The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)

Part I. The THEORY

Chapter 3. Accepting Success

If my aim is to prove I am “enough,” the project goes on to infinity—because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.

Nathaniel Branden

The Greek myth of Sisyphus tells of a man, the most cunning of mortals, who was punished for his pride and disobedience. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a heavy rock up a mountainside and then watch it roll down again, repeating this process for eternity.

Psychologically speaking, the Perfectionist is like Sisyphus. But whereas the punishment of Sisyphus was inflicted by the gods, the Perfectionist’s punishment is self-inflicted. No success or conquest, no peak or destination, is ever enough to satisfy the Perfectionist. When he reaches the summit of one mountain or another, when he achieves some form of success, there is no delight, no savoring—only another meaningless journey toward a destination that inevitably disappoints.

The alternative to the Sisyphean archetype is Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who, according to Homer, fought in the war of the Greeks against Troy. After the war was won he wanted to return home to his family and people, but his journey was impeded by Poseidon, the god of the sea. Odysseus struggled against the one-eyed Cyclops, barely escaped the giant man-eating Laestrygonians, and survived the song of the sirens. He was the guest of the enchantress Circe and spent seven years as the captive of the beautiful nymph Calypso. And at the end of his long journey, which was full of despair and delight, gloom and glory, he finally reached home and was reunited with his beloved wife, Penelope.

In psychological terms, Odysseus is an Optimalist. Life is fraught with struggles, difficulties, and disappointments, but the Optimalist is able to find pleasure in the journey without losing his focus on his destination. He learns and grows from adversity, and while he may keep his eye on his eventual goal (in Odysseus’s case, returning home), he also savors and takes pleasure in his adventures. And when the Optimalist is rewarded for his struggles, he is fulfilled and grateful—and does not take his success for granted, does not dismiss his accomplishment as insignificant.

The reality that the Perfectionist expects (and therefore creates for himself) is of a Sisyphean battle, a futile struggle. By contrast, the Optimalist’s life is an Odyssean epic, a purposeful adventure.

Figure 3.1

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In his essay on the myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus tries to rescue Sisyphus—and with him all those who perceive their lives as futile and hopeless labor—from his predicament. Camus describes Sisyphus as a tortured, passionate, and absurd hero. But he nevertheless ends his essay on an optimistic and somewhat romantic note:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.1

But can one really imagine Sisyphus happy? Could anyone—other than in literary, poetic moments as Camus, no doubt, found himself in while writing his essay—ever truly invoke Sisyphus’s predicament as something romantic and appealing? I doubt it. Sisyphus is not a happy man. Instead, I would suggest, that Camus’ writing better describes another Greek hero: one can certainly imagine Odysseus happy.

Sisyphus suffers inordinate pain throughout his journey; Odysseus, too, struggles, but there are moments of joy and delight and learning and growing. When Sisyphus reaches the peak, he is greeted by the bane of his existence; Odysseus at the end of his travels is greeted by the love of his life.

Alasdaire Clayre, the successful Oxford scholar who committed suicide at the age of forty-eight, was a consummate Perfectionist. Though most other people saw Clayre as an astounding success, he saw himself as a failure. A Perfectionist, like Clayre, rejects success, banishes it from his life, either before it is attained by setting excessively high standards or after it is attained by failing to appreciate it. In other words, the Perfectionist either precludes success from the outset by attempting a slope that is too steep or dismisses success once it is achieved by rolling the rock back down. The Optimalist, in contrast, attracts success to his life, first by adopting ambitious yet grounded standards for success (a steep and challenging slope, yet one that can be managed), and second by appreciating success once it is achieved (celebrating and savoring the arrival). It is these two issues—of grounding success and appreciating success—that distinguish between life as a Sisyphean battle and life as an exciting odyssey.

Grounding Success

When I was growing up, my favorite TV program was a survey of world sports called, after the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Every Tuesday evening, for an hour, I was glued to the screen, lamenting when Manchester United edged past Liverpool in the FA Cup final and celebrating the Boston Celtics’ victory over the Phoenix Suns in triple overtime, admiring Daley Thompson’s superhuman performance in the decathlon and Nadia Comaneci’s perfect ten on the parallel bars. Like my heroes on the black-and-white screen, I, too, wanted to run faster, jump higher, and become stronger.

The desire to improve is part of human nature and it serves us well, as it is responsible for personal and societal progress. Taken to the extreme, however, it can harm more than it helps. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden talks of the “nothing is enough” syndrome, the inability that many of us have to be satisfied with what we possess or with who we are. Diane Ackerman describes the syndrome in this way: “Why are we so obsessed with improving everything around us: our lawn, our aluminum siding, our chances, ourselves? Regardless of talent, looks, or good fortune, we feel ourselves to be inadequate and in need of some extra genius or flair or energy or serenity.”2 Our constant dissatisfaction condemns us to constant displeasure, for as long as we are human, there is always room for improvement, and even a perfect ten only satisfies us temporarily, until the next competition.

As a squash player, and later as a college student, I felt compelled to live up to a standard of perfection that I had created for myself. And while objectively everything seemed great—academically, on the squash court, and socially—I was in fact constantly stressed, dissatisfied, and frustrated. My academic and other successes did not give me the contentment I sought, because whenever I performed well, the sense of satisfaction was fleeting and I would immediately set my sights on the next goal, the next summit. Nothing was ever enough.

But does this mean that the desire to gain must necessarily produce pain? Should we give up trying to improve ourselves in order to feel adequate as we are? According to William James, father of American psychology, self-esteem is the ratio between success and aspirations, between how well we do and what we aim to do.3

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In other words, if I aspire to win Olympic gold and actually take home the silver, my self-esteem will drop. But if all I aspire to is participating in the Olympics and I end up winning a bronze medal, my self-esteem will rise. According to James’s equation, therefore, if we give up on our desire to improve (in other words, if we keep our aspirations modest), we are more likely to have positive feelings about ourselves. Conversely, if we are ambitious, if we constantly and relentlessly increase our expectations of ourselves, we are doomed to low self-esteem and negative feelings. Though James himself was not one to relax his standards—which was one of the causes to which he attributed his own unhappiness—his theory suggests that we should, at least to a degree, give up on our desire to improve.

But James’s equation is only partially correct. While there are times when lowering our aspirations can contribute to our well-being, we cannot simply decide to lower them indefinitely and expect to feel better as a result. In fact, low expectations are just as much a prescription for unhappiness as unrealistically high ones. If our aspirations are unrealistically high and we refuse to accept our limitations, we become unhappy; if our aspirations are unrealistically low and we refuse to acknowledge our true potential, not only our success but also our happiness is compromised. “If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being,” says Abraham Maslow, “then I warn you that you’ll be unhappy for the rest of your life.” So how do we know whether, when, and to what extent to lower our aspirations? And how do we know when to raise them? The answer is that we need to be guided by reality.

In his research on flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates that for peak experience and peak performance—for happiness and success—we need to engage in activities that are neither too easy nor too difficult. If we are not challenged enough, we become bored; if our aspirations are overly ambitious, we become anxious.4 Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, considered the leading researchers in the area of goal setting, summarize thirty-five years of empirical evidence in their field: “The highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance. . . . Performance leveled off or decreased only when the limits of ability were reached or when commitment to a highly difficult goal lapsed.”5 So while stretching ourselves, pushing ourselves to greater heights, can be a good thing, there is a point beyond which it becomes a bad thing. We need to accept that our limits are real.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins tells the story of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American prisoner of war in Vietnam.6 Known for his unbreakable character and resilience, Stockdale described the two defining characteristics of American captives who were most likely to survive the brutal conditions of a Vietnamese prison. First, they openly faced and accepted rather than ignored or dismissed the harsh facts of their predicament. Second, they never stopped believing that they would someday get out. In other words, while they did not run away from reality, accepting the brutal truths about their current conditions, they never lost hope that all would work out well in the end. By contrast, both those who believed that they would never get out and those who believed that they would be freed within an unrealistically short period of time were unlikely to survive.

Finding that balance between, on the one hand, high hopes and great expectations and, on the other, harsh reality, applies to healthy goal setting in general. The Perfectionist has expectations of himself and sets himself targets that cannot be met; the Optimalist sets high goals that are difficult but attainable. While there is no simple technique to identify which goals are realistic and capable of inspiring us, psychologist Richard Hackman suggests that “the right place to be for maximum motivation is wherever it is that you have a fifty-fifty chance of success.”7

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Think of a goal that you already have, and, if necessary, modify it so that it is both attainable and challenging. Think of at least one new goal that will stretch you and yet will be realistic.

The Good-Enough Life

In the beginning, Man went to work in the morning and came home in the evening, while Woman stayed at home and took care of the house, the children, and Man. Then World War II came, and Man left for Europe or the Pacific. Woman was asked to support the war effort and spend some time in the factory, just temporarily, until Man returned. Woman got a taste of Man’s world—ate from the forbidden fruit—and she wanted more.

Not only did many women realize that they liked working outside the home, but men conceded—some reluctantly, others gladly—that women could do the work. The world changed, but some things stayed the same. According to Alice D. Domar in her book Be Happy Without Being Perfect:

Even though women worked outside the home, expectations remained high for their roles inside the home. They’d come a long way, baby, but they still had to get dinner on the table, take care of the children, do the laundry, clean the house, remember to send birthday cards to relatives, and keep their husbands sexually satisfied. Society essentially told women that, sure, you can have it all—but if you’re going to do it all, you’d better do it well.8

Today, while women on average still do a lot more work in the home than men, they are not the only ones who have to do it all and do it well. An increasing number of men are asked, are required—and, yes, sometimes even want—to contribute more in the home and become more involved in the raising of their children.

There was a new world order, one in which both men and women had more privileges and more responsibilities. Unfortunately, though, the feminist revolution, with all its significant achievements, was unable to slow down earth’s revolution and extend our days beyond twenty-four hours. So while demands on our time increased significantly, there was no corresponding increase in our time and no corresponding decrease in expectations. In fact, the opposite is the case, as both men and women are expected to work longer hours than they did in the 1950s and 1960s. And yet the message that most women and some men continued to receive from their environment was that not only were they able to do it all, but they could and should do it all. As Domar notes, “Throughout the 1990s and beyond, the media continued to portray complete happiness in all facets of life as an attainable goal.”

Man and Woman were officially banished from Pleasantville. In their new world—a world which is more equitable and fair, and also more demanding—can Man and Woman find happiness? The answer, to many, seems to reside in achieving what has come to be called “work-life balance.” But what might work-life balance really look like? Given the real-world, twenty-first century constraints of our lives, what would be the optimal way to balance all of our commitments, all the things we have to do, and the things we want to do?

In my twenties, the passionate Perfectionist in me believed that I could indeed have it all. I spent long hours at work, had some social life, and was overall content with my work-life imbalance. Then I married and had children, my priorities naturally changed, and there was not enough time for anything. I became increasingly frustrated both at home and at work. There was so much more I wanted to accomplish and experience, yet no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much time I spent with my family, I felt I was not doing enough. I was not giving my children as much attention as I wanted, my wife and I did not go out as often as we both wished, I was not getting enough work done, I spent very little time with close friends, and I was falling far short of my ideal in terms of practicing yoga and exercising.

Reflecting on my overall situation, I identified five areas in my life where it was important for me to thrive: as a parent, as a partner, professionally, as a friend, and in the area of personal health. These five areas did not encompass all the things that I cared about in life, but they were the most significant ones to me, the ones that I wanted to spend most of my time on.

To help me find a solution, I looked for role models in each one of these five areas. And while I found people who were doing some of these things well, none of them was a role model in all five areas or even in a majority of them. A manager in one of the organizations I consulted for was thriving at work, but his family life was a wreck. A friend of mine was a wonderful father and did extremely well at work but had very little time with his partner and neglected his health. A couple I knew were accomplished businesspeople who seemed to invest a great deal in one another, but they had no children and wanted none. A former classmate of mine spent ninety minutes at the gym six times a week, but after giving birth to her first child, she decided not to return to work.

These people and others made certain choices. Some of them were satisfied with the choices they had made, but I was not prepared to forgo my commitments to fatherhood, relationship, career, friends, and health. Where did that leave me? I wondered whether in the modern world a person’s basic choice was either to essentially give up on an area or two of one’s life or to condemn oneself to being frustrated in all areas of life. Was there a third possibility?

There is a third way—the way of the Optimalist. Having found it, I am currently a lot more satisfied with my life as a whole. Reaching this stage took significant readjustment, the adoption of a whole new approach to the way I manage my time and expectations. The first step was to accept the reality that I could not have it all. While it seems obvious that you cannot work fourteen hours a day and remain fit and healthy and be a devoted father and husband, in my perfectionist fantasy world, nothing was impossible.

The second step was to ask myself what would be good enough in each of the five areas of my life that were important to me. In a perfect world, I would be spending twelve hours a day engaged in my work; in the real world, nine to five was good enough, even if it meant turning down some opportunities I would have liked to pursue. In a perfect world, I would be practicing yoga for ninety minutes six times a week and spending a similar amount of time at the gym; in the real world, an hour of yoga twice a week and jogging for thirty minutes three times a week was good enough. Similarly, going out with my wife once a week, meeting friends once a week, and spending the remaining evenings at home with my wife and kids was far short of my perfectionist ideal, but it would (have to) do. All this was, as far as I could see, the optimal solution—the best I could do given the various demands and the constraints of my life.

It was a great relief to adopt this new good-enough approach. With my revised set of expectations, a fresh sense of satisfaction replaced the old frustration. And, unexpectedly, I found that I was more energized and focused.

While trying to do it all, part of my frustration came from my inability to focus on one thing at a time. For example, I tried to squeeze in work-related phone calls or e-mails when the kids were home because I felt like I didn’t get enough work done in the office. While at work, I spent a lot of time on the phone with my wife because we didn’t feel satisfied with our conversations, which were constantly disrupted at home. I tried, with little success, to read while on the exercise bike, and my mind wandered constantly to my children when I tried to rest in child’s pose on the yoga mat.

I was a “polygamist” of sorts. Feeling unfulfilled in each one of these areas, I tried to make up for it by engaging in more than one activity simultaneously. With the change from a perfectionist fantasy to an optimal, good-enough existence, without my noticing it at first, I also changed to a “serial monogamist”—engaging in each of the different activities exclusively, separately. When I was with my children, I was with them, while the computer and phone were off; my friends got my undivided attention when we were together; when my wife and I were on a date, it was our time to share and to love; at work, when writing, my phone and e-mail were off (as they are now) and I was fully focused on the task; and when working out, I was much more likely to enjoy the meditative unity of mind and body. From an unfulfilled polygamist I became a much more satisfied serial monogamist.

The good-enough formula is not fixed. What constitutes good enough varies from person to person. Different people care about different things, and each person has to take the time to identify those areas that are most important to her. For one person, work and friends may be the most important areas, while for another, family and travel will top the list. What constitutes good enough also varies over time—and so requires the fluidity and acceptance of change that are the mark of the Optimalist. For example, as your children grow up and become more independent, they may not be at home as much and you can reallocate some of the time you spend with them. Your job may sometimes require you to put in long hours. A person dear to you may need your help, and you may choose to spend more time with her at the expense of other activities. The basic idea behind the good-enough approach is that we must come to terms with the constraints of our life as a whole and then find the optimal—or near-optimal—allocation of time and effort.

For me, things are far from perfect now, and every now and then I wish I had more time for one activity or another. Sometimes I find that I have to catch up on my e-mail correspondence late at night after the rest of my family has gone to sleep, when I am exhausted. Once in a while, a few days pass without physical exercise. Things are not perfect; but they’re just about good enough.

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What are the areas of your life that are most important to you?

But is good enough really good enough? When I first came up with this new approach, I was eager to share it with the students in my leadership seminar. I thought that the good-enough framework could contribute to solving the problem of the work-life balance that we had been discussing. But the reception the idea received from some students—particularly the male students—was not what I had expected. In their eyes it was wholesale compromise.

Part of their reaction, I believe, had to do with their age and stage in life. At twenty, most of them had not really experienced the demands either of family or a professional career, let alone both simultaneously. Beyond that, however, many people of all ages and levels of experience equate the good-enough approach with “doing the bare minimum.” My students were all ambitious high-achievers who never in the past had been satisfied with doing the bare minimum in anything they put their minds to.

In fact, however, the good-enough approach actually leads to functioning at one’s best—at one’s optimal level of performance. The narrow approach of the Perfectionist—attempting to attain perfection in every area of life—inevitably leads to compromise and frustration: given the real constraints of time, it really is impossible to do it all. In their book Just Enough, Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson note that “you cannot maximize two things if they are tradeoffs, by the very definition of maximizing.”9 Time is a limited resource, and inevitably there are trade-offs to be made when we decide what we want to do with it. However, while we cannot maximize everything, we can optimalize. In contrast to the Perfectionist’s narrow view of reality—looking to maximize time spent in each area of life while ignoring the inevitability of trade-offs—the Optimalist looks for the good-enough solution, which is about optimalizing the different components of the system. The good-enough approach forgoes unrealistic expectations of perfection and instead opts for the best possible life.

To me, following the good-enough prescription did not mean I couldn’t do better—I could and I can. But it does mean that if I am to be realistic, I will have to settle for an optimally balanced life. My values have not changed with the change in approach. My family is the most important part of my life, and I am no less ambitious with regard to my professional life than I was in my twenties. The only difference is that I am taking the road I did not take before—and taking this good-enough road is making all the difference.

Appreciating Success

Many Perfectionists have trouble appreciating and enjoying success. Some reject success by setting unrealistically high expectations that are unlikely to be attained. Others reject success by dismissing it once it is attained, by never being satisfied with their accomplishments. As I have discussed, the antidote to the unrealistic expectations is grounded success—having realistic standards for success—and, at times, settling for good enough. The antidote to dismissing success by never being satisfied with it is learning to accept and appreciate success.

There are legions of Perfectionists who, despite being wealthy, healthy, famous, and gorgeous, are unhappy. The fact that wealth, prestige, and other measures of success have very little to do with our levels of well-being points to a simple truth, namely that happiness is mainly contingent on our state of mind rather than on our status or the state of our bank account. Once our basic needs are met—needs such as food, shelter, and education—our level of well-being is determined by what we choose to focus on and by our interpretation of external events. Do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity? Do we see the glass as half empty or half full? Do we appreciate and enjoy what we have, or do we take it for granted and dismiss it?

In their work on resilience, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte discuss the notion of tunnel vision, which is about focusing on a small part of reality while essentially ignoring the rest.10 For example, if there are twenty students attending my lecture and one of them is asleep, focusing my attention exclusively on the sleeping student to the exclusion of all the other students in the class is tunnel vision. Conversely, if nineteen of them are asleep and only one is listening to what I have to say, concluding that my lecture was a success because one student was intellectually engaged is also a form of tunnel vision. Whether leading to a positive or a negative focus, tunnel vision is about detachment from reality. Generally, Perfectionists engage in negative tunnel vision: they dismiss the good in their lives while giving center stage to the bad.

Alice Domar talks of her patients who, to the outside world, seem to have it all and yet are unable to enjoy it all—or any of it, for that matter—because of their perfectionism. The Perfectionist’s negative tunnel vision leads her to dismiss her accomplishments, to take them for granted, and then to resume the drudgery of pushing the next heavy rock up the next steep slope. The Optimalist, by contrast, appreciates life as a whole—herself, her successes, and even her failures, which she perceives as opportunities for learning and growing. Consequently, she not only enjoys what she has but also generates more success, more positive events and experiences.

The word appreciate has two meanings. The first meaning is “to be thankful,” the opposite of taking something for granted. The second meaning is “to increase in value” (as money appreciates in the bank). Combined, these two meanings point to a truth that has been proved repeatedly in research on gratitude: when we appreciate the good in our lives, the good grows and we have more of it. The opposite, sadly, is also true: when we fail to appreciate the good—when we take the good in our lives for granted—the good depreciates.11

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What can you appreciate right now? Make a list of things for which you are grateful.

Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough conducted a series of studies in which they asked participants to write down on a daily basis at least five things, major or minor, for which they were grateful.12Participants’ responses included everything from their parents to the Rolling Stones, from waking up in the morning to God. Putting aside a minute or two every day to express gratitude for one’s life turned out to have far-reaching consequences. Compared to the control group, the grateful group not only became more appreciative of life as a whole but also enjoyed higher levels of well-being and positive emotions: they felt happier, more determined, more energetic, and more optimistic. They were also more generous and more likely to offer support to others. Finally, those who expressed gratitude also slept better, exercised more, and experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness.

I have been doing this exercise daily since September 19, 1999 (three years before Emmons and McCullough published their findings), when I heard Oprah tell her viewers to do it—and so I did! From around the time my son David turned three, we have been doing a variation of this exercise together. Every night I ask him, “What was fun for you today?” and then he asks me the same question. My wife and I regularly remind ourselves what we are grateful for in each other and in our relationship. I credit this simple exercise with helping me make the shift from being a Perfectionist, who takes the good for granted, to an Optimalist, who appreciates it. When we make a habit of gratitude, we no longer require a special event to make us happy. We become more aware of good things that happen to us during the day, as we anticipate putting them on our list.

Needless to say, some items on the daily list repeat themselves. For me, God and family make it on the list every night, and beyond that the list contains at least five items (usually more), big or small. One of the challenges of this simple exercise is to maintain freshness—to avoid the trap of turning it into a mindless routine. We do this exercise so that we don’t take the good things in our life for granted, but after doing it for a while, the exercise itself can be taken for granted, which of course defeats the purpose.

There are a few measures we can take to counter the potentially numbing impact of repetition. For instance, we could do this exercise on a weekly rather than a daily basis, as Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests.13 However, there is a downside to turning this into a weekly habit, and that is that the practice of gratitude is less likely to become ingrained. We can attain the best of both worlds—doing it daily while maintaining freshness—if we make a conscious effort to diversify the list or elements of the list. For example, I might focus one day on my daughter Shirelle’s smile and the next on a new word she learned. The practice can be varied in other ways, too, such as sharing the list with our partner once in a while or making a drawing of the items for which we are grateful.

Visualizing the items on the list can help. Cognitive psychologist Stephen Kosslyn points out, “Children rely more than older people on imagery in their thinking. . . . Children tend to use imagery more than descriptive representation in their thought.”14 Kosslyn speculates that this reliance on imagery produces the “childlike freshness” that we are more likely to see among the young. Writing down “family” and then visualizing my wife, children, parents, and siblings helps me maintain freshness even though I have expressed gratitude for their presence thousands of times before. We can use our imagination in other ways, such as attempting to reexperience the emotion from earlier in the day when we ate a delicious meal. We savor, or resavor, that which we are grateful for—be it a meal, our child, music we listened to, or the rain.

Generally speaking, the key when expressing gratitude is to be mindful, present. According to Ellen Langer, my dissertation advisor and mentor, we sustain a mindful state by “drawing novel distinctions about the situation and the environment” as opposed to being trapped in “previously constructed categories.”15 Essentially, being mindful is about assuming the Optimalist’s cognitive and behavioral flexibility, whereas being mindless is about being stuck in the Perfectionist’s rigid mind-set. For example, we are mindful when we think of an original use for a familiar object, when we note a new expression on a familiar face, and so on. Similarly, if when writing down the things for which we are grateful we try to look at them from a new perspective, searching for distinct details or new variations, we remain present in the experience.

A great deal of research illustrates that practicing mindfulness in the way that Langer suggests—by drawing novel distinctions—enhances happiness, creativity, self-acceptance, success, and physical health. When we practice the gratitude exercise mindfully—when we take the time and make the effort to savor the good in our lives—we are benefiting in two ways. First, we become more appreciative, and the good in our lives appreciates. Second, we gain from the exercise of mindfulness, which in itself is beneficial to us.

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Look around you right now. What have you not noticed before? How could the things you have noticed be seen differently? Are there aspects you did not notice? Is there another perspective from which to see these things?

Expressing gratitude to others—to our parents, teachers, friends, students—is among the most effective ways of raising our own and others’ levels of well-being. Martin Seligman introduced the gratitude visit exercise as part of his positive psychology class, asking students to write a letter expressing their appreciation to a person who has helped them in one way or another and then to visit the person and read him the letter. The effect of this exercise, as reported by Seligman and his students, and indeed as confirmed by subsequent research, is remarkable—in terms of the benefit it brought to the giver, to the recipient, and to their relationship.16

I have assigned similar exercises in my classes and have on a number of occasions been moved to tears when students reported back. A father hugged his child for the first time in more than a decade, a friendship that had seemingly died years earlier was resurrected, an old coach came away from the meeting looking younger than he had in years. The power of gratitude is immense.

A letter of gratitude is more than just a thank-you note. It requires that you take time to reflect on what the other person means to you, on the ways she has contributed to your life. While there are many ways to express gratitude, the gratitude visit is unique. First, the mere act of writing the letter (whether or not the letter is ever delivered) contributes to the writer’s well-being. Second, the time and effort that the writer has invested in writing the letter makes the recipient feel valued. Third, the visit itself provides a personal touch and can intensify the experience. Finally, the existence of an actual letter means the recipient can revisit it and reexperience it; in this way, a single act has long-lasting effects.

A letter of gratitude reminds the recipient of her success, whether as a teacher, friend, parent, coach, or boss. The emotions associated with giving or receiving such a letter are often no less positive and no less intense than emotions we experience following our greatest accomplishments. As a result, our understanding of success expands to include accomplishments that we would have previously taken for granted and dismissed. A teacher may look at her day-to-day work as ordinary and uninspiring; a letter of gratitude from a student can inspire her and help her realize what a difference her work has made and how successful she really has been.

A single letter of gratitude boosts our levels of well-being, but for the writer this spike is usually temporary. For letters of gratitude and gratitude visits to have a more lasting effect, they would have to become a habit. Writing a weekly, biweekly, or even a monthly letter can do a great deal of good.

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Think of a person whom you appreciate. What do you appreciate in that person? What are you grateful for?

Being thankful for what we have, not taking our accomplishments for granted, will bring more success into our lives. If more people were to express gratitude to others—to their parents, colleagues, partners, teachers, and friends—then the good in the world would appreciate. As Cicero pointed out, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

EXERCISES

Image Good Enough

Make a list of the most important areas in your life. You can use categories such as professional, family, romantic, friends, health, travel, hobby, art, or others. First note under each category what you would ideally like to do and how much time you would ideally like to spend. Then, for each category distinguish between the part that you can give up and the part that you see as indispensable. Write down the indispensable activities under your good-enoughlist. For example, under work, your ideal might be eighty hours a week. Given other constraints and desires, that may not be realistic. Good enough for you might be fifty hours a week. Ideal in the friendship category might be meeting friends every night after work; good enough might be two evenings a week. In a perfect world, you would play fifteen rounds of golf a month; three rounds a month, though, might be good enough.

Category

Ideal
(Perfect)

Good Enough
(Optimal)

Work

Eighty-hour weeks

Fifty-hour weeks

Friends

Daily get-togethers

Two weekly get-togethers

Golf

A round every other day

Three rounds a month

After you introduce these changes, revisit your list once in a while. Are you trying to do too much? Too little? What has changed? Is the compromise that you have made in one area of your life making you unhappy? Could you do a little more there and perhaps a little less in another area? There are no easy formulas for finding the optimal balance. Moreover, our needs and wants change over time, as we change and as our situation changes. Be attentive to your inner needs and wants, as well as to the external constraints.

Image Gratitude Visit

Write a letter to someone you appreciate, expressing your gratitude to him or her. Refer to particular events and experiences, to things that he or she did for which you are grateful. There is benefit just in writing the letter, but the value is increased if you actually send the letter or, better yet, deliver it in person.

Write down the names of at least five other people you appreciate, and commit to actual dates when you will be writing and delivering gratitude letters to them.