The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan (Dutton Books 2016)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
Daily expressions of gratitude can change your life. Even during this global pandemic. Even now, as our country roils with outrage and sorrow over the ceaseless violence perpetrated on black Americans and people of color. Learning to practice gratitude elevates all of us. Even now. Especially now.
Gratitude does not sit on the sidelines waiting for life’s celebrations or happy times to appear. A daily gratitude practice enhances well-being, improves outlook, and rewires our brains. Words of appreciation, simply expressed, for what’s precious in human life and nature can be life-altering.
Recognizing that “like many people,” Janice Kaplan, a journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Parade magazine, “often focused on the negatives in life instead of the pleasures,” (9) Kaplan decided to keep a gratitude journal for an entire year to redress her gratitude gap. The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life traces her journey from disgruntled to grateful.
Devoting each chapter to a specific gratitude goal, Kaplan weaves psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and medical data into her journey to become more grateful. Starting with marriage and family, she goes on to cover money, career, material possessions, health, and finally, how to cope, care, and connect, gratefully, and with humor.
Written before the pandemic and race riots, Janice Kaplan began her gratitude odyssey at a New Year’s Eve party. Feeling grumpy and bored, “clutching a glass of champagne with a plastic smile pasted on my face, I knew I should count my blessings, but instead, I was counting the minutes until I could leave.” (7)
Wise words by the Roman philosopher Cicero guided Kaplan in her quest: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.” Survey data show that most Americans do not regularly express gratitude, and men express appreciation less often than women do. Yet gratitude researchers find happiness increases significantly with daily expressions of appreciation. And it’s a snap.
Writing down or saying just three things to be thankful for each day “heightens well-being, lowers the risk of depression, and can even dramatically improve the ability to get a good night’s sleep,” according to Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychologist and leading expert on gratitude. Emmons finds “that you don’t need good events in your life to feel gratitude. Instead, grateful people reframe whatever happens to them, seeing, not what’s lacking, but the good in what they have.” (16)
Hamlet grasped that, too: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Kaplan launched her official new year of grateful living determined to fall (back) in love with her husband. In February, she set her sights on raising grateful kids, and in March, she constructed a no-complaining zone.
For couples, years together can diminish the feelings of appreciation and enthusiasm that defined the getting-to-know-you times. Too often, a series of disappointed expectations leads to mutual devaluation. “Can we want what we already have?” asks Kaplan. “Marriage makes us feel entitled.” (27)
How often does one spouse say, “He/she follows that person’s advice or agrees with that opinion? When I say it, her/his eyes glaze over.” Or “I miss the hugs, the hand-holding, the cuddles, and the ‘thank-yous’ that once prevailed.”
Experts suggest how to amend this tired dynamic: Express appreciation twice each day. Simple comments go far: “Thanks for grocery-shopping for us in those uncomfortable masks and gloves.” Or “What a delightful thought or observation or insight!” Or “I admire how well you’re taking care of us.” Too often, we assume that our loved ones know that we feel thankful. But words make a difference. No life overflows with a surplus of kind words.
Plus, many studies show that the top beneficiary of gratitude-induced well-being is the speaker of words of appreciation. “With gratitude, it really is better to give than to receive.” (32)
Raising grateful kids starts with the parents. Not by preaching what to be thankful for or how to express it. Parents must first take a personal inventory to assess how empathetic and self-aware they are with their kids. Are they picky and critical, fussing over hair length or homework? Or do they appreciate their children for who they are?
Kaplan shares anecdotes about her young adult sons, Matt and Zach, to capture how she re-tools her over-zealous, and at times intrusive mothering style. Experimenting one weekend, she ceased her roster of queries to Matt:
Did you call the guy you worked with last summer?
Can I edit that essay for you?
Can I put more milk in your cereal? (51)
Kaplan realized that “comments parents consider helpful are heard by kids (maybe not wrongly) as critical.” (51) As Kaplan halted the annoying offers of help, even allowing Matt’s dishes to pile up, he relaxed around her, shared more about his college life, and ended the weekend with: “Thanks for always being there for me, Mom.” (51)
Mostly, “to raise grateful kids, be grateful to and for them.” (71)
Wondering how to feel grateful in bad times, Kaplan reached out to Jackie Hance with whom she’d collaborated on a book called: I’ll See You Again. Hance’s three little daughters, ages five, seven, and eight, were killed in a drunken-driving accident on the Taconic State Parkway in New York in 2009. The driver was Hance’s sister-in-law, who was drunk and high at the time.Capturing her girls’ story on paper enabled Hance to survive the aftermath of her colossal loss.
As Kaplan researched how gratitude can make bad times better, she reconnected with Hance to see how she was faring several years after her tragic losses. Embedded in a “haze of hopelessness,” Hance had become suicidal. She’d tried anti-depressants, tranquilizers, and sleep medications to cope with each day. Even so, a black hole enshrouded her until a therapist on Oprah touted practicing gratitude andexplained that “in the moments you feel grateful, you can’t be sad.” (241)
Hance embarked on a gratitude project to send thank-you notes to the scores of strangers who’d reached out to her after the death of the girls, with kind notes, gifts, and donations. “At one point, she announced that she still planned to kill herself—but she had twenty more thank-you notes to write first.” (241)
She went on to find reasons to be grateful every day, no matter how arduous it was. “Writing a gratitude list takes work for me, and I have to keep reminding myself not to skip it. But the feeling lasts, so it’s worth it. If I’m going to be here, I want to make a great life,” she said. “Jackie’s thankfulness had, in many ways, saved her own life,” commented Kaplan. (241)
Season by season, Kaplan threads her personal reconsiderations of what matters with insights and revisions that, by year’s end, create a tapestry of newfound life satisfaction, improved health, and joy. Her chronic migraines disappear. Her habit of overeating abates. She learns to love her husband better and appreciate her sons for the individuals they are.
She also downgrades stuff by replacing material goods with pleasurable and meaningful experiences and giving to others. The year-end result tops any December holiday gift tower: an altered worldview, improved physical and mental health, and good measures of happiness.
How do we apply a gratitude practice to our pandemic-deprived lives and the heartbreak of systemic mistreatment of black Americans and other people of color?
We can vow to value all human life, to recognize the preciousness of each individual. More than ever now is the time to unpack inherent biases and strive to embrace all people, especially those who are unlike ourselves: people of all colors, all sexual orientations, all countries of origin, all religions, all ages. That’s my gratitude goal for 2020 and beyond.
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