Monday, August 14, 2017

The Know of Yes (Listening)

“Why do musicians compose symphonies and poets write poems? They do it because life wouldn’t have any meaning for them if they didn’t. That’s why I draw cartoons. It’s my life." Charles Schulz
Our calling engages our passions. When we come to the path that makes sense for us, there is an inner yes that resonates and energizes. Clearly this is not always easy—because often the path has difficulties—but, at the same time, it’s not toilsome because it’s the right path. And that rightness brings with it energy and creativity. There’s an inner drive that leads us to change the world for the better. 
The well-known author and pastor Frederick Buechner describes the right calling, hearing our yeses, as a beautiful duet of voices.
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done…. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC
Buechner uses the term “work,” but I will replace this with “calling,” which arises at an amazing intersection of personal interest and external need.
With Buechner in mind, I’m going to change this slightly and phrase it more succinctly:
Our yes is where passion meets mission.
It’s where what we want most to do coincides with what God wants done in the world. It’s that itch we have to scratch. What we “need most to do” in Buechner’s definition reminds us that there is something (or perhaps a few things) that we “most need to do,” that has in it an inner “yes.”
But how do we know what we really care about? What does the experience of finding your passion feel like?
This brings me to a psychologist with a remarkable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (For what it’s worth, I once heard someone comment that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high-ee.”) In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and a sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller, way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience”—be described?
“‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
One key example for Csikszentmihalyi is the work of a surgeon, who operates within certain limits (defined by keeping the patient alive), for a specific goal (the improved health of the patient), with a task that's entirely demanding and rewarding. Although paradigmatic, surgeons don’t exhaust the experience of flow. In fact, flow is actually a reasonably universal experience.
But how did he find this out? He developed a new form of research, the Experience Sampling Method, in which hundreds of subjects wore pagers that beeped at odd intervals throughout their days. When paged, the participants had to quickly fill out a brief survey that noted what activity they were engaged in and a series of questions of whether they were more or less in the “flow.” Were they in “optimal experience”?
Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates some surprising results: for example, human beings experience flow more often when they are working than when they are at leisure. In fact, 54% of the participants who were “in flow” were paged at work. And although television requires mental processing, very little else mentally, like memory, is engaged. “Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television.”
Ultimately, he asserts, optimal experience makes life worth living. When we’re in the flow, we want to do nothing else. And we don’t really care about much else. 
“An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous." Csikszentmihalyi.
So if your “pager” beeped right now, would you be “in flow”? Take some notes throughout this week at random intervals and see when you’re in optimal experience, whether you’d keep doing that activity and “are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it.” As the fabulous book Designing Your Life reminds us, it may take some "trialing" or testing--which is the theme of the next section--to find your passions. Still, the key for this post is that your passions will lead you to yes.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Science of Gratitude

U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons has studied the science of gratitude. In his very approachable book entitled Thanks, Emmons tells about a study he and a research team conducted with participants whom he divided into three groups and who keep three types of journals for ten weeks—and I’ll restate this in my own words—one where daily the participants grumbled (describing what’s wrong in their lives), one where they stated things without sorting out positive and negative, and a gratitude journal where they simply noted what is positive in your life.

During this practice, he asked the participants to note their subjective levels of happiness. In other words, how would they rate their own happiness?

His findings? In contrast to the other two journal keepers, participants who kept the gratitude journal 
“felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions.”
According to the scale he and his research team used, 
“they were a full 25% happier than the other participants.”
Gratitude results in happiness because we are designed to be thankful.

Incidentally, John Templeton, the financier who later put his money into engaging life’s “Big Questions”—like the relationship of religion and science—had a very simple rule: start your day, immediately when you wake up, by noting two things you’re thankful for. And as a result, I’m told that Templeton, was an extraordinarily happy man.

Or maybe the word “extraordinarily” was ill-advised because Emmons research suggests that any of us—even those not born with a “sunny” disposition—can become happier through the practice of gratitude.

And this leads me to a question: if thanksgiving is fairly directly related to happiness, then why aren’t we more thankful? Don’t we want to be happy?

With this question, we arrive at the greatest problem in our culture, even though we probably have heard the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” our whole consumption-based society is founded on the idea that we can’t be thankful with what we’re given, that we always need more. As much as I can enjoy the craft of advertising, I know that its aim is increases our desires for what we don’t have. This makes it easy to be thankless in our society—to complain, to mutter under our breath that we could be happy “if only.” If only I had more money, I could buy that car, which would drive me past a stunning beach view, and I’d be accompanied by a beautiful person, who—because of car—would be sitting next to me.

As the proverb describes it, money can’t buy happiness, and I’d add this: wanting more money to buy more things positively makes us less happy.

My own goal out of all this is to be thankful for what I am receiving and not bitter for what I’m not receiving.

It seems that according to the science of gratitude, this has some marked positive benefits.