New Year, New Outlook

New Year, New Outlook

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”  

Albert Einstein

Without any warning, the year 2020 unfolded and disrupted life as we knew it. It is undeniable that we were all affected by the pandemic and the changes that followed. To some degree, restrictions seem to have become the new normal. Although it is clear that the impact has been experienced differently among individuals, 2020 forced all of us to change. At least, on the outside. 

Change cannot be forced upon any of us. Temporary rules can modify our routine, restrictions can take away a certain freedom, but ultimately, true change happens within. Self-development starts when we realize that the way we used to think and behave no longer corresponds to the way we want to live. When we understand and accept this idea, a part of us has already shifted outside of our comfort zone. For many of us, 2020 has opened the door to welcome the change we needed. Will we walk through it? 

Last year, we realized that life can certainly be lived differently when our routine is reconfigured. We may be able to work remotely, we can benefit from a deeper connection with nature, and healthy boundaries appear more essential than they had been in the past. 2020 has been the year where we focused on a disease. We focused on death, restrictions, and cures. We also worked on getting things back to normal as we kept waiting for our old life to make its come back. Things did change, but did we take the time to focus on us and how we adapted to those changes? Did 2020 challenge us positively? Here are 3 ideas that can transform the way we think and connect with others. 

1. Gratitude matters a great deal. 

The concept of feeling grateful seems to have gained some momentum over the last few years. Yet, gratitude is not a trend nor an abstract philosophical idea. Being grateful encourages us to observe life through a different lens. When we decide that what we have is enough to become our best self, we no longer look for more things to want, but rather for ways to be at peace with who we are. Life appears worthwhile as every obstacle is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. Gratitude turns our focus from the external world to our very own potential. 

Gratitude is an activity in which all family members can engage. It might not come naturally at first, but as we learn to appreciate everything that surrounds us, we will definitely engage in it more instinctively. Many studies have shown that gratitude changes the way our brain processes information. The more grateful we are, the more we realize that our gratitude list could be endless. The more sufficient we feel, the more we want to give back to our community. Although I cannot list all the things for which I am personally grateful, I wanted to take the next few lines to share things that made life easier last year despite the countless difficulties. 

  • The internet. Without it, it would have been impossible to work remotely, see family members, host virtual parties or simply engage in activities that were nonexistent in person (online classes, movie watching, museum tours, etc.).
  • The writers, researchers, scientists, professors, and other academic intellectuals who wrote, explored, tested, and shared their knowledge on everything that happened in 2020 from healthcare to politics. They helped me understand the events that were taking place and shaped the next course of action. 
  • The people around me (friends and family members) who helped me keep my interactions alive. When the lockdowns hit all of us, those were the people who managed to make my life enjoyable, from near or far. 

2. Reorganizing our priorities can lead to a happier life.

Many people were forced to reorganize their year because of layoffs, plan cancellations, travel restrictions, significant health issues, etc. When our goals cannot be achieved due to external factors, we are compelled to rethink our projects and sometimes reevaluate our priorities. When most of our life aspects have turned into a routine, it is generally more difficult to change those old habits. It takes a dash of motivation combined with some serious discipline to create a meaningful difference.     

Last year, external changes happened without our need to think about it. We needed to alter our habits for health purposes. This new routine was imposed on us. But at some point, it’s important to take the time and reflect on the way our life has changed and genuinely think about our priorities. What really matters the most? Are there things that we were prioritizing in the past which appeared to be less important in the course of the year? Are there things that we didn’t have or paid attention to that mattered much more than we thought? Those are the questions that we need to ask ourselves to redesign our path to a more meaningful life. 

Ultimately, the definition of a happier life is subjective. We decide what happy means. We decide what matters and what doesn’t matter to us. Last year forced us to reconsider our routine. Perhaps, it has also sent us a message to reconsider our priorities and redefine happiness.  

3. Healthy connections with other beings are essential to survive.

Humans are interconnected. They can’t survive alone, as they thrive around other beings. Some might feel the need to connect with animals while others might search for human contact. 2020 has truly addressed the issue of being isolated and the desire to interact with someone in order to feel alive. 

Therefore, because connections are so important, they not only need to exist but to also be healthy. They need to help us become kinder and more empathetic. They need to provide as much support and love when we feel sad as excitement and passion when we want to share good news. Connections with others are part of our mental health. They are also part of our success. They provide a good description of the way we see ourselves and the world that surrounds us.

Last year inherently reminded us of the essential people in our life. In parallel, it has also brought light on new ones whether they were online connections, distant family members or older friends. Our attitude towards those individuals, our ability to reach out and be kind in chaotic times is fundamentally the direction we want to take when considering change. In 2020, did we connect with the people who mattered most to us? Did we feel lonely and unable to make contact with anyone? Why? By answering those questions, we will be able to better understand the kind of relationships we have and the extent to which we would like to change them in the future. 

Change starts when we take a break from our routine and look around. Growth takes place when we understand our responsibility behind every choice we make and every behavior we adopt. So, as we welcome 2021, let’s all take a deep breath and accept our past experiences. Let’s consider ways to improve our life not by changing what’s on the outside (our weight, our house or car) but by deeply transforming our path to happiness by addressing chronic dissatisfaction, wrong priorities and isolation. 

I wish you all a meaningful 2021, may it take you where you need to go.

United we Hurt, Divided we Fall

United we Hurt, Divided we Fall

 “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

Henry David Thoreau

It has taken me a few days to gather my thoughts in order to write something that wouldn’t look like an outpour of angry feelings. I needed to share the words embedded in my mind about how I feel, perhaps inspiring people to reflect in their own way, with their own words. 

I am a white woman in my early thirties. I live in a suburban city where most of my neighbors are middle-class working Americans, with impeccable looking front yards and flags hanging by their windows. In the 10 years that I have lived in the United States, a cop has stopped me only once. In that instance, I happened to be in a grocery store parking lot very late at night, needing to buy medication. The officer wanted to make sure that I felt safe coming out of the store by myself and waited until I sat in my car before wishing me a good night. I have rarely felt unsafe going out by myself. However the few times that I have, it had nothing to do with my race but rather with my gender. 

That’s my reality. That’s my PRIVILEDGED reality and maybe that’s yours too. I haven’t chosen this kind of life. In a lot of ways, I am extremely lucky and blessed to be carefree about my interactions in society. Although racism exists, I don’t remember ever experiencing it myself. I would be lying if I wrote that I think about it on a daily basis or that I’m a front line activist. The underlying reason is certainly my lack of direct exposure to it. I, as a white woman living in the United States, do not feel threatened because of the color of my skin. 

The last few years have been overwhelmingly eye opening for me. After each senseless act of racism that would cost someone’s life, I would be left questioning my role in society as a privileged person. It seems that communities have been fighting racism for hundreds of years yet the conflict is far from over. Is the problem so rooted that it can no longer be fixed? As I watch the news and read about the actions of hundreds of communities across the country, I realize an important reality: Being human comes with many responsibilities and protecting the ones in need is at the top of the list.  

If we consider ourselves privileged enough to be on Earth, then we all must act accordingly. We have a responsibility toward our fellow humans to be caring and respectful. After all, we all share the same space. I ignore the reason as to why my road was paved with fewer holes and rocks than those of colors. But in my privileged reality, I have to be responsible. It would be destructive to the human race if I weren’t. We cannot be white and believe that racism exists only far away from us. We can no longer witness it with binoculars from our porch and pretend that it doesn’t directly concern us. Racism affects all of humanity. As the importance of human connection has been the subject of abundant research, it becomes clearer that when a part of society is hurting, we are all hurting. When social or economical issues touch a part of the population, we all face difficulties moving forward. When egocentrism is more important than cultural diversity and community togetherness, love and care among individuals can’t reach its full potential. Consequently, we all hurt. 

Keeping this in mind, the time has come for us to reevaluate our involvement with racism. We are an embarrassing society if we can go to space but can’t listen to each other on Earth. It’s a shame to have a racist friend and be afraid to confront him about it because it could be uncomfortable for one or both parties. It’s a disgrace to join a march after a tragedy but remain neutral on a daily basis when the crowds are gone.

It is undeniable that we are all hurting one way or another. Whether it’s because of social injustice, the loss of a loved one to violence, fear of the future or inability to accurately put feelings into words, the situation can no longer be ignored. Regardless, this is not the time to have an individualistic mindset. This is not the time to take things personally in hopes that we can redirect the focus on something more comfortable. Truthfully, this is not the time to blame black people for violence, when we can barely address the violence used against them. 

This is all uncontestably very painful but it would be wrong to try to make ourselves feel better by saying things like “I’m not racist, I’m completely against violence no matter the race” or “it’s just a bunch of bad apples”, “all lives should matter equally.” I am sure that you have read some of these sentences online or heard them through friends or family. None of those are wrong, but when we use this sort of rhetoric, unconsciously or not, we run from responsibilities. We hide behind a passive approach that simply doesn’t bring change. In fact, we contribute to accepting and sharing the status quo.

Racism won’t be defeated passively. It will need activeefforts from all of us. That means if we are not racist, we need to educate someone who is. Good cops need to stand by their communities, and interact positively with the people who have become terrified of them. If we know or work with “bad apples”, we need to educate them and hold them accountable for their behavior. If we rightly believe that all lives matter, then we need to show it by standing next to the ones whose lives clearly haven’t mattered equally. We need to join local communities, interact with minorities, become their voice when they need one, vote even at the lowest levels, take part of the social justice reform, and understand the issues. The “It’s not me, it’s them” mentality doesn’t help because it doesn’t bring change. Instead, it contributes to the continuation of the problem. 

When Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “March on Washington” speech that “we cannot walk alone”, he explicitly acknowledged that white people are needed in the fight against racism because “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” Racism is an issue that needs to be fought by all men, for all of mankind.

Being white has never excluded us from the problem. It’s quite the opposite. The time has come to realize that we are as responsible as anyone else in planting seeds of love and care to preserve our communities. Without all of us working together, all lives can’t matter. 

Responsibility in the Age of Misinformation

Responsibility in the Age of Misinformation

“You may believe that you are responsible for what you do, but not for what you think. The truth is that you are responsible for what you think, because it is only at this level that you can exercise choice. What you do comes from what you think. ” 

Marianne Williamson

In the midst of a pandemic, we have the responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation. As we all look for accuracy, the task appears more challenging with the ever-growing influence of dozens of online news outlets. Individuals turn to the web to get information faster, and understandably so, as they need the latest information about a pandemic that has changed life as we know it. A study by ComScore, a media measurement company,has recently shown that in the last 4 weeks, visits to online news outlets have risen by almost 60%. 

But news outlets are not the only websites sharing news. Besides helping people stay connected with friends and family, almost all social media platforms have permitted individuals like you and I to share news and questionably stay informed. In an age where information circulates nearly at the speed of light and where most people have the means to express themselves freely, accuracy has become secondary. Fake news spreading is contagious. It’s so infectious that researchers at Stanford engineering are studying strains of misleading information, the same way that they would a virus, so that they can “cut the transmission chains” (Elizabeth Paté-Cornell).

If it doesn’t make us physically ill (although it could potentially increase anxiety and depression), fake news changes the vision we have of our leaders, our communities and our environment. It changes our beliefs in fields that could impact us directly: from the development of vaccines, to educational programs and all the human rights that we might defend or instead, dispute.  

I won’t go in the details of how fake news are created and how they virtually spread so fast across the globe, as I’m not knowledgeable in the science behind it. There are plenty of studies available online that cover the topic. However, I want to share two points with all my mindful thinkers. 

Who is more likely to share fake news?

The short answer is everybody. We can all stumble upon an article, video or message that seems important or is stimulating enough that we feel the need to share it. But when we look more into it, based on a study conducted by Paté-Cornell and Trammell (Stanford University), some of us are more vulnerable than others. The younger, older and less educated population might share fake news more easily. Politically speaking, it seems that individuals who support parties with extreme ideologies, on either side of the spectrum, are more likely to believe and share inaccurate information.

The reason behind this is the effects of confirmation bias (term coined by P. Wason after running an experiment in which the participants preferred confirming results based on prior believes despite misinterpreting and/or falsifying other hypotheses). This is known as a cognitive bias. If I am shown a video discussing something that I already believe in, I will lean towards agreeing and sharing that information, no matter the level of its accuracy. In other words, the more extreme my views are on societal issues, the more likely I am prone to believe and share inaccurate information. 

What can I do about it?

We are responsible for everything we share online. The rule is simple: Just like we wouldn’t make every picture of us public, the same accountability applies towards the news we share. If you are like me and don’t understand every medical study coming out about covid-19, don’t share it. If an idea discussed in a video seems too real to not be shared, check the sources and the credentials of the person speaking. If a piece of information has millions of views, shares or likes, it doesn’t make it more reliable. It only means that there were that many people “infected” by potentially false information. If you have seen the same piece of information several times, from different sources (even influential ones), it doesn’t make it more reliable. However, it could make you more vulnerable to start sharing it as well. 

This can all seem overwhelming and difficult to manage on a personal level. In reality, it’s not. It requires us to be responsible for the way we act online toward spreading information and for some of us, to change the way we seek information. Let’s not be guided by intuitions or beliefs but by facts, numbers, and studies. We need to start accepting the fact that despite our perpetual quest for knowledge, some questions don’t have answers; some ideas are still works in progress, but ultimately, our reason, and ability to search and always question will allow us to move in the direction of progress. 

Active Listening: Eliminating the Emotional obstacles (Part 2)

Active Listening: Eliminating the Emotional obstacles (Part 2)

Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.
Jane Goodall

With any human interaction, when someone is talking, someone is hopefully listening. That is the beginning of a dialogue. While we have all been taught in school to not interrupt when someone is talking, to always be thoughtful in the words we use, and to reply truthfully, there are many emotional obstacles that could prevent us from doing so while talking with someone. In Active Listening (Part 1), I presented guidelines to become a better listener by learning to focus and be more attentive to the speaker. In this post, I focus on obstacles that we might experience while communicating with someone, which are directly interfering with the depth and the purpose of a conversation. I hope that this will give some of us more insight and ways to improve our communication style as a whole.

The first obstacle to a healthy conversation is when we take someone’s words personally. That type of behavior pushes our brain to go through all kinds of feelings and we might often feel attacked. For instance, during a conversation, we hear a critique, a comment, even a benign opinion about something or someone and feel that it goes against our values (what we think, believe in, or feel). Consequently, we often reply with negative emotions and do not consider the words we use, the other person’s perspective or whether or not what we are saying is relevant to the conversation. We are in “defense mode” and feel that we need to justify ourselves. Replying with an emotional mind will start conversations where we say things we might regret, things that are not true or things we don’t mean. If we know that we have a tendency to get emotional during a conversation or to take things personally even when it does not directly concern us, it could be useful to take a step back, to listen to what the person is saying without trying to directly reply. Such conversations are a great way for us to start questioning ourselves: How do I feel and why?

The second emotional obstacle is believing that the other person is wrong in his or her reasoning. This is where perspective comes in and helps us realize that there is always more than one truth. As a side note, I am only targeting conversations where people share opinions and feelings, and not academic knowledge. Perspective is an interesting topic and will soon have its own post. To put it simply, having perspective is accepting the fact that there are other ways of thinking, feeling, and doing things regardless of our own values. In order to understand that, we need to accept the fact that everybody comes from a different background with different values. Therefore, their way is right for them as much as ours is right for us. So next time someone tells us something that just feels so wrong, let’s listen to them and understand where they come from. If we have a hard time, let’s ask questions. Let’s do our best to understand why they feel or think a certain way. It’s only when we do our part of the listening that they will be willing to meet us half way to listen to our point of view.

The third reason, and we certainly have all experienced it once, is that over time some people have become emotional triggers for us. When we see them, hear about them, or talk to them, we start becoming either agitated, or uninterested in having a conversation with them. Some family members, coworkers, friends, or even a spouse could shut us down or create feelings of resentment, anger or guilt before a conversation ever begins. In this case, listening seems hard and sometimes even impossible depending on how deep and for how long the triggers have been present. In this case, it is important to identify these people, become aware of the issue and the triggers that accompany them. Again, we need to ask ourselves, how do I feel when talking to this person and why? If we believe that we feel resentful, guilty, depressed or any other disruptive feeling, are we willing to work on it? These are all questions that only WE can answer after becoming fully aware of the issue.

Ultimately, actively listening to someone is work. It takes effort to know ourselves, to accept that others are equally entitled to their ideas and opinions and that by listening to them, we can learn not only about their background and understand their perspective, but more importantly, we can learn about ourselves and our ability to communicate better.

Active Listening (Part 1) : What is it?

Active Listening (Part 1) : What is it?

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. 

Bryant H. McGill

 

I first heard the term “active listening” in a psychology class. Over time, I learned that this term was more than a concept. In fact, it is an essential skill of any kind of dialogue, as it allows the listener to be in the present and focus on what is being said, while the speaker feels more comfortable to share feelings and thoughts.

The feeling of being understood is always rewarding, yet it does not always take place in daily interactions. From small exchanges to more significant ones, we have all experienced the feeling of being misunderstood and have probably misunderstood something as well. Misunderstandings can be heard through comments such as “That’s not what I’m talking about!” or “You didn’t listen to me!” Emotionally, misunderstandings can create loneliness, decrease self-confidence as well as generate feelings of contempt or anger.

So why don’t we communicate more efficiently? The easiest answer is because we don’t know how to do so. In reality, people start communicating and listening at home by modeling what they see from their parents. They continue learning on playgrounds, in classrooms and at work with their colleagues. Just like other social skills, people discover the concept of dialogue through their own experience. Although it can be difficult to change the way we listen to others, we can practice and become better at it every day. Ultimately, how well a person listens to another will make a significant difference in his or her present and future relationships.

Here are a few simple guidelines that can be implemented by anyone wanting to become a better listener.

The first rule is to pay attention. What does that mean? Unless it is a phone conversation or an irrelevant discussion, the listener needs to be in direct eyesight with the person who is talking. Yelling from another room or cooking while talking doesn’t show the speaker that we are paying much attention to what he or she is saying. Similarly, talking through text or social media doesn’t give our full attention to the person and the message. Establishing eye contact, and noticing body language are important elements of actively listening to someone and showing him or her that we are present and focused in the moment. Therefore, to have a meaningful conversation with someone, it is important to stay away from anything that could distract us.

The second rule, and an essential one, is to remember that listening doesn’t mean to mentally prepare for an answer while the speaker is still talking. Thinking about an answer while someone is talking can not only prevent the listener from understanding what is being said, but it can also change the focus of the conversation from the speaker to the listener. For instance, if the speaker is sharing feelings of anxiety and fear because of an upcoming doctor’s appointment and we reply with something such as “I actually like going to the doctor, it’s better to be preventive than going later to fix something more serious”, we have completely disregarded the person’s feelings and have changed the focus on us. In this situation, a good listener shows to the speaker that he or she is there, and has heard the feelings of anxiety. Instead of telling the person what we might do or not do in that same situation, we can ask the speaker what would help him/her? Or how has he/she handled a similar situation in the past? Questions help the listener understand and show the speaker that we care.

The third rule is to keep feedback relevant to the situation and judgment honest and respectful. Giving our opinion or making a judgment to someone who is sharing with us something personal is not helpful. Unless the person is directly asking for our personal opinion, it is often not necessary and therefore, useless in active listening. This guideline can be difficult for some of us to follow. We might be tempted to share something personal that we believe would be interesting or useful in a given situation. We might also interrupt because we believe that the thought the speaker just shared is absurd, false or simply annoying to us. That’s exactly when we need to be self-aware of when our opinion is needed and when it isn’t.

Ultimately, we have to treat the speaker the same way we would want to be treated when we find ourselves in the same situation. Choosing words carefully and showing to the person that we don’t need anything else but his or her trust is a fundamental rule of any kind of communication. This cannot only improve relationships but also establish a strong foundation for self-respect.

K.D

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