I’m not a spiritual type. I don’t use words like ‘vibes’ and I feel sceptical about people who go to India for five minutes and then suddenly meditate every day and only eat lentils and smile in their sleep. But I do want to increase my base level of happiness and peacefulness.
(N.B. I also like dahl and happy dreams).
The idea that looking on the bright side could change everything seemed a bit wishy washy to me. Too easy. Too much like spiritual bootstrapping. Calling something good wouldn’t make it so. But in Summer 2016 a friend (thanks Row) told me she’d just finished a year of gratitude practices and that it had made a real impact. That was enough to convince me to try it. Every evening she wrote down three things she’d been grateful for that day. I bought a jar especially and began the practice. The jar would surely make it work, but just in case, I also looked for proof of how and why it supposedly works.
There’s a light at the end of every cloud has a glass half full.
There have been various studies, some more academic than others, but the basic idea is that by repeatedly choosing to exercise the pathways and areas of the brain associated with gratitude, we can re-wire our brains, thanks to their neuroplasticity. The more we strengthen our mental gratitude muscles, the more this outlook becomes the default. In the same way that memories become stronger the more times we remember them, or that a dance move becomes more ingrained the more times we repeat it.
I’ve been at it for about sixteen months now, and have kept all of my post-it notes. I’m looking back over them now to help me write this blog about how it’s gone.
Spoiler in case you don’t have time to read further – it’s gone really well. I’m still writing gratitudes daily.
I’ve broken it down to stages of what’s happened:
0 – 5 months – Kind of faking it
The first day was typical of the first few months. My list included something that wasn’t specific to that day:
- My health.
And something else that was just luck and that was somewhat remote from my life:
- Leicester City winning 3 – 0 in the Champions League.
This kind of fudging was typical of the early months. My general mood wasn’t great. It was hard to find three things I was grateful for each day. They may have been there, but I couldn’t see them if they were, and therefore I couldn’t appreciate them.
A lot of what I wrote down focussed on what I wasn’t suffering rather than what I was enjoying or benefitting from. It felt a bit like cheating that I was repeatedly grateful for:
- My health
- Having food and hot water.
Just basics. But aren’t the basics pretty good? Isn’t this a glass half full? Doesn’t the silver lining of being healthy seem fairly bright compared to the cloud of not being an Olympic athlete or a lingerie model? It’s not inventing things that aren’t true, just a retraining of attention. We’re bombarded all day by adverts telling us what we haven’t got, by social media showing us how much better other peoples’ lives (seemingly) are. We are fed so much anti-gratitude that it’s no wonder the good things become harder to notice.
I was learning that having a glass half full wasn’t about calling apple juice champagne. It was about appreciating the apple juice wasn’t dirty water, about shifting focus in order to better see what is already good. I focussed not on what I didn’t have yet, but on what I had that I could easily not have had. The trick is to think not in terms of lack but in terms of luck.
This now seems a strong, and natural, starting point. Whilst a lot of the good in our lives is still being made invisible by the negative measuring-ups of what you’re missing or missing out on, you can uncover some fairly solid good stuff by thinking about how easily it could be worse. Feel grateful that it isn’t.
6 months – Genuinely seeing the good
After six months I was finding three things to be grateful for each day that were specific to that day. They went beyond the basics, and were becoming more specific:
- The relief of not being sick after a delirious day vomiting.
- My nan telling me that after seeing her doctor about her back, he’s sending her to ‘yogurt’ class.
- Leeds Festival Choir singing Nelly The Elephant at Night Light in the Corn Exchange. It was banging.
- Kelly phonetically spelling out a guitar solo at the end of a Whatsapp message.
After the first six months certain things appear repeatedly:
First a fox while driving, then a robin, then caterpillars, ospreys at Rutland Water, pheasants, deer at Bradgate Park, cats, frogs, a bees’ nest in my garden, a woman walking twelve big dogs in the Boitsfort forest in Brussels.
- Having a job where I get to help young people to be creative.
- Laughing at work.
- A year 5 boy doing whale song impressions as a backing track to his group’s poem.
- A year 3 writing “I come from where the water tastes like cold wind.”
- Getting a thank you card and feeling I’m having a positive effect on somebody.
MAKING THE TRAIN
…or bus, or meeting, by the skin of my teeth, sometimes because the train was a couple of minutes late or I was lucky with a parking space. The most dramatic one was when I forgot that check-in for the Eurostar at St Pancras International closes 30 minutes before departure, and that it takes 10-20 minutes to go through security first anyway. I rocked up about 29 minutes before departure. Still time to get through security and onto the train but against the rules. My ticket wouldn’t scan any longer on the machine. The woman I spoke to said I’d have to go to buy a new ticket for the later train. I couldn’t exchange it. Her colleague in the next booth called me over, said she understood it was a genuine mistake and printed me a ticket for the later train for free. That’s a direct line onto my gratitudes list. Thank you very much, kind woman.
TECHNOLOGY AND THE MODERN WORLD / CONVENIENCE
- Living in a time when trains can go under the sea.
- Being able to do my Christmas shopping online and in one evening rather than pushing through crowds and queuing up and being bored.
- Online TV series meaning so much brilliant TV it’s like a job keeping up.
- That I can eat exotic fruit in bed that has been brought here from all over the world.
This appears a lot, despite my not doing it that much. In each case either because it gave me energy, brought calm, got rid of aches and pains, or all of the above. Seriously, people, even my nan does it.
I don’t see friends enough. When I did, it usually went on my list. Especially when it was serendipitous:
- Bumping into Byron in Edinburgh, having a coffee, ranting at each other for an hour.
And especially when we spoke openly and honestly in a way that risked vulnerability (points against toxic masculinity):
- Genuine, brilliant, honest conversation with Dave and Rors.
FOOD AND DRINK
There have been times when food has been like playdough to me. Increasingly I was enjoying my food and drink. Strawberry and basil daiquiri, cinnamon cappuccino, Mum’s lamb crumble •••k yeah!, my sister’s coffee cake, haggis, neeps and tatties.
THINGS OTHER HUMANS HAVE DONE THAT BENEFIT ME
This is a catch-all category for things that remind me that we all rely on each other and are able to live the way we do because of each other:
- Tom Waits’ having written and recorded “Innocent When You Dream ‘78’.
- The thoughtfulness of my mum leaving aloe vera gel out after I sunburnt myself.
- Seeing ‘Are We Dead Yet’ at Slung Low’s HUB.
- The food at Gloucester Services on my way back from Glastonbury.
- Antibiotics for my tonsillitis.
9 months – Feeling the difference
From around June 2017 it became possible to actually notice the difference in how I felt, day to day, which was reflected also in how I acted. I was becoming more patient, less quick to defend myself against possible attack, more able to read peoples’ good intentions in actions that may have irritated me before, when I might have interpreted them less generously.
Gratitude’s own momentum.
Reading over my post-its, I now wonder whether paying attention to something I’m grateful for and spending time writing it down might have actually primed me to experience things that followed more positively. I never would have predicted this possible extra benefit:
5th July 2017
- The sudden injection of intense feeling I get from hearing a song from my past. Almost like time travel for the feelings through the vehicle of music.
12th June 2017
- To listen to Sigur Ros as backing music to my writing of plot alternatives for PhD play.
22nd July 2017
- Dancing to LL Cool J in the 24-hour bar at Secret Garden Party.
Now, did my time spent feeling consciously grateful for the power of music to make us feel things lead me to feel the Sigur Ros more? Did that then lead me to enjoy LL Cool J more and to sing along with less embarrassment ten days later? It’s possible. And that’s exciting. That gratitudes might quite directly make more joy possible.
11 months – Gratitude becoming a skill.
The following two gratitudes make me think about how writing gratitudes can encourage accountability and reduce our sense of entitlement:
16th August 2017
- Having a car that reliably propels me to where I want to be at 80mph.
24th August 2017
- Being giving the chance to do a speed awareness course rather than take the points.
At the time I wrote the 24th August entry, I didn’t consciously remember the 16th August one. But it didn’t occur to me to think “Oh, they’re just trying to make money, those horrible butt sniffers, they’re greedy and I’m a great driver.” It would have, a year earlier. I’d definitely have been more angry, less relieved.
Having said that, I am not now a sugary rainbow radiating laughter from the bouncy castle of Gratitude-land. It’s not about trying to be perfect. I still get angry, still fed up, still bored, still frustrated. But I have gotten better at not suffering things that I don’t have to, and better at enjoying things that I could easily not enjoy. After about sixteen months of gratitude writing, I’ve reached a stage at which I can more easily see the bright side, and, crucially, feel it. I feel that’s probably the greatest possible return I could get on any ten minute-per day outlay.
Instead of being angry that I’ve filled my car up with petrol and forgotten my wallet, I can laugh at myself, phone a friend and ask them to bring money (cheers Ewan). Then, instead of being angry and frustrated that I’m in a traffic jam, I feel lucky to be safe and healthy and I feel gutted for whoever was in the crash that caused the jam. And for their family. Three days later, instead of feeling regretful that I’ve had to leave a festival on the Sunday and dread that I have to go back to work tomorrow, I can feel relief that I’ll be waking up in my own bed rather than having to pack up my tent, hung over, in the rain. I can feel excitement that I’ll get to help children to write, rather than desperation to reach a service station soon so that I can get more ibuprofen.
16 months onwards – What I’ve learnt.
I am a full convert to the benefits of gratitudes. For me, it took six months for it to not feel forced, about ten for me to notice how different I felt, and now I usually write more than three things each day. Sometimes as many as seven or eight. I might have to start using something bigger than post-it notes.
What I’ll change.
An added benefit has been in reading back over my gratitudes. It’s made it very clear to see what I need to change (do more of) to make myself happier. I’ve used it for some 2018 New Year’s Resolutions:
- To see friends more often.
- To be more honest in conversation and to allow myself to be vulnerable. This will get more genuine responses and help me to connect more.
- To stop and look at animals. Animals are amazing.
- To do yoga regularly even when I don’t feel like it and have to force myself. I always feel much better afterwards.
- To take the time to compliment people, to thank people, and to tell them what I appreciate or like about them. I’ve been buoyed by it, so I know the power it can have to improve somebody else’s day. Don’t leave it unsaid or assumed.