Practising gratitude has always tripped up writer Kate Rae, but this year, she’s embracing the idea.
Can practising gratitude promote happiness, optimism and good health?
Ask any of my stepchildren and they’ll agree: The quickest way to induce a long, angry rant is to whine, “It’s not fair!” (Also effective: “I’m bored….”) I can go on and on about how fairness has nothing to do with who gets the slightly larger cookie, and how important it is to be thankful for all of the incredible privileges we have. And yet, I scroll right by those inspiring quotes about thankfulness posted by family and friends on Facebook. I’ve scoffed at the notion of keeping a gratitude journal, a daily diary of things in my life to be thankful for, as seen on Oprah and in many studies about happiness. (Despite all the evidence to recommend it, keeping one just doesn’t feel like me.)
But according to the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, people who practise gratitude are more joyful and optimistic and less lonely. I would love to experience all of those things, so why do I get all twisted inside when I hear about practising gratitude?
The biggest reason is that it sometimes feels disingenuous. If I commit to being more grateful, am I still allowed to vent when my stepchildren’s lunches come home uneaten? Do I have to keep mum about the craziness of a job or worries related to my health? Women’s lives are stressful; hearing “but think of the good stuff” can sound (and feel) awfully silencing.
Earlier this year, though, I decided it was time to give gratitude a real chance; I wanted to see firsthand if it would change my outlook. Then, a stream of horrible things happened—it felt like every night on the news there was another tragedy, and it felt like the whole world was going to implode. Putting aside a few minutes a day to think about all the awesome things in my life felt both unimportant and disrespectful. Gratitude is meant to be a practice of thankfulness and positivity, and I worried it would feel smug: “At least I’m not them.”
But I hunkered down and tried it. While I wouldn’t go as far as a journal, I did try to spend a few minutes each day feeling thankful. I stayed far away from the material things and, instead, focused on people: friends, family, strangers and moments of connection, both big and small. I was grateful for getting to hear a four-year-old’s thoughts on life, and grateful that, though there’s a lot of horrible stuff happening in the world, there’s also a lot of good. Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame, often repeated what his mother had said when he was a child frightened by scary life events: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I also looked for the fighters, the ones who are actively and relentlessly trying to make the world a fairer place.
And something clicked. Allowing myself small moments of gratitude didn’t feel as draining as I thought it would; it felt uplifting, even restorative. I realized that gratitude as a goal still makes me squirmy. But gratitude as a starting point for change? That makes sense. Appreciating what we have can help us understand what other people, both far away and closer to home, don’t have. It reminds us to ask, “What can I do about that? How can I help?”