It is the summer of 2009 and the euphoria of the election is receding. Yesterday I felt guarded optimism. Today CNN flashes news of 10 percent unemployment and roller coaster markets. A neighbor I bumped into buying batteries at the variety store shares the news about another foreclosure in our little village–a devastating blow for a family on her road. Friends I know have nightmares of wolves at their heels. Even those not imminently endangered take tender steps. And most personally for me, our nonprofit sector is especially hard hit. When we say that “charity begins at home,” it feels like “charity is staying at home.” Philanthropy now is a luxury product.
I notice, though, that we still treat our family to the movies, keep a subscription to a favorite magazine, or even buy a box of out of season raspberries before denying ourselves. These are the dollars we might otherwise spend on charity and we justify and savor these choices instead of the island vacation, or the weekend at the spa. I know that I do.
Yes, we are shaken out of our comfort zone. And yet…although extravagance has dried up with yesterday’s raindrops, charity too, is seeping back into our lives, an insistent trickle in a drying riverbed: an impulse that cannot be checked. Instead of resenting what “isn’t,” I’ve learned to nurture the good news that “is”…and have found that this act of gratitude transforms.
Good and bad will happen. The control we have is how we perceive and what we do with the events in our lives. I am far from encouraging you to be supremely brave, or unrealistically cheerful in the face of anxiety, concern or sorrow. However, I quote Abraham Lincoln, a famously sensible man who said, “You are as happy as you make up your mind to be.”
I had a front row seat to an unthinkable human drama, and give testimony to the truth of nurturing gratitude. I was a parent who received the phone call that all parents dread. It was from my son Andre’s school nurse. He was 18 at the time, and the nurse relayed a medical complaint that within hours escalated into the event that changed the life of my family. We survived the 417 days of the indescribable agony of his illness, only to lose him to an inoperable malignant brain tumor. What followed were my mother’s fatal stroke and my husband’s suicide within the same year. Even as I write this, there is an unreality to it, as if I were describing someone else’s life. Yet now, 10 years later, I believe that you can shift your state of mind if you choose to believe that you can.
You need to start by cataloguing the elements in your life that make you grateful. This simple act brings you fully into the moment, and almost immediately you can sense it creating a positive shift. Why?
There are studies that have a name for the phenomenon they call “subjective well-being” (SWB) and what can help maintain it. The components of SWB have even been measured with some scientific validity. Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, and close associate of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, agrees with their tenets. He should know, as Ricard was pronounced the “happiest man in the world” by Shift Magazine of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Extensive neuroimaging of his brain at the University of Wisconsin registered the highest level ever recorded (off the scale) in the area of the brain associated with positive emotions.
The elements identified to create and maintain happiness were identified as: expressing gratitude, positive thinking, forgiveness, acts of kindness and belief in a higher power or purpose. Contrast this with sobering research about lottery winners. Researchers of these lucky people observe what they call “hedonic adaptation” whereby the winners’ levels of happiness are only temporarily boosted. They quickly return to their baseline temperaments and at times even experience a slump.
You are as happy as you make your mind up to be. Gratitude is how I survived long enough to create our foundation. I founded the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation (ASRL) to honor my child, to make sense of my losses and to give life to a mission that I understood. ASRL helps the most unfortunate of parents, the ones with catastrophically ill children who are also single caregivers. We assist families who have run out of financial and emotional resources. Ours is a hugely necessary work that hinges on money. We don’t provide comforting teddy bears, psychological assistance, or education. We solely provide assistance funds. We save homes from foreclosures, provide food that often gets delivered to homebound parents, and prevent utilities from being shut off. The families we help are feeling the financial downturn exponentially more than most, and sadly so are organizations like ours that help them.
Like so many in our sector, our endowment plummeted just as the need for more aid began to spike. And yet…in the midst of our foundation being anxious, not only about the future of our constituency, but also about the future of charitable donations, the clouds unexpectedly parted and we received a major corporate gift. This philanthropic gift provided a river of support, allowing us to expand our work and attend to the needs of families we simply couldn’t help before. It was The Genentech Foundation who found us (we were not seeking them), and saw that we were a perfect fit with their benevolent intention. They were seeking an organization that works as we do: supporting pediatric patients with compassion, providing a 24 hour turnaround and with minimal overhead. We became the centerpiece of their newly created Everyday Needs Assistance Program.
When we received this gift, rather than just deposit the check and continue to wring our hands, I went to my little chapel and allowed gratitude to seep into my very being. I continually allow this intentional activity to make the sustainable difference to my subjective wellbeing; it always does.
With intention, we are now sharing this gift and see it rippling through communities to places like Diana’s home, where she lives with her mom, a widow, and her little brother. Even as 13-year-old, Diana faces the darkest days of her life—she has an inoperable brain tumor. She has a profound understanding of gratitude. For Diana, it is the joyfulness she feels that her mom, who she describes as “a strong and independent woman, the most amazing woman I know who has taught me everything” is with her every day. She reads to her, massages her toes and helps her feel at peace. Her gratitude is authentic and real. It springs from the deepest place of “knowing,” and it is something we can all access.
So how do we, like Diana, nurture the good and keep bad news from interfering with our sense of gratitude? It is not selfish, but wise, to safeguard the delicate balance of our emotional thermostat in favor of our SWB.
What to do with Bad News:
These days, we need to deliberately guard our frame of mind and protect our spirit. Try to edit news intentionally according to some criterion. For some reason, bad news spreads like “viral marketing.” We learn about an earthquake, train wreck, bovine or avian epidemic faster than if our next door neighbor just won the Nobel Prize.
What we can do is: read, watch and listen selectively and filter according to: is it in my power to do anything about this happening? Would I choose to change this particular event, above all others if it were possible? Am I watching this out of morbid curiosity? This type of self talk is useful. In fact, without it, we risk our equilibrium. A negative mindset can slowly creep into our subconscious, spreading slowly, like ink on a blot forming a Rorschach image of underlying hopelessness. Soon it is hard to tell when it was that we became pessimistic people. We can shore up the spirit that is within us, always at our service. It is willing to go the way you direct it.
What to do with Good News:
Good news is to be welcomed with open arms, put on a pedestal with a world built around it. When we find reasons to be grateful, they will color our organization, our day and our life. Embrace good news until it becomes the lens through which you see your world. Like the insistent impulse of charity, it will gradually take over, and become what you believe in. This will magnetize more good news, until there is no need to make the effort of seeing the cup half full, because it is full.
by Valerie Sobel