Validate and shine the light of your attention on the strength and goodness of those around us. Remind them of their inherent value. Recognize their accomplishments without giving them “empty compliments” like “good job.” Instead validate them with specific feedback like, “It’s great that you finally wrote that letter to your mom,” or, “I noticed that you got yourself out of bed and took a walk.”
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Gross, Founder and Chief Playmaker of the Life is Good Playmakers. Steve is a clinical social worker and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his career to helping children heal from early childhood trauma through the power of play and optimism. His focus on play, joy, relationships, optimism, and environment caught the attention of some of the nation’s leading trauma experts. Over the past 30 years, Steve’s work has been utilized to lead widespread healing efforts for communities impacted by war, natural disasters, gun violence, poverty, addiction, and illness throughout the United States and around the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Fresh out of college in the ’80s, I created a therapeutic play program for homeless and impoverished children in Greater Boston called Project Joy. The goal of Project Joy was to help even our most vulnerable children experience the joy and wonder of childhood.
The positive impact of the Project Joy program on the development of participating children caught the attention of mental health professionals throughout the city — including those focused on how best to heal acute and chronic trauma in children. This eventually led to me becoming the Director of Community Services for the Boston Trauma Center. There my team and I created and implemented wide-scale healing initiatives for children impacted by war, community violence, natural disaster, poverty, and severe illness. Central to our work was the belief that joyful, connecting, engaging, and empowering play was an essential part of “the cure” for early childhood trauma. In essence, play — if done right — is life-saving medicine.
Over time we learned that the best way to deliver the powerful medicine of play to children was via the frontline professionals caring for them. As a result, in 2010 we transitioned from working directly with children to supporting their professional caregivers. We currently provide a series of transformative workshops, retreats, coaching, and resources to more than14,000 teachers, social workers, and other childcare professionals to support them in their efforts to help more than 1 million kids overcome childhood trauma.
In 2011, Project Joy formally joined forces with Life is Good after catching the attention of optimists and co-founders Bert and John Jacobs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I would say that merging my small nonprofit organization with a one hundred million dollar for-profit clothing company called Life is Good was one of the most interesting things that have happened to me in my career. After successfully partnering on a couple of fundraising events, Bert Jacobs — the co-founder of Life is Good — suggested that we merge our two organizations. His reasoning was that since both of us were “doing the same work,” it made sense to come together as one. I was baffled. The same work? I was a social worker helping kids heal from trauma. He was an entrepreneur making smiley-faced t-shirts. How could anyone see these two things as “the same work?” Bert explained that although both of our organizations had different whats with regard to our work, we both had the same why and how. Our unifying why was to spread the power of optimism and our unifying how was to do so with simplicity, love, joy, and humor.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Focus on making your workplace as safe, loving, joyful, and inspiring as humanly possible. There’s a saying in research, “what gets measured is what gets done.” So, make the effort to prioritize and measure how your employees feel at work. Do they feel a sense of joy and meaning in their work? Do they feel that their coworkers and managers care about them as people? Do they feel emotionally and physically safe and empowered in the workplace? Do they feel inspired by and engaged in the work that they are doing? Once you have the data and a clear picture of the current culture or your organization, then you are better able to develop the right plan to improve it.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I think one of the books that made a big impact on me was a book called The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry. The book talks about how when young children experience overwhelming trauma it deeply impacts their physical, social, emotional, and psychological development in very complex ways. But what really inspired me was just how simple the treatment modalities are. Not that it’s simple to treat complex trauma. But the foundation of all effective treatment hinges on simple things like paying attention to kids, nurturing them, playing with them, celebrating their strength, helping them to feel safe, and allowing them to make choices. The same simple concepts are applicable to any relationship. Childhood trauma is common. Those children eventually grow to be adult members of the workforce. If we don’t apply these principles to how we treat employees, we will ultimately fail in helping all of them tap into their full potential.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
I think a lot of people think mindfulness is really complicated and out of their comfort zone. Some even see it as mysticism. Many confuse being mindful with having a meditation practice. The simplest way that I can define mindfulness is giving all of your attention and energy to what you are doing in the moment. As the Zen saying goes, “when making rice, make rice.” Multitasking — which we’re all trying to do to some extent to keep up with our hectic lives — is the arch enemy of mindfulness. Do you ever get lost in thought during a shower and not recall if you even washed your face? A mindful shower requires “showing up” for the experience. It is about feeling the warmth of water, hearing the sound it makes as it cascades off of your body, smelling the sweet fragrance of the soap and shampoo. Applying this approach to everything you do — whether its participating in a meeting at work or reading a bedtime story to your kids — can make a big difference in your life.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Mindfulness can bring about increased awareness and appreciation for the things that are right in front of you that you might take for granted — like breathing fresh air, biting into a juicy apple or feeling the cool grass under your bare feet. When a person shifts their focus from what they want to what they already are blessed to have, they become more appreciative and grateful. Gratitude helps to create a deeper sense of satisfaction in life which can lead to an enduring sense of peace and relaxation. Worry and anxiety are the products of anticipating frightening things that have yet to happen. When we are fully engaged in the present moment, fear and anxiety diminish. A deeper sense of calm ensues, a deeper sense of connection with people and your environment occurs, and then, a deeper sense of well-being and joy.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Focus on the good. Human beings — in the service of survival — have a negativity bias. This negativity bias causes us to focus a disproportionate amount of attention on the things that we perceive to be threatening to our survival. A colleague of mine — Dr. Rick Hanson — likes to say that our brains are like Velcro for negative information and like Teflon for positive information. Once we understand that this is how our brains work, we can intentionally try to shift our focus on the good that is around us. For every act of terror, there are hundreds of thousands of acts of beauty, love, and compassion. For every deadly disease, there are hundreds of thousands of people working to treat and cure it. Shifting our focus on the good takes practice but it is well worth the effort. What we focus on grows.
- Make Love Connections The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to the quality of their relationships. The most rigorous scientific research shows that people with higher-quality relationships live healthier, longer lives. Knowing this, we have the power to invest greater time and energy into sustaining and even strengthening the relationships that we value most. Think about it. We know exercise is good for our health, so many of us take the time to work-out. We know that eating right is good for our health so many of us make the effort to shop for, prepare, and eat healthy food. Knowing that good relationship are just as important to our health, we can prioritize connecting with those we love. Love is healthier for you than kale and sit-ups.
- Take Effective Action. An inability to take effective action is what makes trauma, trauma. Our bodies are designed to take effective action to meet the demands of life. When we are overwhelmed and unable to take effective action to meet the demands of life, feelings of overwhelming stress and helplessness can ensue. Every time we are able to take action and do something to meet the demands of life — even simple stuff like making our bed, cooking a meal, vacuuming our living room — we feel a deeper sense of internal control over our lives. It is certainly true that there are things in life that we can’t control. However, we do have control over how we respond to these things — or as my favorite Life is Good t-shirt reminds me — “We can’t control the waves, but we can learn to surf.”
- Move Your Body The title of trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk’s New York Times best-selling book, The Body Keeps the Score says it all. Trauma is a physiological experience that is stored in our body. Trauma is often about failed or frozen physical action in the face of danger. Engaging in motor activities that make our bodies feel strong, powerful, invigorated, and relaxed can have a profound impact on how we manage stress. During times of great fear and uncertainty, taking time to do things that nourish your body — whether it’s doing an intense workout, taking a walk, meditating, doing yoga or simply gardening in the yard — is good medicine. It oxygenates your blood, burns off adrenaline, releases endorphins, and helps to support better sleep. And best of all, moving your body doesn’t have many unpleasant side effects and it doesn’t require a prescription.
- Protect Your Sleep Getting good sleep is essential to healing and managing stress. Ever notice the difference a good night’s sleep makes in your overall mood and in your ability to problem solve? The problem is that when we are really stressed, our bodies remain on high alert and try to prevent us from letting our guard down and falling asleep. I remember once getting a call from a parent who wanted me to help her child process a recent traumatic event. She told me that she really wanted me to speak with her son because he hadn’t slept for three straight days. I told her that the top priority at this moment was for her son to get some sleep. I recommended that she consult his primary care doctor on how to help him get to sleep and then, after a good rest, I’d be happy to talk with him.
Often times, with a stronger focus on improving what experts call “sleep hygiene” (limiting caffeine, keeping room temperature cool, not watching TV prior to bedtime, etc.), folks can improve the quantity and quality of their sleep. Sometimes however, a short-term intervention from a doctor or sleep specialist may be necessary.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Be interested: Instead of trying to be interesting and sharing a lot of information with those around you, try focusing more on being interested in what the people around you are going through. Talk less and listen more. Sometimes we confuse good listening with brilliant interrupting — asking too many questions or inserting our own insights. Be still. Be attentive. And try to listen with all of your being.
- Be diligent and consistent: Check in and follow-up with people on a regular basis. A little support on a consistent basis is often better than one big day of support with no follow-up.
- Don’t be preachy: Meet folks where they are. Often times we inadvertently pressure people to change how they are feeling (i.e. “cheer up, don’t cry, look on the bright side”). This can lead those we are trying to comfort to think that what they are actually feeling is unacceptable. Instead of telling people that they should be positive, model positivity. Instead of telling people to be calm, model calm. Instead of telling people to be grateful, model gratitude. Because when it comes to helping folks feel a deeper sense of emotional wellness, more is caught from us than taught by us.
- Focus on their good: Validate and shine the light of your attention on the strength and goodness of those around us. Remind them of their inherent value. Recognize their accomplishments without giving them “empty compliments” like “good job.” Instead validate them with specific feedback like, “It’s great that you finally wrote that letter to your mom,” or, “I noticed that you got yourself out of bed and took a walk.”
- Make some Joys: Engage in a joyful activity with someone that you are trying to support. I remember once asking a friend who was down if they wanted to get together and talk about what was bothering them. They replied, “how about we get together and not talk about it.” Sometimes doing something together is better than simply talking together. Because — as my dad always tells me — when all is said and done, more is said than done.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
For technology, I like the Calm and Headspace apps and any teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh and Panchatantra. I’d also recommend reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson
It is easy to plan on living a life of courage, compassion, and joy until life “punches us in the mouth” and we find ourselves lying flat on the canvas. Optimism can be a state of mind. And like any other emotion, it can be fleeting. When things are going well, we feel optimistic. But when things are going terribly wrong, we don’t. The problem with optimism as only a state of mind this is that optimism is needed most when things are going terribly wrong. We must transcend our sense of optimism from a fleeting state of mind to a stable trait of character. As a trait of character, optimism will be there for us when we need in most.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Take time to engage in some type of joyful play with your kids or someone that you love every day, no matter what. Even if it’s for just 15 minutes.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Visit the Life is Good Playmakers website and follow us on social!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!