A couple of months ago I was travelling in Ethiopia, an incredibly diverse and interesting country with stunning mountains and ancient Christian churches. I loved it but at times I found the experience a little exasperating when kids in rural areas would run towards me chanting “Pen, pen!” or sometimes “Money!”. It’s been a while since I’ve travelled to a country where kids pester tourists quite so much. My guides tried to tell me that it was their way to practise English but if that were so, “Welcome to Ethiopia” would be a better way to start a conversation.
It might be that my experience of local people in the countryside of Ethiopia came in such a contrast with my recent travels in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In Kyrgyzstan, when I was hiking in the mountain pastures and was passing a shepherd’s yurt, I was often invited to come in for a cup of tea. The locals would offer me bread and freshly churned cream and would absolutely refuse any money I tried to offer them as a thank you. Hospitality is of course something Central Asia is renowned for which makes travelling there incredibly special.
Thinking about my experience in Ethiopia made me wonder whether kids who grow up asking for gifts become adults who expect them. It might be a crude extrapolation, but we can all think of people expecting to win a lottery rather than investing in their health, education or personal development. Indeed, our culture makes a habit of wishful thinking and I for one don’t think it’s a helpful one. What good would it do to remind yourself that there is something you lack?
Ever since I remember, I was encouraged to make a wish when blowing out candles on my birthday cake. I don’t actually celebrate my birthday that often but opportunities to make a wish are plentiful: think New Year’s Eve, shooting stars, rainbows, four-leaf clovers, five-petal lilac blossom, three cherries joined together by a stem, finding a lucky Russian dumpling, breaking a wishbone, finding a coin head-side up, crossing bridges, etc.. I would always ask for something grand and abstract. In recent years I’ve only ever wished to get my health back. You may say that my wish has come true as I’m now feeling much better but I have another explanation.
What has really helped me to live better with a chronic condition (I have myalgic encephalomyelitis also known as Chromic Fatigue Syndrome) is to accept it and then learn to live with it. One practice that really made a difference to every aspect of my health was to notice little things which made me happy and to recognise small improvements with gratitude. When I stopped working due to ill health I noticed for the first time that there were birds, mostly blackbirds, which sang right outside my apartment block in the very metropolitan area of London. Even on dark February mornings they sang! Previously, I never had breakfast at home. I would rush to work and grab something to gobble up in front of my computer. After I left my job, I was still waking up early and I would cook porridge or make a smoothie and take my time to have a pot of coffee, taking in my immediate environment. I also wrote a gratitude diary which would list three things a day, nothing more profound than “I’m grateful I talked to my mum today” or “I’m grateful I found time to read today, not just watch TV.”
A few years later on a holiday in South Africa I got up early one morning and climbed to the top of Lion's Head in Cape Town. I remember the profound sense of joy and gratitude I felt. It did not bother me in the slightest that some people ran up that hill and that they probably did that every day as their exercise routine. I remember feeling so happy – it was actually my birthday and there was no cake, no candles and no expectations to wish for anything more.
So here is a thought: what if each time you blow out your birthday candles or spot a shooting star, you remember to swap a wish for a gratitude? Rather than wishing “to get my health back”, I would think “I’m so grateful that I have plenty of energy for a party with friends”. Happy thoughts not wishful thinking make us content.
Social scientists such as Tal Ben Shahar and Yuval Noah Harari have been writing on the latest scientific thinking on happiness. What I took away from their books personally is that we feel unhappy when we want something and we can’t have it (e.g trying for a baby unsuccessfully or missing out on a promotion). Conversely, when we don’t build up any expectations and live like nothing is amiss, we feel much happier. Learning to live in the present and appreciating what we have is key to a happy life. Fortunately, there are simple techniques to train your mind to get there.
Back in 2015 I wrote about gratitude being scientifically proven to enhance wellbeing. In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman quotes psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough who conducted an experiment, investigating gratitude and subjective well-being (2003). Three groups of people were asked to spend a few moments each week writing. The first group listed five things for which they were grateful, the second noted down five things that annoyed them and the final group jotted down five events that had taken place during the previous week. The 'gratitude' group remarked on seeing the sunset or on the generosity of their friends. The 'annoyed' group wrote about bills and arguments. The 'events' group detailed making breakfast and driving to work. The results were startling. Compared to those in either the 'annoyed' or 'events' groups, those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, physically healthier and even exercised significantly more. Similarly, research by Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson (2005) suggests that writing a gratitude diary every day for a week makes one happier and more resilient with the effects which may persist for months.
I have recently spent some time with two ten-year-olds I have known all their lives. I am fascinated to watch them grow but I'm also wary about their personal development being shaped by the modern culture. For example, both of them are already aware of different iphone models and the perceived status of owning the latest one. I'm not their parent but even I want to exclaim: “Don’t grow up too soon!”. I want them to learn to appreciate little things like going out for a proper Italian pizza or being engrossed in a book. I want them to learn to recognise what they already have and understand that much is possible if they put their mind to it. I rather they try and fail than simply day dream. But I know that the only person I can influence with some success is myself. From now on I’ll start counting rainbows as blessings and see whether that takes me to the proverbial pot of gold.