Looking for Gratitude, One List at a Time

by Valerie Reiss

If you’ve picked up a magazine or clicked on a link in the last few years, you know that the research is in: Gratitude heals. Regularly practicing gratitude in written and verbal form may boost immunity, ease depression, inspire generosity, improve relationships, and enhance overall physical and emotional well-being.

I started making gratitude lists almost exactly 10 years ago today—about eight months after I finished surgery and chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. One day, on the blog I kept to update friends and family about my condition, I wrote, “I read something today that you should list all you’re grateful for, A-Z. Ready?” And I counted everything from “apples with almond butter” to “Gilmore Girls” to “the word lovely” to “Dr. Z”—my dear oncologist.

The writing gave me a burst of joy at a time when I was tender, scared, and wobbly, with literal and figurative scars still healing. I didn’t make a gratitude list for a while after that. I continued my remission, I felt better, moments unspooled. But then about three years later, in 2008, my survivor’s high waned in the face of a failing romance, a daily cubicle, and the grind. To help myself stay well, I realized I wanted to keep my inner life directed toward the light—to move along the negative and invite the positive in a non-Pollyanna-ish, authentic way.

It’s not a universal truth. Plenty of happy people get sick for so many reasons. But it felt true for me, even if it was just pure new age-y superstition that gave me a false sense of control. So staying positive was not just about feeling good; it was about survival.

I ended my dying relationship. And, soon after, I took a refresher creative writing class and did a week-long chanting, drumming, and dancing workshop at Kripalu. I did more yoga. The gratitude started coming through me in a gush. I wrote a list almost daily, expressing non-alphabetized thanks to everything from Pema Chödrön’s teachings to Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, plus acorn squash, yoga, and Prince.

Sometimes my thanks would begin with a rant while I sifted through the gunk for the gems: “I am grateful for: Forgiving myself for failing to live up to my and others’ expectations, sometimes again and again and again.” And: “I’m grateful for breathing. (You know I’m having a hard time when this comes on the list, but it truly is good. Because it means being alive. Even when alive means pain.)”

Every time I wrote a list, I sensed I was rewiring my brain. As a survivor of illness with a history of depression, my brain tended to “catastrophize” and to “globally label” things negatively, as my therapist said. Making gratitude lists made me pick through the rubble to see the good. And it started to brighten my life. As writer Naomi Williams said, “It is impossible to feel grateful and depressed in the same moment.”

I’d be waiting for a New York City subway on a crowded, cold platform with people elbowing each other out of the way. My thoughts and mood would start spiraling down: “The world is an ugly place. Why do I live here? Why must everything be so awful?” Then I’d spot someone crouching down to help a woman carry her stroller up the steps. “Ooh, that’s for my list!” Then I’d scan for other good things—a cool piece of graffiti, a smile from a stranger, a woman inexplicably dressed entirely in purple. And, quite suddenly, the world was better, with nothing changing except for what I was paying attention to—kind of a “Where’s Waldo?” of happy things.

Maybe that’s why I was paying such good attention when, during this time, I heard the counter guy at my usual lunch place yell an order up for a “Brad.” I turned because I knew a Brad—a friend of a friend in a city of millions. It was indeed him, and he was much cuter than I remembered. And also, I later learned, single. Soon enough, Brad was making his way into my lists as “my beloved” and a meta item: “I’m grateful for being with a man who reminds me of the happy things I write in my blog.” And, cheesily: “I’m grateful to be picking up my wedding dress.” At our wedding, my dad’s touching speech was in the form of a gratitude list.

That joyful time, born of an optimism-seeking focus, was still mixed, of course, with the hard stuff. One entry about my good friend dying from cancer: “I’m grateful for this advice from K: when a friend is long-term ill, do one thing a week to help.” Without the lists, I might not have mentally cemented that advice. I might not have had the energy to follow through with it. But gratitude did it—no doubt it pushed me to a next level of commitment to life. Having a fail-proof tool to tap the positive gave me an expanded tolerance for the negative stuff. Even now, when the world feels so harsh, I can look around at people doing kind things in unkind places. I see the light in the muck so much more clearly now.

Lately, as a new-ish mom with a career, I find my blog lists have tapered. But the changes to my brain and my life have stuck. Today, I am most grateful for gratitude.

Valerie Reiss is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more.

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