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Would you like a handwritten letter from me this summer?

Don’t you just LOVE a handwritten letter? Well, if you’d like to receive one from me this summer, read this week’s story! I’ll be taking the next few weeks this summer to unplug and explore with my family BUT don’t worry… the amazing Tessa Borquez will be sharing articles I wrote for my Inside Public Service Column at Shasta Scout while I’m away.  


STORY: Learn why it’s so easy to find magic moments of aliveness when we travel and why it’s harder (but not impossible!) in our everyday. It has to do with the hedonic treadmill and in-attentional blindness.

READ MORE: Links, resources, and details on how to get a handwritten letter from yours truly.

BOOK STUFF: This is THE book club you really don’t want to miss. NYTimes best selling author, Brigid Shulte, is coming to book club on Thursday, June 13th, 4-5 pm! 

PODCAST: I’m planning a Q&A episode! What leadership coaching questions do you have?

GOING FURTHER: Does leadership ever feel lonely? If so, consider joining a leadership circle or women’s leadership retreat. And there's still time to register and join Tutti and I for Beyond Comparission: Leading with Clarity and Confidence- a lunchtime zoom call this Thursday

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STORY: Magic moments of aliveness

A former middle school student of mine recently sent me a postcard. My heart leapt when I saw his name in the return address. No way! Really? He thought of me? And then I read what he wrote. Wow. Just wow. 

There’s something super special about birthday cards, postcards, and thank you letters. Maybe it’s the way they’re written by hand. Maybe it’s the heartfelt connection with the sender. Maybe it’s how those letters stand out in bright color against the greyscale backdrop of bills, junk mail, and form letters. Maybe it’s the simple fact someone thought of you. 

Whatever it is, something about handwritten snail mail feels decidedly different. It makes me come alive.


I was thinking about this as I was writing the part of my book about the difference between the greyscale of everyday reality and the explosion of color that travel can bring. But there’s color in our everyday reality too if you look for it.


The hedonic treadmill 

In 1971, Phillip Brickman and Donald Campbell coined the term hedonic treadmill to emphasize the fact that events, both good and bad, offer a transitory blip of joy or despair, but then you adapt. Brickman and his colleagues demonstrated that neither winning the lottery, nor becoming paraplegic, significantly changed how happy a person was in the long run. Despite a huge change of fortune, happiness is relatively stable, as if our level of happiness was set on a thermostat inside our mind. 


When I travel, I’m looking to live with a capital L, to find magical moments of pleasure and delight, adventure and beauty, connection and wonder – all the things in life that make us come alive. But when I get back from vacation, I often become irresistibly pulled back toward the treadmill of habit and routine, dishes and emails, to do lists and calendars, workplace drama and family drama, meetings and terrible bosses – all the things that make us less alive.


Fortunately, Brickman’s work is older. Newer research, like that of psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and Ed Deiner suggest that we humans have at least some control over our overall happiness, up to 50% or more by some measures. While some of our well-being is determined by genetics which we can’t change, there are many things we can change. We can adjust the thermostat. Even in our everyday lives.


Looking for magic moments of aliveness

While I was in London, I did a little science experiment on myself to look for magic moments of aliveness, even as the hedonic treadmill pulled me backward. I discovered two categories. 

Some magical moments could only happen in London while we were traveling. 


  • We visited the Harry Potter Studio Tour and obediently sat in theater seats while Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint introduced the tour on a big screen before us. They concluded, “Welcome to Hogwarts!” The screen lifted up into the ceiling. And there, hidden behind the screen, were the front doors to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, set beneath those iconic four-tiered stone arches. Familiar, heavy, wood paneled doors swung inward to reveal the Great Hall, long tables set with a welcome feast, candles and jack-o-lanterns floating overhead. Tears spilt unwittingly from my eyes as the magic moment gently took my hand and led me into a fantasy world.

  • My daughter and I walked to the Tate Modern on a whim one afternoon, mostly out of desperation to get a restless nine year old in need of attention out of the house. My favorite artwork was an installation piece called the British Library by Yinka Shonibare. Some 6,328 fabric bound books surrounded the gallery on white bookshelves, splashing the room with a cacophony of color. The names of British immigrants who made significant cultural and historical contributions were emblazoned on the spines in gold leaf. Scattered amongst them were the names of those who spoke out vehemently against immigration. As the daughter of immigrants who fled the Cultural Revolution in China, my own heart was fraught with emotion as I browsed the shelves. 

  • I followed my kids’ fleeting footsteps as we wound up and up through the tilting fun house stairways that climb the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Smooth stone walls encased us, slanting ever inward and upward following the curvature of the dome, leading first to a tiny window in the metal floor where we could peer directly down onto the cathedral floor, 300 feet (100 meters) below, before emerging into breathtaking 360-degree views over the entire London skyline.

Yes, many magic moments were only possible in London. But when I looked carefully, there were also hidden everyday moments of aliveness, ones that I could experience anywhere. 


  • My heart swelled with love watching Jason and Carolyn play soccer in the park. 

  • I delighted in long, meandering walks holding hands with Jason through unexplored neighborhoods, a simple pleasure we hadn’t indulged in since our courtship days in San Francisco. 

  • I stayed up until two a.m., reading an early draft of my sister Brenda’s latest novel, unable to put it down, treasuring the naughtiness of reading with a flashlight beneath the covers. 

  • There was unconditional love watching my son spend his downtime designing a map of an elaborate castle keep for his Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) group inspired by our tour of the Tower of London. 

  • And I absolutely adored my work as a leadership coach, having powerful conversations that changed people’s lives.


When we travel, our minds are more open to new experiences. We’re actively looking for aliveness. We’re awake to pleasure, adventure, awe, beauty, and cultural connection.


When we’re home, our minds revert to habit and routine. We’re no longer actively looking for aliveness because we’ve habituated to it. One of the most persnickety cognitive biases we have in the human mind is inattentional blindness. There’s usually so much to pay attention to that we only see what we’re looking for. I’d encourage you to pause reading for four-minutes to watch this video from NOVA which does a fabulous job of illustrating inattentional blindness. Although we assume that we simply open our eyes and see what’s right in front of us, Arien Mack and Irvin Rock showed us in the early 1990’s that we actually fail to notice a whole lot of what’s going on. We rarely notice what we’re not consciously attending to. 


The positive psychology literature suggests that it is daily practices like actively seeking magic moments and savoring them that allow a person to get off the hedonic treadmill and create greater happiness and wellbeing. Actively looking for and writing down good things every day for a week has been shown to increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms. Moreover, those benefits could still be seen six months later. Ten minutes a day for a week makes people happier for six months. Whoa!


An experiment and a gift

So instead of walking right past the aliveness that’s right there in front of you, look for it

I’m heading to Asia for a few weeks to unplug and explore with my family. I’ll be doing the same experiment I did in London – seeking moments of aliveness no matter where I am. 

Would you like to experiment with me? This summer, look for magic moments wherever you might be – while traveling, while at work, or right in your own backyard. 


PLUS if you choose to share your results with me, I will send you a handwritten letter with the results of my Asia experiment! We can compare notes. And maybe when you get my letter in the mail, it will give you a magic moment of aliveness in your everyday life.  


READ MORE: Links, resources, and how to get a handwritten letter from yours truly

Here’s a link to that form where you can share your experiment results and mailing address with me. Let’s look for magic moments of aliveness together! 


This blog post from a few months ago describes the Good Things exercise and shares several ways to apply it to your life.


Learn more about the science of happiness with this talk by Sonja Lyubomirsky but if you really want to go deep, consider taking this free online course from the Greater Good Science Center. I took it myself and it made me a happier person.


BOOK STUFF: This is THE book club you don’t want to miss!

NYTimes best selling author Brigid Shulte is coming to book club!  We’re reading Overwhelmed: How to work, love and play when no-one has the time. This Thursday, May 23rd will be an initial book discussion and then June 13th pm we get to meet the author!! It’s totally free. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book for the May meeting. And there’s no obligation to keep coming to future meetings unless you want to. Email tessa@irenesalter.com to get the zoom link and more information. 


PODCAST: I’m planning a Q&A episode!

My brilliant sister Brenda suggested that I have an "Ask a Leadership Coach a Question" episode for my podcast, kinda like "Dear Abby" for leadership. So, if you have a question that you'd like me to answer on Leaders' Playground, send a video or voice memo with your question (preferred so that I can use your own voice in the production) to irene@irenesalter.com 


GOING FURTHER: Leadership doesn’t have to be lonely.

My leadership circle and women’s leadership retreat are still enrolling and I’d love to have you or a friend that would love to be able to fully thrive in their leadership. Here’s what former participants said:


“It has been almost 6 months since I started working with Irene and her circle, and truth be told it was the best decision I have ever made. Now I know my worth.” – Amy Toll


“I was expecting to get some helpful tools to help with my stress levels, but this was a life changing experience. I learned far more than I had ever experienced from any conference, class, or self help book.” – Crystal Padilla


“The experience that Tutti and Irene crafted was absolutely one of a kind. It was a nourishing weekend of self exploration, adventure, and female kinship that provided impact beyond my expectations.” – Alicia Nachman


“I recently had the privilege of attending the Heroine’s Journey retreat, and it was an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.” – Vanessa Yu


And there's still time to register and join Tutti and I this Thursday on zoom at 12PM PST for Beyond Comparission: Leading with Clarity and Confidence. Please join us Thursday May 23 from 12-1PM PST for activities, conversation, and inspiration that will rekindle your sense of purpose in leadership. Leave with actionable strategies to lead without comparison, and instead focus on your own clarity and confidence.


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