You may have heard about a tidying-up phenomenon known as Marie Kondo. Marie is a Japanese lady who wrote a book about throwing away things that don’t “spark joy“, and rolling up your socks so you can have a pristine sock drawer. I have to confess I am not a Kondo convert and I doubt I will ever be, even though the state of my sock drawer suggests that I probably should. But I want to tell you about another way to change your life. And it does involve sparking joy.
Some five months ago or more I decided to introduce one new positive habit a week. Simple things. Drink more water. Go to bed early. Do ten pushups in the morning. And practise gratitude. I stopped doing the pushups recently, but gratitude has changed my life.
Instead of saying “I’m grateful for…” (which sounded a bit naff to me) I started with “Thank you for…” At first it was hard. I did this first thing in the morning as I opened my eyes. I couldn’t find much to be thankful for initially. My job was stressful, I felt overwhelmed constantly and the mornings were dark and laden with the promise of dragging kids out of bed, sheperding them through breakfast, getting ready for school, finding hats and jumpers and water bottles and signing excursion permission slips. I groaned in anticipation.
As a GP I’ve seen a bit more of what life can do to a person. I’ve cared for people with MS, people dying from brain tumours and all kinds of debilitating cancers, with traumatic brain injuries. I had a patient who was born with no eyes. Others were born without legs or arms. Some were paralysed in accidents. I’ve looked into the eyes of people with advanced motorneurone disease and seen fatigue, desperation, or sometimes, acceptance.
So I started with what I was familiar with. “Thank you for my legs that work,” I said, wiggling my toes. “Thank you for my eyes that can see,” I said, looking at the ceiling. And then I wondered what it would be like not to see my children every morning. Or not be able to pick them up when they needed me. Or if I had been given six months to live and my children would be left motherless. And then I got out of bed and got on with the day.
It went on like this for months. Always starting with the physical. Then something amazing happened. I started to be grateful at other times of the day. Spontaneous gratitude for simple moments like seeing a sunrise. Walking. Hearing the chirping conversations between my two gorgeous children. A warm hug at night. A welcoming house, lights on and children’s laughter wafting out, as I came home after a long day. Beach days. A smile from a stranger. Getting a seat on the bus. Walking down a peaceful street without being caught in a civilian war. Stretching. At these really simple everyday moments I found myself stopping to cherish the sweetness of being alive. I’m still here. Still kicking goals. Still got another day on this Earth – what a gift!
These amazing effects on my mental health are also backed by scientific evidence. Fascinating research suggests that as little as 12 weeks of practising gratitude improves mental health and happiness, and even changes your brain. I’m a walking science experiment!
Gratitude has given me the ability to let go of my rumination and not get caught up in negative spirals. Gratitude has given me the gift of mindfulness as well – I am attentive to the little joys. I find myself noticing a lot. A tiny bird in a tree. Pink clouds draped across the sky. The perfect grin on my five year old. I’m also able to get going on difficult days like today. It was raining buckets in Sydney and I had to walk to the bus stop. I was super grateful for the Wellington boots that kept my feet dry, to my cousin for suggesting the Wellington boots. And that kept me going through the wet walk when on other days I would have been fuming about the rain and arrived at the bus stop in a foul mood.
It won’t change your life overnight, but things will start to change with a simple daily practice. Wishing you plenty of joy, and hopefully, neat socks too. x