Filling the heart bucket

Soon after my youngest daughter started school she came home talking about her bucket. Her older sister would sometimes be accused in most peremptory tones of emptying the bucket, and when she was happy she would joyfully announce that her bucket was full to overflowing.

It took us a while to twig that this was the way they were talking about emotions in her class. They called it the heart bucket, and every day they talked as a class about the things that were emptying their buckets, and the things that filled them. The metaphor has been growing on me ever since. It works in so many ways.

Some life events don’t just drain your bucket, they punch big holes in the bottom. Some people do that, too. But others can actually strengthen, and even enlarge the bucket in the long term. But sadly we’re not always good judges of how to fill our buckets. I saw an ad yesterday for insurance, and it was a montage of images of people showing great affection for stuff. Big stuff – like cars – and little stuff, like jewellery. The implication of the ad was that stuff makes us happy. And it’s very tempting to believe that.

When we’re sad, or lonely, or dissatisfied with life, it’s so easy to believe that a new X will make us happy, for any given value of X. A new car. New clothes. A new laptop. A new phone. These things will indeed make us smile for a short while, but the thrill of acquisition quickly fades, requiring yet another acquisition to fill the new space in the bucket. Pretty soon we wind up with a house full of stuff and a startlingly empty bucket. It turns out that stuff is an utterly ephemeral contributor to the bucket. It’s like fairy gold that glitters brilliantly by night but evaporates in the sunlight of reality.

There’s been a lot of research lately on kindness and altruism and their positive effects on our health and well being, and it feels to me as though we are finally onto something big.

That big thing is that it’s up to us to fill our own buckets, and the best way to do it is to tend to the buckets of others. As a slogan, I realise that needs a little work. It’s not exactly punchy and attention grabbing. I can’t see a crowd walking around with placards that say: “how’s your bucket?”

But looking after other people, noticing their feelings and their needs, is a profound form of self-care. It takes our heads out of our own rumps and stops us wallowing in all the things that are driving us crazy. The health problems. The work stress. The people who tip us over the edge on a regular basis. If we focus on these things they will surely take us down. Looking after someone else, on the other hand, can lift us right back up again.

The good news is that we don’t have to drop everything and devote ourselves to orphans in developing countries in order to focus on filling buckets. It can be as simple as taking time out to give someone some positive feedback – whether it’s sending an email someone who made you feel good, or appreciating someone who made you a really good coffee. Or my personal favourite: telling a teacher how great they are, and how much you appreciate all their hard work. ;-)

Another great bucket filler is noticing and helping the people around you. On my way to the GP this afternoon on my bike, I passed a mum struggling with a pram on a particularly rough bit of footpath. I paused to ask if she needed a hand. She didn’t, but gosh she was pleased that I had asked. And I was pleased that she was pleased, and there was a whole lot of smiling going on.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how much I enjoyed Adam Hills’ comedy. I tweeted the blog to him, he tweeted a very lovely comment back, and bingo – buckets sloshing about all over the place. This is the sneaky upside to bucket filling – aside from feeling good about filling someone else’s bucket, it often results in reciprocal bucket filling that can go on for a quite remarkably long time.

So whether it’s a famous person, your local barista, or a stranger in the street, filling someone else’s bucket is a wonderful thing to do for your own mental and emotional health.

That’s what’s known as a win-win. Or perhaps we should rename it a slosh-slosh. I think maybe I have to work on my sloganeering. But bucket filling I can do.


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