For the last year, I have been speaking about psychological resilience, almost by accident. I didn’t really intend to lecture; I started off writing my memoir, and I became a speaker to help build a platform. But life is funny; we get pulled into unexpected circumstances, which, only in retrospect, wind up making sense.
So I didn’t intend to develop expertise in psychological resilience, but that’s what happened. And now here we are, in the midst of a global crisis, a crisis requiring immense resilience from all of us. I hope to be able to help.
There are many elements that contribute to a person’s capacity for resilience. Some elements are inborn, genetic even, and some over which we have little control (e.g. economic privilege, living in a safe community). Out of all the factors that contribute to resilience, there are 5 elements that I find the most salient. For ease of remembering, I developed a mnemonic for them: G.O.A.L.S. I would like to share this with you. For today, let’s focus on G.
G. is for Gratitude.
I had my own gratitude experience this morning. I don’t pray often, but I did today. When I pray, I always start off thanking God for my health, the health of my family, our work, and our home. I usually say this part of my prayer reflexively, without much thought. This morning, that prayer felt different. I have never felt such intense gratitude for my health and the health of my family, this simple yet so vital blessing. We are healthy so far. Thank you. We have work. Thank you. We have a home. Thank you again.
Grateful people are happy people. There is plenty of science about gratitude. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, recounts the unique circumstances that led him to study what makes people truly happy: his son complained about him. Seligman was already a famous psychologist, working at a world class university. But his son griped that, despite all his successes, his father never seemed happy. Seligman, being a genius, did not respond like I might, telling his son to go away and stop being so critical. Instead, he turned his world class intellect toward the complaint. Why wasn’t he happy? He should be, given all his success and fame. Thus began his new area of research, the study of what makes people happy.
What creates true happiness? It isn’t money. It isn’t a beach house. It isn’t fame. No, those things are pleasures. Pleasures are lovely but they produce only fleeting joy. What makes people truly happy is feeling purpose in their work, having meaningful relationships, and the capacity for gratitude.
Gratitude shifts our perspective. Instead of focusing, as most of us unconsciously do, on what is disappointing or stressful, gratitude steers our focus onto what is good. We all tend to overlook the good, in our never-ending quest to fix all that feels bad. But focusing on the bad creates anxiety and bitterness. Conversely, focusing on the good creates contentment and well-being.
Here is my best example. You may know that I was brutally burned in a fire when I was four. My mother left me, in the fire she accidentally set, to save herself. I was burned third degree over 65% of my little body. I almost died twice. I endured years of excruciating surgeries, multiple hospitalizations far away from my (loving but dysfunctional) family. I was bullied when I was home. I had a brutal childhood.
And yet. That fire occurred on the shores of a lake, the waters of which extinguished the flames and saved my life. We were vacationing in New Hampshire and I was admitted to Mass General Hospital, which was nearby. Mass General just happened to be the best burn hospital in the country at that time, and possibly the best in the world. Although in 1967, most severely burned children died, I lived. From admission on, my doctor, Dr. John Constable, took excellent, tender, compassionate care of me. He was trained at Harvard Medical School, and was internationally known, one of the best plastic surgeons in the country.
Also, I was sponsored by the Shriners, who provided me with all my medical care, for many years, completely free of charge. Hundreds of doctors and nurses worked on me, all throughout my childhood, and indeed, even now. All those professionals have taken care of me, helping me recover, rejoicing in my returning health.
So you see, although I was tragically unlucky, I was also very lucky. The same story, one of trauma, abandonment, isolation and pain, is also a story of luck, care, generosity and devotion. This is the same story, but told through the eyes of gratitude.
There are exercises to help become a more grateful person. One classic exercise is to start a Gratitude Journal. This is not your classic journal, in which you write the frustrations and pains of your day. It is, in fact, the opposite. In a Gratitude Journal, you write, daily if possible, three things for which you are grateful that day.
Some days will be easy and some days will be hard. It will be easy to record your gratitude when your son is admitted to Tufts University, and your daughter wins the lead in the school play. But even now, during these dark times, you may notice that there is plenty for which to be grateful. Maybe you took a long walk with your dog. Maybe the sun was out. Maybe your best friend called and told you that she loves you.
I invite you to focus on gratitude over the next week. What are you grateful for? If you wish to deepen the thought, you can start your own gratitude journal. If you find yourself grateful for a certain person, I invite you to write them a thank you letter. I often end my presentations this way, passing out thank you notes to the audience. It fills my heart to watch people write their thank you notes, pens flying, their eyes filling with loving tears.
It is a terrible time right now. This is true. We are all enduring hardship, deprivation and worry. There is no way around this fact. It is a very hard time. But still, I invite you to try, even in these challenging days, to notice your blessings. Focus on gratitude at least once a day. If you do, I predict you will feel a happier outlook and a brighter perspective about your life.
Stay tuned, next blog, to learn about the O in G.O.A.L.S. You learned the G; G is for gratitude. What do you think the O is for?