Every now and then I’m made aware of what a huge privilege it is to be alive. However, like most of us, I spend the bulk of my time caught up in the hum drum of daily life. But not anymore. Two weeks’ ago, on my way home from London Book Fair, I collapsed in the street. My head slammed so hard against the pavement I fractured my skull and was unconscious for over an hour. During that time I was ambulanced to hospital, scanned, monitored, injected and wired up to drips and other contraptions.
I was lucky. My friend and neighbour found me within minutes, the ambulance came quickly and I live within a five minute drive of an excellent hospital.
My head injuries have left me feeling disconcertingly dizzy and unsteady. So I’ve spent most of my convalescing time reading and thinking (although even that was difficult in the early days). When unable to read or think I looked out of the window at all the people walking, running, striding. And I had an overwhelming urge to open my window and shout at them, to remind them of what a privilege it is to be able to walk freely – without pain, without dizziness, without fear. I didn’t shout at them. Instead I tried to fathom how I can hold on to this feeling of appreciation, of gratitude, when I’m better. Because it’s important, and it becomes more important the older we get. And those of us that have it appear to live longer and healthier, more fulfilled lives. Bear with me. I’m coming to the science…
But I have this niggling feeling that as soon as I’ve recovered I’ll revert to my pre-head injury days: fretting about the state of the world, fuming at the injustice of life, stressing over the fact that none of my labour-saving devices work, huffing and puffing over my three teenage daughters – and so on. Of course, some of this is important. The outrage of injustice is a powerful motivator for change. But perhaps we need to keep it in balance. Perhaps, as we rage against the unfairness of life or wade through piles of laundry (or whatever makes us rant and complain), we also need to remember how lucky we are to be able to do these things, to remind ourselves of the privilege of life.
Numerous reports suggest that grateful people experience fewer aches and pains, are happier and less depressed, are more resilient, sleep better (yes, really!), and have greater self-esteem. According to Amy Morin in Forbes Magazine, ‘being thankful throughout the year could have tremendous benefits on your quality of life. In fact, gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we all have access to every day.’ Read a summary of studies into gratitude at http://sciof.us/1Ry70iD
More recently, a brain-scanning study from Indiana University suggests that making one’s gratitude tangible (ie writing it down in a journal or thank-you letter, for example) has results that endure for months afterwards. The same study found that the more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its benefits. A brilliant article in the New Yorker magazine last year (http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/01/how-expressing-gratitude-change-your-brain.html) analysed this study, suggesting we think of our brain ‘as having a sort of gratitude muscle that can be exercised and strengthened.’ Apparently, using our ‘gratitude brain muscle’ causes a cascade effect, in which others are then able to feel more grateful. And the more of us that feel gratitude, the more humane and empathetic society becomes (allegedly). It’s a lovely idea.
A 2009 series of studies using brain MRIs found that the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus (which regulates a range of bodily functions from our metabolism to hunger, growth and sleep) is activated when we think grateful thoughts or do something altruistic. Scientists don’t yet understand why this happens, but it does. It’s not inconceivable that one day people with sluggish metabolisms, for example, might be encouraged to undertake gratitude exercises.
One of the findings I particularly like, right now, is that people who feel grateful recover more quickly from trauma. My fall (and its repercussions) were traumatic but I feel as though I’m making a good recovery. Is this because my brain is flooded with gratitude? I like to think so. I’m feeling more grateful now than I’ve felt in a long time. Grateful to be alive, grateful that soon I’ll be able to walk unaided again, grateful to have a fully-functioning (ahem) brain – and hugely grateful to all the friends and family that rallied to my support with their kind words, cards, flowers, chocolate, foodie bags, help with dog walking, school runs, childcare, medical advice and so on. You know who you are – thank you!
So I’ll end with a word on gratitude exercises. Yes, I know this doesn’t sound at all European. But if you’ve clicked through on any of the links above you’ll have read that it’s the making explicit of one’s gratitude that lodges it in the brain. That doesn’t mean you have to keep a rose-tinted diary of platitudes (although why not?). How about writing a thank you card and spending a few minutes finding the right words instead of dashing off the usual clichés? Me? I’m going to open my window and shout at all the passers-by: they need to know how lucky they are and how grateful I am…
The soup below (more of a puree really) is a variation of a Gordon Ramsay recipe. It’s cheap, wholesome and all my children like it. Even better, it contains only three ingredients and takes less than ten minutes. I serve it with a choice of toppings (olive oil, lemon wedges, Parmesan and slithers of sun-dried tomato in the pic) although Gordon recommends toasted flaked almonds and discs of goat’s cheese (also delicious). My kids are perfectly happen with grated cheddar and croutons. I don’t need to tell you the benefits of eating broccoli…
BROCCOLI SOUP (serves 6)
- 3 heads of broccoli, chopped (stems and all)
- Water or marigold veg stock – just enough to cover the broccoli
- 1 tsp sea salt
Cover the florets and stems with the boiling water or stock. Simmer for five minutes or until just soft. Blend everything until smooth. Season to taste.
Serve. Bon appetite!