My friend Mary Raymond and I were corresponding by email the other day. She wanted to insert a slightly freaked-out/chattering tooth emoji that had not yet been envisioned by Apple (because I was nervous about a speaking engagement and also it was very cold out… she understood!!). I was distressed because I couldn’t figure out how to use emojis on my new Ipad. She took the conversation to the next level: “This is the existential crisis of our time: if you can’t find the appropriate emoji, did you really feel the corresponding emotion at all?”
Mary Raymond is good at emojis – and guest posts. (We both love a good self-help book.) Today, she’s thinking about The Gratitude Diaries: How A Year Of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, by Janice Kaplan.
How do you respond to suggestions that some product/practice/prescription will change your life? I have fallen for these messages too many times to count. To wit: the “dermatologist approved” skin care regimen which set my face aflame; the therapeutic shirt designed to stop my cat Mavis’s yowling which only seemed to paralyze her (while she yowled); countless kitchen gadgets and recipe books which were no match for my lackluster culinary skills.
Maybe this is why for most of my life I eschewed “self-help” books. I didn’t really believe change was possible. Or, if I could change, it would only be after mastering impossible skills like remaining positive in the face of adversity or giving up Extreme Moose Tracks chocolate ice cream. I was fairly confident I couldn’t do either of those things and certainly not both at the same time.
But in recent years I have read several interesting books exploring the mind-body connection, and I have felt the benefits of making subtle shifts in my thinking and behavior. One of the most beneficial changes came after reading Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life.
Kaplan has experienced professional success as a magazine editor, television producer, writer, and journalist. She had a good life by almost any definition, but she knew that she often spent more time dwelling on the negative aspects of her life than appreciating the positive. The framing device of the book is her year-long quest to embrace gratitude and look on the bright side, come what may. She made this resolution after encountering a particularly grumpy woman at a New Year’s Eve party and feeling emotionally drained by her steady offering of complaints and negativity. Kaplan realized that the upcoming year would bring both positive and negative experiences, and the only thing she could control was how she chose to respond.
Each chapter focuses on how intentional gratitude impacts various aspects of her life: her marriage, her relationship with her sons, her career, etc. She brings a natural curiosity to her discussions with psychologists, professors, and physicians as she learns more about the positive effects of gratitude on our physical and mental health. Kaplan learned that “gratitude wasn’t the same as happiness – it has a much deeper resonance…It requires an active emotional involvement – you can’t be passively grateful, you actually have to stop and feel it, experience the emotion. So it creates an inner richness that’s sustaining in difficult times as well as good ones.”
Focusing on gratitude forces us to turn our attention away from what we lack and celebrate what we already have. Our ancestors often held on to negative information because it could be lifesaving to remember which berry in the forest was poisonous.
This survival skill is less helpful in the modern world where we gloss over positive comments so that we can ruminate on the one negative piece of feedback we received.
One of the first areas where Kaplan chose to focus her gratitude was her marriage. She recognized that the intimacy and familiarity of marriage didn’t necessarily breed contempt, but they did make it much easier to take one’s spouse for granted. She resolved to look for her husband’s traits and actions that she appreciated and express that appreciation to him. One night when he was driving them home in the snow from a late-night party she told him how grateful she was that he drove in foul weather.
The comment caught him off guard because driving had always been “his” job in the give-and-take of their relationship, and he didn’t realize it mattered to her. She was specific in her appreciation: his driving when they were both tired and the streets were icy made her feel safe and loved. Without further discussion Kaplan noticed that her husband began reciprocating her gratitude, sincerely offering his thanks for her preparation of a dinner of frozen ravioli. The things they chose to appreciate about each other were as pedestrian as they were specific. The act of expressing gratitude – even for something seemingly inconsequential like heating up a frozen dinner – had a significant impact on their marriage. As both partners looked for ways to show their appreciation for each other, they felt seen in ways they had not experienced since their early days together.
Kaplan soon noticed that gratitude seemed to beget more gratitude, and articulating her appreciation had a lasting positive impact on her mood. When she shared these findings with a professor of marriage and family therapy, he explained that “there is strong neurological evidence showing that circuits in the brain can be primed to create stronger feelings of connection.” Gratitude doesn’t just create a positive mood in the moment. It actually conditions the mind for increased positivity.
Kaplan continued her experiment throughout the year and felt the benefits of focusing on gratitude in other areas of her life. She sought out experts who explained the science behind the positive effects she experienced, and this served to reinforce her efforts. She interviewed people who had found comfort from choosing to focus on gratitude despite enduring crushing losses. She learned that they used gratitude not as an escapist trope to convince themselves that their current circumstances were somehow different than they were. Rather, they “made a concerted effort to flip from the darkness and find some cracks of light – and they didn’t do it just once, but repeatedly. Every day. Over and over. You could almost see them working to be grateful, and the gratitude paying them back.” They weren’t making the effort because it changed their circumstances. They made the effort because it brought them a sense of comfort and hope when little else did.
Kaplan’s book inspired me to start my own gratitude diary.
I enjoyed the ritual of identifying three things I felt grateful for each day. Pretty soon, I noticed two positive developments.
First, taking time to consider what I’m grateful for each day has made me more optimistic. I realized that there were days where it was easier to come up with three items and days when it was more of a struggle. In either case, just the effort of focusing on the abundance of things for which I felt grateful kept me from dwelling on what I thought I might be missing. This shift in focus was a natural boost to my optimism.
The second thing gratitude gave me was the ability to live in the moment. I’m afraid I haven’t found a less New-Agey way to describe it. When I felt grateful for something during the day – the slant of sunlight through the jade plants in my office window, shared laughter with a friend, the sound and vibration of Mavis’s purr – I really relished those individual moments. Temporarily relieved of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, I felt content in the present. After enough of those moments I realized how much time I wasted racing through life, hurrying to check off the list of things I thought I needed to accomplish so that I could finally just rest. Taking time to focus on gratitude helped me relax and enjoy the moments of my life instead of just trying to survive them.
I am not a naturally positive person. I have been that woman Janice Kaplan encountered at the New Year’s Eve party. When more optimistic friends try to encourage me with positive thoughts about what the future holds I sometimes just stare at them with the quizzical remove of Jane Goodall surrounded by chimpanzees. Hasn’t anyone taught these suckers about the manifold joys of catastrophizing?!? Practicing gratitude helped increase my optimism in a way that never felt forced. Over time I learned that negativity didn’t have to be my default option. Optimism could be learned.
Maybe this was the greatest gift of focusing on gratitude. It wasn’t just a pleasant surprise to learn that I really could change. I could create enduring, positive benefits in my life by introducing a simple ritual which helped me change my perspective. And that changed everything else.
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Lately I’ve been very grateful for the white and pink dogwoods and the kwanzaa cherry in my yard…