Grateful for the little (and big) things

I recently returned from a vacation in the Bahamas – my husband and I spent six days on the island of Exuma to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. There is nothing like visiting a foreign country to help provide some perspective on your everyday blessings. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I thought I would share some of my takeaways from our trip.

First, I have to say that Exuma is probably THE most beautiful place on Earth I have visited (so far). One of the reasons we chose to go there was to meet a “bucket list” goal of experiencing crystal clear Caribbean water. We were not disappointed (see photos below). Exuma is known for its beaches and for the spectacular variation in the color of the water depending on the depth of the sea. The pictures almost don’t do it justice. And each beach we visited had something unique to offer, whether it was sea creatures (swimming pigs, stingrays, dolphins and sea turtles) or sand bars at low tide that allow you to walk about a half mile into the sea without the water getting above your knees.

We soon found out though that beyond the beauty of the island, there was not much else to experience. This particular island in the Bahamas is relatively underdeveloped compared to the more well-known ones like New Providence Island (Nassau) and Grand Bahama Island (Freeport). Despite having modern technology such as cellular service and internet, some basic infrastructure was lacking – like decent roads and public transportation. There were no big box stores or chain restaurants. Outside of the two all-inclusive resorts, it was primarily small, family-owned business and restaurants, many of which only accepted cash. It was an eye-opening experience for me, particularly because I did not do much research ahead of time to understand the nature of our destination. However, within a day or two, I found myself experiencing a profound sense of gratitude for what now seemed like luxuries back home.

Roads and transportation

We chose to rent a home rather than stay at a resort as we wanted peace and quiet and privacy. However, this meant we needed transportation to get around the island, so we chose to rent a car. The car rental and driving around the island were probably two of the most stressful parts of the trip. The Honda Civic we were given was an older model apparently shipped straight from Japan given that the GPS was all in Japanese (and thus useless to us in navigating our way around the island). The seat belts did not work properly – the belt remained slack after you buckled it, so I kept my fingers crossed each time we ventured out that we would not be in a situation where we needed them. The steering wheel is on the right side of the car as they drive on the opposite (left) side of the road than the US. And then there were the roads…

The car rental employee warned us about the potholes, most of which are on the shoulder of the road. We paid for the insurance on the rental car, but we were told upfront that it did not cover tires – and we soon learned why. Due to the potholes on the shoulders, everyone hugs the middle of the road (and there really is only one main road up and down the entire island). On our very first ride from the airport to the rental home, we unfortunately hit two or three potholes in an effort to avoid hitting the car barreling down the center of the road. The next morning on our way up to our boat excursion, we hit one more and sure enough, a half mile later we were forced to pull over with a flat tire – and a bent rim. I’ll spare you the details of dealing with roadside assistance (a very nice gentleman in a minivan filled with spare tires) other than to say that we did make it to our excursion on time, which we appreciated.

Given the nature of the roads, we made the decision to avoid driving after dark, which limited our ability to venture out in the evenings to eat out or experience the island nightlife. This was a little disappointing, but the whole white-knuckle driving experience during our stay really made me appreciate the safety and comfort of the cars we currently drive AND the quality and safety of the roads we traverse every day here at home. I’ll think twice before complaining about the minor pothole on my commute knowing it could be a whole lot worse.

Bountiful food choices: blessing or burden?

Food is often a central part of our vacations. My husband and I love to dine out and experience the flavors of the local cuisine. Given this trip was to celebrate a major milestone in our relationship, I was looking forward to being wined and dined – and not having to cook dinner every night. You can imagine my disappointment when I soon realized this was not to be the case. We quickly learned there were no high-end restaurants on the island (outside of the resorts and those were for guests only). We found ourselves at the local market, stocking up on some basic staples to get us through the week. Given our reluctance to drive at night, we cooked dinner in every night – and kept it simple with things like pasta or sausage, peas and rice (we did infuse some local flavors by trying pigeon peas in coconut milk with said sausage and rice – it was quite tasty!). And my husband stepped up to cook most of the meals, giving me a break from my normal duties back home (thank you, Chris).

What struck me most about the food though was the limited choices in the local markets. As I mentioned previously, there were no supermarket chains – just mom and pop stores that were probably a tenth of the size of your local grocery store. The fresh produce consisted of one side of a short aisle and I couldn’t even find something as basic as garlic. I think there were maybe two or three fruit options and one type of lettuce. In the canned and boxed goods, there were maybe two brands of pasta and just a handful of varieties, primarily spaghetti. In the dairy aisle, there were one or two choices for items like milk, eggs and cheese – and forget about finding dairy-free alternatives.

After I got over the initial shock of the shopping experience here versus back home, I noticed a different feeling arise – it was almost a sense of relief at the lack of choices and how much simpler that made the task of grocery shopping. We were in and out of the store in less than half the time it normally takes me to shop back home. You may be familiar with the concept of the Paradox of Choice put forth by Barry Schwartz – the idea that “choice overload” can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them and in the long run, can lead to decision-making paralysis. This idea hit me square in the face as I was walking through the store. On one hand, I truly felt fortunate to have the choices we do in the United States, whether it’s food, cars, clothing, or electronics. But I also couldn’t help but think about how all of those choices often make life more complicated than it needs to be. Fewer options makes life simpler in a number of ways.

Il bel far niente (“the beauty of doing nothing”)

As I noted earlier, it only took a few days into our trip to realize that there wasn’t much to do in Exuma other than hang out on the beach or visit different islands and beaches via boat (either private rental or paid excursion). My husband and I are not the type to spend all day lounging on the beach. And we knocked out the most popular excursion (swimming with the pigs) on our second day so by day three, I was beginning to think our trip was three days too long. We were fortunate to have internet at our accommodations, but I found myself glued to my phone, checking email, social media and the news back home. This was NOT how I wanted to spend my vacation.

I was faced with the harsh reality – I had forgotten how to be bored. It made me think of one of my favorite quotes from Eat, Pray, Love, when Elizabeth Gilbert was introduced to the Italian expression “il bel far niente” – the beauty of doing nothing. In the hustle and bustle of our everyday life, I seemed to have forgotten that, in many ways, the whole purpose of a vacation is to do just that: nothing. This was our time to relax, to forget about calendars and agendas and deadlines. We could embrace “island time” and just let the day unfold as we wanted it to. It took another day for this notion to completely sink in, but we did our best to adopt this approach for the remainder of the trip – whether it was reading out on the veranda overlooking the beautiful blue sea or hopping a water taxi to Stocking Island to experience the Atlantic Ocean side as well as the famous Sunday BBQ buffet at the Chat ‘n’ Chill. By the end of the trip, I found that I kind of liked not having anything to do.

Even though this may not have been my favorite vacation destination, I am truly grateful to have experienced such a beautiful piece of this planet. And I am most appreciative for the reminder to not take the little or big things in my life for granted.

May you have a peaceful and Happy Thanksgiving!

Positive Psychology – Part 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently started using The Book of Extraordinary Things, a guided journal to help explore the principles of Positive Psychology and see what impact they have on my own health and well-being. I thought I would share how things have been going since I started using it a few weeks ago. But first, a little background about my journaling history…

I have kept some sort of diary or journal since my adolescent days, although I admit I have not always been consistent in my efforts. There are definitely gaps where I (sadly) did not write at all and there are years where I documented my thoughts and experiences every day. I often like to look back at these journals to see what I was doing or feeling at a particular time in my life.

In January of this year, I committed to journaling every day and I have made it a part of my bedtime ritual to put my thoughts to paper before going to sleep. However, in the last couple of months, I started to notice that my entries were becoming quite rote – mainly just a rehash of my daily routines, and often a bit of fussing over something negative that happened to me. As helpful as it was to get these thoughts out of my head before going to sleep, I wasn’t feeling inspired and started to notice that it even soured my mood to revisit the “bad” parts of my day. For these reasons, I was excited to start using The Book of Extraordinary Things as a way to refresh my whole perspective on journaling.

Preparation

I first set aside some time to answer the questions in the “Preparation” section, a self-inventory where you can describe who you are and what you want in your life. It is a place to identify your strengths, values, and achievements as well as your goals and dreams. I especially loved the questions regarding what you want to do more of (reading for pleasure!) and what you would like to do less of (worrying!). There is also a “visioning” section where you can list things you want to celebrate in the next three, six and twelve months – and a full-page mini vision board for your complete creative expression around these desires.

Exploration

The majority of the journal consists of the “Exploration” pages, which can be used daily or weekly. As you’ll see in the screenshot below, the left side of the page has “Top Three Quests,” where you can list your most important tasks for the day. Below that is the “Field Notes” section which is flexible space that you can use however you’d like, e.g., plan your day, make lists, draw, doodle, etc. Personally, since I journal at night, I use the Top Three Quests to identify the most important or meaningful things I accomplished that day. And so far, I have been using the Field Notes as a general overview of the day, capturing any key thoughts or experiences that aren’t covered by the journal prompts – which are my favorite part of the journal (so far).

On the right side of the page are journal prompts based on the PERMA-V principles of Positive Psychology (click here for a refresher or if you missed Part 1 of this post). These questions are designed to cultivate awareness around what is “going right” with you and your day. It starts with identifying one good thing from your day (or week). Then, you can share how you used your gifts, and how you helped someone – or how someone helped you. You can describe something that inspired you as well as something of which you are proud. Finally, there is a line to simply express your mood.

I have found these prompts to be so helpful in expanding – and shifting – my perspective on what I want to document about my day. Even in just three weeks, I feel like I am much more focused and aware of all the good things that happen on a daily basis. Sometimes it takes a little time to think about it, especially at the end of a long day but I can always come up with something. It may be as small as patting myself on the back for making dinner at home when I really just wanted to order takeout. Or expressing gratitude for the super-friendly post office employee who made my day with her pleasant attitude in our five-minute encounter on a Friday afternoon.

I believe these journaling exercises are also helping build my resilience, as I find myself looking for the silver lining on those days when it seems like I am surrounded by negativity. For example, in the wake of all of the recent mass shootings in this country, I chose to focus on the brave police officers and emergency responders who put their lives on the line to help others in need. I was also inspired by the El Paso community members who rallied around the gentleman who lost his wife, his only family member, and feared there would be no one at her funeral. At his request, the funeral home invited the entire community to attend – and strangers came from El Paso and all over the United States to support him. The response was so overwhelming the funeral home had to move the service to a larger facility to handle the crowd. It is acts such as this that restore my faith in humanity in these challenging times.

Reflection

At the end of the journal, there is a section called “Reflection” with some prompts to examine your journey and reflect on the path forward. The journal is essentially designed to last three months if you use it on a daily basis, or close to two years if you use it weekly. I currently plan to continue using it on a daily basis and I look forward to some reflection and introspection at the end of three months. I plan to write a follow up post at that time too.

I typically refrain from endorsing health and wellness products, but I am willing to make an exception in this case. I love The Book of Extraordinary Things and I am so proud of my colleague, Alexis Buckles, for sharing her vision and bringing this book to life. It is beautifully designed and crafted from front to back and filled with the magic of possibility on the pages in between. If you are looking for a way to increase self-awareness and positivity in support of your well-being, I highly recommend checking out The Book of Extraordinary Things.

(Note: I am not being compensated in any way for blogging about this journal. In fact, I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to help Alexis bring the book to life, so I paid for my copy. I just believe in supporting other wellness practitioners who have high quality, meaningful products or services to offer to those of us wanting to optimize our health and well-being.)

Gratitude: Every Cloud has a Silver Lining

I recently facilitated a stress management program and one of the sessions was about resilience, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. We discussed the ABCDE tool, which is helpful in shifting one’s perspective about an event or situation that would typically prompt a negative response or reaction. The equation is simple: A + B = C (+ D = E), which is based on Albert Ellis’ model:

The “C” (consequences, typically negative emotions) stem not directly from the “A” (adversity or activating event) but from the “B” (one’s beliefs about the adversity or event). The key is to “D” (dispute the initial beliefs or thoughts) to therefore generate “E” (a new energy or more positive outcome or consequence). One of the suggestions for disputing the initial belief or thought is to find something to be grateful for about the adversity or event. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but I know personally, when I do it, I usually feel better about the situation.

As I was thinking about Thanksgiving and the things I am grateful for, this tool reminded me of a poem I had seen in the past about being thankful for life’s less glorious moments. A quick internet search turned up the following, which I think sums up the sentiment I wish to convey today.

i-am-thankful-for

On Thanksgiving, and hopefully every day, I will strive to see the silver lining in the difficulties and hardships that may arise, knowing there is always something for which I can be grateful.

I wish you and your loved ones a safe, relaxing and Happy Thanksgiving!