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The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life


Given that I am working on a new project about gratitude, I should have woken up on this late March morning to sunny skies, singing birds, and friends gathered in my living room singing “Kumbaya.”

Instead, everything that could go wrong did.

But somehow, I kept seeing rays of sunshine.

To start, my old Volvo wouldn’t spark and jumper cables had no effect. The neighbor who came over to help saved the day by driving me to the train station, twenty minutes away. I got to the city and stepped onto the rainy, windy sidewalk just as a bus raced through a huge puddle and sent a thick stream of muddy water all over me.

“Yuuck!” I screamed, though my language might have been a bit more colorful.

A few passersby clucked in sympathy, but I didn’t want to go to my important meeting looking like a survivor from a Tough Mudder race. My favorite J.Crew was just a few blocks away, so I dashed over, quickly bought a bold-print skirt, and changed in the fitting room.

I got to my meeting on time but the CEO I had come to see had a fake tan and extremely overmoussed hair. He texted while I talked and managed to look up only at the end. “Hey, you look hot in that skirt,” he said.

Since I was pitching a project, not cruising, I should have been furious. But instead I laughed and told myself I’d been saved from working with a man who spent more on hair products than I did.

I went to have coffee with my best friend, Susan, whom I have known since we met in summer camp at age eight. She is intensely loyal, fiercely critical, and relentlessly blunt.

“You must be miserable,” she said when I outlined my day.

“Not really. I’m trying to be positive.”

“How can you be positive about a dead car?”

I took a deep breath. I could do this. “The car was fourteen years old and had 150,000 miles on it. I never expected it to last this long. More important was that I have a nice neighbor who came to help.”

“Yeah, that was good,” Susan admitted. “How about getting soaked on the sidewalk?”

“Look at the funny side. The idiot CEO complimented my skirt. And think how lucky I am that I could buy a new outfit without breaking the bank. “

Susan dumped two packets of Splenda into her coffee and stirred furiously. For years she’d heard me gripe about needing more money, so this appreciating what I had was a switch.

“I’m your best friend. You can bitch and complain all you want.”

“I don’t feel like complaining,” I said, surprising myself as much as her. “I can’t change what happened, so it feels good to change how I think about it.”

Susan took a long sip of coffee. She has an ambitious, hard-driving nature. Though inordinately successful at work, Susan is often stressed, pressed, and occasionally depressed. Like all of us, she gets so busy concentrating on what she wants that she forgets to be happy for what she has. I worried my good spirits might grate on her. But she just raised an eyebrow.

“If this is that gratitude stuff you’ve been working on, I think I need it. How do I sign up?”

It was time to share my secret. So on the top of a napkin, I wrote the heading Three Reasons I’m Grateful Today. Then I pushed the napkin across the table and handed Susan a pen.

“Fill it in,” I said.

Susan stared at the napkin for so long that I finally took it back and crossed out Three Reasons and changed it to One Reason.

“We’ll start easy,” I said.

That was exactly what I had done a few months earlier. I now knew that writing down one thing every day that made me grateful could change my attitude about everything else. A glowing sunset. A good friend’s hug. The first hint of spring.

One thing.

Who can’t do that?


Part One


Marriage, Love, and Family

Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

—Marcel Proust


Chapter 1

I Don’t Want to Be the Ungrateful Lady

Grateful to be starting my year of living positively

Happy to learn that gratitude can lower stress, improve sleep, and make me happier

Lucky to have a pretty journal that I will fill with only good thoughts

My desire to live gratefully started on New Year’s Eve, at a few minutes before midnight, when I stood at a party clutching a glass of champagne with a plastic smile pasted on my face. I knew I should be counting my blessings, but instead I was counting the minutes until I could leave. My feet hurt from the excessively high-heeled shoes I was wearing and my head throbbed from the loud music that had been blaring all night. I had on a little black dress that was just a little too little, and I couldn’t wait to get home and take off the Spanx.

A TV in a corner of the room blasted New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and as I watched people carousing in California, whooping it up in Washington, and being boisterous in Boston, I wondered if everybody in the country was having a better time than I was. Or maybe they were just better at faking it.

In New York, the million or so revelers gathered in Times Square let out a huge roar as the ball began to drop. Since it was twenty degrees outside and they had been corralled in metal pens all day with no porta-potties nearby, I understood why they were eager for midnight. Ringing in the New Year would be a great relief, in every way.

The Waterford ball finished its descent and the LED lights flashed the new date amid much horn blowing and confetti flying.

“Happy New Year!”

My husband, Ron, gave me a brief smooch and we clinked glasses.

Now that the anticipation was over, nobody seemed quite sure what to do. The TV showed an instant replay of the ball dropping, as if it were a moon landing or the final touchdown at the Super Bowl. Standing near the bar, I saw a woman pouring herself another glass of champagne. Her mascara was smudged and tears were streaking down her cheeks.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I hate New Year’s. Why pretend anything is going to be different just because a ball dropped? Midnight came without any glass slipper to turn me into a princess.”

I decided not to discuss the subtler points of Cinderella at midnight (that’s when she dropped the glass slipper and stopped being a princess, my friend) and hurried away. But her question lingered in the air. What would be different? We celebrate New Year’s with high hopes and crazy expectations—which may be why a lot of us feel so uncomfortable. (The Spanx don’t help either.) But she was right that life wasn’t going to improve just because the calendar flipped.

Objectively, I knew my life was good—I had two terrific sons and a handsome husband, an interesting career and close friends. But like many people, I often focused on the negatives of life instead of the pleasures. The last twelve months had been perfectly okay, but nothing thrilling enough to make me want to put on a funny hat and dance in the street. I tried to picture myself back in this spot next year. What would make me feel happier the next time the ball dropped, than I did right now? I supposed in the coming months I might win the lottery, move to a Hawaiian paradise, or write a bestseller. But would any of that really work? I could already hear myself grumble that I had to pay huge taxes on the winnings, the sun on Maui was too hot, and six weeks on The New York Times list wasn’t enough.

If the coming year was like most, some good things would happen and some not so good. I had recently overseen a big national survey on gratitude and been on the Today show to talk about it. The survey had started me thinking (and researching) a lot about positive attitudes. So I knew that how I felt about the twelve months ahead would probably have less to do with what actually happened than with the mood, spirit, and attitude I brought to each day. It wasn’t the circumstances that mattered but how I responded to them. I could passively wait for the wonderful to occur—and still find something wrong. Or I could accept whatever events did come my way and try to appreciate them a little more.

I went to collect my coat and saw the woman-who-wasn’t-Cinderella getting hers, too.

“I hope it’s a good year for you,” I said.

“It won’t be,” she said.

“Maybe you can make it better. That’s a really pretty coat, by the way,” I said, as she pulled on a brown shearling.

“It’s old. I wish I had a new one. Yours is nicer.”

I could have pointed out that mine was equally aged and had a stain on the sleeve, but I stopped myself. What had I just decided about having the right mood, attitude, and spirit? My coat was suddenly a symbol for my whole life—if I had it, I should appreciate it. I didn’t want to be the Ungrateful Lady.

“It’s warm and cozy,” I said brightly, putting my hands into the pockets. Whoops, one finger slid into a hole. But neither holes nor stains nor ratty hem was going to stop me now. If I planned to be happier by next New Year’s, I had to start working on my attitude right now.

The next morning, I woke up earlier than planned, the mild winter sunlight streaming in around the pleated shades in our midtown Manhattan apartment. After many years living in the suburbs, we had moved to the city just a couple of years ago, and I loved our large windows and wide river views. (My grown-up sons joked that we’d found the one part of the city that felt like the suburbs.) Weather reports predicted blizzard conditions moving in, and it had already been a snowy and cold winter. But I made myself stop and enjoy the bit of sunshine breaking through the steel-gray skies.

Hearing a clattering in the kitchen, I threw on jeans and a T-shirt and skipped out to where Ron was making breakfast. It was just the two of us this morning, but he seemed to have enough ingredients spread across the counter to feed the cast and crew of a James Cameron epic. I gave him a little kiss and said good morning.

“Do you think I’m ungrateful?” I asked.

“You don’t have to be grateful for French toast,” he said, flipping a piece that was bubbling on the griddle. “I like making it.”

“I mean it bigger than breakfast. Do you think I appreciate . . . life?”

“Oh, life.” He stared into the frying pan, willing it to cook up a little homespun wisdom. “You probably don’t appreciate what you have as much as you should. You pay too much attention to what’s wrong rather than what’s right.”

“I’m going to try to be more grateful from now on,” I said. “It’s my plan for the year. I think it will make me happier. Maybe make us both happier.”

“Worth a try,” he said.

And that was that. Resolution stated and we’d see what happened next.

Ron put the spatula down and bits of hot grease dripped onto the counter. I started to say something, then bit my tongue. If I wanted to begin appreciating rather than complaining, I’d better ignore the puddle of butter gathering on the granite and concentrate on the warm smells of cinnamon and vanilla wafting through the room. I closed my eyes and reminded myself how lucky I was to have a husband who got up early to beat the eggs, soak the bread, and fry ’em all up. Better keep it to myself that I’d much prefer plain oatmeal.

Later that afternoon, I headed over to the grocery store, and as I pushed a cart along, a familiar Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” was playing. I start humming along with the lamenting lyrics about how it always seems that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Music playing in the frozen-food aisle isn’t usually life changing, but I took it as a sign that I was on the right course. Hundreds of musicians from Bob Dylan to Counting Crows have recorded Mitchell’s song because in any musical style, the message hits a chord. It happens too often that you have something terrific right in front of you but don’t realize it until the lover is gone, the moment is past, and the flowers are wilted.

Standing there holding a container of Häagen-Dazs chocolate gelato, I vowed that I wouldn’t wait and mourn what was lost. I would appreciate what I had. I planned to spend the coming year seeing the sunshine instead of the clouds.

The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life
by by Janice Kaplan