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Main Street: More to gain or lose? It’s a choice and up to you

October 3, 2018

Have you ever been told something that is true or at least somewhat true that you wish you had not ever heard? I’m not saying ignorance is bliss or walking around naïve is a good thing, but how we see the world can impact how we think about things.

A few years ago, someone told me (and I don’t even remember who) you get to a point in life where the world tends to take away a lot more than it gives. (Please stay with me for the next paragraph, because this is not a doom and gloom essay.)

At age 20, we seem invincible, and all the good things we have planned are ahead of us. At 35, we become more realistic but still remain positive and are very future oriented. From 45 to 55, we start to realize while life still is open to new possibilities, more limitations start to pop up. And then at retirement, even if we liked our job, there is sense of loss when we leave. Most of us lose our parents by the time we are in our 60s and even start losing our contemporaries.

For example, two weeks ago, I found out my major professor, mentor and friend has terminal pancreatic cancer.

And then this past weekend, I was in my hometown in northern Iowa at a planning meeting for my 50th high school reunion in August 2019. Out of a class of 250, we have lost about 42 of our treasured classmates. Companies in our hometown we once knew have closed, and on it goes.

Don’t get me wrong, the meeting was fun, joyful and affirming despite the changes we are all experiencing. But frankly, there are some days I buy into the “more being taken away then gained” way of thinking. And as it turns out, all of us, from time to time, regardless of our age, whether 20, 35, 50 or 67, might get discouraged by our losses.

But having immersed myself in positive psychology literature for the past three to four years, I believe there is counter to our blue days. As Martin Segliman, (the acknowledged father of the modern positive psychology movement, advocates, we have the opportunity to flourish despite the difficult changes we all experience.

Positive psychology is based on a number core principles. The one I want to focus on, in particular, is the disciplined practice of gratefulness. I believe the single best book on the subject is Janice Kaplan’s “The Gratitude Diaries.”

For a year, this award-winning New York Times author and editor of Parade Magazine developed and practiced techniques to turn her life, thoughts and actions toward gratefulness and thankfulness. She tells how it transformed her work, her marriage and life in general.

This goes beyond just thinking positive thoughts but taking a tangible, though uncomplicated, set of actions. If one can create new habits of thought, it is transformational. As Proverbs says, “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he.”

Many behavioral psychology experts believe while new habits can be formed, it does take time. The 30-day rule is one common sense approach. Do something for at least 30 days and it will become a part of your life and thinking.

So let me share three powerful practices I’m now working on, and I hope you’ll join me in doing the same.

First, I’m keeping a written diary of five to seven items each day forI’m thankful. The vast majority of positive psychologists themselves do this. In the past, I’ve tried doing it in my head rather than writing them down, but there is a powerful impact of writing it down in black and white and having it accumulate over time.

The more specific the better. It can be about people, things, ideas … you name it. One caution here, be careful in your gratefulness to not somehow indicate how lucky you feel to have it better than others. Rather be thankful for what you have and when appropriate, share it with others.

Secondly, become a CEO — chief encouragement officer. How? During each week, tell at least five people how they have made a specific difference in our lives. It can be face to face, an email, a note or even a text message, although I think the more personal the better.

In my high school, a teacher with a single comment helped change the course of my life. My one regret is I never had the opportunity to tell him that, although for years I tried to track him down. We need to tell our parents, children, friends and employees while we still have the opportunity.

The final idea is one I adapted from teaching advertising creativity called “problem reversal.” The idea is take a difficult or hard situation and reverse how you look at it.

During my visit to my hometown this past weekend, I was especially cognizant of my parents both being gone for many years. Almost daily, I think about things I would like to share with them or ask them about. A big loss, of course, but by reversing that, I think about how incredible they were as parents, how respected and loved they were in the community.

This is not just a mind game but genuine reflective wisdom that turns our loss into a deep sense of thankfulness. I plan to do one of these “loss reversals” each week and record in two to three paragraphs my specific thoughts.

What about you? It is nice to live in the sunshine, but we all have cloudy and maybe even dismal days. While there is no such thing as a good cheer potion, gratitude might be the closest thing we have to it.

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