first per­son

Cul­ti­vat­ing grat­i­tude is in vogue and Alexia San­ta­maria was as cyn­i­cal about it as the next free­lance writer. But mid-life in the sub­urbs was get­ting her down, so she down­loaded an app and be­gan to take note of the lit­tle things.

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I’ve al­ways done this in­vol­un­tary eye-roll thing when­ever any­one men­tions the con­cept of grat­i­tude, or rounds their so­cial me­dia sta­tus off with the ubiq­ui­tous #blessed. It’s al­ways just seemed a bit con­trived. Smil­ing pics of mums with their happy kids all do­ing Pin­ter­est-wor­thy craft to­gether. Re­ally?

Where are the pho­tos of those an­gels tak­ing a mil­len­nia to eat din­ner while their par­ents slowly lose the will to live? Or hav­ing fis­ticuffs over a book one had for­got­ten about for two years un­til he saw the other one read­ing it? I can’t say I’m grate­ful for or en­riched by many of these daily ex­pe­ri­ences.

Which is why it’s sur­pris­ing I now find my­self ex­tolling the virtues of a grat­i­tude journal to any­one who’ll lis­ten. Quite in spite of ev­ery­thing I once be­lieved, I find my­self gen­uinely look­ing for­ward to five min­utes at the end of the day to “count my bless­ings”.

I’m not sure how I be­came this an­noy­ing per­son – al­though my house still looks far from Pin­ter­est­wor­thy and my kids con­stantly scrap over non-ex­is­tent in­jus­tices, so things haven’t changed that dras­ti­cally.

It all started when things got tricky. Like many 40-some­things, I’ve got a bit go­ing on and, with­out go­ing into ex­ten­sive de­tail, be­tween man­ag­ing parental ill­ness, per­sonal health woes and a chal­leng­ing child with be­havioural dif­fi­cul­ties, there were some points when I found my­self de­spair­ing. I saw it play­ing out all around me too – di­vorces, teen dra­mas, sick spouses, ex­tended fam­ily prob­lems, de­pres­sion, fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties. “It’s the age” ap­par­ently.

I’d read an ar­ti­cle about grat­i­tude and the ef­fect it can have on re­pro­gram­ming your brain and I’d got to the point where I was pre­pared to put my usual cyn­i­cism aside. It seemed a fairly easy com­mit­ment to make, com­pared to say, us­ing that gym mem­ber­ship reg­u­larly.

I’d re­alised it was pos­si­ble my neg­a­tive thoughts had be­come ha­bit­ual and I could see how mak­ing an ef­fort to fo­cus on pos­i­tive daily oc­cur­rences could help sway things back in a brighter di­rec­tion. I down­loaded a grat­i­tude app on my phone where I could dili­gently plug in my thank­ful thoughts ev­ery day. While I loved the vi­sion of me light­ing a can­dle and open­ing my pas­tel Kikki.K journal with the gold-em­bossed spine to write in cur­sive hand­writ­ing, I knew that fan­tasy would end in a lot of loud swear­ing about pens that don’t work and mis­placed books.

And so it be­gan. It was a bit la­bo­ri­ous at first be­cause, quite hon­estly, I wasn’t feel­ing grate­ful for my lot. In the­ory I knew I had much to be thank­ful for, but some­times it’s hard to con­nect with the fact you are ex­cep­tion­ally lucky to be able to have kids, to have two par­ents who are alive, to own a home, to have enough money to go on hol­i­day from time to time. I felt like a self­ish cow to have so much – yet not feel re­motely #blessed.

But then I re­alised the power of the process wasn’t about all those huge life el­e­ments. It was about not­ing down the tiny things that made me fleet­ingly joyful. Small mo­ments that warmed my daily grind-worn heart un­ex­pect­edly. It was the vi­sion of my 7-year-old dressed in full cricket whites, bat­ting hel­met and pads that come up to his thighs, with his hair spe­cially styled, just to play back­yard cricket for 15 min­utes.

It was the lus­cious spoon of lemon curd eaten di­rectly from the jar when no one was look­ing. It was the con­ver­sa­tion I had with my friend about her dis­as­trous Tin­der date end­ing with the guy be­ing taken to hos­pi­tal, that had me cry­ing with laugh­ter (Don’t worry, he’s OK).

It was the fact that when the rain comes, so do the ducks and ev­ery time I look out, one of them is stalk­ing my ev­ery move through my lounge win­dow. It was find­ing a park right out­side the hos­pi­tal for Dad’s ap­point­ment when I was run­ning late. It was a mil­lion dif­fer­ent minute in­ci­dents on a mil­lion dif­fer­ent days and while ini­tially I strug­gled to find two pa­thetic things to record, in no time I was ef­fort­lessly fling­ing down 10. They’d al­ways been there, I’d just been so busy think­ing about how stressed I was over ev­ery­day life to no­tice.

And the fur­ther power was when a re­ally bad day hit, I could go back through this dig­i­tal di­ary and re­alise what was stress­ing me didn’t mean my whole life was dif­fi­cult. It just meant this was a crappy time in a life with lots of great stuff.

So how does it work? How had jot­ting down a few thoughts ev­ery day changed my dis­po­si­tion and, dare I say it, even no­tice­ably im­proved my phys­i­cal health? It was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore that I felt less over­whelmed by life and had a new light­ness about me.

I asked Timothy Giles, who trains cor­po­rate clients in re­silience and pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy as well as run­ning a so­cial me­dia ex­per­i­ment called Pos­i­tive Peers, and he ex­plained it pretty sim­ply.

“We kind of ex­pect hap­pi­ness to just hap­pen but the truth is for many peo­ple it needs to be prac­tised like any­thing else. You can’t play the gui­tar pro­fi­ciently just by lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, you need to learn the chords. After a while it comes nat­u­rally and you can play with­out so much con­cen­trated ef­fort. Same ap­plies to hap­pi­ness.

“Sci­en­tif­i­cally, it’s all to do with neu­ral path­ways in our brain that can ac­tu­ally be thick­ened phys­i­cally when we re­peat an ac­tion enough times,” says Giles.

“And it’s about over­rid­ing our amyg­dala’s anx­i­ety re­sponse by re­fo­cus­ing and stop­ping it from pump­ing out un­nec­es­sary adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol, which can lead to a chem­i­cally neg­a­tive state of mind.”

You know when you buy new shoes or a new car and sud­denly you see the ex­act same ones ev­ery­where? Giles says our brain’s retic­u­lar ac­ti­vat­ing sys­tem has now pri­ori­tised those items as im­por­tant to us, and we no­tice them more.

If you train your brain to pri­ori­tise hap­pi­ness, you’ll start notic­ing it ev­ery­where and maybe even tell oth­ers too. Hope­fully you don’t be­come an an­noy­ing “grat­i­tude evan­ge­list” like me – #sob­lessed.

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