When I think of the word “gratitude” the first thing that springs to mind is Oprah Winfrey. As a young teenager, I used to watch the television maven’s eponymous chat show almost daily after school – a continuing of my education, you might say.
Most of the time there were gritty real-life stories, celebrity interviews, book clubs and gigantic prize giveaway segments to keep me enthralled, but an abiding theme of The Oprah Show’s latter years was the aforementioned G word – something that largely went over my little pubescent head.
You see, in 1996, Oprah had an epiphany. One day she opened a notebook and wrote down five things in her life that she was grateful for, and she says that it was one of the most important things she has ever done in her life.
For the following decade, she made daily gratitude journalling a priority, encouraged the women of America to do the same and in the process found a lot of peace.
So while it’s not exactly a new concept – taking note of the good, little things in our lives and being thankful for them, rather than focussing on the negatives – gratitude is once again gaining ground as a self-help method, and thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and social media, has taken on a whole new digital slant.
Gone are the old fashioned diaries of Oprah’s day – even she admits that she’s switched to electronic journalling – and now we’re assaulted with apps designed to make our lives better. I don’t know about you, but I’m more of a fan of putting pen to paper so when it came to choosing a gratitude app, I demurred.
The reason I’m even shopping for a gratitude app in the first place?
Well, for the purpose of this article, and inspired by author Janice Kaplan’s new book The Gratitude Diairies, I decided to try a week of living gratefully to see if it could change my mindset and make me feel better about the world we live in.
Janice practiced an entire year of thanksgiving, but seven days seemed like a nice introduction because being Irish makes you concerned with being seen to brag.
Personally, I’ve always been a pretty grateful person on the inside; lucky, even. I have a fantastic job as a writer, a wonderful relationship with the man of my dreams, friends and family who love and understand me, and two gorgeous dogs who make me happy every day.
I do count my blessings, even if I don’t always voice them. But despite all that, the world still brings me down. In recent times, anxiety has been getting to me, the tight fluttering in my chest becoming difficult to deal with.
Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that my stress reaction is triggered at the drop of a hat – if a programme on TV is a bit too sinister or if somebody looks at me sideways, I’m panicking.
Previously I’d been much better at dealing with life’s tiny annoyances, and seemed to have a thicker skin. I don’t know if I’m just more realistic now than I used to be, having seen more of the world and its ills, or if I’m just more consumed with the negatives.
These days my gratitude is tempered with worry and what ifs – what if my job is unsustainable and the commissions stop coming, touch wood everyone will remain healthy and fingers crossed yer man will still be able to tolerate me in a few years.
It became clear I needed to find a way to curb these thoughts before they became toxic. I tried mindfulness, but was just mainly confused as to what it was.
I went to a yoga class searching for zen, but it actually had the opposite effect and made me really angry – a man sweated on me, I felt like the girl on my other side was showing off with her headstands, and don’t get me started on the spiritual aspect.
I even gave running a whirl, but that aggravated my bad knee.
No, being the neurotic person that I am, I needed something that I could actually think about and analyse in order to feel better – something to replace the whirring cogs of anxiety with logic and reason.
Enter the G word. As I said, I decided to eschew the digital options (176 app results in the iTunes Store for the word “gratitude”, if you’re interested) because I spend far too much time on my phone these days anyway, and suspect it of actually exacerbating my anxiety.
So for me it became a daily ritual in the morning – wake up, and think of all the good things in your life to get the day off to a positive start.
I initially feared that I was just too Irish for such an endeavour, that one needs the confidence of our American cousins to pull off a feat such as daily gratefulness.
But I was surprised by how quickly I adapted to it. Making a list of all the good things going on, no matter how big or small, was therapeutic first thing in the morning.
I found that I was bringing my notebook with me and adding to it as the day went on. On day three I was grateful for the fact that my jeans still fit after weeks of over-indulgence.
By the fifth day, I even included my mild hangover on the list, because it was the result of a brilliant night out with friends the night before.
However, I was tempted to add some things I wasn’t grateful for to balance it all out – it felt just too upbeat to concentrate solely on the positives and ignore everything that wasn’t great.
Still, I felt I was getting in to swing of things, and eventually had a mini epiphany of my own.
Scrolling through Instagram, I noticed the hashtag #grateful and had a lightbulb moment.
Instead of looking at my social networks as instruments of oneupmanship and humble bragging, I decided to view them all as visual gratitude journals – where people show off the things that they’re thankful for, be it their baby, their free glass of Prosecco or their rock hard abs.
Suddenly, Instagram was transformed from a place that made me feel bad about myself, to a place full of positivity and happiness. I can’t really say the same for Facebook, but hey, one step at a time.
The next step was to take my gratitude outside of myself, and make it my business to say thank you to other people for acts of kindness or inspiration.
I read once that Kim Kardashian sent Piers Morgan a life size cardboard cut-out of herself to thank him for defending her in his column; while this seems extreme, I like her style.
Take time to make a gesture to those who back us up, treat us well and thus improve our lives.
That very day I finished a novel that had a profound effect on me, so I went on Twitter and thanked the author for her work directly. I made it my business to tell my partner that he is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and that he looked VERY handsome in his new shirt.
I toasted my two best friends and told them how grateful I was to have such likeminded and supportive women in my life. And I told my mother how much I admire everything she’s been doing for my grandparents since they both took ill.
I can’t deny it – it felt brilliant. Now, if I went around lauding everyone on a daily basis I think they’d get a bit suspicious, and pretty sick of my constant adoration.
But to let the people I’m grateful for know it. I think it had a mutually positive effect.
So it seems Oprah had a point all those years ago. Pointing out the positives both to myself and to others made me feel warm and fuzzy, and hyper aware of all the good things about my life.
Yes, there are areas that need work, and things that are beyond my control, but filling my mind with gratitude certainly took up some of the mental space normally occupied by envy, anxiety, worry and self-loathing.
It’s not really bragging to big up the good things in our own lives, and actually, so what if it is? I am #grateful, and proud of it. So stick that #humblebrag in your pipe and smoke it.