A few years back, I was headed to the grocery store to buy a lottery ticket whose jackpot was a half-billion dollars when I ran into my neighbor Kathy. Asked if she, too, was joining the throngs buying tickets at gas stations and convenience stores, this happily married mom and grandma replied:
“I already feel like I hit the lottery.”
Her response was a wonderful example of the ancient spiritual principle that anyone looking for uplift in an anxiety-filled world might consider. Ask yourself a simple question:
What are you grateful for?
If your list is short — “My health, my family” — I get it. What could be more priceless, especially now? But think harder. Raising your gratitude game can make you feel happier during these unsettled times. Last year, when one of my yoga students quipped, “It’s impossible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time,” I had no idea how right she was.
Life is uniquely challenging right now. When unsettling news about the pandemic or protests pins me to my chair, gratitude gives me back my power. I remind myself of how thankful I am for my strong, smart sons; for each box, can and bottle in my pantry; for uncomfortable but long-overdue conversations sparked by our social justice challenges; for the extravagant beauty of birds, flowers and trees that greet my walk; and — especially — for my toddler grandson’s gorgeousness on FaceTime. Being grateful shortens my freakouts and rivets my attention on what matters in this moment.
So why does gratitude so often elude us? For starters, most of us get a bigger kick out of being miserable than we realize. It’s human nature to obsess on things that are broken while barely glancing at all that’s working. Wasn’t griping about being banned from restaurants and bars more fun than noting culinary skills we honed and gas and money we saved by cooking and pouring for ourselves? Plus, everyone’s future feels uncertain. Shoved out of our routines and shaken by a continually changing world, we fret about horrors that could emerge next month — or in the next few hours. If that weren’t enough, it’s hard being grateful when you’re in mourning. It’s been four short months since we were unceremoniously booted from the institutions that moor us: schools, churches, workplaces, gyms. Even with limited access to these establishments now, most of us still grieve the death of our former lives — even if in February we couldn’t stop complaining.
Embracing gratitude probably sounds impossible when you’re worried about your mortgage payment, half-empty refrigerator or the uncertain health of you or your relatives. Even those with ample resources are daunted by this moment’s jagged unpredictability, by how quickly their attitude shifts between reluctant acceptance and plunging despair. My friend Mary Jo, a lifelong swimmer, likens it to bobbing in gigantic waves at the beach. When fear and uncertainty plunge her beneath the surface, she says, she forces her head above water — until another wave engulfs her, “lifting me up and then pulling me under, so often that I wonder, ‘When is this going to end?’” That’s when she remembers all that she’s grateful for. “If you keep riding the waves, it eventually takes you to the shore,” Mary Jo explains. “To solid ground.”
Yet for millions these days, that ground feels like quicksand. Which brings us to what many of us see as a huge block to gratitude: It seems wrong, celebrating what's good in your life when so many are suffering. Daily, we absorb news reports, disturbing images and personal stories of cruelty, selfishness and heartbreaking human and economic losses. These harsh realities dampen the impulse to point out, even to ourselves, our blessings.
But human life is always uncertain. We forget how often and how unexpectedly even horrific losses morph into equally unforeseen abundance. Wallowing in depression over other people’s pain does nothing to help them or you. Numerous spiritual teachings suggest that focusing on the good in your life creates more abundance. So if you can assist someone in need, offer a delivery person or retail worker a generous tip, or contribute money or time to organizations helping the hard-hit, do it — and feel grateful for being blessed to be able to help. Empathy for others doesn’t require turning your back on gifts that could lift you now.
Gratitude can be a balm at the worst times, as my friend Natalie can attest. In 2013, she was stunned to find herself having the best time at an unexpected place — her adored mother’s funeral. At first, Natalie, 38, felt guilty for enjoying seeing long-distant loved ones and giggling at amusing stories she had never heard about her mom. Then she realized, “The bad thing had happened, and there was nothing I could do about it.” What she could do, Natalie says, was embrace the fact that “good things can happen in the midst of bad things — and there’s no guilt to be had.”
“People think when something bad happens, the only emotion you’re allowed to have is sadness or anger,” Natalie says. “If you wait until you get past hard times to live your life, you’ll never live your life. … Because there’s always something [awful] going on.”
No kidding. Waldorf wife and mother Timika Powell, 36, lives with a rare form of multiple sclerosis. If anyone has the right to renounce gratitude, it’s her. A self-described survivor of “more messed-up situations a lot of people couldn’t come back from,” Powell was abandoned by her parents at age 2, raised by a grandmother for whom the teenage Powell had to administer medications and insulin, and raped at 13 — on Christmas Day — by a relative who started molesting her when she was 7.
If that wasn’t enough trauma for one lifetime, Powell, a former Army Reserves human resources specialist who earned degrees in nursing and finance, experienced years of puzzling symptoms, including roller-coaster weight changes and a bout of blindness before doctors diagnosed MS. By then, Powell was numb from the neck down and in need of a wheelchair. Now, after treatment and therapy, “not only can I stand on my own, but I can walk [assisted] down my driveway,” she says. “I’m beyond grateful.”
So what is she most thankful for? “My children,” says Powell, who was told as a teen that her pelvic inflammatory disease would prevent her from having a child. “Now I have six. With everything I’ve gone through, guess who’s been right there in my corner?” Not one of her children, ages 16, 14, 13, 12 and 8-year-old twins, “has even once ended the school year with less than a 3.0 average,” she says. Best of all? “My kids tell people, ‘My mom doesn’t give up so I won’t either.’”
Asked this gratitude superstar’s favorite tip and she doesn’t hesitate: “Love yourself first.” Surviving enormous trauma and “the dark, dark, dark, dark days” that followed taught Powell that few of us understand the “self-hating [inner] voices” that haunt us. “But we always have a choice to do something about them,” she insists, “even if it’s as simple as just having a conversation with someone.”
There are countless roads to gratefulness. My fitness coach buddy Jonathan uses his morning walk as a vehicle. “As soon as I open the front door, I start with, “I’m grateful for …,' and say whatever’s in my mind,” explains Jonathan, 32. He doesn’t stop recounting his blessings until he has circled the entire block. My middle son, Darrell, began his own unique gratitude practice, “7 for 7,” while isolating with his roommate in Los Angeles. Nightly at 7 p.m., he sets a timer for seven minutes and uses the time to list everything he’s thankful for. “When things start to get dark and the walls close in, I need to re-center myself,” he says. “The best way is to thank God, the universe, whoever’s listening. … I’m always surprised by how quickly the seven minutes passes. But then I realize there’s never enough time in the day to say all the things I should be grateful for.”
Between our vanished past and unpredictable future lies a realization: All we have is now. Moment by moment, I’m recognizing that gratitude is a choice — and a challenging one in a world in which fear, anxiety, outrage and frustration are constantly offered to me. No matter what’s happening, I try to remember what Psalm 118:24 suggests: “This is the day that the Lord has made.” Why not try to “rejoice and be glad in it?” Choosing joy over pain and fear whenever possible doesn’t just seem sensible — it’s healthy. Being grateful has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and to boost immunity. Who doesn’t need that now?'
For every reason for ingratitude, find something to be thankful for: You’re alive. The planet that suffered a century-long beatdown by humans just got a bit of a break. While sheltering, many of us discovered depths, talents, patience, independence and wisdom in ourselves and loved ones we never knew existed. I’m grateful for every seemingly healthy soul who finds mask-wearing a pain but who wears one anyway in public spaces to protect others with less-robust immune systems. And I’m deeply appreciative that unlike pandemic dwellers in centuries past, I have lots of options: Watching new movies and ancient episodes of “Frasier,” exercising, taking classes, having virtual cocktail parties and attending church on Zoom. I’m enjoying FaceTiming with loved ones thousands of miles away and taking long walks with both socially distanced friends and the husband whose once-insane travel schedule used to annoy me.
But enough about me. Once more, with feeling:
What are you grateful for?
Donna Britt, a former Washington Post columnist, is the author of “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.”
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