Words Matter

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.” (Mother Teresa)

power-of-wordsI’ve always loved words. There’s a magic to the fact that we can take 26 letters, combine them into sounds with distinct and nuanced meanings, and then combine those into sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately powerful documents, essays, poems, songs, stories, or novels. We can use words to transact business, fall in love, and engage in deep conversation. We can use them to comfort, connect, instruct, inspire, and control.

I knew the first time I picked up a book that words would open up my world. Later, when I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Edith Wharton, Robertson Davies, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Jane Austen and Albert Camus, I saw how books could change not only my life but also the world. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t engage with words—my own words and the words of people who use them with far greater eloquence and wisdom than I.

Words, to me, are organized religion.

Sometimes we underestimate their power. Words can hurt or elevate. They can enlighten or deceive. They can, quite literally, alter our brains. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, in his book Words Can Change Your Brain, writes that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” He explains that positive and optimistic words—words like “love” or “peace” or “kindness”—can lower our stress, improve our health, motivate us, and build resilience. Negative words, on the other hand—words like “no” or “hate” or “stupid”—can release multiple stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters; they can interrupt the functioning of our brains and diminish our logic, reasoning, and language capacities.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Newberg, along with Mark Waldman, advises us to choose our words wisely. Negative words lead to negative thinking, which is “self-perpetuating, and the more you engage in negative dialogue—at home or at work—the more difficult it becomes to stop.”

Our negative talking influences not only our own mood, attitude, and health, but also those same characteristics of anyone listening to us. “The listener will experience increased anxiety and irritability, thus undermining cooperation and trust. In fact, just hanging around negative people will make you more prejudiced toward others.”

They caution parents: “…the same holds true for children: the more negative thoughts they have, the more likely they are to experience emotional turmoil.” But if we teach them to think and speak positively we can turn negative feelings and attitudes to positive ones. And, of course, we teach our children by modeling the speech and behaviors we want them to embrace.

Because our brains are wired for survival and self-protection they respond more rapidly and dramatically to negative thoughts and negative words than to positive ones. For that reason, Newberg and Waldman contend that “to overcome this neural bias for negativity, we must repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can.” They cite several other psychologists and researchers who believe at a minimum “we need to generate at least three positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity.” And “to really flourish,” the ratio of positive to negative should be five-to-one.

Those of us who love words and who recognize their power have an opportunity here…perhaps even an obligation: We can consistently model positive language and perpetuate positive expression and behavior. As incivility mounts across our country and across the world, and as many of us perceive our deepest values to be threatened, we are learning to be activists; we are choosing to be more vocal than ever. Let’s get it right. Let’s remember that words matter.

“I simply do not think that yelling, swearing, threatening or belittling will get you to the place you want to be faster than kindness, understanding, patience and a little willingness to compromise.” (Rachel Nichols)

Now the Real Work Begins…

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Victor Frankl)

Attribution: Donna Cameron[Note: when I drafted this message, I anticipated and envisioned a very different end to our election. I will admit that I am devastated. But, with some edits, my basic message for today’s post stays the same. And perhaps the underlying message of kindness is even more important. Wishing you peace wherever you can find it, my friends….]

It’s over. At. Long. Last. The election that brought us to new heights of incivility, mistrust, and disregard for the truth has come to an end. Or has it?

A lot of people are really happy today and a lot of people are not. Today we face a choice almost as important as the one that was made at the polls: how are we going to respond in the face of winning or losing?

It’s difficult after a hard-fought campaign to let go of the partisanship and rancor that accompanied the crusade. Those on the winning side may feel inclined to gloat, smirk, or dance a jig to celebrate their victory (and maybe rub it in to those on the opposing side).

Do it in private. Thumb your nose or do your happy dance in the privacy of your home, your office, your room, or even your bathroom if that is the only private place you can find. Be aware that people on the other side of this election are hurting. Even if you can’t understand their position, surely you can understand their pain. Don’t make it worse.

Those on the losing side may feel anger, resentment, fear, and bewilderment. They may be feeling crushed by disappointment and a powerful urge to lash out. Don’t. Pause and pause again. Trust that the concerns you have which motivated you to vote as you did can be addressed fairly in our democracy. Trust that something good can emerge. Trust that you are strong and your voice will be heard.

I would remind both sides that our children are watching closely, and learning lifelong lessons from what they see. Let’s show them how to win with grace and lose with grace. Because throughout their lives they will experience both victory and defeat.

Whether you are happy today or unhappy, whether you feel hope or hopeless, look for ways to channel your energy and (re)direct it to something positive, something that will serve your best self and the values America holds dear. As stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Let’s start there.

Our Democracy is not indestructible. It is precious. Heed the words of Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, and act to assure that our “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Whether your candidate won or lost, behave with grace and compassion. Vow to be instrumental in healing America. Start today.

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” (L.R. Knost)

What We Want Most for Our Kids

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” (L.R. Knost)

Cherry Tree at Storm LakeI can remember my mother saying that what she wanted most for her daughters was that they be happy. I think she hoped that we’d figure out on our own how to do that, since it was a state she achieved only rarely, and was therefore unlikely to show us the way.

She said it often enough that I did spend some time pondering happiness as I was growing up. I never equated happiness with wealth or accumulation. I had a pretty strong notion that happiness wasn’t a goal in itself, but more the byproduct of doing what I loved in the company of people I respected and cared about. College and career taught me that happiness resulted when I could explore new ideas, meet challenges, problem-solve, create satisfying results, and improve the world in some small way—again, in the company of good people.

It took me a while, but I’ve finally come to learn that the most direct route to happiness is kindness. When I experience kindness, I am happy. It really is as simple as that. If I extend a kindness, it makes me happy. If I am on the receiving end of kindness, it makes me happy. And if I witness kindness, or even read about it, it makes me happy.

And the research bears this out. In recent years, there have been numerous studies linking kindness and happiness: A study by researchers Kathryn E. Buchanan and Anat Bardi, published in the Journal of Social Psychology concluded that performing acts of kindness resulted in increased life satisfaction. The “Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey,” overseen by researchers from Harvard University, indicates that those who gave contributions of time or money were “42 percent more likely to be happy” than those who didn’t.

Similarly, research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, shows that acts of kindness boost happiness. She cites a recent study that showedwhen 9- to 11-year old kids were asked to do acts of kindness for several weeks, not only did they get happier over time but they became more popular with their peers.” Another of her research projects showed that asking employees to be generous to a randomly chosen list of colleagues increased happiness, connectedness, flow, and decreased depression—not just for the givers, but for the recipients, and even for people who merely witnessed the generosity. Once again, the power of kindness knows no bounds!

I wish my mother had known that, but then I also realize that it’s something each of us has to discover for ourselves.

I came across an article not too long ago that summarized a research study conducted by Forum Research at the behest of the Toronto Star. It asked parents and grandparents the most important values they hoped to instill in their children and grandchildren. Kindness, I am happy to report, was the number one value these folks hoped to pass on to children. Thirty percent of respondents rated kindness at the top. Number two was a good work ethic, at 25%. Much lower on the list were ambition (8%), leadership (7%), curiosity (5%), courage (5%), and teamwork (4%).

There is an inherent problem with polls such as this: none of these values exists alone. Kindness requires courage, it also requires curiosity; a good work ethic goes hand-in-hand with leadership and teamwork. Asking people to choose one among such interconnected values is misleading. Nonetheless, I am pleased to see the recognition people have for the importance of kindness, and I hope that parents and grandparents will not only wish it for their kids, but also model it.

How to Raise Kids to Be Kind

Adults who want their kids to learn kindness must realize that such instruction begins at home: in how they see their parents and grandparents treat one another, treat friends, kids, strangers, animals, and even the earth. There are no better mimics than children—what they see, they will imitate. They are also smart enough to recognize that a value not practiced consistently is not a value at all.

Kindness must be evident always, not just when it’s easy. They need to see that their parents will be kind behind the wheel even when other drivers are behaving like jet-propelled morons. They need to see kindness at a crowded sporting event when the beloved home-team is taking a thorough drubbing; and when one is conversing with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to their own; and in the privacy of home when talking about a difficult neighbor, work colleague, or relative.

Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who directs the University’s Making Caring Common project, identified five ways to raise children to truly value kindness:

  • Adults need to show that caring is a priority. They need to assure that their own behaviors match the messages they tell their kids. They need to walk their talk.
  • Give kids opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness, and also expressing gratitude. Kindness is a learned behavior and will be strengthened with repeated opportunities to extend oneself and feel the satisfaction of helping. Kids who learn the habit of gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving, as well as happy and healthy.
  • Help kids broaden their perspective and their circle of caring. The study describes this as “zooming in” and zooming out”—this means learning to recognize kindness opportunities in one’s circle of friends and family, and also to see the bigger picture of the need for kindness with strangers, the community, and even on a vaster, global scale.
  • Provide strong moral role models. Here, researchers stress the need for parents to acknowledge their own mistakes, and to listen to kids and help them understand the world and develop empathy.
  • Help kids manage destructive feelings. Feelings such as anger, shame, or envy are unavoidable—but they can be expressed in harmful ways or they can be instructive and constructive. Through conversation, parents can help kids navigate the normal emotional roller-coaster of childhood and adolescence.

Helping children to witness and experience kindness and then talking with them about kindness may be among the most potent of all parenting skills. The result is kind children, who are also happy … and who ultimately will become kind and happy adults. Heaven knows we’re gonna need ’em!

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” (James Baldwin)