A journalist undertakes a year-long experiment to see if gratitude can improve every aspect of her life.
Naysayers, let’s get this out of the way to start with: yes, Janice Kaplan has a whole lot to be grateful for. There’s the New York City apartment and Connecticut home, the cashmere dress, the GP husband, the high-flying journalism career, the trips to the Caribbean and the Alps. But that’s not to say that we couldn’t all do with a little encouragement to appreciate what we already have. In so many areas of life – finances, career, relationship, even the weather – we’re all too often hoping for more or better than what we are currently experiencing, which through habituation becomes boring and insufficient.
“It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy,” Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast asserts. Indeed, Kaplan discovered that a twee “attitude of gratitude” might increase our happiness by up to 18.5%. “Can we want what we already have?” is thus her early rhetorical question as she designs a year of living radically by living gratefully. She structures the book according to the four seasons, starting with winter – her resolution began, appropriately, on New Year’s Day. Within that chronological arrangement, though, she chooses particular aspects of life to test. One month she focuses on appreciating her husband, another month she thinks about how to raise grateful children, and so on.
Money, work life, and personal appearance are three areas where we consistently fail to see how lucky we already are because we get caught up comparing ourselves to others. By keeping a daily gratitude diary in which she wrote one to three items every evening, Kaplan reminded herself to turn things around to see the positive side. For instance, losing a top-level editor position at a major American magazine freed her up to write books. She learned that experiences, including travel, lead to more lasting happiness than possessions, and giving to charity makes us grateful for what money we do have – and more careful in spending it.
Rather than getting on the “hedonistic treadmill” of chasing after happiness, Kaplan suggests we embark on a “gratitude loop.” Diet and physical fitness could be a part of this: exercise and eating right make us feel better, and gratitude and well-being feed into each other. On the other hand, complaining only reinforces a bad attitude; “if you trade your expectations for appreciation,” she writes, “the world instantly changes.” Kaplan draws her information from interviews with researchers and celebrities, quotes from philosophers, and anecdotes from her own and friends’ lives. It’s easy, pleasant reading I’d recommend to fans of Gretchen Rubin.
The most striking story of all is that of Kaplan’s friend Jackie Hance, whose three daughters were killed in a car accident while her sister-in-law was driving under the influence. Yet Hance keeps a gratitude log and manages to be positive. Even in the midst of unimaginable tragedy, she recognised how wonderful her devoted friends were, and how lucky she was to have a fertility doctor donate his treatment so she could become pregnant again. None of this compensates for her loss, but it might well be keeping her alive. Kaplan calls this “intentional gratitude,” as opposed to “reactive gratitude,” what prisoners express for their time in jail.
You can dismiss all this, or you can try to implement it into your life in some small way. Gratitude appears to boost the immune system, lower stress, attract others’ help, and spark 20% more progress towards goals. Really, why not try it? As one man Kaplan met puts it, “I’m happy, healthy … and in the most productive moment of my life. If I don’t walk around the street buoyant and jubilant, then what’s wrong with me?”
The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan
9781473619302|Yellow Kite hbk 27 Aug 2015
OIR: Matthew Parris and Owen Jones at the Cheltenham Literature Festival