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Health Hack #22 - The Power Of Gratitude

In thinking through potential subjects for this week’s Health Hack, we’ve wrestled with a variety of ideas. The first that came to mind was to discuss at home exercise hacks. With our gyms closed, and with virtually everyone relegated to their houses nearly all of the time, how can we get creative and find ways to emulate much of the things we typically do at our gym? Interesting subject for sure, and quite possibly one we’ll tackle in the coming weeks, should these lockdowns continue. However the subject began to feel a bit tired as this week wore on, with virtually every social media fitness influencer tackling exactly the same dilemma. So this notion was placed on the shelf, at least for now.

The second idea that began to marinate was to highlight foods that best boost our immunity. Again, a subject very relevant to these times, and one that we’ll surely visit at some point, possibly as early as next week. But something about hitting this topic right now felt a tad off-putting. None of us understand the full scope of what’s upon us. That said, we didn’t want readers left thinking “real food isn’t going to protect us from this at all”, and be rubbed the wrong way. As we gather more intel and get a better sense of the long term scope here, this may feel more appropriate. When it does, we’ll happily divulge, as it’s a very pertinent subject.

Stepping into the first person here, as I’ve done only once thus far in a Health Hack that happens to be most similar to this (Eating (Real Food) Mindfully), there was a trivial experience I had yesterday that gave me pause after the fact. My wife and I have a 5 month old puppy at home, and she’s quite skilled at wreaking havoc. Despite many attempts to encourage her to begin Eating Mindfully (😉), she actually eats so quickly that she forgets to chew. Literally. As a result, she’ll occasionally throw up her entire prior meal, often perfectly intact. It’s a bit of a marvel at how she’s even able to pull that off.

She invariably chooses the worst places for this to occur. On an area rug, only inches beside a vast swath of uncovered, easily cleanable, hardwood flooring. On the couch, also beside our hardwood floor. In her bed, which is a tiny island in a sea of hardwood flooring. Very frustrating.

Getting to the point, as I was readying to head downtown yesterday, already running a bit late, she decided to leave me with a pretty impressive mess to clean, right smack dab in the middle of her bed. This would ordinarily throw me into a momentary fit of rage. However my reaction yesterday defied my norm. Instead, my immediate response was that of sympathy, and I began cleaning without any ill will or frustration. To be clear - I’ve never been angry at our puppy per se, but thoroughly agitated by the situation in general. “Doesn’t it dawn on you that you should start eating more slowly and chewing more thoroughly?” “You watch me clean this up every time. You know what a pain it is when it's on fabric - couldn’t you at least beckon me to be let outside, or at least do your thing on the wood?”

I dissected my uncharacteristic reaction on my drive, and began replaying the entire week in my head…

Last Friday seemed fairly normal. Business was pretty standard for a Friday in March. Everyone knew full well that Covid-19 was potentially sweeping across the country, but the tension wasn’t yet fully palpable.

Then the president hit the airwaves and declared a national emergency. The unease was quickly elevated come last weekend. Our local Whole Foods was a mob scene. Mandates had already been issued at a variety of local levels.

Boom. By Monday most offices were becoming empty, our stores were markedly slower, the streets seemed quieter, and things were drastically different than the previous weekday.

Come Tuesday our restaurants became utter ghost towns. By now virtually everyone was forced to work from home at best, or in many cases left with no ability to work at all. The city took on an eeriness that I’ve never seen, as though the Rittenhouse district had become a movie set, but the film production crew had taken a hiatus from shooting. Everything was empty. By nightfall we were forced to make the difficult decision to close two of our stores entirely, and left having to convert our lone open store (16th & Walnut) to takeout only. The mania was in overdrive.

In hanging out with family last evening - awkwardly forgoing the traditional hugs, picking nuts and olives out of segregated bowls, washing our hands nearly every minute - we remarked that the last time we were together seemed soooo long ago. In reality it had only been a week and a half, but it truly felt like more than a month. Ironically, we had gotten together for dinner out in the city, less than a week before that pastime became impossible in Philadelphia and elsewhere throughout the world.

At least in my memory, each passing day this last week was ripe with a multitude of thoughts, stories, changes, stress, news, and strangeness, to where each day seemed more like a week, and the week felt more like a month. Driving into work yesterday, fresh from cleaning up after our dog, I was replaying these days, and stumbling upon a recurring theme. I was far less hung up over the small stuff than I could ever recall. I wasn’t complaining to my wife at the end of the day, lamenting over what had gone wrong. It dawned on me that the same was true in reverse. I was eating more slowly and thoughtfully, which is always a battle I wage against myself, forever aiming to just slow things down and be present. I wish I could be a better example for my dog. Despite everything that had so quickly gone awry, I felt pretty grounded, and it showed as I replayed my behavior. I certainly didn’t recognize these changes in the moment, but hindsight is so reliably 20/20.

Throughout this past week, I recall myself continually acknowledging that things could be worse. Our restaurants are getting clobbered, but so are everyone else’s. We’re all in this together. I feel healthy and vibrant (knock on wood), but even if I shouldn’t, I have access to a health care system that though far from perfect, is plenty sufficient to do the trick for someone like me. I have family. I have shelter. I have food. I am lucky, even in this wild Covid-19 paradigm. And for that, I’m grateful. It became clear to me that it’s through gratitude that I was able to keep my head up throughout the week, and shrug off all of the chaos and negativity. Whatever was being thrown my way was most assuredly affecting countless others far worse.

As cliche as it may sound, gratitude is a very powerful thing. When we’re able to be present and really take stock of our surroundings and possessions, it helps to frame things and provide us with a better perspective. There is an entire neuroscience dedicated to the exploration of gratitude, and time and again it’s proven to reduce anxiety and grief. Though thus far this article may seem misaligned with our traditional “health hacks”, it’s easy to argue that there are few strategies out there more in line with improving our well being, which in large part helps dictate our health and wellness. Gratitude has an uncanny ability to reduce cortisol levels, which happen to be our primary stress hormones, and the ones largely responsible for our increased anxieties and our inability to sleep well. Devout meditators (even those who practice no more than 5-10 minutes per day) are shown to create new neural networks in their brains that compel calmness of mind, and the notion of gratitude is deeply embedded in virtually all forms of meditation. And if any of you have endured a hot, rigorous yoga class - an exercise practice deeply rooted in ancient meditation traditions - then you’re likely able to relate to that sense of nirvana you feel once the class has ended, grateful for virtually everything.

I’ll often have podcasts or videos playing in the background while I work on the computer, and I’ll bookmark certain tidbits that jump out at me as a reminder to visit later. During a speech that an online mentor of mine was giving on the softening of the minds of our newest up and coming generation (that I listened to last month), he reminded the audience that if they earn more than $32,000 per year, then they’re in the 1%. We all recall the whole 1% debate back in the Occupy Wall Street days, where the “99%” was a self-selected group of protestors, positioned against those Americans they deemed to be the one percenters. But when you step back and view things from a global perspective, there’s a very good chance that most readers of this article are themselves true one percenters. And even if you aren’t, if you can step back only a tad further, then it’s fairly easy to accept that you have it better and easier than well over 99% of all of our common ancestors, dating back to the beginning of mankind. Covid or not, we have it easy.

Like Mindful Eating, being diligent about consciously staying grateful is an uphill battle I’m liable to fight for many many years. Just this morning I snapped at my laptop because I couldn’t figure out how to attach an audio file to an email. It’s important that readers know full well that I’m not riding any high horse, and that these articles are as much calls to action for me as they are for everyone else. Change is hard, and sometimes life is hard, but if we can just manage to shift our perspective a bit, it may not be as hard as we think. And it’s certainly nowhere near as hard as so many others have it...

Be Grateful.