Bloom where you are planted. Helping others does not need to involve grand gestures (though if you are in a position to effect large, positive change in our society, I applaud and encourage that). Even calling someone who does not have many friends or family is making our world a better place because you are here. You may be the only sunlight in that person’s life.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen.
Maria Leonard Olsen is an author, attorney, radio show host and host of the “Becoming Your Best Version” podcast in Washington, D.C. To learn more about her work, see www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
At age 50, I got divorce, sober, became an empty nester and was living alone for the first time in my life. I had to change everything about my life. I returned to practicing law after having taken 15 years off to raise my children. I decided that, as a gift to myself for my 50th birthday, I would try 50 new things to determine how I wanted to live the next chapter of my life. I did not intend to write a book about it, but so many people aske me for my list and wanted to learn about what I was doing. I use my book as a vehicle to help others reinvigorate their lives. It is called, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life. Practicing gratitude was a huge part of getting me to the place where I am today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
To me, what is the most interesting is how many people I have been able to help. I also am a survivor of sexual assault. One in four women will be assaulted in their lifetimes. Most keep it secret because they are filled with shame. I help teach women how to thrive, not just survive. The #MeToo movement helped to bring a lot of what has been happening to light, but there is so much more work to do. This trauma need not define us. And if people to not process trauma in their lives, it is difficult to recover from it. I needed to allow a trusted woman to bear witness to my pain before I could move on, unencumbered by my trauma.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” — Oprah Winfrey. It is so true. That which we focus on becomes magnified in our lives, so I always try to focus on the good. I volunteered in a poor village in Nepal and saw how happy people could be even if they had so little. It made me realize that it is really relationships and experiences that determine long-lasting happiness.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
I am a big fan of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. It is so simple, yet so profound. One of the lessons he promotes is not to take things personally. We cannot know what another person’s reality is. That person’s reactions often are an amalgam of his or her experiences and may have little to do with you. So I try not to make assumptions about another person’s actions. If someone cuts me off in traffic, it no longer bothers me. That person may have received some bad news. Wearing live like a loose garment in this way has made my life so much more pleasant!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am writing a book on the Pandora’s box of DNA home test kits. So many people, like myself, have had their worlds rocked by surprising DNA test kit results. I would like to share with these people that they do not have to go through this experience alone. There is so much support available. People often take these tests on a lark, unsuspecting that they may discover new relatives, for example. I would like to help people prepare for this journey and also to be aware of the unintended consequences of the mass availability of DNA testing today.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am a member of a 12-step program that helped me recover from alcoholism. My sponsor loved me until I could love myself. She is an extraordinary woman who taught me so much about life and how to forgive myself. I was so full of self-hatred before I got sober. My sponsor, Sandy T., gave so freely of her time to help me. I am forever indebted to her.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
Gratitude for me is about focusing on the good in my life. We take so much for granted. In many parts of the world, people do not know if they will get a meal on any given day. I know that I will eat today. Just waking up each day is cause for gratitude. I am grateful for my health. I am grateful that I can walk, see, touch and hear. Maybe those of us who lost our senses of smell and taste with the Covid virus now appreciate those senses more. Take time to appreciate and think about what is good in your life.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
I think one reason is that we are over-busy. Another is that we grow complacent with our lives and start taking things for granted. Until we lose something, we may not appreciate ever having had it.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
One practice I started with my significant other is that we text each other one thing each day that we appreciate about the other. This practice helps me not dwell on things that may annoy me about him if I think about them enough. We are all human. We are all perfectly imperfect. No relationship can be perfect because we are human. So I focus on the good.
If I wake up each day and think of something I am grateful for, my day is framed in a positive way. The Hasidic Jews have a practice of listing 100 things they are grateful for each day. Even one thing can put me in a good frame of mind.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
I have had debilitating depression twice in my life. Gratitude is not a cure all, by any means. But my therapist helped me, when I was in a very dark place, start to see the light in my life. At one time, I could think of nothing that brought me joy. My therapist advised me to start small. I made a list of everything that brought me joy. It expanded from appreciating ice cream and chocolate to feeling contentedness when the sun was shining upon me. Like a small flame, my gratitude grew.
Volunteering in a developing country also helped me to stop being so me-centered. Many of us have “rich people problems.” Your readership likely has access to heat, shelter and food. That is not the case for vast populations of our world. We can get off of our pity-pot by helping other people.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Realize just how much you have and how much agency you have. Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, really helped me with this important lesson. Frankl was in a concentration camp, yet realized that everything can be taken from you but one thing: Your power to choose your attitude. I can choose my response to anything that happens in my life. I can choose a defeatist reaction or an optimistic one. We can choose. I felt much grief when I got divorced. I kept trying new things until I reached a place where I liked my life once again.
- Not doing anything or not making any changes is a choice. We can stay where we are or make some changes if we do not like where we are. But if we do nothing, we are accepting the gray safety that sameness offers. I believe our world has so much to offer us. The internet has opened up vast sources of learning, for instance, even if we cannot go anywhere because of a pandemic. When I feel stuck, I go on a retreat, by myself or with others. It helps me to remove myself from my daily routine to re-evaluate the direction in which my life is going.
- Bloom where you are planted. Helping others does not need to involve grand gestures (though if you are in a position to effect large, positive change in our society, I applaud and encourage that). Even calling someone who does not have many friends or family is making our world a better place because you are here. You may be the only sunlight in that person’s life.
- When we do esteemable acts, we raise our self-esteem. Be intentional about how you spend your time. Think about how you want to be remembered. Did you do anything kind? Did you make people feel good about themselves? Rescuing a dog that likely would have been euthanized if no one took him made me feel better about myself. Calling a neighbor who lives alone to ask her if she needed anything during the pandemic gave me a boost in feeling useful.
- Look at your old journals every once in a while. This practice helps me realize how far I have come. Many times, the things we worry about never come to fruition. Journaling has helped me with that. My sponsor also taught me to use a “God box.” When something worried me, I was to write it down and put the piece of paper in the box. After a month or two, I opened the box. Not one of the things I worried about came to pass. This practice taught me not to worry about things I could not control and that worry is a waste of energy.
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
I believe in journaling and gratitude lists. Every day, I think of three things for which I am grateful. They can be small or profound. So many of us take for granted access to clean water and health care. Or the fact that we can see, hear or walk. We are all so fortunate, and sometimes don’t realize it. Spending time helping others who are less fortunate can also help us get out of our own heads and stop feeling sorry for ourselves.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
Check out my podcast, “Becoming Your Best Version,” which is available on Spotify, iTunes and six other platforms. I primarily interview extraordinary women who are making a difference in the world. The more we help others, the more we see how lucky we are, even to be alive. I also like the podcast, “Optimal Living,” which gives bite-sized portions of books and articles about how to live a better life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
How about mandatory acts of kindness? What if we all made an effort to make the world better each day? What if we reached out to lonely or sick people, or picked up garbage on the street? There is something each of us can do to raise the vibration of our world.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
My website is www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com. Please follow me on social media at @fiftyafter50. Thanks!
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!