“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.” – Elie Wiesel
(Grateful for this opportunity to meet Bonnie St. John, author, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and terrific person)
(do not use without permission)
I don’t get a lot of opportunity to spend time alone in the car at this point in my life, but when I do, and it’s for more than 15 minutes, I’m listening to podcasts. Some of my favorites include You Are Not So Smart, TED Talks, Serial (I just subscribed to S-Town but haven’t listened to any of the episodes yet, so shhhh), and my most favorite is Freakonomics.
In case you are unfamiliar, Freakonomics basically takes apart and analyzes and explains stuff. Like gender differences in the workplace, why people hate flying (and why they shouldn’t), how to be more productive, why you should get enough sleep, and the one I started listening to today, “Why Is My Life So Hard?”. Among other things, it discusses the broad topic of gratitude. It’s not much of a secret that purposefully practicing gratitude, something as simple as a daily notation of something that one is grateful for, demonstrated benefits. Aside from just making sense, there is research that documents those benefits of gratitude, including improvements to relationships, physical health, mental health, self-esteem and sleep habits, as well as reduced aggression and heightened empathy. So with all of those benefits, why isn’t EVERYONE practicing gratitude daily? Why is something so easy not widely practiced? Well, for one, our brains aren’t hard wired that way. In relation to the practice of gratitude, this Freakonomics episode discusses something called the “Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry”, which is also the title of a research paper published by a couple of really smart psychologists, Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai. The jist of headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry is that it’s easier for people to essentially ignore the good things (“tailwinds”) in their lives, to take them for granted, while giving more of their energy and attention to perceived obstacles and negatives in their lives (“headwinds”). Why? Because we don’t have to pay attention to those things that make our lives good, we generally simply adapt our world view to make the good things part of the background, what is just assumed to be a part of our lives. Gilovich and Daviai call those “the invisibles”, the things that we can and should be grateful for, but often just don’t see.
This resonated with me, and I quickly picked up a book (not while I was driving) that I am currently reading, called “Micro-Resilience”, written by Bonnie St. John and Allen P. Haines. I’ve just started Chapter 4, which is titled, “Reframe Your Attitude”, which discusses the benefits of positive thinking and the science behind it, and provides suggestions and resources to help diminish detrimental negative thoughts and enhance the positive ones to bring about actual change in one’s life. I’m not going to put any spoiler alerts here, but you can do your own research and/or read the book yourself. Heck, I’ll even lend it to you when I’m finished with it.
All of this is to say, that I’m grateful that I have come across some resources that delve into the science of gratitude and positive thinking. Because it is truly something I struggle with; about a year ago, I decided to start a journal of thankfulness. After my fifth non-consecutive entry of “I am grateful for coffee”, I dropped it. I now recognize that it is far easier for me to overlook the importance of the good “invisibles” in my life (e.g., my two children have access to great healthcare, I was able to get a good education, I have single-stream recycling) than the perceived obstacles (e.g., everything I wish I had more of, less of, or better than it is now).
So now I’m going to try to take a moment every day, and really think about some of the apparent and invisible things I’m grateful for. I won’t treat the journal like another item on my to-do list. I will attempt to recognize the tailwinds more, and not dwell so much on the headwinds. And just see what happens. I think tomorrow, I’ll be grateful for podcasts and books.