Taking each day one photo at a time.
Stephanie Gilman snaps to attention.
I recently read about a young woman who, suffering from depression, began documenting things she was grateful for to bring more happiness into her life. I am searching for happiness and meaning in my own life and occasionally experience moments of self-pity and despair, so this idea resonated with me. Several weeks ago, I found myself having one of those moments. I was in a change room trying on dresses for an upcoming event. A task that used to be simple and even enjoyable had now become a form of torture, as I looked for a dress that could accommodate my misshapen chest: My implants are firm and uneven and do not move like real breasts, which makes it extremely difficult to fit into clothes that I used to wear with ease.
I tried on dress after dress, attempting to force the zipper over my protruding side boob, frustrated that everything was too loose on one side and too tight on the other. Flustered and fuming, I looked in the mirror and, tears burning my eyes, cursed my misfortune. I felt ugly, deformed and very sorry for myself.
This seemed like as good a time as any to begin my own gratitude project. Would forcing myself to focus on what’s good in my life—instead of what isn’t—lead me to a greater sense of happiness?
The kind folks at Fujifilm provided me with an Instax Mini 8 camera so I could photograph my grateful moments. I started snapping, attempting to find something each day that I was thankful for.
Some photos were less profound than others, like a quiet moment to myself or a meal I was about to enjoy. Others held greater significance, like being grateful for the 60th birthday of my father, who didn’t know if he’d live to see his 20th birthday after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at age 16 (and again in his 50s). Some days, it was difficult to find something to photograph. And I began to realize that fleeting moments—someone holding a door open for me, a friendly smile from a stranger—can’t always be captured in a photo. In those instances, I decided to just be in the moment, appreciate it and keep it all to myself.
At the end of the month, I wondered if my gratitude experiment had changed me in any way or if all I’d done was take some pictures of random things in my life. But as I began to compile them and write the stories behind them in a scrapbook, I noticed something: I felt happy. I went through all the snapshots and saw that, big or small, there was much to be grateful for, even over a relatively short period of time—so many things I might have missed had I not been training myself to see them. I realized that the immense gratitude I experienced after finishing my treatment for cancer—the joy I felt to simply be alive h
and wake up every morning—had been slipping away from me as I fell back into the typical frustrations and challenges of everyday life. But looking through all these photos, I was reminded of how extremely important and fulfilling it is to just stop for a minute and be grateful.
The last photo I took was of my printer, which, moments before, had inexplicably jammed and stopped working. As my temper flared and I angrily shook the printer, I sat back, reflected and thought, “I am so grateful that, right now, my biggest problem is a broken printer.” Compared to cancer, almost everything else seems so unbelievably inconsequential. I am grateful that I have that perspective. But here is a secret: You don’t need to wait until you’re faced with a life-threatening disease to experience gratitude and enjoy life. You can start right now. And, in fact, you should start right now because there is so much to appreciate in this world and so much time wasted not doing so. Being grateful might even be the key to your happiness. Or, at the very least, it will stop you from smashing your printer to bits, which, in my case, is still something worth celebrating. ■