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I was an unhappy person. Here’s how I started peeling away my layers of anger.

Figuring out what is good in my life — and what isn’t — is something to hold onto beyond Thanksgiving

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More than 20 months of life under the pandemic cloud has taken its toll on me. Multiple friendships have faded away because of covid-era life choices, leaving me sad. Disappointments — and outright rage — at the ways my government, my church and my children’s schools have responded to the pandemic settled into a constant low-grade resentment. And then, of course, I was spending way too much time on Twitter, which never lowers the temperature.

People around me had noticed these emotional changes. My husband gently asked me if I could complain less since, after each new annoyance, he bore the brunt of my frustration. And, though I’m typically a conflict-avoidant people-pleaser, I even found myself snapping rudely at the grocery store cashier when chitchat in line brought up sensitive political topics. I began to see I was turning into a meme-level caricature of a joyless, angry person I didn’t want to be.

My lack of pleasure really hit me when my family was on a road trip vacation over the summer. Normally, I absolutely love to travel — it doesn’t even matter where — but on this particular drive, as I looked out my window at the beautiful northern Arizona scenery I realized that, as hard as I tried, I felt nothing. Intellectually, I could see the reasons to feel pleasure, but the feelings themselves were not there.

After searching the Internet and self-diagnosing a mild case of anhedonia, I stumbled upon a blog post that recommended keeping a “pleasure journal.” I was intrigued. (For the record, it sounds kinky, but it’s not — this was a recommendation to record little, everyday pleasures, not pleasure of a sexual nature.) I’ve kept a journal since the age of 10, so jotting a few lines about the things in my day that sparked joy seemed doable. I was willing to try almost anything to kick me out of my grumpy funk. I even happened to have an extra notebook hanging around.

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So, for several months now, I’ve kept track daily of all things large and small that have brought me delight, satisfaction and enjoyment. I’ve recorded sensory experiences (the smell and taste of my morning coffee), emotional boosts (rekindling an old friendship), funny incidents (my 10-year-old’s hilarious non sequiturs), and little delights that defy categorization, such as the surprise I felt when a lizard darted across my path on a morning walk. Even something as mundane as a hot shower or singing along with the radio can make it into my little white journal — because, when I think about it, I do enjoy these things, even if I often take them for granted.

Journaling in this way has prompted some insights. For one thing, it’s been an interesting exercise in affirmation. As a nutritionist and food writer, my apparently boundless adoration of food reassures me I’m on the right track, career-wise. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself recording the glories of a well-built salad or the crunch of roasted cauliflower. Returning to the roots of why I chose my work is resurfacing a level of pleasure that was buried beneath the day-in, day-out of life.

In fact, I’ve discovered the endless wellspring that lies in easily accessible activities such as listening to music, enjoying a great novel or hugging my children. It’s a beautiful revelation.

It’s also been revealing to discover the things I believe I should enjoy, but don’t. One day, when I opened my journal to write about a dinner date with a friend, I realized I hadn’t actually taken much pleasure in our interaction. She had vented her problems in a steady stream while I sat by like a smiling, nodding automaton. (Incidentally, probably much like my husband felt about me in my many months of complaints.) Even with my children, sometimes the activities I’ve intended as family fun turn into a massively un-fun headache. Just try a day trip with preteens who’d rather be playing Minecraft.

Mostly, though, the chief benefit I’ve noticed from keeping a journal of everyday pleasures is that it keeps enjoyment at the forefront of my thoughts. And when I’m focused on how to take joy from life, I do take more joy from it.

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This experience isn’t unique, of course. Experts often tout the benefits of focusing on the good for better mental health. “At any given time, there is good and not-so-good in our lives,” author Elizabeth Lombardo told me.

She said keeping a pleasure journal can be helpful “for people with anxiety and/or depression because it forces a broader focus from what is wrong to what is right or pleasurable.”

Meanwhile, for me, the anticipation of pleasure — or even the anticipation of writing about it — can be a pleasure in itself. Though I tend to jot down more nuggets of joy if I keep my journal close by throughout the day, I usually only get around to it in the evening. I’ve come to look forward to this time of re-centering.

I’ve also learned that I can’t force any feelings so when the positive ones come, I let them ride. While I’m often tempted to check email while pounding out a long jog, these days I keep my eyes on the scenery and my focus on the endorphins coursing through my body. In church, as I feel a surge of spiritual connection with my fellow believers, I’m better able to let go of heightened feelings about other people’s politics or covid practices. For all my prior attempts at mindfulness (and there have been many) paying attention to pleasure has grounded me in a way that others haven’t.

Every year around Thanksgiving, we hear exhortations to keep a gratitude journal. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, for sure, to write down our thanks, but this year I’ll be sticking with my log of everyday pleasures. With several months of journaling in the rearview, I can’t say I’m delighting in every moment — or even finding the same happiness as before the pandemic — but keeping track of the things that bring me joy has been far more impactful than I would have guessed. As I’ve honed my vision for the pleasure in life, it’s kept the less pleasant things from stealing my joy. That’s something I’d like to hang onto year-round.

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