For the second year in a row, my husband and I agreed to participate in a gratitude challenge, where we’d deposit almost a year’s worth of notes — our private thoughts — into a large glass Mason jar.
But my husband enjoyed it last year, and we decided to try again, this time shortening the length of the experiment. Instead of reviewing the jar’s contents on Jan. 1, we agreed to review them over Thanksgiving, a holiday where people are encouraged to hold gratitude front and center.
The experiment had actually been my idea. I’d secretly hoped that a jar filled with gratitude would change our outlook last year on the pandemic-defined normal we’d been thrust into. This year, again, I was desperate to feel gratitude. But once again, it didn’t go as expected.
By summer, I was a gratitude deadbeat. I’d contributed next to nothing to the jar, having let Matt’s contributions fill it to the brim. Overcome with curiosity, I cheated in August. Without telling Matt, I’d dumped out and reviewed the contents, long before our agreed-upon expiration date of Thanksgiving.
The jar confirmed what I’d already known: Matt had spent most of 2022 conjuring gratitude for things big and small, from happy little errands on his own to time we spent together. It would be easy to deride him in mind for being a Pollyanna, but the truth is, I was envious.
I had a decision to make: confess to Matt and end the whole experiment, or dig in and start writing things that (supposedly) make me feel appreciative. I was hesitant to try. What if it didn’t work?
I began to tell myself all sorts of stories about what my lackluster performance meant. After two years of failing at gratitude, the jar had almost become sentient, mocking me from its spot on the dining room table. Did I want to be someone who couldn’t identify — and feel grateful for — life’s small and precious moments. Is there anything worse than being an ingrate? Is there anything worse than being married to one?
It seemed I was an outlier: According to the Mayo Clinic, gratitude challenge participants find new appreciation for life. So what was wrong with me?
I waited until I was almost 40 years old to get married, and feel lucky to have found such a loving and sensitive man. But in truth, gratitude — as a concept — does not come naturally to me. I’m a cynical curmudgeonly type. Matt and I spent the first five years of our relationship separated by 600 miles and two time zones, a dynamic that left me in a perpetually sour mood as weeks (and sometimes months) went by without seeing each other. I wore black to our wedding; I’m always in bed by 8 p.m.
We’ve only been married for three years, and Matt and I had spent most of our union in isolation, first because of the pandemic, and then because of my disdain for venturing out in public (I do all of my grocery shopping before 8 a.m. to the extent possible). Our social life is nearly nil and the truth is, we’re both grumpier than usual, my negative attitude in particular sustaining far longer than seems healthy. According to the World Happiness Report 2021, thanks to the pandemic, mental health issues have increased by nearly 50 percent.
I felt guilt in cheating on the experiment. But I also experienced a shift as I pored over Matt’s scratchy handwriting. It felt as though I was reading a map of how we spent 2022 together. Matt’s notes described his gratitude for the smallest of details, individual moments that — for me — all blended together, such as picking up books from the library or cuddling with our new rescue cat. He even included a note about watching TV together and trying a new beer. In reviewing his contributions, I was suddenly overcome with renewed appreciation for my marriage and the life we’ve built together. You could even call it gratitude.
I went into this experiment expecting it to fail. But I think I just needed to have gratitude modeled for me. I’m a teacher by trade, and it seems so obvious now. Students who are unfamiliar with concepts need to have them modeled by someone expert, or at least more familiar. And that is the role that Matt — and the gratitude jar — played.
I quickly scribbled a few things that didn’t feel forced or fake: teaching a new batch of students, writing a book and finding my favorite hard-to-get Italian cookie online.
While I’m still not a gratitude junkie, I’m feeling a bit less like a curmudgeon these days. I’d call that a success.