There were many wonderful aspects about my childhood. We lived in the forest with dogs and cats and pet bunny rabbits. That was heaven. But the negative effects of my childhood crept up on me around age 30 in the form of self-pity and bad behavior. I was destructively acting out, behaving badly, blaming my own behavior on my family. Hmm, I was confused. Living at the time in New York City, I did what confused New Yorkers do.
I went to see a shrink. Psychotherapy going all the way back to Freud was based on an interesting theory. So the psychotherapist was a nice person but she didn’t know what we know today about the brain. All the way back to Freud was based on the theory that if you kept digging at the roots of a psychological problem you could eventually yank it out like a weed as though the brain were a sort of flower pot.
Now there was never any real scientific evidence to support this flower pot theory. But for nearly a century most psychotherapy was based on it. So the psychotherapist had me endlessly dig up bad memories, dredge up old traumas, pull up old pain, dwell, dwell, dwell on a negative.
Today neuroplasticity shows us that when we dwell on the negative we reinforce those negative brain cell connections, making ourselves more negative.
Finally, this time in my late 30s, a friend came to the rescue once again. My friend Steven taught me a gratitude exercise. Gratitude saved my life. Gratitude has kept me happy ever since. It will do the same for you.
I still do my daily exercise. Each day I say out loud my gratitude. I’m grateful for this, I’m grateful for that. It turns out there is so much. For example, my mother, for all her faults, was an extraordinary woman, determined to realize her intellectual ambition, to realize herself. I too want to embrace my intellectual passions. I thank my mother for being brave enough to follow her own dream.
My father, for all his failures, was at heart a deeply kind man. He befriended many of the psychiatric patients he met while visiting my brother whenever Toby got himself locked up in the state mental hospital.
Also, my dad loved us children, sane or not, unconditionally. There’s no gift more precious. I thank my dad for teaching me kindness and love.
Even my schizophrenic brother — our parents have passed away and although Toby and I live in different parts of the country, I help take care of him. My other oldest brother Farley helps even more. Farley has my gratitude. Together we manage Toby’s clothing; we shop for him online. His finances, his grocery deliveries, his household repairs — every week I phone Toby. We talk. He tells me that our friendship keeps him steady enough to avoid getting locked up again in the mental hospital.
Can you imagine how satisfying it is to be able to provide friendship to someone for whom it makes all the difference? What amazed me those many years ago when I began practicing gratitude was how my mood, my thoughts, and my behavior, all improved; gratitude replaces victimhood with joy; no more self-pity, just an infinite supply of things to be grateful for.
Today neuroplasticity reveals how a consistent gratitude exercise works to physically remap the connections among our brain cells to literally reform the subconscious mind, if we use the three keys: emote, extend, exercise. Say it with me: emote, extend, exercise.
Research has shown the power of a simple exercise called the Three Blessings. You can do this. At the end of the day, simply write down and appreciate three things that went well that day. For example, did you learn something new, maybe at a TEDx conference? Perhaps you shared a lovely meal with your family. Remember, extend the gratitude to include other people.
It’s easy to think of just three things, and as you write them down, take a moment to emote, to feel grateful for each one. Research shows that if you do this exercise every day for at least two weeks, you will become much happier. But don’t stop after two weeks. The point is to keep exercising.
There are many ways to exercise. You might choose to write down your gratitude list as in the three blessings. Or maybe like me, you prefer to speak a longer gratitude list out loud or sing your gratitude or dance to it. What matters is that you do your exercise.
How many of you are willing to commit to doing a daily gratitude exercise for at least two weeks? Nice. Let’s start right now together.
If you would please close your eyes, close your eyes and bring into your mind someone you’re grateful for. It could be someone close to you – a parent or a child, a friend or a spouse. It could be someone you’ve never met who’s writing or art or political courage inspires you. Consider the preciousness of what they’ve given you, whether it’s encouragement, wisdom, love. As that feeling of gratitude grows stronger within, allow yourself to smile — to smile with deep gratitude, to feel it in your body. It makes me grateful to see your smiles.
You may open your eyes now. Can you feel the joy in the room? Yeah.
When you practice gratitude, you change yourself. And when you change yourself, you change the world.