Posted on 07 February 2020
So here we are, finally in a new month (January always seems to drag wonderfully long, right?) but I'm also left wondering where 2020 is very quickly going to disappear to... To be honest, a lot of my slow resolutions have been ah, slow to action BUT, I’m not beating myself up about it (much) and if you too have spent afternoons watching tennis and not enough afternoons doing ‘insert New Years resolution here’, I hope you aren’t either. I actually wrote a previous blog all about the balancing act of setting resolutions while being kind to oneself, so have a read of that here.
I recently caught up with a friend who shared some wonderful knowledge she’d recently learnt from the book ‘The Resilience Project’. (Is it a self help book? Yes. Is that my favourite genre and all that I ever read? Yes. Have I actually read the book? No.) In a nutshell, my friend explained how the author (Hugh van Cuylenburg) had resigned from a teaching job at a prestigious private girl’s school in Melbourne to relocate with his partner to a village in India. Here it became obvious to him that there was a big discrepancy between the happiness levels of teenage girls he had been teaching, and the impoverished children who literally had nothing. (Spoiler alert, the children with nothing came out on top.)
It’s a common revelation but he managed to narrow it down to three very actionable mindsets in order to shift this developed-country-happiness-void toward a developing-country-everyday-joy, and now teaches his research nation-wide to help all Australians become mentally healthy.
The first is to practice gratitude. Yes, you would have heard this before as an antidote to despair, disappointment or just lack of life satisfaction - but there’s a reason it’s doing the rounds on all things mindfulness, joyfulness and anything-else-positive-fulness.
The idea is to focus on what you already have right now at this very instant, and be thankful for what it brings to your life. I am eating a health bar this very instant and I’m thankful that despite being past it’s use by date and containing dates (my being allergic to dates) it is still satiating my 3:30-itis and I think it was on sale. The antithesis of gratitude? Wishing for x, y, z and thinking it would make you immeasurably happy if you obtained it. If only I was eating a health bar that didn’t contain dates and didn’t taste like foot - then I would eat it all day long, be enviably fit and look like Kirsty Godso! Cue, despair, disappointment and lack of life satisfaction.
So here’s the action to practice gratitude on a daily basis. Find a cute notebook or a whiteboard or some space in your diary and commit (YES COMMITMENT IS A NECESSARY INGREDIENT TO CHANGING BEHAVIOUR AND MENTAL FORTITUDE SO I RECOMMEND EMBRACING IT AND NOT RUNNING AWAY FROM IT LIKE A 16 YEAR OLD BOY ASKED TO GO STEADY WITH A GAL HE’S BEEN SEEING FOR 3 WEEKS) to writing down any number of things you are thankful for during the course of your day, and be as specific as you can.
I use a little whiteboard in my living room and I pass it frequently (it’s also on the way to the kitchen so, like, really frequently), so I’m reminded to add things each time. I write things as productive as ‘finished draft lookbook’ to things as seemingly insignificant as ‘ate a homemade lunch from leftover ingredients!’. As well as being specific, I find that putting an exclamation mark makes most things sound like an achievement and exciting! Start the list anywhere your eyeballs will view it frequently, because otherwise it will become just another tedious task you end up resenting and beating yourself up about when you don’t do it.
The second thing is to develop empathy.
Empathy is basically putting yourself in others’ shoes to fully understand and appreciate their feelings/situation. There’s a common quote that says ‘be kind, for everyone you know is fighting their own battle.' Remember back in 2002 when forwarding emails with long, meaningful stories to your entire contact list was a thing? (Also answering quizzes like ‘do you prefer your toilet paper over or under?’.) Well, one of those stories is firmly etched in my mind.
It paints a picture of a father on a train with his three children who are running around wildly bumping into people, yelling and shrieking as if they were in a playground. The other passengers in the carriage are giving ‘the look’, you know the one - a mix of disapproval and annoyance tied into one big ‘when I’m a parent…’ judgement train. Since the father shows no sign of containing his children, one especially aggravated lady turns to him and asks ‘Why aren’t you even TRYING to make your children behave?!’ To which the father looks up, brushes his face with his sleeve, and mutters ‘ah, I’m sorry… I didn’t even… My wife just passed away and we’re on our way to the hospital.’
I mean, talk about putting your bloody foot, ankle and leg in it. I never want to be that person, or anyone else on that carriage who was casting eyes of judgement, but to be honest, I have. While things have changed dramatically and will continue to in this big, wide world, empathy is one thing we seem to have let go of far too easily. Keyboard warriors are one recent development - the fact that so many people find the time to post negative comments about others ranging from a laugh at someone’s expense, to derogatory comments targeting physical appearance, all the way through to death threats, just shows how we have forgotten that there is a face with feelings - a life - behind every account.
The action to develop empathy then, is not just to avoid being the twat in situations like that above - it’s to go out of our way to be the good guy. It’s to make an effort to see crap situations and offer your hand. Will it be inconvenient? Probably, but that never stopped a midnight Maccas run. Will it cost you something? Likely - time perhaps, a missed train or a fiver. Will it make you a better human being? Yassssssssssssss. The crazy thing is that the more aware we are of others hurts and are able to contribute in some small way, the better we end up feeling about ourselves! If you hated everyone else in the world, you could still develop empathy for your own selfish motive and indirectly make the world a better place.
And lastly, be present.
This one got me good. I’m a massive over thinker. If only I’d done this yesterday… What if I don’t finish this by tomorrow? Do I even deserve to go out for dinner tonight? What I’m trying to practice is to become increasingly aware of this very moment in time. Yes, I will have cook dinner at some point because that health bar was only 50g, but right now, I’m kinda on a roll with my word vomit and I’m smashing out a big task on my to-do list by writing this blog. Being present has a lot to do with focus, for me anyway. I find when I can be present, I get stuff done and I enjoy myself more when I’m away from work, and I stress less. When I’m present I can enjoy the sunshine rather than power walking to get to the next thing, or I can happily wait for the water to boil rather than trying to use that time to reply an email.
Time and time again the research shows that happiness is found in the smallest of things, and sure enough, the smallest things are only really visible when you’re fully present.
Action? Slow down. I’m all about productivity and getting stuff done, but not at the expense of experiencing life itself. I gave up multi-tasking ages ago because I don’t believe it’s possible to focus properly on two things at once, so that’s a good way to start. When you make your next coffee, don’t try to scroll Instagram while it’s spitting out brown water, just watch it, smell it and enjoy the process of making it. When dinner has finished and you find yourself seated opposite someone, start a conversation rather than whipping your phone out of your pocket. Even with the tennis on tv during long summer nights, I find myself scrolling Instagram while watching - which isn’t even possible!
So there you have it, my take on a book I haven’t even read. I hope I sparked some curiosity to inspire a positive change for your day to day. We’re all trying to do our best, I know, and more often than not, I find we don’t necessarily have to ADD things to our lives to discover what’s best for us - we actually need to take things away. With the Australian bushfire season still raging across our beloved country, it’s good to remember that we have plenty to be thankful for and that we have much to give to those that need us. Thank you for contributing to the Red Cross disaster relief fund through all the profits from Theo’s January sales and I hope you and your family are safe, hopeful and full of everyday joy.