A Simple Formula for Growth

We are a month into the New Year and, perhaps, it would be useful to dedicate this moment to taking stock of our nascent resolutions and intentions.

What are your goals for the New Year or, for students, the new semester? Perhaps you wish to suppress your most subliminal fears and finally follow a more fulfilling career. Maybe you long to be more vulnerable and pursue the love of your dreams. Or, might you seek to rebuild your courage and self-confidence after a devastating experience last year?

Whatever your goals, I am here to tell you that what you can achieve is beyond your imagination. Everyone has the internal capacity for growth without, necessarily, the need for external intervention. (Yet, ironically, here I am offering you some external advice.)

It all starts with appreciation. One of our most essential human needs is to feel appreciated and seen by others. It helps mitigate the tragic loneliness of our human condition. That validation, importantly, helps us find the strength to progress iteratively toward our goals. But how does one receive that much needed acknowledgment?

Appreciation is not passively received, rather; it is actively given. As you express your appreciation of others, they will express their appreciation for you and, at least for that moment, you both feel seen and understood. But this isn't merely a chicken-or-egg question.

A significant amount of research has shown that when we show appreciation through an act of service or goodness to others, certain areas of the brain become activated, releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which induces sensations of happiness. This psycho-physiological phenomenon tells us that when we do good, even if we do not receive a thank-you from another person, we receive instant gratification from within ourselves, and a significant thank-you from our brains. This internally induced thank-you not only makes us feel good about the act of goodness we just performed, but, thanks to dopamine, also makes us want to repeat that act.

Herein lies your internal capacity to reach your potential. We are physiologically wired to respond well to appreciation, internal or external. A mere micro-act of appreciation or goodness kicks off an internal physiological process that makes you feel good, and when you feel good, your capacity to see, access, and tap into your internal resources and the world around you grows. Suddenly, you will find a richer understanding of the world, your circle widens and becomes more inclusive. In turn, you better understand yourself and your capacity for personal achievement is made deeper and more fulfilling. In this cycle of goodness, you might just find the opportunity to intervene in the cycle of fear and scarcity that keeps you from reaching your potential.

But these cycles are not discontinuous and instantaneous. Rather, they are constant and continuous and thus require persistent interventions. Progress toward your goals happens in small increments, one decision at a time. Likewise, appreciation and gratification is given and received in small doses. Think, for instance, of the last time you found yourself upset at a friend or a partner. More often than not, that dissonance between the two of you emerged from a passing comment or a fleeting gesture. Or, for students, think of the last time you sat down to study only to find yourself unproductively sucked into the vortex of the internet. That probably emerged after just one or two clicks on YouTube cat videos or Facebook memes.

When reflecting on the various religious, spiritual and philosophical teachings out there, it's quite interesting to see that at their core they all invite human beings to tap into their internal resources to lift themselves up, and seize the opportunities that lie within each moment of life by planting something good, no matter how small.

Every moment in life matters. Each of us is a differentiated self with a critical sense of self-consciousness and awareness of others. We must leverage these two senses to remain present in every moment - to choose, at every instance, the micro-step of appreciating those around us and pacing towards our goals. The two work hand-in-hand. So, in this very moment, right now, do a small act of goodness for someone and I hope you reap the positive energy you need to succeed.