Welcome to episode nine. Today, I’m going to focus on a fundamental aspect of wellbeing: Gratitude.
Last week, it was my youngest daughter’s 20th Birthday. I know what you’re thinking… I couldn’t possibly be old enough… Thank you, you’re too kind! But seriously, this Birthday was particularly important, because we are, as a family, so, so lucky!
When I was pregnant with Hannah, my husband and I were told at the 20-week scan that she had a heart condition so rare, so complex and so life threatening that there was nobody alive over the age of 20 with her condition in the entire world. We were told she would have a miserable life, spent mostly in and out of hospital, and were advised to consider a termination. Instead, Hannah received life-saving cutting-edge surgery that hadn’t even been dreamt of 40 years ago, when those rare surviving 20-year-olds of 1999 were born.
Hannah in intensive care after her first open heart surgery in September 2000.
None of us can know what the future holds, but right now, today, I am hugely grateful that my daughter is 20 years old. She is happy, she is as healthy as she can be, and she is pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor, currently in her second year of studying medicine.
Both my daughters were born with complex, life-threatening heart conditions – different heart conditions, just to keep us on our toes! Between them, they’ve had three open heart surgeries and two cardiac arrests. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel an immense sense of gratitude for their everyday lives. On their birthdays, in particular, or on anniversaries of traumatic days in our family’s life, I feel this more poignantly than ever, but it’s always there, as a reminder of what truly matters in life and how lucky we are as a family.
I’ve had strange looks from time to time when I’ve told people that I’m grateful for my daughters’ heart conditions, but how could I not be? Their heart conditions have given them a unique perspective on life and led to them making much safer choices than many of their contemporaries when they were in their teens. They have an appreciation for everyday life that many of us would be lucky to have by the time we are middle aged or older. They have a sense of perspective that many of us needed decades longer to develop. In many ways, of course, they are typical 20-somethings, insofar as there is a ‘typical’ anything. They are both extraordinary and ordinary in every way that matters, and the fact that I can sit here talking about it despite every obstacle that has come our way over the years is worth celebrating, in my opinion.
I find gratitude fascinating – and I am not alone, given how much it has been researched – as it is both an emotion and a character strength. As an emotion, it can be very positive, but of course, there are times when gratitude can have negative or worrying connotations, if it carries with it a sense of indebtedness or a fear of loss, for example, but when practised intentionally it can be a powerful positive psychology intervention. As a character strength, gratitude is a bit like a muscle we can flex and strengthen, so the more we practise it, the better we get at it.
Martin Seligman, often referred to as ‘the Founding Father of Positive Psychology’, has carried out extensive research into gratitude. He found that if you write down ‘three good things’ every evening before going to bed for a week, you can be happier and/or less depressed for six months. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty amazing, so why not give it a try? I did a case study on this in a school I worked with – link here – and found that even in young children, the positive effects were almost instant and lasted beyond the intervention itself. Their teacher told me that writing a gratitude diary helped his students’ behaviour, class cohesion and co-operation, and lifted individuals who needed a boost.
I will speak about gratitude in more detail in future episodes, as there are plenty more activities I’d like to share with you, but for today, our time is just about up. So I invite you to write down three good things for a week, and to do this activity with your students, too. Let me know what impact it has! And as always, until we speak again, For Flourishing’s Sake, have a great week!