Being Grateful Is Good For You

Being grateful—for what others do, for good fortune, for what you have—is good for you. It makes you happier, helps you sleep better, and boosts your immune system. Being grateful is a good way to live and when you thank someone else for what they have done for you, I believe it fosters relationships, builds community, and encourages others to do the same.

I learned about the concepts behind journaling gratitude at my first KalamazooX when Elizabeth Naramore1 discussed her own gratitude journal. Around the same time, a Facebook friend started recording five things a day for which they were grateful. Looking back, this was the period when I started to acknowledge that I had unaddressed problems with depression, anxiety, and self-worth. Being grateful seemed like an easy place to start, so I gave it a try.

At different times, I recorded my gratitude using Facebook, Twitter, a physical journal, and my blog. Eventually, it started feeling stale or false; I was being thankful for inanimate or generic things like coffee, friends, or sunshine. Don't get me wrong, these are all fantastic things, but stating gratitude for coffee felt like my goal had become writing about gratitude than actually feeling grateful.

"…people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why."

Sometime before a visit to Boston, I had read about a man who set out to send one "thank you" note a day for a year. The idea of writing to people and thanking them directly was appealing. While in Boston, we visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and there I bought a box of postcards that I thought would suit this purpose. It took another two years and a move to Texas before I actually got started.

It has now been three weeks since I started; I have sent 20 cards, and have another four ready to go this week. Writing them is cathartic for me and I get a little excited to mail each one. I keep a list of the people I intend to write to and make sure to keep track of those to whom I have already written. Each day, I send one card, write one or two more, and send a message or two over the Internet to get addresses. However, it turns out that some people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why. This seemed odd to me at first and I felt untrusted. In addition, I felt a deep reluctance to explain why. It seemed I felt the value of this project was lost if the postcard was not a surprise. Of course, that is ridiculous; not only do people have every right to know why I would want their address, but if the surprise of receiving the card itself were the value, what would be the point of writing anything on the card?

So, I write this blog entry, in part, to provide an explanation for people when they ask why I need their address. That said, I also write it as encouragement to others who might be considering the start of their own gratitude project. Being grateful is powerful on its own, yet the responses I have received to messages I have sent have been wonderful, humbling, and kind. People are amazing, so tell them; the more you thank others for their impact on your life, the more you will be surprised by your impact on theirs.


  1. IIRC 

A Lush Pilgrimage

Before Chrissy and I went on vacation to England, we were discussing the trip and what we might do while over there (besides spending time with my family). Mid-conversation, Chrissy tilted her head and said, "How far is Dorset from your parents' house?"

"About four hours, why?"

"Have you ever been to Poole?"

"When I was a kid. There's that photo of me with a python round my neck. Why?"

"What photo?"

"I have that yellow sweater on. Why do you want to go to Poole?"

"I don't remember that photo. You've never shown me."

"I swear I have, but whatever. Why do you want to go to Poole?"

"Oh, no reason. Just asking."

"Bollocks. Why do you want to go?"

And it was then that I discovered Poole in Dorset, England is the home of the very first Lush Cosmetics shop and spa.

Chrissy is a lushie1, she has ordered items from Lush Kitchens around the world, exchanged products with other lushies and generally had a jolly good time discussing Lush products over the Internet. For a while, it felt like a new package arrived every day. There were even three packages waiting for us at my parents' house in England. Chrissy loves Lush and the opportunity to visit the spot where it all began was irresistible. So, I planned a trip to Dorset.

Bournemouth

Our hotel. That'll do for a night or two.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

I found a hotel in Bournemouth (about 15 minutes drive from Poole), a seaside resort on the south coast of England where my family had holidayed when I was 8 or 9 years old (the same trip I met the python), and made a reservation for a couple of nights. Since we were going to be passing nearby, I also booked tickets to visit Stonehenge on the way back (it's about an hour and a half from Bournemouth)2. It would be a lovely little break, Chrissy could get her Lush fix and I could reminisce about childhood vacations while enjoying the English seaside.

The drive down was mostly uneventful until the very end. After checking in to the hotel, we had to navigate a road closure to find our hotel car park; this turned out to be gated with a key-coded entry and incredibly narrow. So narrow that the only reason I even attempted to drive in was the knowledge that someone must have done so already. So unbelievably narrow, a motorbike might have paused to consider the best strategy for passing through3. After squeezing our way into the car park, we rested up in our room before strolling down to and around the beach and pier.

Across the street from our hotel. The architecture around here reminds me of #Poirot.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

The architecture in Bournemouth is indicative of its popularity and growth during the early twentieth century. As we walked around, I was reminded often of the ITV television interpretation of Poirot.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

After a windy wander along the pier, we grabbed some fish and chips for dinner, then went back to the hotel for a good night's rest. The next day was a big one; Chrissy would get to visit Lush prime.

Poole

Chrissy stood outside Lush, Poole
Chrissy stood outside Lush

I think Poole is probably most famous for the dolphin-marked Poole Pottery, but it is also the home of Sunseeker Yachts, a log boat preserved with sugar syrup4, a lot of pubs (and I mean a lot), and the very first Lush store. We parked up near the Quay and, checking directions on the map, walked to Lush.

Chrissy's excitement was palpable and photos were mandatory. Within moments of arriving, it was clear Chrissy had found kindred lushie spirits in the staff. When they realised how far Chrissy had traveled to be there, they offered her a tour of the spa and a free postcard as a souvenir of our visit. I do not recall ever being made as welcome in a shop as I was there, and I was only there because I'm married to a lushie.

At the end of the spa tour5, they asked Chrissy if she would like a treatment. She looked at me for encouragement, which, after a very brief moment of hesitation, I gave —how could I deny her this after travelling so far to be here? Within minutes, we were both6 ready to be booked in for their 80 minute treatment known as "The Good Hour", but there was a snag; they could only fit us in the next morning7. This unfortunate delay, we were to learn, was serendipity handing us an opportunity.

With the treatments booked, we headed out to explore Poole. We wandered the quay, saw Sunseeker yachts in varying states of manufacture and repair, admired some exceedingly old buildings, lost count of how many pubs we did not have time (nor the constitution) to visit, bought some gifts from Poole Pottery, and visited the museum. It turned out that Poole was really worth a visit, regardless of the initial reason we were there.

Gorilla perfumes display
Gorilla perfumes display

The next day, we returned to Lush. I do not want to go into details about the "The Good Hour" treatment, if you want spoilers I am certain the Internet will oblige, all I would like to say is that it was fantastic. The massage was excellent, the pirate-theme was whimsical and strangely relaxing, and the conversation with my masseuse, Emma, was thoroughly enjoyable if not a little…different8. After our treatment was over, we were given a nice cup of tea (with the option of a drop of rum) while we relaxed and enjoyed some more conversation with the friendly and lovely Lush staff. Everyone who we met was professional, friendly and chatty.

As we sipped our tea someone said in a low voice, "Mark is in if you'd like to meet him."

Mark was Mark Constantine, the co-founder and owner of Lush. Chrissy did not know what to say at first. Her eyes were wide like a child who just heard the distant chimes of an ice cream truck9. We walked out of the spa into the shop and glanced nervously round the corner at Mark. Megan, one of the amazing staff, stiffened up with nerves. No one was sure who should interrupt the boss and ask him to meet two people from Michigan. They were not intimidated by Mark, they were in awe of him.

"Mark is kind of a big deal," we were told.

Eventually someone got his attention and he came over to where we were stood. We shook hands. Chrissy was grinning so wide that her face sank beneath teeth and eyes. Even I was excited; not only was I getting to meet the owner of the company, but it was possibly the best thing that could have happened on Chrissy's pilgrimage to the Motherlush. The three of us posed for a photo, then Mark went back to his task and we finished up our purchases, ready to head off to Stonehenge. What a great day, it could not get any better.

Then just as we were about to leave, Mark's hand fell on Chrissy's shoulder.

"Wait here, let me get something for you."

Lush Spa and store, High Street, Poole, Dorset
Lush Spa and store, High Street, Poole, Dorset

Mark disappeared upstairs where the Lush labs, responsible for inventing new Lush products, reside. We were informed that much of the work in the labs had been focused on products for the new Oxford Street store10. A few minutes later, Mark returned with a small plastic box containing two sparkly cosmetic items.

"These aren't exactly new. They're existing products packaged in a new way."

As Chrissy nearly passed out from excitement, Megan took the shiny products and, after taking a picture of them for herself (these were new to everyone, it seemed), packaged them up for Chrissy. It was a generous finish to an already fantastic trip, something that I am sure we will talk of often. As we set off on our way to Stonehenge, I reflected on the day and how it would not have been possible on our last trip, when I had not brought my anxiety under some level of control. I could imagine us not getting the spa treatments because I worried about the cost, or because I worried about not making Stonehenge on time11. I could imagine us leaving the shop sooner, to be sure we would make our Stonehenge time-slot, missing our meeting with Mark Constantine and his generosity. Worse still, I could imagine me spilling all these anxieties out all over the place like an untamed fire-hose, drowning them in negativity so that we could never look back on them as the wonderful moments they were.

As it is, our trip to Poole was one of the best parts of our three weeks in England. Assuming Chrissy doesn't drag me off to the newly opened Lush on Oxford Street in London, I look forward to stopping by Poole to pop into Lush and say hello to the friendly staff, and perhaps to take a stab at those pubs.

There are lots of pubs in Poole. We had lunch in one, but there are about 10 almost back to back.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on


  1. The word used to describe fans of Lush cosmetics 

  2. That's right, the reason we went to Stonehenge was Lush 

  3. OK, that's an exaggeration, but it was bloody narrow 

  4. Sweet! 

  5. I was allowed to tag along too 

  6. Originally, I planned to try one of the many pubs while Chrissy had her treatment, but then I realised it's my vacation too and I deserved a massage 

  7. Each treatment is unique, so the staff need time to setup the room according to the treatment chosen. Ours was pirate-themed…yes, that's right, pirates! 

  8. Look out for the short story or perhaps even seven novel series (with derived movie franchise) I hope to write soon entitled, "The Radiator People" 

  9. actually, they were wide like Chrissy had just heard the distant chimes of an ice cream truck 

  10. Lush Oxford Street was not yet open at the time of our visit to Poole 

  11. It turns out we didn't, but that's not the point 

Community

I am pretty selfish. I would like to think I can be wholly altruistic, but I cannot remember a deed I did for someone else where I was not rewarded by a general feeling of well-being. Perhaps this is normal and we kid ourselves that true altruism exists because, well, it feels good to believe that. Recently, I realised it is because of this feeling that I volunteer as part of the local developer community.

I have been involved in the Ann Arbor area developer community for just under five years. A couple of colleagues had suggested I attend an Ann Arbor .NET Developer (AADND) meeting, but oddly, a woodworking class is what led me there. In that class, I met fellow developer Steve Meagher, we became friends, and he eventually persuaded me to tag along with him to a .NET meeting. Like many within the developer community, I avoided user groups and other community events for fear of not fitting in or some other perceived discomfort. At that first meeting, I met David Giard as he was the speaker that evening. Meeting David turned out to be a gateway into the wider community and volunteering. At the time, he was the president of the Great Lakes Area .NET group (GANG) and he invited me to attend a meeting there the following week. Just as with Steve at woodworking class, another connection was made and so it was that my adventures in the developer community continued. Through the friends I made attending the local groups, I ventured to far off places like CodeMash and Kalamazoo X. Through the friends I made attending those far off places, I ventured to electronic wonderlands like Twitter, StackOverflow, and my own blog. And eventually, through the encouragement I received from this amazingly supportive community, my family, and my friends, I found the courage to look inward, to seek help for the demons that fostered my low self-esteem, and to grow.

I have volunteered on the board of AADND, as a participant and team leader at Give Camp, and as a speaker at CodeMash; having thoroughly enjoyed every second, I can tell you that volunteering is 100% pure fun.

OK, that is utter bollocks; volunteering is hard. There is no pleasure in finding content for newsletters and slide decks, no joy in the conflicts a team faces when you have less than a day to get a database migrated, no comfort in preparing and rehearsing a talk1. Volunteering is often stressful, sometimes boring, and always built upon a foundation of compromise and sacrifice. If those things were the rewards of volunteering, I cannot imagine anyone who would do it. Every year, Michael Eaton tells a tale of how he declares that this Kalamazoo X will be his last. That it is too much work. Too much worry. Too much sacrifice.

Thankfully, the hard work leads to gratitude: the emotional words of a non-profit director overwhelmed by the generosity of local developers; a room of people applauding at the end of a talk; or a simple "thank you". Regardless of its delivery, seeing or hearing that someone is grateful makes all the effort worthwhile. It feels good. For community volunteers like Michael Eaton it is the gratitude shown by attendees, speakers, and co-organizers that ultimately leads to more events (like just one more Kalamazoo X).

So, next time you enjoy something that someone volunteered to do, show your gratitude. And if the opportunity arises, try volunteering; you have no idea who might be grateful and how good that might feel.


  1. or a last minute Pecha Kucha that your friends then make sure will get heard while you are busy searching for that lost sleep 

#kalx15: Back to Basics

This weekend a couple of friends stopped by the house at around 5:45 on Saturday morning. Normally, this would not be welcomed, but it was time for our annual road trip out to attend the Kalamazoo X conference. This year marked my third year of attending this fantastic one-day, single-track, soft-skills conference. Though often referred to as a non-tech conference for techies, Kalamazoo X is a really accessible event and as such, this was the second year that my wife, Chrissy, also joined us.

This year's conference was held at Loft 310. I found the new venue — with attendees sat around tables similar to how people would be seated at a wedding or party — to be an improvement over last year. Though fantastic, last year's academic venue, larger attendance, and expanded speaker schedule lost much of the intimacy and community that made my first year at KalX a memorable and somewhat life adjusting event. This year was a return to that more intimate experience of two years ago, feeling much more like a gathering of friends and family than a conference of professionals.

The speaker schedule was also condensed this year and all the better for it. The roster included a welcome return of some KalX veterans like Jeff Blankenburg (@jeffblankenburg), H. Alan Stevens (@alanstevens), Jim Holmes (@aJimHolmes), and Elizabeth Naramore (@ElizabethN), as well as some newcomers like Jay Harris (@jayharris), Cori Drew (@coridrew), and Dawn Kuczwara (@digitaldawn). Though each topic was different, they were bound by the common year-on-year KalX themes of learning, mentoring, and growing.

Upon reflection, the talks that I remember most vividly were those where the speaker opened up, let down barriers, and gave honestly to the audience. Alan Stevens was, as always, a joyous speaker to experience — his command of space and time when delivering a talk is really exemplary, yet it was his candidness in discussing his struggle with depression with which I connected. While Cory House (@housecor) spoke on breaking the monotony in life and stepping outside of our comfort zones, it was when he opened up about his social anxieties and personal journey to overcome them that I took notice. And though Jay Harris delivered as polished a presentation as he ever has, it was his willingness to share his broken dreams of baseball and airplanes, open up about personal challenges, and be as raw with the attendees as he is with his friends that took his talk from good to great.

Though I enjoyed all the talks, it was Jay's talk, #conviction, that stood out most for me. Jay's message felt like the third part to a trilogy that started with Jeff Blankenburg's talk, "Be A Beginner", and was fleshed out by Alan Stevens' talk on "Values Driven Development". Jay judiciously spent every second of his time with a well thought out rebuttal to the too often repeated adages "follow your passion" and "hard work pays off". It is easy to ignore the privileges we have that we more commonly refer to as "talents", to let humility lessen their importance, but it is talent coupled with conviction that leads to success1.

Of course, it was not just about the guys. There was not only a more diverse audience than one might expect, but three of the eight speakers were women2. A favourite talk of the day for me was "Give Up!" from KalX newcomer, Dawn Kuczwara. Through personal anecdotes and a wonderful, personable delivery, Dawn explained the importance of letting go of control, of allowing people the opportunity to fail and learn, and of making sure not to stifle the growth of yourself or your team by micromanaging and "helping". To me, this talk was the second part to another trilogy that was started by Cori Drew and her impassioned (though perhaps a tad too long) talk that related her experiences mentoring her daughter from curious kid to seasoned speaker (at age 11), and closed with Elizabeth Naramore explaining why it is always OK to follow your passions in your leisure time, regardless of talent.

Though it was a long, tiring day (I drove, drank far too much caffeine, and stayed up way too late), Kalamazoo X was a day well spent. I am grateful to Michael Eaton (@mjeaton), Matt Davis (@mattsonlyattack), and all their minions, speakers, and tolerant friends and family for the time and patience spent in organising and delivering a terrific conference. Once more, after CodeMash had refreshed my curiosity, Kalamazoo X reset my spirit.

 


  1. having a passion for singing does not mean you can sing and no amount of hard work will change that 

  2. This shouldn't be a point of note, but in an industry traditionally dominated by men, it is 

Ten Years

This month marks ten years since I first set foot in the US. As I waited in line at immigration, tired from the flight and daunted by everything that might happen next, it was easy to forget everything that came before. Just three weeks earlier, my workplace had been tense with news that another wave of redundancies was sweeping through and I was unsure in what direction I was heading1. I was ready for a change, but did not want the uncertainty of finding a new job or the certainty of choosing to leave the one I had. I was living a step ahead of my means with little attention paid to the future. I was smoking. I was making dubious decisions or avoiding decisions entirely. I was feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb.

One afternoon our manager called us all into a meeting room. There, he informed us of two positions available in the US and asked if any of us were interested. It felt like the silence lasted a long time although it was probably only a few seconds. No one was volunteering. I do not know the trigger  — my desire for a change, the allure of working in the US, or my need to get control of my life, but slowly, I raised my hand. I remember rationalizing it as no big deal, after all, I was only expressing interest, it was not like I would be whisked away to a plane immediately. With the raise of my hand, so began a series of small, easy decisions that led to the biggest self-directed change of my life so far.

Within the three weeks from when I raised my hand to when I stepped off the plane in Detroit, I packed, paused, and displaced my life. Boxes were filled, paperwork was filed, and farewells were planned. There was no time to stop and think about what I was doing, just lots of small decisions to make — accept or negotiate the contract, pack or throw away my things, take or leave my guitar, stay or go, sink or swim. All along the way, I kept telling myself it was not forever, it was no big deal. I was only going for a couple of months to meet the customer face-to-face; work (and a longer stay) was always going to be dependent on the acquisition of appropriate work visas. It was no big deal.

And so it was. Three weeks flew by. My sister, my parents, my new boss in the US, my old colleagues in the UK, my friends (including my housemate, who was seriously ill at the time), and many more all helped in some way. I am incredibly grateful to their support, it was amazing. During the whole experience, trepidation wrestled with excitement. Seconds after the taxi pulled away, leaving my parents and friends as they waved goodbye, excitement turned to panic.

What the hell am I doing?

I repeated that phrase in my head many times between London and Detroit. When the taxi left my old home. When the taxi left me at the airport. When I was pulled from the security line for "special screening". When I sat on the plane. When the plane took off. At least once per hour during the flight. When I landed. When I got into the immigration line. Over and over.

What the hell am I doing?

I am pretty sure I was terrified, but just like the small decisions that got me there, I focused on the immediate situation and did my best to ignore everything else. I think excitement and terror are pretty much the same thing but with different interpretations. As I accepted the situation as an adventure, the terror would subside and excitement returned.

Blimey, I'm actually going to America!

That was how my first few weeks in the US continued. A mixture of terror and excitement, depending on the situation and how I let myself accept it. It was the beginning of something new and ten years on, I cannot imagine doing any differently if it were to happen all over again. It was by far the best decision I ever made because I learned the value of making a decision instead of letting fate decide. I faced my own anxieties head on and made a decision to challenge my fear. The amazing sense of achievement that came from deciding for myself was life-affirming. While it took me another nine years to take that moment of control over my anxiety and begin learning how to harness it on a day-to-day basis, I still look back on that decision and the many ways it has changed my life. In a moment, I went from feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb, to engaged, excited, and driven.

Of course, that first day in the US was merely the beginning, a lot has happened since and a lot more will happen yet. Though my move was certainly no panacea to my problems — there were many difficult challenges to over come, it was a catalyst for solutions, an opportunity to grow, and a clear example that fear alone could not stand in my way if I could find the courage to face it. It is a lesson that I have applied many times since; from winning the CodeMash Pecha Kucha contest, to marrying my amazing wife, so many achievements began in an otherwise unremarkable moment where I pushed my fear aside and made a decision to try.

So, whatever the next ten years hold for me, it is not fear, but small moments like raising my hand in that meeting room that will shape them. Can you say the same? Where will your decisions take you?


  1. Unlike in places such as Michigan, where employment is considered "at will" and can be terminated at any time, if a company in the UK wants to downsize, they must go through a process of making positions redundant. That means the position will no longer exist and as such, the organisation cannot hire someone else to perform that job. For a better explanation and more information, check out https://www.gov.uk/redundant-your-rights/overview