Dear Drewbie: Gratitude, the best mental-health workout for the New Year
A few years ago, Dave Askeland, fearless leader of Summit’s Colorado Mountain College, showed our crew a Soul Pancake video about the value of gratitude. (I am grateful for employment.)
In the video, participants were given a happiness inventory and asked to write a letter to someone they were grateful for explaining why. Then, they were supposed to call that person and read the letter, followed by another happiness inventory. (I am grateful for my family.)
The results indicated that gratitude improves happiness. The importance was reaffirmed when Joe “The Man” Mackey told me how he deals with his stress and frustration brought on by tourists: He audibly identifies what he is grateful for. I have been practicing this very basic act, and it works. Even when stressed we can discuss our blessings. (I am grateful for friends like Joe.)
Why would gratitude help us feel better? Is it recognizing the good? Focusing on positive over negative? Or is there some sort of biological explanation, similar to the chemicals released when praying, exercising, or being intimate? Truthfully, I have no clue, but sure to all of them. I’m not as concerned about the “why” as I am with mental health improvement. (I am grateful for my dogs.)
Honestly, I am writing this on a day in the thick of the holidays that has been rough, filled with worries, stress and failed expectations. But just listing things I am grateful for in text reminds me of how much I have, allowing me to focus on what I have — not what I don’t have. What I have is substantial, bountiful and beautiful. What I don’t have is nothing that I need, but rather what I want and think I need. (I am grateful for friends.)
So often we get caught up in getting more, having more, wanting more, needing more. Not that striving for more is always a bad thing, but it can be if the consequence is ingratitude. Ingratitude — something even Shakespeare rebuked as a monstrous evil, and which philosopher Immanuel Kant called “the essence of vileness.” Pretty serious, but not hyperbole by any measure. (I am grateful for Phish.)
One of my best friends, Tomasz, has had the hardest life of anyone that I know. His mom, dad and kid brother are all are deceased (two of them gone in the same week). He was homeless at points, and has a brain tumor that comes with epilepsy. Brain surgery is scheduled. (I am grateful for Tomasz.)
Tomasz is my favorite person to give a gift to because he is so grateful for it. Even if it is something silly, like a box of Red Lobster biscuits — his favorite — he is so grateful. He’s grateful for a ride to the market, text message, hug — anything. His gratitude is substantial and it makes me love him even more, makes me want to spend more time with him and do nice things for him. (I am grateful for medicine.)
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My take-for-granted list
Water, food, education, freedom, shoes, nature, Summit County, safety, roofs, jobs, roads, health, clothing, beds, hot showers, travel, red wine, chicken wings, vegetables, fresh powder and the world’s biggest etcetera all are taken for granted.
This list could eat up all 1,200 words that I get — and more. But how often do you notice these things, let alone verbally acknowledge them? Probably not enough, definitely not enough. (I am grateful for powder skis.)
Traveling the world this past summer, I was reminded how ungracious I am, and how ungracious many of us are. In Nepal the people had so little, but were still so happy. When given a hat, piece of candy, or even a high-five, they were thankful and appreciative. They were grateful and fixated on what they had (not much by our greedy standards), rather than longing for crap we believe will fulfill us. (I am grateful for local business.)
Benefits of gratitude
Along with overall happiness, Amit Amin from Happier Human claims there are many other benefits associated with gratitude. (I am grateful for my students.)
Physical health: Fewer trips to the doctor, improved sleep, increased exercise and motivation, pain reduction, relaxation, better health, even prolonging life expectancy. (I am grateful for my man cave.)
Mental health: Reduces materialism, increases spirituality, enhances self-esteem and optimism, elevates resilience. (I am grateful for hot springs.)
Social: Deeper relationships with family, friends, spouses and even strangers. It makes us more desirable to be around and even dateable. (I am grateful for Brandon.) Occupational: Improved work performance and better communication, managerial skills, job satisfaction and goal achievement. (I am grateful for sunshine.)
How to be more grateful
Slow down: One reason for ingratitude is that we are always rushing — we don’t stop and smell the mountain wildflowers. I am not important enough to rush and miss the beauty of what’s around me, so slow down and enjoy the petrichor (fancy word for smell of a rain). (I am grateful for India pale ales.)
Volunteer: Give back to those in need. Spend time with friends and family, and have fun while doing it. Give the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center a day of volunteering, or help anywhere, at any nonprofit that relies on volunteers. (I am grateful for yoga.)
Travel: Recognize how much you have compared to the rest of the world and you will be grateful for everything, all the way down to your toilet (a luxury once you’ve pooped at Mount Everest Base Camp in a precarious tent). Seeing the way much of the world lives is humbling and revealing, and puts things in perspective. (I am grateful for ice cream.)
Articulate your blessings: Be like Joe — list off the things you are grateful for, particularly when stressed out or forlorn. Say them out loud, alone or with people. (I am grateful for the smell of fresh bread.)
Keep perspective: Stressing out over life events will happen to all of us. That is normal and appropriate. However, keeping those stressors in perspective leads to gratefulness, and will likely minimize stress. Is the world going to end because of your problem? Probably not. (I am grateful for memories.)
Gratitude journal: Writing down the things you are grateful for can help recognition and recall of all the awesomeness in our lives. (I am grateful for cheese.)
Share your gratitude: Write someone a letter, call, email, have coffee, give a small gift — whatever it takes to let them know how much you appreciate them. I have students do this and the results are fantastic. (I am grateful for serendipitous meetings.)
Quit your b****ing: Seriously. The amount of “first world” complaining we do is sickening. It is foul to complain about the inconsequential, and complaining has the opposite impact of gratitude. (I am grateful for my FJ Cruiser.)
Grateful now and tomorrow
Living in the USA we have a lot to be grateful for (sans recent election results), and Summit County is one of the greatest places in this amazing country. It doesn’t mean we are free from pain, problems and struggles. However, focusing on our shortcomings and what’s lacking is ignorant, ugly and arrogant. Give gratitude a try — it is only going to make you happier. Let’s recognize and share with one another how much we have, and remember how blessed we are. (I am grateful for today.)
Last but not least, I am grateful for you, Summit County — the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Thank you for letting me be a part of our community. I am grateful.
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