The Surest Way to Have a Disappointing Holiday Season

snowflakeIf we want to experience joy this season, we need to stop keeping score in our relationships. I wrote and posted a message last January that seems especially relevant now, with the holidays upon us. Keeping score is the fastest way to assure disappointment and resentment. Click here to travel back in time and read the original post.

 

A Dozen Reasons to Choose Kindness

“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.” (Theodore Isaac Rubin)

attribution: Donna CameronThe decision to make kindness a central element in our lives does not automatically imbue us with that important quality. Like so many other things we choose to care about, that’s just the beginning. Practice is required if we want to become proficient. Just as they say you need to practice if you want to play the piano well … or you need to write regularly if you want to be a writer … or you need to practice your swing if you want to shoot par in golf, you also need to strengthen your kindness muscle by using it regularly. The result—eventually—will be that kindness comes naturally and even sometimes effortlessly. That’s the sweet spot.

But, of course, if we’re going to practice something, there needs to be a good reason. If it’s writing, maybe you want to be published, or you want to be able to express yourself through stories that will entertain or inspire. If it’s piano, maybe you want to connect with the music, be part of a jazz combo, or entertain friends. If it’s golf, you’re simply a masochist.

With regard to kindness, it should be enough just to know it’s the right thing to do, but there are also some really good reasons to choose kindness and to practice it until it becomes ingrained in our reflexes. Here are a few:

  1. Kindness is good for our health. There have been several studies about the health benefits of kindness. They show that people who are routinely kind get relief from chronic pain, stress, and insomnia, and they also have increases in happiness, optimism, and self-worth. More specifically:
  2. Kindness has a positive effect on the body’s immune system, as well as on the production of serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin is a chemical created by the human body that has a calming, anti-anxiety effect.
  3. Kindness is good for your heart: Acts of kindness often generate an emotional warmth, which produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and body, which, in turn, releases nitric oxide in blood vessels causing them to dilate and lower one’s blood pressure, acting as a cardio-protective agent. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardio-vascular system, thus reducing heart disease.
  4. Kindness slows aging: That same reduction of free radicals and inflammation slows aging in the human body. Compassion has similarly been linked to activity in the vagus nerve, which also regulates heart rate and controls inflammation levels in the body.
  5. Kindness makes us happier: Kindness elevates the levels of dopamine in the brain, giving us a “natural high.” It has been shown to substantially increase happiness and reduce depression.
  6. Kindness improves relationships: Connecting with one another is actually a genetic predisposition, according to researcher David Hamilton, PhD: “Our evolutional ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater the chances of survival, so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.” As a result, kindness helps us build new relationships and enhance existing ones.
  7. Kindness is contagious: Just as colds and flu are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. Kindness begets more kindness. “When we’re kind,” Dr. Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.
  8. Kindness alleviates social anxiety: Recent research showed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance. Individuals who performed acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction, and were more able to participate in group activities.
  9. Kindness is a good reason to get ample rest and sleep: It’s been shown that sleep helps us be kinder. So getting your zzzz’s is a way of extending kindness toward yourself and the planet. You don’t need an excuse for that afternoon siesta! In addition, extending kindness when we’re tired can be as replenishing as a cat-nap, or a jolt of java.
  10. Kindness has been linked to greater life satisfaction: Those who regularly extend generosity and perform acts of kindness report higher degrees of satisfaction with their lives.
  11. Kindness make the workplace more productive and enjoyable: – A kind work environment helps employees feel more engaged; it improves morale, builds loyalty and engagement, reduces absences, and increases profits. Forget all those old-school books on winning through intimidation and fear; kindness is a better business model.
  12. Kindness serves life: Kindness guides us to look for the positive rather than the negative, to seek the best in the people we encounter, and to embrace abundance: we have enough and we are enough. When we do these things, we offer our best selves to life, and help manifest the world as we want it to be.

We don’t really need reasons to extend kindness—kindness is simply the best expression of who and what we are. But in the face of myriad deadlines and obligations it’s easy to look for shortcuts and overlook opportunities to extend kindness, so it never hurts to remind ourselves that there are really good reasons to be kind.

And to practice kindness daily….

“Our greatest gift is to allow ourselves to feel alive in this sea, moving with the tides of lovingkindness as they move into us, through us, out of us into others, only to return again and again.” (Wayne Muller)

Gratitude: A Companion to Kindness

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

Attribution: Donna CameronThe American Thanksgiving holiday is just over a week away. It is an opportunity for us to pause and acknowledge all we have to be thankful for. Ideally, we should be doing this every day of our lives, but sometimes business and busyness crowd out gratitude.

Throughout this year of living kindly, I’ve noticed over and over that kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand and also bolster one another. When I am in touch with my gratitude, kindness flows naturally and effortlessly. And if kindness feels hard to summon, taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings, my friends and loved ones, or little things that fill me with delight, inspires a surge of kindness.

I’ve come to see that there are many ways that kindness and gratitude together produce almost alchemical results:

Slowing Down

Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and over-active lives. I often feel like I’m rushing from one deadline to the next, one obligation to the next, ruled by a lengthy to-do list. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the mushrooms growing at the base of a pine tree, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.

An Open Heart

When I experience gratitude, my heart feels open. It is an experience of abundance and sufficiency. This is all I need. It is also a feeling of presence—what happened five minutes ago doesn’t matter, and what will happen five minutes from now doesn’t matter. I am in the moment.

Likewise, the experience of kindness—whether given, received, or even just witnessed—opens my heart and allows me to feel fully present in the moment. For that brief moment, kindness is all that matters. It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

Abundance, too, is a byproduct of kindness. If we believe we are enough, we can easily believe we have enough. Both of these beliefs help us to reserve judgment and extend kindness. And that sense of abundance, whether related to gratitude or kindness—or most likely, both—inspires us to be generous, with our time, our words, our deeds, and our resources.

Negative Emotions

I think it’s difficult to be angry or fearful when one experiences gratitude. I was surer of this last week that I am today, given the horrific events in Paris this past weekend. Those attacks surely brought fear and anger, not just to the people of France, but people all over the world. While there may also be gratitude that one’s family and friends were spared, can gratitude wipe out the fear and anger? I think not. But maybe there can be moments when gratitude at least overrides fear and lets us see that there is much to appreciate even amidst the horror of an attack such as this, or amidst the devastation of a natural disaster, or a personal catastrophe. Maybe it’s gratitude that helps us recover from the worst things that can befall us.

Kindness is also our answer to fear and anger. If we can recognize that our impulse to be unkind or say something unkind is a response to our fear or anger, we can often overcome it. If we can recognize that another person’s unkindness is their response to feeling fearful, we can often respond with kindness through that understanding. Fear often inhibits us from acting kindly—fear that our action will be misunderstood, fear that we will be rejected or embarrassed. Choosing kindness over fear is an act of courage.

Service to the Planet

When we are grateful for something, our instinct is to protect and defend it. If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate. Our gratitude puts us in service to life—what could be more important?

Kindness, too, places us in service to life. It’s our acknowledgment that the ultimate kindness is to honor the Earth and our fellow inhabitants—human and otherwise. A healthy planet and sustainable practices is the kindest gift we can offer our planet and the generations that follow us.

Gratitude Practices

It’s lovely if gratitude comes to us frequently and effortlessly, but that is not always the case. Gratitude, like kindness, golf, or piano-playing, is strengthened with practice. The more we do it, the more we experience it and the better we get at expressing it. If you Google “gratitude practices” you will find countless suggestions, from daily meditation, to keeping a gratitude journal, to prayer. I confess that I haven’t yet established a consistent practice, but I try to spend a few moments each morning before I get up thinking about the things I have to be grateful for (the first is always that goofy guy sleeping beside me).

There’s another splendid gratitude practice that I love and practice sporadically. The wonderful physician and teacher Dr. Rachel Remen teaches this; she learned it from anthropologist Angeles Arrien. It takes very little time:

At the end of each day, sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions:

  • What surprised me today?
  • What moved or touched me today?
  • What inspired me today?

Your answers can just be a few words. What you’re trying to do is summon the memory of something that moved you.

As Dr. Remen describes: “The most interesting thing happens, then. Often people are surprised eight or nine hours after something happens when they look back on it deliberately. But [by doing this exercise] that gap shortens until eventually they are able to see in the very moment what surprises them, what touches them, and what inspires them. And then everything changes. The world has not changed, but they have begun to be able to see the world, and they can communicate that experience….It changes everything. It’s a question of paying attention.”

It’s true. At first this is difficult. You may come up blank day after day. “Nothing surprised me” or “Nothing inspired me.” But if you keep searching, you will think of something. Oh, yes, I was touched when I saw those children playing in the park. And just as Dr. Remen says, with practice you begin to notice things that touch or surprise or inspire you in the moment they happen. That creates an enduring state of gratitude—not to mention presence.

Another lovely gratitude practice: For the month of November, my fellow blogger and new friend, Dr. Catherine Cheng—whose wonderful blog, Healing Through Connection, explores (among other terrific things) fixing our healthcare system by improving communications and relationships between physicians and patients—has issued a post daily featuring something in her life that she’s grateful for. Some are things you might expect: her family, good health. Some have surprised and delighted me: Kung Fu Panda, actor George Takei, volleyball…. I look forward each day to seeing what Catherine has chosen to express gratitude for.

Catherine’s posts remind me to think about what I am grateful for—both the expected and the quirky. Whether or not we take the time to write them down, daily recognition of big and little things we have to be grateful for is a wonderful way to live in perpetual thanksgiving.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” (Melody Beattie)

Kindness and Generosity – Offering Our Unique Gifts

“Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.”  (Gautama Buddha)

Flowering Cherry and Moss 2A few posts ago, I wrote about the connection between kindness and a sense of abundance.  The logical next step when one’s view of the world is of abundance rather than scarcity is to express that abundance through generosity.

I have been blessed to be the recipient of so much generosity throughout my life—from my friends, my professional colleagues, my family, and even strangers.  Their generosity is expressed through the wisdom they so willingly share, through their time, their thoughtful actions, and their kind words.

When we think of generosity, our first thoughts are likely of material gifts or donations of cash, and, of course, these are elemental expressions of generosity, but they aren’t our only gifts.

The Three T’s

There’s an adage in the non-profit world that board members need to be willing to give the three T’s: Time, Talent, and Treasure.  Treasure is usually interpreted in monetary terms—especially for charitable and philanthropic non-profits.  If board members won’t donate to the cause, it’s hard to convince others to do so.  Hence, grant applications will often ask if 100 percent of the board has made a donation to the organization.  Boards with “high-rollers” can usually easily answer yes, but if members of the board are part of the constituency the organization serves, there may be some who have little to spare in the treasure department.  That’s why applications don’t ask how much board members have donated, only if they have.  A $10 donation from someone who may have to skip a meal to make that donation is just as important—perhaps more so—than the $50,000 donation from a corporate CEO.

Being generous with our talent asks only that we are willing to share what we do best, whether that’s fundraising, marketing, budgeting, schmoozing, or baking cupcakes.  Each of us has unique talents and part of the job of being human is recognizing them and sharing them where they are most needed.

Generosity of time is an essential element in non-profits and elsewhere.  As we have explored in an earlier post, we are often so pressed for time, so overscheduled, that we blow off opportunities to extend kindness.  Or maybe we don’t even see them in our rush to meet so many deadlines.  Generosity with our time when time is limited can be a kindness beyond measure—especially if we are able to give without conveying to the recipient our stress or our inconvenience.

Other Ways to Be Generous

Beyond the three T’s, there are a multitude of other ways we can be generous:

We can be generous in deed: It can be as simple as holding a door for someone, helping to carry a heavy load, or offering a hand.  It might be bringing freshly-baked bread to a neighbor or washing someone else’s dirty dishes without grousing.  There are so many generous deeds we can offer—big and small—and mostly it’s a matter of training our eyes to look for them.

We can be generous of word: It doesn’t take much to make someone’s day with a kind word.  Mark Twain famously said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  Of course, he is also reported to have said: “I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel they have not said enough.”  Both quotes show how powerful a sincerely expressed compliment can be.  And the wonderful thing is that they’re easy!  We can compliment someone on the great service they provided, or the astuteness of an observation, a well-written report, or how their smile brightens a room.  All we have to do is pay attention.

We can be generous of spirit:  The Buddhist practice of metta, often translated as lovingkindness, teaches practitioners to repeat phrases—aimed first at oneself, then loved ones, then acquaintances and strangers, and finally even to adversaries.  The phrases express a wish for happiness, for safety, peace, freedom from pain, and so forth.  In offering metta to people with whom we share conflict or difficulties, people who have hurt or angered us, we are, says Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, “recognizing our essential interconnectedness.”  Salzberg notes that in offering metta to a difficult person, we are not condoning bad or hurtful actions. “Instead, we are looking deeply into our hearts and discovering a capacity for lovingkindness that is not dependent on circumstances and personalities.”  We are expressing generosity not only to others but to ourselves.  That capacity for compassion is our gift to the world.

If we can give nothing else, let us at least give the benefit of the doubt.  This is easier to do with family and friends than with mere acquaintances and strangers.  If a friend or loved one says something that we find hurtful, it’s usually easy to excuse—“that wasn’t how she meant it to come out,” “I know he’s been under a lot of pressure; he didn’t really mean it.”  Why can’t we offer that same understanding to strangers when they say or do something questionable or hurtful?  Instead, we generally ascribe the worst motives and label them jerks.

In our office, we continually remind ourselves to “assume one another’s good intent.”  A simple statement, but enormously powerful.  If I ruled the world (a frightening thought if there ever was one), I’d have the phrase, “we assume one another’s good intent” printed at the top of every meeting agenda and posted on the wall of every room where people gather.  It all comes down to the simple generosity of giving the benefit of the doubt to everyone we encounter.

Generosity isn’t just something we do for someone else.  When I choose to act generously, the greatest beneficiary is always myself.  There is no better expression of the abundance in my life, nor of the confidence that I not only have enough, I am enough.  Giving creates a joyful sense of oneness with my world and my fellow creatures.

“No one has ever become poor by giving.” (Anne Frank)

 

Enough IS Enough! Kindness and Abundance

“True kindness is rooted in a deep sense of abundance, out of which flows a sense that even as I give, it is being given back to me.” (Wayne Muller)

TulipsThe world offers us two perspectives on abundance.

It’s easier to be kind when we have that sense of abundance that Wayne Muller talks about above.  If we are always worrying that there is never enough, or that if I share my bounty with you, there will not be enough for me, it will be hard to extend kindness.

Have you ever felt resentment or envy toward someone who experienced good fortune or great success?  Maybe you found yourself rationalizing it (“Well, sure, with his family connections, getting that job was easy”), or minimizing it (“What’s the big deal? So she got a MacArthur Genius Grant—they’re a-dime-a-dozen”).  Or maybe you noticed the grinding of your molars as you congratulated someone for their success.

Thoughts like that are focused on scarcity: if she gets a lot, there will be less for me.

Pie, Anyone?

Attribution: By jeffreyw (Mmm...Blueberry Pie!  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsCultural anthropologist Jennifer James often speaks about the concept of the limited or unlimited pie.  If we view our world as a limited pie, our slice is smaller if someone else gets a big piece.  But if we can see the pie as unlimited—expanding endlessly from the center—then we have no reason to feel threatened or diminished by someone else’s success or prosperity: there’s plenty for everyone and the size of mine isn’t impacted by the size of yours.

Rarely does someone else’s abundance mean a dearth for us.  It doesn’t work that way.  Success and good fortune—like sunshine—are not rationed.  There’s an ample supply for everybody.  In fact, the more we all recognize the plenty surrounding us, the more there is for everyone, because—through kindness and our own contentment—we start helping others to experience abundance.  And we share what we have because, after all, there’s plenty.  And, like a boomerang or an eager puppy, it bounds right back to us.

This doesn’t mean that kind people never experience envy and pettiness.  They’re as susceptible as the rest of us, but perhaps more able to acknowledge and move beyond those feelings quickly.

For the rest of us, on those days when we wake up feeling less than, it is easy to lose sight of what really matters.  That’s when a sense of abundance needs to be summoned.  Maybe we feel less than attractive, or less than smart, or less than capable, or less than secure. Or maybe we are aware that we don’t have the wealth or resources that others do.  Focusing on what we don’t have—whether real or imagined—only ignites a downward spiral.

As trite as it may be, it’s the old “glass half-full or half-empty” conundrum.  We create our own reality by how we look at the world.  If we view it through the lens of “not enough,” that is what we train ourselves to look for and we are never satisfied.  If we view it through the lens of abundance, then how easy it is to be satisfied, and to see that there is enough to share.

Without a sense of abundance, we can neither give nor receive.  We hold our own possessions too tightly, and we have neither the open eyes nor the open hands to see and receive all that the world is offering us.

A Different View of Abundance…

To believe we have enough, we must first believe we are enough.  We are surrounded, though, by messages that tell us we are not.  These are messages of a different kind of abundance: the copious consumption and assiduous acquisition that are so prevalent in Western society.

Even if we’re lucky enough to have family and friends who see us as whole and perfect just as we are, the media bombards us with messages that we’re not.  Magazines show us the fashions we’re lacking, or the youthful skin that we’ve lost.  Television shows us—both through advertising and Hollywood’s relatively narrow view of beauty—that we’re far from adequate: some bits are too small and some are too big, some are too curly and some are too straight, but, good news, there’s a product to fix all our faults.  Ads about weight, skin, and hair plague us online, and continually remind us that there’s a wonder drug or serum just waiting to solve our problems.

We are subtly and not so subtly taught to believe in our own inadequacy: we are not enough, something is missing.  And the solution is always out there—something that will fix us or make us whole.  If we just buy the right stuff, acquire the missing magic ingredient….  If we allow it, it becomes an endless quest for more.

The view of abundance we see from the lens of kindness tells us we have what we need to live a life of joy and meaning and service, and we are fine just as we are.  The commoditizing view of abundance whispers to us that we aren’t enough and need to acquire more to be adequate.  We hear them both … which voice resonates more deeply with you?

“He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” (St. Paul)