As Thanksgiving approaches here in the U.S., I’m thinking about how the practice of gratitude has rewired me.
I used to think of gratitude as a spontaneous response to good things happening. In recent years, however, I have come to understand that gratitude is much more than an automatic byproduct of positive experience. Gratitude can actually be our emotional and intellectual baseline, if that’s what we choose.
What I mean is, we don’t have to wait around for the things we want to happen to feel grateful. We can simply find things to be grateful about no matter what happens, or how far afield we may be from what we desire. From this vantage point, everything we experience gives us something to appreciate, no matter how difficult or seemingly inconsequential it might be.
I saw this modeled recently by a workshop leader who enacted smashing his thumb with a hammer. After shouting bloody murder, he said, “Boy am I glad that doesn’t happen very often.” And then, “Wow, check out all of that sensation in my thumb! I’m so glad I have nerves to tell me that I have injured myself.”
It is uncommon to interpret an unfortunate event with gratitude. But this leader demonstrated that it is always an option. When we find ways to appreciate a difficult experience—or at least use it to appreciate how great our life was before and after it happened—we set ourselves up to feel empowered. After we experience our feelings, we get to decide how the events that happen to us affect us.
My first memory of choosing gratitude over, say, revenge was in college. I had broken up with my first love, and the emotional pain was so intense that I feared it would kill me. A few weeks in, when I knew conclusively that my body would keep going no matter how sad I was, I focused on that: being alive. If I had survived this heartbreak, I could expect to survive the losses of future loves to come. This was good news! When I shifted my gaze from pain to gratitude, I stumbled into discovery.
And of course, this loss helped me trust that I could weather the disappointments of my literary life as well. Over the years, I have come to appreciate each publication that rejected my work for the opportunity to work harder, write better, and find a truer fit for my work. And I have deeply appreciated the teachers, editors, colleagues, and writing group friends who have given me uncomfortable feedback that has challenged me to grow.
In every so-called mistake, failure, and disappointment, I have been further refined as a writer and a person. There has been so much to appreciate.
Of course, every day of our writing lives, endless things also go right. Choosing gratitude doesn’t just help us transcend our bad fortune. It also helps us integrate our good fortune. Gratitude is just as important—and just as easy to overlook—when things are going well as when they’re not.
When you acknowledge yourself for how hard you’re working, it can make a significant difference in your endurance and your mood. When you show up at your writing desk at the time you promised yourself; when you move through the angst of the blank page; when you complete the first draft, the revision, and the next revision; when you are willing to get feedback from your writing group; when you have the fortitude to research submissions; when you the courage to submit and resubmit your work; these are all opportunities to appreciate yourself.
When you notice and acknowledge how capable and courageous you are, you anchor this in your being. You start to learn that you can count on yourself. Whether or not you ultimately achieve the result you want, you have numerous successes to refer to that can help you more deeply receive your epic wins or more effectively redirect your efforts to try again.
A writer friend told me that when his first book came out, he sent out a wave of thank-you letters and emails to all the people who had influenced his thinking and writing. Then he launched into all of the mandatory marketing and press outreach. He explained that framing the whole experience in gratitude reduced his anxiety about whether the book would sell and changed his approach completely.
Gratitude anchored him in the field of influence from which his book was called into existence, and it kept his focus on the service his book was offering. This quickly put his book in the hands of a global community seeking his wisdom.
When we focus on problems, we generate dissatisfaction and resentment. When we invest in fears, we can destabilize ourselves. But when gratitude is the ground on which we stand, we can be satisfied with life exactly as it is and relax into the unknown, while becoming more receptive to all that we desire.
What are you grateful for in your (writing) life?