Gratitude As A Primary Coping Skill
Every morning, I wake up and notice all that is right in my life. I notice that my basic needs are met, and I have gratitude. I notice that I live in a quiet neighborhood, and I have gratitude. I notice that I have two cars that I can keep running with proper maintenance, and I have gratitude. I notice that I have a wife who loves me, and I have gratitude again. I notice that I have two adorable kids, and I find myself in awe, with gratitude. But before I arrived here, at this place, I found gratitude to be the first and primary coping skill. It was gratitude that got me through all the hard work required to get me to this place in time and space.
It started out simply enough. I was mostly miserable as a young man. I was jealous of everyone who had something I wanted. They had two working eyes, two working ears. I was born deaf in one ear and blind in one eye. Already, everyone else had something I wanted. The other kids in my life all had more friends. They had a social life. They didn’t seem to get teased the way that I got teased. So I retreated mostly into books and a tiny bit of TV. I spent a lot of time walking, riding my bike and I guess, knowing myself. But I still didn’t have what I wanted because I did not notice that much of what I already had were things that I wanted. I did not take the time to imagine what my life would be like without all of the gifts that I already had as a young man because no one else in my life knew how to do that or could teach me to take notice.
So, not knowing how to be happy with what I had led me to experiment with pot and alcohol. When I failed to notice the gifts in my life, I sought something outside of myself to make me happy. I sought money, I sought work, I still read books, many more than I do now as an adult. I was noticing what other people had, not what I had. And I was not creating very much for myself.
I spent a long time alone. I lived alone for much of my adult life, trying to make sense of my suffering alone. I didn’t really start to wake up until I began to attend meetings. There were two types of meetings that I attended. Support groups like group therapy and 12-step meetings. And the other type was an improvisation class for people who wanted to learn how to act on screen and on stage. I didn’t know it then, but both of those group activities dropped a thousand hints on me about gratitude.
I saw people in recovery who were grateful for what they had, even when they had very little. Many had lost their homes, their families, their jobs, and their dignity. As they worked the program, I saw them prosper. I saw them express gratitude for what they already had and the gifts they received. I began to notice that if they could prosper and be happy with so little, then I could, too.
While attending improvisation class, I laughed, and I made other people laugh. I loved being on stage and just being someone I was not for a few minutes. I loved playing with the language on stage, working out dry humor on the spot, making obscure references, and noticing if anyone would laugh or not. After a few years of this, I began to notice that I could set someone else up to say something really funny, to let them bask in the laughter of the peanut gallery. In my social activities, I started to find reasons to be happy with something I already had. In that class and in the meetings, I was creating reasons to be happy.
Then I met a friend in the program named Johnny. I admired him for what he was doing with his life. He was always in service. He knew how to prosper by his talents. He taught me how to be kind to myself. “I made a mistake Johnny, and I feel like shit,” and he’d reply, “So how long do you want to beat yourself up for it? 5 minutes? 10? 15?” And I’d realize what I was doing. “Oh, I think I could stop now. Yeah, I think I’ll stop beating myself up now.” I began to make choices about how to feel about myself, and Johnny helped me to see that I could make those kinds of choices.
There were two gifts he gave me during our friendship. The first was the gratitude list. He suggested that I might try writing a list of ten things I’m grateful for every day, first thing in the morning. The second gift was the book, “The Artists Way”. He was the second person in my life to give me that book. So I read that book and found another gift inside, The Morning Page. The Morning Page is an exercise I do to write whatever is on my mind first thing in the morning. In that exercise, I fill up a page with everything I wanted to talk about, but did not have someone to talk about it with.
I started with the gratitude list, haltingly, not really sure what to make of it. It felt fake, contrived, and unnatural. Who does this? What sane person does this? But I kept on it. Every morning, I’d make a list of ten things that I’m grateful for. But what did I really have to be grateful for?
When I started writing the gratitude list every morning in 2008, I was living in an apartment in Salt Lake City with my wife, Alice. I was working for peanuts. I didn’t have much money saved up, I had one good car, I hadn’t done anything that I had dreamed of, I was still mired in all of the things I didn’t have and still wanted. But that gratitude list…every time I wrote that list in the morning, I came up with something to be grateful for. That exercise required me to notice the things that I already had in my life.
I began to look for the low-hanging fruit in my life for gratitude. Stuff like, I’m alive, I have enough for today, there is peace in the house, and I’m at peace with myself. Then I’d take note of small victories, or basic stuff like having a place to sleep at night, that my wife is still with me, and that I had a running car, or that I wasn’t homeless. For about 6 weeks of my life, I was technically homeless. As I wrote that list every day, I built a habit of noticing everything that I already had that made my life good. I was losing the habit of jealousy because I was replacing it with the habit of gratitude. And my life got better.
I discovered that gratitude is a coping skill. Gratitude is a highly effective coping skill. I found that it is not possible to be happy and unhappy at the same time. I found that I had to choose between being unhappy or be happy every day of my life. I discovered that I could make a choice between happiness and unhappiness. Every time I wrote that gratitude list, I was making a choice to be happy. And every time I wrote that list, I noticed that I could make a choice to be happy about something, over and over again.
I found that my habit of gratitude was cumulative and progressive. I was sort of building a bank of happiness with each day that I wrote the gratitude list. I found that I was more resilient to setbacks with gratitude. I weathered disappointments better because I could always fall back on something that I already had, something that I was already grateful for. I found that gratitude practiced as a habit over long periods of time, like years, leads to contentment. I found that with gratitude I could take stock of my surroundings at any point in time and space, and find something to be grateful for.
But there was something more I could do besides the gratitude list. I found that the morning page helped me plan my progress. I used the morning page as a relief valve for frustration, for venting, for talking about stuff I did not feel comfortable discussing with other people. I found in the morning page, a place where I could talk about the stuff that’s really boring for other people. And I found the space I needed to plan my days, months, and years. My morning pages are littered with hundreds of ideas that have served me well, that I might not have discovered if I did not write at least something every morning.
I have filled thousands of pages with my writing with that one exercise alone. The word count of my word processor tells me that I write about 1.3 million characters every year with that one exercise alone. The morning page forces me to exercise my mind. Writing forces me to be creative. I make a point of writing the morning page without looking at anything else when I can. I know that even if I stopped blogging today, I’d still write that morning page for the value that it creates for me. I literally mine my own mind for ideas whenever I write.
I also use the morning page as a tool to delve into the details of the gratitude list. I use the morning page to notice what went well, what works and what doesn’t, and to notice all of the good stuff that I have in my life, that I didn’t have to make myself. I have learned to notice that the vast majority of the good in my life came to me as a gift. I didn’t have to lift so much as a finger to receive many of the gifts in my life.
Yes, I could be angry and bitter that a uninformed relative chose to visit my mother while infected with German Measles while my mother was pregnant with me. I could do that all day, every day, for the rest of my life. But anger is taxing. Resentment is taxing, too. I found that every minute I spent being unhappy about something wrong in my life is a minute that could have been spent being happy about something else.
Gratitude is liberating. Gratitude is energizing. One milligram of gratitude can derail an entire day of negative thinking. I take 100 milligrams of gratitude every morning when I write that gratitude list. I have been banking gratitude now for 13 years and counting. Gratitude has given me the strength to overcome many challenges, and to do some great things for me and my family. In my estimation, that one decision to be grateful for something in my life every day is the single most important decision I make each day. And now I don’t want to spend my time and energy on anything else.
Once I found the coping skill of gratitude, I cultivated that skill. I could tell my kids, my wife, and anyone else in my life, “It’s not your job to make me happy. It will never be your job to make me happy. I wouldn’t want to give you or anyone else that much power over me. I wouldn’t want you to have that kind of responsibility as a burden for you to carry. I will create my own happiness and I will share it with you.” This is what I do every single day.
I know that there is a lot of pain in the world. I see it in the news and on the TV. But I believe that the world would be a better place if we could embrace the skill of gratitude. We could end hunger, war and poverty by a billion cuts of gratitude. People who have gratitude have no need for those things. We could have worldwide peace with gratitude.
I have gratitude because I’ve noticed the stuff that I already have. That means I don’t have to try to change anyone else to be happy. What would the world be like if 7 billion people just decided to be happy with what they already have?