Thank three people each day without cause. There is a difference between politeness and gratitude. Starting in early childhood, we are all are taught a specific set of manners, which include saying things like “please and thank you.” We form habits based on societal expectations of offering thanks when people hold open a door, bag our groceries, or fill our prescriptions. However, these words are often merely platitudes offered on autopilot.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Semenova.
Janet is the co-founder of Boutique Travel Advisors and Centered CEOs. She has diverse work experience in healthcare and business and holds an advanced degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an undergraduate degree from Rush University. Using her prior work experience and commitment to health, wellbeing, and mindfulness, she is dedicated to helping small business owners learn to incorporate key mindset strategies into their daily lives. By incorporating key processes and procedures, she helps other entrepreneurs build more sustainable and profitable businesses that also bring them JOY.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
My career path has taken many turns before bringing me to where I am today. I was born in Tashkent, in the former Soviet Union, and in 1991, when I was seven years old, my family immigrated to the United States. I was raised as an only child by a single mother who worked multiple jobs while attending night school. My childhood was marked by my experiences with poverty, bullying, low self-esteem, and depression, culminating at 19 years old when I lost my mother to cancer.
Driven to make a difference, I changed majors in college from business to nursing and then went on to graduate school to become a nurse practitioner. I dedicated over a decade of my life working as a pediatric pain management nurse practitioner, helping thousands of children who experienced severe trauma, terminal illnesses, and debilitating chronic pain. Although this field of medicine is emotionally taxing, it is also gratifying.
My patients taught me many lessons about the power of resilience, hope, and gratitude, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles and suffering. The experience of watching my mother battle cancer and the years I spent caring for critical patients helped me understand the importance of living in the present and gaining the most from every day we spend on this earth.
I have always appreciated the enormous privileges that living in the United States affords my family and me. Coming from a Communist republic where personal freedoms were restricted, I have been grateful for the ability to travel freely and explore the colorful cultures and unique societies of the world.
After 15 years in healthcare, I was ready to take on new challenges and explore the possibilities that entrepreneurism provides. I wanted an outlet for my creativity and to build something unique. My partner and I co-founded Boutique Travel Advisors in 2017 with the mission of creating a better world through seminars, empowerment retreats, and transformational travel experiences. We believe that travel is one of the most powerful tools we have to bridge cultural differences, eliminate bias, educate future generations and forge acceptance. It also allows us to create meaningful and deeply personal connections with the people around us. We are incredibly proud that we have built a travel company that supports our greater purpose and are humbled by its success.
Unfortunately, the Pandemic reinforced what we had already been long suspecting. While many small business owners found companies based on their expertise and passions, they are often grossly unprepared for the financial nuances of running their business. While building and scaling their companies, many entrepreneurs struggle to find balance and often sacrifice their emotional and physical wellbeing and precious time with their families. As we watched brands that we supported and loved folding under the pressures of running their business while trying to survive the calamitous consequences of the Pandemic, we decided that we had an obligation to help. We founded Centered CEOs in 2020 to provide a safe space for business owners to share and overcome their struggles and build lasting success through coaching, masterminds, and retreats. Having had many incredible mentors throughout my life and career, I know firsthand the impact they can make.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
That is an interesting question since I have so many stories. I have been incredibly privileged to have met genuinely remarkable and inspirational people throughout my career. However, the most interesting and unexpected thing happened to me recently. I heard from a friend that Arizona was in dire need of healthcare professionals to administer vaccinations at a twenty-four-hour event that the state has set up. Although I have not been practicing in the hospital for over a year, I maintain my certifications and credentials. I signed up for an eight-hour shift a few weeks ago and wanted to donate my time and skillset.
As you can imagine, this past year was trying for our travel company and the industry as a whole. But while the Pandemic has upended the economy, and we have struggled with cancellations, schedule changes, and lost revenue, I have witnessed my husband battling COVID on the front lines as an emergency room physician. I have seen firsthand the devastating effects the Pandemic has had on our front line workers’ mental health and the burn out they are experiencing.
I was happy to volunteer my time and prepared to spend eight hours on my feet in a sort of assembly line worker position, mindlessly administering shot after shot after shot. But the experience had a completely different effect on me. From the moment I arrived, I felt a collective wave of relief, anticipation, and HOPE. From the medical and non-medical volunteers to the elderly who had not left their homes in months, to the teachers risking their health to educate our students, to the police and firefighters, every single person I met that day exuded a shared optimism. Although I spent over fifteen years working with patients and nearly four years servicing clients, I had never before experienced such an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I remain humbled that I could play a small role in ending this Pandemic and forever grateful to maintain a skill set that proved so valuable. This experience instilled in me that no matter where my career takes me, the ultimate purpose in all that I do is to serve a greater good and make a difference.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“When life becomes too complicated, and we feel overwhelmed, it’s often useful just to stand back and remind ourselves of our overall purpose, our overall goal. When faced with a feeling of stagnation and confusion, it may be helpful to take an hour, an afternoon, or even several days to simply reflect on what it is that will truly bring us happiness, and then reset our priorities on the basis of that.” — Dalai Lama.
This quote is from the book “The Art Of Happiness.” I keep it on my bedside table and refer to it whenever I feel lost, confused, or anxious. I found the book among my mother’s possessions many years ago and set it aside. Then last year, when the world was in a very dark place, I finally took it out and read it. The book was given to my mother by her dear friend while she was in the later stages of battling cancer. I knew that it had brought her peace but never understood the real power of the words written inside until I read it during a painful period of my own life.
This particular quote reminds me that I have the power to change my perspective and reframe my thoughts no matter what situation I find myself in. When I reflect on the “overall purpose and goal” I have for my life, I can see that each obstacle or challenge is an opportunity for growth and healing. I find myself happiest when I am making a difference and giving back, so that is where I strive to focus my energy. If I am hurting because my business is struggling, our country is divided, or I am worried about the safety and future of my children, that means that I can have genuine empathy for others who are experiencing similar pain points. Empathy allows me to connect and offer guidance to people going through similar struggles, bringing me happiness and healing in return.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
The book “The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain For Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding To Your Schedule” quite literally changed my life. My mind has always been tremendously restless. As a child, I often got in trouble for day-dreaming and frequently found it difficult to concentrate on things that didn’t interest me. As an adult, I started practicing yoga to become more centered, and it has been an integral part of my life for many years. While I am very focused on mindset, self-improvement, and growth, I have often struggled to calm my mind and find stillness.
Running a business requires you to wear many hats and take on a wide variety of roles, which appeals to my creative side. However, multi-tasking also decreases our attention span and ability to focus, and I noticed that I became increasingly distracted. When we are distracted, we are not emotionally present, and this took a toll on my family. This book taught me straightforward and empowering strategies to incorporate a daily mindfulness practice into my life. For the first time, I find that I can calm the clamor of my thoughts, turn off notifications, and be fully engaged when interacting with my husband and children. There is a big difference between being physically present and being fully present.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As I mentioned before, I am a restless person, so yes, I am ALWAYS working on new projects that give me purpose and direction. Right now, Centered CEOs is putting together the curriculum for a one-year mastermind program. It will help small business owners Elevate their brand, learn to properly Delegate responsibilities that create opportunities to scale without burn-out, and Replicate predictable outcomes for success.
Research shows that 50% of small businesses fail within the first five years. Our goal is to move the needle and change that statistic. We created a framework that has been instrumental in growing and running our businesses even during the Pandemic. The framework is called MAPS and stands for Mindful, Assertive, Profitable, and Sustainable. After testing it and studying the results, we are ready to share our methodology with other entrepreneurs.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mom was one of the most incredible people I have ever known. Although she passed away when I was only nineteen, I am always amazed by how she continues to shape my life and choices. She was an incredibly resilient, optimistic, and vivacious woman, and I aim to live up to her legacy.
As a mother myself now, I am very blessed to have a supportive, dedicated husband who is an incredible father and partner. Even still, being a parent is extremely challenging. Thinking back to my mother immigrating to the US without speaking the language or having any support system with a young child, I am humbled and awed. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, she went on to get an MBA, had a fantastic career, traveled, and ensured that I was afforded every opportunity to lead a better life. Even in the face of a terminal illness, she continued to exude hope and optimism. When I face the mindset blocks and fears that inevitably arise in all of us, I think about all that she accomplished, and I am always inspired to strive for more.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that gratitude involves the whole person. It is a personality trait, emotion, and skill that allows us to appreciate the life we are given and the people we care for. Gratitude enables us to connect with others and form meaningful relationships based on both tangible acts of kindness and intangible emotional responses such as love, empathy, and compassion.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
I believe that deep down, all of us can become more grateful individuals. However, as a society, we are increasingly disconnected and distracted, making us lonely and unhappy. We are bombarded with messages that we need to buy more, have more, achieve more, and become something more than we already are. Going back to the Dalai Lama, “We need to learn how to want what we have NOT to have what we want in order to get steady and stable Happiness.”
This shift is possible, but it requires reframing our beliefs and casting aside much of what our society teaches. When people pursue material possessions and financial gains without a greater purpose, they lose the ability to experience lasting joy from attaining those things. Spending money and acquiring new “things” releases endorphins, which make us feel good. Unfortunately, the novelty effects are short-lived, and we quickly revert to our baseline level of happiness.
People who are not intrinsically happy with their lives become dependent on seeking out stimuli that give them a rush of endorphins. However, since the feel-good emotions are not lasting, they can quickly get into a vicious cycle of chasing the next best thing, making more money, buying more stuff. The reality is that they will never feel lasting happiness until they learn to be grateful and content with what they already have. When we pursue transient feel-good moments, we limit our capacity to experience unabated joy.
This might be intuitive to you, but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
Gratitude is a practice that can feel both innate and foreign. When we feel out of touch, down on our luck, and unhappy, it seems counterintuitive to simultaneously practice gratitude. However, the practice of gratitude in and of itself can help us feel much happier. Practicing gratitude daily for even the most mundane and simple things in our lives reframes our beliefs and expectations making us kinder individuals. Gratitude improves sleep and physical health, which also correlate to emotional wellbeing.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
Gratitude can lower anxiety and decrease fears surrounding our future and its uncertainties. It can also improve our self-esteem, reduce feelings of inadequacy and resentment by diminishing social comparison. Studies have shown that having low self-esteem is a significant predictor of future depression, while improved self-esteem can prevent depression relapses.
When we practice gratitude for what we have and who we are, we are inspired to serve others. People who live their lives focused on a greater purpose are generally happier and less inclined to experience loneliness and depression. Gratitude has also been shown to help people overcome the effects of trauma and lower aggression, thereby improving interpersonal relationships.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness.” Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Build a gratitude sanctuary in your mind. When you first begin a gratitude practice, it can be taxing to think of things you are grateful for. In times of crisis or challenge, our minds tend to perseverate on things that are going wrong. If coming up with a list of ten things feels overwhelming, start small. Come up with three things you are grateful for at that moment. They can be minute and transient. A warm day, the scent of freshly baked cookies, the sound of your children’s laughter. Those initial things are how you begin to build your sanctuary. Each day going forward, you add on. Begin by thinking about the things you were grateful for the previous day and see where those thoughts lead you. Perhaps the warm day allowed you to go outside for a walk and get exercise. The scent of the cookies inspired you to enjoy time with your family. The sound of your children’s laughter reminded you about being present in the moment with the people you love. Each day your gratitude sanctuary will grow and expand. Room by room, you will fill your life with positive emotions and happiness triggers.
- Ask for what you already have. Setting goals can be an incredibly empowering and motivating practice. However, when we set goals that are too large or difficult to achieve, we sense disappointment and failure. Spend time each day focusing your desires on the things you already have. “I want to have a loving partner… I want to take a long walk outdoors… I want to eat a delicious meal… I want a warm bed to sleep in… I want to cuddle with my dog… I want to thank my team for their hard work…” This will help you develop feelings of contentment and inner peace. Letting go of vanities and ego creates opportunities to feel grateful and happy in the present, while striving for the future.
- Leverage your past experiences. No matter how many challenges or disappointments you have been through in your life, you have always overcome them. How do I know this? Because you are here right now. The most difficult situations have given you strength, courage, and the resilience to face whatever life brings. Our lives are not meant to be easy. We were born to suffer, learn, and grow from our experiences and impart our wisdom onto future generations. Instead of waiting to share what you have learned with others, share it with yourself. Remind yourself that you are the product of your life experiences. Practicing gratitude for the hardships and pain, you have endured will remind you that you have already been here.
- Create a mantra. The Sanskrit word, mantra, translates to an “instrument or tool of the mind.” Adapting your own mantra will help you transform your mind, body, and spirit by slowing down your thoughts and eliminating distraction. It is difficult to chant a mantra while simultaneously worrying about other distractions in your life. The beauty of a mantra is that it can be deeply personal and tied to your religion, spiritual beliefs, or favorite passage. An example of a traditional Sanskrit mantra is “Om Shanti,” which means “I am peace.” Sitting in a quiet place with your eyes closed and repeating your mantra will bring a sensation of gratitude and tranquility.
- Thank three people each day without cause. There is a difference between politeness and gratitude. Starting in early childhood, we are all are taught a specific set of manners, which include saying things like “please and thank you.” We form habits based on societal expectations of offering thanks when people hold open a door, bag our groceries, or fill our prescriptions. However, these words are often merely platitudes offered on autopilot.
To show gratitude requires heartfelt appreciation and engenders positive feelings in the recipient. Create a habit of thanking three people each day for simple things that may not usually elicit gratitude from you. Take time to write personal thank you notes, pick up the phone, and call someone just because to thank them for their friendship, mentorship, or support, give a bigger tip than expected, or take time to write a personalized review when you receive exceptional service. Swiss writer and philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel wrote:
“Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude.
Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness.
Thankfulness may consist merely of words.
Gratitude is shown in acts.”
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
Meditation is a very powerful habit that teaches us to be present in the moment, but it takes practice to master. If you feel particularly low and do not have the energy to dedicate to a full meditation, a simple breathing exercise can offer incredible rewards. I particularly like the 4–7–8 breathing technique, also referred to as “relaxing breath.” It involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. From a scientific perspective, breathing exercises can slow down heart rate, stabilize blood pressure, and lower pain scores. From a psychological perspective, breathwork improves mood and decreases anxiety. Taking just 2–3 minutes once or twice per day can offer tremendous short-term and long-term benefits.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
I read a lot, so here a few of my favorite books.
“The Art Of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama.
Real Change by Sharon Salzberg
Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment by Deepak Chopra
The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule
Book by Matt Tenney and Tim Gard
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. :-)
I would love to start a movement where every small business owner and entrepreneur commits to making a difference in their community. It could be something as small as organizing an annual food drive, donating a percentage of their profits to local charities, offering a mentorship program for disadvantaged youth, or anything else that inspires them and brings them meaning. I believe that great changes are born out of big dreams and triggered by tiny acts of kindness.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Please follow us on Facebook and join our tribes.
“We Are Centered CEOs” is a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who are serious about scaling their business and generating profits while creating meaning and making a difference in their communities.
“Luxury Travel Inspiration” is a travel community focused on transformational and unique itineraries. We have weekly interviews with experts from around the world to talk about meaningful changes, the latest trends, and life-changing experiences.