The Practice of Gratitude

The ChiefOur dog, a three-year-old black lab named Chief, really has lived up to his name. He is dignified, kind, and gracious with all people and with other dogs. At meal time, he sits patiently and watches intently while his food is prepared. When we put his food down, he waits to be invited to eat. But then he does the dearest thing: when he is finished eating, he goes over to whoever put his food down and thanks them by nuzzling the hand. It is truly adorable.

Is there anything more attractive than gratitude? I think not. And guess what? It is as good for the person expressing gratitude as it is for the one receiving it. The research is piling up. Barbara Fredrickson’s research on Positivity shows a significant difference in health indicators, creativity, and resilience in people who practice gratitude among other positive emotions.

Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra, leading researchers on the way gratitude affects health and well-being, define gratitude this way: “Gratitude is an acknowledgment that we have received something of value from others. It arises from a posture of openness to others, where we are able to gladly recognize their benevolence.”

Their work shows that there is evidence to support the notion that gratitude facilitates coping with stress and reduces toxic emotions resulting from self and social comparisons and materialism. Further, experiencing gratitude can make positive memories (as opposed to bad ones) easier to access, helps build community, makes achieving goals more likely, and promotes health.

In the US, we are once again celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. It is not accidental that most cultures have a “gratitude” holiday. It is simply good for us to stop and remember what we are grateful for. Many people “say grace” year round before eating, which is a wonderful way to stay mindful about how fortunate we are to have plentiful food and clean water.

Of course, practicing a form of religion usually involves giving thanks, and The Blue Zones research shows that people who live the longest belong to some kind of religious community. The secular among us can easily reap the same benefits. From a health and well-being standpoint there is ample evidence that practicing gratitude in small ways on a daily basis is a good idea.

Some ideas:

  • When stopped at a traffic light or sitting in traffic, instead of looking at your smartphone, make a list in your head of all of the things you are grateful for. It will lower your blood pressure, release beneficial neurotransmitters and reduce adrenaline and cortisol in your bloodstream.
  • Write a thank-you note or email to someone who has done something nice for you. It will make you smile and it will make the person who receives it smile.
  • As you are falling asleep at night, review your day and come up with one lovely thing you are grateful for. It can be as simple as the hummingbirds who love the tree outside your kitchen window or the fact that you have a job.

Make gratitude a habit. It isn’t that hard to do—and the rewards are immediate and vast.

Smile!

I have often received feedback that I need to smile more.  This is not to say I’m not generally a happy person or that I’m angry all the time.  Rather, I am probably more serious of a person than I need to be which most of the time doesn’t allow me the opportunity to smile more.
Smile
On a weekend grocery shopping trip with my wife, I decided to see what it would be like to be constantly smiling as I pushed the cart through the aisles and checkout line.  I noticed a few things about myself and reactions from others.  By smiling more, I didn’t get as frustrated as I normally do with crowds or people who leave their carts in the middle of the aisle to go sample food.  Also, I found it took an incredible amount of concentration and energy to keep smiling throughout my grocery buying experience.

What I noticed from others is that they smiled back, were more polite and wanted to engage me in conversation.  My wife was also enjoying my little experiment.  She couldn’t stop smiling herself and laughing at the positive reactions I was getting from others.

What I realized from my experiment is the amount of energy and concentration it required to be fully present and focused on a task that felt unnatural to me.  However, the positive reaction I got from others far outweighed the effort on my part.

Whether coaching a client through this type of experience or encouraging yourself to try something that feels unnatural or awkward, I encourage you to go for it!  As a suggestion, during your next meal, try holding your fork in your opposite hand and see what reactions come up for you and others.

Please share your experiences and the reactions of others with us in the comment section below.  Thanks!

How to Be Grateful

Coaching isn’t all about achieving happiness, but it certainly is almost always focused on the pursuit of what the client believes will make him happy.  You may have heard already that the happiest people are happy because they are grateful rather than grateful because they are happy.  It is not a chicken/egg proposition.  It is in the research – The Happiness Advantage, The How of Happiness.  Consciously choosing to constantly scan the environment for what you are grateful for, and keeping lists of the same, changes the brain and literally makes you happier.  So if want to be happier, there is one super simple easy thing you can do right now.  Today: this minute.  Be more grateful.  Not just once a year on Thanksgiving, not just when you get a promotion or good news.  All the time.  But how you might ask: how do I be more grateful?  Well, David Steindl-Rast explains it perfectly in his TED talk – you can take 14 minutes and watch it or you go with my Cliff Notes.  Here they are:

 Stop. Look. Listen.

That’s it. 

 Stop. Look. Listen.

 Notice what is going on that you are grateful for – the sun, the rain, running water, indoor plumbing, shoes that fit, electricity, your adorable dog/cat/child, your funny colleague, your car started! Your new desk chair you had to lobby five years to get. Functioning internet. So much.  An endless list.

 When?  As often as possible.  Here are some ideas to get into the habit:

  •  Any time you start obsessing about your To Do list, stop and think of things you are grateful for instead.
  • Anytime you start second guessing what you should have said in your last meeting, stop and…
  • Set a timer on your phone to do it every 15 minutes. 
  • Every time an email/text/tweet comes in.
  • Every time you hear a beep of any kind (I do this; you would be amazed how much beeping goes on.  It makes it much easier not to be annoyed at the sound of trucks backing up!).
  • When waiting at a stop light.
  • When brushing your teeth (Oh the possibilities, unlimited clean water, hot water! toothpaste, dental care!).
  • Every time you sit down at your desk. 
  • Every time you get up from your desk.
  • When you get into bed.

Other ideas? Try it, and see what happens.

Running on Fumes

I recently spoke to a friend and colleague who needed my input on something.  This colleague has the highest IQ of anyone I know ( not exagerating), and an intimidating work ethic.  She is literally the gold standard for productivity in our companygas tank on empty.  After a string of emails, I failed to understand what was required of me so I picked up the phone to chat and found my friend literally incoherent with stress.  It took me several minutes to get her calmed down enough to explain what she needed from me.

It made me stop and think. 

We forget that we are a finite resource.

We can do so much and no more.  Even if we practice (highly recommended by coaches everywhere) extreme self care*, we can do so much and no more

My sister Mia is a lovely person, does for others all day long.  She is chatty, fun, highly engaging and extroverted until about 8 o’clock at night at which point she says “I am out of words”, and goes to bed with a book.  Such a role model.

It is critical for all of us, as  leaders, professionals, parents, and friends to know at what point we “run out”. Out of gas, as it were.  Do you know when you are at a quarter tank?  Do you have reasonable boundaries around your rest time?  I have found that it isn’t so much others we have trouble saying no to, it is ourselves.

Stop and think.  Remember, you are a finite resource.

 *Extreme Self Care: A term coined by Thomas Leonard, a pioneer of the coaching profession and popularized by Shirley Anderson, considered to be a Yoda of the coaching profession. It could be defined as: enough sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, down time, meditation and/or prayer, time to connect with others, and fun as you need to operate at 100%.  Click here for more information about the multiple aspects of well being from a Neuroscience standpoint.

Why Is Your Tummy So Big? (4 Factors for a Powerful Question)

(Editor's Note: This is not the author's tummy.)

(Editor’s Note: This is not the author’s tummy.)

I’ve always battled with my weight. This last year has been especially tough as I’ve had to take a break from my other career (as a prolific goal scorer in adult recreational soccer leagues) due to nagging injuries that have turned into chronic injuries. I started playing almost 30 years ago and haven’t had any significant periods away from the game until now. The wear and tear has caught up with my knees and ankles.

When you’ve got chronic pain in your knees and ankles, getting regular aerobic exercise is a challenge. It hurts to walk, let alone to go for a jog or a run. Exercise for me has always been specific to the sport I’m playing. Take away the sport and I don’t get enough exercise. Take away the exercise and my clothes fit tighter than they should be.

I’ve been telling myself that I need to do something. Yeah, tomorrow I’ll do something. Of course, tomorrow soon turns into yesterday, then last week, then last month, and here I am still sitting in my recliner. So one night while I’m sitting there with my 5-year-old son, he turns to me and asks, “Dada, why is your tummy so big?”

As soon as the words left his lips, my wife chuckled and then got embarrassed for me. I initially had a similar reaction. Kids say the darndest things…often when you least expected or are prepared for them. During my pause to think about how to respond, I realized he’d asked an incredibly powerful question. For his purposes, I used it as a teaching moment and answered it with a simple statement about the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, and that I needed to get better at both.

The answer I gave him was good enough for him, but it wasn’t good enough for me. Like most Dads, I want to be a superhero in my son’s eyes. And, I don’t want my alter-ego to be “Flabby Man.” So his question got me off the recliner and moved me into action. I did some research on local gyms and will be signing up for one this week…let the journey begin.

Upon further reflection, here are four factors that made his question so powerful:

  1. The Person Delivering the Question. There’s built in credibility. He looks up to me and I don’t want to disappoint. Most importantly, there’s an established positive relationship.
  2. It Lacked Judgement. Consider the alternative that most of us are used to hearing…“have you lost weight?” Which is roughly the equivalent of saying, “you were fat and I can’t tell if you’re any less fat than you used to be.” The best questions are those that aren’t judgmental, accusatory, or have hidden agendas. I honestly don’t know if my son loves my big tummy or is disgusted by it, he just wanted to know why it is the way it is. But…
  3. It Caused Me To Think. I was pushed to examine the factors behind the issue in question. And…
  4. It Motivated Me Into Action. After voicing the factors that led to the issue, I was motivated to consider the solutions and to act on them.

Good coaching sometimes comes when you least expect it and from those you least expect it to come from. Out of the mouths of babes.

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Seriously, How Are You Doing?

“How are you doing?”

What a loaded and complicated question. Even though I hear it on a daily basis, and know it’s coming, it always catches me off guard.

It can be incredibly difficult to tell if the person posing the question really wants an honest answer. More often than not, they’re using it as a simple greeting. Like when you pass someone in the hall and, without skipping a stride, have this simple exchange:

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“Good, you?”

“Good, thanks.”

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Habits Make All the Difference

The promise was books that rocked my coaching practice that are off the beaten path. OK, so maybe this one isn’t that original, and I must have stumbled on  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  by Steven Covey in Barnes and Noble because I can’t remember who recommended it.   But I have to say that from the day I read this book, I changed some habits that utterly altered the trajectory of my life.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that when I started doing what  Covey said (and let’s be clear, not everything, just a few things made a huge difference) my business took off, my household became more orderly and calm and my quality of life shot up.  I developed a reputation for being freakishly productive.  I feel that almost every other “self-help” book that came after this one simply fleshed out some of the good ideas that were here in the first place.  

In the section called Put First Things First, the 4 box quadrant probably made the biggest impact on me.  The idea is that we all can put every single thing we do into one of the four quadrants. 

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important QUADRANT I
crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects
QUADRANT II
prevention, Principle Centered  activities, relationship building, recognizing and leveraging new opportunities, planning the future, recreation
Not important QUADRANT III
interruptions, some calls, some mail, some reports, some meetings, popular activities
QUADRANT IV
trivia, busy work, some mail, some  phone calls time wasters, pleasant activities

The ones who spend the bulk of their time doing things in the “important” quadrants are simply going to have a much higher life satisfaction quotient.   This very concrete model gave me the courage to say no to things that did not fall into the Quadrants I or II.  Today, I let people assume I am extremely busy (everybody does) and if pressed I will admit that I am no busier than anyone else, just extremely focused on what is most important to me and ferociously choosy about what I focus on.  Don’t tell anyone.