I have a friend who is battling prostate cancer.
Despite consistently bad medical reports, he spends no time cursing his fate, complaining about his circumstances or expressing gloominess of any kind.
He is upbeat, energetic, full of good ideas and humbly solicitous of my health and happiness.
I asked him recently how he manages to keep such a positive perspective on his life. He told me that at some point in dealing with his illness, he came to realize he had no control over what had happened to him and that feeling bad about it would do him no good.
He understood he had a choice to make every day when he woke up: He could be miserable, or he could feel good. He chooses to feel good because it is the only choice that makes the days worth going through.
“Recognizing the preciousness of every day as I do now, I’d much rather be positive and get the benefit of it,” he said. “Besides, when I think back on my life – of all the things I’ve done, the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met and the love I’ve enjoyed – I can’t feel anything but grateful.”
In his book Lucky Man, actor Michael J. Fox explains that he is a better, happier person today than he was before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
He’s not the only person with a debilitating and/or incurable disease who feels that way. Sometimes it takes adversity to appreciate your blessings. Though it would be much better to start appreciating them now.
I recently read a very good book called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor of psychology. He cites numerous studies indicating that a year or so after enduring all sorts of catastrophes, from public humiliation to amputation, most people had a higher level of happiness than they felt they had before.
The Preciousness of Little Things
Typically, we take the common blessings of life – health, shelter, food and friendship – for granted. Ironically, gratefulness arrives only after these are impaired or taken away from us.
But if we can learn to practice positivity in our everyday routines, we will find ourselves feeling happier, more loving and even (if we are good at it) grateful.
That’s not a self-help platitude. It is a fact of life we have all experienced countless times. A positive change in attitude improves not only our feelings but also our behavior. And a positive change in our behavior improves nearly all the aspects of living – everything from our income to our sex lives.
We know it. But can we do it?
I think we can. Some self-help gurus recommend being grateful for the big things in life. Smiling up at the skies and thanking the gods or the universe for our health, our freedom, our wealth, etc.
I’ve tried that, but it never worked for me. It was too abstract. After a week or so, it became routine and meaningless.
I’ve had better success thinking small – i.e., being grateful for the little things. For example, here are some little things I’m grateful for:
- Graciella’s coffee in the morning. Deep, dark and rich. I don’t know how she makes it so well!
- The New York Times‘ crossword puzzle. Sundays’ are best on the front porch, looking out at the ocean.
- Friday nights with friends at my Cigar Club, a warehouse I converted into a “man cave” several years ago. The happiest nights are when, after boring ourselves silly for an hour or two, the women (our spouses) drop in to liven things up.
- Exercising daily. Two days of fitness training with John, a coach and friend I refuse to listen to. Four days of jiu-jitsu and my Sunday bike ride to the Banana Boat with Peter.
- Padron Aniversarios – simply the best cigars in the world.
- My art collection. The several hundred paintings I have hanging in every house and office I own give me daily pleasure.
- Wine. One or two glasses every night. Delicious. Soothing. And fun to learn about. (Did you know that Meritage rhymes with heritage? It’s an American coinage, not French!)
The Preciousness of Big Things
After you’ve taken time to think about some of the many little things that make your life so happy, you’ll be able to move on to the big things in a meaningful and authentic way. Think about these big ideas for a long time. Consider even writing a few pages about them every week.
- Your health. You have aches. You have pains. You may have illness and infirmity. But you also have time every day to enjoy yourself and the company of the people you love and are loved by. Be thankful for that.
- Your wealth. You haven’t hit the Forbes 400 list, but you have enough money to put clothes on your back, a roof over your head and food in your stomach.
- Your wisdom. You understand the most important things. You realize that of the gifts of life, life itself – particularly a life without pain – is the most precious.
- The love you share with friends and family members whose company you cherish.
- The potential of your imagination – your innate and inalienable ability to do what you want with your mind, which is, after all, where your life is located.
- Your work – the intellectual and emotional challenges that make your day exciting.
The Homework Assignment That Will Change Your Life
Today, if you are up for it, I’d like you to try something. And if this improves your mood, then try to make it part of your daily routine.
Spend 15 minutes doing something relaxing. Make it purposeful by choosing something that allows you to slow your mind. Take a walk while listening to soothing music or looking at nature.
Meditate, either formally or simply by sitting in a comfortable chair, closing your eyes and focusing your attention on your breathing. Count your breaths if it helps clear your mind. Do this for 10 minutes.
Then spend another minute or two getting a sense of your “here and now.” Be aware of how your body feels: your head, your shoulders, your chest and stomach – down to your toes. And pay attention, too, to the state of your mind. Are you calmer now? Doesn’t that feel good?
Then spend another minute or two thinking about all the “little” things you should be thankful for. Be aware of and grateful for the air you are breathing, the sun on your skin, your lover’s sigh, your children’s voices and the companionship of your friends.
If that works, make a resolution that, from now on, you will devote just 15 minutes a day to making that day more fulfilling by slowing down, focusing on your breathing and then contemplating all the little things that enrich your life, all those things you can enjoy only if you are willing to be grateful for them.
“Gratitude,” said Cicero, “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Think about it…