Counting Blessings – 1… 2… 3…

Do you want to know a technique that has been proven to make you happier and more productive? Then read on as this post is about a tool that is free, only takes a few minutes a day and studies suggest has a significant impact in creating a “can do” feeling. This “learned optimism” allows you to try harder even in the face of major adversity.

First, a little introduction. When elected president of The American Psychology Association in 1996 Martin Seligman brought with him an audacious theme. He chose to turn psychology on its head and to move on from the traditional pathology approach devoted to suffering, mental illness and trauma and instead focus on flourishing, optimism and happiness. In so doing he took a phrase that had been coined some years earlier by Abraham Maslow and created a field of study – Positive Psychology. One of the fastest growing academic fields Seligman made sure that positive psychology had two guiding principles; it must be practical and it must be based on substantial research.

The tool works by increasing gratitude which is one of the character strengths most strongly correlated with well being. Gratitude is the feeling we have when we perceive that we have received an intentional gift from someone else and it leads to a motivation to reciprocate. Happy people feel more grateful when they receive kindness and are therefore more likely to be kind, recognize kindness in others and engage in kind acts. The flip side of this is that if we cultivate gratitude we can increase happiness and its many spin offs.

In the words of Martin Seligman, “There are exercises that reliably show people how they can have more positive emotion, more engagement and more meaning. And there’s good evidence within the corporate literature that people who have more engagement and more meaning on the job do better.”

So what is the exercise?

At the end of each day write down three things from the day that you are happiest about and why they happened. The act of writing is important for a couple of reasons, one it makes you truly consider what you are grateful for and replace your usual thoughts with ones of gratitude. Most people are more likely to contemplate things that have gone wrong than ones that have gone right and while there may be a perfectly good reason for this it does not breed optimism. Secondly, you have a record that you can look at over time. This brings me to another important point, it requires several weeks for this practice to become a habit and it needs to be maintained to retain the benefits.

The following link takes you to a video of Martin Seligman explaining the “three blessings”.

The three blessings also helps if you have a tendency to feeling blue. Again, in the words of Martin Seligman, “ We looked at the effect on severe depression of doing the three blessings. In this uncontrolled study, 94% of severely depressed people became less depressed and 92% became happier, with an average symptom relief of a whopping 50% over only 15 days. This compares very favorably with anti-depressant medication and with psychotherapy.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky shares some of her positive psychology research in “the How of Happiness”. What is most interesting is that while 50% of your happiness is set by genetics and 10% from your life circumstances, 40% of your happiness is generated by the little things that you can do each day.

I hope you give counting your blessings a try and that the benefits are as significant as the research indicates.

Here’s to making your own luck – Wil

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A case for abstract thinking

Today I was asked what people think of me and I responded with the most common feedback I gain from students. “At the time I did not realize I was learning anything; it was just fun. Now I recognize how much you have taught me.”

Now I love this feedback but I realize that it does not always work in my favor. So here is an example of when it can.

While teaching at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) I was asked to instruct a “Canyon Orientation” class. To be honest I knew nothing about the natural history of canyon country, neither did I like it. A place filled with as many hard, sharp and biting things as that filled me with fear and probably loathing. Thankfully the class took the form of two three day weekends and some evenings. I meditated on what to do and drew a complete blank until I read the Map That Changed The World by Simon Winchester.

It became glaringly obvious how to create something from nothing. On arrival in the canyon I spread the group out and asked them to sit alone for 20 minutes. I wanted them to be aware of their surroundings – I asked them to be silent, to listen, feel, smell and look. They were to come back and describe some of the things that they sensed and then to describe some of the feelings that they had.

It was enlightening, most of them were initially as frightened as me and yet as they surrendered to the place, they warmed to it – something I could understand.

Then I told them the story of William Smith; the father of modern geology. How there was no names for rocks, no categorization and no recognition of patterns until he came on the scene. How through working in mines and canals he had seen repeating layers of rocks and how he had mapped these layers. I then asked them to walk through a canyon imagine that they were William Smith and look for patterns. Firstly alone for 15 minutes, then with a partner, with whom they would share their initial observations and then develop some ideas further. Then they walked in groups of four, again sharing what they saw and perhaps why it might be that way.

Finally I set them off alone again to come up with a few compelling questions – if they had access to expertise what would they want to ask them. We then came together to share all we had seen and thought. We decided on a list of questions that we really wanted to know the answers to and then split them up, so everyone had something to research. We followed the same pattern with other subjects; based on their observations and experiences what did they want to know?

During the following week they researched and then at the weekend they came back armed with answers.

It was one of the more productive classes I taught at CMC, not merely because the students defined their own learning and it was greater than if I had done so, the additional reality was that they changed perceptions of place. Something that had appeared barren and hostile became alive and inviting. This to me is good education and highlights how clarity is often more impressive when it develops from something opaque.


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