Birthdays - a time for reflection. Last year, I was horrified about being 60, it seemed so grown up. In my head, I’m still a teenager. I laugh at fart jokes and swear words, (swear words are funny, ok?) my husband’s dad jokes on Facebook, daft things with my kids and five year old grandson. I still love rock music, including some new (ish) stuff, although I’m hopelessly out of touch with what’s new. I will get up and dance round my handbag at a family do. Yes, I know teenagers don’t do that any more, but that’s what I did, so it counts.
The last few years my birthday has been overshadowed because it is also the date we lost my much loved mother in law. I’m thinking today too about my own mom, who passed away at the age of 60. So I’m relieved to have made it to 61.
Counting my blessings
In the last year I’ve taken up weight training, photography and improvisational comedy. I’ve lost three stones – more than 40 lbs - and can now walk further than the length of my local High St without needing to lie down for a rest.
I’m enjoying working on developing a business, and I think, after all these years, I’ve cured myself of procrastination
I have a wonderful family who I love so much; a husband who loves me and has supported me for 40 years of marriage. A grown up son who’s worked hard to gain his engineering qualifications and I’m immensely proud of. A daughter and son in law, who are lovely parents to two beautiful children, my five year old grandson and his new baby sister.
I’m blessed with lovely extended family and supportive friends. Sisters, brothers, their families, the in laws, with all their aunts, uncles, cousins, first cousins once removed, second cousins…. There are hundreds of them. And we get to see and spend time with a fair few. Not often, but when we do, it’s usually joyous. Friends, old and new, people I worked with years ago, people I’ve met more recently, people who support other solopreneurs and entrepreneurs.
So this year, instead of cursing about my age, I’ve decided to be grateful I’m still here, getting older, loving life. I’ve been talking about gratitude as a great way to improve your mood and positivity for a while now. But something about today just made me properly feel it.
62nd year, bring it on
And then, the universe came knocking
It’s usually my husband who goes in for meaningful reflective posts on Facebook, but today it just seemed right, so I posted something similar to this in my timeline. I was in a great mood, fully happy with life. And then, just when I didn’t need a reminder of how life is short, the universe sent me one anyway.
I’d just got home from a walk, sat down with a cup of fruit tea while deciding what tasks to do next, when there was a knock at the door. A neighbour stood there. He’s lived across the road from me for almost the whole time we’ve been in this house, more than thirty years. His daughter is the same age as my son, we used to walk to school together with her and her mom. He said his wife died on Monday. She was 56 years of age.
They’d had so much to look forward to. Two years earlier, they had sold their house and were planning to move to a village in the countryside. It all fell apart when she collapsed suddenly one night and suffered brain damage. For the past two years, she had needed full time care, unable to speak, eat, walk or do anything for herself. And now she’s gone. Her daughter’s baby girl will never know her nanna growing up. There will be no mother of the bride at the wedding later this year. My neighbour has lost the happy retirement in the countryside they had both planned.
We weren’t close friends – we’d not really spent much time together since those walks to school, somehow our friendship didn’t develop into a close one and we drifted in different directions when there was no reason to spend time together. So in one respect, it won’t leave a hole in my life. But my word, what a shock. Even though I knew her quality of life wasn’t there, even though her husband recognised that, I can’t help but feel for him and his family. Such a personal tragedy.
And I know these things happen all the time, there are countless personal tragedies happening daily. I lost my parents many years ago. We all know people who’ve lost people, fathers to cancer, mothers to strokes, partners to pneumonia, even people who have lost children. But there was something about the way I was feeling yesterday, remembering my mom perhaps, and feeling relieved that I’m still here even though she’d died aged 60, this news hit me like a cold shower. It was the starkest of stark reminders that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, we need to be grateful for the good things we have in life, and don’t waste it on stuff that doesn’t matter. And definitely, don’t live for retirement. You can’t guarantee that you’ll have one.
It was also a reminder of how much I do have to be thankful for. I probably love my life now more than I ever have. I’ve counted my blessings above, so I won’t go over them again. But I will say one more thing; if there are things in your life you wish were different, don’t waste any more time wishing, take action. Do something. And I’ve said many times before, I know how hard that is, those habits are so ingrained; sometimes we even know we’re doing something from habit, but still carry on despite knowing it’s hurting us.
Start even smaller by leaving me a comment below, tell me what you’re grateful for today.
Gratitude is the healthiest emotion. If you dwell on the negative, the brain reinforces those negative emotions. The good news is that you can change how your brain thinks.
Have you ever said, 'That's how I am, I can't change'? Science used to believe this, with our limited knowledge of how the brain works. We used to think that our personality was fixed, our characteristics were fixed. But research has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and understanding of the brain has changed significantly.
I’m no scientist, but I’ve read many, many books on thinking, behaviour and habits. I’ve often come across this idea of neuroplasticity – the idea that we can change the neural pathways in our brains. Jane Ransom, in her TEDx talk, says that exercising gratitude physically remaps the brain, reforms the subconscious mind.
You can watch the TEDx talk here
To be effective it requires three elements
Feel the emotion of being grateful, really connect with it
Extend your gratitude to the people in your life. Family, friends, loved ones. For the purposes of improving things at work, extend your gratitude to those who help you at work, a colleague you’ve become friends with, a manager who helped you get promoted, someone who’s helped you learn a new task…. Even a little thing, someone who made you a coffee today, or gave you a smile as you arrived.
Like physical exercise strengthens our muscles, a gratitude exercise strengthens those new neural pathways. Ransom suggests a minimum of two weeks; I think that for the benefits to remain, the exercise needs to be more ongoing. However, it does seem that even two weeks can help you feel happier. Maybe a couple of times a week once the pathways have been set up? But every day to start with.
Ransom gives some examples from her own life of how this has helped her. Let me share a story about someone I‘m close to (no names to preserve the confidentiality). She has long had a very negative attitude towards life. Hated her job – or specifically the management and how they treated her. But was also quite negative in other areas of her life. I persuaded her to start a gratitude journal, which she did, and kept up for a year writing three things every day. I’ve noticed the difference in the way she encourages others to be less critical of themselves, and often makes supportive comments. This is such a turnaround from the previous habit of commiserating with others, moaning about life. They say misery loves company, and it so easy to fall into the trap of agreeing that life is unfair. But focusing on what she’s grateful for has helped her to be less critical of others, less down about herself and happier in life.
Get a nice notebook. Science has shown us that our brain engages differently if we write, so you'll get more benefit if you do this. No-one need see it, it's just for you. Start writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. Do this for the minimum of two weeks, but I’d encourage you to keep it up, even if only two or three times a week after the initial period.
Let me know how this goes for you in the comments below.