Gratitude and the Rear View Mirror

Robert Emmons at UC Berkley is one of the world’s leading authorities on gratitude. He explains that gratitude has the ability to energise, bringing hope and ease to difficult times. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Gratitude has the ability to ease difficult times. This suggests that gratitude has the capability of helping people with Parkinson’s live “easier” lives because PD can create so many difficult times.

When I was looking at Emmons research it made me reflect on my own life with my husband who was diagnosed 20 years ago. Before I tell you about us however, do me a favour: Just close your eyes and take a moment to think about something you are grateful for. Come back to me in a minute or so.

I’m guessing whatever you’ve chosen is positive, or at the very least it has resulted in a positive outcome. You see, when we practise gratitude we hone in on the positives of a situation and yes, just as Emmons suggests, that can be energising and allow for hope and ease. It does this by making us focus on what we do have and not what we don’t.

Now imagine how powerful that can be when you live with Parkinson’s.

My kids were young when their father was diagnosed. In fact, two of them weren’t even born. They have seen and experienced a lot thanks to Parkinson’s. Notice the word “thanks” in that last sentence. I’m not trying to be clever or ironic, I am actually grateful for my children’s experiences as it has made them into strong, compassionate and thoughtful individuals.

When they were little, parenting was overwhelming and exhausting. Very often I felt like a single parent when Ronnie was so immobile he could barely function. He rarely made it to school plays or took the girls to dance, but his illness meant he was always home when the kids got home from school. He would always have time to listen to them and advise them when they had problems, and when we had family days out they were always special because, well, you learn not to take family days out for granted because they’re rare. Parkinson’s has made us grateful for what we have when we have it. However, it was only after deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery that we truly began to appreciate this. What is interesting is we aren’t the only ones who started practising gratitude after surgery.

I recently completed a study, with Professors Jonathan Smith and Marjan Jahanshahi, looking at how men experience life after DBS surgery and, yes, there were themes that arose that you’d expect: the sense of rebirth that DBS gives, the fear of progression, but for me the most fascinating was the sentiment of gratitude that arose after surgery.

Gratitude took various forms.

1.     Participating in research: The men had all been so unwell before surgery they were grateful for the changes made to their life by the surgical team and hence participated in many research projects as a way of saying thanks.

2.     Expressions of Gratitude: They spoke about their gratitude to family members who cared for them, peers who supported them, the healthcare team who had helped relieve their symptoms dramatically, And, of course, their gratitude at having a second chance at life.

3.     Acts of kindness: Some felt so grateful to be feeling well that they did things like giving up their seat on the bus for those needier than them. Others started mentoring those who were newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

4.     Charity: One man in particular spoke about donating all of his earnings because he was so grateful to work again doing what he loved.

 

As a researcher in positive psychology - the study of happiness and wellbeing - I find this phenomenon interesting, particularly seeing as none of the men were 100% back to normal after surgery. They all had enough symptoms to remind them that they still had PD, but not enough to stop them from enjoying life. With this in mind they have started to appreciate life in a way they hadn’t before. They are showing gratitude in all areas of life.

This had me wondering if these people practised as much gratitude before their surgery and did they know how beneficial practising gratitude can be? I don’t actually know the answers to these questions as I didn’t ask them at the time, but my experience as a wife and researcher has helped me come to some realisations.

You don’t need a life changing surgery to be grateful for what you’ve got because you don’t know what life is going to be like next week, next month or next year. It’s probably realistic for me to say that Ronnie is probably going to be more able bodied this year then he will be next year, but I don’t want to wait until next year to be grateful for what we were able to do and accomplish this year. That would be like living life while focusing on the rear view mirror. We have therefore learnt to count our blessings every day. I count them twice on days when Ronnie is really unwell. It helps me to focus on what I do have and not what I don’t and that puts life back into perspective. Tal Ben Shahar teaches “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.” The more me and my husband appreciate our lives and are grateful for what we have, the better we feel about life.

Now, remember at the beginning of this blog I asked you to think about something you were grateful for?  Do you remember how it made you feel in the moment? Imagine doing that every day, especially on days where you’re being challenged… no don’t imagine it… just do it.

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Suzette Shahmoon, PhD Candidate is currently Assistant Honorary Psychologist at the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery.

Ideas and opinions expressed in this post reflect that of the author(s) solely. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of the World Parkinson Coalition®