What Everyone Needs

A sense of purpose. Of being needed.

That’s what my mom struggled with the last several years of her life. Her family that had needed her for a long time, was grown and gone. Her husband, who had needed her and provided companionship for even longer, was gone too. Be especially kind to older, single people.

Teaching has always been fulfilling in large part because it has provided me with a clear sense of purpose. Administrative work I’ve learned, not as much. Having done more administrative work the last few years, I confess that I’m in a work funk, probably the result of a less tangible sense of purpose.

That’s why I did something I almost never do, saved a student’s end-of-class “thank you” from mid-December. Despite telling her in a follow up message, I don’t think she had any idea how moved I was by it.

Hello Dr. Byrnes,
Here is my final paper. I have thoroughly enjoyed your class and am very sad it is over. This class was one I could consistently look forward to every week. It was one where I could wake up on a Tuesday or Thursday morning and say, “I GET to go to Writing 101 today!’ This class greatly increased my knowledge, view and perspective of the world. It challenged my beliefs and opened my thinking to accept new ideas. Thank you for leading so diligently and kindly as you did. I count it an honor and blessing to have taken this class. Thank you.

The honor and blessing was all mine.

Like my student, take a few minutes today to tell someone how they enrich your life in small or large ways. Remind them they are needed and that their life has purpose.

Monday Assorted Links

1. The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions.

“From 1985 to 2004, the percentage of people who reported having at least one friend on whom they could rely and with whom they could discuss important matters dropped to 57 percent from 80 percent. Today, more than half of all Americans report feeling lonely, especially in their professional lives. But study after study has shown that those who are seen as grateful, warm and justifiably confident draw others to them. Because these emotions automatically make us less selfish, they help ensure we can form relationships with people who will be there to support us when we need it.”

2. Why Self-Compassion Beats Self-Confidence.

“Admitting we have flaws just like anyone else keeps us connected to others.”

Brings to mind my favorite sentence of recent days, compliments of Jason Zweig, “If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you must not have talked to everybody in the room yet.”

3. “Even as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, I have a red line.”

“Saving the lives of law enforcement and the abused is a nonpartisan issue. . . We can take reasonable steps to prevent deadly acts by people who already have a violent record with firearms.”

4. How Rural Students Define the American Dream.

“I don’t feel like I’m living the American Dream, especially not here, in Southeast Arkansas, being a black female with a big mouth. You’re looked at funny when you want to be something more than just a wife one day and you live in Dumas. . . . If you have dreams beyond what other people feel like you should, you can’t live the American Dream in a place like this.”

What if we all adopt the same resolution for 2018, to support and cheer young, ambitious people.

Assigned Reading and Viewing

• You’re interested in adolescent mental health and like long-form, non-fiction journalism. The Silicon Valley Suicides.

• You wonder what it would be like to be a young Syrian woman who escapes from The Islamic State. ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish, and Escape.

• You dig athletic excellence and redemption stories. After rehabilitation, the best of Michael Phelps may lie ahead. Mid-story, I wondered, has there ever been a more physically dominant athlete in any sport?

• This Thanksgiving you want to be more intentional about giving thanks. Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.

• You’re thankful Adele is back. “Nannies talk very slow and very calm to try to make the world make sense.” Who knew?

• You’re grateful Adele is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

Once a Week Write Down What You’re Most Thankful For

We tend to take the most positive aspects of our lives for granted—good health; family; friends; a roof over our heads; freedoms; or warm, sunny, weekend days in October. It’s especially important that family and friends feel truly appreciated, because when they feel unvalued, those all important relationships suffer.

If you don’t stop to count your blessings on occasion, you’ll probably succumb to negativity. My friend is right when he says, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Curse the darkness with any regularity and people will avoid you. When that happens, negativity usually spirals downward.

University of California, Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky studies “happiness interventions”. Her research team asks, what if, with just a few behavioral adjustments, we could maintain a high level of happiness throughout our days, our years, or even our entire lives?

Here’s an interesting experiment of theirs. One set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness–but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore, or worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.*

While pondering this research, and writing this, I’ve been thinking about my mom. As is true for all octogenarians, her health isn’t what it used to be and my dad’s sudden death almost two decades ago was an understandable blow to her happiness. I can’t truly walk in her shoes, or understand why this author wants to die at age 75, but I’m confident even she would benefit from starting a gratitude journal.

Scratch that. Especially she. The more challenging one’s life, the more important it is to account for every last blessing. Starting a gratitude journal is an admission. An admission that gratitude doesn’t come naturally, it requires intentionality.

As always, I appreciate your reading.

* as described by Mark Joseph Stern

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.

Thank You

Most bloggers, like most people, are motivated by social status and wealth. I get contacted all the time by bloggers who want to teach me how to monetize my blog in three easy steps.

I write because we are social beings and writing is one especially beautiful way to deepen relationships and create lasting community. Like the wannabe Stoic that I am, I try to write twice a week immune to the humble blog’s statistics. But I’m only partially successful. I like peeking at the changing number of visitors  and where all over the world readers live. Truth be told, even worse, my blogging enthusiasm ebbs and flows in part based on the vagaries of your reading preferences.

Thank you for visiting this calendar year. I wish it didn’t matter, but it does. Thanks to everyone that took time to comment through the year. And thanks to Don for being my editor extraordinaire. And most importantly, thanks to everyone who is able to tell me in person that they have read a recent post. That’s the most positive encouragement I receive. It’s one thing to look at a bar graph with “page views”, it’s a whole different thing to see individuals behind the numbers. I wish my motivation was completely intrinsic, but I imagine that will remain an elusive ideal. Your participation matters, so thank you.

My goal for 2014 is to stay the course, by which I mean share insights about families, schools, and communities that illuminate and inspire. I hope you achieve whatever is most important to you and yours in 2014.

I was going to recreate this vid, but I couldn’t find a tutu that would fit or a white horse. God bless the carnies.