Saturday, July 25, 2009

Are you a pleasure seeker or a meaning seeker?

Does this ever happen to you? I was driving to work one morning and all of a sudden it hit me...I felt totally happy and content. There was no particular reason. I just was. I had picked up a healthy breakfast treat from the bakery, the sun was shining, the flowers along the Rideau Canal seemed more colorful than usual, and I was singing along with a catchy tune on the radio. For that moment, I forgot my worries, my aches and pain (from too much running) and just was at peace with the now. I caught myself smiling and thought "Look at that. A glimpse of happiness. Right now. Just because."

In his book "A New Earth" Eckhart Tolle urges us to slow down and savor the every day miracles of life. Simple miracles like our breathing in and out or a child's laughter or tree leaves dancing in the wind. Tolle teaches us to quiet the incessant chatter of the ego and accept that the only thing that really matters is the present moment (the past is over and the future has not arrived, there is only the now).

Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, also talks about this concept of investing yourself totally in the moment. He calls it "the flow". Flow means being so intesely concentrated on what you are doing that you lose track of time. You become one with the activity. Seligman gives the example of a musician getting inspired to write a new piece of music and the melody just flows out of him. In a way, it's as if the music has a life of its own and the musician is simply the vehicle for it to be born.

In his research on happiness, Martin Seligman has come to distinguish three types of happy lives.

1. The Pleasant Life: Individuals who live this life try to get as much positive emotions and pleasures as they possibly can. This constant search for pleasures may involve things like trips, wild parties, fast cars, designer clothes, gourmet food, etc. This is the kind of life that Hollywood stars like George Clooney and Pamela Anderson live. The downside to this kind of life is that pretty soon you are looking for better and more sources of pleasures. Seligman gives the metaphor of having ice cream to explain a phenomena he calls habituation. When you take your first bite of ice cream you taste it 100% but with each subsequent bite the pleasure weakens. You get used to the taste and it does not give you the same sensation as when it was a novel experience...

Focus is on outside satisfaction.

2. The Good Life: A person who has a good life according to Seligman is someone who is engaged in his life. They have work that brings them income and satisfaction. They have a strong social network of family and friends. They have leisure activities that allow them to totally invest themselves in something pleasurable and lose track of time for a while. (Seligman calls this concept flow.)

Focus in on satisfaction that comes from engagement with others.

3. The Meaningful Life: In a meaningful life you use your highest strengths for something larger than yourself. You dedicate yourself to philanthropy. You gain happiness by being of service to others. One might think of Mother Teresa as a role model for this kind of life.

Focus is on satisfaction that comes from helping others.

Seligman's research has shown that if you measure the intensity of happiness along a time line continuum we can observe that initially the intensity of happiness may be high for someone who lives from one pleasant emotion to the next but it is however short lived. On the other hand, the pursuit of meaning is the strongest and more reliable source of happiness. The life satisfaction you derive from engagement, the marker of a good life, is a close second.

How would you rate your life?

If you were to give yourself a rating on a scale of 1 to 10 on the happiness quotient of your life what would it be?

Seligman believes that we can be taught how to be happier. If you go on his website you can complete a battery of tests that will give you some insight into what you need more of and less of in your life. I just did the Authentic Happiness Inventory Questionnaire and I was pleasantly surprised. I have made some real progress in the last few years... What about you?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Think Yourself Happy

On Saturday I was in Quebec City (one of my most favorite city in the world). I must have walked over 15 km around le Vieux Québec, up and down the many stairs leading from la basse-ville to la porte St Jean towards Château Frontenac. It was raining again as it has been for the last 4 weeks. We only get two months of summer and the first month has been cold and wet this year!

By midday I was drenched and feeling tired and grumpy. I had created my very own black cloud hanging over my head with my bleak thoughts. I decided to escape the weather for a while and see a movie at the theater, De père en flic (the title is a play on words from the expression De père en fils - "flic" means policeman). Québecois comedies have a unique type of humour that I find so refreshing. I laughed out loud many times. Lo and behold, when I left the theater I was in a very positive frame of mind.

Many authors have talked about the power of positive thinking. Norman Cousins wrote a book called Anatomy of an Illness in 1979. He was diagnosed with a incurable degenerative disease (ankylosing spondylitis), and was told he had little chance of surviving. Cousins developed a recovery program incorporating mega doses of vitamin C along with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep." Norman Cousins died of heart failure on November 30, 1990 having survived years longer than his doctors had predicted.

One of my all time feel good motivational speaker is a spunky woman of Italian descent, Loretta Laroche. Loretta calls herself a Stress Management and Humor Consultant and has been in the business for over 30 years. She has written several uplifting books. One of my favorites is entitled Life is Short - Wear Your Party Pants. What I love about Loretta Laroche is that she injects her particular brand of wit and irreverent humour in describing every day occurrences and helps us see how silly we really are when we fret over life's foibles . I've had the privilege of meeting Loretta on a few occasions. The last time we chatted she asked me what I wanted to be when I "grew up". I shared with her my dream of bringing humanity back into the workplace. In many ways that is Loretta's mission in life as well. She told me that she had recently enlisted in Martin Seligman's online classes on Positive Psychology. She suggested that I look him up.

When Dr. Seligman became interested in the study of happiness in the early 1980's, a literature search on mental health would generate over 46,000 papers about depression compared to only 400 papers about joy. We knew a lot about what makes people unhappy and mentally ill but had little insight into what makes us happy and at peace. Seligman and his colleagues looked across cultures and centuries to distill six character attributes that contribute to happiness: wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Seligman believes that pessimists can be taught the skill of optimism.

Seligman believes that optimism is a skill rather than a personality trait that you may have inherited from your parents. We can actually learn to be more hopeful and positive. Our lives can improve simply by changing the way we think. That is a powerful concept don't you agree?

Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full kind of person?

When you are in a sour mood what helps you snap out of it?

Are there people in your life that always know what to say or what to do to pick your spirits up? Who are they? How can you surround yourself with more positive, energetic people?

What do you do for fun? What are your simple pleasures? What brings you satisfaction and contentment? How can you invite more joyful experiences in your life?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Leaving a Legacy

"So what was the best part of your trip?" I asked my 16 year old the day she returned from a 10 days Western European trip with her school band.

"Visiting Vimy Ridge" she said without hesitation. I was puzzled by her reply. You would think that a group of 16 to 18 years old traveling without parents for the first time would have most appreciated the freedom of choosing what to do, what to eat and when to sleep the best.

"Why Vimy Ridge?" I ask.

"Because the moment I stepped on the grounds I felt like I was home and I was so proud to be a Canadian. I felt very grateful for the sacrifices these soldiers had made to give us our freedom."
Vimy Ridge, battle fought 9-14 April 1917 during WORLD WAR I. The long, low ridge formed a key position linking the Germans' new HINDENBURG LINE to their main trench lines leading north from HILL 70 near Arras, France. Both British and French forces had tried unsuccessfully to take the ridge earlier during the war. In spring 1917 the task was given to the Canadian Corps, commanded by British Lt-Gen Sir J.H.G. BYNG. After careful training and rehearsal, and supported by almost 1000 artillery pieces, the Canadians attacked along a 6.4 km front on 9 April 1917. It was the first time the Canadians attacked together, and they achieved a magnificent victory, sweeping the Germans off the ridge. By April 14 they had gained more ground, more guns, and more prisoners than any previous British offensive had done. Canadian casualties mounted to 10 602, of which 3598 were killed. Nevertheless the sense of achievement and national pride created by this success gave the Canadians a great feeling of self-confidence. The Canadian Corps was to gain recognition as an elite corps. (
After a reading of the poem "In Flanders Fields", the history teacher that accompanied the group on this tour of war memorial sites of Western Europe gave a touching speech. A young man who was turning 18 years old that day had the honor of playing The Last Post on his trumpet. They observed a minute of silence. The silence was eerie. The kids were reverent, some had tears rolling down their cheeks. To close the ceremony, the kids and teachers all held onto an edge of a giant Canadian flag and proudly sang our national anthem "Oh Canada". The tour guide said that this was one of the most touching tributes she had had the priviledge to witness.

My daughter took close to a hundred pictures of the Vimy Cemetery in Pas de Calais in France. She was impressed by the silence and the countless rows of tombstones. There are over 11,100 graves in that cemetery. Each tombstone is engraved with a maple leaf and is adorned with well tended flowers. They spent almost two hours walking the grounds and reading the epitaphs.

We say that teenagers these days are selfish and superficial, craving constant stimulation from MP3 players, internet, video games, etc. Think about it, a group of 25 teenagers spent hours in a cemetery paying homage to Canadian fallen heroes and, for most of them, that day on Vimy Ridge was the most special day of their trip! My hope is that this Europe trip has given my daughter and her young friends a chance to reflect on who they are, why they are who they are and perhaps, think about how they want to leave the world when their time comes.

The soldiers of the first and second World War, our great grandfathers and grandfathers, fought for justice and freedom. Their courage and actions has left a legacy of peace for Canada. In light of this, let's remind ourselves that our actions today will have an impact on our world tomorrow.

As parents, what will be our legacy to our children? How do we set the stage for our children to excel and thrive? How will we leave the environment? Both the physical environment of our planet like the birds and the trees and the psycho-social environment of our communities, workplaces and schools.

What is one thing that I can do today that will contribute to the legacy I want to leave behind? It could be as simple as encouraging my family to go out for a bike ride to appreciate nature and take care of our bodies or as grandiose as starting to write that life-changing book that has been percolating in the back of your mind for years.

What will be your legacy?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Seeing with new eyes

"Auntie Sylvie, Auntie Sylvie! We caught a frog! Come and see, quickly!" By the time I reach the lakes edge, I see three small blond heads huddled together peering over a sand bucket filled with water and there it is, a big green frog. They are so excited - this is a big deal to them. Back from where they come from, Australia, the frogs are exotic, often poisonous, creatures that live in the rain forest.

My niece and nephews, ranging in age from 6 to 2 years old, have come from to visit us with their parents for a month. They have spent much of that time at the family cottage by the lake and they are gloriously happy. They revel in the nature around them.

Every day, several times a day, one of them will squeal with delight when they see a chipmunk and they all start racing after it, spotting a few more and coming back to the adults to report on the result of their Canadian safari. A family of ducks spotted on the lake or the sight of a small school of fish in the water elicits the same kind of excitement and glee.

The oldest loves to scour the bottom of the lake to find "sea shells". "Look what I found Auntie Sylvie!" he says with a proud smile on his face as he hands me a very ordinary looking snail shell. At the edge of the dock there are eight other shells lined up - his growing collection. I look at it amused because I remember how excited I was collecting "real" sea shells along the beaches of Australia like conch shells and bits of coral and sand dollars. To him, swimming in a lake is a welcomed novelty. To me, the turquoise water of the ocean and the white sand beaches was my novelty. When confronted to a new situation we see with different eyes: we are curious, observant, pleasantly surprised and grateful.

This reminds me of the story of the green frog that I tell my clients as a metaphor for culture change. If you take a frog and drop it into boiling water it will jump out, of course. But if you put the frog in a pot of cold water it will swim happily around. If you turn on the heat slowly it will adapt to the warmth: "This is getting warmer than I am comfortable with but I can deal with this." The frog will "deal with it" until the water is boiling and it is a boiled frog.

Many of us are boiled frogs in our workplaces. We work harder and longer hours to try to extinguish the growing number of fires popping up around us. Some of us have become cynical - we do not believe that things will change so we just keep our head low and do our job. Some of us have given up and are counting the days till retirement. Some of us have burnt out...

It could be different if we just took the time to listen to the green frogs in our workplace - the new employees, the young employees, the external stakeholders - people who are looking at our work culture with fresh eyes and are saying: "We see another way."

A funny thing happened as I was spending time with my Australian niece and nephews, I started noticing and appreciating things again, things that I had been taking for granted in my surroundings like the chipmunks, the ducks on the water and the frogs. If we humbly acknowledge that our ability to truly "SEE" diminishes proportionally with the length of time we have spent in the same situation we would pay more attention to how a visitor sees our world.

Ideally, we may get to the point where we seek out new eyes on a regular basis to help tune up our vision of the world we live in. New eyes allow us to see you new possibilities. New possibilities revive our optimism and resolve to move forward.