At this stage of our lives, especially if we are having a down day, it can be all too easy to tell ourselves that our lives were better when we were younger. My goal today is to remind you that sort of negativity can be a form of misguided nostalgia, because there is no payoff or upside to imagining that "the way things used to be" is somehow superior.
When I feel an episode of longing to turn back the clock or wishing I were in the past is headed my way, I force myself to shift gears quickly. The first part of this process involves reminding myself that the mere passage of time has the power to smooth out and sand down the rough (i.e. painful) edges of memories. The soft-focus effect of distance combined with youth-tinged memories and dissolved emotional scar tissue can play tricks on us. It can convince us that our present circumstances are inferior, more challenging or second-rate compared with our memories of what we may or may not have experienced years before.
For many of us, learning to be grateful for who we are and what we have right now, in the present moment, can be a two-step process. First, we need to embrace our current good fortune. Then we need to figure out where to direct our gratitude. The popular author Heather Lende summarized the wisdom and power of this process in her enchanting book "Find The Good: Unexpected Life Lessons From A Small-Town Obituary Writer." She wrote, "I believe gratitude comes from a place in your soul that knows the story could have ended differently, and often does, and I also know gratitude is at the heart of finding the good in this world — especially in our relationships with the ones we love."
Unfortunately, it's way too easy to be critical and focus on what's wrong with the circumstances of and people in our lives. Since we take the things that are right for granted, it's always harder to be grateful for the small blessings that come our way.
Best-selling author Dr. Daniel Amen has lectured extensively about embracing the positive when it comes to the people we love. To remind himself of how important this concept is, Dr. Amen has amassed a huge collection of toy penguins. Why? Because an animal trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii taught him that noticing and acknowledging positive behaviors (rather than noticing and criticizing negative behaviors) is the easiest way to reinforce actions we hope will be repeated. It's an outward manifestation of gratefulness that someone (or something, like a penguin at a theme park) has given you what you were looking for. It's a gratitude-attitude training procedure that works beautifully for animals as well as people.
Perhaps the easiest component of gratitude involves merely acknowledging the various aspects of our lives that we treasure. Each night, I try to close my day by taking a mental inventory of the things I am grateful for — everything from my husband's sense of humor to the aroma of a perfectly brewed cup of coffee to an unexpected phone call from a faraway college classmate. For me, reviewing the positives of the previous 24 hours is a much more effective soporific than counting sheep, and I like to think that it sets the stage for the next day's gratitude opportunities.
Lots of Oprah's fans believe that she began the great gratitude movement years ago, when she told her viewers that if they couldn't be grateful for what they already had in their lives, they certainly shouldn't expect to receive additional blessings. In other words, if you're being negative or whiny, don't be surprised if that critical attitude — in a bizarre form of pre-cognitive karma — blocks any benefit that might have otherwise been headed your way.
I like what the vibrant and wise 98-year-old writer Diana Athill wrote in a poem at the end of her latest book, "Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter." She said, "Why want anything more marvelous/ than what is."
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.