Jacque Marshall

The anatomy of gratitude

Oprah Winfrey has lately been advocating gratitude journals. Every day you write down at least five things for which you are grateful. The idea is to discipline yourself to spend some time each day being thankful for what you have in life, rather than spending all your time being frustrated by what you don't have. I had tried it when I first heard about it, back in January or so, and was dissapointed. Beyond not being productive, I actually found it to be quite uncomfortable.

But last week I was in the middle of possibly the worst emotional crisis I've ever suffered. The medication I was taking for a mild chronic illness had induced deep fatigue and robbed me of my appetite. Over the course of the previous month or two I'd slid into a state of deep, hopeless dispair. In the previous three weeks, it had finally escalated into full-blown, acute panic attacks. I was about as miserable as I've ever been, and I was terrified.

That afternoon I was home from work, too exhausted to make it through even half a day. I had already called my doctor and gotten him to move my appointment up to the next day. Now I was casting about for something, anything, to keep myself going until then. It was about four-thirty in the afternoon -- Oprah would be on. Well, every once in a while, she has something on her show that's insightful. I didn't have the stamina to do much else, so I turned on the television -- just in time for a segment on gratitude journalling.

Several audience members stood up and said that the Gratitude Journal had turned their lives around. One woman said that it had shown her that, instead of striving for the better job or the new car or a bigger house -- which didn't seem to help anyway -- she already had everything she needed to make herself happy. Well, I was certainly in a receptive mood. Besides, something about the woman's comment resonated deep within me.

I remembered a winter some years ago after I had been out of work for a very long time. I had finally, painfully, gotten back into the job search. But the first temp job I got was in a stock brokerage that was dissolving around my ears. People were clearing out their desks and leaving with boxes of possessions even as I was answering calls for them. By then I was so stressed out that I was getting only two or three hours of sleep a night. The second day there I reached my nadir.

But in the worst of it I stumbled onto a totally unknown reserve, welling up from somewhere I could never identify. My sense of humor came back, and suddenly it was hysterically funny that this brokerage firm had hired me when they couldn't even find the guy who was supposed to sign my time card.

At the same time, I actually began to notice -- instead of all the things that were wrong, like the fact that my rent was three months overdue and I hadn't managed as much as a full night's sleep in the last three combined -- the things that I did have: I had gotten three hours of sleep the night before, which was two more than I'd gotten the previous night. I was actually working, even if it felt like I'd fallen into a Danny Kaye movie as conceived by Rod Serling. My rent was well past due but my landlords, bless their souls, were giving me credit.

Things started to turn around. My mood improved, and my ability to cope started to come back.

And then there was another time, in the summer of '95, when, for two whole months, I was simply, consistently, and occasionally soaringly happy. The only thing I could identify as a key factor was that I had somehow gotten into the habit of noticing everything I liked and enjoyed, and focused my attention on that.

At the very least, writing down things things I was grateful for would give me something to do. I had noticed that even in the worst of the panic, having a specific, clearly defined task to focus on, for however long I could make it last, was very calming. (Though there was an interesting hell to be experienced when I'd finished one task and was faced with thinking up the next one.) So I pulled out a piece of notebook paper and started writing down things I was grateful for:

Once I got rolling, I was surprised at how easy it was to think of things I appreciated -- especially so, given the state I was in.

I quickly noticed that some gratitudes felt more healing than others. What, I thought to myself, makes the difference? After watching this process for a while, I discovered that my responses fell into roughly two categories. The first were things that I felt I should be grateful for: food to eat, roof over my head, steady job, etc. And then there were the things that, when I thought about them, really did give me a little kick: my favorite actor. The trip I'd just gotten back from. My wonderful friends. The book I was working on. Cracking a hard programming problem.

Whereupon I realized what I had done wrong the first time I tried this: I was picking things almost at random and trying to make myself feel grateful for them. "Well, my neighbor's stereo isn't as loud as it could be." Like using affirmations to convince yourself you're something you're not. I've always resisted that kind of brain-judo, especially since I came to understand the concept of Denial.

(In my heightened state of anxiety, I also observed another pitfall: noticing something you appreciate brings with it the awareness that you could lose it. In a way, that can be almost worse than not having it to appreciate in the first place.)

The trick, then (like, duh!), is to find things you actually are grateful for, even if you only feel it for a split second. (The catch there, of course, is that you have to be able to tell whether or not you feel grateful, but that's a topic for another essay.) And the real secret lies in getting to that feeling -- the joy, warmth, surprise, triumph, satisfaction -- associated with the thing I was grateful for.

Within the set of gratitudes that work, there are further subcategories. There was stuff that I've enjoyed having or seeing or experiencing, like possessions or movies or friends.

And then there are things I appreciated having accomplished. Little things like finding a nasty bug in a program and then fixing it. Plugging stubbornly away on a short story until it was, by damn, finished. Picking one chore to do, like washing the dishes, and putting all the others out of my mind until the one was finished, thus overcoming the feeling of being overwhelmed. Figuring out three different things to do that might, at least, solve my current emotional crisis. I found that contemplating this kind of gratitude to be especially soothing.

With an idea now of what I was looking for, I set about listing as many coping successes as I could think of, recent or in the deep past, trivial or profound. I worked steadily for a couple of hours. The turnaround in my mood was nothing short of miraculous. By the time I finally put my pen down, not only had I pulled out of the worst of the panic, but I was actually in a good mood. Still exhausted to the marrow, but otherwise content. And more than a little astonished.

As I set about fixing my supper, I wondered about the structure of what I had just done. Picking apart the most productive gratitudes in my mind, I realized that each involved very specific coping skills which applied directly to problems against which I was currently struggling. Patience, persistence, and breaking a problem into small pieces each quietly settled in to face off the blind urgency, fatigue, and hopelessness that had fueled my dispair. Furthermore, each skill was a resource that sprang wholly and completely from within me. It was suddenly clear why they helped so much.

Additionally, there was the physiological dimension. The panic attacks had been remarkable because they had been so physical. Cold, sweaty hands and feet, churning gut, palpitating heart, the whole nine yards. The gratitudes which were most helpful were accompanied (were, in fact, identifiable) by a sense of warmth, an unclutching in my gut, and a deep breath. The gratitudes helped by directly countering the physical symptoms of the panic as well.

I remembered the NLP notion of "resource states." When I find a past accomplishment and feel the gratification that went with it, I bring into my present experience not only the good emotion, but the resource behind the emotion. This allows me to use it now. It is especially helpful if the resource is internally generated, because then I have available to me the meta-resource of having generated the solution. The more vividly I can recall the accomplishment, the more that emotional state suffuses my physiology and displaces the panic. Telling myself that everything was going to be okay, and visualizing possible solutions, hadn't helped because neither changed the panic I was feeling. Different sensory modalities -- more elementary NLP. (It's always amazed me how you can learn something, but that learning it is somehow fundamentally different than Getting It.)

Even in the worst of the crisis, I noticed an interesting thing. I had reached the point where anything that attracted my attention, no matter how trivial, provoked a pang of fear. I recalled that, similarly, when I'm in a good mood (like, say, in love), any stimulation elicits amusement or delight. This got me to thinking: how much of my emotional reactions are predetermined by my general emotional climate? Is it live, or is it Memorex?

Some of it may be live, but a hell of a lot of it is clearly Memorex. Not a new concept. I had already learned to take my anger and depression with a largish grain of salt. First check my intake of leafy greens before deciding that the world really has gone to hell. Many times a good helping of broccoli will make the world seem a much friendlier place -- in a day or two, at least. Kind of scary, actually: if my reactions aren't "real," but just exaggerated peaks in my internal baseline -- then what the hell is real?! Spooky and disorienting.

Recently in a TV Guide interview, Joan Lunden said that she had "decided" to be happy. For years I've heard people make variations on that assertion. Malcolm Jamal Warner once said that if you're going to do something -- such as school -- you might as well enjoy doing it.

I've always shied away from the idea that we make our own reality, that we choose how we react (EST 101 -- I guess they're calling it "The Forum" these days.). A few times I'd attempted the obvious and simply tried to make myself feel differently, just replace a bad emotion with a good one. But that smacked too heavily of Denial. And, besides, I could never make it work. Like trying to touch your right elbow with your right thumb. (If you can manage it, something's very wrong.) The nuts-and-bolts mechanics of how always eluded me.

But the astonishing, binary flip in the way I felt suddenly pushed me to look at the question with new eyes.

I begin to get the tenuous glimmer of a clue. Since it's almost inevitable that I dwell on something in the back of my mind while I'm going about my daily business, this experience suggests that getting in the habit of dwelling on good things might have a disproportionate effect on quality of my life. Once I had gotten this far, something else came to mind:

A couple of months ago, during a late-night chat, my friend Lynda Lester told about coming to the realization, some years ago, of how negative she had become, and deciding that this negativity wasn't doing her any good. She told about making the conscious decision to be more positive. Very systematically and deliberately she set out to look for things to appreciate. In the beginning, she reported, it felt very sappy and artificial, but eventually the habit took. Now, I can testify from watching her, she's one of the kindest and most positive people I know.

I think I've come to a similar pass. I'm a pretty angry person, and I've defended that right vigorously. Like a lot of people, I wasn't allowed to be angry when I was a kid. But I have come to realize that it's not so much the anger I'm defending as the ability -- perhaps more importantly, the freedom -- to be angry. But I find it's awfully easy to wallow. And I don't like the kind of person I am when I do that. I don't like the way I behave towards the people around me. It's nasty and corrosive, and it's too easy to slip into being judgemental.

Okay. Maybe now it's time to start working on my freedom and ability to feel other things.

--26 July 1997

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Last modified: Fri Mar 3 14:43:43 MST 2000