Sunday, May 31, 2009

Can Being Curious Make You Happier?

In my last post, I explored the "Top Ten Positive Emotions" from the book, Positivity, by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, and asked everyone to make Post-It notes to focus on one positive emotion each day. Thank you to all the readers who responded on and offline -- it was a hit! It seems everyone could use a little dose of awe, serenity, joy or interest these days.

I received a request to review a new book, published by Harper Collins called, Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, by Todd Kashdan, PdD. An odd title, but it certainly caught my interest. Dr. Kashdan draws issue with the "happiness movement" as an end goal. Instead, he offers research that the active experience of being 'Curious' is a key thread to infusing life with meaning and purpose. It is a fantastic side entrée to our discussions, with some juicy tidbits to share.

Curious? Good!

Consider for a moment something that has piqued your curiosity recently. Was it a new book, a sexy stranger who started working in your office, or maybe daydreams of a career move? Being curious is an activator -- it awakens your mind and initiates a desire to learn more. It's downright tantalizing.

However, like the yin needs the yang, a constant companion to the state of curiosity is uncertainty. In order to be curious, part of the picture isn't clear, and this unknown becomes a stimulant. This is why new relationships are so intense, or why you can't put down a really great book until 3am, because you just HAD to know how it was going to end.

Here's a curious thought to ponder: would it be valuable to make "curiosity" a conscious practice towards achieving enduring states of happiness? Instead of a daily mantra of loving kindness, how about trying a daily mantra of curiosity?

Scientists agree that our overall mood in life is kind of like our weight. We may go up a few pounds over the holidays, and down a few pounds after the flu, but most people have a stable weight their body maintains, called a "set point." Our mood is the same way, with its own "set point" on the emotional spectrum. It temporarily rises and falls with the varying circumstances and events in our lives; such as great highs of a promotion, or great lows of a job loss. Eventually, our overarching mood drifts back to the same general place within a couple of months.

This set point is fine if you are generally happy or optimistic, but what if you aren't? What if you are on the crabby side of life? According to Kashdan, becoming more curious about your everyday life can help permanently elevate your set point up a few notches, with no side effects! In fact, Kashdan invites his readers to become "Curious Explorers" and re-learn the valuable skills seeking out and appreciating what is new.

"When we experience curiosity, we are willing to leave the familiar and routine and take risks, even if it makes us feel anxious and uncomfortable," said Kahsdan. "Curious explorers are comfortable with the risks of taking on new challenges. Instead of trying desperately to explain and control our world, as a curious explorer we embrace uncertainty, and see our lives as an enjoyable quest to discover, learn and grow."

I believe Dr. Fredrickson in her work on increasing Positivity, Dr. Kashdan's work in increasing Curiosity, as well as the other researchers on the cutting edge of the positive psychology movement, are a sign of the times. Our country is reeling from the effects of living in negativity, greed, fear and constriction. We know this does not work, and it is time to grow or die.

One of the great barriers that prevents us from delving into curiosity is fear. When faced with uncertainty or risk, it is much easier, and widely approved to stay confined in what is deemed to be safe. We don't leave dead end jobs to pursue our dreams without financial stability, we don't invest in learning to sky dive just for fun, and we don't even drive a new route to work. Why? Because we are afraid to let curiosity take the full reigns. After all curiosity killed the cat, right?

Yet curiosity can kick start many of life's greatest sources of meaning in life. Our nation has lived in a climate of fear, partly fueled by 24-7 news pounding our senses with every kidnapping, swine flu case, car accident or product recall. Sometimes we have to live with a little risk, fear or danger to become the individuals, the families and the nation we want to be.

We need bold. We need risk takers, and we need the value of vigorous curiosity to help us in working out conflicts. Instead of digging in with set opinions, the art of curiosity allows a chance to ask some open ended questions, in a mood of discovery, and allow both sides to find some common ground.

David Cooperrider is the master of this technique is his work called, "Appreciative Inquiry" as a means for groups to use positive questions as the entry point for finding consensus and solving problems. His methods have been used world wide, including the United Nations. Perhaps this method of curiosity and Appreciative Inquiry could be helpful in current issues like gay marriage in California, tip toeing around Middle East peace talks, or orchestrating the confirmation hearings of Judge Sotomayor.

Would you like be a "Curious Explorer" with me this week? Here's what Kashdan recommends us to do:

1. Try to notice little details of your daily routine that you never noticed before.
2. When talking to people, try to remain open to whatever transpires without judging or reacting.
3.Let novelty unfold and resist the temptation to control the flow.
4.Gently allow your attention to be guided by little sights, sounds or smells that come your way.

I like this idea. It is a sort of an active meditation, which requires an opening of the senses and a sharpening of the mind. I have five year old precocious twins, who often stump me with their endless curiosity. My son, an aspiring scientist, asked me the other day which direction the Earth rotated -- to the right or the left. Hmmmm, talk about Curiosity!

Which way does your curiosity rotate? Does it propel you forward to learn more, or spin you backwards under the covers? Come on out and play, let's see what happens. I always love your comments!

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
-- Mark Twain

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What are the Top Ten Positive Emotions?

I don't know about you, but I am ready for a little break from bad news. Madoff made off, unemployment is rising, solid families are losing their homes, and stress is ever underfoot. It would be so easy to slip under the waves of fear, depression or just plain anger. So, what to do? The phrase "focus on the positive" is beyond cliché -- but is it?

One of my favorite books to come out of the "positive psychology" movement is called Positivity, by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson. Truly a genius and pioneer in the field, Dr. Fredrickson has been studying positive emotions in her lab long before it was vogue. Her data reveals that negative emotions, like fear, can close down our ability to function, while positive emotions open us up to possiblity, and an increased ability to move forward.

If the whole "Happiness Movement" needed some teeth to it- she's got it, for this is far from 'hearts and flowers' work. In fact, she prefers the term "Positivity" to "Happiness", and stresses the importance and possibility of not just being happy; but flourishing. Isn't that a lovely word? Wouldn't we all love to flourish?

Dr. Fredrickson's came up with a top 10 list of positive emotions, in order of most frequent to least. Allow yourself an opportunity to scroll through the list and ask yourself, "When did I last fully experience this emotion?" The answers may surprise you.

Joy happens in an instant -- a perfect moment captured when all is just exactly as it should be. Think of a wonderful holiday morning with the family, an unexpected present that delights you, or seeing the first smile on your infant's face. What brings you Joy?

Gratitude is a moment of realizing someone has gone out of their way for you, or simply feeling overwhelmed with your heart opening, after being moved in some way. With gratitude comes a desire to give in return or 'pay it forward' in some way. When did you last experienced deep Gratitude?

Serenity is like a mellow, relaxed, or sustained version of Joy. Serenity is a peacefulness that comes on a cloudless day, when you realize there's nothing you have to do. Serenity is indulging in a favorite luxury, and being mindful enough to take it in. Serenity is the moment on vacation when you finally let go. Has Serenity crossed your door lately?

Interest is a heightened state that calls your attention to something new that inspires fascination, and curiosity. Like a shiny new toy to capture your imagination, interest is alive and invigorating. Interest wakes you up, and leaves you wanting more. What Interests you these days?

Dr. Fredrickson describes it best: "Unlike other emotions that arise out of comfort and safety, hope springs out of dire circumstances, as a beacon of light. Deep within the core of hope is the belief that things can change, turn out better. Possibilities exist. Hope sustains you and motivates you to turn things around." The inauguration of President Obama brought me Hope. What brings you Hope?

Ever done something really well that took a little time and effort? Maybe you reached a goal you never thought was attainable? Then pat yourself on the back with unadulterated Pride. Stand back, take that deep breath and let it in -- you earned it. What have you done that made your proud?

Think of amusement as those delightful surprises that make you laugh. It's those unexpected moments that interrupt your focus and crack you up. It's a great feeling to have amusement sparkle out of the doldrums and instantly change your perspective. Have you had any amusement in your life recently?

Inspiration is a moment that touches your heart and nearly takes your breath away -- or takes in your breath, as the word literally translates. Inspiration whispers between the strands of your hair, as you watch a perfect sunset, witness academic or athletic excellence, or observe unexpected triumphs over adversity. What brings Inspiration in your life?

Awe happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale, and you feel overwhelmed by greatness. Awe is triggered when we are faced with the vastness of Nature, or the cosmos. Gazing at the Milky Way and counting the stars, or standing at the top of the Grand Canyon triggers awe. Have you had a moment of awe lately?

Guess what? The list is rigged. Actually, the #1 most frequent positive emotion is here at the bottom. Love encompasses all of the above: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and even awe. Love is all that and more. When we experience love, our bodies are flooded with the "feel good" hormones that reduce stress and even lengthen our lives.

How did you make out on your list? Are you experiencing these emotions on a regular basis, occasionally, or hardly any at all? Most importantly, how can we experience them more often?

Let's try an experiment together. All you need are some sticky notes.

Put each of the ten positive words above on a sticky note. For the next ten days, peel off one at a time, and take that word with you, wherever you go, as your daily "flourishing mission." Put your daily sticky note on your dashboard, in your pocket or on the bathroom mirror. Take in the essence of each word, and try to bring it out in others.

Let's see what happens! Be sure to share your comments and experiences, and we will gather again next Sunday to see how it goes! I'd love to include your stories as part of next week's piece!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mothers Who Make a Difference

Celebrating Mothers. Clearly one day is not nearly enough to do the job justice. I believe the simple act of mothering a child is Herculean enough for ten holidays. Originally, Mother's Day was created for women to come together and offer their voices for peace. Today I'd like to showcase two mothers who are dedicating their lives to making a difference in the world. One is offering a new breed of computer games that address social justice, and the other is answering a dream to mother many children in Africa. Prepare to be inspired!

Called a "New Radical" by Huff Po's own Julia Moulden as well as a "New Revolutionary" by the Sundance Channel, Suzanne Seggerman is President and Co-founder of Games for Change (G4C) a non-profit and new movement promoting a new genre of videogames that engage players in the most pressing issues of our day: climate change, poverty, global conflicts. Called "the Sundance of video games" for "socially-responsible game makers", G4C is working with Microsoft, mTV, the United Nations and and a variety of NGOs. Suzanne recently won a MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Competition award. Check out her Huff Po article, "Does Obama Play Video Games?"

Suzanne worked as a documentary filmmaker at PBS for Frontline, when she had her first exposure to the power of video games. She was handed a video game about Central America that can gave her, 'an immediate and up close exposure to issues' to a depth far beyond what she had in other venues. She was hooked.

She had a daughter, and went to graduate school for interactive media, put up personal savings, and started Games for Change with her business partner, who was on unemployment. Together, they started creating a dream.

"After I had a child, my priorities changed, and any time I spent away from her had to be important," Suzanne reflected. "The idea of working for someone else was no longer appealing. I wanted to be doing something incredibly meaningful that made a contribution to the world in some way."
Some of the games are for kids and start at age 3 years old and up. My 10 year-old daughter and I played a game called "Ayiti: the Cost of Life" created by inner city youth in New York, and featuring a family in Haiti who needed to have money, get educated and be happy. It was engaging, tricky and taught us a lot.

"My advice on Mother's Day for those with younger kids is to sit down and play a video game with them. Enter their world and you may be surprised at how engaging they can be, while teaching about social issues," Suzanne suggested. "The computer is their world and a tool they will be using all their lives, why not show them how to use it well?"
The 6th annual Games for Change festival is on May 27-29th in NYC, and is the biggest game event and doubles every year. Called "the Sundance of video games" for "socially-responsible game-makers" the festival purpose is to, 'promote a new genre of video game - games to change the world - for the better."

From video game dreams, to literal dreams come to life - the other special mother I would like to introduce to you is Martha Hoffman. Martha is a mother of three and lives in a Northeastern shoreline suburb. Martha was a happy stay-at-home mom, and had no idea her call to mothering would go beyond her natural offspring and take her across the world.

"It all literally started with a dream one night," Martha began.
She had a dream about a woman who was far, far away caring for children who were very much in need. Eventually, she realized the woman in the dream was herself, but she couldn't figure out where the dream was. Over the course of seven years, the dreams came and went.

Gradually, the dreams became more frequent, until they were coming almost every night, and Martha could not figure out where the dream was. She decided to pray to help her understand what the dream meant. Finally, the dream came again, but this time at the end of it, her grandmother appeared in the dream and handed her a small bark cloth purse she had given Martha as a child. The purse was bought by a friend of her grandmother's who was a missionary in Uganda, Africa.

Martha woke up, and knew in every fiber of her being, the place was Uganda, and she had to go there and help the children. She had a mission, yet was so scared. She had no interest in Africa, and didn't even like to camp! Suddenly, images and stories of Uganda seemed to creep into her life almost constantly, until she gave in. Within four months, she was on a plane. She had no idea what she was supposed to do, but a sense when she got there, she would know.

"I saw poverty more intense than I could wrap my mind around sometimes," she said. "Everywhere I went, the stories and the people were so inspiring to me. There was tremendous beauty and happiness, in spite of such tragedy."

Most of the villages did not have access to fresh water, no toilet facilities and had malaria as common as an everyday cold. Only 50 feet below the ground had fresh water, but the villages had no money to dig a well.

Martha knew what to do.

She came home and began to raise money for a variety of projects including funding livestock, supporting orphans to go to school, and the largest project of all - raising funds to dig a well in a village that supported nearly 1,000 people.

Martha raised that $7900, and went back to help see the well put in. The villagers named the well "Martha," and they call her "Toto," which means Mother. In the past two years, Martha has started a non-profit called, "Call to Care Uganda", has managed to help plant 150 orange trees, deliver hundreds of pairs of Crocs and harmonicas to orphans, and dug four more wells to serve thousands.

Martha is living a dream; a destiny she never knew was planted in her the day her grandmother gave her a tiny purse from Africa, and again when she received it in her sleep.

By the way, guess what Martha's middle name is?
Martha Wells Hoffman.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Happy Mother's Day to Step-Mom's, Ex-Wives and Everyone Else

Mother's Day is here again, and I look forward to crayola-smudged, home made cards, a half-burned breakfast in bed with stone cold coffee, new plants for the garden, and sweet kisses that warm me up inside and out. It is wonderful to be recognized for the act of nurturing a child.

To me, motherhood is all about getting attached and letting go, over and over again. We get attached to our round belly, and then let go into birth. We get attached to our baby, and then choke back tears as they climb on the giant bus to kindergarten. We get used to a sentient child that is fun to talk to, and then let go into the turbulence of teenagers. Always a hello, and a good-bye.

This year, I realize Mother's Day is not all about me. I think about how many women "mother" my children in some way, and realize I just can't take all the credit. I believe mother's day is a great opportunity to acknowledge the circle of women who shape and mold their lives, and mine. Women like the aunts, neighbors, teachers, counselors, mentors, or special ballet instructors- all of them deserve to be recognized for their role of mothering.

I am a mother of four, and all of them challenge me beyond my singular skills. Luckily, each have been touched by various women who see in them something I can't, relate to them in a new way that amazes me, or teach me something about myself that helps me to become a better mother. Can any woman mother alone? Ask one, and she will tell you it's impossible. It takes a gaggle, a village, a LOT of people to raise a child.

Want a great new twist on Mother's Day sure to increase your happiness levels and make you smile? Write a group email to all the women who have touched your childrens lives, and wish them a Happy Mother's Day too.

The attachment part is thinking we can do it all. The letting go part is surrendering to the wise hands that come along, and accepting help with gratitude. We are trained to believe mothering equates to super hero skills of single handed competence. Yet, life for women is more of a tribe than a race, and we simply must pull though together.

Sometimes the journey of motherhood involves the hello and good bye of our husbands or partners, and we are left alone to mother. Sometimes motherhood is the tough pill to swallow of having a new woman in your kid's lives, and letting go of being the only mother figure around. It's a process of attachment and letting go that can be raw and intense.

This is a tricky subject. The world is watching Elizabeth Edwards as she faces marital affairs, cancer and a relentless public eye. She is the epitome of resilience and a model mother to their children. It's easy to jump on the bandwagon of finger pointing and blame.

But, for many couples who split up, eventually the pain starts to ebb, life moves on and new relationships form. Divorce is excruciating- I know. Watching someone you love find another is gut wrenching. I also know that eventually, an acceptance comes that another woman's hands are shaping the children, and with it a choice to take the high road or the low road.

Many women who mother our kids are shoved in the dark labels of our collective female archetypes: Step-Mothers and Ex-Wives. I believe they deserve a little credit on Mother's Day too. Where's the acknowledgement or gratitude for their efforts? Nobody gives the step-mother a card - you can't even find one in the Hallmark store. Certainly no one would dream of giving one to the ex-wife, are you crazy?

I am a mother. I am also a step-mother, and an ex-wife. I was a single mother too. Each role carries its own rules, regulations and expectations. You are supposed to hate the women who come after you in relationships. You are supposed to mistrust them, ignore them or say every bad thing you can think of about them. Kids are not supposed to like their step-parents, even if they really want to.

But, sometimes, with time and mindfulness, these women can be a gift to our kids. Our instinct as women is to tend and befriend our families and our children, regardless of circumstances. Kids benefit if both women can rise above resentment, and embrace the moving on. For me, one of the triumphs of motherhood is the letting go and allowing ex-wives or girlfriends to gift my children with their time and special attention.

A majority of families today are blended in some way. Single parent households or remarried households are standard fare. Yet, the myth of the "evil" step mother and vengeful ex-wife continues unabated. Wives are NOT supposed to fraternize with Ex-Wives. Ever. Step-parents keep their level of intimacy at bay.

I am very fortunate to be dear friends with my husband's ex-wife. We spend many holidays at her house, and we both are very grateful for the mutual respect and camaraderie we have developed. She has no ties to my children, and every reason to ignore us all together, yet my allows my daughters to romp through her shoe closet, and engages in intellectual long talks with my older son that he savors.

I also have a great relationship with my ex-husband's girlfriend, who teaches my daughter how to make Italian dinners that are beyond my culinary expertise. Both of these women have played a significant role in helping to shape my children's lives. When do they get flowers? When is it going to be ok for mother's to officially band together and raise our children in the village it truly is?

People often look at me as if I have two heads when they hear about our strange family ties. For me, it is source of pride, hard work, surrendering ego, and reaching for the highest common denominator. Happy Mother's Day to all the women who dare to mother outside the lines.