Lately with everything going on—the tanking economy, rising COVID-19 cases nationwide, a federal government that toggles between authoritarian overreach, lies, and violence and complete inaction, climate change continuing unabated, increasing racial and economic division, in case you’d forgotten—I have been having some trouble feeling hope. I suspect I’m not alone in this.
I want to feel hope. I want to cling to it like a foam ring in stormy waters, like a teddy bear in the wake of a nightmare. I search for it, sifting through news and data and scenarios, but it eludes me and I’m left feeling even more alone and overwhelmed.
For some, I know, gratitude helps by bringing focus to the things that are going well in one’s life. I like gratitude, but it’s got some limitations. Sometimes, for example, things really are very, very bad and trying to find gratitude is as futile as trying to find hope. Seeking a sense of gratitude and not finding it can itself feel like a failure. For those of us inclined towards anxiety, depression, or ruminative thought, this easily turns into a cudgel: I have all of these good things in my life but I keep letting them be overshadowed by the bad, therefore there must be something wrong with me. I am ungrateful, my mind insists, irredeemably flawed, and it won’t take “shut the hell up” for an answer.
So, I’ve stopped asking myself to feel hope or gratitude. I gave myself permission to stop struggling for those things that feel so unattainable. Instead, I try to bring awareness to the whole situation: not try mentally to beat it into a shape resembling good news, not try to argue myself out of a grief that is completely warranted, but just observe all aspects of things as they are. When I’m wearing my mask while on a walk, I continue to notice the humid environment building up around my lower face and notice the irritation that arises when the unmasked people coming toward me on the sidewalk show no sign of allowing six feet of distance, but at the same time I also notice the breeze on my forehead, the ground supporting my feet, the waxing moon rising in the late afternoon, the smell of dinner cooking in one of the homes along my route. I avoid labeling any of these things as “good” or “bad;” I just give them my attention and move on.
This isn’t hope; it’s just a more complete picture.
My constant companion is anxiety—with just a smidge of depression—that I keep in check (mostly) with diet, mindfulness, journaling, an hour or more of exercise each day, and one massage a month. It works, mostly, to keep the eddy of worry from swirling into panic, but it’s a delicate balance and when my spouse goes out of town and I’m left with all of the responsibilities, my barely-held-in-check anxiety goes into hyper-overdrive.
I’m wound so tight, if you bumped into me, I’d twang like a guitar string. Or I’d deck you, just because I’m in this perpetual fight-or-flight thing that has me screaming at drivers who randomly try to give me the right-of-way even though they have a stinking green light and are going straight and if I turn left in front of them and at that moment someone decides to pass them, I’m in an accident and it’s my fault because I didn’t have the right of way. I don’t care how much you blink your lights and wave your arm, there’s no stinking way I’m turning in front of you because you have a green light! Green means Go, and following that rule is what makes the world work and keeps us from descending into chaos. Chaos!
When I’m not in the car, I indulge in escapism—part of the anxiety package deal—and since I’ve got urchins to care for and I can’t literally escape, I “escape” via the Internet. Doing this, it doesn’t take long before I find the posts about about how wonderful gratitude is. Science has proved that gratitude is the secret to being happy and not-anxious, so if I just give it a try, I’ll be calm and fine, and everyone else will be spared my shitty moods.
But gratitude doesn’t work that way for me.
Whenever my spouse is out of town, I think about my mom and how she had three kids compared to my two and how my dad was on cruise with the Navy for six to ten months every other year rather than a week or so three or four times a year, and you know what? It doesn’t help.
Yes, I am grateful that the guy who scoops the cat litter and brushes the little kid’s teeth before bedtime and does the dishes so I can be alone before 9pm is only gone for a week rather than ten months. I’m grateful that I can leave him a voice mail or send him an e-mail any time I want to, or, if it’s a big emergency, I can call his hotel because I know where he is, unlike my mother who wasn’t allowed to know beyond the most general descriptions where my dad’s aircraft carrier was.
Admittedly, I would feel more grateful if my spouse didn’t tell me about how great it is to sit in his kid-free hotel room drinking beer and watching football, and I’d also be grateful if he didn’t micromanage my handling of Garbage Day remotely, especially not while the kids are fighting with each other in the background and I’m trying to figure out what these maggoty things are all over the basement floor. (Turns out they’re acorn weevil larvae from the acorns we collected week before last. Public service announcement: don’t collect acorns with cracks or holes in them unless you like fat little grubs eating their way through the plastic bags you stored your acorns in.)
Even feeling grateful that the grubs weren’t something that would infest anything we have in the house because all they care about is acorns doesn’t make me feel better. (Okay, maybe a little better.)
Despite the promises of science, I’m able to feel anxious even while feeling grateful.
What gives? Am I just contrary? Not trying hard enough? A scientific anomaly?
In a study looking at the effects of sleep and gratitude on depression and anxiety in patients with chronic pain, researchers “found that after controlling for the amount of sleep people got, gratitude still had an effect on lower depression scores. This means that regardless of their levels of insomnia, people who showed more gratitude were less depressed. With anxiety they found a different result. After controlling for sleep, gratitude showed no effect on anxiety. So while higher gratitude led to less anxiety originally, this is simply because it helped people sleep better, and sleeping better improved their anxiety.” (emphasis mine)
I’ve not had much luck with gratitude practices. Picking out things to be grateful about feels either forced or redundant, and I end up feeling like an ass when I still feel miserable even in the face of so many blessings in my life. Focusing on the good in a situation or in a moment just highlights the gap between what I expect or desire and the reality. It engages my logical mind to step in with its focus on identifying problems and proposing solutions. And that’s a problem.
I really like my logical mind. It serves me well in many, many situations. It helps me figure out whether to go to the grocery store or the post office first, which math curriculum I should try for my kids, and how many layers of clothing I should wear if it’s -6°F out (trick question; I don’t go out when it’s -6°F). But when my logical brain approaches the problem of my feeling down and sets to work identifying why this might be, the common element is always me. I’m the problem, says my logical mind.
This doesn’t foster feelings of gratitude, and you can imagine what it does to my mood.
Instead, I’ve found that I do better when I ask my logical mind to step aside and let my body and awareness take over so I can just be present for whatever the moment brings.
But my logical mind is tenacious. When it gets its teeth into something, it does not let go without a fight, even if it’s clear it’s losing. So, how do I ask it to step aside?
For me, it helps to shift my awareness from my brain to my body. For example, when I’m feeling anxious, my stomach feels queasy. Because I’m not good with throwing up, feeling queasy triggers more anxiety, which triggers more queasiness, which makes me more anxious. When I was a kid, my mom would say, “Count to ten,” or “Take three breaths.” These are good suggestions, but for me, they just serve as distractions. The underlying anxiety is still steaming away, driving that feedback loop.
To stop the feedback loop, I’ve learned to check in with my body. Sometimes I’m too anxious to bring my awareness directly to my stomach, so mostly I start with more distant body parts. I bring my awareness to my toes and how they feel in my socks, against the bottoms of my shoes, or if I’m barefoot, I feel the air across my skin. Or I bring my awareness to the space between my eyebrows or the space between my neck and my shoulders. If I have time, I do a full-on body scan meditation. (Usually I don’t have time.)
The key is not to think about what my body is feeling; that defeats the purpose. Rather I just bring awareness to the sensations in my toes or my face or my shoulders or my stomach without attaching any sort of judgment or evaluation to the sensations. This doesn’t change the sensations themselves, but it gets me out of my logical mind, which stops the anxiety feedback loop and helps me calm down a bit.
Another way I engage with my body is through motion. This morning I attended a dancing meditation. We began by learning the steps and hearing the lyrics of the songs read aloud to us, which both engaged the logical mind. Then the music began and as we listened and moved through the sequence of steps, I was able to let go of thinking and let my body do the driving. It was a moving experience, both literally and figuratively, and it not only calmed and centered me, but helped all of us in the room feel closer and more compassionate with one another.
At home, I’ll exercise or dance and sing with my kids or go for a walk. All of these work, but I found the dancing meditation to be much more effective and powerful than my solo endeavors.
I’m not always able to remember to bring my awareness to my body before my mind gets going too fast to stop, but when I can remember, when I can be present without judgment, I find that calm, compassion, and gratitude follow organically.
A few days ago, my post about my brother Josh was featured on Freshly Pressed. Many of you know this because, best I can tell, many of you are here as a direct result of its appearance there.
I’ve been feeling a little bad about not responding to all of the lovely comments you’ve left. I’ve read them all and started several times to write replies, but it never seems to go anywhere. This post came from a different place than many of my other posts, and I feel almost like I haven’t even processed the fact that I posted it much less that so many people have read it. It’s a little overwhelming, in a good way.
I’m just not sure what to say in response to all of the comments except, thank you.
Thank you to Krista, the WordPress editor who selected “Origins” for Freshly Pressed. Thank you to all of you who’ve read the post. Thank you to those who’ve commented and who enjoyed the post enough to follow Imperfect Happiness.
To all of you who are new here: Welcome! I hope you continue to enjoy the posts you find here.
Every time I go to the Buddhist temple, Sensei talks about something that seems to speak to me where I am right at that moment.
After so much pessimism and anxiety this week, I’d just decided that I wanted to focus more on the positive things in my life. The very next day, Sensei did his Dharma Talk about the practice of gratitude.
“I still get angry,” he said, “I still get annoyed, but by practicing gratitude, I have somewhere to come back to, another way of looking at a situation that keeps that anger from getting out of control.”
He went on to explain that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism contains very little in the way of practice. There’s no monastic order, no hours and hours of meditation, no hitting people with sticks. The only thing a Shin Buddhist is supposed to do is recite the nembutsu sincerely (“Namo Amida Butsu,” which means, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”). This is intended to bring awareness to the qualities of the spiritual Buddha that we wish to emulate, like compassion and, yes, gratitude.
OK. I get it. Gratitude it is.
Knowing that a gratitude journal isn’t my thing, I’m going to devote the next couple of blog posts to noting things for which I’m grateful. You know…things that don’t suck?
Today, I’m doing a list:
Baking cookies with the kids from start to finish with no one yelling, hitting, or asking me to wipe their butt.
The tulips in my flower bed.
Hugging my husband.
Snuggling in bed and reading books to my daughter.
Reading an engrossing novel with a glass of wine by my side.
Watching a movie that’s neither animated nor a kid-oriented nature show with my husband after the kids are in bed.
A well-shaken martini. (Thanks to my buddy Ken for teaching me this art.)
Walking to the library in the sunshine.
Lying next to my baby and hearing him laugh in his sleep.
Taking pictures of gingerbread cookies bathed in natural light from the kitchen window.
Making an origami pelican and having it turn out like the picture on the instructions (mostly).
My kids singing Led Zeppelin’s “Black Country Woman” in the backseat of the car (the little guy singing, “Hey hey, Mama!” is especially awesome).
My husband read this list and said, “Wow, you are a ray of sunshine today!”
Well, I don’t know about that. I hesitate to claim that my cloudy mood is over and done with. Mostly now I’ve decided that I’m tired of feeling crappy emotionally and the least I can do is to start trying to steep myself in happy stuff and mixing metaphors rather than rolling around in the yucky stuff all day long.
We’ll see how long I can handle the treacle before I need something more substantial to chew on (like melancholy and malaise…mmm, satisfying!). At least if I’ve gotten myself into the habit of gratitude, it will be easier to see the light before I get dragged as far into the darkness as I have been lately.
My mother is visiting this week. As a result, my daughter and I attended Sunday Mass with her for the second time in our lives (our family wasn’t Catholic growing up). In between answering my daughter’s questions (“When are we going to leave?” “When is he going to stop talking?” “When are we going to sing again?”) I actually got to listen to some of the service (for this reason, I really like that so much of the stuff is written down in the little book at Catholic services. I can go back and review if I miss the details). The gospel reading was from Luke 17: 11-19 about Jesus healing 10 lepers and only one of them returning to thank him. The homily addressed this reading, with Monsignor describing “thank you” as the simplest prayer. With all of the thinking I’ve been doing about gratitude, this struck a chord with me.
Maybe it really could be as simple as that. Just a heartfelt “thank you” about something at the end of the day. Maybe it’s not necessary to over-think this gratitude thing.
The positive effect of the Mass for me was only slightly marred when, while the priests were preparing the Eucharist, the guy across the aisle from us popped his son (who appeared to be about six years old) on the bottom for making noise. The pop on the butt was louder than the noises the boy was making. I felt sad for the child. Even though he didn’t cry and did stay silent after being corrected in this way, it just struck me as sad for him to be punished for doing something that any child (including mine) would do during a 55-minute Mass.
Back on the topic of gratitude, though, I found a post on Rebecca Overson’s Clarity Coaching blog about her gratitude practice using the process of Naikan. The way it works is that you choose one person in your life and ask yourself three questions:
1) What have I received from this person?
2) What have I given to this person?
3) What troubles or difficulties have I caused this person?
I like the orderliness and thoroughness of this process, with the list of questions and all, but I think I might do better to start simple and just note one thing each day about which I’m thankful. I’m intimidated enough by this whole gratitude thing, and it might feel less intimidating to start with events and actions rather than people. I might also note one act of generosity in which I’ve engaged each day, just to cover my bases. Then I could, if I wanted to, use Naikan as kind of an Advanced Gratitude Practice once I’m all comfy with the basic practice.
A few weeks ago, I posted about a study that Ariel Gore wrote about in her book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. For those few of you who have not committed my posts to memory, the study found that people who kept a gratitude journal for six weeks reported an increase in happiness and a decrease in depressive symptoms. They experienced some improvement in as little as three weeks. Since reading this, I’ve been mulling over the idea of incorporating a gratitude practice into my Happiness Project, but I’ve yet to decide what form this practice will take.
In Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, I found another twist on the idea. Weiner writes about a study at Kobe College in Japan. Psychologists divided college students into two groups. One was the control and didn’t do anything different for a week. The other group counted the number of kind acts they performed during the week. They weren’t asked to do any kind acts, just to count them when they did them. (This reminds me of Roger Rabbit when he said (paraphrasing Elizabeth Barrett Browning), “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand…”) At the end of the week, the group that counted their kind acts had a significant increase in their happiness levels compared to the first group. The researchers concluded, “Simply by counting the acts of kindness for one week, people became happier and more grateful.”
This may well have had a different result in a more individualistic country than it did in a more collectivist culture like Japan’s, but I still found this study compelling. The idea that I could feel happier simply by dwelling on the kind things I do every day is an interesting one to me. Knowing that memories are formed by laying down neural pathways, and neural pathways are reinforced by repeated use, it makes sense that traveling mentally back to the scene of a kind act could hardwire it in more firmly and make it easier to call up later on. If one has a clear sense of herself as someone who performs kind acts and is a helpful member of her community, I can see how that could lead her to feel more joy in her life.
So, which might work better for me, recording things for which I’m grateful, or counting the nice things I do? Or should I just cover all of my bases and do both? (Actually, in one of the links below, Randy Taran suggests they’re actually two different things, so it might make more sense to do them both. But would that be adding too much at once?)
In Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness is a chapter entitled, “if you’re hokey and you know it, clap your hands,” in which Gore explores the idea of gratitude, its effectiveness in improving mood, and why it’s sometimes so difficult to express.
Apparently, there are studies that have shown that keeping a gratitude journal for six weeks can increase happiness and reduce depressive symptoms. Results could be seen in as little as three weeks. Trouble is, expressing gratitude can feel uncomfortable, childish, and hokey, as Gore experienced when she tried to keep her own gratitude journal.
Gore presents two possible reasons for this hokieness. First, for many of us, our primary experience with expressing gratitude was as children when we wrote thank-you notes that may or may not have been sincere to relatives for gifts we may or may not have liked. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing thank-you notes, but many of us are stuck in that idea that saying thank you is something childish and sometimes disingenuous. Doing so as adults can feel insincere, even when it is sincere.
The other explanation Gore suggests is that in order to express gratitude, we must admit that we’ve depended on someone for something. As Americans, we value self-reliance over pretty much anything else. Admitting dependence by thanking someone is in conflict with the view of ourselves as self-reliant. Gore writes about her experience as a single teen mom. Everyone around her was waiting for her to fail, and she became determined not only to succeed, but to succeed without anyone’s help. “A relationship based on someone’s idea that he or she was going to rescue me, I decided, was worse than no relationship at all,” Gore remembers.
As a stay-at-home mom, I make no money of my own and am dependent upon my husband’s income. My husband has a Ph.D. and is gainfully employed full-time as a scientist, both things that easily fall within the range of activities that are recognized by our culture as “valuable.” My job—caring for and educating our children—is not really recognized in our culture as a valuable activity, at least not in the same way that my husband’s job is. He can publish results, he gets a performance review, he can quantify his contribution to his organization. There aren’t many measurable results I can show for my work. I can’t think of any at this moment.
We’re both prone to looking at “going to work” as his job and “everything else” as my job. Doing “everything else” is beyond my abilities, but I still labor under the illusion that I am—or should be—self-reliant in my role. When the house isn’t clean and dinner isn’t made and the children and I aren’t in a sunny mood when my husband gets home, I feel like I’m not holding up my end of our arrangement. He is great about helping me, but I have trouble thanking him for his help because it would be admitting that I’m doubly dependent on him, not only for financial support but also for help doing “my job.” I don’t feel grateful to him; I feel beholden to him.
But this is just how I view our situation in my darker moments. In reality, there isn’t “his job” and “my job.” In fact, except for the part of his work that results in a paycheck, it’s not about “jobs” at all. We are working as a team to meet the needs of our family as a whole. We each have a vocation and an avocation that contributes to the welfare of our family. His vocation is his career, on which he spends the bulk of his time and for which he happens to receive a paycheck. His avocation is working around the house and caring for the children, reading The Economist magazine, watching football, and running. My vocation is caring for and educating the children and working around the house. My avocation is writing, reading, and volunteer work. As my children get older, I expect the balance between my vocation and my avocation to shift until their positions are reversed. From this perspective, he’s not “helping me” by working around the house and caring for the kids; he’s contributing to our family. In the same way, I’m not “helping him” by making it possible for him to work towards his career. Who makes money and who doesn’t really doesn’t figure into it.We are each making space for the growth of our family through the growth of each member as an individual. I don’t need to thank him for helping me; I can thank him for the ways in which he supports our family. With any luck, our kids will grow up with this sense of cooperation and mutual respect.
At the end of the chapter, Gore shares a statement that she taped to the front of her gratitude journal: “I can take care of myself AND I can rely on others.” I would go one step further and say, even as I take care of myself, I am relying on others. Purchasing food, driving my car, even flushing the toilet, there is nothing I do that doesn’t involve other people at some point in the process. I can either admit my dependence on others and feel grateful to be part of a larger system, or I can insist on my self-reliance and cut myself off from relationships with those with whom I interact, directly and indirectly.
I started out this post with the intention of talking a little about gratitude, why Ariel Gore thinks it’s a problem for some people, why I think it’s a problem for myself, and then soliciting feedback from others about the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. I enjoy when my journey takes me through territory that wasn’t on the map.
I still would like your feedback, though. What’s your experience with gratitude? What feelings arise for you when you express gratitude? Have you kept a gratitude journal? Do you feel hokey saying, “thank you”?