Provision #639: The Novelty Nudge

Laser Provision

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.

LifeTrek Provision

Although we are in the middle of a series on The 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 The Gratitude 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 participants….

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:

  • Judging
  • Denying
  • Diagnosing
  • Correcting
  • Comparing
  • Consoling
  • Blaming
  • Interrogating
  • One-Upping
  • Victimizing
  • 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 go.

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 discoveries with?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

Enjoyed your Provision this week, The 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. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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