Provision #639: The Novelty Nudge
by Bob Tschannen-Moran
There are lots of ways to experience the power of appreciation. One way is by
looking back on the past or into the present with gratitude. I wrote about that
last week in
The Gratitude Gain. Another way is by looking into the future with hope and
trust that something good will happen. We'll look at that next week. A third
way, however, is to look into the present with mindfulness. Mindfulness is
different than gratitude in that it doesn't judge things as being wonderful or
miserable. It just notices things and allows them to speak. That's what I call
The Novelty Nudge; read on to learn more.
Although we are in the middle of a series on
Power of Appreciation, today's Provision as well as next week's were inspired
by an article by Jeremy McCarthy in the September issue of the monthly
newsletter of the International Positive
Psychology Association (IPPA). The article spoke to me because of how it
built on last week's Provision regarding
Gain. Allow me to excerpt two paragraphs from the IPPA article:
Research from the past several years has shown us how our well-being is
greatly impacted by our optimism about the future and our styles of
explaining the past (Seligman, 2006). Hope about the future (Lopez et al.,
2004; Snyder, Rand, & Sigmon, 2005) and gratitude towards the past (Bono,
Emmons, & McCullough, 2004; Emmons & Shelton, 2005) have been two of the
strongest areas of research that positive psychology has produced to date.
For example, both writing down life-goals for the future (King, 2001), and
writing down the things we are grateful for (Seligman, Steen, Park &
Peterson, 2005), have shown increases in happiness among research
But how does all this research ... relate to the concept of "mindfulness,"
which is generally defined as being attentive to the present (Brown & Ryan,
2003)? Mindfulness is another proven pathway to well-being, usually taught
through meditation where practitioners practice nonjudgmental awareness of
everything that is going on in the present moment (Shapiro, Schwartz &
Santerre, 2002). A recent longitudinal study found that "intensive
mindfulness training" was associated with "significant gains" in several
indicators of mental health and well-being (Orzech, Shapiro, Brown & McKay,
2009, p. 220). The literature seems to promote two contradictory pathways to
wellness: one by staying connected to the present moment and avoiding
judgments or evaluations, and two by mental visualizations of, or
expressions of gratitude and hope about the past and the future.
That's where The Novelty Nudge comes in. For the IPPA article, McCarthy
interviewed Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who has spent more than 30
years researching the notion and practice of mindfulness and who I just happened
to hear a couple of weeks ago when I was in Boston attending and presenting at
the "Coaching in Medicine & Leadership Conference." Langer notes that although
meditation can facilitate and encourage mindfulness, it is not the same thing as
mindfulness. Mindfulness, according to Langer, is nothing more than noticing
differences in the present moment without reacting in any of our normal ways.
These ways include:
- Shutting Down
In other words, we suspend the temptation to evaluate and educate in
favor of noticing. This noticing, according to Langer, "is very different
from vigilance; it is a soft awareness marked by an absence of mindless
attention." In other words, it's not mindfulness if we are forcing ourselves
to be mindful. It only works when we open our senses and awareness to
whatever is happening, both internally and externally, in the present
moment. Then, following Roz and Ben Zander, we can respond with smiling
eyes, uplifted arms, and the delighted exclamation, "How fascinating!"
Most of the time, of course, we are not mindful. We either go through life,
failing to notice any differences at all or, if we notice differences, we
quickly evaluate and educate our way around them. At the Conference in
Boston, Langer spoke about an experience she had of going to a friend's
house for Thanksgiving dinner. When she sat down at her place, she noticed
that the fork was set on the right side of the plate, along with the knife
and spoon. She had noticed a difference, but her initial reaction was
anything but mindful. "That's not how it's supposed to be!" she exclaimed to
herself. The fork goes on the left, after all, and everyone knows that.
She could have continued in that frame, either with more internal chatter or
by talking with her friend about how she had set the table wrong. Instead,
Langer used her evaluative and visceral reactions to facilitate mindfulness.
She stepped back from her reactions and started to notice her reactions. She
became, in other words, an observer of her own experience in real time. "Who
said the fork always goes on the left?" she found herself asking, "What else
can I notice about this table and about my felt sense as to how it is set?"
She came away with an uplifted understanding of herself and a deeper
appreciation of being together with her friend.
That's why Langer describes mindfulness as "a flexible state of mind"
described by "actively drawing novel distinctions." Such noticing nudges us
into a positive, experiential frame because of how it gently pushes aside
our more casuistic, narrative frame. Most of the time, as we go through
life, we are constantly making up stories to either explain things away
(keeping experiences at bay) or put things in their place (forcing
experiences into existing categories). Neither approach represents
mindfulness and neither approach brings happiness.
This is not say that narrative thinking has no value or should be abandoned
(as if that were even possible). It is simply to say that going through life
without ever noticing new things until they hit us like a ton of bricks is
not the best way to live when it comes to facilitating happiness. We need to
mix up our approaches, which often comes only when we give ourselves
conscious permission to do so. That is the essence of mindfulness, which
underlies all forms of creativity.
Last week a contractor began to put a pump in our lake so that we could
water the lawn with free lake water, an abundant source in this case, rather
than with metered, city water. I had gone over the job with the contractor
and it was all priced out and planned accordingly. The morning work was to
start, however, I went outside in a spirit of mindfulness. I wanted to look
things over, one last time, to see if everything looked right and ready to
The job was planned out to replace an old pump that has not worked in more
than a decade. So, naturally, everyone assumed that we would remove the old
pump and put in a new pump at that location. We couldn't see it any other
way, because the old pump was sitting there guiding our attention. I had
seen that broken old pump for as long as I had lived in the house (more than
seven years) and that was the starting point of my perceptions (which also
became the starting point of the contractor's perceptions).
That morning, however, I noticed something new. I consciously gave myself
permission to think outside the box. I looked around and asked myself the
question, "How else could this go?" I wasn't evaluating the pros and cons of
different options (that came later); I was simply noticing different options
as well as my reactions to them. It took a conscious decision, a
considerable pause, and a significant amount of perceptive scanning to look
up and down my property line to see if there were other options. Then, an
awareness dawned: we could come up on the other side.
The dawning of that realization was an act of mindfulness. It was seeing
something new in the present moment which, until then, had not been seen.
And, once it was seen, it filled me with happiness. "Beautiful!" was my
immediate reaction. I just sat back and enjoyed the thought, the discovery,
the novelty, before beginning to evaluate its feasibility and practicality.
As it turns out, that's exactly what we did • saving money and time in the
process. But before we made that decision • returning to that casuistic,
narrative frame • I cultivated the discovery by getting into that positive,
experiential frame. And that made all the difference.
So do that today, and every day. Find something that you can look at with
new eyes. Notice novelty, differences, oddities, and permutations. Open
yourself up to surprise. Don't judge what you see as good or bad; just see
it. Then step back and enjoy the view for as long as you can, before
returning to the business at hand.
Coaching Inquiries: Look around right now and notice one thing that you have
not noticed before. What do you see? How do you feel? What does this thing
have to say? Where do you want to go with this awareness? Don't try to make
meaning of it; allow it to make meaning of you. How can you make this
practice a regular part of your daily life? Who could you share your
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Enjoyed your Provision this week,
Gratitude Gain. Best wishes on book and congrats on Baltimore Marathon.
I did want to congratulate you on your success in the marathon and with
your book. Thanks, too, all the love and support and kernels of knowledge
you've shared with me over the years. Your writing does inspire me.
It was great to finally meet you in Boston and you know how much I
appreciate your work. Like most provisions, I loved the Deepening Your Focus
topic as it related so much to the Star Thrower video we saw in Boston. So
many parallels between E. O. Wilson's nature expedition and the photographer
for National Geographic. They have that great thing in common - the practice
of appreciation. Thanks for sharing both - as it's something I'm continuing
to learn how to do!
Thank you for continuing to send me your stuff. I am now retired and
dealing with my Parkinson's disease. Your writing helps. Top
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International,
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation,
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching,
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time,
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 •
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