Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Want Happiness? Flex Your Gratitude Muscle

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
                                                                                                   ~Max Planck

When was the last time you said “thank you”?

Was it earlier today, when your spouse handed you a bagel as you ran out the door? Was it said to your child because they got dressed on time, or picked up a toy? Did you say it to the barista at your favorite coffee shop, to a customer who shopped with you, or within the confines of your car, sarcastically, of course, when another driver finally hit the gas?

If you had any interaction with other human beings today, you probably said “thank you” at least once.

But I’ll bet you didn’t really mean it.

Okay, I take that back. Maybe you really did. Maybe you weren’t just saying it as a friendly rejoinder, or making small talk. Maybe you really were thankful for your customer, your spouse, your coffee.

If so, you are probably a happier person than most. If you actually write down those incidences where you felt grateful, you’d be even happier.

I am grateful for this tree.

In one study on gratitude (Emmons and McCullough), participants kept weekly journals, and were told to write down five things that made them grateful the previous week. Other participants wrote five things they considered hassles, and the last group wrote about things that had affected them, but were not told to focus on the positive or the negative.

After 10 weeks, the first group reported significantly more happiness than the other two (25%), fewer health complaints, and more desire to exercise.

That’s a positive finding, but a later study by Emmons revealed something even better: different participants were told to write down daily (instead of weekly) what they were grateful for. This activity led to greater increases in gratitude than the weekly journals had, but it got better. These participants also reported offering others more assistance with a personal problem, or emotional support, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others.  A third study, conducted on patients with physical disabilities, revealed the same conclusion, and its participants also reported that they slept better, had more optimism in general, more life satisfaction, and more connectivity to people in their lives.

“If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.” ~Anonymous

Gratitude helps lower depression, and keeps marriages from crumbling, too. Those who practice it consistently and truthfully report higher levels of life satisfaction.

And why not? To be grateful means to acknowledge that you are rich—if not in monetary wealth, in personal happiness wealth. The idea that we are the product of our thoughts and feelings, and that we can steer our own outcomes with those thoughts, is no longer considered "New Age." If you have been fortunate in any way, you increase your wealth by being grateful for what you have. This, in turn, makes you happier.

Expressing real gratitude doesn’t just make your life better, either. It enriches those around you. You know how it feels to be warmly thanked, right? Spread that feeling around. Don’t be stingy with it. It costs you virtually nothing in time or energy, but it gives back multi-fold.

While I was putting myself through graduate school, I worked a series of retail jobs as Cashier Supervisor or Customer Service Manager. I’d always said that if you want to learn to hate people, work in retail—you’ll get a great education in the worst aspects of the human race, and get paid for it. But I was surprised that my own retail experiences did not, in fact, teach me to hate people.

When I started at a large humane society, I just knew that the work there would seal the “people are horrible” deal. I waited for the anger to come, to make me wary, even bitter (the sheltering/rescue field is one of the “top” fields for compassion fatigue). But it didn’t happen as I expected.

Sure, people made me angry, but instead of holding on to that, I tried to see things from their point of view. Much as I do when working with dogs, I decided to assume that resistance and poor behavior were due to a lack of clarity, not a personality flaw. A lack of clarity is a problem that can be rectified! And once I embraced that idea, my anger dissipated. I actually gained an empathy for people that I had never had before. Most were not bad people at all. They were just struggling, trying to cope with limited information, and unable to distance themselves emotionally from their pets.

Not only did I not hate them, I began to thank them for giving me the opportunity to serve them. I started to see what they were presenting as a gift, and when I expressed true gratitude for it, my mindset changed.

Do people still do dumb things when it comes to pets? You bet. Can I reach all of them? No. Do I thank the ones I cannot reach? Not to their faces. But I do thank them. I would not be who I am right this minute if it weren’t for them, and everyone in my life who has helped me in some way.

Gratitude is like a muscle: if you don’t use it, it atrophies. I’ll bet you can think of no fewer than 5 people right now who have helped you, molded you, made you better, or improved your life—just today, or for a while now. Why not reach out and thank them? Write them. Call them. Text them, or thank them on Facebook if you must (the best way to express gratitude is through the means with which your recipient, not you, is most comfortable), but do it sincerely, and with feeling. Don’t allow them to brush it off; push on with it until they’ve truly heard you, and they believe you.

Lather, rinse, repeat—daily, weekly, or monthly, make it a habit to express gratitude.

It just may change your life.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Do You Mind? Part II

Mindfulness: paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. This is the definition I like the best (I'm pretty sure I got it from Sarah Wilson). The “without judgment” part can get a little hairy, as we humans are masters at narrating our lives as we go, and focusing more on the negative than the positive.

It’s a very satisfying concept at its core. And I’ve been studying it for years in some form or another, through lots of reading, through my successful 15-year dog (and people) training business, through my work at the Atlanta Humane Society, and through my consistent need for alone time and silence.

In 1986, at the know-it-all age of 20, I went to a 2-day Transcendental Meditation (TM) seminar with my girlfriend. I don’t recall whose idea it was (probably hers). What did I know about TM? Not much; at the time I don’t even think I knew it was a fad popularized by the Beatles. I was sort of in a spiritual “woo” phase at the time, having thrown off the shackles of a Catholic school educational upbringing but not quite ready to dismiss the idea that “there might be something out there.” (The more people I meet, the more I’m convinced that the best way to turn people agnostic/atheist is to send children to Catholic school.)

So, we went to this seminar, and they taught us how to do TM, not as a group, but individually. I actually practiced it, albeit spottily, for a few years before giving up on it. But I still remember my mantra to this day (I can never tell you; it’s a secret for me only and it is not to be shared--I take that spiritual shit SERIOUSLY). I never gave it enough of a shot to get good at it, so I can’t really say how well it would have worked for me if I’d worked it. It has mostly fallen out of favor, from what I can tell, probably because of a lack of science showing it was the miracle many expected it to be.

So when I signed up for the MBSR course, I wasn’t a complete stranger to meditation. I was happy to learn, however, that there really isn’t a “woo” aspect to MBSR. I specifically wanted a secular experience, and that’s exactly what I got. I also got reacquainted with yoga practice, if only the basics, because 10-15 minutes of basic yoga moves is a really good way to prime yourself for 45 minutes of sitting and meditating. It makes one a lot less fidgety.

I hadn’t done a lot of research into MBSR before deciding to take the course, partly on purpose. I made sure my teachers were qualified to teach it, but that was about it. Of course, it’s like buying a car: after you own the one you buy, you see the same make and model everywhere (the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). After I started taking the class, I started seeing news reports of the efficacy of mindfulness all over the place.

Luckily for me, the venue shifted the second week of class to a more open space with properly-working heat. (See my problems with hot, small spaces in Part 1.) By week 3, we were doing mostly sitting meditations, which was pretty helpful in keeping me awake (but not foolproof).

To be honest, I didn’t really feel stressed by life. I didn’t take the course to reduce stress, specifically, but to learn more about being mindful and living in the moment. It’s something we can all learn to access, but we rarely do—probably because it’s not simple. We are so used to living in a “want it now, get it now” world that many of us have forgotten what it’s like to wait for things, to become proficient at a skill, to enjoy the journey.

Our meditation practice started out with instructions. The very first meditation we did was a “body scan,” where the instructor guides you through focusing on every part of your body for what seems an almost agonizing period of time. Our instructions were to make note of how each part was feeling, nonjudgmentally, and then move on.

Doing it this way made it easier for us newbies to block out the “chatter” that courses through our brains constantly. Every time we started thinking of anything other than the body part the instructor was talking about, we were to direct our thoughts back to the assignment. That generally occurred about, oh, I’d say once a second. It was exhausting.

But it was also liberating in a way. When you don’t really try to control your thoughts consciously, it seems to you as if you cannot—it is impossible. But it isn’t. And once you start doing it, you get better at it. The brain is a muscle, after all.

Dog trainers have long known that mental stimulation for dogs is a powerful tool for keeping them out of trouble and out of shelters. It tires dogs out in positive ways, and makes them think. Unlike physical exercise, it has no fitness plateau, either, so it can be used daily (as long as it remains interesting and requires the dog to work at a solution).

Practicing mindfulness is mental stimulation for humans. But it doesn’t tire you out when you do it correctly—it sharpens you, awakens you, pokes you in the solar plexus and changes your brain. It also enables you to confront things about yourself that may have been buried a bit beneath the surface.

And that is where the journey starts to get interesting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Do You Mind?

I recently attended an 8-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, which I have noticed since the course began is becoming pretty popular around the country.

Several compelling studies are arriving that show that focused meditation improves our minds in a myriad of ways. (Don’tcha love that word, “myriad”?) Once thought to be the sole bastion of “woo-woo” New-Age practitioners, meditation is now “hip,” and even buttoned-up workplaces are adopting it as a way to reduce stress and improve functionality and creativity. Doctors are prescribing it to treat ADD and ADHD in children and adults.  They are also prescribing it for chronic pain, high blood pressure, IBS, and other ailments. What about therapists? More and more, therapists and psychiatrists are recommending mindfulness as a treatment for depression.

Mindfulness Meditation, as it is also called, could apparently be the Thing That Saves Humanity From All Evil. (Then again, probably not. But does it hurt to try?)

Meditation itself comes in several forms. It can be religious, spiritual, or entirely secular. It can range from simply sitting with oneself in silence, or even contemplative silence, for a few minutes a day to 3-day retreats full of little but eating, sleeping and purposeful meditating. It often conjures up a vision of patchouli-soaked rooms full of hipsters chanting and bending their bodies into various painful poses, but that shouldn’t define it.

MBSR isn’t just any meditation. The key is mindfulness, and if you think it’s a simple thing to turn off your brain for 10, 20, or 45 minutes at a stretch and focus solely on your breath, you will find out soon enough that It. Is. Not . That. Simple.

And that, my friends, is what makes it awesome.

Yes, one of the greatest things about Mindfulness Meditation is that the idea—turning off distractions and focusing on one thing—is simple, but the practice is deliciously difficult.

The first night of class, I fell asleep. And snored. And I wasn’t the only one.

C’mon, give me a break. It was evening, it was winter, and it was very, very cold outside, so the heat was up higher than I’m used to in a room that was slightly too small for the number of students present. Also, the meditation part came at the end of a 2-hour lecture, and we were instructed to lie on the floor.

You’d have sawed some logs, too.

(Thinking back on it, I am reminded of the scene in the movie G.I. Jane—an oddly entertaining/eye-rollingly bad flick mostly due to the acting chops of Anne Bancroft and Viggo Mortensen—wherein our Navy S.E.A.L. trainees have been awake for almost 24 hours and are given a “break” from their nonstop physical travails in the form of a sit-down in a classroom. They are dog-tired, starving, chafing in wet, sandy clothes, and nearly beaten down, and Mortensen tells them to “write an essay, no less than 500 words, on ‘Why I Love the U.S. Navy.’” The heat is turned up, the lights are dimmed, classical music begins playing, and it’s pouring rain outside--and they are ordered not to fall asleep.)

The MBSR presenters are savvy, though, and they knew this would happen, and warned us about it playfully. It takes time to train your brain to do this, they said. You will fail at it constantly, but you will get better over time. And I did. And I still am.

Oh, it’s a journey. I get slack. I don’t make time for it like I should (45 minutes a day, 6 days a week, is the prescription). The trick is not to start judging yourself for skipping it, though. That’s difficult, seeing as we humans spend a great deal of time judging ourselves harshly.

Stay tuned. I need to go meditate now.