The way to get through tough times?
Start with advanced gratitude.
When Sunil Jain sang “kisi ki muskurahaton pe ho nisaar” (to sacrifice everything for a smile) at a 'Bathroom Singers' Musical event titled 'From Mug to Mike' in Bengaluru recently, it could so easily have been his ode to life and all things bittersweet. Singing is a passion for Jain, who hopes to get into playback singing next and even try scuba diving soon. So what's the big deal, really? Jain also happens to be wheelchair-bound. His disability, he says, has actually led him to discover his own special abilities so it is something he has always been grateful for. “After doing my chartered accountancy (CA), all the places I applied to rejected me, saying the job would be too physically challenging,” he recalls. So Jain started his own accountancy firm. Now he has seven people working at his firm.
Jain, you see, is one of those people who believes that we must embrace whatever life throws at you and convert them into opportunities. And in that, he is very like American editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsey. When Ramsey put together a list of things he was grateful for, his two Pulitzer Prize nominations didn't make the cut. So what did? His first job after college as a high school janitor; the recession that forced him into part-time work; a melanoma diagnosis; all the people who didn't believe in him. Every one of those terrible twists, he explains, was responsible for a blessing. That job led him to his future wife, the daughter of a fellow janitor; getting laid off gave him the time to launch a second career in book illustration and radio; and his cancer diagnosis spurred him to help save hundreds of lives by organizing a series of runs to raise melanoma awareness.
In Jain's case, being stricken with polio when he was a mere 18 months old, led him to harness his ability to open up to experiences and live joyfully. “Life and people, I accept both, imperfections intact, whole and complete,” he stresses.
Jain and Ramsey, are prime examples of what might be called advanced gratitude: the ability to identify and appreciate the bad events or circumstances in your life because of what you've gained from them. Studies have found that gratitude is a prevailing, if counterintuitive, emotion among people who have been through trauma or among breast cancer survivors, people with spinal cord injuries, even, post-9/11 Americans.
Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and founder of Mindtemple in Mumbai, points out: “Being thankful and appreciating others and our surroundings helps us cope with life situations because we don't fall into a self-pity zone. And it also stops us from blaming others/ external factors for problems in our lives. Gratitude also reduces greed and expectation which are two most common factors leading to stress, disappointment and negative emotions”.
Clearly, you don't become grateful for difficulties overnight (and rarely in the throes), but once you do, you're privy to some amazing alchemy that will allow you to heal what hurts and see the victory that's often at the center of every seeming defeat. It also boosts what one leading expert calls your psychological immune system, and it may even physically alter your brain so that gratitude isn't just something you feel occasionally but guides how you approach life.
And it starts with making a habit of appreciating what you have, what you've lost, and what your life would be like if fate hadn't nudged you this way or that.
Here are three steps to work your way into advanced gratitude.
1. ESTABLISH A GRATITUDE BASELINE
Before you achieve advanced gratitude, get in the habit of being thankful for your good fortune. "If we train ourselves to look for the gifts when life is going well, it will be easier to spot them during the rough times," says Robert Emmons, PhD, director of the Emmons Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, and arguably, the leading gratitude researcher in the US. Dr Chhabria explains that by learning to be grateful more, you can change the way you approach any situation. “It is a way of removing your emotional, mental biases, blocks, presumptions, assumptions,” she says.
Numerous studies have found that people who keep journals or make lists of what they're thankful for are happier, more optimistic, more energetic, and nicer to other people than those who don't. Their physical health blossoms, too. That is something Prabha Chandra, Prevention columnist, psychiatrist at NIMHANS, Bengaluru and her colleagues at the Positive Psychology Group, Center for Well-Being, NIMHANS, have also found. “Keeping a journal of positive experiences, writing a letter of gratitude, etc are among methods used in well-being therapy to enhance positivity and balance it against unavoidable negative experiences,” says Dr Chandra.
Dr Emmons found that people who created weekly gratitude lists exercised 90 minutes more, on average, than a control group who tracked their hassles. And grateful people had less pain, slept an hour longer, and woke up feeling more refreshed, according to other research. Dr Chhabria agrees. “Meditation and yoga can definitely help you relax and reduce stress levels. But to be thankful, you must start with conscious awareness. Begin your day by being thankful to each and everyone around you who will make a difference in your day.”
But don't overdo it. Counting your blessings via journaling just three times a week can help you build a strong, positive attitude, but doing it any more than that can backfire, according to studies by University of California, Riverside, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD. "You adapt to it so it's no longer as effective," she says.
2. RETRAIN YOUR OWN BRAIN
What matters is how you process events, emotions and experiences. In fact, tying thoughts of gratitude to the stressful events in your life may even change your neural pathways. A long-accepted concept in neuropsychology is that "neurons that fire together wire together." So when your stress neurons fire, make your gratitude
neurons do so, too; this helps the two types connect with each other so that when stress hits, it will be easier for you to find something to be grateful for.
Gratitude can counteract the many damaging effects of stress on the body, even improving heart health, found one study published this year in the journal Psychological Science. Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that people who regularly practiced loving-kindness meditation, which promotes love and compassion toward oneself and others, improved in one measure of heart health--better tone in their vagus nerve, which extends from the brain stem to the gut and regulates heart rate, breathing, and the relaxation response.
While these studies are generating intense interest in the West now, it has been intrinsic knowledge in India with its strong tradition of yoga and meditation. A 2008 study at the Integral Health Clinic of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) New Delhi, underlined that fact. The study published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, showed that the daily practice of 'asanas', 'pranayama', other breathing techniques, relaxation techniques ('shavasana' and meditation), along with a healthy lifestyle, left the study participants (77 men and women ranging in age from 19 to 76 years), experiencing increased subjective wellbeing. They felt “more interest in their lives, perceived it as functioning smoothly and joyfully”, they reported better crisis-handling skills, their physical health improved. They were happier and felt a sense of oneness with their surroundings. Consequently, they were more grateful for the happiness and good things in their lives, the study notes.
Of course, to create any lasting changes in the brain--the kinds that will make thankfulness your default emotion, protect you from the ravages of stress, and increase your resilience--you need to hammer it home by practicing gratitude not only frequently but with considerable emotional intensity. “Don't just be thankful for that beautiful sunset,” says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, the author of Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha's Brain. "Sit with it for 20 seconds straight, be open to the feelings in your body when you see it. Feel the positive emotions related to gratitude that come up--the feeling of being glad that you're alive, grateful for your connection with other people, your sense of awe. To build up neural encoding, it really helps to feel the emotion in your body--and even allow it to become intense." Dr Chhabria adds: “Only when you consciously think about things you should be thankful about, will you slowly start appreciating everything and feel content with your life.”
3: REMEMBER THE HARD STUFF
On the other hand, if you have trouble coming up with reasons to be grateful or even appreciate, what you have now, look at how Mariam Gonsalves (*name changed), a Mumbaiite, lives her life. On holiday in Goa, she saw her father and younger sister drown in a freak accident. She was a teenager then. Gonsalves had to break the news to her mother (who had not accompanied them on that trip). “I grew up that day, learnt to drive a car, got a job...my carefree college life was over.” Gonsalves is today deputy head of a travel agency and, ironically enough, in the business of arranging happy experiences and holidays for other people.
But she is not bitter or filled with sorrow. She grieves but remembers her father and sister with love, every day. “I was always a daddy's girl. Losing him has brought me closer to my mom. Dad was the breadwinner, now I go out to work. But thanks to him, we have our own house, there are no loans to pay off,” says Gonsalves.
Imagining the absence of something good, it turns out, is even more effective at making us thankful than remembering our own good fortune. It builds up your resilience muscles, too, so you not only cope well, but you're also able to find the good no matter how hidden it seems to be. "Gratitude is an element of resilience in that it helps us recover from adversity," Dr. Emmons says. It's part of a person's psychological immune system that helps convert tragedy into opportunity: "The ability to see the elements of one's life and even life itself as gifts is essential for this. Suffering can be a reason for gratefulness in that it shatters our illusions of self-sufficiency. . .and teaches us what's truly important."
Gonsalves and people like her bounce back after trauma, an ability psychologists call post-traumatic growth, a positive transformation that can occur when people go through serious stress, such as a chronic illness, an injury, or disaster. At the same time, Dr Chandra and her colleagues at the NIMHANS Positive Psychology Group believe there is no easy formula to change tragedy into opportunity. “Any effort to bring about a positive outcome from tragic experiences should begin by facilitating acknowledgement and acceptance of the tragic event as well as the ensuing distress. Resilience is not a capsule that can be applied at the time of tragedy. But it can be gradually cultivated,” Dr Prabha Chandra emphasizes.
There are lessons learned and lives remade better than before.
Marshall Ramsey admits that after his ordeals, he usually threw himself a "pity party." But over time, he began to notice the pattern: Whatever he thought of as the worst thing that had ever happened to him usually turned into something positive.
"After getting a cancer diagnosis, I came to appreciate life a lot more. I've given my mortality a big old kiss," he jokes. "Now, with this gift of hindsight, when something bad happens and I stop and say, 'What's the good in this?' I've found that sometimes, the worst moment of your life turns out to be the best. I'm thankful that I now know that."
Gonsalves has periods when she is terribly low, when she wants to rail against the world for what happened to her family. Then something occurs to make her see things differently. “Recently, my mother was ill and I was frantic. I could not focus on work. She is well again and now, more than ever, I am grateful for our continued good health and happiness,” adds Gonsalves.
In Sunil Jain's case, there is everyday learning. He was married once, to a fellow CA, who was wheelchair-bound like him. But she passed away of a massive heart attack. He cherishes their short time together. “My unique challenges mean that every day, when I venture outside, I need to think practically--is that building accessible, is there a lift? If there isn't, I ask for help. Simple. And always someone is ready to help,” he stresses. The recent amateur musicians' night in Bengaluru is an example--his fellow participants lifted him onto the stage so he could sing.
In his spare time, Jain works as a transformational speaker and mentor. And he runs a non governmental organization called Astha in Bengaluru to help the differently abled explore their full potential. Right now, he is running a campaign to enable the differently abled to vote in the coming General Elections. “Never think that a bodily disability or a bad experience, a bad time, is a constraint,” is his mantra.
Truly, anything is possible when you embrace all experiences--Jain, Ramsey and Gonsalves are living proof of that.
(This is an article I co-authored for the April 2014 issue of Prevention India magazine. I wrote the Indian portions)