Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving is Over- Do I Still Have to Be Grateful?

Here we are, the weekend after Thanksgiving. The leftovers are gone, black Friday is past, and everyone can resume normal activities. Does this mean I don't have to be grateful anymore?

Being "Thankful" or grateful, gets top billing this time of year, and there are untold articles on the subject. Is it just a fad? Are we only grateful in November? The purity of the Thanksgiving holiday, in sharing an abundant meal with people we love is a lovely ritual, but how many emerge as relaxed and filled with warm fuzzies as anticipated?

I am a big fan of gratitude - it works for me. I filled out a gratitude journal for a solid year when Oprah touted its benefits, and I have read studies that demonstrate cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" can literally help you sleep, decrease stress and improve the overall quality of life. I subscribe to the 42 day "World Gratitude" online affirmation program, I love the new field of positive psychology, and I even took the online gratitude test, and got an A. (If you want to take it too, here is the link).

Apparently, it is ok to "fake it 'till you make it" with gratitude. Just thinking of any old thing you are grateful for is supposed to help rewire your system to keep the Scrooge away. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, the key with gratitude is consistency. Just being grateful at Thanksgiving is not going to cut it. "If you don't do it regularly you're not going to get the benefits. It's kind of like if you went to the gym once a year. What would be the good of that?"

Yet still, I wonder if that is really true. What is the difference between being thankful and grateful? One area that I have yet to see explored is the quality or depth of these emotions. Saying "Thanks" is one thing, but how often are we overcome with such a deep visceral emotion of authentic gratitude - that it takes the breath away? At our Thanksgiving table, everyone goes around and shares what we are grateful for. It warms my heart, and it is a practice I think is vitally important to teach my children. But, is it a whole-bodied experience of gratitude? Not really.

I sat down and tried to think of the times I was utterly and truly overcome with gratitude. Two stories came to mind: one was earlier this year when we hired a team of housekeepers to come to my disaster of a house with 4 kids under 14 trashing it daily - and give it a thorough cleaning. When I came home, I had never seen my house looking so sparkling and organized. I burst into unexpected tears. The tears were of sheer and utter gratitude.

The second moment of unforgettable gratitude was when my infant twins were a month old. I was beyond sleep deprived, and a woman I barely knew showed up at my door with a rotisserie chicken, a bag of rolls and some salad, so I wouldn't have to make dinner. I will never forget how my jaw dropped and how I held those bags like they were made of sheer gold. I really could have kissed her hands.

Am I grateful for my husband and my kids? Of course. I am grateful to have a house, car and our health too. So, how come the moments that stuck out were about such minor things? I believe the true alchemy of deep gratitude is unleashed - when paired with the unexpected. The kindness of strangers, the helping hand when you were not looking for it, the turning of the tide just when you were on your last breath- that is gratitude in full glory.

According to Margaret Visser, author of the new book, Giving Thanks, the Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, other cultures are a bit wary of the American preoccupation with gratitude. We seem to be conditioned to say the words, "thank you," so often that Spaniards think us insincere. In their culture, if you have to say the words, it means you are distancing yourself from the one's you love - as it is unnecessary to express thanks for that which is automatically done.

If you lived in Japan, the equivalent of expressing gratitude literally translates to the words, "I'm sorry." The Japanese culture is so polite, that when someone offers you an act of kindness, the appropriate response it to be apologetic that you have put them out in any way.

Even if gratitude is a uniquely American obsession- only good things can come from such a lofty focus. Maybe Congress can practice a little Gratitude and see if it helps induce a little cooperative progress, and maybe American's at large can lead the way in demonstrating the outward benefits. In the meantime, have you experienced any of those particularly poignant moments of "Unexpected Gratitude?" Love to hear them!

You can follow this story on Facebook and Twitter, and click on Become a Fan to receive weekly updates. Thanks to all my regular readers, and the new friends I meet each and every week! Writing this column is one of my great sources of joy, and something of which I am abundantly grateful.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Health Care: Make An Offer on PriceDoc

Remember the days of travel agencies, with brightly decorated offices and exotic posters of far off places? It was the only way to book a trip. Yet, in a few short years, the entire field has been replaced by Expedia, Orbitz and other sites for individuals to find the best price, and book it themselves. A total paradigm change that is here to stay.

Guess what: health care is going in the same direction, and just in time -- with or without government backed plans, or insurance companies who deny care, and rip off doctors. Almost 46 million Americans, from our youth to elders and veterans, don't have health insurance, and millions more carry high deductibles. No one knows the true cost of health care services, and the public certainly does not have a way to find a doctor who offers services at a reduced fee, right?

Wrong. Not as of this week. A brand new company, PriceDoc, is hitting the national market, and is sure to transform everyday health care with the same momentum that brought us Google, Facebook or Priceline. Move over William Shatner! PriceDoc's website gives patients greater power as healthcare consumers by identifying local providers, reviewing credentials and patient referrals, and finding competitive pricing for high-quality healthcare.

By advertising their services and prices on PriceDoc, healthcare providers gain access to "cash-paying" patients who optimize their office scheduling, secure fees for service and offer cash payments that reduce paperwork and overhead costs. Services include dental, vision, chiropractic, and general care. PriceDoc has stringent guidelines to attract high quality doctors and health providers who are willing to offer reduced fees for the same level of care.

George Halvorson, Chairman and CEO of Kaiser wrote a blog for Huff Po this week called We Need an Orbitz for Health," and while he may have been referring to the government, his concept is right on. He said,
Real competition between the best caregivers can happen if those exchanges are set up appropriately and if the real goal is for the provider participants in the exchanges to compete in meaningful ways.

I had a chance to personally interview a few folks who have used PriceDoc during the preliminary launch in Seattle. Katie Kyser is a new mom who left her job, and the health insurance that came with it, because she wanted to stay home with her baby. "We felt, as a family, that it was more important for me to be home to raise our baby at this time, than for me to be gone - just to have insurance coverage."

Kyser needed an OB/GYN, so she called around, and the price for a general visit was $200-400; including Planned Parenthood. After seeing an ad for PriceDoc, she logged in, punched in her zip code, and instantly was able to research a variety of doctors. She selected a well respected women's clinic that would see her for $75.

At first I was skeptical that such a low price meant low quality. However, the clinic was immaculate, the staff was amazing and the quality was much better than the super expensive health care group I used to use.

Medina Blanchette, the nurse practitioner at Woodinville Women's Clinic, said their practice listed their top services, at a significant discount. This concept is wonderful and really is a win-win," she said. "We have found it builds a very positive relationship with our new patients right from the start."

After a positive experience at the women's clinic, life moved on, and Kyser lost a crown in her tooth. She went to a local dentist, who said the tooth would have to be removed, and it would cost over $1000. Panicked, she went to PriceDoc, conducted a thorough search, and found a reputable dentist who would remove it for $175. "I have found there is absolutely no difference in quality, and I am so confident I am willing to use their services on my own child."

Shane Harris is a craftsman for traveling Renaissance Fairs, has not had health insurance in decades, and is not computer savvy. He has experienced severe dental pain for over five years, and could not afford to have it addressed.
Normally, my only option to find a doc is to open the yellow pages, throw a dart, and that's it. But, I saw an ad for PriceDoc, and was surprised I could get on the site easily. I needed a dentist who specializes in tooth implants - because not having any teeth may look good in a medieval show, but not in real life!

Harris found a well qualified dentist, Dr. Swanlund, with specialty training, good credentials and positive endorsements. During his appointment, the dentist found a deep abscess, extracted four teeth and replaced a root canal- for a mere $1086. "All I can say is being out of pain for the first time in five years is euphoric."

Check out both Dr. Swanlund and Shane Harris in this news clip from October:

A few weeks later, Harris found himself battling an excruciating ear infection - and returned to PriceDoc for help. "When I get sick like that, normally I have no choice but to go to a 'doc in the box' or the ER. And with all this flu going around that is the last place I wanted to go."

He found a solo practice physician within ten miles of his home.
This doc was amazing. He could have easily just given me a prescription for antibiotics and thrown me out the door, but instead he spent over an hour clearing my ears to get me out of pain before the meds -- and only charged me $113.

What a refreshing change of pace to hear positive stories from 'Main Street' about health care. Doctors aren't the bad guys -- they really want to help people far more than they want to run complicated businesses. Patients want to find someone they can trust, and are happy to pay a price they believe is fair.

PriceDoc is opening up to cities across the country, and the site includes a blog and Facebook page with interesting health related stories, and regular updates on Twitter. Check it out and encourage your health care providers to participate. Maybe they need to run a contest for the best celebrity spokesperson?

How about you, Huff Po readers? What creative ways have you found to get health care needs met? Feel free to comment below.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How to Reclaim Spare Time

There is something nostalgic about spare time. Like an old friend you knew once and somehow lost touch. Spare time sits on the side of a broken fence, wheat stalk between its teeth - daring us to watch puffy clouds, or go kicking through Autumn leaves, instead of hen-pecking at the keyboard. Spare time beckons, yet few can hear the whispers over the whir of cpu's and blare of CNN. How do we rope, lasso and reclaim Spare Time?

For many of us, having a moment or two to spare has been replaced by the unending bleeps of text messages, incoming email, unending tasks, hectic schedules of work and family, and constant financial pressure to survive the recession. Most of us cannot make it through a day without drifting to the computer half a dozen times to check email, or carry the cell phone around for a constant fix. Clearly the impact of such a lifestyle cannot be good for us long term.

When I was growing up, the TV shows on air included Andy Griffith- the ultimate in spare time. Remember the theme song whistle during the opening shots; Andy heading out fishing with little Opie? Everyone stood around a lot, talked to each other and managed minor small town incidents. We certainly couldn't have a cop show like that now, with a lot of hanging out, instead of busting up drug rings. Does anyone have time to whistle anymore?

My other favorite childhood show was the Brady Bunch, (which I heard was Michelle Obama's favorite too). They had a LOT of spare time- even housekeeper Alice. All those kids hung out together after school, went on vacation, sang in a band with matching costumes; and those of us watching had enough spare time to memorize every single episode within the first five bars of the opening scene.

What if the Brady Bunch was set today? Imagine Carol running with her super size Starbucks in her super size mini van, conducting a meeting on her cell while in route to take Bobby and Cindy to soccer practice, Jan to her violin lesson, Greg to football, and Marsha to cheerleading. While Mom is multi-tasking; the kids are plugged into iPhones, cell phones, texting, and checking emails. No one is talking to each other, unless it is to pick a fight, and they certainly are not singing, "We're Gonna Keep On, Keep On, Keep On Dancin' All Through the Night."

The temptations upon our time are not in the same stratosphere as they were a generation ago - hence spare time is relegated to the back pasture of our lives. However, I suspect a lot of the activities that consume all hours of the day and night are not as important as we think they are, and learning to step back and evaluate priorities could help generate some vital time... to do nothing.

There has been a lot of news coverage about our declining happiness levels. No wonder we aren't happy - we don't have time to be. A recent UPenn study found that women are categorically less happy than they were 30 years ago. Russell Bishop wrote a piece exploring the fact that men aren't that much happier, and Cara Barker this week conducted some interviews with children, discovering that many of them were unhappy at the lack of contact and connection with their parents.

Sometimes being "happy" is kind of like realizing your nagging headache is gone. The insight is not dramatic, like a bolt of lightning, but comes in a quiet, gentle awareness of relief. Happiness is like that. It takes a healthy dose of spare time to find it. I think Spare Time and Happiness are "BFF", don't you?

Here are a few tips to reclaim Spare Time:

Email Self-Control- declutter your inbox by unsubscribing to anything you don't need or read regularly, and try not to continue long email conversations that aren't necessary. One of Therese Borchard's tricks is to take weekend breaks from her computer. Imagine! This is a great way to scrounge up a ton of free time - think of it as email Sabbath, (Reading this column, however, is an acceptable exception).

Social Networking is junk food, plain and simple. Let's face it - Facebook is the Doritos of friendships and Twitter is a super size box of Fries. Both are tempting, and both are ultimately not all that healthy. Take the time for some "slow food": home-cooked friendships that require face-to-face time. If you are IM'ing someone in your office, get up and try walking over for a change. Facebooking your best friend? Pick up the phone or stop by; imagine how you look from space, hunched over terminals sharing the daily chatter.

Find the "in-between" moments of the day to embrace as spare time. Driving is a great opportunity to do some deep breathing, turn off the noise in your head, and notice the scenery around you, rather than listening to talk radio, eating, or talking on the cell phone. Find the moments in the shower, doing dishes or walking the dog to flatten out as buffer zones of nothingness.

Force yourself to be bored. Remember being bored? It is the MacDaddy of spare time. Kids today think five or six seconds of spare time equals being bored, and many adults' tolerance for unfilled moments is not much better. Set aside several hours once a month with nothing particular to do - and see how it affects you.

Spare Time sauntered into my life last week when swine flu blew through my house. With sick kids, life comes to a grinding halt. Spare Time roped me in by force- and it was not comfortable. To rebel, I filled it with all sorts of backlogged projects like putting together good will donations, painting peeling trim, and clearing up the yard. At long last, I surrendered (the key) and just hung out. It became rejuvenating, and felt great.

We are not wired to go 24/7 with mental chatter. Sometimes just listening to the wind blow is enough to keep you from going over the brink. How does good ole' Spare Time show up in your life these days? Love to hear your comments, and please click on Become a Fan to receive weekly notices, or follow me on Facebook and Twitter.