The cheerful watchword of the past 15 months has been “gratitude.” With all our complaints, anxieties, loneliness, depression, overeating and compulsive Netflix watching, we are told to be consciously and frequently grateful for what we have, not as some silly bromide but as a means to increase our health and mental and emotional stability. I even saw a recent TV ad for mattresses that spoke of gratitude.
The online articles have been profuse. One says that “grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations.” Another highlights the virtue of keeping a weekly gratitude journal. (I’m grateful I don’t have to do this every single day, my cynical brain reports). Another, which makes sense to me, talks of creating a list of all the benefits in our lives and asking ourselves to what extent do we take these for granted?
One UC Davis psychology professor says that the practice of gratitude can lower blood pressure, improve immunity and help improve the quality of one’s sleep. He also says that “people who keep a gratitude journal have a reduced dietary fat intake … Stress hormones like cortisol are 23 percent lower in grateful people. And having a daily gratitude practice could actually reduce the effects of aging to the brain.” Grateful people, he claims, are generally more optimistic. Optimism, they say, creates more disease-fighting cells in our bodies.
Grateful people, he claims, are generally more optimistic. Optimism, they say, creates more disease-fighting cells in our bodies.
I agree, I think. The experts, masters of “positive psychology,” tell us to think of one thing or person we’re grateful for when we wake up and before we go to sleep. And take a few moments every day to meditate on grateful thoughts. Transition our minds from thinking about gratitude occasionally to making it part of our frequent or second nature. Amit Sood, doctor and author of “The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness,” talks about “sprinkling a little gratitude throughout your day,” as a way of decreasing one’s risk of disease.
My husband, Tom, and I do a daily Affirmation each morning. We’ve been doing this for thirty-nine years. We call it our “Aff” for short, and it’s a crucial ritual in our lives. First we each affirm our intention for the day (to be creative, calm, productive, kind, stress-free). Then we say everything we’re grateful for: each other, our good albeit aging health, Roxie our beloved dog, friends and family, work, the people who help us keep our lives together, our home on the beach. And more. Then we ask, “what can I do to make you happy today?” When we first began adding that question, we answered with items like “You can take the laundry to the cleaners” or “You can pick up some cheddar cheese at the market.” Then we realized how pedestrian and self-centered that sounded so we shifted to nobler sentiments like “You can enjoy everything you do, you can take some time to exercise, you can realize how much I think about you.” That works a lot better than the laundry request.
One social media influencer advises making a “gratitude jar.” To do this, keep an empty jar and paper in an accessible place at home, and ask those we live with to write a single thing they’re grateful for every day and put it in the jar. Every day we should read the contents of the jar aloud. And try to be funny. The same authority recommends creating reminders, like nearby photos of people to whom we’re connected or inspirational quotes, and keeping them on the fridge or by one’s computer.
Learning what it means to be grateful is a process.
Admittedly, I am not an inherently grateful person. To begin with, I’m Jewish and thus have an abiding and ancient fear and angst, no matter the situation. Add to this the fact that my family were Russian immigrants, so their history was one of turmoil, not ease. But my current circumstances are pretty great most of the time. I know that I have an excellent life. But feeling gratitude is not my historical way of being. I tend to experience anxiety, manifesting itself as a nervous belly. The occurrence can be anything from what happened the other day when I discovered the left front bumper of my car was coming apart for no apparent reason or a recurrent fear that our dog is going to run into the street, which she has never done and doesn’t walk by the street anyway. Would a practice of gratitude lessen these stressors? I have no idea.
Learning what it means to be grateful is a process. A daily sense of gratitude for one’s blessings probably means to understand balance and perspective. To lighten up, to appreciate, to understand excellent luck as well as forbearance. To really experience one’s good fortune. To make the connection between fine health and the virtues of gratitude. To appreciate Tom and all his qualities, as well as our daily Affirmation. I may not put notes in a gratitude jar, but I can surely manage to understand how to have lower blood pressure, less daily fat intake and a boosted immune system. For all that I’m very grateful.
Marcia Seligson is a theatrical producer in Los Angeles and New York and a sometimes journalist. She is currently writing her memoirs.