Each morning the locker room overflows with people from all walks of life who come to stretch, swim, meditate, or pump iron. At 7:30 am, the early morning crew of active seniors completes water aerobics class and heads out for coffee as the pre-work professionals grab pilates or yoga classes before running to their offices.
As I toss my towel into the bin and head out to work, I relish seeing my favorite cohort, adorable babies with mommies and babysitters getting ready for swim class. Watching these small humans proves the adage that we’re actually born with distinctive character traits. Many babies happily munch on Cheerios intrigued by locker room activity all around them. But sometimes piercing wails reverberate off locker room walls making sure everyone knows that someone is NOT HAVING A GOOD DAY while earnest mothers cajole and plead with their precious offspring to take off socks or put on bathing cap and goggles.
As we grow wiser, we begin to understand that we are the only ones truly responsible for our own happiness. It’s a choice to let someone else’s mood, actions, or words destroy our happiness. So today, on the 2018 International Day of Happiness, here are three simple actions to elevate your well-being.
Take a deep dive into what makes you unique.
The VIA Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) Classification emerged from three years of globe-spanning research as leading scientists searched for universal character strengths that answered the question: “What is it that makes us human?”
Click to see larger view
The scientists gathered artifacts from art, literature, and music across time, geography, world religions, and multi-cultural relevance. The 24 strengths that met their criteria include Creativity, Bravery, Love and be Loved, Fairness, Humility, and Gratitude, as shown in this image of the 24 strengths arranged in 6 virtue categories.
When you take a little time to complete the VIA survey you will be immediately delighted to access your signature strengths, the ones that make you the best version of yourself. Reading through your Character Strengths and Virtues Classification is like running into a dear friend from college or grade school, someone you used to enjoy. Perhaps you haven’t thought of this person in a long time due to the press of responsibilities that bear down on your busy, active, grown-up life.
The best part is that everyone has signature strengths. Empirical research by Gander and colleagues posits that use of signature strengths in new ways can lead to feelings of enhanced well-being, which can last for up to six months. Thus, doing something you love, in which you excel, can result in positive cascading emotions for up to half a year! I hope you will take the VIA this week. Post a comment about what you discover when you reconnect to your essence.
Over the past 17 years that I’ve led Soaringwords, I have seen thousands of patients use signature strengths in pay-it-forward expressive arts projects to inspire other ill kids to “Never give up!” In my capstone research, I found that inviting a child or teen to do something kind for someone else by harnessing his or her unique strengths accelerates transformative healing.
Reframe things in the face of difficulty
The only certainty in life is that nothing is constant. Your ability to be flexible in the midst of challenges plays a significant role for you to be able to experience greater equanimity and balance, even in turbulent times. One way hospitalized children, teens, and family members experience greater optimism is by a process called reframing. Reframing is the ability to look beyond the negative or painful aspects of an illness or hospitalization and to see and appreciate some of the unexpected, delightful things that happen.
Courtesy of Photo courtesy of All Saints Episcopal School
In my upcoming book, I profile Anna. Anna is legally blind and deaf and the heart of the girl’s middle school basketball team in her small New Hampshire town. Her tenacity and courage inspire her teammates and opponents to put aside competition several times during each game for the purpose of giving Anna the thrill of scoring a few baskets. Although only twelve years old, this girl is a master reframer. As her family was driving home from a recent game in which her team was trounced, she told her parents, “I’m so happy, that was a great game. Last time we lost by 92 points, today we only lost by 75! I think we’re getting so much better.” Both of her parents raised her to find the bright side of every situation. They encouraged her to figure things out without excessively coddling her.
Think of an example in your life right now that could use some reframing.
Experience sacred moments of awe
Sometimes we experience positive moments that take our breath away. Most people state that awe is experienced in the midst of massive and staggeringly beautiful natural phenomena, such as a gorgeous sunset, an epic mountain range, or the beauty of the sea. Other people describe feelings of awe when listening to a powerful piece of music.
In the Bois de Hal
Awe arises with feelings of admiring wonder when witnessing the feats of high-performance athletes or dancers.
However, children, teens, and families grappling with serious illness often recount that they experience sacred, fleeting of awe in the midst of pain or suffering. Awe involves being in the presence of something powerful often associated with feelings of submission or being overwhelmed.
I remember being on the beach with dear friends Elissa and Clint when their son, Jake, stood up by himself for the first time in six years. Anyone who witnesses a loved one speak for the first time after a debilitating stroke surely knows an awe that may be the most powerful emotion they’ve ever experienced. Be present. When you are receptive to awe, you will be rewarded.
Since awe is often inspired by nature, pay attention to rainbows, stunning sunsets, moody clouds, glorious trees, or the dazzling array of color on a single leaf.
Remember a moment of awe that you experienced in your life. How does this experience of awe and wonder make you feel more hopeful? Is there anything that happened after this experience that makes you feel more hopeful about something else in your life? Take a few moments to savor the experience by writing about it and send me a post.
International Day of Happiness: March 20, 2018
International Day of Happiness is a wonderful time to remember that there are literally hundreds of opportunities each day to flex your character strengths. When you use your signature strengths you harness the best parts of yourself.
When things are not going well it’s an excellent opportunity to reframe things to recognize anything for which you can be grateful.
Remember that giving yourself time for stillness and reflection provides a daily opportunity to experience awe, a powerful emotion that elevates thoughts and souls.
Buksbaum, L. SOARING into Strength: The New Science Approach to Help You Heal. In preparation.
Gander F., Proyer R. T., Ruch W., Wyss T. (2012). The good character at work: an initial study on the contribution of character strengths in identifying healthy and unhealthy work-related behavior and experience patterns. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 85: 895–904. DOI: 10.1007/s00420-012-0736-x
Wen a child is ill, the whole family is in crisis. Often mothers are the ones who nurture and support the entire family. That’s why today and everyday we salute millions of women who love, support, care for, and inspire ill children, teens, and families to “Never give up!”
The SOARING into Strength model of my organization, SoaringWords, is built around seven core Positive Psychology constructs to enhance the well-being of ill children, teens, families and caregivers. This evidence-based model has been tested among hundreds of hospitalized children and teens around the world. I’m going to use this structure to celebrate some of many heroic women who have shaped the SOARING components of positive psychology:
SHIFTINGis creating changes in your attitude, your body, and overall well-being. When a child is hospitalized, each day the child’s PATIENT identity gets reinforced as hospital technicians read the code number on his hospital identity bracelet before each medical procedure. The child is forced to wear institutional hospital scrubs identical to the other patients. The child is isolated from his or her friends and family. Even the hospital bed often resembles a jail cell with cumbersome plastic or metal guardrails on either side. The child starts habituating to this new identity of someone who is SERIOUSLY ill. They can lose their sense of self. Child life professionals and nurses do the daily heavy-lifting of patient-care, essential to restoring children’s identity and well-being. Soaringwords’ expressive arts projects are powerful tools to shift a child’s perspective from isolation and despair to engagement and re-connection to sense of humor, creativity, and kindness.
Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Children and caring professionals enjoy making SoaringJoke Books and other expressive arts projects to share with other children.
OPTIMISM is finding the good even when times are difficult or painful. When we think of positivity, Barbara Fredrickson, one of the founders of the field of Modern Positive Psychology surely comes to mind. Barbara’s Broaden and Build theory of Positive Emotions proves that when we experience positive emotions it broadens us and enables us to experience MORE positive emotions. Our peripheral vision expands, our relaxation response kicks in, and our body produces more endorphins, making us feel better.
Photo: the author interviewing Barbara Fredrickson for the launch of her book, Love 2.0, at the International Positive Psychology Association World Congress in L.A.
Optimism is expecting good things to happen in your life, while pessimism is expecting bad things to occur. Optimistic people and pessimistic people tend to approach life in radically different ways. The way a person approaches problems has an impact on her health and well-being and also her children’s well-being.
For example, when an Optimist faces a challenge she tends to expect a good outcome, even if things will be hard. Optimists acknowledge the problem, place it in as positive a light as possible, use humor to relieve the stress, and try to do whatever possible to lead to a positive outcome. This proactive way of thinking and acting gives her a sense of control that she is taking an active role to do what she can in the face of a challenging situation.
When JoAnne was born without the use of her legs, the pediatric neurologist told her parents “Children like this are like wet rags. Just enjoy the limited time you have with her….” Instead of succumbing to his dire prognosis, her parents created “Operation Puddle Jump” where they gave their daughter every opportunity to experience a happy normal childhood. JoAnne became a nationally ranked ballroom dancer (from her wheelchair) and is a Zumba® instructor inspiring her students.
Photo: JoAnne rocks the stage at the Soaringwords’ presentation at the International Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida
ALTRUISM is gaining a sense of control by sharing your creativity, kindness, strengths, and hope with others. Jane Dutton is the world-renowned expert on compassion, a positive psychology exemplar who has mentored and nurtured dozens of accomplished leaders who have made valuable contributions to the world. Compassion and kindness are foundational for healing. Once you focus your attention on others, your heart opens and you feel connected to something larger than yourself. At Soaringwords, we motivate ill children and families to “pay it forward” to help others. When a child does something kind for another person, it accelerates transformative healing.
Isolation is often the most prominent negative emotion people experience when they are ill or hospitalized and when someone they love is ill. Being ill isolates people and physically removes them from their normal circles of support. Doing something kind for someone else lessens isolation considerably. So your grandmother was right, “It’s better to give than to receive.” And, the best part is, you also end up feeling pretty great too.
Photo: Lisa and Jane at the Compassion Conference in Louisville KY with the Dalai Lama.
RESILIENCE is flourishing through difficult times. We can’t control external factors in our lives such as illness, natural disasters, or the behavior of others. However, we can take an active role in our own responses to life’s adversities and challenges.
Being resilient is not about being strong on the outside or stuffing our feelings to present a brave front. True resilience is about being open and vulnerable to our deepest feelings, and then choosing to give our all to take the next right step even in the face of serious challenges.
Recently, grit, a new word for resilience, has burst into the vernacular. Dr. Angela Duckworth, my mentor, friend and professor, is the leading expert in the world.
Duckworth defines grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals that are really hard. Hospitalized children, teens, and their families are some of the grittiest people on the planet because they are fighting for the most important thing in the world: to regain health. This passion makes them resilient. There’s nothing more important than working hard to have a good life despite the challenges and limitations thrust upon you. Caretakers, parents, and hospital personnel may be able to enhance a child’s and teen’s grittiness by teaching him or her how to focus on what is going well.
Photo: Angela Duckworth on the eve of the launch of GRIT creating a video for hospitalized children and families.
Teaching and modeling can help children and teens experience a sense of accomplishment in the face of tremendous challenges. I believe that if a hospitalized child or teen and his or her parents can learn to focus on simple goals that a child can accomplish throughout the course of a day, they will be better equipped to stay positive.
When I was writing my Master’s thesis, we invited 220 patients to create a SoaringSuperhero message and artwork to donate to another patient. All 220 patients chose to make a superhero to pay-it-forward. One patient was in the Intensive Care Unit at the time of the survey. It took her two weeks to complete her superhero but she persisted in between surgeries and recovering. Imagine the pride and sense of accomplishment that she felt to know that she was capable of doing something so positive and significant to give hope to another child.
Photo Courtesy of SoaringWords.org: Rainbow unicorn girl artwork
IMAGERY is connecting to your inner knowledge to heal through imagery exercises. Imagery is the shared social language of the mind. It takes less than 60 seconds. When you have pressing work or personal challenges, imagery can immediately recalibrate your body chemistry, halting the fight or flight response and restoring you to equilibrium. ALL OF THE ANSWERS ARE ALREADY INSIDE OF YOU. The more you do imagery the easier it becomes to draw on it.
I first met Gabby a ten-year-old girl because her mother works at Johnson & Johnson, one of the amazing companies that supports the work of Soaringwords. Someone mentioned that her daughter had leukemia. I asked to speak to the mom and later that night I was on the phone speaking to Gabby and her mother. They were extremely receptive to learning how to reduce the pain from Gabby’s bi-monthly spinal infusions of chemotherapy. In less than ten minutes, I taught them how to do healing imagery to help Gabby take an active role in her self-healing. For the next two years every morning and night, Gabby and her mom did the healing imagery. She has completely recovered.
Photo Courtesy of SoaringWords.org: Gabby learning imagery
NARRATIVE is sharing the power of storytelling, reading and writing positive stories. In the old days people gathered around the fireplace or town square and lived in extended communities, often many generations living in the same dwelling. Today our families and our lives are fragmented. Everyone has heard the expression that laughter is contagious. So is happiness.
Dr. Margarita Tarragona has merged narrative therapy and positive psychology, helping people understand the stories they are telling themselves and construct new stories that fit the facts.
GRATITUDE is the most powerful of all the positive emotions. When you are grappling with serious illness or someone you know or love is ill, gratitude can often be the life-line that saves your sanity and prevents you from hating everyone you encounter whose life seems to be fabulous and perfect.
There are many wonderful way of EXTENDING gratitude. Writing gratitude letters is one very very effective way. You write the letter and then, if possible, set up a time to meet the person in person. When you get together you actually read the letter to them. You can still write a gratitude letter to someone you know or someone who has died. The act of writing the letter is extremely therapeutic.
Another powerful gratitude exercise is writing a gratitude letter to yourself to recognize and celebrate the wonderful qualities that you possess. Try it, you’ll be amazed at how powerful this exercise is.
In her book about 12 ways to enhance happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky has described other ways to use gratitude to enhance well-being.
Photo: courtesy of Soaringwords. Sharing a Gratitude Letter is a powerful way to experience positive emotions
Wishing you inner fortitude and strength as you celebrate wonderful women and thoughtful men in your life.
Yesterday I introduced The Strengths Switchby Dr. Lea Waters. Today I want to highlight the distinctions she makes among different kinds of strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses. People can become very proficient at learned behaviors, but without the energy and enjoyment associated with strengths. To understand the differences, let’s look at three dimensions for evaluating possible strengths:
Performance: being good at something. Watch for times when your children show above-age levels of achievement, rapid learning, and repeated patterns of success.
Energy: feeling good while doing it. Strengths are self-reinforcing. The more we use them, the more energized we become.
High use: choosing to do it. Watch for what your children choose to do in their spare time, how often they engage in these activities, how they speak about these activities.
Different Kinds of Strengths
Using these dimensions helps parents distinguish among different kinds of strengths, as shown in the figure below.
Take a closer look at strengths
Core Strengths are our go-to strengths. They fuel high levels of performance and energy and use.
Think about your child. Imagine her without one of her core strengths. For example, my son Jonathan is social. It is impossible to imagine Jonathan being himself without his sense of humor or loyalty to his friends. My son Josh is empathetic and kind. It’s impossible to imagine Josh without thinking of his thoughtfulness. What are the core strengths that are the essence of your children? What are the core strengths that make you the person you have become?
Growth Strengths energize us and offer the potential for good performance, but use is typically low to medium. You may see only glimpses of them, but they can shine if they are developed. You may notice that when your child is using a growth strength she is energized and showing early signs of good performance. According to Dr. Waters, these strengths are fascinating because they don’t initially look like strengths, but they can blossom quickly once they are discovered.
Learning about strengths at Independent School 528
You can encourage your child to use her growth strengths by:
Noticing the strength she’s drawing upon
Pointing out how her performance is improving
Letting her know you see the positive energy she’s exuding when she’s using the strength
Offering low pressure opportunities to use that strength
Praising her when she chooses to use it on her own accord
Learned Behaviors need to be taught, often to meet requirements of parents or school. Therefore, motivation to perform learned behaviors comes from the desire to please others, operate successfully in the world, or to gain external rewards. They are not intrinsically motivating. Your child can excel in these areas, but they do not give energy.
But What About Weaknesses?
Weaknesses also exist. Weaknesses are features that are disadvantages or flaws that prevent us from being effective at something. We can be weak in certain skills, abilities, talents, or character traits. We all have weaknesses. When my sons were young, I always showed them when I made a mistake in order to model the fact that no one is perfect and that it’s okay to not be great at everything. Today my husband and I often reach out to them for technical support when we reach the limits of our ability to deal with the machines in our home.
Dr. Waters stresses that strength-based parenting doesn’t mean ignoring your child’s weaknesses, but it does allow you to approach them from a healthier and more productive perspective. When the focus is first and foremost on strengths, everyone can be more genuine and less defensive when communicating about weaknesses. Three essential messages to give your child about weaknesses:
Just as everyone has strengths, everyone has weaknesses.
Having weaknesses doesn’t mean you’re unworthy.
Avoid the trap of spending too much time focusing on your weaknesses.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Each day you have the opportunity to practice strengths-based parenting. You will learn from your progress, and you’ll constantly be given new real-life opportunities to become a master electrician, flipping the switch.
Go to the Strength Switch website for free resources, a blog reflecting on putting the strengths switch into action, and information about the 5-week online course.
Lea was the emcee for the Soaringwords Opening night celebration at the Canadian Positive Psychology Conference in 2015 at Niagara on the Lake. Here she is in the middle of the dancers.
What if you could make a small shift in your parenting style that would yield enormous results for your child… and for you?
If you’re like most people, you want to raise emotionally and intellectually healthy children. But today there’s so much pressure to have our children and grandchildren excel in EVERY aspect of their tender lives.
Dr. Lea Waters
Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, parents can post every trophy and accomplishment on social media. Today’s children are the most documented generation of all time. Being bombarded with daily photo and video montages showcasing the accolades and adventures of other peoples’ seemingly perfect children tends to accentuate the tendency to focus on what’s wrong with our children and then try to fix it.
Lea Water’s break-through strength-based parenting approach changes that around. First it helps you see what is right about your children. Then it helps you nurture and cultivate their innate strengths and talents.
Sounds great. How do I do this?
Start with observation. If your daughter is really interested in music and loves to sing along with every song on the radio, perhaps you want to encourage her to join a chorus at her school, pick up an instrument, or start writing her own lyrics. If your son is likes to read more than he enjoys playing sports, perhaps you want to introduce him to some age-appropriate book series that pique his interests instead of pushing him to compete in sports that he does not enjoy.
Thus the strength-based parenting approach involves two simple steps: First see your child’s strengths. Then build upon them.
Dr. Waters notes three strength-based parenting styles:
Parents love to share strengths
Strengths Communicators: Parents who naturally use conversation with their kids to highlight strengths and talk about opportunities to use strengths for better outcomes.
Strengths Activators: Parents who coach their children to practice their strengths when hands-on opportunities arise.
Strengths Creators: Parents who are big-picture thinkers that can strategically create strengths-based opportunities for their kids.
Use the Strengths Switch to Short-circuit Negative Thoughts
At the end of the day, chances are, your energy is depleted from hours of work, significant responsibilities, and caring for your children. When you’re hungry, angry, and tired it’s easy to become irritable. Dr. Waters offers the strength switch as a simple but powerful tool to help you shift from focusing on your children’s weaknesses to focusing on their strengths. The strength switch acts like a circuit breaker, which is defined by Wikipedia as an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current that typically results from an overload or short circuit. The circuit breaker interrupts current flow after a fault is detected.
Most of us can appreciate how negative thoughts and emotions can short-circuit our sense of balance. So thinking about this metaphor sounds good on paper, but how do you practice strength-based parenting in the moment when negative emotions start to overwhelm? Dr. Waters has a step-by-step guide for the strength switch briefly summarized here:
Where was the bike left out?
Observe your child’s action. For now, let’s assume your child did not put his bicycle away. It’s blocking the front door of your apartment so you have to move it in order to get inside your home.
Take a nanosecond to remember that just because you aren’t seeing your child’s strengths in that moment, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.
Pause for a moment: be mindful when the knee-jerk negative default feelings and thoughts start to take over. Taking a pause helps you get between your thoughts and feelings and a negative reaction.
Take a couple of deep breaths. Each time you breath out, you reduce stress hormones and calm your body.
Insert the thought, “The strengths are here, but they’re hiding. Let me switch over to find them.”
Take a few minutes to allow yourself to settle down. Perhaps you want to hang up your coat, or change out of your work clothes. Maybe you want to listen to your favorite song before speaking to your son.
Say what you mean, but not in a way that is mean. Children, especially very young ones, cannot distinguish subtle emotions such as irony or sarcasm. It’s best to say what you want in a neutral and loving way, not letting anger or frustration seep into your voice.
Say something such as, “I see that you cleaned your room and made your bed this morning before you went to school. That’s great. I had a bit of trouble getting into the house today when I got home because your bike was blocking the door. When you come home from school tomorrow, I’d like you to remember to park your bike on the side of the house.
When we activate the strength switch, it can produce radically different results. Flipping the switch, we experience a sense of control by actively choosing where to put our selective attention. Where attention goes, energy flows. Imagine how liberating it is to choose to focus on the positive instead of harping on the negatives. Reinforcing your child’s strengths gives you both a powerful foundation of good will and trust. This fertile ground is a much better place to address areas that need fine-tuning.
Sharing smiles and encouragement, even in the midst of medical challenges
Practice the Strength Switch Think of a situation from the past couple of weeks where your negative feelings escalated and you lost your cool with your child, causing both of you to feel crummy about the situation. In a couple of sentences write down what happened simply re-telling the facts.
Now close your eyes and breathe out and re-imagine the scene. See yourself taking a pause, and see yourself remembering that your child has strengths, even though you temporarily are focusing on something that is out of balance. Now, write down a new ending to this story where you flipped the strength switch and approached the situation from a place of love and patience, recognizing the good in the child before addressing the situation that needs an adjustment.
Reread your notes. See how taking a few moments to recalibrate your thoughts, feelings, and actions can make an enormous difference in the outcome: Happier parent. Happier child, motivated to remember to use her strengths in the future.
Click here, to explore the distinction Dr. Waters makes between strengths and learned behaviors.
By Lisa Buksbaum for Positive Psychology News Daily
Words from the heart enter the heart. ~ Mishnah, Rabbinic Commentary on the Talmud. Berachot 6b
Today neuroscience can validate the accuracy of this adage by empirically measuring the impact of loving words, adoring gazes, caring thoughts, and the simple touch of a hand or shoulder. Small gestures can have profound, immediate, and positive impacts on our physiology, thoughts, and feelings. Dacher Keltner speaks about four great loves: the love between parent and child, the passion between sexual partners, the enduring devotion between pair-bonders, and the love for non-kin, most typically friends and fellow humans, but also including pets.
How Can You Resist A Baby?
Bonding to a newborn
According to British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, children come into the world biologically programmed to form attachment with others because this will help them survive. He posits that the first great love of life begins when we leave the womb. It includes a rich vocabulary of touch, voice, gaze, and facial displays and is evident in the merging of minds, heartbeats, and nervous systems of caretaker and young child.
These processes establish deep patterns of neural response in the pre-social nervous system: growth in tactile receptors in the skin, strengthening of the oxytocin system, setting the HPA axis to less stressful levels, and lighting up reward centers in the brain. For those of you who don’t happen to be brain surgeons, HPA is an abbreviation for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It describes a complex set of interactions among the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain and the adrenal glands in the body. Keltner likens the experiences of early love to feeling a warm hand on your back encouraging you as you move through life.
Not everyone forms warm and supportive attachments. Some experienced cycles of isolation or trauma as young children. Fortunately, through twelve-step programs, counseling, and determination, even people without secure attachment can become the empathetic, nurturing parents that they wished they had had.
The Thrill of It All
Anyone who has experienced a grade-school crush, high-school flirtation, or serious love relationship knows that powerful passionate feelings can short-circuit the brain. My first crush was directed towards Bruce Grunt, the new boy in town who sported wavy brown hair, big eyes, and a winning smile. What clinched Bruce as a fifth-grade heart-throb for me was that he reportedly played the drums just like Bobbie Sherman of the Monkees, one of top teen idols at the time.
Just as scientists have documented pervasive baby-parent bonding rituals, simple flirtation rituals echo the same auditory and physical bonding rites. Remember what it felt like to hear the other’s voice or see the other approaching? I remember my heart fluttering when I spotted my husband Jacob walking towards me on Manhattan’s West 86th Street when we were newlyweds. When we’d meet at our lobby, we’d both be grinning from ear to ear. Before proceeding to the elevator we’d share a hug, a universal gesture that places two individual bodies in a heart-to-heart stance. If positive psychologists had been perched in our lobby, they probably could have measured the expansion of our peripheral visions and the rise in our oxytocin levels.
All of these physical reactions demonstrate Barbara Fredrickson’s theory that experiencing positive emotions together actually opens us up to experience more positive sensations. Barb defines love as “micro-moments of connection,” and “positivity resonance.” I invite you to watch this Soaringwords’ video where Dr. Barbara Fredrickson shares findings from her riveting book, Love 2.0.
There’s nothing like the thrill of the powerful choreography of touch.
Just like puppies tumbling around with joy and abandon, everything seems playful and new at the beginning of a relationship. There are many exquisite touch receptors under the surface of the skin that are activated with a provocative brush of the arm, an emphatic pat of the shoulder, a butt bump after a shared joke. These harmless ways of upping the ante in flirtation allow two people to read each other’s reactions to see if they are in fact in synch.
When all goes well, a couple experiences behavioral synchrony with mirror neurons firing and mutual mimicking of expressions, laughter, and body language. The old definitions of self give way to an entirely new identity. The new identity emerging from pair bonding can realign our lives. Amplified devotion prepares us for commitment to monogamous bonding. All of these dance steps of behavioral synchrony reinforce perpetuation of our genes, which brings us right back into experiencing those powerful parent-child bonding emotions with our offspring.
Pay-it-Forward and Expand Your Love
The best way to experience more love is to be gratuitously kind to others without expecting anything in return. Doing something nice for someone else simply because you expect a positive return reduces love to the level of a business transaction. In contrast, paying-it-forward is expansive and generative. This is why for the past sixteen years Soaringwords has inspired thousands of hospitalized children and teens to engage in expressive arts projects to donate to other ill children because we know that this simple gesture accelerates transformative healing.
Atul Gawande describes an experiment by Dr. Bill Thomas at the Chase Memorial Nursing Home concerned with measuring how man’s best friend (and some cats, bunnies and parakeets) retarded illness and aging.
4-pound sidekick, Lulu
As a young audacious doctor Bill Thomas was put in charge of a nursing home facility. He was dismayed to discover that the residents were depressed, heavily medicated, and isolated as they spent most of their time in their bedrooms or sitting shoulder to shoulder parked in their wheelchairs near the nursing station watching a TV with the sound blasting. Dr. Thomas ordered 100 parakeets, four dogs, two cats, a colony of rabbits, and a flock of laying hens.
The first few days were mayhem as fur and feathers literally flew around the facility. Then patients who were non-ambulatory volunteered to walk the dogs and actually walked for the first time in months. Otherwise non-responsive residents started caressing and caring for the bunnies and cats. Drug costs for the facility fell 38% compared to a comparable facility, while deaths decreased by fifteen percent.
These people needed something to love.
Share the love
So this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re loving a baby, flirting madly with someone new, keeping the flames of love stoked with your mate, or giving to close relatives, cherished friends, strangers, or pets, remember that loving words, gazes, and gentle touch can elevate the giver and receiver to experience laughter, gratitude, and joy together. As Helen Keller aptly said,
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They simply must be felt with the heart.
A few years ago, I embarked on a 250-mile road trip to meet Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionately known as Amma. She is a Hindu spiritual leader, revered as a saint by her followers. Amma’s name means “mother” in Hindi. There is nothing more maternal than a woman nestling a child in her arms, and Amma has amplified the simple, powerful, loving gesture of a hug to an astonishing level. According to the Amma.org website, to date Amma has hugged more than 34 million people.
Born in India in 1953, she was the third of seven children. Her father was a poor fisherman. From a young age, Amma was sent to gather food scraps from neighbors for the family’s cows and goats. Each day as she rummaged through trash, she was confronted with the intense poverty and suffering of others. After hearing a particularly dire story, she would bring the person food and clothing from her own home. When her family learned about her altruistic actions they scolded her.
At the same time, Amma began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. Her physical contact with other people, especially men, was considered unacceptable, and her parents insisted that she stop immediately. Instead, word of her kindness and wisdom spread rapidly through the region, and people started traveling great distances to her village to meet her. Often there would be dozens of people sleeping on the ground near her humble home waiting for a chance to speak to this fourteen-year-old girl.
“People used to come and tell me their troubles. They would cry and I would wipe their tears. When they fell weeping into my lap, I used to hug them. Then the next person wanted it too, and so the habit picked up,” she told a Rediff interviewer.
My Own Experience with Hugs
For many years, I have traveled around the country running Soaringwords’ programs for thousands of employee volunteers at end of sales meetings or corporate retreats. My Soaringwords talk is followed by a hands-on team-building activity doing something simple and kind to benefit ill children. Evaluations show that these are often the emotional highlight of the meeting because of the powerful feelings evoked.
Soaringwords programs often culminate in hospital visits with small employee delegations donating their Soaringwords projects to babies, children, and teens. After going room-to-room, reading the special messages and artwork on the quilts and pillows, we thank the children for allowing us the privilege of visiting. Then comes my favorite part, what makes me want to get up the next day and do it all again. As I leave the hospital room I always asked the child, teen, or family member:
“Would you like a hug?”
There is a momentary pause that feels like everything is moving in slow motion. I wait. I have no expectations. Sometimes a person looks at me and says “No thanks.” I smile and say something like, “It’s been such a pleasure to meet you.”
Most of the time after I ask, the person pauses and starts to smile or nod silently. I take a step forward, waiting. When it’s the right time, the hug happens. Some of the hugs are immediate and strong. Other hugs are slow and tentative. A few seconds elapse, then come the tears. Tears of joy. Tears of release. Or just tears of being “seen.”
Amma giving a hug
Meeting a Master
This is why I was compelled to drive for four hours to meet someone who had already hugged more than 34 million people. I knew that I would come away inspired. In Hinduism, darshan is the act of beholding a deity, divine person, sacred object or natural wonder, especially in a physical form. I was ready to see this paragon of loving kindness in person.
Dorothy, I think we’re not in Kansas Anymore
I set out with Greta, Soaringwords’ Community Relations Manager, to experience the power of Amma’s love and perhaps even receive a hug for ourselves. The road trip coincided with Greta’s birthday so we dubbed it a Soaringwords Adventure & Birthday Boondoggle. We knew we were far from New York City when we stopped at a gas station just a few miles from the retreat center. As we pulled in, we noticed a couple dressed like they were attending Woodstock, dancing and chanting on a well-worn patch of grass abutting the gas station.
When they saw us leaving our car to stretch our legs and use the facilities, the man approached us with a broad grin.
“Greetings holy sisters.” His eyes were joyful, his shoulders slightly drooping like a friendly basset hound.
“Well hello there, looks like you two are celebrating this beautiful day.”
“Indeed. Are you coming to meet Amma?”
“Why yes, we are.”
“I’ve seen her 25 times, here and in India.”
“Wow, we are Amma virgins. It’s our first time.”
“You won’t be disappointed. It will change your life.”
Greta with Carrots
A few minutes later we pulled up to a large parking lot, a patch of dirt in front of a tired building that looked like it might have been a dance hall, bowling alley or warehouse decades earlier. Several greeters were on hand at the registration station which had hundreds of envelopes perched on a folding table. We received our room assignment, schedule of meditation sittings, and assigned duties. We had kitchen duty at 5:00 AM the next day. Greta and I peeled potatoes and chopped carrots for hundreds of people. It was meaningful to contribute, although Greta noted that it felt like being in an I Love Lucy episode as we tried to cut vegetables in precisely instructed shapes and sizes.
Our room was immaculate and wonderfully barren: two beds, a lopsided dresser, and a couple of pegs to hang our worldly possessions or wet towels. A single light bulb suspended from the ceiling by a bent wire illuminated the space between the beds. According to the printed program schedule, our days started at dawn and did not have an official end time. We realized that we were in for a whole lot of sitting in silence for hours at a stretch. We closed the door to our room and took a short hike prior to the opening session asanas, times to sit in meditation.
She looks Holy
Amma reminded me of iconic portraits of Indian Goddesses like Radha, the life energy and goddess of kindness, or the Great Tara, the supreme creatrix and mother of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Amma looked like a grandmother, and also a little bit like a Botero sculpture. I immediately wanted to hug her.
Like many things that are authentic and true, eighteen hours later, when I had my chance, it was nothing like I had imagined, and it was wonderful. Greta and I each received a small orange ticket, with a number printed on it. At the appointed time, organizers invited people to start assembling in a line that wrapped around the circumference of the entire hall. As I walked up the stairs to the stage where Amma sat on a golden chair, we locked eyes. Her gaze was penetrating and soulful. I stared into her eyes, feeling in the presence of a holy person. I smiled softly as tears streamed down my face. Suddenly she leaned into my face and cupped her thick hand close to my ear creating a megaphone of flesh and bone. Then she started screaming directly into my ear: “Mother, Mother, Mother.” She kept screaming for about five minutes. I was reduced to tears feeling the pull of her love, my mother’s love, and the love I have for my children and all the children I have ever encountered through Soaringwords. My time was finished. I was gently lifted by two organizers, and the next person knelt down to meet Amma.
So don’t just sit there. Go find someone to hug!
January 21 is National Hug Day in the United States. Not an official holiday, National Hug Day was created by Reverend Kevin Zaborney because he perceived that many Americans were afraid to display affection in public. He chose this time of year because it’s often a low point for human contact between the December holidays and Valentine’s Day. But you do not need to wait for a special holiday to give a hug.
Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26, 135-147. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614559284. Abstract.