Several years ago, feeling wholly unsatisfied in my job – and thus fairly miserable in my life – I offhandedly typed the following into the Google search bar: “how can I be happy?” I found a number of references to Oprah Winfrey, and even a wikiHow page (with pictures) aimed at answering exactly that question.
One common thread became clear: happy people practice gratitude regardless of how little they actually have. They don’t save their gratitude for the times when they get something they want. Rather, they are thankful for what they already have, and they recognize and celebrate those existing gifts actively and freely.
I tried to put into practice what I’d learned. I put an app on my phone that prompted me every day to identify three things for which I was grateful. I had no shortage of things to give thanks for, both big, consequential ones – a loving family, a beautiful place to live, good health – and smaller, fleeting ones – the occasional expansive, fiery sunset, successive green lights on a day when I was running late, a deliciously good TV show.
But I struggled with the concept. I constantly rejected candidates for gratitude for fear that the very act of being grateful for them would lead to their imminent disappearance – that articulating my gratitude for my reasonably good health, for example, would lead some cosmic force to sweep my good fortune away, and the next day I’d discover a lump in my breast.
I was practicing incremental, minimalist gratitude – at best – and, not surprisingly, I didn’t feel any happier.
One night, on a walk with the dogs around the perimeter of our property, I started down my usual thought process: “I’m so grateful that we live on this beautiful piece of property, where our dogs can run off-leash and the night sky is filled with stars. No, wait – I can’t be grateful for that, because I could lose my job, and if I lose my job, I might not find another one, and if I don’t land another job, we’ll run out of
money to pay the mortgage, and then we’ll lose the house. Therefore, I can’t really be grateful for this place we call home.”
But instead of my internal monologue ending on that usual note, that night, for reasons I cannot explain, I had a sudden epiphany. It hit me so hard I stopped walking. Practicing gratitude, I suddenly realized, means being grateful for something despite the fact it could be stripped from your grasp at any second. It means appreciating that it exists right now, with the full understanding that it might not be there tomorrow.
In today’s world, where seemingly everyone has heard Brené Brown explain – with wit and clarity – the relationship between gratitude, vulnerability and happiness, it may seem obvious. But for me, understanding what it truly means to practice gratitude was a revelation. Still, even though I’d finally grasped this critical concept, I found it challenging to implement. But I kept at it, and I got better at doing it. I started feeling happier. I even gained the confidence to look for a new job – and found one that I love.
When my husband, Mike, was diagnosed with throat cancer earlier this year, I had to call on every fiber of my new gratitude muscles to not get washed away by a towering black wave of despair and fear.
I tried to find pebbles of hope, and then clung to them with effusive gratitude. We celebrated cautiously optimistic words from his doctor with a joyful brunch at a fancy restaurant. When his tumor turned out to be highly responsive to chemotherapy I constantly – annoyingly, I’m sure – reminded Mike that even through chemo is absolute hell, we were the lucky ones because there are so many others whose cancer doesn’t submit so readily.
All my husband wanted post-surgery was a Starbucks frappucino. He wasn't allowed to have one and so settled for an iced coffee. Shortly after this photo was taken, his pain levels started to rise (as the anesthesia wore off), and it was more than a week before he could once again enjoy any food or drink
My daily lists of things to be grateful for got really long: brilliant doctors, caring nurses, a comfortable recliner to sleep in every night in the hospital, friends who brought treats, family who cleaned the kitchen, chewable ibuprofen, which made it possible for Mike to eat his first solid food in weeks, a job where my boss encouraged me to take time off to care for my husband and the CEO called and texted me regularly to reinforce the message. Throughout the darkest times, there were still so many things to be grateful for.
My husband, Mike, pre-chemo. We can't wait for his hair (and eyebrows!) to grow back
My husband’s battle with cancer, which he ultimately won, has made me hyper aware of the fragility of the things I cherish the most, and practicing gratitude still scares the crap out of me. But it works, and so I can honestly say I found happiness thanks to a search engine.
How about you? Do you practice gratitude? Is it working?