CG #66 – “Smooth Seas Do Not Make Skillful Sailors.”

Do you ever feel like the universe is sending you a postcard?  When I came home last night, the title of this post was scrawled in chalk on the ramp to my dock.

Reading Time:  Under 2 minutes


After the crisis-ridden day I’d had, I was happy to see those words.  As I stood there and let those words sink in deep, I thought about the difference between someone who learns to sail on the San Francisco Bay – a notoriously wild and windy place – and someone who learns on the Long Island Sound with its placid, protected waters. I know which Captain I want in charge of my boat.

Which got me thinking about resilience and the recent, compelling research about stress.  It’s not stress that harms you, it’s the belief that stress is harmful that harms you.  Believing stress is harmful is the 15th leading cause of death.

The physiology is straightforward:  Stress makes your heart pound.  Believing stress is harmful constricts your blood vessels, which increases your risk of death.  But when you see the stress as helpful, your blood vessels open. Increased blood flow in open veins is physically identical to states of exhilaration, courage and joy.  See stress as helpful and your body throws itself a little party right in the middle of the onslaught, rendering stress harmless.

But the news is even better than that:  Stress causes you to connect with others – it practically drives you into their arms.  You need help, advice, support, coaching,  These social connections bathe your body in oxytocin, which protects you from the effects of stress.   For caregivers, the healing effect of oxytocin seems to negate the wear and tear of caring for others.

Yes, you read that correctly:  Caring for others promotes a healing response in the caregiver that protects against the effects of stress.

This research means that rampant excuse for bad behavior, “I’m just really stressed out,” is about to leave the building, and good riddance to it.

Accept – Connect – Help is the formula, and the choice is yours to make.  The more I sit with this research, the more I see that what I’ve been calling stressful is simply strenuous, a signal to get moving.

Stress has one more gift for us:  Meaning.  Stress and adversity increase the chance of a meaningful life.  Seeking comfort has the opposite effect.

Which brings me to my 90-year-old Aunt Perina, a woman I’ve long admired, but not always understood.  Born between the World Wars, her generation came of age in a time of great deprivation.  Those early, difficult times hold her richest, most cherished memories, the ones that have sustained her through the death of all her siblings and most of her friends.  I did not understand the psychic alchemy that left her kinder and richer with each blow, until I saw this research.  I’m glad to get a glimmer of this this now, when I can still tell her she’s my role model for her courage, grit and unfailing sense of humor.

If you want to learn more, the book is called “The Upside of Stress,” by Kelly McGonigalHer TED talk gives a good overview of this topic.  If you don’t have 20 minutes right now, click here for my 1-page summary of that TED talk.

See you on the upside.

CG #54 – How to Get Happy and Stay that Way

If gratitude can counter depression faster than the “gold standard” of talk therapy combined with drugs, can it make me happy long term?  Yup.  But your negativity bias is going to fight back.

Word Count: 696

Reading Time: about 3 minutes

When I first heard about psychologist Martin Seligman’s gratitude research, I was skeptical.  According to the study, 15 days of gratitude practice created immediate improvements in severely depressed patients that lasted for 6 months.  How could a daily gratitude practice be as effective against depression as the best psychology had to offer and achieve this more quickly?   When Seligman’s subsequent research named gratitude as one of the 5 key strengths* that happiest people shared, I started to get more interested. (*The other 4 are zest, the ability to love and be loved, curiosity, and optimism.)

So, I tried it.  I wrote down three things I was grateful for every day:  this beautiful sunrise, this tea that I love, love, love, the beautiful watercolor E. sent me from her painting retreat.  It was fun and easy.  I started looking for things to write down which got me noticing how grateful I was.  I said “thank you” more, and to everyone.  I felt happier, lighter.

But it didn’t last. 

So I tried the things I usually do to establish a new habit:  I recruited friends to join me, first in an online journal, then in an email chain.  We all said how much we loved it, how fun it was to read what others were grateful for.

But that didn’t last either.  My inability to adhere to this anti-depression practice was beginning to get a little depressing.

I was experiencing the power of what psychologists call the Negativity Bias.  Simply put, our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative information than positive information.  We are always scanning for danger:  It’s a survival strategy that keeps us out of harm’s way.  Negative information is more contagious too, perhaps because communicating danger quickly is how the herd keeps its members safe.

But surviving is not the same as being happy.

I chucked the whole idea into the mystery column, my receptacle for the things that are currently beyond me, and got on with life.  Then a colleague mentioned the details of Seligman’s original study.   I’d gotten it completely wrong.  The specific instructions to the 50 severely depressed participants were to write down three things that had gone well each day and why they thought so.  Oops.  Not three things I was grateful for that had nothing to do with me, but three things I participated in that had gone well.  And why I thought so. 

Oh. This expression of gratitude was also a confirmation of personal agency.  It fought powerlessness.  No wonder it was so effective against depression.

That’s very different than writing about things outside me: “the tea I get from France, the way Cindy Cashdollar plays steel guitar, fluffy bunnies”, or the truncated, drive-by version I eventually adopted: “Puppies.”  Sunrise.  Afternoon cappuccino at Peet’s.”

So I tried it. Here’s my list from yesterday:

What went well:  Tax appointment was fast and easy and left no sticky residue. Why?  I decided to enjoy the experience with Carolyn rather than focus on the complications of filing as domestic partners.

What went well:  HYCS was easier to write and got immediate positive feedback.  Why?  Because I finally understood that what goes in the middle of my mind-map is what I want my readers to experience or do, not the “topic.”  D’oh.  And that happened because I have been doggedly wrestling with this for months and allowing myself to ask Daphne (my writing coach) really stupid questions.  In public, and online where they will live forever.

What went well: The leak in my houseboat’s hull didn’t keep me up all night.

Why?   Because I got a second opinion from my contractor neighbor even though it was 7:30 p.m. and I didn’t want to bother him.  His verdict:  It can wait.  (He was right – it’s still waiting, and I’m still floating.)

What a difference.  That was fun.  I wasn’t just feeling happier.  I was feeling the joy that comes from knowing what I do makes a difference.

Today I looked forward to making my list and seeing what it would show me.  I have no doubt my negativity bias will try to derail me again.  It’s a wily, worthy opponent.  I look forward to outwitting it.

The Fastest Turn-Around Technique I Know

You know how there seems to be a lot of complaining in meetings? Like when someone proposes an idea, someone else discounts it, pointing out everything that is wrong with it? Or, when trying to resolve a situation that’s really stuck, the finger-pointing can get quite intense? The recriminations can even begin to sound a little crazy: “You never do any work.” “You’ve never bothered to show up on time,” and so on. Perhaps my least favorite interpersonal situation involves gossip: talking about a group or person who isn’t present. “Ain’t it awful how…”

The typical strategies involve taking the high road: inviting the complainer to make a proposal of their own, enforcing ground rules about how to talk about the situation (focus on the problem not the person), pick up the phone and get the gossipee on the line. These are excellent strategies and I use them all the time.

But when a person, dyad or group is really, really stuck in their story of victimhood, injury and powerlessness, I invite them to lean into it and hold nothing back. I want to hear how awful it is. Except they have to do it while keeping their tongue pressed against the back of their bottom teeth.

It’s called talking funny, and it’s impossible to do this for very long without laughing. It’s impossible to stay stuck when you’re laughing. The cramp in your brain eases, and the thoughts start to flow. Your IQ rises like a balloon full of helium.

(You can test this right now. Go get your journal. Find a page full of self-pity. Now read it out loud, keeping your tongue glued to the inside of your bottom teeth. See?)

Possible uses: 1) Your company is about to fail and you’re out of ideas. Have a meeting to discuss the situation and have everyone talk funny. 2) Your co-worker has just conrnered you to complain about someone else. You say, “Tell me all about it, sweetie – but first put your tongue against your bottom teeth and keep it there.” 3) You’ve grown to hate your co-manager. You find yourself in a meeting and it all comes out. Let it rip – but plant that tongue first. 4) That other department just isn’t respecting you – they keep giving you impossible deadlines. Plant your tongue and let it rip.

After the laughter abates, you can get on with the real business at hand – you can resolve the conflict, plan the come-back or whatever else needs doing. You’ll have more oxygen in your brain and more brain cells to work with. It will be much easier and refreshing. Try it and let me know how it works for you.