The Tool That’s Keeping My Family Positive
We could all use a glimmer of hope right now. Here’s what’s working for this pediatrician’s family.
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
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A few nights ago, my family and I sat around the firepit in our backyard and cooked dinner.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about that moment. We’ve eaten outside plenty of times before, and the firepit has been in heavy rotation since my son got it for Christmas.
But the air was cool. Not a single mosquito—the state bird of the entire DC region—was to be found. The neighborhood was quiet, the simple food was delicious, and we enjoyed every moment of each other’s company.
We hadn’t planned on it, but it turned out to be a perfect night.
I write this statement with a hefty dose of hesitation. I know full well that there is a great deal of suffering as the world has been tipped on its head these last several months, and I feel lucky to be able to have had this wonderful moment with my family.
And that is exactly why we cherished it.
In fact, my wife, Monica, and I took care to point out to our kids how special that simple moment was. And as soon as we all agreed that it was indeed a night to remember, we each knew exactly what had to happen—we had to put this night into the Jar of Awesome.
If your family doesn’t already have a Jar of Awesome, then right now, this exact moment in time, is the ideal time to start one.
Let me tell you why.
THE JAR OF AWESOME
I’ve written before about the Jar of Awesome and how it’s a great activity for your family throughout the year. The idea is simple:
Keep a large mason jar in a place that’s easily accessible in a room where your family often hangs out. We keep ours in the dining room. Place a small pad of paper and a pencil or pen next to the jar. Throughout the year, whenever something fun or positive happens—whether at home or outside in someone’s day—whoever recognizes the event’s awesomeness writes it down on a piece of paper and places it inside the jar.
Things you write don’t need to be the most amazing events or memories you’ve ever had. Our evening in the backyard wasn’t necessarily anything special—but it felt special to us in the moment. Other events that have been in our Jars of Awesome (we have a new one each year—more on that soon) have included moments that ranged from large to small:
Summer vacation at the beach.
Meeting our friends’ new puppy.
The kids sat under a blanket on the couch and read next to each other.
Yaya’s apple crisp and Christmas cookies.
The time Cole was half asleep and mumbled: “Don’t forget the CheeseGoat!”.
Some moments—like a week at the beach—are clearly big memories. Others, like the kids peacefully reading on the couch, are small moments that might otherwise have been forgotten. “CheeseGoat” has become a fun inside joke in our family because of this card game, and that moment made us laugh so hard! And my mom’s apple crisp—well, it is amazing.
In our house, we read through the previous year’s Jar of Awesome every New Year’s Day. We’re on our third jar now, and this tradition has made every new year start off with love and laughter.
WHY YOUR FAMILY COULD USE THIS RIGHT NOW
I’m sure it’s quite obvious that we could all benefit from focusing on the good things in our lives right now.
But doing so does more than just help us feel good in the moment—it can help us and our kids learn to naturally and more easily find all the moments in life worth celebrating, especially the small ones that we might otherwise miss.
Have you ever had the experience whereby you learn about or think about something, and suddenly you’re seeing it everywhere? It might be a car you’re considering buying and now you notice that same car everywhere on the road. Or perhaps it’s a TV show someone mentioned, and now it seems like everyone’s watching it.
This feeling—that once you’re aware of something it’s suddenly everywhere—is called “frequency illusion,” or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. What’s really happening is a combination of two psychological processes. The first is “selective attention,” which means that once you learn about something interesting, your brain subconsciously keeps a lookout for it to pop up again. When you do see it again, you experience “confirmation bias”—the thought that because you’ve seen it again, how you feel about it must be true—that it really must be everywhere all of a sudden.
Couldn’t we all benefit right now from feeling that life is suddenly filled with a lot more “awesome”?
In fact, science shows that making the effort to notice more of the good might even lead to changes in our brains that help us keep doing it in the future.
When I give workshops on mindfulness for parents & kids, I often talk about Harvard researcher Sara Lazar. In one study, Dr. Lazar looked at three groups of people with different levels of experience with mindfulness—people who had never meditated before, people who took an eight week mindfulness-based course with exercises focusing on self-awareness, compassion, and attention; and Buddhist monks who had practiced similar exercises for decades.
When Lazar used fMRI to look at the brain structure of people in each of the groups, she found that the more practice someone had with these mindfulness exercises, the thicker the areas of the brain in charge of focus, self-awareness, and emotional regulation had grown. The conclusion is that by practicing activities that focus on attention, introspection, and compassion, someone could strengthen their brain’s potential for performance in those areas—essentially, practicing focus, compassion, and introspection makes it easier for you to then practice them more in the future.
With the Jar of Awesome, you are encouraging everyone in your family to practice paying attention to what’s good in life at all times—even the hard times. And the more we look for the special moments, whether they’re big or fleeting, the easier it becomes to find them.
WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR KIDS TO REMEMBER?
It was maybe a month or so ago when it seemed like my Facebook feed was filled friends and family venting about the challenges of teaching their kids at home via Zoom.
Around that time, I began to see different variations of the same meme being passed around—it said: “After all of this, your kids won’t remember the details of what they learned at home. But they are going to remember how they felt.”
There is certainly some truth in that. This year is a different one to say the least, and is sadly going to spark some hard memories for many families.
But my hope is that no matter what lies ahead, when my family—and yours—reads through the 2020 Jar of Awesome next January 1st, we see that we were able to find a wealth of love, laughter, and memorable moments to treasure together.