Friday, June 16, 2006

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0205 - Gratitude Project

A dear and long-time friend called today just to see how I was doing. We talked about my progress in recovering from post-operative complications, about beginning my chemotherapy, about diet and nutrition (John, you're a veritable alternative pharmacist!), and even a bit about emotional health, optimism, etc.

We are also planning some outings together for hikes along the Bruce Trail. I had to explain that walking is just about all I can do for physical exercise during the next few months. But there are areas on the Bruce Trail that are easier than others, so we'll start easy and see what we can do about more challenging trails after I've completed chemotherapy.

I told John about my most recent reading material. I downloaded Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness and have visited his University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology web site several times.

Tonight I was reading his chapter on Satisfaction about the Past. One of the exercises he recommends for those challenged with negative thoughts about their past is a 20-day diary in which you look back over the past 24 hours and list 5 things about your life for which you are grateful. The trick is to take 2 online tests first and then repeat those same tests at the end of the 20 days. The itemizing of things for which one is grateful doesn't take very long, so he has found that many people continue to do the exercise long after the 20 days has expired.

I did the Satisfaction with Life Scale test and the General Happiness Scale test and recorded my results (you need to register on the site to keep an online record of your results, complete with statistics showing breakdowns by gender, age, education level, occupation, and geography).

I then completed the gratitude exercise. Even a single diary entry was instructive. It was so easy to find 5 things for which I am grateful. But the interesting thing is that I don't generally focus on such things during a typical day. Part of that may be because I have felt somewhat betrayed by my illness for the past few months. That's natural, but it is more likely that I have a typically negative way of thinking about past experiences that prejudices deriving positive emotions from those reflections.

Seligman himself tends to inhabit the pessimistic half of the scale, but he employs his own exercises to push his thinking towards more optimistic and rewarding emotions. The gratitude exercise is a simple, effective way to begin re-evaluating and actually creating positive emotions from past life experiences.

One of the things I most appreciate about Seligman's writing is that he doesn't just offer simple self-help exercises and pop-psychology maxims. He places his recommendations within the context of solid research and historical context.

For instance, in the chapter I was reading tonight, he examined the influence of Darwin, Marx, and Freud as well as the Freudian, behaviourist and cognitive psychology movements in which his positive psychology research is situated. When I have those larger contextual outlines in place, I am far more likely to be movitated to involve myself in the exercises recommended. But it also helps to have friends like John who remind me that there is more to battling cancer that treatment, food, and exercise. How we think matters too.
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1 comment:

JohnK said...

So glad I can make a positve impact on your life, however minor. It is a virtuous circle and blesses us both. Looking forward to the hiking in a few weeks.
To others reading this blog the original book I suggested to Don is: Learned Optimism by: Martin E. P. Seligman. It is a gem of a book that combines scholarly research, and experiment with high quality thought on the practical aspects of the optimism/pessimism issue. I still highly reccomend it.