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.

…keep reading…

9 Barriers to Kindness

“I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” (William Penn)

kindness highlightedWhen things get out of hand, we all have different ways of regaining control of our lives. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I organize.

I need to make a distinction between organizing and cleaning: I don’t clean, my husband will be the first to tell you that, so to prevent him from posting an unflattering—but entirely true—description of just what a slob I am, I will repeat: I do not clean, I rarely straighten, I tend to be entirely oblivious to clutter. I’m not proud of that fact, but sadly, it’s absolutely true.

However, when I am besieged by deadlines and overcome by the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities facing me, I get busy organizing. Once I have organized my life, I feel like I am back in control and able to tackle all of my obligations steadily and timely—and even enjoy doing them.

My first step in organizing is to make a list, or, more accurately, multiple lists. I make lists of everything I need to do and then sub-lists of the various steps to doing them. I make lists of things I need to remember. I make chronological lists, shopping lists, task lists … and when things get truly overwhelming, I make a list of lists I need to make. That is the point I have reached this week.

It was in this list-making frenzy that I realized I haven’t made many lists related to kindness. Maybe I hadn’t yet reached the stress-level needed for that. Fortunately, the universe has conspired to remedy that, and kindness has joined the ranks of lists that I employ to organize and bring order to my life.

The first list I sat down to write enumerates the barriers to kindness—the things that get in the way of our being kind or compassionate. I’ve identified nine factors that might keep us from being our best self. They are in no particular order, but the first is probably the biggest:

Fear – I could write an entire post just about fear (oh, in fact I did), but to condense it here, there’s a smorgasbord of fears to choose from:

  • Fear of Rejection – the gift of our kindness might be misunderstood or spurned. Ouch!
  • Fear of Embarrassment – what if I extend kindness clumsily and look foolish? Ouch, again!
  • Fear of Judgment – people will say I’m weak or maybe gullible. More ouch.

Better to do nothing than to risk the vulnerability…or is it? Part of the solution to dealing with fear is to focus not on the bad things that might happen but on the good outcomes you are seeking to bring forth. That’s a sure way to banish fear.

Laziness and Inertia – While there are certainly kind actions we can take that don’t require a lot of energy (a smile, a compliment, a door held open), many kindnesses do require that we extend ourselves. They require that we get off our butts, go out of our way, and sometimes even leave our comfort zones. Usually it’s just a matter of taking the first step and then our intentions take over and kindness ensues. But the hurdle is that first step and overcoming the inertia to take it.

Indifference – The antithesis of kindness, indifference is a barrier to living a kind life. One cannot be kind if caring is absent; one cannot be kind if one is willing to shrug and say, “It’s not my problem.” Indifference may be how we protect ourselves from strong feelings, from the caring that moves us to action. It may be comfortable to wallow in indifference, but kindness requires that we stop being a spectator and jump into life.

Entitlement – Sadly, there are many people who see kindness—if they see it at all—as something that can be selective. It’s not as essential to show kindness to the clerk, the cashier, or the homeless person as it is to the VIP who can help one get ahead or feel powerful. There’s an adage that says “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.” It’s so true; selective kindness isn’t kindness, it’s opportunism. Kindness is something we extend to everyone at every opportunity.

Obliviousness – It’s easy to miss opportunities to be kind if we aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around us. We may not notice that there is a person behind us for whom we can hold a door, or that someone needs help carrying their groceries, or that a child is frightened or sad. Too often, we allow technology to take precedence over human connection—we are constantly absorbed in our hand-held devices, oblivious to the life around us and the myriad opportunities we have to offer the gift of our kindness. We can even be oblivious to our own need for self-care—unaware that we have depleted our energy and need to engage in some personal renewal if we want to be able to care for others. Paying attention to our lives is easier said than done, but it’s one of the essential elements of a kind life.

Habit – If we are in the habit of saying no, it’s hard to say yes—to someone who asks for assistance, for our time, or for a dollar or two to help them make it through the day. Of course, we can’t say yes to everything or everyone, but whichever answer we choose should come out of conscious conviction, rather than robotic routine.

Not enough timeIt takes time to be kind—to pause and think about what the kind response is, to offer assistance knowing that it might delay us from our tightly-packed schedule, to connect on a human level with the people we encounter throughout the day. It even takes time to be kind to ourselves—an essential quality to being able to extend kindness to others. In the face of so much hurrying, it helps me to remind myself that my number-one job is kindness; all else comes second.

ImpatienceImpatience might be a subset of feeling one doesn’t have enough time, but it’s more than that. We may have all the time in the world and still be impatient with someone who lacks skill or understanding in something. It’s just easier to roll our eyes and do it ourselves than to extend the kindness—the patience—to teach, or coach, or watch while someone fumbles or stumbles. Offering genuine patience is always a kindness.

FatigueResearch has shown that when we’re over-tired we’re not only more prone to accidents, have difficulty learning, and feel stressed, but we are also more likely to commit unethical or unkind acts. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value sleep more than ever—and knowing that it helps make me kinder just makes my bed even warmer and cozier.

Having made a list, I already feel better. No OCD tendencies here. Have I left anything out? When you miss an opportunity to be kind, can you ascribe it to any of the above, or are there other reasons?

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” (Albert Schweitzer)

Oh, Mr. Sandman … Sleep’s Role in Making Us Kinder and More Ethical

“Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” (Walt Whitman)

sleepy guy at computerLast week’s post speculated on an alternate future for Cinderella. Today, Sleeping Beauty visits YOLK. And most welcome she is.

Sleep is a pastime I’ve come to value more as I age. Hence, I’m always pleased to read new research describing the benefits of sleep and prescribing seven to eight hours of that magic elixir.

Among the splendid benefits of a good night’s sleep:

  • It improves memory
  • It helps us live longer and reduces inflammation that often leads to serious health problems
  • We are less prone to accidents
  • It helps us be more creative
  • It helps students do better in school
  • It improves athletic performance
  • It lowers stress
  • We are less likely to suffer from depression
  • It helps us achieve and maintain a healthy weight

And recently I encountered another: Adequate sleep makes us more ethical.

A study published in the journal of the Academy of Management found that a lack of sleep led not only to poor performance, more accidents, and decreased productivity, but also to increased deviant and unethical behaviors. The researchers, Michael Christian and Aleksander Ellis, report that sleep deprivation results in lower brain functioning, especially in the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls what they call “executive” functions, related to self-control of emotions and behaviors. Our prefrontal cortex is fueled by glucose, and inadequate sleep starves us of that glucose, resulting in a reduced ability to recognize and resist temptation. With adequate sleep and ample brain glucose, we easily resist any impulse to lie, cheat, or steal, but when we are sleep- and glucose-deprived, we are much more likely to succumb to the lure of lying, cutting corners, or other unethical behaviors.

In a Harvard Business Review article, researcher Christopher Barnes of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business reported similar results on the effects of sleep on ethical behavior. His work also revealed that it doesn’t take much of a sleep deficit to make a difference. In one of his studies, the subjects who cheated had only 22 minutes less sleep than the non-cheaters. Barnes further cited studies showing that lack of sleep leads to deviant behavior at work, such as falsifying receipts, claiming credit for another’s work, or lying. He also notes that in business it is often those who are in the most important or prominent positions who are most sleep-deprived—perhaps explaining some high-profile ethical lapses we’ve seen in the corporate world in recent years.

He concludes that “Organizations need to give sleep more respect. Executives and managers should keep in mind that the more they push employees to work late, come to the office early, and answer emails and calls at all hours, the more they invite unethical behavior to creep in.”

America is often referred to as a sleep-deprived nation. It makes me wonder just how much of the bad behavior we see and read about daily is attributable to tired people intersecting with other tired people and neither making the best choices.

It’s not a big leap to conclude that adequate sleep is an important element of kindness. While I’m no scientist, I know from my own experience that when I’m especially tired I’m not as kind as I am when I am rested and refreshed. It’s not that I am overtly unkind—though I’ve been known to be snappish when weary—but I bypass opportunities to extend kindness. I’m just too tired. Or maybe I’m just oblivious. Whatever it is, when sleep deprived it’s harder to summon the energy for kindness. Whether it’s offering assistance, writing an encouraging note, or feeding apples to the neighbors’ horses, there are times when I’m. Just. Too. Tired.

I could tell myself that I’m foregoing kindness toward others to extend some self-care or kindness to myself when I’m worn-out. And it’s true that the best thing to do when we’re running on empty is to sit down, take a nap, go to bed early or sleep later in the morning. Good advice and also a good reminder to pay attention so we recognize our own symptoms of fatigue.

But it doesn’t need to be an either/or. I’ve also noticed that if I overcome the inertia of my fatigue and step forward to offer assistance, write the kind note, feed the horses, I get a sudden jolt of energy, much like I get with an extra-hot, non-fat caramel macchiato on a cold winter morning. So, extending kindness when tired might be as replenishing as a cat-nap, or a jolt of java. [I’ve yet to see a study comparing the effects of caffeine with the effects of kindness, but I am more than willing to be a subject—in either of the control groups—if someone wants to take it on.  Whataya say, Starbucks?]

Just as it’s easier to solve complex problems or learn new things when well-rested, I contend it’s also easier to be kind. So next time you hit “snooze” on the alarm and roll over for just another 20 minutes of sleep, remember that you’re doing the world a favor: you’ll be a kinder and more ethical person for it. The world needs that. Thank you.

As for me, Sleeping Beauty is going to go replenish the glucose in her prefrontal cortex….

“My father said there were two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers. The takers may eat better, but the givers sleep better.” (Marlo Thomas)