This blog is about being grateful – with a twist. Let me give a little backstory that is the inspiration for this blog. I was a “free range kid” growing up in the 70s and 80s. My childhood was a lot like the kids in Stranger Things, without the Demogorgon and the Upside Down (although I did play a LOT of Dungeons & Dragons!). I have fond memories of roaming my neighborhood to play with friends and going on various adventures. My parents were there for me but gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted as long as I told them where I was going and that I’d be home for dinner.
Now, there are tremendous advantages to being a free range kid, as many of us will tell you. However, as a parent of three boys myself, I do worry about some of the dangers out there. As I reflect on my own experiences as a child, I can remember a number of occasions in which I might have gotten seriously injured or even died. Well, I actually did get injured on many occasions, but not too badly (e.g., several broken bones, broke my nose twice, concussed, stitches, dog bites, gently hit by a car on my bike). Some of our best life lessons are learned from the “school of hard knocks.” Sometimes such knocks are quite literal. I’m grateful that I’m alive to tell you that I learned the following life lesson without it killing me.
An Almost Fatal Walk With My Friend
When I was about 10 years old, I had a best friend who also happened to be named “Mike.” He was a free range kid too, so we would often go about our adventures together. We enjoyed going to the bayou to catch snakes and turtles, riding our bikes on the wooded trails next to our houses, and swimming endless hours at our neighborhood pool.
Mike and I also liked to walk to a strip center of stores that was fairly nearby. We’d buy candy, comic books, and play the two arcade games at the Weingarten’s grocery store (Phoenix and Star Castle). Our parents trusted us to walk to the store, but we often walked on the shoulder of a busy road for there was no sidewalk on the shortest route to these stores. I’m not sure our parents knew about that part.
As we walked home from the stores on this fateful, almost fatal, day, I noticed a really long, thin metal pole that was in the grass along the roadside. Being an inquisitive kid, I decided to examine the pole by lifting it upright. The pole was quite long – about 20′ as I recall. As I lifted the pole up, I paused to look at how high it reached into the sky. I froze in terror as I saw this metal pole was about an inch away from the power lines that went along the roadside.
Now, I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed as a 10-year-old, but I had enough sense to push the pole away from the power line back into the grass. I exclaimed to my buddy, Mike, that I just about electrocuted myself. He expressed some sympathy, but we both basically went “whew!” and proceeded on our way home. I don’t recall thinking too much about my near electrocution until I became a psychologist. Now, I’m using this, sort of, near death experience, in my practice of gratitude. You probably have your own “near misses” that you can recall to help in this gratitude practice.
When Almost Counts
As a psychologist, I’m acutely interested in the problem of suffering and what can help us improve well-being. One strategy to improve well-being is to develop a practice of gratitude. Because of a negativity bias, our minds tend to focus more upon the negatives than the positives in life. This bias has its roots in our evolutionary heritage as it was more important for our ancestors to pay attention to negative news (e.g., there are lions nearby) to positive news (there’s an apple tree nearby). Missing out on negative news could have deadly consequences whereas we’d likely live to see another day if we missed out on positive news.
We are such adaptive creatures that we habituate and take for granted the many positive aspects of this wonderous world. Thus, we get used to positives such as clean running water, hot showers, smartphones, streaming movies, air travel, easy access to yummy foods, and so on such that they don’t really make us happy anymore. We just become unhappy when we are deprived of them. Ironically, because our world is so much better than that of our ancestors, we’ve adapted to all the wonderful things we have such that they seem “normal” and go unappreciated.
Practicing gratitude on a daily basis helps us to appreciate the positives that are right in front us and offset our incredible ability to adapt to life’s circumstances. Now, certainly we can appreciate the many positives that we too often take for granted. However, another strategy that we can use is to be grateful for the negatives didn’t happen to us but almost did. One of the Five Pathways of Growth is changing our thoughts, and thinking about “near misses” falls within this pathway.
Being Grateful for What Didn’t Happen
A benefit to being human is that we have these amazing brains that help us imagine possibilities. We can simulate experiences, problem-solve, create, and invent – all within our minds. This is a tremendous benefit that has led to countless innovations and societal progress. Our big brains also help us reflect upon our past experiences to create narratives that either help us grow or hold us back. On the downside, partly because of the evolutionarily-based negativity bias, we can imagine terrible and terrifying futures and endlessly criticize ourselves for perceived shortcomings and blunders from our past.
When bad things almost happen but don’t, we tend to feel some short-term relief and then go about our business. However, we might be missing a golden opportunity to use our big brains to celebrate in what didn’t happen. Imagine that one of those bad things almost happened. For example, imagine that you were paying attention while driving so you braked to halt rather than running over the pedestrian who jaywalked right in front of you while eyes buried into their phone.
Now, had you been messing with your phone while driving, you might have run that person over. The jaywalker would have suffered, and you would have suffered…immeasurably. You would think to yourself, “Oh, no! This is tragic! I’ll never get over this! If only I hadn’t been looking at my phone…or that person wasn’t jaywalking on their phone! Oh, if I had just one wish, I would wish that had not happened!”
We have the ability to use our powerful brains to imagine how much suffering there would have been had this particular negative event occurred. We now mentally time travel to our present reality and see that, “Oh my gosh! My dearest wish came true! This horrible thing DID NOT HAPPEN!”
Celebrating Bad Events That Didn’t Happen
When we really think about, we should not just be grateful for “near misses” that we encounter in life. We should celebrate them! We should feel happy when we narrowly avoid suffering, but we don’t appreciate this as much as we could or should. However, you can make this a practice that you start today. You can even reflect upon “near misses” from your past and be grateful for them right now…even daily!
For me, I remind myself that I was a blink of an eye, an inch, from death. Every day that I’m alive is an incredible gift to be cherished and celebrated. Shifting my perspective from regretting the positives that could have been to celebrating the negatives can powerfully affect our outlook on life.
Try Using This Strategy But Be Careful
I did mention that one must be careful trying to be grateful for the near misses in life. Our minds are incredibly powerful and the pull of the negativity bias is quite strong. As we reflect on near misses, we might start to ruminate upon “near misses” in negative ways that cause anxiety or other negative feelings. Also, within the neural network of our memories, reflecting upon near misses might activate memories of bad things that did happen. Such memories might bring us down as well.
No strategy designed to improve well-being works for everyone and not in every circumstance. If you find a practice of being grateful for near misses to be helpful, wonderful! If not, there are many pathways