Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier. - from the New York Times !

CreditCarson Ellis
TWENTY-FOUR years ago this month, my wife and I married in Barcelona, Spain. Two weeks after our wedding, flush with international idealism, I had the bright idea of sharing a bit of American culture with my Spanish in-laws by cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner.
Easier said than done. Turkeys are not common in Barcelona. The local butcher shop had to order the bird from a specialty farm in France, and it came only partially plucked. Our tiny oven was too small for the turkey. No one had ever heard of cranberries.
Over dinner, my new family had many queries. Some were practical, such as, “What does this beast eat to be so filled with bread?” But others were philosophical: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”
I stumbled over this last question. At the time, I believed one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seemed somehow dishonest or fake — a kind of bourgeois, saccharine insincerity that one should reject. It’s best to be emotionally authentic, right? Wrong. Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it. In a nutshell, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.
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For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily. This point will elicit a knowing, mirthless chuckle from readers whose Thanksgiving dinners are usually ruined by a drunk uncle who always needs to share his political views. Thanks for nothing.
Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.
But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude — and that doing so raises our happiness.
This is not just self-improvement hokum. For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.
How does all this work? One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi (which create “crow’s feet”). They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions.
If grinning for an uncomfortably long time like a scary lunatic isn’t your cup of tea, try expressing gratitude instead. According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry” that produces the sensation of pleasure).
It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” In the slightly more elegant language of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has.”
In addition to building our own happiness, choosing gratitude can also bring out the best in those around us. Researchers at the University of Southern California showed this in a 2011 study of people with high power but low emotional security (think of the worst boss you’ve ever had). The research demonstrated that when their competence was questioned, the subjects tended to lash out with aggression and personal denigration. When shown gratitude, however, they reduced the bad behavior. That is, the best way to disarm an angry interlocutor is with a warm “thank you.”
I learned this lesson 10 years ago. At the time, I was an academic social scientist toiling in professorial obscurity, writing technical articles and books that would be read by a few dozen people at most. Soon after securing tenure, however, I published a book about charitable giving that, to my utter befuddlement, gained a popular audience. Overnight, I started receiving feedback from total strangers who had seen me on television or heard me on the radio.
One afternoon, I received an unsolicited email. “Dear Professor Brooks,” it began, “You are a fraud.” That seemed pretty unpromising, but I read on anyway. My correspondent made, in brutal detail, a case against every chapter of my book. As I made my way through the long email, however, my dominant thought wasn’t resentment. It was, “He read my book!” And so I wrote him back — rebutting a few of his points, but mostly just expressing gratitude for his time and attention. I felt good writing it, and his near-immediate response came with a warm and friendly tone.
DOES expressing gratitude have any downside? Actually, it might: There is some research suggesting it could make you fat. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds evidence that people begin to crave sweets when they are asked to express gratitude. If this finding holds up, we might call it the Pumpkin Pie Paradox.
The costs to your weight notwithstanding, the prescription for all of us is clear: Make gratitude a routine, independent of how you feel — and not just once each November, but all year long.
There are concrete strategies that each of us can adopt. First, start with “interior gratitude,” the practice of giving thanks privately. Having a job that involves giving frequent speeches — not always to friendly audiences — I have tried to adopt the mantra in my own work of being grateful to the people who come to see me.
Next, move to “exterior gratitude,” which focuses on public expression. The psychologist Martin Seligman, father of the field known as “positive psychology,” gives some practical suggestions on how to do this. In his best seller “Authentic Happiness,” he recommends that readers systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.
Finally, be grateful for useless things. It is relatively easy to be thankful for the most important and obvious parts of life — a happy marriage, healthy kids or living in America. But truly happy people find ways to give thanks for the little, insignificant trifles. Ponder the impractical joy in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty”:
Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
Be honest: When was the last time you were grateful for the spots on a trout? More seriously, think of the small, useless things you experience — the smell of fall in the air, the fragment of a song that reminds you of when you were a kid. Give thanks.
This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional “authenticity” that holds you back from your bliss. As for me, I am taking my own advice and updating my gratitude list. It includes my family, faith, friends and work. But also the dappled complexion of my bread-packed bird. And it includes you, for reading this column.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Stoicism Is Exactly Why You Need It

(Photo: Flickr)
(Photo: Flickr)
When I was nineteen years old I was told to read a bookMeditations, by the stoic philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Of course, I didn’t fully understand it at the time, again I was a teenager, but I immediately tore the book apart and made a million notes on it. It was for me, what the economist Tyler Cowen calls a “Quake Book.” It shook my entire (albeit limited) world view.
Though this book changed my life, it was really a single passage inside that book that made the difference. It’s a passage that has struck and changed the lives of many people in the two thousand years since it’s been written. One I’ve turned to again and again–when I dropped out of school, when I had problems at work, problems in my relationships, problem with employees, and just normal life.
The passage goes like this:
Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.
And then he concluded with powerful words destined for a maxim.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
These words were scrawled by Marcus Aurelius himself, to himself, likely on the battlefront as he lead the Roman Army against barbarian tribes or possibly at the palace amongst the intrigue and pressure. Not exactly a happy or encouraging place to be.
Yet in the years since I first read it, I’ve started to understand is that this little paragraph is the perspective for a special kind of optimism. Stoic optimism.
I’m sure that sounds like an oxymoron, but stoicism gets a bad–and unfair–rap.
What Marcus was writing—reminding himself—is one of the core tenets of Stoicism. What it is prescribing is essentially this: in any and every situation—no matter how bad or seemingly undesirable it is—we have the opportunity to practice a virtue.
An example: I’m writing this article and I hope that it is received well. But it could very easily bomb or get a terrible response. Now this would be a minor but rather undesirable impediment or an obstacle.
That’s probably what I would think at first too. But seen another way it’s…a chance for me to remind myself of humility, or learn from the feedback and improve my writing or even just accept that I can’t please everyone all the time.

A Timeless Idea

marcus quote What Everyone Gets Wrong About Stoicism Is Exactly Why You Need It
Over the years since I first read the book (and in the course of researching my own), I studied people in history who had made this each decision–willingly or by force of circumstance. People who’d faced an obstacle but saw it as the way. Which makes sense because stoicism is ultimately an art that is designed to be practiced, not spoken about.
Take John D. Rockefeller before he was…well John D. Rockefeller as we knew him. He was just a kid with a deadbeat dad. At 16 he took his first job as bookkeeper and aspiring investor.  He was making fifty cents a day. Less than two years later the Panic of 1857 struck. The result was a crippling national depression that lasted for several years.
Here was the greatest market depression in history and it hit Rockefeller just as he was finally getting the hang of things. It’s terrible right? Real investors who supposedly knew what they were doing lost everything.  What is he supposed to do? Rockefeller later said that he was inclined to see the opportunity in every disaster. That’s exactly what he did.
Instead of complaining about this economic upheaval or quitting like his peers, Rockefeller chose to eagerly observe the events that unfolded. He looked at the panic as an opportunity to learn, a baptism in the market.
It was this intense self-discipline and objectivity that allowed Rockefeller to seize advantage from obstacle after obstacle in his life, during the Civil War, and the panics of 1873, 1907, and 1929. Within twenty years of that first crisis, Rockefeller would alone control 90 percent of the oil market. His greedy competitors had perished and his doubters had missed out.
It’s a two part mental shift. First, to see disaster rationally. To not panic, to not make rash decisions. And second, like Rockefeller, we can see opportunity  in every disaster, and transform that negative situation into an education, a skill set, or a fortune.
Another example: General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
General Eisenhower—who men sniped behind his back was more of an organizer than a leader—had just pulled off the largest amphibious invasion in military history.
Slow going in the hedgerows of France had allowed the Germans to wage a series of counteroffensives—a final blitzkrieg of some 200,000 men. And now the Nazis threatened to throw them all back to the sea.
The Allies had a pretty understandable reaction: they just about freaked out.
But not Eisenhower. Striding into the conference room at headquarters in Malta, he made an announcement: He’d have no more of this quivering timidity from his deflated generals. “The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and not disaster,” he commanded. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”
In the surging counteroffensive, Eisenhower was able to see the tactical solution that had been in front of them the entire time: the Nazi strategy carried its own destruction within itself.
Only then were the Allies able to see the opportunity inside the obstacle rather than simply the obstacle that threatened them. Properly seen, as long as the Allies could bend and not break, this attack would send more than fifty thousand Germans rushing headfirst into a net—or a “meat grinder,” as Patton eloquently put it.
Eisenhower’s ability to not be overwhelmed or discouraged by the German Blitzkrieg allowed him to see the weaknesses within it. By defusing his fear of the German counteroffensive he uses his optimistic attitude to find its weakness.
And then there is Thomas Edison. I don’t think that inventing the lightbulb was the craziest thing the guy ever did.
At age sixty-seven, Thomas Edison returned home one evening from another day at the laboratory. After dinner, a man came rushing into his house with urgent news: A fire had broken out at Edison’s research and production campus a few miles away.
Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the fire looking for his son. “Go get your mother and all her friends,” he told his son with childlike excitement. “They’ll never see a fire like this again.” Don’t worry, Edison calmed him. “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
That’s a pretty amazing reaction. It’s what the stoics might refer to as amor fati–loving the things that happen to us.
Edison wasn’t heartbroken, not as he could have and probably should have been.
Instead, the fire invigorated him. As he told a reporter the next day, he wasn’t too old to make a fresh start. “I’ve been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui.”
Within about three weeks, the factory was partially back up and running. Within a month, its men were working two shifts a day churning out new products the world had never seen. Despite a loss of almost $1 million dollars (more than $23 million in today’s dollars), Edison would marshal enough energy to make nearly $10 million dollars in revenue that year ($200-plus million today).

So…how can we cultivate this fortitude and ingenuity?

The answer, I say, is with philosophy–practical philosophy. With Stoic optimism, we can be Edison, our factory on fire, not bemoaning our fate but enjoying the spectacular scene. And then starting the recovery effort the very next day—roaring back soon enough.
How about a business decision that turned out to be a mistake? It was a hypothesis that turned out to be wrong, like a scientist you can learn from it and use it for your next experiment. Or that computer glitch that erased all your work? You will now be twice as good at it since you will do it again, this time more prepared.
Perhaps you were injured recently and are stuck in bed recovering. Now you have the time to start your blog or the screenplay you’ve been meaning to write. Maybe you’ve recently lost your job. Now you can teach yourself the skills to get the job you’ve always wanted. You can take a careless employee’s mistake that cost you business and turn it into a chance to teach a lesson that can only be learned from experience. When people question our abilities that means we can exceed their lowered expectations of us that much quicker.
Easier said than done, of course.
In each of the three situations above, the individuals faced real and potentially life-threatening adversity. But instead of despairing at the horrific situation—economic panic, being overrun by the enemy, a catastrophic fire—these men were actually optimistic. You could almost say they were happy about it.
Why? Because it was an opportunity for a different kind of excellence. As Laura Ingalls Wilder put it: “There is good in everything, if only we look for it.”
I’m not Eisenhower. You’re not Rockefeller. Our factory has never burned down, so we don’t know how we would react.
But I don’t think it’s as super-human as it seems at first glance. Because there is a method and a framework for understanding, appreciating, and acting upon the obstacles life throws at us. Like Rockefeller too we can perceive events rationally and find the fortune in downturns. Like Eisenhower, we can disengage from our fears and see the opportunity inside our obstacles. Like Edison we can choose to be energized by the unexpected circumstances we find ourselves in. We know it won’t be easy but we are prepared to give it everything we have regardless.
In our daily lives we forget that the things that seem to be blocking us are small and that the obstacles blocking us are actually providing us answers for where to go next. It’s a timeless formula that can be revisited again and again.
All I can say is that this attitude is something I try to think of always. I try to envision these people facing much more significant problems than me, and seeing it not only as not bad but as an opportunity.
We all face tough situations on a regular basis. But behind the circumstances and events that provoke an immediate negative reaction is something good—some exposed benefit that we can seize mentally and then act upon. We blame outside forces or other people and we write ourselves off as failures or our goals as impossible. But there is only one thing we really control: our attitude and approach
Which is why the stoics say that what blocks the path is the path. That what seems to impede action can actually advance it. And that everything is a chance to practice some virtue or something different than originally intended. And you never know what good will come of that.
The obstacle is the way.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas
Comment: WOW .... That is all I can say .. This is so like what Yoda would say ... "what blocks the path is the path " Almost Zen like in its clarity and truth