Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping our resolutions

Writing in The New York Times about the problem of keeping our resolutions, David DeSteno said,
When it comes to making such short-term sacrifices, most of us don’t rely on a cold, rational analysis of costs and benefits. We don’t normally calculate what’s to be gained by helping someone else. We just feel like we should. It’s our emotions — specifically, gratitude, compassion and an authentic sense of pride (not hubris) — that push us to behave in ways that show self-control.
Gratitude, compassion and an authentic sense of pride.  

What's great about this list is these social emotions are rather easily cultivated.  Where putting aside the delicious extra bite is hard, making a gratitude list every day is not.  Even listing five things for which one is grateful can make a difference in mood.  As Dr. DeSteno points out, it also helps us delay gratification, do the hard things that are in front of us.

Some years ago, my New Year's resolution was that I wanted to become a better person.  This was not a spontaneous idea, but one triggered by my husband's wanting a divorce.  I thought that if I were a nicer person, he wouldn't have tired of me.  Whether that was true or not, I set out to do this; one of the first things I did was to start to write a gratitude list every day -- not always easy!  On days where it seemed everything was going wrong, it could take a bit of thinking to find something to appreciate.  One night I threw my journal across the room in annoyance.  But after years of this nightly exercise, I don't remember why I was so distraught that night.  I do remember the heaps of wonderful things that surround me, like my family, friends, house, weather, job, and cultural activities.  I feel blessed as a result of making a daily note.

Compassion, the Dalai Lama said, is the key to the happiness of others and ourselves.  I have found this to be a little harder to cultivate, but, as the Buddhists point out, the Universe will always put a teacher in our path.  Seven practices have been developed to help with compassion.  Of these, the one that I find is most easily adopted is that of identification -- to identify with others, rather than compare ourselves to them.  I was demonstrating this to a class once, and listed all the ways in which a handsome young man and I were different.  But then we turned to identification and just as quickly I was able to find that he and I -- though outwardly different -- had much in common.  By the end of the class, we were fast friends.  As a teacher, this practice is an enormous help to me, because it reminds me that I, too, am a learner, on the same journey as the young people in front of me.  Instead of feeling arrogant that I know and they don't, I feel excited that we can all keep learning all our lives.

And pride -- not hubris, Dr. DeSteno emphasizes, but justified satisfaction -- is an indirect result of gratitude and compassion.  For example, I might look at the sink and think, "Why do I have to do the dishes?"  But then I'll remember how grateful I am to someone in the family who did something even more onerous and difficult.  I realize I'm just doing my part (and I'm grateful I don't have to do what others have done!).  Then someone (possibly me) will say, "Wow! The kitchen looks great!" And I'll have a rush of pride that stays with me in a happy sort of way.

That said, I struggle with two things: daily exercise and managing my mail in a timely manner.  These are my New Year's resolutions, then.  Resolutions fail quickly, research shows.  Dr. DeSteno says that is because we use will power.  Using the social emotions, we can succeed! 

Happy New Year and good luck with your resolutions!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Wonderful New Jersey

This Christmas Eve morning the front page of my local paper, The Star-Ledger, proclaimed, "It's New Jersey's wonderful story."   It turns out that the story on which the Christmas film, It's a Wonderful Life, is based was written by New Jerseyan Philip Van Doren Stern, and set in the small New Jersey town of Califon, in Hunterdon County.  It's a wonderful state!

But this time of year we also miss our dear departed -- and we've just added to that list Joe Thomasberger, a wonderful minister, friend, leader, consoler, and husband to Becky Doggett.  It seems to me the movie has a lesson for our mourning -- to appreciate all that happened because they were alive and to open our hearts to the satisfaction of a wonderful life.  Can you imagine how much darker life would have been without each of them?  Without my son Bobby, for example, I never would have appreciated the color Orange the way I do, and I say that having gown up in Orange, NJ.  For those of us who are grieving this holiday, it's a lovely thing to imagine and to feel gratitude!