One day in October 1991, I was standing at the kitchen sink, blankly staring out the window and I was crying. Because of math. We had just finished another boring meal in what had become a string of boring meals. My oldest child was just 4 years old and still in love with macaroni and cheese at every meal — boring. For some reason, I began to calculate how many meals lay ahead of me. Let’s see ... three meals a day, 365 days a year for oh, I don’t know — 30 years ... And that’s when I started to cry because the answer is 32,850.
Now, 32,850 is a big number, but the fact that I was crying over a very normal part of life — eating, hello, everyone does it — should have been a clue that I was on my way to burnout.
Quitting parenthood wasn’t an option, so I set out to discover what would help me first survive, then thrive. What would help me follow my heart, but protect it too? What would allow me to serve my family, my local community and the international community without getting sucked dry. The answer, I believe, is deep self-care. One core component of that restorative type of self-care is gratitude.
Gratitude makes us happier! Practicing gratitude helps us relieve depression, improve our immune systems and strengthen our connections with people around us. It improves our ability to feel empathy. Can’t we all use a little more connection and empathy right now? We are surrounded by an epidemic of loneliness. Gratitude can help change that.
Gratitude literally changes our brains. It releases the feel-good hormones of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, but it also rewires synapses, fosters cognitive restructuring and helps us see more positives in our world. It simultaneously makes us more giving and less materialistic. Gratitude can also reduce impatience and improve our decision-making abilities, and it reduces fear and anxiety by regulating stress hormones. Gratitude also improves resilience.
When I was deep into burnout and overwhelm, I had a hard time finding things to be grateful for, so I started small. “I’m grateful for air conditioning.” “I’m grateful for sunshine.” “I’m grateful no one set the house on fire” — until one day in May 2005 when I couldn’t say that anymore. Then, I was grateful that no one was hurt. Later that year, our entire family was moved to tears of gratitude when our community completely redid our home. We felt so loved.
Many years later, I am still grateful for air conditioning, but I am also grateful for lessons learned through deep grief and pain. I am grateful for the lessons my children taught me. I am grateful to be a mother. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to pursue an education. I am grateful for a partnership marriage. While it took me a few months to begin to see the blessings of becoming a mother of children with disabilities, I am profoundly grateful for that life-long learning experience. When one of my daughters died at Christmastime, I was (and am) so grateful for Christmas lights.
You’ll see many articles this time of year extolling the virtues of gratitude, and yes, it’s awesome that so many people are focused on being thankful this week. Really, though, gratitude works best when it’s a daily practice, even on those darkest of days. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reminds us that gratitude is something to be cherished and defines the very humanity of each person. It also requires action. “The knowledge that I have acquired must not remain imprisoned in my brain. I owe it to many men and women to do something with it. I feel the need to pay back what was given to me. Call it gratitude.”
With gratitude also comes joy. Researcher and author Brené Brown said that in her 12-plus years of research and over 11,000 pieces of data, she did not interview a single person who described themselves as joyful who were not also actively practicing gratitude. She found that interfaith scholar and monk David Steindl-Rast had it right when he said, “It’s not joy that makes us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us joyful.” Gratitude comes first.
A couple of years ago, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reminded the world that “Counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems. No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a unique, fast-acting, and long-lasting spiritual prescription.” For a short time, social media was overflowing with expressions of gratitude and was, honestly, a much healthier and happier place to be.
Of course, gratitude can and often is combined with other healing modalities. Gratitude AND mental health therapy. Gratitude AND journaling. Gratitude AND mindfulness. Gratitude AND trauma work. The bottom line, though, is that gratitude is a key component of good mental health, good physical health, good emotional health and good relational health, no matter how you slice it.
Gratitude, it turns out, is life’s secret sauce.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy, a role she is grateful for and enjoys immensely.