A few years back, my spouse and I started a walking regimen, regularly taking a nightly constitutional and catching up on the day. It was an easy way to get exercise and reconnect. We walked through the college campus near our home, trading stories about our days.
During one of those walks my spouse recounted a phone call from that morning with her friend Catherine who lived, at the time, in Bermuda. I admired Catherine’s life: her good job, her strong work ethic, her adorable son, and the blue-sky island where she lived. At some point in the conversation, Catherine had commented to my spouse, “You two have such a nice life.”
I stopped walking and stood in place to take it in. It struck me as interesting and curious: Catherine, whose life I admired, admired our life.
Up until that moment, I was reasonably thankful for my life. I had the job I always wanted, married my beloved partner, lived on a tree-lined street in a pleasant neighborhood, and owned a reliable car. I felt okay about my life, but it had never occurred to me that anyone else would give it a second thought. I was so steeped in my own experience that I was taking big and small things for granted.
Catherine’s appraisal changed that. I did a deeper life audit and found that I agreed with her. We do have a nice life. Since then, when I feel tempted to complain about something insignificant or petty, I hear Catherine’s words in my ear.
Brain science tells us that an attitude of gratitude will make a person happier. In his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert A. Emmons explains that participants in a study were found to be 25% happier after expressing their thankfulness routinely for a full ten weeks. All it takes to make your brain happier is to focus on something positive, to do so repeatedly (every day if you can), and to pay attention to the positive effects that follow.
Thanksgiving is here, but my goal is to be thankful year-round for friends like Catherine and for everything else that is so wonderful in life. I’m going to notice the sunshine, the cool breeze, the leaves changing, and the way it feels to take a long, hot bath. I’m going to enjoy hugging my mom and petting the neighbor’s cat and getting the chance to read a good book.
Every night I’m going to write down what I’m grateful for and read it the next morning as I start each day. The idea of the gratitude journal is an old standby in therapeutic circles, and there’s a good reason for that. It works, and brain science proves it.