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Monday, July 23, 2012

When We Forget To Be Nice

More than three decades ago, I met a man who epitomized consideration.  He was, by any standard, a good looking man, in his mid twenties.  He had his flaws, of course, as all of us do.  John Boehn lived his life on the public welfare system, even though he was capable of working.  That path, it seemed, was common in the late 1970s.  John, though, did not take more than what he needed to get by.  In fact, he paid support for a child, without the prod of a court order.  Being on welfare, at that time, he would not have been ordered to pay, anyway, but he did. 
John lived in a rooming house, where he paid $130 per month for rent.  His welfare allotment was $245.  He paid $125 in support, voluntarily.  Had he paid more, his son’s mother, who was also on welfare, would have had the additional amount clawed back. Once each week, he worked at a casual labour site, where he was paid about $25 per day.  After the routine expenses, he was left with $90 for food, clothing and toiletries.  For many of us, that would have been inadequate.  But it was more than enough for John.
Twice each month, on the dates that he received his welfare payments, he did something extraordinary.  John spent $18 on flowers.  Not flowers for a girlfriend.  Not flowers to decorate his Spartan apartment.  Flowers for strange women. 
On those allotment days, John would buy his flowers first thing in the morning, and then would begin walking along the streets, stopping at certain bus stops, or randomly, giving away one rose each time.  His criteria for giving?  The woman had to be elderly, be on her own, and appear to be sad or disheartened.  He would give a rose to that woman, telling her, “This is for you, just because you are special, and important.”  Then he would walk away.
Can you imagine the surge of uplifting joy that recipient would fee?  Twenty-four women each month had their day heartened by John’s unique act.  He was an aberration.
Most of us do just the opposite of John Boehn.  We forget those less fortunate, those weaker, poorer or somehow seemingly inferior to us.  Worse, when we look down on a group in society or an individual, we even forget our manners.
The majority of us still will pause to hold a door open, or smile and acknowledge an equal.  But, it seems, we have inherent elitist tendencies, when it comes to the lower socio-economic classes.  We haven’t time for them.
Similarly, when we expect courteous behaviour, we fail to take the time acknowledge that polite action.  Think of the last time you thanked your waitress, simply because she was courteous to you.  Or your taxi driver. Why should their consideration (even if it is part of their job) be less valuable than when we do not expect polite behaviour?
Study upon study shows that the more of a rush in which we find ourselves, the less likely we are to be courteous.  Worse, the more likely we are to be inconsiderate.  Consider the frequency of the middle finger salute during rush hour traffic.  Or relive the experience of boarding a crowded bus or subway during that same rush hour.  We freely jostle and push, without so much as an “excuse me.”  Manners and courtesy, it seems, are merely a frill, lavished when we have surplus time, or when our day is going absolutely perfectly.
A more sinister explanation may be possible, too.  Think of the bad behaviour we demonstrate when we are anonymous, hurling insults, for example, at our sports figures from the obscurity of a mass audience.  The Vancouver Olympics riots were, in part, a demonstration of how we lose inhibitions and let our more base character emerge when we believe that we will not be held accountable fore our actions.
However, the loss is more personal, and less the loss of the victim than you may expect. Again, psychological studies reveal that when surveyed after an act of selfishness or inconsideration, respondents actually reported a lower feeling of self-worth.  If we sometimes mistreat others, it has been assumed that the act helps us to feel better about ourselves, by putting others down.  These studies seem to contradict that belief.
While doing a good deed made John feel elated, he did not do it to reward himself.  That was a corollary benefit.  We, too, will experience a more positive mood when we take the time, particularly when we are in a foul mood or having a bad day, to be considerate of others.  Instead of perpetuating our bad mood by rudeness, we ameliorate our negative moods, and actually help to make ourselves happier, by making others happier. 
The lesson is simple.  Take the time to be polite and considerate.  It is good for us, and for others.

Finding The Cloud In Front Of Every Silver Lining

I have a family member who can find the cloud in front of every silver lining.  She is a good person, and means well.  For her, though, the fear of running up against obstacles overwhelms her, and she can find even the most obscure reason to be pessimistic.  Before she begins a new task, she can cite the reasons why it will not go well!  Some would brand her as being insecure.
Many people live their lives that way.  To them, negativity is a constant companion.  We would not think of telling a cancer patient to “get over it.”  We are told, therefore, that we should not expect a person who is suffering from clinical depression to just “get over it.”  Yet, we find it difficult to endure those people who see the world, not through rose-coloured glasses, but foggy grey ones.
Clinical psychologist Dr. S. K. Sharma comes close to saying “get over it.”  But Dr. Sharma takes a different perspective.  This lifestyle advisor says that, before you can become a positive person, you must have the desire to be positive.   You can only do that if you are convinced that becoming positive will enhance your quality of life.
That is not the issue with many people who endure their own negativity.  They believe.  They just don’t believe that the option is available to them. Those people need to begin the process gradually, placing themselves in controlled situations where the outcome is most likely to be beneficial.  Positivity breeds positivity, and the person can build on small successes.
Similarly, once the “gloomy Gus” experiences a series of uplifting events, he or she should begin placing himself in situations where the outcome is less certain, but the negative consequences are minimal.  In these environments, the person can control the outcomes, and recover.  Again, success feeds success, and overcoming negative consequences often will stimulate confidence – an essential ingredient lacking in many naysayers. 
Many times, the negative outcomes are fed by our own inputs.  If we have lower expectations, we broadcast those expectations, subtly, in our posture, our mannerisms and our words.  Develop a habit of using positive words, of showing confidence and positivity in our posture and movements.  Those cues will be picked up by others, and, often, negative situations will be averted.
Take an interest in the world around you; particularly, in other people.  Letting others know you find them interesting is a sure-fire way for them to reciprocate with positive actions and words toward you.  Few people enjoy commiserating with someone who perpetually espouses negative opinions, or who talks incessantly about their own issues. 
As a child, I read an anecdote that remains with me five decades later.  Two young women are talking, and the first says to the other, “I’m so happy.  I’m marrying Bill.”
“Bill?” says the second.  “I thought you told me a few months ago that Jim was the most wonderful person in the world.”
“That’s true,” replied the first. “But when I’m with Bill, he makes me feel like I am the most wonderful person.”
Keep the company of positive, uplifting people, and you will develop the endurance to enjoy occasional interactions with those less enthusiastic about life.  After all, birds of a feather …
Be realistic about your expectations.  Die-hard Cleveland Brown and Toronto Maple Leaf fans start each yesar with the unwavering belief that their team will win the championship that year, even when the team finished last the prior year, and no personnel changes have been made.  That optimism is admirable.  But, certainly, even those pessimistic fans are sure to be disappointed when their team fails, once again.  Set goals that are reasonable, but not too low.  Be realistic, too, about your own successful conversion to optimism. 
One of the hallmarks of someone who is depressed is lethargy.  Similarly, those who think negatively often decline to become engaged with life.  By not participating in potentially negative events, one cannot be disappointed, right?  Wrong.  Inactivity leads to more feelings of failure.  Get up.  Get going. Try.  Share a joke.  Read uplifting plots and novels.  Watch uplifting shows.  Get involved with others.  It is difficult to brood about failure when you are engaged wholeheartedly in an activity.
Most of all, be appreciative.  You have life.  You have relative health, relative security, if you compare your situation to others world wide.  Enjoy what you have, instead of being morose about what you do not.
As you move slowly from feelings of negativity to a more uplifting outlook, your attitude, like a locomotive rolling downhill, will pick up steam, become unstoppable.  See?  Even going downhill can be a positive experience!

Friday, July 6, 2012

You've Got To Give Before You Get

One of my mother’s favourite “motivational” sayings – and she had dozens! – was “Think of all those starving children in Africa.”  It popped out of her mouth if we didn’t eat our dinner quickly, if we didn’t appreciate everything she cooked, if we complained about too little food, if we compared what one of us children had with what another had.
My mother also was the ultimate altruistic Canadian.  Regardless of how poor we were (and we did our best to be the poorest in our town), she knew of others less fortunate, finding ways to give a little of herself, or what little tangible assets she had to others.  Her standard is the standard for which I aim, but too often miss.  Yet, she defied the results of recent research, which claims that people are happier when they give to others.  Mom was far from a happy person.
Mom lived by two rules: It is better to give than receive, and Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Yet, she loved giving, and hated having people give to her.  “I’m no charity case” was one of her mantras.
A study out of the University of British Columbia, though, reinforces my optimistic view of the world.  It declares that children are happier giving than receiving. It is a result that is consistent with the teachings of most major religions, including Judaism , which declares, “So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof”).  The Qu’ran states, “The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things). Rivalry in worldly increase distracteth you. Abundance diverts you.”  The Bible says, , “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” All of these religions hold that we should be generous, and think of others.
An interesting corollary of the University of BC research is that the kids tested were happier when they gave away their own valued possessions, as compared to giving away something that the researchers had provided to them with the specific purpose of giving away.
This small study has sizeable implications for the rest of us.  The idea that we can improve our own happiness by making others happy first suggests that a good therapy for depression is to look to helping others, and getting involved.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Canadians consistently are ranked as happier than most people in the world, while also being one of the most generous people and the most involved in volunteerism.  Giving, if not a cure for sadness, certainly is related to not being sad. 
Many of the studies conducted on the topics of depression, happiness, satisfaction and so on show strong relationships between thinking of others and personal wellbeing.  However, a relationship between the two does not mean one causes or resolves the other.  For instance, one recent study  found that happier people were healthier. 
Does that men that we simply need to smile and be happy, and everything will be fine?  No.  Indeed, it may be that we are happier because we have health, not the other way around.  The former seems logical.  Yet, returning to the example that my mother set, if we actually do increase happiness by giving, I certainly am glad she gave a lot.  The consequences of her giving less could have been intolerable!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Unique Solution For Relieving Stress And Anxiety On Tap

We seem to have a tendency to look for simple solutions for complex problems.  While this strategy often pays dividends, too often we look at solutions for mental and emotional dilemmas in a far-too-simplistic way.  “Don’t worry, be happy” is a great catch phrase, but life seldom allows us the luxury of simply flipping a switch and solving our emotional crises.  Yet, unusual solutions often prove effective, and, ultimately, often prove to be simple, as well.
One such solution to a variety of anxieties is known as the “tapping method.” Simply tap away your anxiety!  The formal moniker for this alternative psychotherapy technique is ETF, or the “emotional therapy technique.”  It involves a variation on acupressure techniques, where a patient focuses on the stressors that have stimulated the anxiety, while the therapist applies acupressure to specific areas of the body.  In other words, he taps those pressure points while you are experiencing the simulated stress.  Alternatively and, perhaps most valuable, is that the patient himself may be able to self-administer these techniques at the moments that he or she is undergoing the actual stress.
Dawson Church, PhD Research Director of the Foundation for Epi Genetic Medicine, is quoted in a CBS article published online on June 12, 2012, as saying  of the strategy, “It tells your body that the stressful thought you’re having isn’t a real threat to your survival. And once you break the association in your mind between the stressful thought and the fight or flight response one time, it stays broken.”  
Some professionals question whether it as effective as claimed.  They postulate that it is simply the act of tapping or being tapped that causes the decreased stress.  They point out that tapping other parts of the body, or even tapping a doll decreases stress. 
But analysis of stress hormone levels revealed a 24% drop in those hormones after tapping, but no change in a control group.
These conflicting reports raise some questions, but, regardless of the physiological process involved, anxiety sufferers should be heartened by the potential for improvement in what may be a devastating disorder.  The issue of what causes what, and whether there is an alternative explanation for “why” is moot, since both groups of researchers agree that the end result is a decrease in stress and anxiety, even where these anxieties have become full phobias or  life-altering problems.  Whether the problem is as basic as a fear of going on open water in a boat, or a fear of newspaper ink transmitting horrible diseases, the fears are allayed by the tapping method. 
Thank goodness for alternative thinking, alternative solutions, and simple concepts that actually work.