In difficult times, try giving thanks.

Have you ever found yourself struggling to understand why folks say, “Be thankful for your blessings” when you’re in the midst of a difficult time?

This sort of advice can feel like nothing more than a hollow platitude, some abstract philosophical notion uttered by those who’ve never suffered loss or difficulty.  When surrounded by difficulty, many of us are inclined to focus on our pain and suffering. We tend to see ourselves as victims of things outside of our control. And while there are certainly systemic injustices that lead many to suffer – things beyond their control – focusing on these things is less likely to bring about positive change. In other words, while the pain and loss are one thing, it’s not the only thing, and if one is to progress out of any morass, that progress will not come by being focused on the difficulty, but rather on what can be made of it.

Next week we’ll celebrate our national holiday called Thanksgiving. When President Lincoln made his Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 20, 1864, the US had been embroiled in three years of civil war. The toll on the nation was immense: The pain suffered by families who’d given their young to fight against each other is hard to imagine. The Civil War is the last time the US has seen military conflict played-out on its own soil. Since then, all of the other wars fought by the US have been on foreign soil. None of us living in the US today has experienced what war looks like in our own backyards. Yet, in the midst of such calamity, strife, anger and destruction, Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving. Was he nuts, or did he understand something about the notion of giving thanks?

The word thanksgiving is synonymous with appreciation. One of the definitions for appreciate is “to be thankful for.” Appreciate also means, “to recognize the quality, magnitude or significance of.” To appreciate something means recognizing value, a thing that is enduring, positive and worthy of our thanks.

While it may not seem like it, everything around us has value. When a life experience causes calamity, we would do well to see what’s happening as simply part of life and something that has some value to it – in some way or another. Getting to this point is much easier when we cease to dwell on the negative, the life sucking aspect of the situation, and move to giving thanks for what we have. And when we strip away all the junk – the stuff we seem to think brings happiness – and see our humanity, as thinking, breathing creatures, as the most important thing for which we ought to be most thankful, then it gets much easier to turn a difficult situation into something that can be viewed in a positive light.

Life is a force, or energy; it’s also a phenomenon, the roots of which are still the subject of scientific inquiry and speculation. That human beings are living things, and emergent from the earth system, is of primal significance. As Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, demonstrates, our living bodies are simply a form or manifestation of energy. To keep our bodies alive, we take in food and transform it into the energy we need. All of the food we consume starts with plants, which convert the sun’s light energy into living matter. The source of all the energy we use, whether it comes from fossil fuels or somewhere else, would not be if but for the sun. In short, the sun is the source of all life energy on the planet.

Dr. Kim Cameron, of U of M’s Ross School of Business, has done pioneering work in organizational science. One of the most interesting observations born of Cameron’s research has to do with what is called the heliotropic effect, which is observed in the way plants turn toward a source of sunlight. The source of life’s energy, the sun, is so attractive that an immobile living thing will turn toward it, so as to take-in as much energy as possible. Cameron’s work shows that human beings exhibit the heliotropic effect as well, and while each of us senses this when we walk outside on a sunny day, his work goes much deeper. There are things we hold-up as positive, or sources of life-giving energy. Not unlike the sun, we turn toward these things and are energized.

In a recent interview with Cameron, the professor had this to say about what his work reveals:

“All human beings flourish in the presence of light or of positive energy. This inherent tendency is known as the heliotropic effect… The evidence verifies that all human beings respond favorably to and are renewed by positive energy. The type of energy that is most powerful in affecting performance is relational energy, and it is created and enhanced through the demonstration of virtuous actions (e.g., generosity, compassion, gratitude, trustworthiness, forgiveness, and kindness) on the part of leaders. The science clearly verifies that virtuousness — especially as demonstrated by leaders — produces extraordinarily positive outcomes in individuals and their organizations.”

One of the things I learned some time ago comes from Tom Brennan, co-founder of Detroit’s Green Garage. Tom teaches that businesses are best thought of, not as inanimate machines, but as living organisms. When we come together to form a business, the business organization takes on a “life of its own”. The business will confront all of what life throws at it, and either survive, or die-out, just like us. All too often, however, our thinking about the behavior of a business gets caught-up in things of our own making. Rather than seeing businesses as living organisms, we think of them as machines. We create organizational charts and move people around as if they fit neatly into boxes. Business leaders all too often expect employees to be available at their beck and call, as if being an employee is not unlike switching a machine on and off. This sort of behavior overlooks our nature as living things; it ignores how we can be affected by what life throws our way (e.g., trouble at home, being tired, or ill etc.).

Whether as individuals, businesses, or any other human organization, struggling through difficulties, regardless of their origin, is part of life. Effectively dealing with difficulties, as noted above, is much easier when we first give thanks for, or appreciate what we already have. When it comes to organizations, and effectively struggling through the difficulties they confront, Appreciative Inquiry, a technique first conceived by David Cooperrider, someone closely linked with Kim Cameron, has proven highly effective.

Appreciative Inquiry starts by first reflecting on, and appreciating, or giving thanks for the value the organization embodies. When things go awry, and difficulty arises, organizations often focus on the problem, which usually means finding fault, blaming and all of the rest of the negative energy associated with this kind of behavior. Appreciative Inquiry abandons this sort of thinking and starts by uplifting and appreciating what’s good, or of value in the organization. When those who make up the organization start by appreciating the value the organization brings, rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong, they tap into what Cameron notes as “positive energy”. The result is energizing, or life giving and renders the entire process of dealing with the difficulty a matter that leads to life, rather than death. Leveraging that which gives life starts with appreciating what we already have.

So, this Thanksgiving, when we’re gathering with family and friends to enjoy a meal and whatever it is the Lions will be doing on the gridiron, let’s remember what started the holiday in the first place: giving thanks in the middle of very difficult times.

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