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For one difficult year in my twenties, I walked around in a state of awe and gratitude. I was buried in school work, living far from friends, family, and my partner. My housemates did strange things like walk around in their underwear and leave the gas stove on when they weren’t cooking. The city was buried under feet of snow for what felt like months, and each day I trudged through the sludge and grime and dodged the splashes from great pools of mucky water at each crosswalk. I found most of the people I encountered in public spaces to be rude and cold.
But I was at Harvard, earning my masters degree and studying alongside kind, passionate, and brilliant students and professors.
It was a nerd’s dream, and through all the stressors of that year, I never stopped being grateful for the opportunity and privilege of being there.
I bring up Harvard here not to humble-brag (in truth, it’s not something I mention widely and is only rarely brought up in the context of my career), but to reflect on gratitude and how it got me through that year.
I was lucky that most of the friends I met were also grateful to be there. They were motivated to make the best of the time we had and many of them accomplished amazing things. But I remember one friend in particular who Just. Hated. It. She hated everything about being there. She slogged through projects and dragged herself to class, waiting for the weekend when she would return to her nearby hometown to see her family and boyfriend.
I didn’t understand. Couldn’t she see what an enormous privilege it was to be there?
I didn’t get it then, but I do now: even in the face of enormous privilege, it can be hard to appreciate what we have. Gratitude is a choice.
Sometimes it’s not an easy one—even when it seems like it should be, on the surface.
No matter how much overarching luck, privilege, or fortune someone has, they still have the struggles of daily life: They spill coffee all over themselves before a big meeting. They back into a car. They get stuck in traffic jams. A project they worked on for months takes a bad turn. They feel stuck in a situation that doesn’t feel right (like my friend). Their house floods. They or their loved ones get sick. Friends and family die.
Any and all of these things, and more, can happen to anyone. And even when everything else seems to be going right, most people’s tendency is to focus on the bad things in their life—small or large, those are the things that dominate our thoughts.
Which brings me to one of my recent reads, The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, by Janice Kaplan.
Kaplan is a successful author, journalist, and television producer who decided to take a year to explore how gratitude affected all areas of her life. Make no mistake: Kaplan comes from a place of privilege: she is wealthy, successful, married to a doctor, has famous contacts that she name drops freely throughout the book, and lives a life that many only dream of with an apartment in Manhattan and a country house in Connecticut. In writing this book, she opens herself to the same criticisms I do above: she is enormously privileged, so how could she possibly not be grateful all the time? And indeed, Kaplan doesn’t do much to acknowledge her high level of privilege.
But criticisms about what one should and should not be grateful for are beside the point. Kaplan may have job-related stresses, while someone else is out of a job and wondering what she has to complain about, while someone else is too ill to work, while someone else is fleeing war. These things are certainly not equal. There is no denying that some challenges are much worse and more horrific than others. The attempt here is to appreciate the good that we do have and gain some perspective and realization of the luck we have in NOT facing certain challenges.
Anyway, I was skeptical when I started reading about her “one-year project”—there are so many these days, almost all of which feel like gimmicks with a book deal as the aim. And maybe this was too, but it’s something I can get on board with.
Kaplan takes the approach on focusing on one area of her life each month. She starts with her marriage, then moves on to her kids, daily interactions, possessions, finances, career, health, weight, and generosity. She also explored the physical side of gratitude: how to prime your body and mind for it (nature!), and how being grateful affects your physical state and the connections in your brain. Perhaps most poignant was the chapter on maintaining gratitude in the face of great loss.
Through her own endeavors to be more grateful, Kaplan speaks with experts who provide research-based evidence for the benefits of living a grateful life. Better mental health, stronger relationships, greater contentment, even a tendency to actually seem to “attract luck” (when you’re looking for the good in life, you’re much more likely to find it!). One of the best quotes to sum it all up:
“At the beginning of the year, the marriage and family therapist Dr. Brian Atkinson had told me that ‘the relentless pursuit of positivity’ could change my neural pathways and rewire automatic responses. A whole slew of studies showed that taking the time to have loving, giving, and grateful feelings could change how your brain functioned in emotion-related areas.”
It’s these “automatic responses” that interest me most. I find that so often our days feel “ruined” by just one or two negative things happening—we focus on the negative and forget the positive. This is borne out in many of our interactions; we get together to vent and commiserate, one-upping each other in our tales of busyness, misery, and hardship.
I’m not immune to these types of responses, and I’ve found myself especially prone to them in my years of parenting young children—tantrums, emotional outbursts, uncooperativeness—these very normal toddler behaviors are all triggering for me, and I can admit that I’m not always a model of grace and patience. These things do sometimes affect my mood for good parts of the day. Changing my automatic responses and figuring out how to reframe the difficult parts of parenting feels essential.
But even beyond parenting, I want to feel that I’m appreciating, every day, everything that I have in life. I shouldn’t have to be in a location like Harvard to realize that I’m lucky.
Kaplan discusses a few ways to practice gratitude—and she makes the point the gratitude is like a muscle; the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. Gratitude journals, daily texts or emails to loved ones, and the most impactful of all: writing a letter of gratitude to someone and presenting it to them in person. The positive effects of this last one have been shown to last for months.
For myself, I’ve started with the gratitude journal. At my desk in my home office, I keep a notebook that I use to plan out simple to-dos and reminders for each day (I like pretty colored pens, but to call it a bullet journal would conjure much fancier visions than reality).
Right on each calendar page, I’ve started keeping a list of things I’m grateful for—I do this for its built-in convenience and zero barriers to success: the notebook is open and being used anyway, so there’s no separate effort to get out my special gratitude journal (and this may be weird, but yes, it would be a barrier for me).
I add items throughout the day as they come to mind, so I usually end up with more than the standard “three things.” I’m not at my desk every day, so this happens several times a week, but having it in front of me and adding through the day helps me to maintain a grateful mindset.
As far as what I list, standard things always come to mind: family, friends, home. But I also try to have perspective on some of the basics of life. When I fill my water bottle I’m grateful for clean, running water that I don’t have to haul from miles away. When the furnace kicks on during cold weather, I’m grateful for the heat and comfort. I try to consciously remember to feel grateful in these small moments that I otherwise take for granted each day.
I’m also trying to flip some of the things that trigger negative responses: when my 11-year-old dog is waking me up at night to go outside, I try to be grateful for his health and mobility in his old age. When my kids have made a huge mess with their toys, I try to appreciate the intricate stories that they’ve created. When my three-year-old is whining, I try to remember that it’s developmental and a stepping-stone from only crying to more fully being able to express herself (this is a hard one!).
My efforts are a bit more uneven than Kaplan’s, but I’ve still noticed more general positivity in my attitude and life. This book was a library checkout, but I might consider purchasing this book to periodically revisit and remind myself of all the reasons to strive for a life of gratitude.
How about you? How do you practice gratitude? Any stories of how it’s affected your life?