You may have heard: Grateful is the new happy. Gratitude has broken past its usual Thanksgiving dinner table border, and is now popular all year long. Self-help books implore us to count our blessings, Facebook quote-picture memes remind us to appreciate what we have, and magazine articles stress the importance of giving thanks. But why?
Having written some of those articles myself, I can tell you that studies have found an “attitude of gratitude” can help with everything from healing from heart surgery to reducing pain. One chiropractic clinic assigned its patients a daily gratitude list; those who did it regularly saw a decrease in pain and an uptick in overall wellbeing.
I started keeping gratitude lists five years ago, about three years after I finished chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The awful-beautiful “lessons” from cancer, such as, “life is precious,” “time is fleeting,” and “only love matters,” were starting to fade as messy, cranky, regular life took over. I wanted to fill myself with a controversial anti-tumor medicine: positivity.
The big medical guns got rid of the cancer, but I had a feeling that something subtler, shining from within, would keep it gone. And I knew my brain’s tendency to go to what Ricki Lee Jones calls “the ghetto of my mind.” I wanted to replace dodgy streets with beautiful gardens, or at least plant some nearby. I wanted to remember what I too easily forget: Life is good. This would have the benefit of releasing happier chemicals into my bloodstream. It would also help to fundamentally re-wire my brain: When we shift to seeking the positive instead of the negative, a physical shift happens in our dendrite and thus our cognition, and thus our actual reality. When we see the world as shinier, it becomes so. The Power of Attraction folks believe that feelings such as gratitude draw what we desire to us; good feelings beget good things, people, and experiences.
I still keep the lists on my Gratefulicious blog. And I find them most useful on the days when I feel like I have nothing to be grateful for, like last winter when my 40-year-old friend of 25 years died of cancer. Those days are when the magic happens. When I have to look through the crap to find the diamonds. And the magic is: There are always diamonds. Right after Dara died, I wrote a list a day to her to counter the hemorrhaging in my heart. Things like: “I am grateful for your chemo mohawk. Your hair was so soft and fluffy.” And, “I am grateful for your peaceful passing.” And, “I am grateful for you going into forearm stand during chemo—for the first time ever—with such a smile of accomplishment. Truly gorgeous, my dear fear-facing hero.”
The lists didn’t heal anything, but they did command me to look at the blessings instead of the existential maw, and this helped. A lot.
Of course gratitude lists are useful even when life is tra-la-la-ing along. They can keep us from getting complacent. They can keep us observing and appreciating, a drip, drip, drip of happy juice. Some ideas for adding vitamin G to your life:
- Name three things you’re grateful for as you go to sleep at night;
- Exchange a gratitudes list with a friend over email every day;
- Go around the dinner table with friends or family and each say one thing you’re thankful for;
- Blog, tweet, or Facebook your list.
Make it a practice. Do it when you least feel like it. Doors better will open.