Posted by: MC | May 14, 2013

Paying Attention to What’s Working

Burnside Bridge Musician 5-14-2013  mmc


The other day, I was at the Quest Integrative Health Center in Portland.  I was co-facilitating a discussion on the neurobiology of happiness based on the work of researcher and clinician, Rick Hanson.   I’ve written about Quest Center before in this blog (EX:C blogs November 26, 2012; December 10, 2012) and have to say it’s great to be volunteering my time as part of this monthly neuroscience series.

The group gathered numbered between twenty and thirty.  At least half of the people there are on the Oregon Health Plan.  That means their incomes are limited enough to qualify for the health support program in this state.  Maybe a few less than half of the people in the room live with HIV/AIDS.  I mention these two demographics in particular because they have defined a significant part of the service population of the Quest Center since it was established in the 80’s.

There’s another reasons to make note of the people who were drawn to the community discussion.  Stereotype and socialization would not predict that a conversation on neuroscience would be of interest to people with limited financial resources.  This assumption arises mostly from biased attributions associated with income level.

We’ll leave that for a minute, but come back later. 

Among Rick Hanson’s neurobiological research findings is evidence that

  1.  Human brains are wired to look out for what’s not right.  It’s a lower brain survival thing.
  2. Given there are ever fewer threats requiring immediate fight or flight and given the higher cortical requirements of being in positive social relationships, it’s appearing vital for our brains and our communities to notice good things.
  3. Such noticing is not about being naïve or stupidly vulnerable, but serves instead contributes significantly to mental and physical health AND to relational and community health.  Really.

So, as a lead up to the discussion of Hanson’s work I made a suggestion to the group at the Quest Center.  I said something like, “So here’s something to consider.  Way back years ago was a day that you were born.  Since then stuff has happened.  Plenty has gone wrong, but the fact is, a whole lot – maybe even way more – has gone right or you wouldn’t be here right now.”  That night, my little suggestion moved us into considering the neurobiology of happiness which is a very cool topic, but here in this blog I want to tell you about my attempt at checking this noticing-the-good thing out over the past 36 hours.

This morning I was walking across the river to leave my ballot in a drop box downtown.  It was cool and it was sunny.  I came to the top of the stairs at the Steel Bridge and caught sight of a guy in a day-glo city-worker vest half way up a pretty tall light pole (about the height of the one in the picture above).  Somehow he had hoisted himself high enough to cover all of the tell-tale tagging on the narrow pole.  That’s his job, cleaning up random tags, but it seemed both above and beyond and particularly acrobatic for him to have just managed that feat.  He was smiling.  I was complimentary.  It was good.

On my way back across the river headed for home I took the Burnside Bridge.  The Burnside is wide and loud and I felt confused when I heard fine jazz strains as I approached the center.  There, across the roadway next to one of the bridge’s signature towers was a guy playing clarinet.  Maybe he was there because he thought his playing would be too loud in his neighborhood.  Maybe he’s just learning and wanted to cloak his missed notes in the roar of traffic, but I don’t think so.  It was clear he wasn’t needing to call any attention to himself, but the few moments the traffic cleared completely worked for me.  It was good.

In between these two times, I found myself thinking of other things that work almost all the time – things people do that contribute to everyone’s wellbeing, noticed or not.  For example, I have a friend who picks up garbage everywhere she goes.  She’s an avid hiker, wandering all through Portland’s Forest Park and near every trail in the Columbia Gorge.  Everywhere she goes, she takes bags for the garbage she finds.  She stops to pick up even the tiniest piece of foil or paper and has had the stomach to pick up lots of things most people wouldn’t go near.  She doesn’t do it for any other reason than to be part of taking care of the natural world she walks through.  That’s it.  And it’s good.

Two more stories.  The security guy yesterday afternoon at Nordstrom downtown taking some time to open doors for shoppers and chatting with folks who were into it.  He and I recognized one another from years ago when he had been the security person at my credit union.  This is how I know about the quality of his chatting.  This man speaks about and listens carefully to what is real in life.  He doesn’t leave out the bad stuff, and he always puts in what’s working, what he’s learning, and what in that very moment makes him grateful.  This man and his presence are good.

A little earlier yesterday, I’d spent time in conversation with one of the most influential executive coaches in the U.S.  This man of great talent and substantial means has given his life effort to connecting in real and sustained ways with many of our nation’s most influential business leaders.  His work supports their wisdom, vision and positive effect on both economy and society.  Really.  I can be a real cynic in the face of what I understand as the business establishment, but what I experienced from listening to this modest, sincere and brilliant man was comfort and inspiration – and outside his clientele almost no one knows of his work.  Listening to this man, I was reminded again that until I listen, I simply can’t have the opportunity to know what, even in the corporate world, is actually working.  You’d have to check it for yourself, but I left that conversation knowing of this man’s positive and wide-ranging influence – and knowing that it is good.

So, back to the group gathered at Quest.  That gathering all by itself represents stuff going right.  People who might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore or develop interests in neuroscience were full into the sophisticated center of the material.  They’re committed, too — on for a series of 10 such discussions.  These people’s lives are no less checkered with the pain and challenge of restricted income, health, and or any of the countless other circumstances that challenge lives.  But there they were deep in the science and then winding back out again to give practical consideration for immediate ways they can build skills for paying as much attention to the good stuff in their lives as the bad.

So, taking into account the fact that lots of people on the planet live daily in trying circumstances that most of us (reading or writing this) can’t begin to imagine, it is still probably true for anyone alive that there’s more working than not.  Then if Rick Hanson and other neurobiologists are right, it’s also true that paying good attention to what’s working is only good for our health and well being.

Of course, that means it’s free for the taking for you, too.  Give a few hours, a few days to see what you see that’s working, that’s uplifting, inspiring, even happy.  See what you notice and how it affects how you feel, waking and walking through these days.


  1. Some many things have to work perfectly for us to remain alive. The wonderous thing is that this happens routinely. We can learn how to function in harmony from our inner wisdom.

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