By Arne Vainio, MD
I was at a two day medical conference a few weeks ago getting caught up on my continuing education credits. Some of these can be done online, but some are required to be done in a group setting. I was in a group with a geneticist and we discussed the inherited basis of some diseases and the pitfalls that can come with genetic testing that can be ordered online. One of the sessions covered how climate change is allowing some diseases to survive in other parts of the world and how some insect borne diseases are moving north and what our role as physicians will be in that change.
There were sessions on mental health and I was able to be in a group with a psychiatrist leading the discussion on the approach to this difficult problem. The common problems of heart disease and diabetes had sessions of their own and I was able to gain insight from other doctors and the way they handled some of the issues all of us see on a day to day basis.
The very last session I attended had to do with gratitude and the relationships we form. There is a 75 year (so far) Harvard study that has followed over 700 men since they were young boys. Only a little over 60 of them still survive. Some of them started poor and stayed poor, some started poor and became wealthy and some of them started wealthy and became poor. One of the findings of the study was that one of the best predictors of longevity, or how long someone will live is the relationships we form. Those with strong relationships, whether marriage, family or friends, tend to live the longest.
Another study found that one of the best markers for happiness is gratitude. All of us have stressful lives and the number of things aggravating us seems endless. Work, kids, neighbors, bills…all of these things weigh on us and are sometimes the things we think about as we are falling asleep at the end of the day. It turns out, if you think of negative thoughts as your last thoughts of the day, this affects your dreams and imprints your brain to live in a negative framework. Some people always live in that frame of mind and we all know people like that. We may even be those people. Positive thoughts whisper. Negative thoughts scream.
If thinking negative thoughts at the end of the day can imprint your subconscious mind to live in a state of negativity, then it follows that thinking positive thoughts can imprint your mind to live in a positive state.
Is it really that easy?
It turns out there is quite a bit of truth to that and there is a project called Three Good Things and it’s a relatively simple thing to do. For one week, at the end of the day and just before you go to sleep, you write down three good things that happened to you that day. Just thinking it isn’t enough and it has to be written down and it helps to detail what made those good things go well. Your subconscious mind will incorporate that into your dreams and will turn your outlook more positive. It seems simple and laughable and there are those who won’t even try it because it seems so simple. There are those who hold tight to their negativity and are afraid to let it change.
Whatever your thoughts and beliefs are on the afterlife, the existence we have right now is the only one we are aware of. That means we get one go around and one shot at making this life worthwhile. One week. Three good things. This is a relatively easy thing to do and I just finished my week last Friday. Sometimes I would forget and just before I actually fell asleep I would remember and have to get up and write them down.
Gratitude toward others is also important and when we express it, we often get more in return than we give. Who do you know who could call you at four o’clock in the morning and you would always answer that call? Who do you know that you could make that same call and they would always answer? Are they the same people?
What if you called one of those people and told them that? I did that last week. I have a friend in Seattle who retired 10 years or so ago and he is one of the best mechanics I have ever known. We worked on projects together when I was in residency and I have many times called him from Minnesota when I have something I’m working on that just isn’t going right. Right now my father in law and I have an old tractor torn apart and I can’t get the hydraulic system working again. I spent many nights looking online for tutorials on fluid dynamics and hydraulic theory, but to no avail. I finally called John and told him everything I’d done to that point and over the phone he guided me through his recommendations and I will be working on it again soon.
Before we hung up, I told him about that Harvard study and about gratitude. I thanked him for being my friend and my teacher for all these years and I told him if he ever called me at four o’clock in the morning, I would always answer the phone. He was quiet for a moment before he answered and his voice had a slight crack in it when he told me he would always answer the phone and he was glad we were friends.
I think about all the people who worked so hard to make sure I was able to become a physician and those who never gave up on me. Gratitude? I live it every day.
All we have is what this earth has given us. And each other.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.