Kindness in the face of hate

“Compassion is the basis of all morality.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

We see hate and violence everywhere and we feel powerless to stop it. While it is impossible for any one of us to call a worldwide ceasefire, we can offer kindness, care, empathy, and love. Kindness can fill the void that hate leaves behind and can bring light to the dark of ignorance and violence.

Like so many, I am in terrible pain to learn of yet another shooting, taking the lives of innocent people. The police kill innocent people, terrorists kill innocent people, and seemingly regular people kill innocent people. Political figures spew hate-filled messages and social media is rife with support for racism, rape culture, and bigotry. It can feel like the world is turning inside out.

When we feel hopeless and overcome with pain, let us turn our efforts away from blaming and towards empathy. It is through compassion and understanding that each of us can change the seething tides of anger and hate.

Consider doing something kind today – in the next ten minutes – if you can. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, offer to buy lunch for your coworker, put money in the next expired parking meter you see. None of these acts need to be grand or heroic, they just need to happen. Be the antidote to intolerance and killing. Practice patience. Resist the temptation to meet fire with fire. Know that you can start kindness at any moment, regardless of what has come immediately before. Find love and warmth wherever they hide, nurture them, and share them with as many as you can.

“Love and hate are beasts and the one that grows is the one you feed.” – Shane Koyczan

The Power of Positive Emotions

We spend so much time identifying and thinking about our “negative” emotions like fear, doubt, disgust, anger, and sadness. The negative emotions play an extraordinarily important role in our lives but so do positive emotions and the positive emotions don’t get nearly as much screen time. Let’s get to know the “big ten” positive emotions.

Wait, What’s Important About Negative Emotions?

Good question! Most people assume that feeling sad or angry is a problem and it’s best to stop feeling that way and feel something good instead. Not so. The negative emotions give us important information and provide safety when needed. Anger, for example, is a defensive emotion and communicates “back up!” when you want something upsetting further away from you. Sadness elicits empathy and support when we need it most and fear keeps us from getting hit by cars by telling us “run!” when we are in danger. The negative emotions serve so many important functions that maximize safety and promote desirable boundaries. However, if all we ever felt were the negative emotions, we’d feel pretty miserable.

The “Ideal” Ratio

Some research says that people tend to function best when they experience about 3-5 instances of a positive emotion for every instance of a negative emotion. This is not to say that we should be down on ourselves if we tend to feel more frequent negative emotions, quite the opposite. There’s no need to criticize yourself instead lets consider some ways in which you can make more room for positivity.

Beyond Joy

Thinking of positive emotions usually evokes images of joy or happiness but there are ten positive emotions in all! What they all have in common is that they encourage exploration, playfulness, and creativity. The negative emotions tend to tell us to shut down but the positive emotions help us broaden our horizons.

Joy – a buoyant, playful feeling of happiness

Gratitude – recognition of one’s opportunities and gifts that often encourages giving

Serenity – a state of savoring calm

Interest – being intrigued and wanting to explore

Hope – the emotional belief that things will turn out how you want them to

Pride – recognizing accomplishments and feeling driven to dream big

Amusement – laughter at life’s guffaws and surprises

Inspiration – feeling moved to aspire to excellence

Awe – a sometimes-overwhelming recognition of what’s possible (as in noticing nature’s unbelievable beauty)

Love – deep respect and caring for another

Think Positive

If you’d like to feel positive emotions more often here’s an exercise:

Step 1: Choose a target emotion like love or serenity that resonates with you.

Step 2: Collect items (pictures, youtube clips, articles, etc.) that activate that feeling. Keep the collection somewhere that’s easy to access like in a file on your computer desktop.

Step 3: Review the contents of the file periodically and allow the target emotion to wash over you. Consider reviewing it when you are already feeling positively to savor that state. Alternatively, review the contents when you are feeling upset for a way to refocus your attention and boost your mood.

The Season of Gratitude

This is the time of year when many of us pause to reflect on the parts of our lives that we are most grateful for. Why do we practice gratitude just once per year? How can we make this experience part of our regular lives?

WHAT GOOD IS GRATITUDE?

Most people think that you need to be happy in order to feel grateful but, amazingly, it’s the other way around. Those who regularly practice expressing thanks tend to, over time, become happier. Gratitude can be expressed in many ways and leads to noticing the beautiful things that we may ordinarily miss, encouraging us to linger on them.

Gratitude even lessens the symptoms of anxiety and depression. When we focus on feeling grateful the parts of our brains that control stress and positive emotions are activated leading us to feel a decrease in stress and an increase in pleasure. When we act grateful we also tend to be better communicators. People like talking to you when you are gracious and it is a great way to diffuse those who are angry or resentful.

Outside and Inside

When we think of expressing gratitude we typically call to mind an image of expressing thanks out loud to another person. This is called external gratitude. When we write a letter to a loved one, say ‘thank you’ to a stranger, or smile at someone who was helpful, we are expressing gratitude externally.

There is another form of being grateful that is just as important: internal gratitude. Internal gratitude is a momentary reflection on anything we are thankful for, a chance to put the spotlight on our gifts, accomplishments, and opportunities. Internal gratitude can include taking a moment to name three things that we appreciate about our lives and noticing beautiful experiences during our day.

What’s great about internal gratitude?

  • It’s quick – take five seconds to name something that’s great in your life right now
  • You can do it anywhere
  • It’s a quick pick-me-up when you are feeling down

What’s great about external gratitude?

  • It’s a chance to do something kind for another person
  • It builds relationships
  • It takes us out of our internal worlds and builds empathy for others

The Big and the Small

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what we are thankful for. To make gratitude a part of your daily life, start small. When you are about to go to sleep, write down three things that you are grateful for from your day (internal gratitude). Some days, thinking of three things is really difficult. Here’s a starter list:

  • My ability to breathe (try taking a deep, slow breath and appreciating that feeling)
  • That I can walk and use my hands
  • My hearing and vision
  • The sun rises every morning
  • There is another person who loves me
  • My home is safe and warm

Items both big and small count. Notice that you have friends and family, access to work, and that you live in a country of opportunity and prosperity. Also notice that you saw an awesome subway performer, the sunset was incredible, and you remembered your wallet every day this week. No item is too small.

We can practice being grateful for the small things externally, too. Start to get in the habit of writing one email/text/letter every morning to someone who you love reminding them why they are special to you or thanking them for something they did. Consider making sure to thank the first stranger you come in contact with: thank the lady who held the door for you or the barista who made your coffee. If available, give to those who are less fortunate than you.

Practicing gratitude daily improves your emotional health and the lives of those around you.

gratitude, coping, depression, anxiety, positive thinking

Read more in a recent New York Times article on the topic here.

A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?

Wellbeing is a sustained sense of value in oneself, the world, and life. But when we take a microscope to it, what actually makes up wellbeing? Below are some of the core features of mental health. Not everyone poses each of these attributes, of course. What are some of your strongest abilities? How can you foster these abilities in yourself?

  1. The Capacity to Work – this does not necessarily refer to your ability to hold a 9-to-5 but rather the sense that there is something that you do with your time that is meaningful. This could be a hobby, volunteer work, a job, or caring for a family member. If you don’t have that now, what do you envision it might be?
  2. The Capacity to Love – our ability to have an authentic relationship with another person or to experience devotion towards someone’s wellbeing even if it sometimes comes at a cost to our own.
  3. The Capacity to Play – the enjoyment of actively participating in something fun like playing sports, dancing, singing, or actual play. All mammals play and it is probably an essential part of who we are.
  4. Feeling Safe in a Relationship – as young children some of us learn that the world can be a dangerous place and this understanding can persist into adulthood. We all need another person with whom we can feel truly safe. Research has shown that if we did not feel that way with our parents/families as children the two things that can start to change that are a partner relationship that lasts at least five years or a relationship with a therapist that lasts at least two years.
  5. Self-Efficacy – a sense that you have control over some aspects of your life. You might start determining your level of self-efficacy by asking “how many of the things in my life are happening because I want them to happen?”
  6. Identity – a feeling that you know who you are and can recognize both the great and not-so-great things about you. This is also a sense of comfort in our bodies or “in our own skin.”
  7. Resilience – our ability to make it through difficult experiences (which is something that we have all done).
  8. Self-Esteem – this is not just feeling good about ourselves. It’s a balance between being kind to ourselves but also knowing what our strengths and limitations are. We need to know what’s valuable about ourselves and how we can use those things to move towards our goals.
  9. Values – a sense of moral integrity. We may feel like we have an inner compass that guides us toward what we feel is right, kind, and just. What do you value above all else?
  10. Emotional Flexibility – our ability to not only be okay with but to enjoy the variety of emotions (and thoughts) that we experience. We are creatures that can feel love, fear, anger, sadness, empathy, joy, disgust, etc. We can savor these emotions and embrace them.
  11. Awareness of Others – when we can recognize that other people have lives, thoughts, and intentions separate from our own, we can experience something entirely outside of ourselves.
  12. Balance between Togetherness and Separateness – we can be like porcupines on a cold night: we come together for warmth but then pull apart when we start to prick each other (and then get cold and come together for warmth again). What’s the “sweet spot” for you in between these two opposed ideas?
  13. Feeling Alive – this often comes from a sense of enthusiasm or vitality for living. It can also mean feeling like you are embracing your authentic self and living the life that feels right and genuine for you.
  14. Acceptance – there are always things in life that are painful and unchangeable. That is inevitable. When we can grieve the losses associated with that and begin to move on we encourage an essential part of our mental health.

What struck you on this list? Are there several skills with which you are particularly strong? Which skills would you like to work on strengthening? Remember that wellbeing is, by definition, a process and not a state of being. Therefore, we are all striving towards greater wellbeing together.

Note: this post is based off of the ideas of the brilliant Nancy McWilliams. To see her talk on this subject, go here.

Next time: Building Hope

Instructions for a Bad Day

Shane Koyczan, a Canadian spoken word poet, shares his tremendously beautiful take on how we each struggle and persevere. Here, he gives voice to the pain we all feel and honors the courage that it takes to acknowledge that pain and push on. We have all had days (or months or years) where the troubles never seem to stop mounting and we don’t see any way to get past them and move on. And yet, we each have. Our lives, work, and relationships are a testament to that incredible ability to get through the worst of it.

If today is as bad as it gets, understand that by tomorrow today will have ended. Thankfully, pain is almost always temporary. We can all recall acute pain that has faded and healed with time. In moments of despair we can know that though it presently feels all-consuming, it will not feel this way for too long. 

The truth is, whether we see them or not, the sun and moon are still there and always there is light. Even in the worst moments, the ground remains beneath us and we can count on the sun to rise each morning. Sometimes just knowing that air and water and light are still there is enough to make moments bearable. 

Say how you feel without fear or guilt. The bravery that it takes to speak our mind, particularly when things are hard, cannot be overestimated. It doesn’t seem like anyone is listening or that we could even find the words but, if we can declare the truth that lives inside of us, we discover that we do have the words and someone will be willing to listen. 

We hungry underdogs, we risers with dawn, we dismissers of odds, we pressers of on. A rally cry for all of us who have stood up to doubt and seeming impossibility (read: everyone)! We don’t always succeed but yet we keep trying and, for that, we are pretty incredible. 

Be calm. Loosen your grip, opening each palm slowly now. Let go. 

Unexpected Happiness

“Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.”

-Charles Dickens from Nicholas Nickleby

Happiness can be elusive. The moment we come to expect it, it seems to slip from our grasp. But if we allow it to surprise us with its presence, its all the more delightful.

Happiness has a strong relationship with gratitude. When we feel entitlement towards joy, we tend to experience frustration at its absence. If, however, we allow happiness to come to us and express appreciation for what it brings, happiness is actually likely to stick around for longer. It tends to be that gratitude leads to happiness (as opposed to happiness leading to gratitude).

We can think of happiness as a relative who pops buy for visits without calling ahead. A warm welcome (as opposed to an inquiry about where they’ve been) will make them more likely to visit again soon.