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How to Savor the Good Things

Usually, my articles talk about a leadership challenge and offer several strategies to navigate that issue. Well, in this edition of the Leader’s Campfire, we’re flipping the script. I’m giving you one single strategy – Good Things – that can help with four different leadership challenges: giving thanks, managing impostor syndrome, cultivating presence, and finding hope in dark times.


STORY: Good Things. Learn a strategy that takes 10 minutes a day for week, but boosts wellness for six months!

READ MORE: Additional Resources. Books, websites, blogs, and videos on how to savor the good things in life.

BOOK STUFF: Book Club. Join me at 4PM Pacific Time on Thursday, November 30, 2023 to discuss Better by Atul Gawande.

GOING FURTHER: Free Intention Setting Workshop. Coming to you on Zoom this winter solstice: December 21, 2023, from noon to 1 pm PST.

 

STORY: Good Things


Good Things

The practice is called Good Things, a well researched tool developed by positive psychologists at UPenn and UC Berkeley to boost wellbeing. Every day for at least a week, write down three good things that happened recently. For each thing, note:

  • What happened. Be specific.

  • How it made you feel. Name the emotion(s).

  • Why it happened. What actions, people, or circumstances helped make this good thing possible? Why does it matter?


The research shows that doing this Good Things exercise every day for one week increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms immediately afterward. AND those benefits could still be seen one week, one month, three months, and six months later.


Invest ten minutes a day for one week. Gain six months of benefit. Wow.


So… how can this single practice help with five different challenges?


#1 Giving Thanks

Good Things is actually a riff off of gratitude journaling. And there’s no better time for gratitude than the holidays. So why, scientifically, does writing down Three Good Things work?


Our brains have a negativity bias. That is, even when something good and something bad are of equal intensity, the bad thing will have a bigger psychological impact than the good thing. Our brains also have something called inattentional blindness. We don’t see what we aren’t looking for. In this case, we don’t see the positive because our brains, when left to their own devices, are so focused on the negative. In this great video from NOVA about inattentional blindness, Daniel Simons says, “Being aware of our limitations can help us adapt and compensate for them.”


Good Things helps us adapt and compensate for the biases in our brains by making us focus on the positive, thus shifting our attention away from the negative.


In one study by Joshua Brown and colleagues from Indiana University, adults receiving counseling were randomly assigned to one of three groups: (1) write three letters expressing gratitude to someone you haven’t properly thanked using the what-how-why Good Things structure, (2) write about the three most stressful and upsetting experiences of their lives, or (3) no writing control. Those who wrote gratitude letters had better mental health four weeks and twelve weeks after writing the letters. Looking closely at the writing itself, gratitude writing used more positive emotion words and fewer negative emotion words than when writing about stressful experiences (duh). But what was fascinating is that only the reduction in negative emotion words, not the increase in positive emotion words, predicted better mental health. And also striking is that the impact grew over time; compared to the control groups, mental health was better after four weeks, but even better after twelve weeks. And guess what, the boost is there whether you send the letters or not! Dr. Brown concludes: “by focusing on the positive… gratitude might help to reduce toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy, which in turn promotes better mental health.”


At that twelve week timepoint, Dr. Bown put individuals from the different conditions into an fMRI machine to look at their brain activity. They were given a “Pay it Forward” task. People were given some money by a person and told to pass on what they had received if they felt like they wanted to express gratitude for the gift. (“John gives you $15… You may share with the Rainforest Foundation.”) When people gave more money to a cause, their medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making, lit up. And fascinatingly, those who wrote the gratitude letters showed more activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they made a gift compared to the no writing controls. While these findings need to be replicated, it seems as if writing three gratitude letters changes the brain and that those effects last at least three months!


So what does giving thanks have to do with leadership? This Thanksgiving, consider writing three gratitude letters to the people in your workplace that you haven’t properly thanked. Use the format: What happened. How it made you feel. Why it matters. You just might find that your medial prefrontal cortex changes, resulting in less negativity and better mental health for weeks.


#2 Managing Impostor Syndrome

I recently presented at a leadership conference in Anaheim, CA on managing impostor syndrome. If you haven’t heard of impostor syndrome before, it’s characterized by pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and/or apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in your work. Ever heard this voice in your head: “What am I doing here?!? I don’t belong in this room with all these big shots. I’m going to say something stupid and that’ll be the end of me.”


Impostor syndrome is closely linked to perfectionism, super-heroism, fear of failure, and denial of competence. AND it’s incredibly common. Some reports suggest that up to 70% of working adults will suffer from impostor syndrome at some point in their careers. Read more about it on this blog post I wrote a few months ago.


One hallmark of impostor syndrome is the inability to internalize success. If you’re anything like me, when someone says, “Great job!” you reply, “Oh, it was nothing.” Or perhaps “Actually, it was a team effort.” Humility is a virtue, but too much of it leads to impostor syndrome.


The other way I fail to internalize success is I work super hard to achieve a big goal, but once it’s complete, I’m immediately off to the next big thing. In just two months, I gave a big talk in Barcelona, facilitated a women’s leadership retreat in Mendocino, and presented at a conference. Did I ever pause to savor those accomplishments? No.


A Good Things practice helps internalize success. Here’s what that would look like for the conference…


  • What happened: I pulled together some really unique conference presentations. I covered a railing in leadership quotes. I made people take a vision walk under the palm trees. Participants meditated and wrote to their inner critics.

  • How it made you feel. Proud. In flow. Complete.

  • Why it happened. I have attended this conference consistently for a decade, volunteering where I can, so the leadership team there trusts me to offer something science-backed and valuable while giving me permission to be avant garde. And I’ve done a lot of work myself over those years to get over my own impostor syndrome. I felt brave enough to show all parts of myself or share all my best tools and strategies even if previously I might have held back because they might be too woo woo. And it worked!


Funny. As I was writing, my conference success finally had a chance to sink in. As with so many travel-for-work things, the moment I got home it was nonstop catch up. Yet, my shoulders relaxed as I wrote ““Proud. In flow. Complete.” In this moment, I feel more grounded, at peace with myself, and a little happier.


Hmmm. I’m going to sit with this feeling a little longer while I refill my tea.


#3 Cultivating Presence

I’m back. :)


So… after the conference, my sister, my brother-in-law, and four-year-old niece joined me in Anaheim for a day at Disney. Now, I have a bad multitasking habit. I’ve always got two things on my mind and five things on my plate. From the outside, I’m distracted by the pings and dings of phone calls, emails, texts. On the inside, I’m worrying/wondering about how things went yesterday and what’s coming tomorrow. BUT, I wanted the opposite of that during my special day at Disney with my sister’s family. No multitasking. Completely present in the moment.


Psychologists theorize that the main reason Good Things works is because it changes your mindset. Instead of blindly going about your day in habit mode, you actively look for good things, pausing to notice them, collecting them like treasures on a scavenger hunt, sometimes even actively creating them. In this way, Good Things can help me stay present and avoid my multitasking habit.


As I focused on collecting Good Things all day, I was able to avoid multitasking. My average screen time hovers around 3 hours a day, but on that Disney day, it was only 2 hours, despite needing to use the Disney app to navigate the park and reserve rides. The top three Good Things of many many:


  1. On the walk over to the park from my hotel, I happened to fall into step behind a family with two teenage daughters. They bantered excitedly about the day ahead and then started reminiscing about past vacations they had taken. I stopped them briefly to say, “I hope this doesn’t sound weird but it’s just so sweet how you talk to one another as a family. I hope you have a wonderful day in the park and make even more memories together.”

  2. I don’t see my niece nearly often enough, so getting a full day of fun with her was just the best. It’s way easier to ignore my phone and focus on the here and now with a four year old who couldn’t care less about my to do list wanting attention from her Auntie Irene.

  3. And rides! Complete sensory immersion in the present moment is so so easy when you’re barreling down a roller coaster at 60 miles and hour, or even marveling at the landscape from the top of a Ferris wheel.


All together, they made me feel happy and full of appreciation for the day. Even all the over the top commercialization and expensive merch didn’t have me grumbling like it usually does. And it all happened because my mindset for the day was entirely focused on finding as many Good Things as possible.


#4 Finding Hope in Dark Times

You might be saying: “Well duh. It’s easy to cultivate presence and find Good Things at Disneyland! What about a busy day at work? Or a truly awful day?” Read any news feed and the world right now seems like the exact opposite of Disneyland: wars, political divisiveness, climate disasters, and social injustice. You might be in the middle of something truly awful right now.


In The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams, Jane says, “Hope is what enables us to keep going in the face of adversity. It is what we desire to happen, but we must be prepared to work hard to make it so.” Hope isn’t optimism. It’s not wishful thinking or looking on the bright side. It’s full understanding of the dark place we are in right now, but holding to the belief that if we take action there will be a brighter future ahead.


Remember how the increased happiness and decreased depression from a Good Things practice for just one week is sustained for six months? These results have been replicated, not just with white, middle-class Amreicans, but with groups in Israel, India, Kenya, China, and more. It works whether you’re in a slum, a methadone clinic, a prison, or a cancer ward. Good Things can give you hope.


There’s this quote, often attributed to Martin Luther (the German theologian from the 1500’s) or Martin Luther King, Jr. (the civil rights leader) though no proof exists that either said it: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”


In the darkest times of my own life, the simple fact that I could find one Good Thing, however small, even just a warm cup of tea in my hand, was the light that kept me hopeful and willing to plant my apple tree.


Here’s wishing you hope and good things this holiday season.

Today was a good day neon sign behind a bar


 

READ MORE: Additional Resources


In addition to Good Things and the Gratitude Letter, the Greater Good in Action website has hundreds of tools that are science-backed and research-proven to boost wellbeing. Try one.


The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams is wonderful. We read it for my book club earlier this year. But if you want a daily does of hope in your life, check out Jane’s Hopecast podcast.


Finally, if the holidays are triggering your emotions, check out this post: Dear Holidays, I Surrender.


 

BOOK STUFF: Book Club


As a leader, I've always loved this saying, "what gets measured gets done." And as a scientist, I've always loved designing experiments and iterating. Well, November & December’s book club book, Better by Atul Gawande, does an incredible job of explaining the exponential power of putting those two things together.


Dr. Gawande shares the story of how the Apgar score completely transformed the field of obstetrics. , a simple visual inspection of how healthy a baby is 1 minute and 5 minutes after birth measured on a 10 point scale. Finally, nurses and doctors had a number to measure their performance. They had an objective way to determine whether this intervention or that could improve a baby's score in those critical first moments of life. In the 1930's, 1 in 30 babies died. Today, with very few new technologies or treatments, that has fallen to 1 in 500.


So if we want to get better at anything -- student performance, employee retention, stress resilience, grant writing, physical fitness -- pick a simple, easy measure and design an experiment to try and improve the score.


What might YOU want to get better at in your life or in your organization? Want some help with experimental design from a PhD scientist? Join me at book club Nov 30, 4 pm PST. I'll be leading everyone through the process of designing an experiment to try over the next month.


 

GOING FURTHER: Free Intention Setting Workshop


Every year I pick a touchstone word of the year – a fuzzy contextual one-word beacon for the next trip around the sun.


2021 was Ranger.

2022 was Bard.

2023 was Weaver.

2024 will be...


Save the date for Winter Solstice, December 21, noon to 1 pm Pacific Time, for a free online workshop that’s now becoming an annual tradition for Tutti Taygerly and I. Join us to contemplate what the new year might bring and get some guidance on choosing your word of the year. Sign up coming soon!






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