Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 3: Three Ways out Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind, as well as Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.]


That’s the million dollar question isn’t it.

The Suffering Mind wants none of this crap, this very human-suffering-crap – for no other creature on this planet suffers in the way that we do. None of them possessing the language with which to suffer: words, concepts, abstract symbols that can make thoughts and feelings and text-messages as mind-breakingly real at times as sticks and stones.

My dog Max experiences the pain of existence in exactly the same way that I do: the pain of physical and emotional injury, the pain of social abandonment and exclusion, of not getting what he wants. Max experiences “reality slaps” like this on a daily, even hourly basis (as do I). But he doesn’t suffer them in the way that you and I do. Not one bit.

Max will never write a blogpost or create a piece of technology called a laptop on which to write it. Nor will he, or any other member of his species invent something like the internet to disseminate these words to other sentient, language-producing creatures.

Us homo sapiens have immeasurably benefitted from language, but consider for a moment the price we’ve had to pay in allowing language to be the primary currency of all our mental processes. Because that’s how, for the most part, we communicate both inside ourselves as well as externally with other human beings. Think of the ways in which language produces joy and pleasure but also immeasurable suffering for each and every one of us on a daily basis, and for our human species as a whole.


If everything your language-focused mind has been trying to do so far hasn’t really helped, or helped in only a small way, maybe it’s time to look at some other options?

If you’re frequently locked in the struggle I’ve described above with your pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, problem-solving mind, maybe you need a more RADICAL solution: one that still uses language (our primary currency, we can’t avoid it), but is also opens us up to other channels of processing?

What we perhaps need is a solution that targets those three crappy layers, but not necessarily in the default Jim’ll Fix It ways of this thinking/languaging lump of human meat we call “the brain”.

If the Blinkered Mind is programmed to say GO AWAY to pain, as well as becoming at times overwhelmingly FUSED with it, then one thing we can maybe start to do is introduce some Receptive Mind strategies into the mix.

In this layer, we might need some DEFUSION processes to help us when we’re “stuck” in a particularly strong reaction (mental or physical) to a painful event.

We might also start practicing MAKING SPACE FOR for difficult thoughts and feelings.

MAKING SPACE FOR practices are an alternative to allowing the mind to do what it does best and by default: pushing painful stuff away, or wrestling interminably with it in the hope that it can be solved like a maths problem. This might help us to free ourselves up to focus on more meaningful actions and activities instead.

Part of this might also involve cultivating the second layer of RADness: Aware Mind.

One aspect of Aware Mind is the development of a more FLEXI-SELF approach to life’s challenges: practising ways of seeing things from different, and hopefully more helpful angles. Also: not getting into arguments or disagreeing with what our minds tell us about the world and ourselves.

To help us do this, we might need to “drop anchor” again and again in order to bring our minds back in MINDFUL CONTACT with what’s actually going on right here and now, as opposed to the what’s happening inside our language-filled heads.

Also, let’s clarify your core values and  begin some devoted, committed action: a few small steps, towards some meaningful goals in your life.

Each of the drawings in this post took me varying amounts of time to create, from a few minutes to a number of hours, and many weeks of writing and fiddling around with words and images to put it all together. The process was at times frustrating and disheartening when things didn’t go according to plan, but in the end I got this crappy little article out of it – a crappy little article which is meaningful to me, and hopefully for you too?

I’ve deliberately used a somewhat “spiritual” word here for the third RAD layer: Devoted Mind. Not because the valued actions need to be religious or spiritual per se.

You can be devoted to your family, or to a creative pursuit, or a football team. I’m devoted to my dog Max, and to my therapy practice, also to learning poems I love, like this one, off by heart (preferably on a walk or a hike). But I don’t have any expectation that you could or should become devoted to dogs or poetry or hiking, unless these are aligned with your core values!

We need to work out what you want to be devoted to, as well as how you’re going to show (through your actions) your devotion. It does seem though that choosing something important in our lives  “to set apart by a vow” (the origins of the word “devoted”) is almost essential when it comes to living life the fullest.

You get to choose however what you want this to be and how you can turn that into something meaningful that you can then dedicate time and energy towards.

So are you ready to take back control of your super-helpful, often over-helpful, problem-solving, pain avoiding (crappy) brain and get back to living your life to the fullest?

If you are, let’s talk some more about this RAD crap and see how I can help you to get a bit closer to some of the peace and contentment you seek, that we all seek, as well as a life that is valued and meaningful to you in the long run.


If you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind ]


Let’s dig a little bit more deeply into our very human crap.

Might it be fair to say your mind is labelling all of that crap as BAAAAAD crap at the moment? Good, let’s label it as BAD crap, because maybe that’s what it is, even though it’s also our brains and minds doing their brainy/mindy/languagey/labelling stuff (good me/bad me, good Mum/bad Mum, good day/bad day etc.).

It’s not our brain or mind’s fault. They’re designed to do this, remember? Problem-solve as much as possible through evaluation and comparison in a bid to keep us away from anything they perceive as a threat to us? And it’s not our fault for sometimes buying into the very BAD stuff they sometimes or often come up with. A rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong!

For the sake of simplicity though, let’s say there might be three layers to our suffering, three layers of BAD crap.

The first I’m going to call BLINKERED MIND.

When pain in any shape or form shows up in our lives, our problem-solving brains become very, very busy and focused on this pain as if the the pain itself were a terrible threat to our continued existence.

In order to work on these problems our brains quite often fuse with the painful thoughts, feelings, urges, or body sensations, to the point where the thing we’re struggling with starts taking over our lives.

It can sometimes feel or look like that moment in any good horror film where some poor soul is being jerked about like a puppet by the demon now controlling its mind and body. We too can also become controlled, smothered, overwhelmed by our own problem-solving, pain-solving minds.

Also, because pain in any shape or form is so uh painful, our suffering Blinkered Minds will often try to avoid this pain in a very intuitive way.

“GO AWAY it says to the painful thought or feeling. Also: “I’m getting away from all of this shit!” Maybe we go away with booze or drugs, ice-cream, TV (or in my case ice-cream and TV), Twitter/WhatsApp/Facebook, or working long hours.

Or maybe we physically try and escape our lives: staying in bed, or going on a holiday, or cutting off communication with someone we’re in conflict with. Again: the natural, default GO AWAY function of our brains and minds can sometimes start to run, and ruin, the whole show!

When our minds go Blinkered they often also go into Autopilot Mode.

Their focus, their “route” you might say is set, or stuck in a particular way of doing things.

Autopilot Mind equally gets stuck in the past or the future. Focusing bitterly, or regretfully, on where our lives are flying to and from.

Also: why this might be happening to us, or why this has always happened to us, returning again and again to a particular set of memories and experiences.

Sometimes our minds do this fruitfully, as when they sit down to write a short story or a memoir, but very often they do this with a great deal of suffering, and almost no benefit for our present lives.

We also often become fixated on what’s ahead: doing so so with anxiety, worry and problem-solving busy-ness.

Autopilot Mind has no time to enjoy the journey of life. Life is never a sunset or a shooting star,  always just another maths problem.

Like we might binge on a Netflix series, Autopilot Mind binges on problem-solving in an attempt to make sense of, or find a solution to our suffering. But because it’s on Autopilot, when it gets to the end of the suffering script or “route”, it just goes back to the beginning and starts all over again.

So we get stuck on certain routes or grooves of the mind, outdated coping strategies that whirr around and around like a broken record.

We can also get stuck in a certain way of being, a certain kind of identity. Why don’t you sit back for a moment and ask the Identity-Setting part of your mind to complete the following sentence stem and see what it comes up with.

[SPOILER ALERT: It’s unlikely to suggest anything especially positive. Minds aren’t designed to do that. Positivity doesn’t keep us safe from perceived threats and harm.)

Whatever “me” our suffering minds are identifying with at this moment…(again, complete the sentence stem below for yourself)…

…this “idea” of ourselves, these words, become like a small, claustrophobic single-seater aircraft which we can’t get out of until it lands.

Here’s another one for you to get your mind to work on.

Last one.

The main problem with this process is that our minds are designed to fly in certain patterns continuously, without ever landing.

Unless we help them to do so.

So that’s the second layer of BAD crap: when our minds, in the process of carrying out their primary tasks (analysing our lives as if they were maths equations) end up flying in quite rigid, inflexible patterns.

It’s often a case of 1+1=2 when dealing with our somewhat inflexible minds.

And 2, more often than not, can sometimes just equal more…pooh. More suffering.


Perhaps as a result of the first two layers of crap, but maybe also for other reasons we become DISCONNECTED from all the good stuff in our lives.

In Blinkered and Autopilot Mind we are often out of touch with those things that give our lives meaning, which is to say our core values.

What is it that really drives us? What do we want to actually DO with our one wild and precious life, other than fighting off painful mind-states?

Understandably, when we are disconnected or unclear about this, we can also become disconnected from…LIVING!

Which is to say: we stop doing all the things that are most meaningful to us whilst we fight with our minds. Instead of focusing on valued-living activities, we might also end up doing other stuff: things that we think will “make us happy” or give us some momentary pleasure (tub of Belgian Chocolate Häagen-Dazs and an endless stream of mindless sitcoms for Steve, please!), rather than feeding our souls.

Or maybe we end up doing what other people, or even the marketing forces of our culture tell us will make us happy, but often fail to do so.

So what to do about all of this BAD crap?!

Good question. You can find some answers to that in my final post on The Suffering Mind: Three Ways out of The Suffering Mind.


Otherwise if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap? A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind

Hello, are you feeling a bit crap?

If you are, welcome, you’re in good company.

You might not feel like you’re in good company. In fact, you might feel quite alone at the moment: at odds, and kind of stranded with your suffering mind.

When we’re feeling crap, it’s very normal for our suffering, problem-solving minds to react to those crappy feelings with a lot of self-doubt and worry.

This is the kind of thing my suffering mind starts saying. How about yours?

Our suffering minds will usually start responding to the problem-solving questions they pose to themselves, giving us lots and lots of feedback.

Imagine the above “feedback” delivered in the sneery, sermonising tones of your least favourite person. I call this part of my suffering mind “Dave” after someone I went to University with. Dave really thought he was my friend but he was actually a bit of a know-it-all bully. Do you have your own Dave, or Mildred who’s absolutely certain of what you’re doing wrong with your life?

Here’s another question the suffering mind poses to itself and attempts to answer.

Let’s watch Dave answering the must-be-something-wrong-with-me question (for me). You might like to tune into your own suffering mind at this point and let your own Dave or Mildred supply you with a wrong-with-you list for yourself.

And it probably won’t stop there.

When our suffering minds get stuck into us, what they “say” can feel very real and pertinent.

Our response is often just to suck it all up: “Yes Dave, you’re right! I am all of those shitty, unlovable qualities! And look at my massive, Dumbo-sized ears!!!”

This is because, when our minds start to suffer, we become fused with their words to the point where they can start to feel really overwhelming! A bit like this.

We lose sight of the fact that these are just words being churned up by our own minds in an attempt to “helpfully” explain the reasons for why we might be feeling so crap.

Our suffering minds forget that they’re just a blank page onto which anything (any thought, feeling, sensation, urge) can be “written” no matter how hurtful or ludicrous. Instead we all too easily buy into and sort of become those words floating around in our minds. When that happens, I would call my experience a “suffering” one. How about you?

When we are suffering, not only do we blame ourselves for being human, but also others. We might even start blaming Dave, our very own minds and brains, labelling and sometimes shaming them with analysis, diagnoses and put-downs.

We can also become very frustrated with ourselves for not-feeling-OK.

He’s right though.

A healthy human brain like Dave is perfectly compatible with a suffering mind. In fact the two might go together like [cue this song from Grease!]: a rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong?

Maybe this is because Dave was not –sorry Dave- designed by Apple (or Samsung).

Three hundred years of evolutionary science and a 100 years of neuroscience have pretty much confirmed that our healthy, but oftentimes suffering human brains are “designed” with 3 primary tasks.

Can you guess what those are?

Go on! Before scrolling down, guess the job description for that three pound blob of fat, and blood and white-grey matter, that sits perched on the top of your spinal cord, which we all proudly call THE HUMAN BRAIN!

You can perhaps start to see how these primary tasks carried out 24/7, automatically, in no consultation with our minds, might lead to good feelings at times, but also lots and lots of suffering. Almost as a by-product.

Say I’m at my local Morrisons, happily filling my supermarket trolly with ice-cream, and wine, and cheese, and crackers, and chocolate, and maybe some salad too. I’m looking forward to all that yummy stuff, and feeling pretty good at this pleasure seeking moment (dopamine!).

I’m also relieved to have seen and avoided my neighbour – the one I had an argument with with last week who I spotted walking down another aisle. Whew, and another dopamine hit of pleasure!

But maybe that evening I eat the whole tub of Hagen Daz as I am wont to do and drink most of the wine and feel sick and full of self-loathing.

And maybe if I hadn’t avoided that uncomfortable meeting with my neighbour in the supermarket we might have been able to get back on an even keel?

If you’d like to dig a little bit deeper into this, please take a look at my second post, Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.

Or otherwise, if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605).

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Gratitude Positive Psychology Strategies and tools

Gratitude – The ‘Big Daddy’ of all our Character Strengths?

Musing recently about gratitude in my Gardening/Positive Psychology blog, I came across the work of psychologist Robert Emmons who has dedicated his whole career to researching the effect of a single emotion (gratitude) in our lives. How important is it, how to nurture and build more of it for ourselves.

Here are his ten evidence-based prescriptions for becoming more grateful,:

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal

travel-journal-luigi-azivino-ilmungo-43496328-flickr-ccbyncsa2One of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. One of the best ways to do this is keeping a daily journal in which you record the blessings you are grateful for. Emmons’ extensive research has shown that this technique makes people happier. When we are grateful, we affirm that a source of goodness exists in our lives. By writing each day, we magnify and expand upon these sources of goodness. Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with even mundane or ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave and thread together a sus- tainable life theme of gratefulness, just as it nourishes a fundamental life stance whose thrust is decidedly affirming.

So you begin by cataloging, each day, gratitude-inspiring events. It does not much matter whether you begin each day journaling or make your list the last thing you do at the end of the day. There is no one right way to do it. You don’t need to buy a fancy personal journal to record your entries in, or worry about spelling or grammar. The important thing is to establish the daily habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events; a daily regimen is what is required. The act of writing them down translates your thoughts into words. Psychological research has shown that translating thoughts into concrete language – words, whether oral or written – has advantages over just thinking the thoughts. Writing helps to organize thoughts and facilitate integration, and also helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life. Writing about unpleasant, even traumatic events is widely recommended by therapists. In the context of gratitude journaling, it may help you bring a new and redemptive frame of reference to a difficult life situation.

Your gratitude list must be periodically updated. It is important not to allow your catalog to become stale. It is true that in the first few days of journaling the content might be a bit redundant. Overlap is fine, but literal repetition should be avoided. It may even produce the opposite effect from that intended. One can only imagine, after weeks of this repetitive process, one writing, “My life is so empty! All I have is my cat, my dog, and my apartment!”

 When you identify in your daily journal those elements in your life for which you are grateful, the psychologist Charles Shelton recommends that you see these as “gifts.” As you reflect on or contemplate an aspect of your life for which you are grateful, make the conscious effort to associate it with the word gift. Be aware of your feelings and how you relish and savour this gift in your imagination. Take the time to be especially aware of the depth of your gratitude. In other words, don’t hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list.

2. Remember the Bad

[Photo by Michelle Robinson: Black Dog Visitation series]
[Photo by Michelle Robinson: Black Dog Visitation series]

For most people, life is generally perceived to be pleasant. Research has shown that memories of past events tend to be biased toward the positive. A recent study showed that over 90 percent of research participants listed more pleasant than unpleasant autobiographical memories. Despite this preference for the positive, there is no reason why the blessings that are listed in our daily gratitude inventories should be only pleasant. We need to remember the bad things as well.

When we remember how difficult life used to be and how far we have come, we set up an explicit contrast in our mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.

Why would remembering the worst that life offered be an effective strategy for cultivating gratitude? Because it capitalizes upon natural mental tools and normal human thought processes. For one, psychological research has established the empirical truth that “bad is stronger than good.” Negative stimuli often evince powerful reactions that can be difficult to ignore or surmount. The adversities of life, seasoned with strong emotions, are deeply etched in our memories and for this reason are easy to recall. Yet a competing tendency is that the feelings associated with unpleasant events tend to fade faster than the feelings associated with pleasant events. We yearn to reconcile with our ex-spouse because the memories of stormy encounters and icy contempt have faded. Therefore, to be grateful in our current union, it is helpful to remember just how awful a previous marriage was.

 Second, our minds think in terms of counterfactuals – mental comparisons we make between the way things are and how things might have been different. At times these counterfactuals may be counterproductive to our mental well-being, as we lament opportu nities lost or regrets over what might have been. But we can harness the power of counterfactual thinking by reminding ourselves of how much worse life might be than it is.

3. Ask Yourself Three Questions
[Photo by Guido Caprini]
[Photo by Guido Caprini]
In working on a daily moral inventory, you might find it effective to incorporate aspects of a Buddhist meditation technique known as Naikan. Naikan was developed by Yoshimoto Ishina, a self-made millionaire and devout Buddhist from Japan. He developed the method as a way of helping others look inside (the word Naikan means “looking inside”), become introspective, and “see oneself with the mind’s eye.” The practice involves reflecting on three questions:

  1. What have I received from X?
  2. What have I given to X (or Y)?
  3. What troubles and difficulty have I caused X, or Y?

These questions can help us address issues or relationships. It helps us to see the reciprocal quality of relationships and provides a structure for self-reflection. This can be directed toward work situations, social interactions, or toward developing higher aspects of oneself.

The first step or question involves recognizing all the gifts we receive. Remembering a person’s smile, kind words, or helpful actions can elicit feelings of gratitude. When we focus on the good that comes to us every day, we can be filled with deep appreciation rather than drowning under the burden of our problems. Once when I traveled, I reflected on how many people were responsible for helping me get from Point A to Point B. Having arrived at my hotel room, I was shocked by the sheer number who were involved (the shuttle bus driver, ticket agent, baggage handler, security screener, pilots and flight attendants, rental car agent, and hotel desk clerk, among others; I’m sure I left some out). Focusing on what these people are giving has reduced the stress of travel for me far more than any other factor.

Next we focus on what we give to others. This helps us realize how connected we are to others and helps remove a sense of entitlement that might come from feeling that we are due things from others without a need to give back. Ask yourself the question: In what ways might I “give back” to others as an appropriate response for the gratitude I feel? Be creative in finding ways to give back for the many blessings you have received. At the very least, l owe and I express a heartfelt thank-you for all those people in the previous example.

The last step is a difficult one of acknowledging not the things that bother us, but how we cause pain in the lives of others by our thoughts, words, and deeds. The author Greg Krech, who wrote on the practice of Naikan, says of this step, “If we are not willing to see and accept those events in which we have been the source of others’ suffering, then we cannot truly know ourselves or the grace by which we live.”

This practice of asking the three questions can be practiced daily for twenty minutes or so in the evening. It can be used to reflect on the day’s activities in a general way. Another method is to reflect on a specific relationship over a period of fifty to sixty minutes. One can view a relationship chronologically or focus on a particular situation that might need attention. Regardless of the relationships under meditation, the process of Naikan emphasizes two themes: (1) the discovery of personal guilt for having been ungrateful toward people in the past and (2) the discovery of feelings of positive gratitude to- ward those persons who have extended themselves on behalf of the person in the past or present.

4. Learn Prayers/Poems of Gratitude

Screen-Shot-2014-10-21-at-12.51.24Surveys have revealed that people spend more time praying than doing just about anything else. 72 percent of people asked say that they pray at least once a day; 75 percent of people say they would like to spend more time in prayer, and over half (51 percent) say they pray before a meal. Most of the prayers are casually conversational rather than liturgically formal.

Prayer is at the front and center of the spiritual life. It has been referred to as “the soul and essence of religion” and “the most spontaneous and personal expression of intimacy with the divine.” Prayers of gratitude are among the most common form of prayer, and religious scriptures of various traditions are replete with prayers of this type. Even college students, who are not generally regarded as a particularly prayerful group, pray prayers of thanksgiving more frequently than any other type of prayer (except for petitionary requests).

If prayer in a spiritual or religious vein is not your thing, one can access a similar sense of gratitude by learning a poem by heart. This is something I’ve explored in my By Heart Project – with a number of the poems I’ve chosen to learn falling in some way into the category of Poems of Gratitude/Prayer.

A few of my favourites:

Everything is Waiting for You by David Whyte
Today by Billy Collins
Kindness by Naomi Shihab-Nye
The Plain Sense of Things by Wallace Stevens
i thank you god by e.e. cummings

5. Come to Your Senses

BREATHE_Poster_850Good health; being alive; no more skin allergies; I’m not fat; white teeth; exercise; eyes; ears; touch; physical strength; afternoon nap; ability to breathe; modern medicine, energy to get through the day; no broken bones. Each of these bodily-related blessings appeared in journals that Emmons’ research participants have kept. The physicality of gratitude is noticeable as gratefulness for the functioning of one’s body, recovery from illness, or for just being alive are some of the most commonly mentioned themes. Nearly 80 percent of his research participants say they are grateful for their health, or the health of family members, making it the most cited trigger of gratitude. Another frequently mentioned source of gratitude is the senses – the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear.

In her remarkable book The Natural History of the Senses, the author Diane Ackerman wrote that “nothing is more memorable than a smell.” Smells transport us back to earlier times, perhaps to childhood vacations, or adolescent romances, or family holiday traditions that we now look back on with nostalgic gratitude.

Through our senses, we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human, of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Could there be a more fitting response than that of joyous gratitude? For millennia, poets, philosophers, and physicians have praised the miraculous and beautiful nature of the body. Seen through the lens of gratitude, however, the body is more than a miraculous construction. It is a gift, freely and gratuitously given, whether one perceives the giver to be God, evolution, or good family genes. Even though some bodily parts may not function as reliably as they once did, if you can breathe, there is cause for gratitude.

Dr. Frederic Luskin suggests in his popular book, Forgive For Good, the following exercise, which he calls the “Breath of Thanks”:

  1. Two or three times every day when you are not fully occupied, slow down and bring your attention to your breathing.
  2. Notice how your breath flows in and out without your having to do anything … continue breathing this way.
  3. For each of the next five to eight exhalations, say the words “thank you” silently to remind yourself of the gift of your breath and how lucky you are to be alive. He suggests practicing this at least three times per week.

It is a good reminder that gratitude begins with the basics. Breathing gratitude is a practice that is available to all of us, regardless of our current life circumstances.

6. Use Visual Reminders

il_570xN.494689838_p842Enter Emmons’ family home and one of the first things you will see is a ceramic plaque above the hallway mirror with the words GIVE THANKS carved in the center. Help yourself to a drink from the refrigerator and you might see a magnet on the door quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery … today is a gift.” Now go over to the family room and look at the bookcase to the right of the windows. On one shelf is a pewter paperweight given to him by a close friend containing a passage from the author Melody Beattie: “Gratitude can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend:’

Two of the primary obstacles to being grateful are (1) forgetfulness and (2) a lack of mindful awareness. Forgetfulness. That human tendency. We forget our benefactors, we forget to take time to count our blessings, and we forget the many ways in which our lives are made easier because of the efforts of others. Awareness is a pre- condition for gratitude: we must have noticed whatever we are to be thankful for – we cannot be thankful for something of which we are unaware. Therefore, we need to remind ourselves and to become aware.

Some people attach Post-it notes listing blessings to their refrigerators, mirrors, steering wheels, or other noticeable locations. Others set their pagers, beepers, or phones to signal them at random times throughout the day. When they are signaled, they pause and count their blessings on the spot. A trial lawyer found that his shower each morning evokes thankfulness, for he had spent considerable time in remote areas where hot water was an unthinkable gift.

We might even want to consider an accountability partner to remind us to be grateful. Accountability partners make us, well, accountable. We become answerable to a trusted inner circle or partner who will challenge us when we begin to stray off the moral path. Just as it is easier to maintain the discipline of physical exercise when you have a partner, maintaining the discipline of gratefulness also benefits from a partner with whom you can swap gratitude lists and who will challenge your ungrateful thoughts.

It stands to reason that an accountability partner would be effective in kindling our sense of gratitude. Gratitude is, after all, a social emotion that is activated in relational contexts. You might find yourself developing a deep sense of gratefulness toward your accountability partner that then generalizes to others in your social sphere.

7. Make a Vow to Practice Gratitude

9038357669_576c4a0d8e_cThere is some research which shows that swearing a vow to perform a behaviour actually does increase the likelihood that the action will be executed. In one such study, members of a local YMCA who decided to participate in the Twelve-Week Personal Fitness Program agreed to “exercise three days per week for twelve weeks and beyond at the Y.” Once making the decision to participate, the experimental group was sworn to perform the promised behaviour. A second group signed a written commitment to perform the promised behaviour, and a third, control group, did not make any form of commitment.

The impact of the manipulation was examined for its effect on adherence to the program. Subjects in the vow condition did demonstrate greater adherence than the other conditions as measured by consecutive weeks of three exercise sessions without relapse.

Why is swearing an oath an effective motivator of behaviour? For one, a vow, when made before others, constitutes a public pronouncement of an intention to perform an action. Breaking a vow thereby becomes a profound moral failure (as dissolution of a marriage is for those who taking wedding vows seriously). Fear of sanctions, either internal (in the form of guilt) or external (in the form of social disapproval) is a powerful motivator.

What might a vow to practice gratitude look like? It need not be elaborate. It could be something as simple as “I vow to not take so many things in my life for granted. I vow to pause and count my blessings at least once each day. I vow to express gratitude to someone who has been influential in my life and whom I’ve never properly thanked.” If your vow is formalized, post it somewhere conspicuous where you will be frequently reminded of it. Better yet, share it with your accountability partner.

8. Watch Your Language

17265941102_3eaed20276_cIn the late 1930s, the amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf posed the theory that language determines the nature and content of thought. This “Whorfian” hypothesis inspired decades of research in a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and education. To this day, it has not been completely disputed or defended but has continued to intrigue researchers around the world. Many have adopted a weaker form of the hypothesis, namely that language influences how we think rather than determining, in a rigid fashion, the very content of the thoughts.

I introduce the Whorfian theory here because of its relevance for thinking about how to stimulate more grateful living. The way we describe events in our lives, and ultimately, life itself, is a direct window on how we perceive and interpret life. This theory says that the language we use influences how we think about the world. Carried further, the Whorfian view is that the words we use create reality.

Compare grateful discourse with ungrateful discourse. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style. They tend to use the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, abundance. They traffic in the discourse of thankfulness. Ungrateful people, on the other hand, tend to focus on deprivation, deservingness, regrets, lack, need, scarcity, loss.

A low and depressed part of us can sometimes walk around chronically engaged in negative self-talk (“Nobody likes me,” ‘I’ll never find a partner;’ ”I’m such a loser;’ and so on). “We are what we think about all day long,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The talk becomes so automatic that we don’t even realize that we are doing it or realize the pervasive effect it is having. We can change our mood by engaging in some kind of dialogue with that part and see if we can have some kind of dialogue with it, rather than just letting it continue to monologue itself into an even deeper depression.

 9. Go Through the Motions

Chopstick-Smile-e1361983111545An ingenious series of experiments conducted a number of years ago showed that when people mimicked the facial expressions associated with happiness, they felt happier – even when they did not know they were moving the “happy muscles” in their face. Researchers have found that smiling itself produces feelings of happiness. How were they kept in the dark? Simple. They were asked to hold a pencil with their teeth. Doing so tends to activate the muscle we use when we smile (the zygomatic major). This muscle lifts the corner of the mouth obliquely upwards and laterally and produces a characteristic smiling expression. Try it now. You will smile. Now, take that pencil and hold it in your lips, pointing it straight out. A different set of muscles are now activated, those that are involved in frowning (these are the ones targeted by Botox treatments). Why this clever ruse? You can’t let subjects in the study know that they are supposed to be feel-ing happy, because that would have unintended consequences on the behavioral rating of interest.

It turned out that the people with the pencils in their teeth, who were, unbeknownst to them, activating their zygomatic muscles, rated cartoons funnier than those who held the pencils with their lips. It appears that going through the motions can trigger the emotion. Technically stated, involuntary facial movements provide sufficient peripheral information to drive emotional experience.

The relevance for practicing gratitude is direct. If we go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. What is a grateful motion? Saying thank you. Writing letters of gratitude. Isn’t this the way we socialize our children to become grateful members of a civic society? Expressing gratitude toward someone whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank can have profoundly positive consequences, for both the person expressing and the recipient. Research I described in chapter 2 indicated that the positive glow resulting from sharing a gratitude letter can last for several months.

So what if the motion has to be forced? The important thing is to do it. Do it now, and the feeling will come. There is a great deal of psychological evidence showing that attitude change often follows behaviour change. Good intentions are often crushed by old habits. If we stand around waiting for a feeling to move us, we may never get going. Get a person to perform a behaviour, and, with some exceptions, their feelings will fall in line. Get people to attend church, and pretty soon they will start believing in what they are hearing. Get people to volunteer in soup kitchens, and they will become more generous. Effective churches plug people in right away. Effective managers know that successful training focuses on changing behaviour first. Marriage therapists tell spouses who have lost the love to pretend that they like each other. In each case, going through the motions can trigger the desired emotions, setting the stage for emotions to reinforce the behaviour.

10. Think Outside the Box

crumb_fri_nowayIf we want to make the most out of opportunities to flex our gratitude muscles, then we must creatively look for new situations and circumstances in which to feel grateful. Just when I thought I had fully grasped the conceptual basis of gratitude, an article came across my desk describing two “anomalous cases” of gratitude not fitting the usual dynamic of the giving and receiving of goodness between benefactor and beneficiary.

The first case is being grateful to those who do you harm. In other words, being grateful to our enemies. What a preposterous notion this seems to be. Because of our natural inclination to either defend or retaliate (the “flight or fight” response), this is a very difficult notion for most of us to comprehend. Yet this is a common idea within Buddhism. The Dalai Lama often repeats this Buddhist teaching by telling his audiences that he is grateful to the Chinese for giving him the opportunity to practice love for his enemies. If love is too much to swallow, then be grateful that our enemies give us opportunities to practice patience. Similar examples can be found in other spiritual traditions. The Sufi poet Rumi writes about a priest who prays for his muggers:

“Because they have done me such generous favours.
Every time I turn back toward the things they want,
I run into them, they beat me, and leave me nearly dead
in the road, and I understand, again, that what they want
is not what I want.  They keep me on the spiritual path.
That’s why I honor them and pray for them.

You may be able to more readily identify with the second anomalous case of gratitude. It is being grateful to someone whom you benefit. Individuals who perform volunteer work sometimes speak of the benefits they receive from their service and express gratitude for those who gave them the opportunity to serve. Mother Teresa often spoke of being grateful for the sick and dying she ministered to in the Calcutta slums, because they enabled her to deepen her compassion. The psychologists Ann Colby and William Damon studied “moral exemplars” – people who made extraordinary moral commitments to the social organizations where they volunteered or worked.

One quality that these moral exemplars had in common was a strong positive attitude – they took joy in their lives and were determined to make the best of whatever happened. Notably, they expressed this positivity as a deep gratitude for the satisfaction they got from their work, and especially, from helping others. Since service to others helped them to find their own inner spirituality, they were grateful for the opportunity to serve. These exemplars have a profound sense of themselves being gifted. Purposeful actions then flow from this sense of giftedness so that they can share and increase the very good they have received. We are reminded that gratitude is incomplete until it is manifested in outward action. We might often need if we want to feel good ourselves, as the psychologist Charles Shelton so fittingly describes, “give back the goodness.”

Positive Psychology Procrastination Strategies and tools

Procrastination – strategies that work

iStock_000013629810XSmallHere are some great strategies courtesy of Burka and Yuen (still the best book on the topic, if you’re looking for something really readable and useful):

1. Identify a behavioral goal (observable, specific, and concrete), rather than setting a vague, global one.

NOT: “I want to stop procrastinating.”
INSTEAD: “I want to clean out and organize my garage by September 1.”

2. Set a realistic goal. Think small, rather than large, and choose a mini- mally acceptable goal rather than an ideal goal. Focus on one (and only one!) goal at a time.

NOT: “I’ll never procrastinate again!”
INSTEAD: “I’ll spend an hour a day studying for my Math class.”

3. Break your goal down into small, specific minigoals. Each minigoal is more easily reached than the big goal, and small goals add up to a big goal.

NOT: “I’m going to write the report.”

INSTEAD: “I’ll spend thirty minutes working on a plan for my spreadsheet tonight. Tomorrow I’ll spend another thirty minutes filling in the data, and then the next day, I’ll spend an hour writing a report based on the data.”

4. Be realistic (rather than wishful) about time. Ask yourself: How much time will the task actually take? How much time do I actually have available?

 NOT: “I have plenty of time to do this tomorrow.”

INSTEAD: “I’d better look at my calendar to see when I can start. Last time, it took longer than I thought.”

5. Just get started! Instead of trying to do the whole project at once, just take one small step.

Remember: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” NOT: “I’ve got to do it all in one sitting.”
INSTEAD: “What is the one first step I can take?”

6. Use the next fifteen minutes. You can stand anything for fifteen minutes. You can only accomplish a task by working at it fifteen minutes at a time. So, what you can do in fifteen minutes is of value.

NOT: “I only have fifteen minutes, so why bother?”

INSTEAD: “What part of this task can I do in the next fifteen minutes?”

7. Expect obstacles and setbacks. Don’t give up as soon as you hit the first (or second or third) obstacle. An obstacle is just a problem to be solved, not a reflection of your value or competence.

NOT: “The professor isn’t in his office, so I can’t work on my paper. Think I’ll go to a movie.”

INSTEAD: “Even though the professor isn’t in, I can work on my out- line until he gets back.”

8. When possible, delegate (or even dump!) the task. Are you really the only person who can do this? Does this task really have to be done at all?

Remember, no one can do everything—not even you.
NOT: “I am the only one who can do this correctly.”
INSTEAD: “I’ll find the right person for this task so that I can work on a more important project.”

9. Protect your time. Learn how to say no. Don’t take on extra or unnecessary projects.

You can choose not to respond to what’s “urgent” in order to attend to what’s important.

NOT: “I have to make myself available to anyone who needs me.”

INSTEAD: “I don’t have to answer the phone while I’m working. I’ll listen to the message and call back later when I’ve finished.”

10. Watch for your excuses. Instead of using your excuse as an automatic reason to procrastinate, use it as a signal to spend just fifteen minutes on your task. Or use your excuse as a reward for taking a step.

NOT: “I’m tired (depressed/hungry/busy/confused, etc.), so I’ll do it later.”

INSTEAD: “I’m tired, so I’ll just spend fifteen minutes working on my report. Then I’ll take a nap.”

11. Reward your progress along the way. Focus on effort, not on out- come. Watch out for all-or-nothing thinking: the cup can be half-full just as well as half-empty.

Remember, even a small step is progress!
NOT: “I can’t feel good until I’ve completely finished.”
INSTEAD: “I took some steps and I’ve worked hard. That feels good.

Now I’m going to watch a movie.”

12. Use your procrastination as a signal. Stop and ask yourself: “What message is my procrastination sending me?”

NOT: “I’m procrastinating again and I hate myself.”

INSTEAD: “I’m procrastinating again: What am I feeling? What does this mean? What can I learn?”


One or two things that you can use in your inner dialogue with the procrastinating part of yourself:

  • You can act, even though you are uncomfortable.
  • The legacy of the past does not have to control what you do in the present.
  • You can take pleasure in learning, growing, and challenging yourself. You do not have to be perfect to be of value.

If you’d like to do some work on your own struggles with procrastination, do get in touch.