The Power of Positive Psychology

istock_000005349409xsmall-300x299I’m taking a certification course in “positive psychology,” and I’ve realized lately that I feel a little sheepish telling people about it. There’s something about the idea of studying something so unabashedly “positive” that sounds a little silly, fake, Pollyannaish.

It also sounds very corporate, like the kind of thing they’d teach in business school so owners can convince employees that they’re really happy toiling away at meaningless jobs while they’re actually being exploited to make the owner huge profits.

Of course that’s not what “positive psychology” is really about, although it has become popular in the business world. It’s actually a growing branch of the field of psychology taught at such eminent universities as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.  Still, I’m realizing that I’ve so bought into the popular culture of cynicism that it feels like it takes an act of courage to admit I’m interested in what makes people happy. After all, given what’s going on in the world these days, (and especially what we see in the news), what right does anyone have to be happy?

As a therapeutic tool, the term “positive psychology” doesn’t inspire much confidence, either: it sounds like learning to sweep all the painful stuff under the rug and to just look at the bright side, which doesn’t seem like a very honest or effective strategy.

That’s not how the lead course instructor, psychologist and Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, describes it. In his talks and books – some of which I’ve read and think are very good and not at all simplistic – he describes positive psychology as a sort of antidote to the field of psychology’s traditional focus on the negative – the pathologies and illness that make people suffer. He wants to focus on what works: what makes people happy, successful, and fulfilled.

But isn’t that just looking at the other side of the same coin? I wondered initially. People who aren’t happy, successful or fulfilled tend to be depressed, anxious and neurotic, right? So what difference does it make if we ask them why they’re depressed and anxious, as opposed to what makes them happy?

From what I can tell so far, the difference appears to be the focus. Let’s say I’m depressed and anxious because I hate my job, for example. I can focus on why I hate my job – because my boss is an idiot, or the work seems meaningless, or the hours are too long – and those would all be legitimate reasons to be miserable and want to quit. After all, it’s normal and even healthy to want our work to be fulfilling and in balance with the rest of our lives.

But I think a positive psychologist would first ask a few key questions. What do I like about my job? When do I enjoy it, or find my work interesting or fulfilling? The idea wouldn’t be to ignore my negative feelings, but if I can find and focus on the positive ones, that may lead me to a broader understanding of what’s going on, and to a wider range of options. Once I’ve identified what I like, I can consider how I might be able to increase those parts of my work. In the process, I can consider how I might decrease the parts I don’t like. For example, if a toxic boss is the problem, maybe I can limit contact with her, do the things that I know will satisfy her and get her off my back, or explore whether it might be possible to report to someone else. Now I have more options than just quitting, which may or may not solve my problem, since I don’t know what my next boss or colleagues or workplace situation will be like.

One advantage of positive psychology seems to be that it puts us in a position of power rather than leaving us stuck, feeling helpless. (Interestingly, the man considered the founder of the modern “positive psychology” movement, former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, is the same psychologist who coined the phrase “learned helplessness,” in which an animal or human being has learned she has no control over a bad or painful situation and therefore stops trying to change it.)

Positive psychology also reveals how much power we have to affect other people in a positive way. Rather than criticizing or focusing on what’s wrong with others, we can be the voice of encouragement, the one who finds the jewel in those around us and helps them polish it.

I was driving as I was thinking about this, returning home after a particularly grueling period of work, for which I was feeling generally unappreciated.  I turned on public radio. Terri Gross, host of the show “Fresh Air,” was interviewing country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent about her new album.

DeMent, who writes and sings soulful, plaintive songs in an oddly appealing high-pitched twang, was describing growing up as the youngest of 14 children in a religious Pentecostal Christian family. While music and singing were a big part of her upbringing, mostly connected to the church, school wasn’t, and she dropped out of high school by the 10th grade.

At 23, she decided to go back. DeMent had always loved writing stories, she said, and though she had little confidence in her writing ability, she enrolled in an English class at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. What she remembers about it was her teacher who, instead of commenting on the misspellings and bad grammar that littered her papers, would praise her imagination and creativity.

“She was so kind to me and so – just little, simple teacher notes, you know?” DeMent told Gross, her voice trembling as she recounted it. “But her red pen, you know, she’d say these really kind things and – you know, you have an imagination. You got the – and it encouraged me. She didn’t criticize what I didn’t know how to do.”

DeMent “sunk herself into that class,” she said, and then took another. She soon wrote her first song. From then on, she knew that was what she had to do.

From her telling of it, that one teacher, who saw and focused on the best in her, made all the difference. And that, from what I can tell, is the power of positive psychology.

You Are Not Who You Think You Are

1379524090-self+other+smallWhen I was a child, I used to regularly freak myself out by the thought that one day I would no longer exist. How could I – my consciousness – simply disappear from the world, when to me, at least, it had always been there? Something about the disappearance of my self terrified me.

Looking back on it, it seems a little silly, since I won’t actually have the experience of not being conscious when it happens. But that sense of self – a sense that “I” exist in some fundamental, immutable way – is something pretty basic to the human experience.

As an adult, I’ve come to realize that it’s exactly that sense of the self as a concrete, identifiable thing that makes us suffer so much. And that the more we can release our grip on it, accept the “self” as a more fluid concept of ever-changing consciousness, the happier we’ll be.

Think about it. Much of our suffering comes from either regretting the past or worrying about the future. We regret the past because of a sense that “I” did something wrong – as if “I” were one immutable being to be constantly judged and evaluated. In fact, all of those judgments – of ourselves and of others – come from an assumption of a core “self” that we tend to see as good or bad, deserving of praise or blame. If there were no solid, core self, the judgments would lose a lot of their force. We might not like something we (or someone else) said or did, but that doesn’t have to entail a judgment about who we (or they) are. It’s a lot easier to let that go and move on.

The same for our worries about the future. What if I don’t get what I want – money, fame or love, for example? If “I” am not such a solid entity that I can judge as successful, attractive, or lovable, then not being those things is no longer such a tragedy. “I” am not a failure – maybe I just didn’t get something I wanted this time.

Too much sense of self actually makes it difficult for us to act and interact with others in the world: the more “self-conscious” we are the more paralyzed we feel.

Of course, it’s normal to have some sense of self, and even necessary for healthy functioning. As psychologist Rick Hanson explains in his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, which I’ve written about before here, we’re born with a sense of self, which develops over time. This was important for evolutionary purposes, Hanson explains, since a sense of self is important to reading others and expressing ones own self effectively, which was necessary to form alliances, mate and keep children alive.

Today, a sense of self is still necessary to having a sense of continuity over time, forming relationships and taking responsibility for one’s actions. Indeed, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the modern sense of self as defined by how we judge actions and define a good life — our moral beliefs and values.

But that concept of self is not solid; it can change and develop over time. In the brain, “the self is continually constructed, deconstructed, and constructed again,” says Hanson, forming a conscious experience that seems coherent and continuous, but isn’t really. The self is ultimately composed of a myriad of causes and conditions, and continues to evolve in response to new causes and conditions, including those we create. Surrounding ourselves by loving people, living a healthy lifestyle, and practicing compassion, for example. The problem arises when we get caught up in seeing ourselves, or others, as fixed entities – bad or good, valuable or worthless. That’s all a fabrication of our minds.

Unfortunately, our culture encourages that. Politicians talk of other people as “evil,” and may brand whole groups of people, or cultures, as “barbaric,” backward or violent, often as a way of seeking or maintaining power. Companies try to sell us products by suggesting we’ll be someone better, more successful or more desirable if we have them. And on a personal level, we routinely apply those sorts of labels to ourselves. How often have you called yourself “stupid,” “lazy” or worse, simply for making a mistake or not getting something done?

Our judgments, our expectations and our hatred and anger pretty much all come from assumptions about the solidity of a “self” that are just flat-out wrong. As Hanson explains it:

from a neurological standpoint, the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion: the apparently coherent and solid “I” is actually built from many subsystems and sub-subsystems over the course of development, with no fixed center, and the fundamental sense that there is a subject of experience is fabricated from myriad, disparate moments of subjectivity.

I probably wouldn’t have been comforted by that as a child, when I was freaking out about the fact that one day “I” would not exist. But as an adult, I see it as hopeful. Whatever or whoever we are we’re always changing, and have a lot of power to shape that process. We can dislike something we or someone else did, but let those judgments land lightly. They’re something to learn from and use to influence our future choices. But in most cases, “I” – or its eventual disappearance — is not something anyone needs to suffer over.

As Hanson puts it: “who you are as a person – dynamically intertwined with the world – is more alive, interesting, capable and remarkable than any self.”

The Neuroscience of Change: More Cause for Compassion

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If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to make lasting change, you may find comfort in knowing that one reason is human biology. Neurobiology, in particular. That’s not cause for despair: because with sustained effort and support, our brains are actually something we can change.

Ever since participating in a retreat on the neurobiology of yoga and Buddhism back in May, I’ve been fascinated by how our brains have developed over millennia to help us survive, but in many ways, particularly in the modern world, also cause us to suffer. And I’ve found it strangely soothing to know that we’re all in the same boat here: another reason to extend compassion to ourselves, as well as to others, even when we – or they – do things we really don’t like. It’s also a good reason to seek support for changes you want to make – whether from a coach, friend, teacher or mentor – because it’s really hard to make lasting change on your own.

The brain is a complicated organ, of course, and there’s lots to be learned about it. Interested readers may want to check out Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, which provides a great explanation and lots of brain-changing exercises. I’m also relying here on what I learned from Jim Hopper about this at his recent Kripalu retreat, and in his chapter in the book Mindfulness-Oriented Interventions for Trauma: Integrating Contemplative Practices (The Guilford Press).

The Cliffs Notes version of this material goes something like this: we’re hard-wired to flee from danger and pain and to seek pleasure and safety. So when the part of the human brain called the amygdala — often called the “reptilian brain,” because it’s the oldest part of the human brain, in an evolutionary sense — senses a threat, it creates a response of fear or aversion – what we commonly call a “fight or flight” response. Whereas in the wild “fight” might have meant trying to kill a predator or competitor, in modern life, we “fight” often by getting angry or judgmental – a way of trying to regain control. The flight response, meanwhile, kicks in our seeking circuitry: now we’re seeking an escape from the fear or other unpleasant feeling. That may lead us to suppress the feeling, or to mask it by indulging in some immediately pleasurable activity to escape it – for example, eating, drinking, or sex.

Although we tend to lament these “bad habits,” these instincts were actually useful when we lived in the wild as hunter gatherers, where we had to escape predators and be on the constant prowl for food (and sex) for the species to survive. But these now-ingrained habits unfortunately don’t work so well in modern life, where we’re largely cushioned from life-threatening predators, and food and other basic pleasures are, for many of us, often too easily obtainable. That leads to indulgence, feelings of guilt or other kinds of pain, and more suffering.

On top of that, again with the aim of species survival, we’re hard-wired to pay far more attention to things that frighten us or cause us pain than to things that feel good. This is the brain’s “negativity bias.” As Hanson explains in his book, that helped us survive ages ago, when one encounter with a predator would mean the end of us, so we had to be hyper-alert to threats and lived in frequent fear. In comparison, there were multiple opportunities to find food and mates, so if we paid less attention to those simple pleasures when we encountered them and just sought them out when we really needed them, we could still survive just fine.

But you can see how this all becomes a recipe for suffering today. For one thing, it means we tend to exaggerate our fears. Since change usually involves some fear of the unknown, it means we have a built-in bias against change, even if that change would be good for us. We also have a tendency to overlook or underestimate the opportunities for lasting, more meaningful pleasures – things like love, peace, playfulness and joy (what Hopper calls “true goods”) — because we’re distracted by fear. Plus, because we’re raised among similarly hard-wired humans, we’ve incorporated the fears of everyone around us, too, who likewise have an exaggerated sense of fear when it comes to change, and a tendency to underestimate deeper satisfaction. (Not surprisingly, marketers have learned to take full advantage of this — hence the relentless advertising of junk food, luxury goods, pharmaceuticals and fabulous vacation “escapes”.)

The result of these ancient and culturally reinforced tendencies is that it often feels easier to stay stuck – to avoid the fear of making a change, and respond to current dissatisfaction by seeking short-term easily-available immediate pleasures (which often lead to more suffering), rather than seeking longer-lasting deeper satisfaction, which may involve more effort and taking risks.

This all sounds pretty depressing. But take heart: neuroscientists have found we can actually alter how this circuitry functions. It just takes awareness, practice, and support.

That means paying attention to how our brain functions on autopilot (and how it affects the body) and trying to create more space between the thoughts and the impulsive (and often destructive) behavior that tends to follow them. It means practicing different ways of thinking, through contemplative practices like meditation, which can actually strengthen the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that allows us to reason and regulate fear and other responses — or visioning exercises that can help counteract the paralyzing impact of fear by motivating a desired change. (Hanson includes in his book a series of guided meditations designed to enhance certain parts of the brain, such as those responsible for positive emotions like love and empathy, and for skills like mindfulness and concentration.) And it means finding support from like-minded people who can help keep us on track – a trusted friend; a local meditation, yoga or support group; a skilled coach; or ideally, some combination of these.

Changing your brain — and changing your life — is possible.  But it’s very hard to do alone.

Tend Your Own Garden

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The kale in my garden.

Roger Cohen has found the secret to happiness, he claims in his latest New York Times column, musing on what awaits his daughter after high school graduation. “Want to be happy?” he asks. “Mow the lawn,” he advises. “Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”

I appreciate the sentiment. Life isn’t always fun and exciting, and if you’re always expecting it to be, you’ll find yourself frequently disappointed. Still, this doesn’t represent the whole picture, especially for someone thinking about how they want to chart their path in life – or, later in life, whether and how to change course. Yes, you want to find joy in ordinary tasks like mowing the lawn, but first you need to decide: do you even want a lawn? That’s a better place to start.

Sure, Cohen is right that most things worthwhile don’t come easy – whether love, friendship, caretaking, advocating for what you believe in or making great art. But the key to happiness isn’t just putting your head down and doing what’s in front of you. It’s getting to know yourself well enough so you know what’s really important to you, naming those things, and making them central in your life as you pursue them.  Yes, there will be difficulties and challenges along the way, and a good end-goal in itself isn’t sustainable; you need to find pleasure in the path.  But if you haven’t stopped long enough to decide what you really want in life and let others decide that for you, it’s going to be really hard to do all those inevitably mundane repetitive tasks involved without getting really resentful.

I see this often with coaching clients. They’ve committed to some goal that intellectually they’ve decided has value – maybe it will earn them some money they need or status they’d like to have — but their heart isn’t really in it. They believe it’s what they should do, but it’s not a path they feel they’ve really chosen for themselves. So they suffer every step of the way.

Of course, there are lots of things we need to do that we don’t want to, and they often involve making a living. But within those requirements, we have some choices, even if only over the way we think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The more you feel like it’s the choice you’ve made for a purpose you’ve chosen – even if it’s unpleasant sometimes – the easier it will be to find joy in the process.

The same goes for mowing the lawn. I, for one, don’t really like lawns. Worse than lawns, to me, are lawnmowers. Using loud heavy machinery to cut delicate green plants seems absurd to me, and the sound of the motor ruins my whole experience of being outdoors to begin with. But that’s just me. Mowing the lawn wouldn’t be my path to happiness.

On the other hand, I have a garden at my home in Brooklyn, which I love. Yes, it requires a lot of work, and sometimes that feels like a burden. But I enjoy the peaceful feeling of being among plants and flowers and birds and squirrels, and I love just looking at it from my back deck or my office window. It takes the edge off urban life for me. So to me, pulling weeds out of the barrel of kale I’ve grown or clipping dead roses to encourage new buds to bloom is a pleasure. It’s the task I’ve chosen, and it has meaning to me.

Figure out what you want to plant, then tend it. That’s where true happiness lies.

A Deceptively Simple Practice

rumiI’ve written before about my difficulties with a daily meditation practice, but since I’m increasingly convinced of the benefits of mindfulness meditation and other forms of mind training on health and overall well-being, I was particularly pleased to come across a short meditation recently that’s both easy and effective.

It’s also a great coaching tool.

I spent five days on a wonderful retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health last month, learning about the neuroscience of Buddhism and yoga. Jim Hopper, a psychologist and neuroscientist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and co-led the retreat, introduced us to a simple but powerful practice.  It’s perfect for those of us who sometimes feel we’ve veered off track from what we really care about, and need some help re-focusing on what that is — or what it may have become over time — and how to incorporate more of it into our lives.

Adding a slight twist to a popular quote from the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, Hopper turned it into the following meditation:  “May I be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what I really love.”

Simple.  Yet I found that when I sat and quieted my mind, then spent some time focusing on that one line, something happened.  What I really love came to mind:  people, places, passions.  And I felt sincerely motivated to make them a more central part of my life.

I’ve returned to this meditation repeatedly since then, and have just allowed it to have its effect.  It’s not pushing or forcing anything, just allowing whatever comes up.  And I’ve found it not only motivating, but strangely soothing.

Advocacy + Complexity of Mind = Patience

ME_113_PatienceOne of the hardest things about being an advocate is the slow pace of change. As advocates, we assume we know the answer to how to fix some vexing problem, and it’s just incredibly frustrating that the powers-that-be don’t seem to get it. We have to repeat ourselves interminably and try to come up with new, ever-more-creative ways of saying the same thing simply in order to feel like we’re being heard. It can be exasperating.

So I found it encouraging to read Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s book called Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Although their book is most helpful for providing a simple and effective method for challenging our own built-in immunities to doing things differently – which I’ll write more about another time — before they even get there, the authors, experts in adult learning and development, first explain the importance of complex thinking, which involves the ability in all situations to see beyond your own point of view and keep in mind its limitations. And they note that very few people – including leaders of massive organizations — are really good at it.

It sounds obvious, in a way: of course we know we don’t know everything. But that’s not how we tend to operate in the world. Managers often fail to keep an open mind to others’ ideas, for example. I’ve written before about how a lack of mindfulness – which is very similar to what Kegan and Lahey call complexity of thought – leads to unhappy employees and bad outcomes for the organization.

There’s a similar lack of this sort of mindfulness in the world of advocacy, where we tend to over-simplify a problem. At times, of course, we need to simplify a problem to explain it to a broad, non-expert audience. But if we become too attached to that simplification, and fail to remember its own limitations, we’re likely to see little progress and become tremendously frustrated.

Say, for example, you’re advocating for reduced reliance on fossil fuels. It seems like a no-brainer, given the problems of global warming, pollution, and wars being fought over oil. But there are obviously complicating factors, such as the livelihoods of people dependent on the fossil fuel industry and communities or whole countries (or at least their governments) that benefit from oil and gas extraction. They’re obviously going to fight the effort. If you just assume they’re evil – as it’s easy to do, looking at the problem through your own perspective – then you’re going to find your work pretty frustrating. No matter how many times you’ve repeated yourself, or found new creative ways to say the same thing, nothing seems to change. Why bother?

But is it really true that nothing changes? And how does change actually happen?

This is where I think complexity of mind is interesting. It’s only by recognizing the complexity of the problem that we can understand where others that disagree with us are coming from. And it’s only by recognizing that we may not always have the complete picture that we can see where small changes and improvements might actually be possible, and may even already be happening.

This is not the exciting theory of change that drives people to become advocates. When I was in law school and read the great civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, I got the fantastical impression that you became a lawyer, made a winning argument to the Supreme Court, and that changed everything. But anyone who’s practiced law — and anyone who’s ever fought for racial justice or reproductive freedom — knows that’s definitely not the case.

That doesn’t necessarily make it less frustrating. Years of making arguments about why the Guantanamo Bay detention center should be closed (a key part of my legal job) doesn’t make it happen. But recognizing the importance of complexity of mind also helps me remember that it may not – indeed, it almost surely won’t – happen the way I, and others I agree with, insist it should. Progress is slow, and some bad moves made years ago can take a very long time to correct.  I don’t have to abandon my values or beliefs to recognize that. To satisfy my own needs, I may need to pursue other things that are more gratifying on a short-term basis, such as coaching. But like anyone advocating for legal and policy change, if I’m going to sustain my commitment to a larger cause, I’ll need to keep in mind its complexity. And I’ll need to train my own mind to better see and accept the many facets to the problem — and to the obstacles to real change.

I guess this is why patience is considered a virtue.

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From Gratitude to Resilience

Shortly after writing my last post, in which I went on about how grateful I was that I can go running in Spring, I had an  unfortunate run-in with a Home Depot contractor cart that broke my toe.  So much for running.

In fact, even walking had become difficult. Within a few days of my accident, I realized that what I’d hoped was just a minor bruise had not only not gone away but seemed to have gotten worse:  I was now limping along with a swollen toe and couldn’t even put a shoe on without it hurting.  Oh, and it was the weekend, and 70 degrees and sunny out.  Now I was feeling sorry for myself.

So much for gratitude.

We all face setbacks sometimes that challenge our abilities to be the person we want to be. (In my case, grateful.)  A broken toe is pretty minor, I know, but it’s still frustrating not to be able to do the things you’re used to doing, and frankly, take for granted.  And therein lies the problem.

The upside of taking your daily life for granted is that when you lose some aspect of it – your ability to run or walk, for example – you suddenly have a whole new appreciation for it.  But now that I’d lost that – and from what I’m told, it can take 6-8 weeks for a broken toe to completely heal – what was I going to be grateful for?

Well, lucky for me, my partner – who, by the way, was the one accidentally who ran over my toe with the Home Depot cart – suggested I try biking.  That shouldn’t put as much strain on my toe, he reasoned.

I’ve always had a bit of an irrational thing about biking.  As a kid, when I was around nine, I got a bike that was too big for me, and one scary fall was enough to make me swear off biking forever.  From then on, when my friends wanted to ride bikes somewhere, mine was always “in the shop” or otherwise unavailable.  I was terrified to get back on it.

It wasn’t until I was about 18, spending a summer working on Martha’s Vineyard, that I got on my bike again.  It was the same bike I’d gotten in third grade, only now it actually fit me. I was still terrified, but I didn’t have a car and there was no other way to get around the island and get to my job pumping gas at the local Texaco station.  So I had to learn to ride my bike.

A few falls and scrapes and bruises later, I had done just that.  And I loved it.  That summer, I rode to work each day, rode to the beach, rode around the island, and just generally relished the sense of freedom I felt whizzing down the road on a bicycle. I’d had no idea what I’d missed all those years.

When I went back to college, my bike went with me – I eventually replaced it with a better one – and it became my respite:  I’d bike this great 24-mile loop along the Connecticut river, one side in Vermont and the other in New Hampshire, and felt a tremendous sense of both freedom and strength that I remember to this day.

But then I moved to New York City.  My fear returned.  Though there are lots of bike lanes in New York now, there weren’t so many when I first moved here, and still, even now, city biking can be pretty scary:  cars swerve into the bike lanes or just double-park in them, or the lanes are just not in the places you want to go.  So while at times I’ve loved biking in the city, I also tend to find it terrifying.

Then again, when you can’t run, and you can’t walk…  so this past weekend, I got back on my bike.  It was tremendous.  I can get down about living in New York sometimes, but getting on my bike always gets me excited about it again.  On Sunday I rode to Ft. Greene park, and tooled around the surrounding neighborhood of historic brownstones and wood-framed houses on tree-lined streets.  It was just amazingly beautiful.  A few days later, feeling down again that my foot hurt too much to even take my dog to the off-leash hours of the dog park, I forced myself to get back on my bike and ride to Prospect Park.

It was like a miracle.  Instead of sitting home feeling depressed, there I was, flying by the walkers and runners and strollers, zooming down the hills and even making it back up them without nearly as much difficulty as I’d expected.  Four times around, and I’d had an actual workout – broken toe and all.

So I’m back to feeling grateful again:  not for my broken toe, exactly, but for the fact that most adversities, whether they be physical, emotional, professional or whatever, often bring with them new opportunities — to stretch, to test and to grow.  Obviously some are far more difficult than a broken toe.  But we tend to let ourselves get down about even the small daily difficulties, whatever they are:  a temporary illness, a boring job, a fight with a partner or family member.  The challenge, I think, is to find the opportunity in it:  to develop a new skill, explore a new interest, or reconsider your approach to a longstanding relationship.

What challenges are you facing in your life now that might offer some interesting opportunities?  Where’s your bicycle?

The Joy of Being Grateful

fridaysleepingI’m not a morning person. I know some people spring out of bed at 6 a.m. raring to go, but I’m not one of them. I’m the type who slowly emerges from the fog of my dreamworld only to feel apprehensive and a little skeptical about what awaits me in the day ahead.

But that gets old, and increasingly, I’m realizing, it’s a choice. So lately, when I awaken reluctantly and feel the anxiety start to move in, I’ve been choosing another path: gratitude. I know it sounds trite – ‘count your blessings’ and all that – but it’s really true that focusing on what you’re grateful for makes you feel better. It’s scientifically proven. Really.

According to this Harvard Medical School publication, for example, gratitude “helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” In one study cited, for example, psychologists asked participants to write a few sentences each week. The first group was asked to write about things they were grateful for that had happened that week. The second group wrote about things that irritated or bothered them, and the third wrote about events that affected them, but without emphasizing whether they were good or bad. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude all felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and made fewer doctor’s visits than those who focused on irritations.

If it helps once a week then it’s probably even better once a day, so I’m trying to do gratitude as a daily practice, at least on days when I wake up feeling lousy. This morning, for example, when I woke up cranky, I started thinking about what I was thankful for, over my cup of coffee. It was a slow start, but as I enumerated my gratitude for the coffee, my partner who brought it to me in bed and the sunny spring day outside, I was able to get myself out of bed and put on my running clothes. When I got outside, my gratitude practice really started to kick in – combined with sunshine and endorphins and it’s doubly effective.

By the time I got to Prospect Park, I was pretty much ecstatic:  I was grateful for the sun, the sound of the birds, the magnolia blossoms, and the fact that I can physically run at all. I was grateful I have a job that allows me the flexibility to go running in the morning, and for all the other people out there running with me, who kept me company and motivated me to keep going. This was a lot of positive feeling crammed into just one hour, and all before 9:00 a.m.

Of course, the high from a good run and counting your blessings doesn’t last forever. By 3:00 p.m., my allergies had kicked in and I was tired, and all the bad news in the world and in U.S. politics, which I follow for my work, was bringing me down.

Time to re-start my practice: this time I was grateful I could turn it all off for a few minutes and take a nap — and for my tempestuous little dog snoring soundly beside me.

A Question About Meditation

meditationI like to read about meditation – the shelf on my night-table is filled with books by Pema Chodron, Mark Epstein, and various other Buddhist-inspired meditation teachers, whose words and ideas I find soothing, especially before bed. But actually sitting on a cushion and meditating every day? Not so much.

I like meditating in groups, and I’ve enjoyed going to various meditation centers in New York City, which has plenty of them. But I can’t always get myself to a group sitting, and I’ve been especially reluctant this winter.

Meanwhile, I keep seeing new studies studies touting the benefits of meditation – to treat insomnia, reduce stress, improve creativity, even prevent brain shrinkage as we age. So lately I’ve been thinking I really ought to be more serious about doing it.

What I love about the books is learning about Buddhist philosophy and psychology, and its application to daily life. I’ve found the practice of mindfulness incredibly helpful, for example, in getting me to really pay attention to, and appreciate, what I’m doing at any time. I also think it’s invaluable for coaching – encouraging clients to slow down and experience the moment they’re in, or an event or emotion they’re struggling with, has immense benefits and can be really important to the ability to make lasting change.

But I’ve still found it hard to just sit for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes a day with my eyes closed, or staring at the floor, depending on the particular style of meditation involved. I sometimes meditate on the subway, which is always calming, and I’ll practice that kind of one-pointed concentration on the breath or on my movement when I’m running or at the gym or doing yoga, at least for short periods. I even use it to take a nap in the afternoon or fall asleep at night. It’s the sitting still part – and staying awake – that I have trouble with.

I imagine it’s because all my life, I’ve had the feeling that I’m supposed to be doing something – often, something other than what I’m doing. I remember in college, if it was a beautiful day outside and I was in the library studying, I’d feel like I should be doing something outdoors. If I was outside, say, hanging out with friends or going for a run, I would feel like I should be in the library studying.

Now, when I sit down to meditate, that struggle comes up constantly. I immediately think of all the other things I have to do. Within minutes I’ll find myself jumping up and making a to-do list.

I remember being on a weekend meditation retreat once at a retreat center in the picturesque Hudson Valley, and telling the meditation teacher in my interview that I was wondering the whole time why I was sitting on the floor inside all weekend, when I could be outside doing something. He just smiled his wise smile, and told me that was okay, I can just let myself feel that. That sort of helped.

I know it’s in part the way I was raised – in a very traditional, achievement-oriented Jewish immigrant family, where we were always expected to be doing something aimed at achieving some concrete, demonstrable result – studying or practicing the piano, for example. That attitude helped us get into good colleges and graduate schools and landed us professional degrees and accolades, but I think both my brother and I still have a hard time settling down – accepting and appreciating things as they are — just being, as the Buddhists would say. Which is a problem. Because we can’t, and we won’t, always be achieving something. And even if we are, we likely won’t be achieving it as much or as well as we want to, or we’ll be thinking we really ought to be achieving something else.

One of the cornerstones of Buddhism is that life is filled with a “pervasive feeling of unsatisfactoriness,” as the Buddhist psychoanalyst Mark Epstein describes it in his book, Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, about his own exploration of Buddhism and psychology. “We want what we can’t have and we don’t want what we do have; we want more of what we like and less of what we don’t like.” Seeing this clearly is part of the point of meditation – to illuminate how our minds work and cause us suffering. The idea is that if you see your mind doing this – and as in my retreat, it will start doing this pretty quickly when you sit to meditate – we’re able to recognize those as just thoughts, not necessarily “truths” – and create some space around them, lessening their grip. I understand and appreciate the theory, and it’s helped me become more aware of my thoughts (including the absurd and dysfunctional ones), which has been really helpful. But I still can’t get myself to sit down and meditate every day.

What are other people’s experiences with this? Do you need to have a formal practice of daily sitting meditation to truly incorporate mindfulness and its insights into your life? I’d really like to know.

How To Be Of Service

imagesI belong to a local food co-op, and for the privilege of buying really good food at reasonable prices, all members have to work there once a month. Although I usually whine about it before I actually head over there to do my evening shift, once I’m working, I often find it feels like the most useful thing I’ve done all day. Given that I have a “serious” day job as a lawyer for a human rights organization, that might sound odd. But honestly, stocking fresh apples or bunches of kale can feel a lot more real and productive than responding to e-mails, drafting press statements or monitoring Congressional or judicial hearings.

“As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell,” was Senator Tom Cotton’s memorable remark at the last Congressional hearing I watched, which focused on the fate of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, half of whom are already cleared for release. Sadly, no amount of outrage I or anyone else expressed was going to change that he and many people in this country feel that way.

Maybe it’s the cold (or the new Republican Congress) that’s gotten me feeling defeatist about my advocacy work lately – it’s dipped below zero lately with the windchill factor here in Brooklyn – but I’ve been wondering a lot about what it means to be useful. I remember a yoga teacher once telling a class I was in that her purpose in life was “to be of service.” That’s stuck with me.

Of course, many people share that goal, and there’s lots of social science supporting the idea that helping others supports our own happiness. But that still leaves the huge challenge of figuring out how each of us can best do that. Where does our unique combination of talents, skills, interests and circumstances lead? Where and how can each of us be most useful?

The answers are different for everyone, and may keep changing over the course of our lives, but here are five things to consider as guidelines.

  1. Helping shouldn’t make you miserable.

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to go down a path you thought would provide a real service that you then find you can’t stand. When I started out as a lawyer, for example, I was thrilled to get a job with a child welfare advocacy organization. We brought huge class-action cases representing hundreds of thousands of kids at risk of abuse and neglect around the country. What could be more noble? In reality, I spent most of my time in an office sifting through documents and regurgitating the same legal arguments over and over. I was miserable. It took me time, though, to realize that it’s okay to leave a “good” job that does “good” work if it makes you feel lousy.

  1. Your calling doesn’t land you in the poorhouse.

Some people can afford to do low-paying work that provides a service; others can’t. Taking a job that doesn’t pay you enough to support yourself and your family, if you need to do that, isn’t going to help anyone in the long run. Do work that not only provides a service to others but will sustain you as well.

  1. Your work allows you to take care of yourself.

In addition to providing others a service and you an income, your work needs to allow you the time and flexibility to take care of yourself. I see some people work so hard that between their job and their family responsibilities they end up neglecting their own physical and mental health. When you neglect yourself, you end up neglecting those around you. You can’t offer the best of yourself if you haven’t nurtured yourself in the process. In the long run, this is critical to providing a true service to anyone.

  1. You encounter a sense of flow, effortlessness or timelessness in your work.

The state of “flow” is achieved when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The point is that you’re so engaged in what you’re doing that you’ve stopped thinking about yourself, and stopped worrying about the past or the future. You’re just in the moment, doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like “work” anymore, it’s just being. These are precious moments. I get them sometimes when I’m writing, or really connecting with a coaching client. Providing a service to others should provide you at least some moments when you’re totally engaged in that way – whether with another person, an action or a creation. Without that, it will be hard to sustain your commitment.

  1. You feel good about yourself at the end of the day.

This is key. A job may sound important when you describe it at a cocktail party, but when you look back at what you’ve done after a day’s work, how do you feel? Do you feel like you accomplished something, helped someone, participated in an important effort, or otherwise added something to the world around you? Or do you feel like you’ve just wasted your time? Pay attention to that. Providing a real service should feel like you’re providing a service. It may not (and probably won’t be) fun or fulfilling every minute, but after you’ve spent a chunk of time on it, you should feel like you’ve done and contributed something of value. If you don’t, think about that – and consider when you do.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, just a few things to pay attention to. And it doesn’t mean you have to immediately quit your job if your work doesn’t meet these standards. But it does suggest you may want to ask yourself what’s really important to you, and how does your life now support those things? How can it better support them?

And if you have any other guidelines you’d like to add to this list, please do! That’s what comments are for.