At a dinner party in a sprawling apartment on Park Avenue, I brought up the topic of gratitude—and everyone looked down at their plates in embarrassment.
Had I brought up Caitlyn Jenner, sex slavery, or women menstruating through their eyeballs, nobody would have finched. But gratitude? Not in polite company, dear.
I had just spent a year living gratefully and writing about it in my new book The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking On The Bright Side Can Transform Your Life (published this week by Dutton).
I am neither sappy nor spiritual, and while I eat kale and quinoa, I’m not new age-y. I don’t meditate and I’m possibly the only woman around who rushed out of the only yoga class I ever took because I’d rather run in the park than lie on a mat.
So I understood the problem. Gratitude could seem like a nice pat-on-the-back for people plodding though life and needing assurance that they were okay. But it wasn’t for ambitious, hard-driving types who looked to the future and always wanted more. You know, people like us.
Only it turns out that gratitude is exactly for people like us or those on Park Avenue or just about anyone else who wants to up their level of fulfillment.
Dr. Martin Seligman, the renowned professor of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, uses “well-being” as the gold standard for valuing our lives.
“Life satisfaction isn’t just about a cheeful mood,” he told me. So instead of charting happiness which can be fleeting and ephemeral, he looks at well-being—which encompasses the combination of pleasure, meaning, and purpose that makes life worthwhile.
And here was Seligman’s kicker: “Of all the positive traits we’ve looked at, people who are highest in gratitude are also highest in well-being.”
I first met Dr. Seligman after a series of coincidences connected me a few years ago to the kind people at the John Templeton Foundation, which gives away nearly a hundred million dollars a year for research into big questions.
One of their questions was about gratitude—and I jumped on board, overseeing a national survey on the topic.
The results surprised me. Most people thought being grateful made you happier. They said they were grateful for family and friends. But when asked if they expressed gratitude—the general answer was—no, no, not really.
Most of us figure our lives are good, fine, maybe better than most. But we’re still waiting around for the fabulous shot that will make them even better.
If that’s your attitude, you’ll probably wait forever. Because once that terrific event occurs, you immediately get used to it and start looking for the next big thing.
Psychologists call it “habituation.” You got the job you wanted, but when will you get a promotion? The husband is handsome, but doesn’t the guy next door earn a lot more money?
To improve your well-being, you need to be able to appreciate what’s in front of you right now.
Convincing research says that gratitude lowers blood pressure, decreases depression, and lets you sleep better. It makes you happier and healthier. I went on the Today show to talk about the gratitude gap and why we needed to close it. And then I realized I was as guilty as anyone else.
That’s when I set myself the challenge to live more gratefully—no matter how much people at dinner parties rolled their eyes at me.
I took on the project as a journalist, meaning I planned to keep a certain emotional distance.
But to live gratefully, you actually have to do something. I started keeping a gratitude journal, writing down a couple of things each night that had made me grateful during the day.
And then I began saying “thank you” regularly to my husband Ron for the stuff he did every day and really appreciating my children. I let myself be grateful for what was in my bank account, rather than worrying why it wasn’t bigger.
It didn’t take very long for my whole perspective to change. I had the same apartment, husband, kids, and job—but looking at them with new eyes, they seemed a lot more satisfying.
I worried that I might be fooling myself, but then I realized that we are all the spin doctors of our own lives. As Hamlet explains to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
The most surprising part of the year was how my relationship with my husband changed.
It’s sometimes easier to say thanks to the barista or mailman than the person with whom you share a bed. But I found a reason at least once a day to tell Ron why I appreciated him. It was usually for stuff he did anyway that I had simply stopped noticing—and saying thanks turned me into neither geisha girl nor Stepford wife. No big event happened, but it was probably the best year we ever had.
Daily frustrations could still sorely test my new outlook. One wintry day a guy clearing his sidewalk accidentally tossed a shovelful of snow at me. I was furious until I made myself try to flip the situation. He was out shoveling instead of me. Reason to be grateful.
I tried similar techniques when I was stuck in traffic or in line at the grocery. It didn’t make the line move faster, but it could usually change my mood.
Over the course of the year, my friends heard me talk (and talk) about gratitude and most of them gave it a tentative try.
“It’s amazing how well it works,” said Mike Berland, the CEO of Edelman Berland who ran the gratitude survey for me. “I was pretty skeptical when you first wanted to do this topic. But now I say ‘thank you’ and express gratitude to people all the time, and they respond so well that I feel like I’m cheating.”
The power of gratitude is that it’s completely in your control. Over the year, I met people who suffered terrible tragedies or illness, but still described how grateful they were for the friends who rallied or the partner who didn’t leave their side.
My year of living gratefully ended several months ago, and I admit that I slip up sometimes. But when I feel myself getting grumpy or frustrated, I know that I can flip the situation and reframe it in my mind to see the good side.
I can now even get through a dinner party on Park Avenue with people who don’t necessarily appreciate what they have. Whatever anyone says, I’m grateful for the excellent wine.