My 11-year daughter had her science project. The due date approached with the usual procrastination and angst. We settled on a project that would explore the seemingly simple issue of what makes things sink or float. We constructed an experiment that tried out equally sized cubes of materials.

Easy enough, but we knew that science said that it is density, not weight, that is the determining factor behind flotation.

To try this out, we compared a cube of play-dough with a pancake of the same substance and weight. The cube sunk and the pancake floated  well, for a bit at least, before it soaked up water and went down.

While this was happening, at work I was developing a new card deck on emotions. We’d had an early prototype with a compendium of a 120 emotions, feelings, and behaviors. We needed to whittle it down to make it more functional.

CCL post-doc Elena Svetieva who has studied emotions extensively, gave us the lowdown: there are 6 fundamental emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust) and 4 of the 6 are negative.

Our tendency, like the play-dough, is to sink.

Why do negative emotions dominate? Emotions are a biological phenomena, generated naturally by our bodies. Negative emotions are how evolution prepared us for survival, to react quickly to danger. But times have changed and what we’re chasing now is happiness — not survival.

The good news is while we don’t necessarily control feeling negative emotions, we can choose our response. So, how can we enable ourselves to become more disposed to float rather than sink?

The converging fields of positive psychology, neuroscience, and wisdom practices offer many insights and techniques. Our holistic leadership team is working to connect the research to development practices that can build our capacity to be more aware of our inner worlds and our actions.

As a busy leader who has run into buzzsaw of overwhelming commitments, challenging interpersonal dynamics, and negative emotions, I’ve been on the path to apply these in my life. Here are 3 practices I’ve found most useful.

Meditation

Meditation is the ultimate app for human wellbeing. Just as we take a daily shower to get off the grime from the day, meditation does this with our inner selves.

It creates centering, clearing, and spaciousness, allowing us to release some of the weight of worry, pain, and anxiety we have absorbed.

There are many techniques from different faith and spiritual traditions that can help. I have been using a free app called Prana Breath that uses breathing cycles to help foster states of wellbeing. Just as mental states change our breathing — stress makes our breath short and sharp; relaxation does the reverse — changing our breathing can change our mental states.

We can consciously shift how we feel just by changing our breath.

Photo of making a gratitude jarGratitude

We have a tendency to soak up the bad stuff that happens in the day.

My colleague Nick Petrie wrote about our human tendency to ruminate on the bad stuff, allowing it to swell and bring us down.

Gratitude does the opposite by consciously acknowledging the good in our lives. We see that good happens along with the bad and there is a lot of good present.

To create a gratitude practice at home, we have a glass gratitude jar that we fill with notes after dinner. The jar allows us to see the many blessings that have accumulated in our lives.

On bad days, it becomes possible to literally count your blessings.

Mindfulness

Meditation — the grand-daddy of these practices.

As the saying goes, we don’t control our thoughts, our thoughts control us. Mindfulness takes back control. It is about shifting out of autopilot and being the puppet of our emotions, anxieties, and interactions. It calls us to consciously notice and choose.

One of my favorite teachers, Tara Brach, notes that the heart of the practice is to “attend and befriend.”

Rather than to avoid or attack the things we don’t like, we tune in and respond with compassion for ourselves and others.

I have found this useful with both physical pain and interpersonal hurt. For something like a headache, I can tune into the pain and acknowledge it, not wishing it away or directing anger to it. I find the pain, thus acknowledged, tends to melt away. So too with emotional distress at a hurtful interaction. I can acknowledge what I am feeling and offer the person who has triggered the hurt a blessing.

Mindfulness helps release the pain.

Practices such as these lie at the core of leadership. Much like play-dough, we can mold ourselves, shaping the bad stuff into something better and rising to be our better selves.

If you have experimented with these practices, do share what you’ve found. (No extended science project report required, of course!)

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