I’m grateful to be reaching sixty, as I’ve said in earlier blogs, and the photo I post with each blog reflects some aspect of my gratitude. I’ve drawn inspiration from the photographer Hailey Bartholomew and her wonderful 365Grateful project which has influenced people all over the world and is now being made into a film.
So is optimism born or bred – is gratitude learnt or just a given? I consider myself an optimistic person who is enthusiastic and outgoing – but I wasn’t always that way. In fact I was a serious and anxious child who was under-confident and often lonely. I’ve always been curious however and my curiosity lead me to escape into a world of books and ideas as a child and teenager where I discovered there are many ways to view the world.
As a teenager, the late sixties offered a glorious panorama of new ideas and ways of being. Apart from the music and sexual freedom there was a feeling of hope that the ills of humanity could be addressed. Philosophy –Eastern and Western – and the politics of social justice were seeping into everyday conversation. Although much of what was dreamt was lost in the self indulgence of the era, seeds of change took root in the beginnings of environmentalism and feminism. The ideas that the resources of the world are finite and that women were worthy of equality seemed radical back then, but are mainstream now. Although many would argue that too little progress has been made, at least such ideas are debated widely in political forums, rather than being seen as hippie ideals.
Through involvement with these ideas I learnt that I do have do a choice in the way I respond to what happens around me. The way I think determines how I act. It’s not that I’ve denied pain I’ve felt when life fell apart, it’s just that if I found some things to be grateful for it was easier to accept change. When I was totally broke as a single mother of two, someone advised me to allow myself small treats – a bunch of flowers or some stolen time with a poem. It worked a treat.
It was when I read Martin Seligman’s book ‘Learned Optimism’ that I began to understand that optimism – and gratitude – are attitudes that can be practiced and learnt, helping adults’ wellbeing and childrens’ resilience. It was when I noticed one of my children tended to catastrophise events that I went looking for ways to help. Seligman’s positive psychology research identified that being able to explain misfortune as something temporary and specific (it was just this situation – maybe next time it will be better) was the essence of the ‘art of hope’. It is hope that enables people to work through adversity.
He also explained how a mother’s modelling was extremely influential in children learning these skills if they were not fortunate enough to be born happy-go-lucky. So I watched how I explained events to my kids. We also played a game as I tucked them up at night – thinking of one thing that happened that day that was good. Sometimes on very bad days my tucking them in may have been that one thing! Yes gratitude seems simplistic in times of tragedy – but most of life’s disappointments are small and passing. And although there is much to despair about in the world, despair doesn’t change anything. It’s hope that enables us to act.
Over this past decade as I’ve learnt more about Buddhism, I’ve come to see mindfulness as linked to gratitude. The mindful art of contentment – beginning with what is – right here right now – even if I don’t like it or plan to change it. Mindfulness opens my eyes to what I have to be grateful for. So one thing I’m grateful for right now is meeting Hailey, who has recently done a photo shoot for my family and captured us so beautifully. Here’s one of her photos. Thanks Hailey and good luck with the film.