My Gratitude Experiment

Gratitude: It’s hard to log online lately and not be inundated with this concept. Be thankful! It’s good for you! The New York Times has an article rich with scientific studies and ways to practice gratitude. Facebook friends have been posting what they are thankful for on a daily basis for the last month.

We would have to live in a cave to escape this wave of graciousness chatter. The idea of being thankful sounds too simple or too syrupy sweet to make a difference in our lives. But I’m here to offer up my findings on my own gratitude experiment. It’s not a double-blind study complete with placebo and you won’t find it in any medical journals. Still, the results took me by surprise.

My friend Linda and I have been talking about happiness for a long time. Roughly five years ago, we decided to keep each other informed of ways we found to create cheerfulness in our own lives. This included mining magazines and websites for articles on the topic. Of course we came across the idea of gratitude lists. About two years ago, we started emailing each other gratitude lists when we were feeling really thankful.

This was all fine and good, but it didn’t change my life that much. It was nice to share my joy, and it made my happiness feel a little bit deeper to send it to another person. At least the feeling lasted a little longer, as it took awhile to write it down and send it her way.

Then life hit me over the head with both grief and crankiness. Last September, my family began dealing with my youngest daughter’s learning issues. No, it’s not cancer, but, as a mother, this difficulty felt like a small death. If you are not a mom or a parent, the depth of overwhelming sadness can be hard to understand. I was grieving over the idea that learning wouldn’t come easily to my child. I was pulling her out of bed every morning to go off to a place that she clearly did not want to go to: kindergarten. My girl was dealing with classmates who accused her of scribbling and made her cry in response. I was learning a new language with phrases such as “special education” and “bottom ten percent of class”.

About a month into this process, I realized I needed to figure out a way to feel a bit better about my daily life. I was already running and meditating and doing yoga and talking to friends, but it wasn’t enough. In desperation, I fired off an email to Linda. I wrote, “I’ve decided to do a daily gratitude list and email it to you. I don’t care if you send me a daily list. I just need to look at things in a more positive light and be thankful for the good things. And I need the support of someone reading it.”

And so our emails began. Linda also started sending me a daily list. I fell into the habit of writing my gratitude list after the kids were at school and before I began working on my freelance writing gigs. Linda wrote hers before she went to bed. We even penned these emails on weekends.

In the middle of phone calls regarding testing my girl and reading disturbing paperwork about her classroom time, starting to pick out and write down the happy moments or the interactions I am thankful for really helped change my bleak moods. I can see that my sadness can turn on a dime if I just focus in on being with my girls or really talking to another person, and then I take a snapshot of that moment for the list.

More importantly, I started sifting through the really bad moments. I try to turn the hard stuff upside down. If I start to sob in front of a public school employee because I don’t have the right paperwork, I can be thankful later that I have Chris to call and talk my way out of the tears. If I am telling an acquaintance about my difficulties, I am so grateful for her tears over my story and her hug and her kind words. The world breaks open into this amazing place if I just take notice and write it all down later. No, this daily list doesn’t make my grief and sadness disappear, but it helps my delight take seed and grow. And I seriously would not have believed that writing down a gratitude list would change my life; but it did.

What are the official results of my one-person study? I’m thankful for gratitude.

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