveness that clouds our ability to see our role in the problem and how our reactions perpetuate it.

An individual wanting to change can make a commitment to approaching the situation with renewed awareness and, eventually, choose to walk down a different path. But how can we do that as a society, in a political system governed by leaders focused only on short-term gains?