As I waited at the doctor’s office pregnant with my third child, I casually opened up a magazine that was on the small coffee table. I stumbled across an article that tried to assuage pregnant women’s fears.
The first fear on the list was a “horror story delivery” such as having a baby in a taxi. “Don’t worry,” the article read, “the percentage of this actually happening in real life is very small. This rare case is usually dramatized for the movies.” I laughed to myself; my first child was delivered in a cab in NYC. The odds are even more slim for this happening to a first born.
The second fear the article mentioned was the concern about miscarriages, another category I fit into.
The third fear described having a baby that needed the NICU. “Phew,” I thought to myself, relieved that I had not experienced this horror story. The nurse finally called my name and I closed the magazine and walked into my appointment.
Many months went by and our healthy baby girl was born, with no taxi and no NICU.
After a few days in the hospital, the doctor sent us home with the knowledge that my baby girl had some elevated jaundice levels. The doctors asked that we take her to our doctor first thing in the morning to retest her. Excited yet anxious to be home, the first night was worse than we could have imagined. Our baby cried throughout the whole night. We figured she was colicky and tested her blood levels immediately the next morning. When the doctor saw the results, she told us to drop everything and go straight to the NICU. “Do not waste a moment! They are waiting for you.” My newborn’s jaundice had shot up to toxic levels.
Throughout the duration that my baby was in the NICU, I was not allowed to hold or feed her for the majority of that time. I just sat with a prayer book in my hands in front of her. There were times when I prayed fervently and there were moments when I was too numb to even speak. Every day felt longer than the next and I was both physically and emotionally exhausted. Yom Kippur was rapidly approaching and I did not know if we would be in the hospital or at home. Finally we were discharged and arrived home less than an hour before Yom Kippur started.
I was indescribably happy that my baby was alive. I was so happy that I was alive. After suffering serious perinatal complications, I was just grateful to be exactly where I was. I came home and it was as though nothing else mattered. We had life!
For the next few weeks I was elated. Meatballs burned? No matter! My baby is alive! Sitting in traffic for hours? Who cares!? We were healthy! Everything was seen through the lens of joy because I was just so grateful to have my life, my baby’s life, and my family’s life.
But this elation lasted a very short while. My lens of joy became foggy and I found myself getting impatient with daily annoyances like the children’s tantrums and the customer service clerks. I almost wished I could go back to that state of bliss, but without the associated trauma that proceeded. How do I hold on to that clarity and remain positive?
Human beings are blessed with the amazing ability to adapt. We can get used to anything, the bad and the good. Experiences that initially bring us joy elicit very little positive emotion over time. What once felt luxurious begins to feel mundane. This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation.
I discovered a couple of effective ways to slow down its effects.
Gratitude journals really work. Starting such a journal has proven to increase our levels of happiness in life. Before my NICU experience, I had started a journal logging in daily entries for anything worthy of appreciation; even for the most seemingly triviality. However, I noticed that with the passage of time, my commitment to writing in the journal daily waned. Not too long afterwards, I had stopped writing in it completely. Once I had adapted to my “joy of life” I had stopped appreciating the gift of life. Resuming this simple practice really helped me regain my appreciation for life and all of the “small stuff” we are blessed with.
Another way to draw our focus towards good is to anticipate it even before it occurs. Neurological studies show that anticipation creates as many positive neuropathways as the positive item itself. In other words, anticipation is a very powerful tool which elicits joy. For example, the longer we wait for a package to arrive, the longer the joy regarding that item lasts. (Lyubomirsky)
Sam Berns was a teenager who had progeria, a disease that caused his cells to rapidly age. Despite being dealt this hand, he had an extremely positive attitude. During a Ted talk he explained that the number one way he stayed happy was by always having something to look forward to. Anticipation creates and sustains joy.
If we have an upcoming family trip to visit my parents or in laws, we mark it on our family calendar and every morning, we as a family count down in anticipation. Our children often call their grandparents to “remind” them of our upcoming visit and to share words of excitement together. This enhances the overall joy surrounding the trip. The actual anticipation increases my children’s joy as well as mine.
It does not even have to be as significant as a trip. Before bedtime, I will often call out to the kids in an excited voice: “Guys! We are having pancakes tomorrow morning! Who wants to pretend to be a waiter and take the order tomorrow morning?” The mundane activity of making breakfast is suddenly transformed into an exciting experience- all because we are now anticipating a shared experience. Nothing changed; just our anticipation. And it works!
Both of these techniques, appreciation and anticipation, help focus our attention in a positive light. I used these techniques to remind myself how fortunate I was to be alive and that my baby was alive. Staying grateful for the positive in our lives is a lifelong goal and challenge. Let us live up to that challenge by increasing our appreciation and anticipation for all that we have.