A week after my recent hip replacement, the home-health physical therapist graduated me from a walker to a cane. Days later, I walked unassisted. I passed the PT’s required checklist early, so he discharged me sooner than expected. He shook my hand and said, “Wow!”
Three weeks after surgery, the doctor studied my X-rays and beamed, “Wow! You’re healing so well. You should be pleased.”
I was. Pleased, and uncomfortable around my incision. So for more ease in the first post-op month, I hung out in loose pajamas or baggy sweatpants. On week four, I tried to pull on my blue jeans. They didn’t button. I jimmied the zipper to the waistband, where new layers of skin sagged over the beltline. Next I hopped on the scale. I had gained five pounds. The professionals’ “wows” vanished from my mind instantly, hijacked by: “Oh no! Five pounds! Do I weigh myself a hundred times a day to control midriff crawl or do I absolutely refuse to step on that metal plate? Do I gorge on a what-the-heck Peanut Buster Parfait or do I never touch sugar again? Do I google ‘latest fad diet’ or zoom over to Barnes and Noble to grab the hottest belly-banishing best-seller?”
Why, in the midst of receiving great news, did my brain over-focus on what I deemed bad news? Neuroscientist Rick Hanson tells us that human brains have “Teflon for positive experiences.” Good feelings slide off us. He says we are hard-wired with “Velcro for the negative.” Our brains evolved this “negativity bias” when cave people needed to scan the jungle for tigers. No need to see the beautiful scenery. So what we perceive as good Teflon-slips away. What Velcro-fastens to our whole being is: “Danger!”
An oft-quoted ratio is that one negative can wipe out five positives. Brain researchers say that for happiness, therefore, we must develop the habit of noticing, feeling, bolding and underlining what’s pleasant. We have to register the “wow.”
In “Help, Thanks, Wow,” spiritual author Anne Lamott says, “thankyouthankyouthankyou. Thank you. Thanks” is an essential prayer and one way to highlight the positive. So I listed: The surgeon had worked magic. Sun lit my private room. Nurses shimmied me out of bed and propped me up as my first steps faltered.
My husband brought my favorite smoothies and salads to the hospital, and inched the tight white Ted socks over my left leg. Once I was home, family delivered gluten-free, dairy-free pizza and lasagna. Neighbors shuffled with me to the end of the driveway and back. Gym pals fitted my trekking poles to my height and taught me the correct left-right pole-plant lean. My children FTD’d the first bouquet, texted, and called daily. Friends wrote “Hope you feel better” e-mails and sent “Get well” cards. Students and cousins showed up with organic dark chocolate and fall flowers. Each day, my gratitude list grew.
A 1950s story taught another practice as an antidote to our natural default to the negative. It explains that kind actions from others or toward ourselves fill us with “warm fuzzy” feelings. Yet “warm fuzzies” glide away if we take on “cold pricklies,” cruel barbs from others or our own harsh self-talk which Velcro-attach easily.
When my children cried from cold pricklies shot by classmates, I’d say to them, “Here’s a hug. It’s a warm fuzzy. I love you. That’s a warm fuzzy, too. Rub them in.”
Then I‘d make a stroking gesture; slow circles, hand over heart ‘round and ‘round. Rubbing in warm fuzzies means, “Allow the good in. Inhale joy. See it. Sense it. Know it.”
After surgery, I had prayed for and received help. I had prayed my thankyouthankyouthankyous in my mind, counted blessings in my journal and written notes to most of my helpers – for their company and support, for showing up and cheering me up. But I had not massaged the healing energy into my heart, into my whole body. When I put gratitude in the forefront, my focus changed.
When we note and feel the love around us, it sticks better. So, to avoid needless dieting, with my right hand circling the center of my chest, I began the practice of letting out and also letting in another essential warm fuzzy prayer. As if I mean it, I now breathe in a big “Wow.” Or, as Anne Lamott says, “wowowowowow.”
Susan Lebel Young is the author of “Lessons from a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart” and “Food Fix: Ancient Nourishment for Modern Hungers.” She can be reached through www.heartnourishment.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.