”One very valuable lesson that I’ve learned from my experience of chronic illness is that happiness has little to do with what happens to us. I don’t mean to say that we’re not going to have all sorts of difficult emotions in response to a chronic illness. We are and we’re going to need to accept them and allow them to flow. But these are just moments. Whether we are happy or not depends on what we pay attention to during the rest of our moments.
Before my illness I chose to pay attention to my career, my fitness and my social life and I was pretty happy. Then I got ill, and for quite a while my attention was drawn to how bad life was and all that I had lost and not surprisingly I was unhappy. But even once I accepted that life had to be lived differently for a while I still couldn’t do all the things that I used to do that made me happy. I realised I had to learn some new happiness skills.
Two simple and related happiness skills that require nothing more than a bit of attention are gratitude and appreciation. When we live an energetic life we get used to events demanding our attention, our attention tends to be a response. Our mind isn’t used to choosing to pay attention to smaller simpler pleasures and it can take a bit of training. But it is a choice and it does pay off.
When we choose to appreciate little things like the colour of a flower in the sunshine, a kind word, the sound of birdsong, a soothing touch or a pleasant aroma we get to choose a positive experience of comfort or joy, even for only a moment. But the more of these appreciative moments we choose to pay attention to the happier we can be. I found that training myself with a daily gratitude practice led to me noticing these moments more freely. Each morning at the end of my meditation I spend a couple of minutes paying attention to what I’m grateful for. I have a regular list of things that I’m constantly grateful for but I try to add to the list each day with fresh things that are happening in my life. Now I’m far more likely to experience a joyful appreciation of a moment of pleasure. In fact each day I experience a wide variety of them. I still experience pain, frustration and disappointment when my energy levels hold me back, but that’s OK, that’s life. They don’t get in the way of my happiness because even in those moments I know that it is temporary and that for the rest of the time I’m able to pay attention to things that can bring me happiness.
Could you introduce a gratitude practice into your life? It doesn’t just have to be a part of a meditation practice, many people use social media to express their gratitude, sometimes using words sometimes using photos. Or maybe, like Anna, you could make yourself a happiness scrap book and add something every day that you’re grateful for or that made you happy that day.”