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Happiness Parenting Positive Potential Relationships

Thanksgiving and the Power of Appreciation

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What’s your favourite holiday?

If you ask kids this month, they are likely to answer “Hallowe’en!”

Mine is Thanksgiving.

Like Christmas, it’s a time we can gather with our loved ones and express appreciation for one another, but unless you’re American – or a Canadian who celebrates Black Friday, Thanksgiving does not require a frenzy of shopping.

And if you’re lucky enough to celebrate with a big family feast, you’re not likely to gain as much weight or drink too much as with the traditions of Christmas.

Thanksgiving prompts us to collectively reflect on the good in our lives – the many important people and things we take for granted. We don’t do this often enough.

The human brain has a natural negativity bias.

We notice more what is wrong than what is good.

We are attuned to pick up on things that are out of place or we just don’t like – in our environment, in others and in our selves. Noticing potential dangers or longing for things we lack had great survival value for our species but can make us overly anxious when our lives are generally safe – and unsatisfied when we really have enough.

Our negativity bias is great for business. What we have seems not enough, we crave for the new iPhone, new clothes and expensive rides. Consumerism capitalizes on our dissatisfaction with what we have and the commercial world convinces us that happiness is to be found in looking better and having more.

We can only be happy when we appreciate what we have today.

Our negativity bias, when it highlights danger and challenge and ignores our personal resources, can make us anxious. When it highlights what is wrong in our lives and ignores what is right, it can make us depressed.

That negativity bias is bad for relationships. Because children hear more criticism than complements, it erodes self-esteem and how they feel about their parents. When couples hear more words of complaint than affection, aversion overpowers attraction.

As a rule of thumb, the human brain must perceive five positives just to balance with one negative. I’ve asked couples and parents to come up with five positive comments for every criticism they express at home. They at first realize that it becomes such an effort to come up with so many positive comments that they hold their tongues with the negatives.

But in modern neuroscience, we know that we can change the way we think. As Canadian neuropsychologist, Donald Hebb said, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Once we start looking for more positives in others, the more we will see.

And when everyone in the family starts hearing more complements than criticisms, their relationships will improve and the home can become a haven of positive affection.

The gift of Thanksgiving is the power of appreciation. It’s an attitude and a perspective that can foster personal happiness and improve our relationships.

Appreciation – like love and forgiveness – is a twice-blessed gift. Expressing our appreciation for others makes us feel happier; feeling appreciated makes others happier.

This year, I’m starting a new Thanksgiving tradition by sending a note to the people in my life whom I most appreciate: those who make a positive difference to me and others.

I invite you to embrace the healing attitude of gratitude and start your own tradition. The best place to start is at home, in your neighbourhood, at school and at work.

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise Column appears regularly in the Vancouver Courier.

Categories
Happiness Healthy Living Love Wisdom

Thanksgiving: The Holiday with Attitude

Autumn in Whistler.jpg

Wine may grow in value with age, but as I age, I appreciate more the value in all things.

The celebration of Thanksgiving has become more meaningful with each passing year. It is the holiday with attitude – a decidedly positive one.

Unlike other stat holidays that are to many just a reason for a long weekend and cross border shopping, Thanksgiving asks us to pause and reflect, gather and give thanks for what we have been given. It can bring about a frame of mind that can frame our words and actions in the days that follow and possibly for the rest of the year.

Unlike Christmas where the meaning can be lost in the frenzy of feasting and shopping, Thanksgiving remains comparatively simple though much thought and love goes into the preparation of a meal to share with family and friends.

It is a reason to gather and appreciate that which we have. It turns our thoughts and actions towards the needs of others – the homeless and others who struggle to stay warm each night and to keep food on the table.

Grace may be a prayer of thanks many of us will be saying before dinner, but it is also an attitude – a way of thinking and acting.

Thanksgiving is not just the giving of thanks. I divide it into “thanks” (or appreciation) and “giving.”

The thanks is in the appreciation of the gifts of our past, present and future. The gifts of your past have enriched your experience and shaped your growth. Think of the special people who have supported you through love, teaching and inspiration.

The gifts of the present are those that you have this day. One of the tragedies of every human life is that we don’t always recognize and appreciate the gifts that are in our hands at this moment. Both this moment and those gifts are fleeting.

The gift of the future is its promise – so rich in youth but still present in our later years and even at the end of life. This is what you give forward – the seeds you have planted, the good you have done and the love you have given. It is your gift to the world of the future. What can you give to others in the time you have left?

Thanksgiving reminds me to give. We give away . . . to others – not just the things we don’t need or can part with, but rather what is most needed by someone else. We give back . . . not just to those like our parents who have given so much to us but also to our community, to nature and to our world. We give forward . . . to our children, to the future and to others who may never be able to thank us.

The greatest gifts in our lives are not always obvious or appreciated when we have them, and they are not ours to keep. They are given in trust for us to give away, give back or give forward. And the greatest of our gifts is the love we receive and the love we express.

Davidicus Wong is a physician and writer in Vancouver, B.C.

Categories
Compassion Coping with Loss Empathy Forgiveness Friendship Grace Growth Happiness Letting Go Love

The gifts that give back

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7 Mantras (Davidicus Wong)

At one time or another, we all think about ourselves when we give to others.

That’s perfectly fine when your gift is a shared experience: a nice meal, a concert or a movie. You’re celebrating your relationship and saying “I love you so much that I want to enjoy some special time together.”

Some gifts are thinly veiled gifts to your self. Examples among spouses abound. Consider the husband who buys a big screen TV for his wife a week before Valentine’s so that they can enjoy watching the Super Bowl together. Have you ever received a gift that someone else uses more than you?

When I was 14, I gave my brother a record album that I liked myself. He immediately noted that I would be enjoying the music as much as he so I exchanged it for something he really liked (that I couldn’t use).

There are three virtues that I call “double blessing”: forgiveness, gratitude and generosity. They are two-way gifts – gifts that give back. They benefit the giver as well as the receiver. They strengthen our relationships, and they nourish our souls.

Forgiving

Shakespeare said it best in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath; it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Sometimes we are loath to forgive someone who has hurt us. It is especially difficult if that person’s actions have caused great suffering, were done with ill intent and with no remorse.

To forgive may feel like you’re letting the other off the hook, giving something up or diminishing yourself, but what you give up and lighten may be a load that has been weighing you down and holding you back.

If you’ve travelled by plane recently, you’ve noticed that most passengers are maximizing their carry on luggage, stuffing them under seats and overhead. This makes for an even more uncomfortable flight for themselves and their neighbours.

We weigh ourselves down by carrying into each new day the baggage of our past: resentments, prejudices, insults and slights. They hold us back from stepping lightly, moving forward and welcoming new experiences.

Forgiveness isn’t so much letting someone else off the hook as it is unhooking you from the load you’ve been towing. You are the one who is freed.

Appreciation

I taught my children that two of the most important prayers are those of gratitude at the dawn of each day and at dusk. When we frame the day counting our blessings, we nurture both optimism and happiness. We greet a new day with a cup half full and go to bed, with a cup overflowing.

But we can do much more than just counting our blessings and acknowledging the gifts of the day. We can strengthen our relationships and spread happiness by thanking those who have helped us.

We all need to feel appreciated and to know that we make a difference to the people around us. If someone has touched you and made your life better, thank them. Don’t take anyone for granted. Don’t miss a day’s opportunities to express appreciation and to make a difference. All is fleeting.

Generosity

Each day you can see people in need, and you can help in ways big and small.

You don’t have to be rich to enrich your own day and make a positive difference. You can make someone’s day with an act of kindness, a sincere complement, a helping hand, encouragement and appreciation.

When we give freely and without expectation, we are nurturing our own capacity for unconditional love. We are each beneficiaries of kindness and love from many people throughout our lives: teachers, coaches, health care providers, family, friends and benevolent strangers. We cannot give back all that we’ve received, but we can give that love forward.

It is the greatest re-gift.

Categories
Coping with Loss Letting Go Relationships

Being Present

7 Mantras (Davidicus Wong)
7 Mantras (Davidicus Wong)

One of my favourite TV shows from the 90s was Quantum Leap. Scott Bakula played Dr. Sam Beckett. In each episode, he would find himself somewhere back in time in someone else’s body and he would have to solve some problem in that person’s life. It was like a cross between reincarnation and speed dating.

My favourite episode was when he found himself back in his own body as a 12-year-old boy. He was back on the family farm at Thanksgiving time just before his brother was to go to Vietnam where he would die and before his father’s heart attack.

Knowing the future, he did everything he could to try to change it but no one would listen to a 12-year-old boy. When he was feeling really helpless about his situation, his friend told him, “I would give anything to go back in time and enjoy one more Thanksgiving dinner with my family.” Sam was able to step back and enjoy the precious time with his family.

Our present moments so quickly become the memories that we treasure or miss. The trick in life is to hold onto that awareness, to be fully present and fully alive to the ever changing beauty and wonder right in front of us, to see this precious present with that perspective from the future. From your soul’s perspective, we really can make time stand still and live eternity in a moment.

I loved Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas and birthday dinners lovingly made by my mom. I loved helping her out in the kitchen, setting the table and cleaning up. I loved sitting around the table talking and eating with my parents, my brother and my sister.

Long before my mom’s unexpected passing, I had a deeper understanding that these moments – the everyday time we spend with our loved ones – are fleeting and precious so I had better pay attention and enjoy them.

I’m glad I did. Though I wasn’t consciously prepared for losing my mom, I am happy that I had lived as if each moment might be the last I might spend with the people that I cared about. Those moments remain touch points to eternity. I can remember and relive them as if they continued to exist.

This perspective continues to inform how I live each day, and I am not saddened with another Thanksgiving without my mom because I always feel her close to me and I feel how my life continues to be enriched by the past.

Categories
Coping with Loss Emotions Happiness Letting Go

Thankfulness . . . the healthiest attitude

Central Park, Burnaby
Central Park, Burnaby

The way you look at your life at this moment can determine your future health and happiness.

How you habitually think has great bearing on your performance at school or work, your physical health, your emotions and your relationships.

If you see yourself as a powerless victim of life, you lose your confidence and sense of control. This leads to anxiety.

If your focus is on what is wrong in your life, you’ll no longer see what is good. This is the perspective of depression.

An attitude more conducive to your wellbeing is gratitude.

Contrary to popular opinion, thankfulness is not a function of what you have or a luxury when life is good. Lasting and authentic happiness doesn’t come when everything is perfect because it never is or when it seems to be, it doesn’t stay that way. In an imperfect world, we can still be happy.

We say that pessimists see the cup as half empty and optimists see it half full. With the perspective of wanting, we see what we don’t have and we get what we expect – more of less and more wanting. Happiness is not in the cards with the half empty attitude.

Pessimists may think that optimists are deluded. The cup is really not half full, and in a sense they may be right. Water is not static just as neither our selves nor anything in life is unchanging.

People come in and out of our lives, love comes in many forms and the gifts we are given are gifts in trust; we hold them for a moment and pass them on. Everything is fleeting, flowing and in flux.

Gratitude allows us to appreciate what we have been given in the past – the good that we have experienced, the way we were loved and the lessons we have learned. It allows us to see and appreciate ourselves, others and our world just as they are at this moment. It can allow us to see and create a positive future, the realization of potential.

When my children were young, I would make up a new story each bedtime. In the tale of the “Daily Fairy”, a child is befriended by a beautiful fairy who has nothing but love to give in her short life which lasts just one day. Rather than grieving her impending loss, the child learns to appreciate the gift of her fairy’s one sparkling day.

We and everyone around us are like the daily fairy – flowers in bloom today.

Take stock of what you have this day. There are seeds and flowers. Be grateful for the flowers you see today and recognize that in your hands are the seeds for the future.

When you turn your problems into goals – reframing the negative into positive, you begin to create a more positive future. You are no longer a victim of chance. You empower yourself. You see golden opportunities and you seize them. You plant seeds for future happiness.

Today, appreciate the flowers that now bloom in your life and give thanks for flowers past. Recognize the seeds in your life, and ask, “What can I do today to create happiness tomorrow?”

Categories
Emotions Grace Happiness

Therapeutic Thanks: What’s Right in Your Life?

Each day, I counsel patients suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. They are overwhelmed with emotions often triggered by circumstances – a stressful home situation, difficulties at work, financial distress, relationship problems, a series of negative events, or illness.

The initial focus is on their unhappiness and what is wrong in their lives.

We can get stuck there. We’ve all had difficult emotions that are difficult to shake. In many cases we cannot easily change the conditions of our lives.

When we perceive that we have lost control, we experience a state of helplessness that begets anxiety. This can evolve into hopelessness that begets despair.

Early in life – long before medical school, I learned that we have three choices in any difficult situation. We can leave it, change it or reframe it.

This commonsense advice is easy to understand but difficult for most to apply. We can’t easily leave a bad job or home situation if we are in a position of dependence. When we are responsible for others, we cannot abandon our duties and responsibilities.

In some cases we can make changes. If we are fortunate, we may voice our concerns to those who can assist us, but sometimes our voices are not heard.

The third choice – reframing – can be the greatest of challenges. Yet it can be just as empowering. When we cannot leave or change our circumstances, we can look at them from a different angle. We might consider a difficult coworker or partner with more empathy and consider things from the other’s point of view.

We may start seeing our current state as a steppingstone to a better future; we just have to persevere and ride it through. We can look at our past and the mistakes we have made from a perspective of learning and growth.

As a first step out stress and despair, I ask my patients to take stock of their resources – what is good in their lives. This may include their support – their positive relationships and their personal qualities. Sometimes we have to dig deep into their past to remind them how they were able to overcome other difficult times in their lives.

Though we tend to personally attribute our moods to our circumstances (or biochemistry), they are largely thought dependent. In turn, our thoughts are largely influenced by our moods.

When we are anxious, we overemphasize danger and risk. We catastrophize and imagine worse case scenarios. We minimize our own ability to cope.

When we are depressed, we see the negative in others, in our selves, our world and our future. We overlook what is good and beautiful all around us and in our selves.

Thankfulness can be therapeutic. By taking stock of the positives in our lives, we may feel stronger, more supported and hopeful.

The cup is no longer half empty (or – if you’re really negative – dirty, cracked and half-filled with bitter water). The cup may in fact be overflowing when we remember those who have helped us in the past, the people in our lives today and who we may help in the future.

What are you thankful for? Who should you thank today?

Appreciation too is twice blessed. It enriches both giver and receiver.

What can we do today to fill each others’ cups?IMG_2239

Categories
Grace Happiness Love Parenting Relationships

The Attitude of Grace: Thanks and Giving

Grace may be a prayer of thanks many of us will be saying before dinner, but it is also an attitude – a way of thinking and acting.

Thanksgiving is not just the giving of thanks. I divide it into “thanks” (or appreciation) and “giving.”

The thanks is in the appreciation of the gifts of our past, present and future. The gifts of your past have enriched your experience and shaped your growth. Think of the special people who have supported you through love, teaching and inspiration.

The gifts of the present are those that you have this day. One of the tragedies of every human life is that we don’t always recognize and appreciate the gifts that are in our hands at this moment. Both this moment and those gifts are fleeting.

The gift of the future is its promise – so rich in youth but still present in our later years and even at the end of life. This is what you give forward – the seeds you have planted, the good you have done and the love you have given. It is your gift to the world of the future. What can you give to others in the time you have left?

Thanksgiving reminds me to give. We give away . . . to others – not just the things we don’t need or can part with, but rather what is most needed by someone else. We give back . . . not just to those like our parents who have given so much to us but also to our community, to nature and to our world. We give forward . . . to our children, to the future and to others who may never be able to thank us.

The greatest gifts in our lives are not always obvious or appreciated when we have them, and they are not ours to keep. They are given in trust for us to give away, give back or give forward. And the greatest of our gifts is the love we receive and the love we express.

Categories
Grace Love

Thanksgiving: A Most Meaningful Holiday

Wine may grow in value with age, but as I age, I appreciate more the value in all things.

The celebration of Thanksgiving has become more meaningful with each passing year. It is the holiday with attitude – a decidedly positive one.

Unlike other stat holidays that are to many just a reason for a long weekend and cross border shopping, Thanksgiving asks us to pause and reflect, gather and give thanks for what we have been given. It can bring about a frame of mind that can frame our words and actions in the days that follow and possibly for the rest of the year.

Unlike Christmas where the meaning can be lost in the frenzy of feasting and shopping, Thanksgiving remains comparatively simple though much thought and love goes into the preparation of a meal to share with family and friends.

It is a reason to gather and appreciate that which we have. It turns our thoughts and actions towards the needs of others – the homeless and others who struggle to stay warm each night and to keep food on the table.

Next: Two meanings of grace. The “thanks” and the “giving” in Thanksgiving.

Categories
Grace Happiness Relationships Wisdom

Keys to Health & Happiness: Grace in Attitude & Action (1st of 2 parts)

This Thanksgiving weekend, my family – like many others – will gather to offer grace – a prayer in appreciation for that which we have.

Grace has many meanings: a prayer before meals; unmerited, unearned assistance; the state of being considerate or thoughtful; and ease of movement or bearing.

The word, grace encompasses two keys to both health and happiness: grace in attitude and action.

Grace in Attitude

When many pray, they pray for that which they do not have. Their prayers are petitions for what they want or need. The cup may seem half full – or empty with a deep longing to be filled.

Grace is different; it is a recognition of that which we have been given through grace. Again, what we have has been given without merit; they are gifts unearned.

To offer grace before a meal – great or small, primes us for appreciation – for our food and those with whom we may share it.

I instruct my family to follow my morning ritual of a meditation of appreciation – before rising from bed, be thankful for that which we have: family and friends, work or school, a home, food, clothing, and the day of life before us.

To begin each day with an attitude of gratitude primes us to see the positives and extrapolated to the challenges of each day, can make the difference between feeling unhappy, dissatisfied or frustrated and feeling fortunate, happy and empowered.

Our attitudes are infectious. If parents begin their mornings with complaints, they can frame their children’s days with negativity and criticism. Misery creates company.

But when we recognize the good in our children, lovingly guiding them when they falter, we can create greater happiness and help them towards their potentials.

The happiest and healthiest of my patients share an attitude of appreciation. They accept and cope with the realities of aging while appreciating what is still working well in their lives. They accept the loss of loved ones, appreciating the blessings of those relationships over the years. They cope with illness, accident and disease, knowing that I will work with them in rising to those challenges.

Next: Grace in Action