The Prequel to the “Last” Christmas

I’ll start with the punch line:  The doctors were wrong and I’m still alive.

But, they could easily have been right and the terminal diagnosis they gave me finally made me walk the walk of the philosophy that I had embraced in every major aspect of my life but one:  Off and on (but mostly on) ever since I was fifteen, I had smoked.  I could not possibly have done anything more antithetical to the way I lived and approached most of the rest of my life.  Well, except for food but that’s another sad tale, though it does play a part in this one.

So, there I was, minding my own business, trying to see a new doctor about some middle aged menstrual hijinks I was dealing with, when the doc ordered a chest x-ray because I was smoker.  Let’s call that x- ray the first domino in the cascade of medical encounters I was about to experience.  It came back showing a suspicious lung nodule.  The subsequent CT of the suspicious lung nodule came back showing a suspicious kidney mass consistent with renal cell carcinoma.  Put the two together, the kidney mass and the lung tumor now consistent with metastatic disease, and they equal a cancer that is considered incurable.

I was told that I had six to eighteen months to live.

So, I went for a walk.  Fortunately, I had recently begun a campaign to improve my lifestyle habits mainly because smaller fat women were starting to orbit me.  Walking and healthy eating had become my weapons for improving my life.  I knew smoking and overweight were interferences that had prevented me from remaining healthy.  The irony is, even as my new doc was telling me that I had incurable cancer, he was also telling me how healthy I was because my blood work looked fabulous, I had low/normal blood pressure and was completely symptom-free.  How mind bogglingly insane is that?

My understanding of health – an understanding we at Life University call vital health* – was already serving me well because, as a fat smoker with cancer, I understood the fact that I was unhealthy as hell.  On the other hand, the doc’s way of thinking allowed him to tell me I was a dead duck in one breath and how healthy I was in the next.  It was clear to me that, in my doctor’s mind, all my “health” would do for me would be to extend the inevitable for a few months – I had no chance to survive.  At that point, there was little chance for survival in my own mind.  I did know that if I had any chance at all to survive, I would have to remove the outrageous interference from cigarettes.  My understanding of vital health told me that life could find a way but I surely had given death a head start.

Smoking had interfered with the expression of health in my life and now I was determined not to let it interfere with the expression of health in my death.  Vitalism had always told me that death is a natural part of life and has its own wisdom, just as life does.  In order to die a healthy death, I would not be one of those people who pull poison from a cigarette with her dying breath.  I would walk and be as active as my performance status allowed.  I would give my dying body the best foods in their most unprocessed state.  If doing all that allowed me to survive, it would be a gift.  But, I was more motivated by the desire to not interfere with the natural process of dying.  If my body’s life was designed to express health without interference, I trusted that death was designed the same way.

So, facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, I stopped smoking.  I’m told now by many ex-smokers that a terminal disease would be like a ticket to smoke again.  I’m told by current smokers that there is no way they could stop smoking under that kind of stress.  For me, the possibility of dying a healthy death finally congealed the vital health truth I’d always known but had been unable to live.

As a spectacularly slow learner, I salute each and every one of you who are able to live your lives free from self inflicted interference with your innately engendered health.   And to those of you who have come to your health through the side door, welcome.

#####

*Vital health” is a model of health care that includes modern vitalism or neo-vitalism, which Life University defines as the “…recognition that the universe itself is self-conscious and, as such, continually creates itself as a dynamic system wherein living organisms are self-developing, self-maintaining and self-healing.”

Post Script to the Prequel:  After several weeks, from Thanksgiving to the end of January, I underwent a multitude of doctor visits, tests, scans, consultations, culminating in surgery on February 5.  I had simultaneous thoracotomy (removing a lung tumor) and nephrectomy (removing the cancerous kidney).  Pathology showed that the lung tumor was benign, meaning my kidney cancer was not Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma that had spread to my lung, as the doctors had thought.  It was actually Stage 1b and thankfully still confined to the kidney.  I am starting on my eleventh year in remission – still trying to learn how to be so grateful for my life that I can be grateful for all its lessons, even death.

Post Post Script to the Prequel:  How is this about the Happy LIFE and the year of living positively?  Well, for one thing, after this experience, you’d think I’d be the most grateful person on the planet, wouldn’t you?  And, I believe that I was indeed thankful to God and every person who graced my life during that time.  Ten years later, a simple little program of “happy habits” has made it clear that gratitude cannot only be something that we feel; it must be something that we do.  One of the simplest actions of gratitude is to count our blessings and, by committing to writing down three of them each day, I learned how much richer my life could be.  And, just so you know, I count each person who reads this far as a blessing.  Thank you.

(Note:  This post, aside from the countless postscripts and notes, was adapted – only a little – from one of the “Vitalism Signs” columns I had the great privilege of writing for Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyles, a publication of Life University.)

Advertisements

My Last Christmas

As some of you may know, this holiday season has been a real milestone for me because this is the tenth anniversary of “My Last Christmas,” as in my final Christmas on earth.  Ten years ago, the week before Thanksgiving, on the day before my 45th birthday, I was told that I would not likely live to see another Christmas because I had terminal kidney cancer.  I spent the entire holiday season – and beyond – in doctors’ offices and hospitals, reading medical journals, finding hope, then losing hope after having tests that always seemed to bring worse and worse news.

Now, at this point, let me say, I can hear you thinking.  And what I hear is:  “Well, this is certainly uplifting.  What’s THIS got to do with the Happy LIFE?”  Well, please bear with me just a bit longer because here’s what I hope:  that thinking about what kind of Christmas you’d have if you knew it was going to be your last one, might help make this the best Christmas of your life.

Here are the top ten things I learned from my “last” Christmas:

1)   When you don’t know what else to do, go for a walk.  Or, take a bath.  Depending on how cold it is outside.  And don’t confuse the two because good walking shoes are not waterproof – and the neighbors won’t appreciate seeing you naked

2)   It’s OK to pray for healing but you’d better pray for strength and acceptance, too.  And the simplest act – from cleaning the kitchen to walking around the block – can become a prayer of gratitude for each moment that you have

3)   No matter how hard it is to wait for the right time, and no matter how far away they are, deliver bad news to the people who love you in person

4)   The people you’ve always laughed with before, may – or may not – be good at finding the humor in dying.  And the people you least expect may end up being the most comfort

5)   As hard as it is, dying is a lot harder on your family than it is on you – and they will become a whole lot closer to one another over the prospect of losing you

6)   A final family portrait is a good idea – and giving each other rabbit ears in a photo booth is the best portrait of all

7)   When it comes to spending your time, “who” is far more important than “how”

8)   Happiness really is a choice – and we can make a different choice every second of every day

9)   Christmas is about what’s in your heart, not what’s under the tree

And the biggest thing I learned from being told – ten Christmases ago – that I’d never live to see another Christmas:

10)  Don’t believe every freaking thing you hear.

###########

Note:  This post is adapted, just a little bit, from the remarks I was asked to give as “Holiday Sunshine” at a local Kiwanis Club (of which I am honored to be a member).  This is something I’ve been thinking about since I realized, around the time of my birthday this year, that it was the tenth anniversary of my “Last” Christmas.  Since this is also the year of “The Happy LIFE” project, it occurred to me that the Happy LIFE isn’t always sunshine and lollipops, either – so this is what came out when I sat down to write my Holiday Sunshine remarks.  And, in the interest of full disclosure and painting the fuller picture of the things I learned during that time, I’ll add this:  according to our daughter, one of the things I learned is how NOT to be such a [jackass] about putting up a Christmas tree.   I’m not fully cured of that one yet, though. 

Applied Happiness

If you were told you could do a few simple things and be happier, what would you do?

A:  Say, “Is that so?  Tell me more?” and be open to giving it a shot?

– Or –

B:  Run like a scalded cat the other way?

It’s an important question.  How you answer it may be the difference between being alive and living.  We’ve seen both answers along the path to the Happy LIFE – a self-propelled journey into creating “happy habits” – that is starting to make the rounds to employees of companies who think like we do at Life University.  Perhaps predictably, their experience has been similar to ours at at LIFE U.

An esteemed colleague (translation:  He’s a VP and way above my pay grade but I like him and he’s always been great to work with), summarized our Happy LIFE implementation like this:  “All, here’s the truth for me.  Remembering to compliment people is a challenge for me.  After sending “gratitudes” through Happy LIFE, I now express my appreciation more. The program will sound kooky to some, but it works in at least one way for everyone.”

I’d have to agree with my esteemed colleague.  But, unlike him, I’d say I’m fairly fluent in the language of affirmation (I have to be in order to balance out all the snarky things I say to get a laugh; in fact, I’d add Sharing Laughter as the sixth love language).  That means that I love to notice things that I can genuinely compliment people about.  For those who’ve read Gary Chapman’s book, “The 5 Love Languages,”* you’ll be familiar with Words of Affirmation as one of the five languages people use to express and receive love (and I’d say the same idea applies to kindness, too).

But, I digress.  What I found was this:  As a result of writing emails expressing appreciation for those who’ve made a real difference in my life, I’ve become less self-conscious about following my natural tendency to be complimentary.  Now, I don’t feel like a complete fool for complimenting even strangers if I happen to notice something I admire about them.  And, best of all, I’m finding that, even if a couple of the people I compliment make cracks or look at me like I’m deranged, most people seem pleased as punch to be complimented and thank me for it, often quite warmly.  It’s like we’ve just given each other gifts that are free and that fit perfectly – gifts we can wear in our hearts.

So, if some ol’ broad passes you on the street and says, “That color is perfect for you; everything you wear should include that color!” just believe her.  You look great.

######

*Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages are:  1) Words of Affirmation, 2) Acts of Service, 3) Receiving Gives, 4) Quality Time and 5) Physical Touch.

It’s a Catastrophe

I’m still shocked at how much simple habits of gratitude are turning my life upside down.  Before taking on the Happy LIFE, I don’t think I was particularly aware, extravert that I am, of my internal dialog.  I sure didn’t notice how negative – and how completely automatic – it can be.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if self-consciousness were the same thing as self-awareness?  If it were, I believe I might be sufficiently enlightened to ascend bodily into eternity.  As it is, I’m just embarrassed a lot.

Speaking of embarrassment, there’s the matter of self-disclosure, otherwise known as throwing your own self under the bus.  So, speaking to you from the underbelly of a Greyhound, I’m disclosing that I just caught myself in an amazingly negative thought process.  I was speaking with the customer service department of the Reader’s Digest, to which my mother has a lifetime subscription.  I called at a time of day that I assumed, right off the bat, would have a negative outcome.  I was so sure that that I would not be able to speak with a real human that I was shocked spitless when a pleasant-sounding young woman named Courtney answered the phone on the third ring.

Then, she asked me for my account number.

“Oh, great, I got someone on the phone but now it’s going to fall apart,” I automatically and immediately told myself despite the pleasant surprise of a live person that I’d experienced just seconds before.

“I don’t have the number,” I told Courtney, “because my mom hasn’t been getting the magazine at her new place and I don’t have any old issues on hand at my place.”

“No problem,” said Courtney. “What’s her name?”

No problem?  Well, this response certainly didn’t fit my negative expectations.  I told Courtney Mama’s name and she looked it up.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t find that name.”

A little spark of fear had flashed earlier and was going off again.  Courtney, still trying to be helpful, says, “What other name could it be under?”

“None, really,” I said, and I was thinking to myself, Mama subscribed to that magazine when she went to work at seventeen and I know she received it under her married name my whole life, in excess of fifty years.  It was starting to seem really weird at that point.  I felt a little gust of worry, fanning another little spark of fear catch the tinder of doubt and begin to burn.  What if Mama’s been targeted for some sort of identity theft?  What if her accounts have been changed to some other address?

Suffice it to say that, in the end, it wasn’t a problem with her account.  And, please allow me to reiterate that, prior to the Happy LIFE, I truly don’t think I would have been aware of all the dire things I was speculating about what could have gone wrong just because my mother wasn’t receiving a magazine.  I suppose I could choose to be comforted by the fact this negative thought process is so common it has a name.  I was “catastrophizing.”  I was stringing together every worst-case scenario I could think of and, because I’m somewhat creative, I could think of a lot of catastrophes that an AWOL magazine could portend.

I’m grateful that I revisited my catastrophizing in writing, too, because it took me along another path where much sweeter thoughts have occurred to me.  I’ve thought about how the Reader’s Digest has followed Mama and, in a way, served as a chronicle of her admirable passage through the world, from dirt farm to comfortable retirement.  It has also served as the source of her (and my own) vocabulary; it has helped shape her worldview; it has served as an object lesson and example of a world where we pay increasingly more for goods and services that offer increasingly less value, where almost everything in our lives is “commoditized” and we can’t be sure what to believe and who’s selling what.

I know that a some intellectual or “now a go go” contemporary types find magazines like Reader’s Digest to be laughable artifacts of a time that was naïve at best and socially repressive at worst.  Still, for me, it will always serve as a symbol of a generation that considered the greater good, who thought of others before themselves, and knew what it meant to sacrifice and delay gratification for future rewards.  I appreciate that, these days, we have a more acceptable outlook on many things that would have been taboo in the Reader’s Digest of my mother’s heyday and my own childhood.  I want to believe that it – and other chronicles of my mother’s generation – will always carry their spirit and provide a voice of reason and decency in a word that increasingly lacks both.

Acceptance

I believe that I’ve mourned the loss of our first (and last) grandchild, who did not survive past the first half of his life, on the way to his birth.  I was only able to meet the idea of him before he was gone and still, he changed my life.  Through him, I became aware of – and have opened up to – this phase of my life as the third (and last) chapter.  It’s been difficult – though it’s been made more bearable by having to accept the loss of my own ability to have children back in those days.  Blessedly, that loss came after receiving the gift of my first (and last) child.  I still find occasion to cry over the loss of our grandchild but I feel as though I have managed to grieve his passing, not as a glancing blow of loss but as a lingering gift of spirit.

What I have only recently begun to understand is that I have also been grieving another loss, the loss of the possibility of grandchildren.  Awareness of that loss came as a second wave, keenly felt when hearing about new arrivals in friends’ and family’s lives.  That stab of self-centered grief was tinged with a little longing and, no matter how quickly it might have passed, the longing was always there.  And, I suppose, there will always be reminders of it, slipping in unexpectedly with a surprising stab of lingering loss.

Recently, though, I’ve been making gratitude something of a habit and things have begun to change.  I find myself experiencing the babies and children I encounter with the most surprising mix of feelings, whether I know them and their families or not.  I’m discovering as I write this that tears still find their way to my eyes when I think of kids in the world and the hope and dreams they represent.  What I’m especially surprised to feel is deep gratitude to all the children we’ve seen out and about who’ve waved and smiled back, and to all the parents who’ve stopped to chat.  I’m even grateful  to our little dog because she loves children and children love her; she is a kid magnet.

The highlight of my holiday weekend was having three children literally squeal with delight at seeing our dog and, because they had great parents, approach her excitedly but with appropriate care and respect for her space.  It was a clear display what happens when children experience loving and effective parenting.  It was a snapshot of kids whose parents were showing them exactly the kind of gentle – but definite – attention the children were giving our little dog.  And, in that moment, I was struck by a sense of acceptance, though still inescapably tinged with sadness.  None of the children I ever encounter will be my own grandchild but, in some unfathomable way – through gratitude – they are all are.

The Gratitudes

So, the next phase of the positivity path I’m on is “Three Gratitudes.”  Yes, I am aware that “Gratitudes” is not actually a word.  However, it seems like a fine time to make it one since it sounds like “Beatitudes,” which comprise the Sermon on the Mount, one of the loveliest, most poetic and grace-filled passages in the Bible.  And, “beatitude” means “supreme blessedness.”

More and more, social scientists like Barbara Fredrickson and Sonia Lyubormirski are publishing research that, to paraphrase wildly, seems to support the idea that gratitude is the prerequisite for blessedness.  Let that sink in for just a minute – that may be a keeper:  Gratitude is the prerequisite for blessedness.Image

The Mac dictionary app defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”  There’s also the concept of “radical forgiveness,” advanced by Colin Tipping and (to my limited understanding) Buddhism, which says we are most fulfilled when we learn to be thankful for and appreciative of everything that we experience, even the tragic.   I can tell you that I’ve tried acceptance-based forgiveness and I’ve got a couple of long standing and deep seated issues that ain’t budging, no matter how many times I tell myself, “It is what it is.”  And time alone doesn’t seem to be healing all wounds.  In fact (and in all honesty) I still find myself half hoping that time will wound all of the heels I’ve encountered.  So, it seems clear that there must be a better way than simply surviving the time that passes after we’ve been wounded and, more and more, I believe it may be marked with  a signpost that says “Gratitude.”

Increasingly, when I find myself being overwhelmed by sadness, resentment, hurt or anger – that’s my sign.  That’s the time to stop and count my blessings, no matter how trite I may have found that saying to be when someone tried to offer it as advice during a difficult time.  That’s why I think consciously making gratitude a habit is essential to creating a fulfilling life.

Today, I begin.  I’m looking forward to this phase of listing daily three things for which I’m grateful.  I don’t suppose I’ll share all of them beyond my daily journal but, who knows?  To begin my Phase Four of the Happy LIFE, I’m going to start with these:

Today, I’m grateful for:

  • Being a woman in a time and place that I am not property or legally subservient
  • A husband who does double duty as best friend and confidant
  • The freedom of expression (and a job that lets me indulge it daily)

And, as always, I’m grateful to you for taking the time to read and consider being Positively Happy.

Public Speaking

Nothing along the positivity path as part of The Happy LIFE has surprised me more than the fact that it has led me to the opportunity to speak to a group of people in New Zealand who, for the most part, don’t know me.  I’m also feeling profoundly grateful to the people who do know me, especially those who’ve heard me speak and haven’t booed me out of the front of the room.  Because of your generosity, I’ve managed to scrape up the nerve to invite myself to speak in front of people who don’t know me.

It’s also because, six years ago when I said “Yes” to doing work I’d never done before at Life University, I never dreamed that I would find a way through crippling stage fright to public speaking.  I have my friend, Brian M., to thank for the opportunity to say yes to a job that scared the soup out of me and learn that, if you work really hard and continue to say yes, you’ll amaze yourself at what you can learn to do.  After all, in the age of information, ignorance is a choice.

I have another dear friend, Jennifer V., to thank for the first opportunity to discover that, if you know and care about the material – and infuse your PowerPoint with the same kind of goofiness you have in ordinary conversation – it’s OK if your stomach’s in your throat, you can hardly breathe and your hands are shaking so bad you can barely work the clicker.  It won’t kill you to put yourself out there and you’ll probably discover that people are more accepting and gracious than you think you deserve.

Thanks, also, to all the poor, unsuspecting brand new LIFE students who have listened to – and even laughed in all the right places- the ridiculous Croc(k) Pit story as part of their Orientation.

The Marietta Kiwanis Club and its members’ generosity played a role as well when Pat H. invited me to give the “Sunshine” address that the members so warmly received.  I’d like to think it was the brilliance of my “Top Ten Reasons Kiwanis Decided to Include Women” but I think they’re just an easy crowd.  Clearly, they are as generous with their laughter as they are with their hearts.

I’m also learning a few other things, with the help of gracious people like my friends Chris N. and Shelia W.   Foremost among them is this:  It also won’t kill you to ask for help, especially when you enjoy being helpful “yourownself” (as we say down home).  Why do we so often think it’s OK to deny others the pleasure of doing something for you that you would so gladly do for them?

I’m also grateful beyond words to Guy R. for the Happy LIFE and to the entire psychology department of LIFE U for reinforcing what positive psychology has to teach us:  that the more we understand about our inherent negativity bias, the more we open ourselves to focusing on the positive.  And, finally, many thanks to the dear and darling Phil M. for providing me with the ability to soon say, legitimately, that I’m an “international speaker.” Let’s just pray no one expects an extensive list of international engagements to back up my claim.  It only takes the one time to be accurate, right?

Most of all, I’m grateful to Phil (and scared) beyond words for saying yes when I invited myself to New Zealand to share my passion for living authentically as a function of trust in the perfection with which we were created.

Thank you, one and all.

Duckling

What does it take to make us grateful? 

I heard today about a group that puts on what might accurately be called “Homeless Camp” for kids to experience what homelessness is like.  The kids are outfitted, just like homeless people would be, in donated (usually secondhand) clothes and footwear, given a blanket and 80 cents a day, and they sleep in a public park.  They eat in soup kitchens, which may or may not also provide limited restroom facilities.  These 14-16-year-old kids, of course, do have “camp counselors” looking out for them but, essentially, they are living as homeless people do.  Talk about your experiential compassion learning!  And, not surprisingly, the kids report being a lot more grateful for what they have in life after completing the experience.  I guess you could say it’s a gratitude immersion experience.  I’ve had one of those myself that made lasting impressions on me – both positive and negative.  I’d like to share a bit about how the Happy LIFE helped me flourish today, as I continue to navigate the aftermath of my own immersion experience.

In my case, nearly ten years ago, a terminal cancer diagnosis and surgery – followed within four months by another major surgery – created a major immersion experience in my life.  If there’s anything that anyone out there who has had a medium-to-major medical condition knows, it’s this: from the time of discovery to the end of treatment, treatment becomes your whole life.  It’s all you do – doctors, tests, scans, procedures, examinations, preparations, follow-ups – and eventually, treatment for the condition just takes over and becomes the sum total of your existence. 

I can’t adequately express my awareness of – or my gratitude for – how fortunate I was that my cancer was not as advanced as it was initially believed.  I’m also thankful to have greatly benefitted from (then) state-of-the-art procedures performed by highly skilled surgeons.  Still, the whole experience left me feeling marginalized, patronized, utilized and, yes, sanitized on more than one occasion.  There was precious little humanity in it.  Dignity was in short supply in the medical marketplace, too.

Except for one shining beacon:  Dr. Johanna Whalen.  I have used her real name so as not to protect her from my appreciation.  I am still likely to cry at the very thought of how much she meant to me, in treating me like a person who had feelings.  Moreover, she treated me like a person who was capable of asking intelligent questions and educating herself enough to form valid opinions about treatment options.

Flash through the intervening nine-plus years to the present and you find a woman who had yet to discover another doctor who actually seems to like people or, perhaps even more challenging, to like me, especially as someone whose opinions are based in vitalistic (or, more accurately, a “neo-vitalistic”) philosophy.*  Let’s just say that I’ve been like a little lost duckling who imprinted on Dr. Whalen and who has been looking and looking for another one just like her.

Today, I am feeling very grateful – like a little duckling – to have finally found a doctor who likes people and who, to all appearances, likes me.  We made jokes, we traded mild barbs about the recommended wellness exams and tests that I’m not convinced are necessary or helpful and, wonder of wonders, she even let me keep my clothes on while we met and got to know each other a bit.  At this point, I am willing to believe she is so saintly that she will not die but will descend bodily into heaven.

I think that my newest doctor is indeed different from most of my old ones and, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I’m different, too.  More accurately, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I did something different today.  Because my previous medical immersion experience left me with more than a little stress at the thought of breaking in new medical professionals to me and my “stuff,” I knew that I needed to find a new approach to medical visits.  So, while I was sitting out in the waiting area, I decided to practice the “happy habit” of meditation.  It had already occurred to me to do it in the preceding day or two – so I guess I’d steeled myself a bit against the self-consciousness I felt at the thought of meditating in public.  Plus, I’m kind of old so it’s easer to not give a fat rat what people think.

Here’s what I think happened:  In true vitalistic fashion, meditation allowed me to express a more authentic version of myself by helping me remove the interference of anxiety.  By meditating, I was able to put a bit of space between me and the stress I was feeling.  It helped me stay in the present and keep out of the future where anxiety, fear and doubt live.  Seth Godin, social marketing guru, “define[s] anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.”  I’m thinking that meditation may be the antidote – and gratitude may be the reward.

*I’m using the terms “vitalism” and “neo-vitalism” a la Life University (www.life.edu) to refer to a philosophy that honors the wisdom of life.  It’s a view that respects both birth and death – along with the life that happens in between them – as natural processes that nature has been developing over millions and millions of years.  As a vitalist, I prefer the most conservative, life-respecting and life-affirming choices in health care.  In short – I trust that, when it comes to running itself and healing, my body is smarter than I am.  It knows when and how to run a fever.  It knows how and when to make new cells to heal.  And, when something goes awry, it’s usually from some interference that is preventing my body from operating as it’s designed to.  My vitalistic view suggests that I always start with the most conservative intervention option, addressing disease and/or dysfunction by identifying and removing the interference(s) to my health – with the least invasive option – before going to more radical or invasive options. 

The Happy LIFE Revisited

I’m going to turn an article about positivity on its ear and lead with something negative – just to get it out of the way.  Some people say – and you may be one of them – that positive psychology and the idea we can learn to be happier are a load happy horse feathers.  Or worse.  And, you know, everybody’s entitled to his or her opinion – and attitude.

Here’s the thing, though.  All things begin as thoughts.  Concrete things happen as a result of creative thought.  In fact, most human beings believe that, in some form or fashion, all of creation began as the thought of the ultimate consciousness, which we know as God, in all the many ways and by all the many names through which human beings connect with the divine.

Even on our more minuscule human level, we can clearly observe that our thoughts shape our lives and our perspectives.  Each and every action we take begins with a thought – however well (or poorly) formed that thought might be.  And, our internal lives are also driven by thought – countless numbers of them from moment to moment, coursing through our brains, forming their own pathways, nets, webs and loops – resulting in all the ticks and quirks and patterns of action that define who we are as people.

In the past, with the instrumentation available to it at the time, science concluded that the brain and its patterns of thought could not be changed after adulthood, at which time scientists believed the neural net and physical structure of the brain had been laid down “in stone.”  However, science now has ways to observe the brain at work – in real time, in living and thinking people – and can see with more clarity than ever how the brain is affected by conscious thought.  We now know that thoughts can have physical effects on the brain, not only on which areas become electrochemically activated, but also on the structures themselves.  The more you activate and utilize some part of your brain, the larger that part of the brain becomes and the more robust its functioning.

The discovery of the brain’s ability to change and grow, at every age, is called “neuroplasticity” and that’s the ability we’ll be putting to use as we participate – together – in The Happy L.I.F.E. (Life In Focus Experiment).

The idea behind the Happy L.I.F.E. is to begin forming the “positive habits” that are meant to allow us to increase our ability to pattern positive thought centers in our brains – and maybe in the brains of others.  The first activity is sending one email, every day for twenty-one days, thanking someone in your support network.  We know that performing an action repetitiously makes it likely the activity will become a habit.  The hope is that after twenty-one days of performing a specific act of gratitude, it will be on its way to becoming ingrained as a habit and added to the ways we act in the world.  And, in the process, we may become better focused on all the positive things in our lives – and learn how to better recognize and create more of them.  Moreover, research suggests that increasing the positivity in our lives, not by ignoring real and present sorrows or negatives, but by holding the positives in the appropriate balance with the negatives, we can begin to truly flourish.  As we begin to create more positivity in our lives, we create more optimism, greater resilience, more rewarding relationships and better functioning, both as individuals and as communities.

Positivity.  It’s not rocket science – but it is science.  Better yet, it should be fun.