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.

A New Approach to a New Year

I’m a monogamous reader. When I commit to a book, I commit. No late night flirting with other authors that I might regret in the morning. Another idiosyncrasy, I can be slow to ditch flawed books. I was on a nice reading roll during the first half of 2012, but got totally stalled in a cook book somewhere during the summer. Yes, you read correctly, a cook book! You’re forgiven for wondering what kind of imbecile sets out to read a cookbook cover to cover. The same kind that set out to read the bible from cover to cover in the sixth grade. Wasn’t able to check that one off either. Damn Leviticus.

But, I’m happy to report, my reading self is back. In fact, I may read more in January and February than all of 2012 combined, but more on why in a future post. At present, I’m wedded to Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Although it’s clearly written, Burkeman’s ideas are so provocative and contrary to conventional wisdom, The Antidote will probably require a re-reading, making it my last book of 2012 and first of 2013.

If like me, you enjoy holding up common assumptions to the light of day, I especially recommend Chapter Four, “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work”. In short, Burkeman convincingly argues that most everything you and I have been taught about goal setting is flawed. In part, his argument rests on what went wrong on Mount Everest in 1996 when many climbers died because they didn’t turn around in time to survive the descent. In his view, Krakauer’s Into Thin Air analysis is “ultimately dissatisfying” as an explanation.

He finds Chris Kayes’ interpretation more persuasive. Kayes, a former stockbroker turned business professor and expert on organizational behavior, suspects the climbers were “lured into destruction by their passion for goals”. Burkeman writes of Hayes, “His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint—a successful summiting of the mountain—the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their senses of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs.”

“If his hunch about the climbers was right,” Burkeman adds, “it would have become progressively more difficult for them to sacrifice their goal, despite accumulating evidence that it was becoming a suicidal one. Indeed, that accumulating evidence. . . would have hardened the climbers’ determination not to turn back. The climb would have become a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.”

One take-away from the chapter is that there are often unintended consequences when people focus intensely on especially lofty goals. Kayes points out that the mountaineers who died climbing Everest in 1996 did successfully reach their goal: they ascended to the summit. The tragic unintended consequence was that they didn’t make it back down.

Burkeman also offers up a  challenge—to become more comfortable with uncertainty, to turn towards it, to exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future. Burkeman sites a person who says the key to this approach is to think more like a frog. “You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for awhile. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.” The imagery of sunbathing on lily-pads isn’t mean to imply laziness, the emphasis is on enjoying one’s work in the present rather than postponing happiness based upon endless five year plans.

Burkeman’s thinking challenges my default tendencies to plan and set goals. My goal for 2013? Have fewer goals and turn towards uncertainty.