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I had a discouraging year. I was working on a book that wouldn't flow, trying to write stories I felt fearful to feel and ill equipped to tell. Nothing bad had happened to me, yet I was spiritually cranky and emotionally depleted. Even my ordinary daily pleasures -- a perfect cup of morning coffee, the late-afternoon light illuminating the cityscape outside my window, the proper degree of curl in my hair -- left me feeling unimpressed. No matter how often I told myself what you probably tell yourself when you feel grumpy and frustrated -- a hundred versions of "Be grateful you're not sick or homeless or living in Iraq" -- nothing helped.
Then I spent the summer at an artists' colony in the woods of New Hampshire. For seven weeks I enjoyed what was for me, a city girl, an exotic escape. I was mesmerized by the deer and wild turkeys that grazed in the meadow beyond my writing studio. I listened to the trees shiver and the insects gossip. I read and read and wrote and wrote. My lunch turned up in a basket outside my door, and in the evenings I laughed with new friends around the dinner table, played some Ping-Pong, then let the stars guide me back to bed. In that alternate life I rediscovered what I'd been missing -- the pleasure of being myself. Through some alchemy of sky and grass and quiet and laughter, the fear retreated, the sentences came, and the dissatisfaction melted away. How lucky I am, I found myself thinking in those woods many times over, as I savored the color of the sky, the flavor of the soup, or just the ease of my own breath. It was when I tried to give my luck a name that the name turned out to be gratitude.Why It Feels So Good
According to a series of new studies, the well-being I felt in the woods has a scientific basis. "Grateful people tend to be the happiest," says Michael McCullough, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami. McCullough was one of the investigators on the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness. Study subjects who did regular "gratitude interventions" felt so much better afterward that even their spouses noticed the difference. "People who are grateful tend to have low rates of depression," he explains. "With gratitude, there is virtually no downside."
We've long accepted the idea that a grateful outlook on life is desirable, but more because it speaks to one's character rather than life satisfaction. After all, we've been schooled since childhood to give thanks, be it in the form of a handwritten note or grace spoken before a meal. We are surrounded by paeans to the gratefully lived life, whether it is the prayerful "Namaste" (thank you) of yoga class or the reflective readings at spiritual retreats.
All of which makes the latest research into gratitude's measurable benefits so intriguing. It implies that simply by noticing, day by day, the relationships, events, and experiences that benefit us, we can extend gratitude's psychic rewards to our physical health and our psychological attitude.
How is it gauged? In one study, researchers asked a group of healthy college-age adults to keep a weekly list of five things for which they were grateful ("the generosity of friends," "the music of the Rolling Stones," "wonderful parents"), while another group of students was asked to track hassles ("stupid people driving," "messy kitchen no one will clean," "finances depleting quickly") or to rate their responses to various life events ("learned CPR," "cleaned out my shoe closet"). A third group, this one consisting of adults with chronic neuromuscular diseases, wrote down what they were grateful for each day for three weeks ("my boss for understanding my needs," "my paperboy for being so reliable"), while a similar group counted burdens instead.
According to results published in the March 2003 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the participants who counted blessings -- whether they were the healthy students or the chronically ill adults -- reported feeling more energetic and a heightened sense of mental well-being. The students exercised more; the chronically ill adults reported sleeping well and waking up more refreshed. The grateful groups also reported feeling optimistic and better about their lives as a whole -- they looked forward to making progress toward important goals. Gratitude also turned out to be measurable in the moral sphere. The grateful groups were more likely to help someone with a personal problem or to offer emotional support.
Psychologists and other experts speculate that some people are genetically predisposed to be grateful, much the way some have a flair for drawing and others are shy in a group. "There are people who seem on the face of it to have very little to be thankful about, yet they're still grateful," observes Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher in Barre, Massachusetts. People with grateful natures tend to feel grateful whether something good happens to them or not. Feeling grateful is, in essence, their baseline mood, their personality's default screen saver, if you will.Noticing the Positive
Of course, science has yet to invent a once-a-day gratitude pill. But even if we're tough to impress or our life has hit turbulence or we're simply feeling feelingless, we can still get a significant boost by acknowledging whichever events and experiences have gone right for us -- a sunny day, a good parking space, our mate bringing us a cup of tea unbidden, a favorite song coming over the radio. "It's not about forcing a feeling," says Salzberg. "It's about paying attention in a different way. Challenges can feel permanent, as if they'll never go away. But the truth in life is that everything changes. And in the meantime we can make a conscious effort to look at the good."
Elaine Porter, a 46-year-old sales associate in Chicago and the mother of two sons, chose gratitude as a response when she was a girl, growing up in a chaotic home. "My dad was an alcoholic, and my parents fought a lot." Porter says that her older sister watched out for her. "She even took me along with her on dates." Porter remembers understanding at a young age that, to get by, she would "have to look for what was positive," an attitude that has gone on to serve her well. Her first husband died, and her second marriage ended in divorce. Her mother is ill, and her 25-year-old son recently confided that he has been struggling with a drug addiction. Still, Porter continues to choose gratitude. "I feel grateful that my son came to me and told me about his drug problem, so that I could help get him into rehab. You can't choose what life throws at you. But you can choose the way you look at those things."
So why don't more of us make that choice? Exhaustion. Just refocusing our attention can feel like operating heavy machinery if we're feeling spent, says Barbara Holstein, PhD, a psychologist in Long Branch, New Jersey, and author of The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy. "We can be taken to the best restaurant or the most wonderful store, but if we're running on empty, we just don't care. We may go to church and say thank you, but if we don't have the deep-down energy to appreciate life's small moments -- the sparrow outside the window or the green of the plant -- we're just going through the motions."
We owe it to ourselves to address and overcome that fatigue so that we can look around and mine the pleasures and satisfactions in each day, says Holstein. "By the time we've reached our 40s and 50s, life has thrown all of us curves. We've all suffered losses. Cultivating gratitude is more essential than ever if we're going to equip ourselves for our life ahead." We can fight fatigue by being good to ourselves. "Make a date to have a long, talky dinner with a good friend," says Holstein. If you can choose pleasure -- whether that means leaving the video store with our own personal Audrey Hepburn film festival, taking piano lessons, or putting aside one night a month to enjoy the ballet with a friend -- you can replenish yourself and by so doing, tip your mood toward gratitude.
It's important to remember that you don't have to wait to get lucky in order to feel grateful. Even an otherwise humdrum day contains gratitude epiphanies if you look. "I love getting into bed at night on my new mattress!" a friend exclaimed the other day. "Is there anything better than a sharp knife and a good tomato?" my husband calls out from the kitchen. A stranger who has run for a bus rewards the driver who waited for her with an enormous grin. "You made my day," she says gratefully. After spending the day interviewing a woman who is quadriplegic, an editor friend gets a parking spot far from her destination and says to herself, "I am able-bodied -- I can walk it."
Small moments with the people you love may hold gratitude epiphanies in disguise: Did a friend or colleague appreciate your sensitivity to her concerns today? Did you pick the fastest-moving line in the supermarket? Take a moment to appreciate how the planets have realigned in your favor.
Which is not to say that gratitude means ignoring life's misfortunes. Short-story writer Ann Harleman, 59, who teaches fiction writing at the Rhode Island School of Design, continues to be surprised by the unlikely sources and circumstances of gratitude in her life. "My husband and I had been married for nine years when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was terrified for him and for myself." That was 14 years ago. As her husband's health has declined, Harleman has felt grateful for the depth of feeling that fuels her writing. "Through my pain and his, I can feel compassion. I can put those feelings into my stories, so that someone else can know that they have company."
Her family's hard situation has given her other things to be grateful for, as well. For one, there are wonderful people caring for her husband.
"They're magnificent and smart and funny. They even comfort me when I cry. And I would never have encountered them but for this." And her husband, who is hospitalized now, and who spent years feeling bitter and angry over his illness, has passed through the hard feelings, says Harleman. "He expresses an amazing generosity and sensitivity. He's having this period of beauty and calmness, and we're experiencing the love we feel for each other now, which is irrevocable and unquestionable. I feel lucky to have that."
Start where you are. Look around at this very day, as if you were looking at your life through the eyes of a stranger. A friend who says she looks for gratitude day by day shared some words she once saw scrawled among the graffiti on a construction-site wall. "The best preparation for the future is the present well tended." What do you see?