Thursday, 1 February 2018

Gratitude

Published in Shetland Life magazine in February 2018 entitled "Count your blessings"

Editorial: Bryan Peterson is perhaps better known as a party animal than a self-help guru. In recent years, however, he has developed a more reflective approach to life which he will be sharing with our readers over the coming months.  In the first of a series of occasional columns, Bryan shares some of the tips which have been beneficial for his own well-being.

I’ve always been quite happy and healthy, but nowadays I’m even more so due to some practical peerie adjustments to my habits that I’ll be detailing in this and future articles. I don’t proclaim to be an authority on health and wellbeing and I don’t expect you’ll reach nirvana through my ramblings, but I hope you find something useful.

I led a fairly carefree life up to my mid 30s and from what I can remember, I had a great time. I got a good education, enjoyed my work, toured with bands, pubbed, clubbed and partied, ate rubbish, smoked, and generally farted around and laughed a lot. I wasn’t irresponsible, I just didn’t have many responsibilities.

Throughout these decades of genial hedonism, I never worried about the long-term consequences to my mental or physical health: I was too busy pushing my constitution as far as it would let me. But I knew I’d have to calm it down at some point.

Five years ago, in my mid 30s, my partner and I bought a house in the country which we intended to renovate. Everything was looking rosy. But I failed to adjust my decadent habits to these more settled circumstances and as a result of some poor decisions and bad luck I found myself single, skint, living on a building site with no heating or hot water, and without transport. A particular low point of this dispiriting situation was the water tank bursting and wrecking much of the renovation work I’d completed. Hmm, I thought, this wasn’t part of the plan (not that I actually had one)…

For several months, I struggled to remain positive or see a way forward. I could feel a bleak introspective despondency gradually taking hold, a feeling I was completely unfamiliar with. I knew I had to dust myself off and get on with it. After all, I had to think about my pal Theo’s welfare too - he was only a kitten at the time and was reliant on me. So I made the decision to buck up and “be more positive”, although I had no idea how to go about that.

I started by writing down all the things I was grateful for, and the list grew and grew. There was the big stuff, like friends and family, a job I loved, and my health – things that up till then I’d taken for granted. And there were peerie things, like having a chat with somebody in the shop, the weather being nice or playing with Theo. All the enjoyable little bits and pieces that are individually fleeting but collectively make for a great day.

I noted that through recognising, savouring and internally celebrating all the positive things in life, I became ever more grateful and contented. I was amazed at how such a simple change of perspective could make such a positive difference to my disposition.

Taking Theo for a walk on a nice day to see the goats (the cat and I enjoy long strolls, and he likes the goats who live up the road) became a thing of modest majesty if I stopped to appreciate how winsome it was. Having mince and tatties at Mam’s house or Sunday Teas at the Eid Hall with Granny was quite simply the best things ever when I paused to think about how lucky I am to have a loving family I can share food and funs with.

All this is based on straightforward psychology and backed up by sound research. Our brains have an inherent “negativity bias” - they are programmed to be vigilant, wary and look for problems to solve. Evolution doesn’t really care whether we’re happy, as long as we’re alive. Furthermore, the brain is excellent at taking experiences for granted. When something pleasurable becomes routine, there’s no reason for the brain to carry on giving it valuable attention or space in our memory banks. There’s no time for ruminating on and remembering the simple pleasures of each cup of tea when there’s worrying to be done and survival skills to learn.

But if we make a conscious decision to focus our attention on ephemeral moments of happiness and what we are grateful for then we can positively affect our thoughts and emotions. Thinking about being happy makes us happy. Bingo!

So here are this month's tips. You’ll need a pen and paper, or a note taking app on your phone or computer.

  • Make a list of five to 10 significant things for which you are grateful. Keep the list next to your bed and read it as soon as you wake up. My list includes family, friends, my health, my home and my job. It puts me in a positive frame of mind before I'm properly awake and before any negativity or worry has time to creep into my thoughts.
  • Spend a couple of minutes every night listing everything that's made you happy that day. Aim for at least five, even if you’ve had a bad day. I do this nightly and it reminds me that things are actually pretty good, helps commit positive experiences to long-term memory and gives me a chuffed peerie glow before I go to sleep.
  • Reflect back on your list every now and again to build a picture of what actually makes you happy (rather than what you assume makes you happy) and plan to do more of those positive things. My journal lists thousands of positive experiences and by reflecting on them I’ve been inspired me to make positive changes to my habits. For example, whenever I’d woken up without a hangover on a weekend morning, I’d noted how positive and productive I felt, which motivated me to reduce my drinking. I didn’t compose music particularly regularly, but whenever I did I’d noted how much I enjoyed it, so I now make time to do that several times a week.

The beauty of these techniques is that the only investment you need to make is a couple of minutes each day (and maybe a pencil) to notice things you’re already doing, and the payback can be remarkable. I recommend you give it a bash for four weeks. I’d be delighted to hear how you get on.


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