Varnell, of Austin, has a knack for finding joy in small moments. She also has multiple sclerosis and has used a wheelchair for many years. Since her diagnosis in 1991, she says, she has sought out everyday positive experiences, such as that toddler-TV break.
As a result, she says, “my life is better now than before I had MS.”
Varnell’s story is not just another anecdote. It’s the inspiration for a recently published study that showed that others with MS who engage in uplifting activities — even saying “thank you” and dining with friends — report fewer symptoms of depression and a higher quality of life than those who don’t.
Here’s the back story: Varnell participates in a long-term study of MS patients run by the University of Texas at Austin and financed by the National Institute on Nursing. One year, while filling out page after page of study questions, Varnell became frustrated. The scientists wanted to know how much pain she had, how often she felt sad, whether she was losing her sight and whether she was ever embarrassed by her appearance. “It was all negative, negative, negative.”
So Varnell sent researchers Lorraine Phillips and Alexa Stuifbergen a list of about 60 questions she wished they had asked — such as whether she had taken a nice nap, gone to a movie or enjoyed a picnic lately.
To her delight, the researchers agreed, in 2005, to ask participants whether they had engaged in 35 positive experiences, all chosen from Varnell’s list.
The results, published in the March issue of the Journal of Holistic Nursing: People who checked off the most items for a given week were the least depressed and had the highest quality of life. That was true even for those who had the most severe MS-related limitations, such as not being able to walk.
The study does not prove that positive habits stave off depression in such chronically ill people. It’s possible that people who do those things are just more resiliently happy anyway. But seeking positive experiences might help, says Phillips, now at the University of Missouri. In other words, she says, Varnell’s list “could be an intervention” for people with MS and other chronic illnesses.
Included on the final list: “I watched Sesame Street just to see children laughing, playing and singing.” Also included:
“I said thank you and meant it.”
“I phoned a friend.”
“I went to visit a friend.”
“I said something pleasant to someone else who didn’t expect it.”
“I crossed off something on my to-do list because I finished it.”
“I learned something new.”
“I was a volunteer or agreed to become a volunteer.”
“I went to a library and checked out a book to read.”
“I went shopping and bought something for myself.”
“I pampered myself with a manicure, massage, new haircut or relaxing bath or shower with a new cologne or perfume.”
“I don’t think I’ve watched Sesame Street lately, but I’ve used just about everything else on that list,” says Jenni Prokopy, a writer in Chicago who has fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, and blogs at ChronicBabe.com.
“When I’m not feeling well, doing some of these things can help me feel better.”
Helping others is also a tonic, she says.
Varnell agrees. Recently she volunteered at a MS charity walk. She worked all day, signing the certificates of people who finished the walk, chatting with participants and thanking them. She should have been exhausted the next day. Instead, she says, “I felt great.”
What are your small moments?????