A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with my friend and former student Dr Maya Shankar for a Facebook Live event to answer some of your questions about change.
Maya is an expert on behavioral science - but as we spoke about the amazing emotional resilience we humans often show, she chose to share a very raw and very personal insight.
“You know, my husband and I had a really challenging personal experience the other day. And I remember going to bed thinking: ‘Oh, this is such a shitty day. I hate this day.’”
I’d known about that “shitty day” and what Maya and her husband Jimmy were going through. In fact, I wouldn’t have blamed Maya if she’d cancelled our public conversation to take time to deal with her grief privately.
Maya wants to start a family. “I don’t think there has ever been anything more that mattered to me than eventually becoming a parent.”
But she’s found that she can’t carry a baby herself, so she and Jimmy opted for gestational surrogacy. A woman named Hayley, who they adored, agreed to be their surrogate (“It was like love at first sight,” says Maya) – and the gruelling process began.
Maya talks very openly and bravely about how very hard surrogacy has been on a special episode of her Slight Change of Plans podcast. She discusses how one earlier attempt seemed to be going well, but then a miscarriage occurred.
“And my heart just sank, and I was like: ‘How is this possible? We just saw the baby a few hours ago on the ultrasound.’ To go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a six-hour period… it just felt cruel.”
Maya did what many of us do in painful and difficult situations.
“You want to blame someone… and the easiest person to blame is yourself.”
Just days before our Facebook conversation, there had been another miscarriage. Maya could barely find words to describe the emotions she was going through on that “shitty” day. Physically, she “just wanted to throw up”.
At moments like that - in the very depths of sorrow - it’s hard to contemplate the pain ending, let alone imagine that some day you might be able to experience happiness again.
It was at this point that Maya’s husband did something pretty special.
“Jimmy said: ‘We're going to write gratitude lists.’ And I was like, I don't want to.”
Gratitude is an incredibly important – and often overlooked – component of our wellbeing. Research by Dr Robert Emmons, a professor of Psychology at UC Davis, suggests that taking time to consider all the blessings in our life can give us the emotional resilience to deal with the bad stuff we encounter.
“Gratitude helps us recover from loss and trauma,” says Robert. “It helps us to deal with the slow drip of everyday stress as well as the massive personal upheavals in the face of suffering and pain and loss and trials and tribulations. Gratitude is absolutely essential, it’s a part of our psychological immune system.”
Just like our regular immune system, the psychological immune system helps us fight off the effects of harmful emotional experiences. In his work, Robert has found that people who do things like write a gratitude list sleep better and experience lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
Maya eventually relented, agreeing to Jimmy’s suggestion she write down things she was still grateful for. This is her list:
- My nieces and nephews are happy and healthy and fill me with so much joy and fulfilment.
- Jimmy is the best husband I could've asked for. That shines through during tough moments and I'm grateful for the reminder.
- My morning cup of Indian-style tea continues to bring me comfort.
Maya says she felt the effects right away.
“You start to frame your life differently. You start to have perspective to take some distance from it. I found it to be such a therapeutic exercise.”
I’m not suggesting that a gratitude list makes everything right, or that the grief and sadness of the scale experienced by Maya, Jimmy and Hayley will quickly go away. It can’t. But even in the worst of times, taking time for gratitude can give us a little distance from the pain.
I just wanted to share Maya’s insight that even when we are at our lowest, even when we feel at our saddest and most helpless, there are still tiny positive steps we can take to care for ourselves.