Kindness in Advertising: “A little dab’ll do ya”

“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)

Attribution: Donna CameronDuring my career in the nonprofit world, I was privileged for a time to work with a trade association representing the floral industry in the U.S. and Canada. These were tremendous people who grew flowers and plants, and who sold them at the wholesale and retail levels. They were artists, farmers, business-people, and were extremely generous with their time, their product, and their talent. It’s an industry without a large profit margin and one very dependent on weather and growing conditions. Holidays are also an essential element of the industry’s success.

Invariably, as we approached a major floral holiday, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, the airwaves would be filled with negative advertising wherein one industry would promote itself by putting down another. Jewelry stores often encouraged sales of necklaces, bracelets, and rings by saying things like “Flowers wilt, diamonds are forever.” Or a posh resort would advertise that “Chocolates will be forgotten in a week, but memories of a romantic weekend at Lavish Lodge will last a lifetime.” Or “Give Mom something that won’t die in a week; give her {fill in any product eager for sales, from appliances to footwear}.”

As an industry, we were frustrated to be the target of negative advertising, but we were also committed to not perpetuating it. So, whenever we started to see ads that criticized our members’ products to promote alternative gifts, we countered with kindness.

We usually sent a letter saying something along the lines of: “We were sorry to see that you are promoting jewelry sales for Valentine’s Day by disparaging flowers for their impermanence. This is disappointing. Your jewelry is so lovely that you should have no need to elevate it by criticizing another product. We encourage you to reconsider your advertising strategy and focus on the beauty and desirability of your own product, not the perceived shortcomings of something outside your industry. We love jewelry and hope people will buy jewelry, as well as flowers, to express their love.”

Since many of these advertisers were local businesses, we would often accompany our letter with a beautiful plant or floral arrangement from a florist in the same city.

Often our efforts had no effect, but many times we’d see those ads pulled from TV or radio and replaced by an ad which just focused on the positive aspects of the seller’s product, not the perceived deficits of a potential competitor. We frequently received messages of thanks, also stating that henceforth advertising would take a positive, rather than negative, approach.

So What?

Why am I thinking of this, when it’s been 20 years since I worked with this fine industry? Well, Valentine’s Day is just days away and we’re already seeing and hearing advertisers who still think the best way to promote their product is by demeaning another. Often it’s not the advertiser, but an ad agency that has bought into the zero sum game philosophy that one can only win by making someone else lose.

Perhaps in the scheme of things this is a “small potatoes” issue. Who really cares what one advertiser says about another, especially in a society where choosing among jewelry, flowers, or fashionable electronics is what we might call a “first world problem”? But it’s not just in advertising that we see this pervasive attitude. Sadly, it reflects the times we’re living in. Think about much of the political speech that bombards us: are politicians making a well-reasoned and well-supported case for their position, or are they using divisive rhetoric to tear down an opposing position?

There seems to be a certain laziness involved here. It may be easier to attack and vilify than to take the time to examine information and then communicate it in a constructive manner. More and more, it seems that the media, and even our own daily conversations, are filled with choosing negative over positive, choosing to attack rather than engage or advocate.

We see it when politicians respond to questions about their policies or proposals by attacking either the questioner or another public figure with different views. I always want to say, “If you can’t defend your position logically and civilly, then maybe it’s indefensible.” I also wonder if individuals who are incapable of reasoning and formulating coherent and logical statements belong in positions of great responsibility. Whether we are voting for people to serve on a school board, town council, U.S. Senate, or President, we owe it to our nation to advance candidates who are committed to building rather than destroying, to cooperating rather than blaming.

We are living in a time when many people seem to find it easier to negate, mock, accuse, or criticize, rather than elevate, engage, discuss, or even think. Perhaps if we can listen with more discernment—whether to advertising, pundits, politicians, or our own friends and acquaintances—we might be more apt to recognize when rhetoric is weak and substance is absent.

Interestingly, there exists an Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. It currently recognizes 125 advertising catchphrases for their memorability and effectiveness in promoting a product or service. These include such familiar lines as: Snap! Crackle! Pop! … Finger lickin’ good … Say it with flowers … Good to the last drop … Cats ask for it by name. None, you will notice, are slogans that demean or degrade another product. There’s a lesson here.

As we approach Valentine’s Day and other gift-giving holidays, pay attention to how advertisers promote their products. And as we approach another election season (sigh), pay attention to how politicians promote their positions. It takes practice, but honing our skills as astute and discerning listeners is an important step in restoring and preserving our civil society.

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” (Paulo Coelho)

Silence Isn’t Golden. SPLC Offers a Constructive Guide to Speaking Up

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Elie Wiesel)

Attribution: Donna CameronFollowing my last post on civility, I had some great conversations with friends—both via the comments section of the blog and in actual face-to-face conversations (yes, we still occasionally have those—and they’re remarkably energizing!). Some of the conversations have centered around specific instances of incivility:

  • What do you do when it’s your boss who says…?
  • I don’t know how to respond when I see someone do….
  • My father-in-law says things like….
  • I thought of just the right thing to say while I was driving home….

I’ve talked before about theoretical kindness and practical kindness, and how understanding kindness and even having kind intentions doesn’t always translate to kind actions. Stuff gets in the way. And one of the biggest barriers is our own uncertainty, clumsiness, and hesitation. It’s not that we don’t want to step in or speak out, but we want to do it right. And acting in ways that are constructive may take deliberation. There are plenty of people who speak without considering the effect their words may have. I don’t want to add to that cacophony unless my words are beneficial and healing.

I’ve found it helpful to try to anticipate comments or behaviors I may encounter and then try to envision how I might respond—not just what I hope I will say, but how I will say it and even how I will feel and carry myself as I do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a resource at our fingertips to suggest how we might respond in a variety of situations, and reinforce our own skill development? As luck would have it, there is such a resource and I recommend it highly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—a respected organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for all—has created a practical and informative guide entitled “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.” It provides guidance for how to respond in a variety of situations, from an ethnic slur voiced by a neighbor, to a family member’s ingrained bigotry, discrimination by a business, bullying, or a teacher’s vocal bias in the classroom. It even helps us to recognize and repair our own biases.

This practical guide includes links to three dozen potential situations we might encounter and suggests how to speak up in ways that open dialogue and don’t escalate conflict.

Some of the situations addressed:

The Guide is available as a link you can revisit over and over, and also as a PDF you can download and share with family and friends. Parents may want to use it to have some meaningful and constructive dinner table conversations.

Here’s an example of one of the situations explored:

What Can I Do About Workplace Humor?

As soon it becomes clear that a coworker is commencing to tell an inappropriate joke—one that puts down a certain group of people or uses offensive language, it’s time to speak up. You can very calmly say, “Please don’t tell it.” Similarly, if reference is made to a race, religion, or country, and someone reacts by making derogatory comments that they think are funny, you can hold up a hand and say quietly, but firmly, “Don’t, please don’t.”

If your request is ignored, and the speaker proceeds, SPLC offers some strategies for responding:

Don’t laugh. Meet a bigoted “joke” with silence, and maybe a raised eyebrow. Use body language to communicate your distaste for bigoted “humor.”

Interrupt the laughter. “Why does everyone think that’s funny?” Tell your co-workers why the “joke” offends you, that it feels demeaning and prejudicial. And don’t hesitate to interrupt a “joke” with as many additional “no” messages as needed.

Set a “not in my workspace” rule. Prohibit bigotry in your cubicle, your office or whatever other boundaries define your workspace. Be firm, and get others to join in. Allies can be invaluable in helping to curb bigoted remarks and behavior at the workplace.

Provide alternate humor. Learn and share jokes that don’t rely on bias, bigotry or stereotypes as the root of their humor.

The beautiful thing about these strategies is that they’re simple, affirming, and they can be practiced. They remind us that standing up for what’s right is both our responsibility and our privilege as world citizens.

I hope you’ll help spread the word about SPLC’s outstanding and informative guide to responding to bigotry.

 “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

Discourse 2018 – A Call for Bold Civility and Radical Kindness

“Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It’s about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.” (Parker Palmer)

Attribution: Donna CameronIt’s been more than a year since, for many of us, the world imploded and taught us lessons we never imagined learning. We saw clearly that values we hold dear are not as universal as we thought, and that some things we took for granted can’t be. We learned that we still have a lot of work to do.

The Stages of Grief

We’ve also been through the traditional stages of grief:

  • Denial – This didn’t really happen; I’ve been dreaming and will wake up to a different reality.
  • Anger – This really happened; how could so many people think a man with no moral compass should lead our nation … and how can so many continue to think so?
  • Bargaining – If we can just get through this, we’ll never again devalue the democratic principles on which our nation was built.
  • Depression – So this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a twitter.
  • Acceptance – Um, this one is hard, I’m really not there yet … my lizard brain keeps looping back to anger, or else I flail in utter bewilderment.

Overlaying all of this is a deep and real sadness, for crumbling civility and the chasm dividing us. There are friends and acquaintances I’ve avoided, partly because I feel disappointment in their choices and find myself questioning their core values, but most of all, because I don’t know if I can uphold my own core values in today’s political, social, and economic environment. What I am really thinking is, “Can I be kind? Can I be civil? Can I make things better rather than exacerbate our differences?” And even, I’m ashamed to say, “Do I want to?”

Out of a desire to understand and be part of the solution, my friend, Barbara, and I recently attended a lecture on “Civil Discourse” at our local community college. The speaker, Professor David Smith, teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Washington. It was informative and stimulating. I took pages of notes and want to share just a few of the key ideas about civil discourse he imparted to us.

At its most basic, Dr. Smith defines civility as “treating others with appropriate courtesy and respect.” He stressed that what’s appropriate may vary by culture and circumstance, and also that we can be both respectful and bold at the same time.

For the most part, Smith said, people don’t choose their beliefs. Rather, our beliefs rise within us as we live our lives. They come from how we were raised, our emotions—which are often driven by fear, and our own observations. “Everything we believe is the result of our life story,” he asserted.

Causes of Incivility

Professor Smith noted that there are various reasons for incivility and that they are mostly subconscious:

  1. Failure to recognize my own limitations – These may include intelligence, knowledge, and experience. We’re all wrong about something, but we don’t always recognize that.
  1. Bias – We want certain things to be true and right. Do we value our beliefs more than the truth, or truth more than our own beliefs? It’s an important question to ask. As Dr. Smith noted, “We don’t always want the truth, especially if it means we need to make a change.”
  1. I am X. I don’t just believe X, I am X – Too often we over-identify with a label rather than take the time to discern whether we agree with everything that label represents. Example: “I am a Conservative. I don’t merely believe in conservative values, I am a Conservative.” Replace conservative with liberal, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, etc. The result tends to be that when someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack rather than a simple questioning of a particular belief or conviction.
  1. The incivility of the other person – Their bad behavior triggers our own bad behavior.
  1. Emotion – What would the world be like if the other person’s view dominated? This plays on our fears and phobias.
  1. Uncertainty – Could I really be wrong about some of this?
  1. Affirmation – Are we seeking affirmation from people who are emotionally or intellectually incapable? Look elsewhere. Ideally, affirmation comes from within.
  1. Closed-mindedness – Are we unwilling to consider alternative information or beliefs that might be inconvenient or uncomfortable? Can we hold our convictions and still be open-minded?

Ingredients in the Recipe for Civility

Citing the work of philosopher Edward Langerak, Professor Smith described the key components of civility:

Virtue – Most especially humility, self-control, and courage. It’s important to remember that these are traits we develop and instill over our lifetime; they’re not qualities we can switch on or off at will.

Commonality – Recognizing the humanness of others and understanding the process of belief formation.

Intentionality – Focusing on civility before, during, and after the dialogue. We need to be intentional about being civil, and that’s not always easy!

Communication – Committing to effective rules and practices of engagement. This is speaking and listening, disagreeing and agreeing/affirming, being open and willing to find some commonality.

To Converse or Not to Converse. That Is the Question.

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget or overlook: we don’t have to engage, the choice is always ours. Some things to consider:

  • Not everyone is a candidate for civil discourse.
  • My own tolerance level for this conversation.
  • Is there a reason to have this conversation? What is the goal?
  • Start with an appetizer (less controversial issue) before jumping to the main course (the big, controversial issue). If the appetizer goes poorly, why proceed?
  • Are we engaging in dialogue or debate? There’s a place for both. Debate is digging in one’s position and doing everything we can to tear down the opposing position; dialogue invites a more open mind and willingness to explore the other position objectively.
  • It’s okay to exclude from serious discourse those who are clearly outside the boundaries of reasonableness, such as Holocaust deniers. People who are this committed to unquestionably false views are not going to change their minds or engage rationally; don’t waste your time.

In closing, Dr. Smith reminded the audience that to be full participants in a civil society, we need to expose ourselves to people with different views, and not just look for people who will confirm our own world view or biases. We need to be open to the possibility that the other side of anything might contain some truth, insight, or wisdom. We need to be both respectful and bold.

As a new year commences, my hope for 2018 is that it brings increased civility and that each of us can recognize our own role in making that happen. I’m drawn to the notion of bold civility and radical kindness as the means to recovering what we have lost.

“The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.”  (Erik Erikson)

Worthy New Year Intentions…

Attribution: Donna CameronIf you are setting intentions for the year ahead, may I suggest starting with Neil Gaiman? On New Year’s Eve, the splendid author and visionary often shares his hopes for the world and its inhabitants in the coming year. He doesn’t do it every year, but often enough that it is something to look forward to and savor, like the very best piece of chocolate—the one you saved for last, and it was just as good as you hoped it would be.

It’s been my own tradition since starting this blog to share one of Mr. Gaiman’s New Year messages as we approach the end of one year and the beginning of another. It’s always hard to choose—each one speaks to me on a different level and touches my heart in a different way. You can read several of them on this page of his website. As 2017 sputters toward closure, I’m sharing the message Gaiman wrote for 2015, with hopes that it will touch you, too:

“Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin. Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.”

~Neil Gaiman

Of Soul and Solstice

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” (Albert Camus)

On this lovely first day of winter, I am so honored to have been the guest on Nicole Phillips’ latest weekly podcast. The Kindness Podcast has interviewed people who are changing the world through their kindness. It is a great honor to be in the company of such people for whom kindness is simply a way of life.

Nicole herself is one of those people. She’s also a tremendous interviewer and made the somewhat daunting experience of a radio interview downright fun. If you’ve never listened to The Kindness Podcast, take a listen. Start anywhere, maybe even with mine!

Happy first day of winter. May we all find in it invincible summer!

Seeking Peace of Mind? Stop Keeping Score

“Kindness is an inner desire that makes us want to do good things even if we do not get anything in return. It is the joy of our life to do them. When we do good things from this inner desire, there is kindness in everything we think, say, want and do.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)

I overheard a conversation at Starbucks a few days ago. Two young women who looked to be in their early 20’s were talking about Christmas shopping for their boyfriends. One said she wished she know what he was getting her, so she’d know how much to spend on him. The other agreed and said she’s always given her boyfriends better gifts than they gave her. She sounded a bit annoyed by that fact.

The exchange reminded me of an “aha” I had a few years ago. With the holidays coming, perhaps it bears repeating.

At a luncheon meeting, a woman I knew only slightly described to those of us around the table an Excel program she had created to track Christmas cards: “Everyone on my Christmas card list is on my spreadsheet, and when I get cards, I note having received them. I even indicate whether they merely signed the card, whether it was a holiday letter, or whether they included a hand-written personal note. After the holidays, I review the list and remove anyone who didn’t send me a card, so next year I won’t send one to them.”

I thought at the time—and still think—that it was a rather obsessive behavior, but more than that, I was disturbed by the notion of keeping score so blatantly in our relationships.

How stressful it must be to need equity in every interaction. And how frequently one must be disappointed! Whether it’s Christmas cards, gifts, time, or attention, relationships are not always going to be equal. If every exchange becomes a quid pro quo, joy will vanish quickly, replaced by measurement and resentment.

While keeping score is fitting for football, tennis, Scrabble and the like, it’s not healthy for relationships. In relationships, there shouldn’t be winners and losers; nobody wins unless everybody wins. At the heart of kindness is the idea that we give not for any expectation of reward but for the joy of giving. No strings attached. When every gift is reckoned on some master scorecard, giving becomes a contest, an obligation, a transaction.

If we withhold our kindness until someone proves worthy, or until they meet our arbitrary rules (rules, by the way, that only we know), something inside us that was ready to blossom shrivels instead.

I’m not saying it’s okay for one person to be doing all the giving and one all the taking. But whether it’s a marriage or a friendship, we need to accommodate our differences, our strengths, and our circumstances. If our eyes are always on the ledger (“We had them for dinner last; it’s their turn to invite us” … “I gave him an expensive watch; he gave me bubble bath”), we’ve lost the delight of connecting with people. Besides, we can never know what’s going on in another person’s life that may make it difficult for them to reciprocate: illness, business setbacks, family stresses, financial challenges, and even different life experiences which create different expectations…. As with so many things, a kind interpretation invites us to give the benefit of the doubt.

If a relationship is so one-sided that one party does all the giving and the other does all the taking, then it’s not much of a relationship and we can, without guilt, choose to let it fall away. Sometimes that’s what’s best for everyone. Being kind doesn’t mean ignoring what’s right in front of us or being a pushover.

Has keeping score ever really made anyone feel better? In my own life, I can’t think of an instance, while I can think of many where keeping score was less than constructive.

Whether it’s the detritus that clutters my surroundings or the superfluous thoughts that crowd my brain, I feel increasingly drawn to lightening my load. I want to let go of the dust-catchers, the tallies and ledgers, and concerns about whose turn it is. Doing so, I’m finding, also magically frees me from resentment, grudges, and disappointment.

While I love a good Excel spreadsheet as much as the next guy, I’m not going to use one to tally my relationships. I want to keep my eyes on the real prize: peace of mind and the blessings that are so abundant in my life.

Keeping score is fine for the upcoming Bowl Games, the MLS Cup Match, and the Westminster Dog Show. It’s okay for Jeopardy. But not our relationships. With the holidays upon us, one great way to increase enjoyment and reduce stress is to let go of expectations, judgments, and obligations and, instead, practice appreciation.

Step away from the spreadsheet….

“Love without motives. Give without expectations. Forgive without conditions.” (Buky Ojelabi)

 

A Different Kind of Inconvenient Truth

“Be kind to everybody. Make art and fight the power.” (Colson Whitehead)

Attribution: Donna CameronEvery day, there’s a new one, a new allegation of sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct, by a person in a position of power toward someone he holds power over. The perpetrator is invariably male, and his victim is usually—but not always—female. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for . . . well, probably forever.

We see it in politics, entertainment and sports, the military, academia, corporate settings, and anywhere else where people work or interact.

Is the Tide Turning?

It seems, though, that we’re beginning to see some changes. People who have been preyed upon are speaking out. The tactics abusers relied on to keep them quiet and to disguise repeat behaviors and patterns—legal settlements, money, threats against career, intimidation, warnings of backlash—are losing their power to silence and shame. Women are speaking their truth. They’re claiming their power, and they aren’t backing down.

The shame women (this includes exploited boys and men) have felt—sometimes for decades—is giving way to an understanding that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They are survivors, they are strong, and they are courageous. As more women say “me, too,” shame loses its might. Strength and resolve take hold.

I don’t like the word “victim,” it carries a lot of baggage. It implies weakness, when, in fact, carrying scars of abuse and speaking out are strengths beyond measure.

It does feel like a tide is finally turning, but before we congratulate ourselves too much on starting down the road to remedy long-overdue injustices, we need to recognize just how tenuous this path is.

There are still situations where it may not be “convenient” to condemn a predator, where some prefer to give them a pass. Take the case of Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Five credible women have gone on record describing his sexual advances and predatory behavior toward them when they were teenagers—one as young as 14. There are numerous corroborating witnesses, more than 30 sources total. Yet there remain many people for whom it is more important to elect the ultra-conservative Moore to the Senate than to denounce his vile behavior.

For the people who still support Roy Moore, maintaining their “club” is more important than upholding justice, recognizing truth, or righting wrongs. The “club” may be white nationalism, it may be evangelical Christianity, it may be holding a Republican majority at any cost. Regardless, it’s the club that matters. To these women, and to future victims, they’re saying: You don’t matter.

When people deliberately choose not to believe women or evidence that’s clear and compelling, what message are they sending to children? We want you to speak up if someone tries to hurt you, but be prepared to be disbelieved, shunned, or dismissed if the person wields power, or if your truth is inconvenient.

Want another example? Look no further than the White House. That we elected a predator to the highest and most honored office in the land is our nation’s shame. But one we have the power to rectify.

Is Harassment Training the Answer?

Elsewhere, in our haste to fix, patch, and even minimize a problem we can no longer deny or hide, sexual harassment trainings are being looked to as the solution. Congress has deemed that all lawmakers and their staffs must undergo harassment training. Corporate America and the military are embracing harassment education and training as the solution to the endemic ill-treatment that plagues their workplaces.

That’ll fix things. Those who transgressed in the past, or who stood by and ignored or allowed the predatory behaviors of others, will see the error of their ways, express contrition, and we’ll all link arms (wait, no touching!) and advance together into a future devoid of harassment or abuse. Kumbaya, indeed!

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of sexual harassment training, but anyone who sees it as a panacea that will rout these long-standing, firmly entrenched behaviors is minimizing an enormously complex problem, and is also more than a little bit naïve.

This problem needs to be addressed long before people enter the workplace. It probably needs to be addressed in utero. How we raise our sons and daughters determines how they will behave as adults. What messages are we sending them when they see boys praised for what they do and girls praised for how they look? What messages are we sending when noisy girls are shushed and boisterous boys are encouraged?

I heard a brief, but interesting story on NPR’s Morning Edition the other day. Marketplace senior reporter Sabri Ben-Achour was speaking with Vicki Magley, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, about the implementation of sexual harassment trainings in the workplace.

Magley cautioned that there is still very limited research about the effectiveness of such trainings. Initial outcomes haven’t been all that encouraging. In some cases, training leads to a backlash. Their effectiveness in changing behavior is uncertain and dependent upon whether the organizational culture is perceived as ethical or not by the employees.

In essence, if employees feel the training they are required to take is only window dressing—the company’s way of meeting an obligation or protecting its corporate ass—and it doesn’t truly represent the views and commitment of the organization, they are unlikely to take the training seriously or to respond in any meaningful ways.

Magley cited a 2016 EEOC report which also showed mixed results from harassment training, and suggested that it might be more effective to shift the focus from harassment to civility.

Magley noted, “When you enter into [a training program] prepared to be told that you’ve been naughty, you go in cynical.”

But if you shift the paradigm: “When you enter into a training scenario where you’re being told explicitly that we’re going to give you ideas on how to create community, on how to bond with one another in productive, cohesive collaborative kinds of ways,” it changes the mindset. The training is viewed as an opportunity for growth and professional advancement, rather than as punishment.

This makes so much sense, but again, we mustn’t wait until boys and girls become men and women and join the workforce. Civility must be instilled from the moment they begin to walk and talk. Parents must model these values and teachers must impart them—over and over again until civility and kindness become as elemental as our need for oxygen.

It starts with civility . . . . It starts with kindness.

“Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind.” (Charles M. Schwab)

The Heart of Gratitude

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

attribution: Donna CameronIn the United States, we talk about gratitude a lot during November. We celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, often spending it with family, friends, and food—lots of food.

It’s lovely to have a day specifically designated for giving thanks, but ideally that would be only one of many days we pause to express our thanks. It seems churlish and small-minded to discard gratitude as merely a quaint holiday tradition. Gratitude, like kindness, is not a weakness to be dismissed or derided, but a strength to be claimed and exercised. Plus, there’s a cornucopia of scientifically-based reasons why gratitude is good for you.

Gratitude is Heart Healthy

Several recent studies have shown that patients suffering from cardiovascular disease experience measurable—often significant—improvement when they engage in a simple, regular gratitude practice. It could be keeping a gratitude journal, or pausing daily to think or meditate about what one is grateful for, or taking time as a family to share experiences of gratitude. The outcomes of such simple gratitude awareness practices include stress reduction, reduced depression and fatigue, confidence in one’s ability to positively influence personal health and wellbeing, and reductions in systemic inflammation.

In one study, patients with heart failure were asked to keep a gratitude journal in which each day they noted two or three things for which they were grateful. A control group facing similar levels of heart failure did not keep the journal. Both groups continued to receive their usual medical care for their condition. After two months, those who engaged in gratitude journaling showed reduced inflammation and increased heart rate variability (HRV). Increasing HRV is an indicator of disease improvement.

Gratitude Improves Our Sleep 

In recent years, sleep has been increasingly recognized as an essential restorative for physical and mental health, as well as for heart health, longevity, and personal wellbeing. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause accidents, increase errors, and to cost U.S. companies more than $400 billion each year in lost productivity, according to a 2016 Rand Corporation study.

One way gratitude improves sleep is by increasing our positive pre-sleep cognitions (thinking about the pleasant things in our lives), thus inducing sleep. Gratitude also decreases the negative pre-sleep cognitions (critical thoughts and worries) that impede our ability to fall asleep. In one study, people who kept a gratitude journal slept an average of 30-minutes more, woke up feeling more refreshed, and stayed more awake and alert throughout the day than those who didn’t journal.

Gratitude Counters Feelings of Excessive Entitlement

There’s entitlement—the belief that one is deserving of certain privileges—and then there’s “excessive entitlement”—the belief that one deserves a disproportionate share than others. Those who feel excessive entitlement are rarely satisfied with what they receive—be it attention, pay, or praise. They always want more. Excessive entitlement can lead to toxic and destructive behaviors in relationships and in the workplace.

If one always feels entitled to more, there is little room for gratitude. Where gratitude is encouraged and practiced, we see an increase in positive emotions—joy, enthusiasm, optimism—and a decrease in such destructive emotions as envy, greed, resentment, and blaming. In a study entitled “A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart,” researchers led by psychologist C. Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, found that people who experience gratitude are 20-30 percent less likely to be annoyed, irritated, or aggressive.

What’s Keeping Us from Feeling Gratitude?

With so much evidence pointing to the positive benefits of gratitude, why aren’t we all looking for things in our lives to appreciate and finding abundant ways to express our thanks?

In an article in U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Robert Emmons attributes our failure to sustain—or sometimes even muster—gratitude to:

  1. A materialistic and consumption-based society that fosters both a sense of entitlement and a sense that we can never have all that we deserve. Says Emmons, “We believe the universe owes us a living. We do not want to be beholden.”
  2. A lack of humility in our culture. Those lacking humility, Emmons says, succumb to the myth of self-sufficiency. They hold the illusion of being self-made, discounting any dependence on parents, friends, colleagues, the government, or a spiritual foundation. With humility, we readily see our interconnectedness, and for that . . . we are grateful.

I believe there is a third reason for our all-too-frequent failure to feel or express gratitude: we simply aren’t paying attention. We are rushing too fast, preoccupied with our technology, or simply oblivious to our surroundings. We don’t notice the woman who holds the door for us, or the car that slows so we can merge, or the autumn colors that would take our breath away if we could just see them.

There’s no question that there are many great reasons to implement a gratitude practice. Whether we take five minutes to jot our gratitude in a journal, spend our last few moments before sleep recalling all the good things that happened during the day, or take time at the dinner table to share appreciation, these simple practices can be life-changing. If you have a favorite gratitude practice, please share it in the comments below.

Welcome to November, and to perpetual thanksgiving!

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” (William Arthur Ward)

What’s Your 10K?

“Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.” (Simone Weil)

A few years ago, I was in a small village in Scotland and had an opportunity to listen to a local author. One of the notes I took from her talk—delivered in such a delightful brogue—was the comment, “What’s for you won’t go by you.” This saying has its roots in Scotland, but as so often happens, I subsequently encountered it in many places.

I’ve had the phrase pinned to my bulletin board ever since that trip. It comforts me and it also troubles me—as good ideas often do. I like the notion that what’s meant for us will persist until we find it. But it seems both facile and dangerous to assume that what I need to live the life of breadth and depth I desire is hovering patiently somewhere nearby.

It may, indeed, be hovering, but unless I’m paying attention and willing to do the work required to have the life I want, what’s for me will go by me. I think often about Malcolm Gladwell’s juicy book, Outliers, in which he asserts that to become good at something we need to put in at least 10,000 hours developing our skill or craft. Whether it’s playing the saxophone, writing, painting, or playing tennis, we’re not going to be become proficient—we’re not going to develop our full talent—unless we put in the hours.

The idea of spending 10,000 hours ballet dancing, playing golf, or studying macroeconomics holds no appeal, but the idea of spending 10,000 hours focused on kindness, or 10,000 hours writing, describes the life I want to have. I’ve still got a long ways to go with kindness, but I suspect I’m well into my second or even third 10K hours of writing, and hope I’ll have time to double or triple that number before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Of course 10,000 hours of effort offers no guarantee that we will become experts or superstars in our chosen field, but Gladwell’s assertion is that without that investment of time and practice, it’s a pretty safe bet we won’t.

Another way of looking at the cultivation of our talent is to liken it to the growth of giant bamboo. It generally takes three or more years before the bamboo seed sprouts through the surface of the soil. But once it has, it may grow 80 feet in just six weeks. As long as we water it, the bamboo seed will eventually grow. Likewise, as long as we continue to nurture our abilities, proficiency will come.

“What’s for you won’t go by you” implies a passivity I reject. It’s planting the seed without watering the soil. I need to be alert so I can recognize opportunity; I need to be thoroughly prepared and able to handle all the effort and responsibility required. I also need to be able to seize and hold the opportunity, and then subsequently nurture it into full fruition.

So, I share the notion that what’s for you won’t go by you with these caveats:

  • As long as you pay attention
  • As long as you prepare for it by putting in the hours needed
  • As long as you recognize what’s really right for you and not what others say you should want
  • As long as you seize it wholeheartedly and without doubt
  • As long as you nurture and cherish it.

Dul chun é, mo chara! (That’s “Go for it, my friend!” in Gaelic)

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman)