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Practicing Gratitude for Growing Older

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No, you didn’t read that title wrong. Yesterday was my birthday and I’m very grateful to be another year older.

A friend of mine in her sixties was getting some dental work done recently. “Maintenance,” she said with a sigh. “It’s just part of growing older.”

I’ve spent a large part of my career with women around twice my age. They are always trying to warn me of the perils of aging. They warn me of how terrible it is and how I really need to appreciate being young. Perhaps these were lessons that never sank in when they were younger. I just smile and nod.

My mother died of cancer at age 49 and my aunt at age 55. They both had a genetic mutation that made them predisposed to the disease. I also had two cousins who died in a car crash when they were in college. For my family, death has never been too far away.

 

I spent about fifteen years not knowing if I had the same gene mutation that killed my mother and my aunt. This meant that I was very unclear on my risk for early mortality. On the one hand, this encouraged me to eat healthy, to get plenty of sleep, to live in the now, and to never take my time for granted. On the other hand, it cast a large question mark over my life.

For some reason, I was never able to find an OBGYN who was willing to do the genetic testing until about a year ago. When I finally got the tests done, I found out that I didn’t have the gene. I was the first woman in my extended family to test negative for it. Suddenly, the second half of my life opened up. I could stand to wait a few years to have children without raising my risk of cancer. I no longer felt silly putting money away for retirement. I could dream about what I might like to do in my golden years. I could count on with a bit more certainly all those milestones of life that others take for granted.

What a lot of women fear in growing older has become for me a blessing for which I am continually grateful. Bring on the achy muscles and creaky knees. Bring on the forgetfulness and the hot flashes and the wrinkles and saggy places. I am ready for all of it because I never knew if I would be able to have those years at all.

Believing from a young age that I could die young had another added benefit: every day counts. Life needs to be lived with no regrets, because we really don’t know when our time will come, and with gratitude, since every day we are alive is a gift. It is not some privilege that life is obligated to give us.

So I have a small request for the young and old. It is good and well to feel what we need to feel and complain when we need to complain. Bad days (and months, and years) happen and are a part of living. But if you can, remember from time to time that the days we have on this earth are a gift. Do it for all those young people who did not have the blessing to be alive today. But more importantly, do it for yourself, because nothing is more nurturing to our own happiness than taking a moment to appreciate the simple act of living and all the wonders it entails.

So this birthday, and every birthday, I am taking a moment to practice gratitude that I was given another year of living. And, I’m thinking of how to squeeze the most magic out of the next year of my life, one day at a time.

Optimism Do’s and Don’ts

optimism smile field girl

The Original Phoenix wrote a wonderful post recently called 4 Ways Positive Thinking Helps Me that got my wheels turning, particularly since she mentioned some articles that were critical of positive thinking. I had seen some similar anti-optimism articles circulating lately and have been wanting to address both sides of the coin. When I worked as a suicide prevention instructor, I had given a lot of thought to when and in what ways optimism is helpful and when it is not so helpful. I decided to compile a little guideline to optimism from what I had learned through work and also through personal research.

1.Do practice gratitude.

Studies have shown that practicing gratitude has a very positive effect on mental health along with tons of other benefits. I like to think of what I am grateful for when I wake up in the morning. It puts my stresses in perspective.

2. Don’t ignore your own feelings.

In America where I live, there can be this kind of expectation of optimism that sometimes makes it hard to NOT look on the bright side. Think about it: what’s the standard answer to the question, “How are you?” Do people really want to hear any answer other than “good?” But denying our own feelings isn’t helpful. We can be honest with our own feelings and still hope for a positive outcome in difficult times.

3. Do find the silver lining.

When bad things happen to us, it’s very easy to focus on what else could go wrong. I am guilty of this as well. While being prepared for the worst isn’t a bad thing, I do like to take a moment to ask myself, “what could go right?” What opportunities could come from a bad situation? What can be learned? How can this experience lead to growth?

4. Don’t be blindly optimistic when the consequences are high.

There are many times when it pays to be optimistic. When the consequences of failure are high, it doesn’t pay to be optimistic.* In other words, go into that job interview optimistic; what’s the worst that can happen? But don’t start up that full passenger jet plane with the check engine light on and hope for the best. Blind optimism in risky situations is not a good thing.

5. Do make optimism intentional.

It’s easy to fall into a rut of our traditional thinking and forget to be optimistic; I’ve certainly been there. That’s why I try to make time for optimism. Optimism can help  with ability to cope with stress, our social support, our health, our career, our longevity, and more* so there are a number of reasons why it pays to be a little optimistic besides just “feeling good.”

6. Don’t forget to wallow now and again.

Is there anything more cathartic than a good cry? When I was little and I would cry, my mom would read me the Owl at Home story about “Tearwater Tea.” Owl wants to make his favorite tea, so he thinks of sad things like broken chairs and forgotten spoons until he has filled up a teapot with his tears. As silly as it is, it’s a reminder that a good cry once in a while is important. Just make sure that wallowing is a place you visit on occasion, and not a place you live full-time.

7. Do defend your own personal boundaries.

Don’t let others tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel. You are feeling miserable today? Feel miserable. Feeling optimistic? Feel optimistic. Exploring our own emotions is a very personal journey and shouldn’t be invalidated by others. It’s okay to feel what you need to feel. Even this post; if you’re not feeling it today, it’s okay to say, “no thanks” and come back to it another time.

8. Don’t force optimism on others.

On the flip side, it isn’t helpful to force our feelings on others when they come to us for help. Truly listening involves accepting how someone else is feeling with no strings attatched. I have found that when we listen in a non-directive way, it is easier for people to talk through their own feelings and to find a solution that works best for them. Often this process leaves people feeling much more optimistic in the end than if we try to force them to feel how we feel about a situation.

I hope this has been a helpful guide to optimism. And speaking of gratitude, thanks to The Original Phoenix for the inspiration. Be sure to check out her blog for posts about mental health, college life, and the power of human potential.

Source: Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications, by Kate Hefferon and Ilona Boniwell

Today’s Gratitude: Peace of Mind

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I just voted and I already feel a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders. One thing I learned from working in crisis intervention was that when we are in crisis and the brain is not “in equilibrium,” so to speak, making a decision in and of itself can resolve the crisis. In other words, the process of making a decision often feels more stressful than the actual decision, even if the decision we make is the wrong one or leads to more stress in the long run.

I do feel that I made the best decision I could, and truthfully, it was a decision that I made in my head a long time ago, but I didn’t get to act on it until today. I know a lot of Americans have felt stressed and out of sync lately, and with the exception of those who voted early, today is the one day we get to really, truly, take action about it. That is a beautiful thing, because it puts the control back in our hands. Obviously I will be watching with baited breath to see the outcome, but for me personally, I feel a great sense of relief in knowing that I put in as much effort as I could to make the most informed decision I could, and that there is nothing further I can do. I am also grateful for the opportunity to play my own very small part, and grateful for the women who fought so hard for suffrage so that I am able to have my own very small piece of democracy.

What are you grateful for?

Daily Gratitude: Mondays

Okay, I know. Appreciation for bad weather is one thing, but being thankful for Mondays is just blasphemy. Truth be told, I don’t like Mondays any more than anyone else does. In fact, I may like them even less, since I work with clients with mental disabilities and schedule changes, like the weekend, can be confusing for them.

I was thinking, though, that Mondays are special not so much because of what they are, but because of who we are. On Mondays, we are our bravest. We face down our week, reluctantly, but confidently. We look it in the eyes and say, “I got this.” Mondays are the day we get to strap on a metaphorical sword and show our mettle. Life is often hardest on Mondays, which is why I believe that Monday is the day we are truly living on the edge, and thus are the most alive. So go on, you rock star, you, and get out there. You got this.

What are you grateful for?

Daily Gratitude: Imagination

lightbulb-imagination

Today I am grateful for imagination. Isn’t it a beautiful thing? It allows us to go beyond the now and to ask so many amazing questions: What if? What could be? Can it happen? Is it possible? I wonder why?

Without imagination, we would probably all be sitting in caves somewhere. We would have never thought to pick up a tool or stand on our hind legs. Perhaps we wouldn’t be able to dream at all. Imagination, in essence, is what makes us who we are, and I am so grateful to have it.

What are you grateful for?

Daily Gratitude: Tea

tea

Today, I am grateful for tea. It gets me up in the morning. It is soothing and warm and simple. It doesn’t make me jittery and it doesn’t make me crash. It is good for my body. It’s the perfect compliment to any breakfast and the perfect passenger for a morning commute. Tea is a quiet ritual that lets me start any day with a moment of peace.

What are you grateful for?

Daily Gratitude: My Dog

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I’m a few days late, but since gratitude is such an important part of happiness, and since I am terrible at practicing intentional gratitude, I’ve decided to start a gratitude series for November.

Today, I’m grateful for my dog. He let me dress him up as “Bark Vader” for Halloween, and even though he was clearly uncomfortable, he took the whole thing very seriously and stood perfectly still, letting me take as many pictures as I wanted. No worries; he was generously rewarded afterwards. I would love my dog even if he was bad and he got into things and was disobedient, but the fact that he is willing to work with me and play along with my silly antics makes me love him even more. Plus, snuggles. They’re just the best.

What are you grateful for?

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