I woke to a phone call about a month ago, the worst one imaginable: “The doctor says I almost definitely have breast cancer,” she moaned, sobbing audibly. “They’re going to do a biopsy, but he said it looks so bad that he’s almost a hundred percent sure.”
I don’t remember much of the call from there. I’m sure I tried my best to calm her down, but I don’t think we talked for too long. I just recall getting out of bed, putting on a pressed pair of khaki slacks and a light blue button-down, and forgoing my knockoff Birkenstocks for the first time in weeks. I don’t know why I did any of this—I was working from the privacy of my living room that day, like every day. But I suppose I felt, even though I had no idea how to contend with the terror that my partner might have cancer, hell, I should at least look the part.
When she arrived home later that day, dazed and in tears, she explained that her doctor had told her it was going to be a “marathon, not a sprint.” We sat there on the couch together, visualizing the ungodly weeks and months ahead of us, and I thought, How the fuck am I going to write in my gratitude journal tonight? But I did. Not because I’m the kind of gushy person who claims to see the bright side of everything, but for the same reason I dressed up to work from home: because if there’s nothing happy at all about your situation, sometimes going through the motions is enough.
The basic concept of the gratitude journal, corny as it may sound, is to write down three things you’re grateful for every day. Sure, expressing gratitude in a time like this seems kind of sociopathic, I’ll admit. But the gratitude journal doesn’t have to be all about the big picture stuff. In fact, I often find it’s more satisfying when I focus on the random joys from my day. On June 18, I wrote, “Fought—and won—with Spectrum on the phone about our internet bill.” A week later: “Getting better at making chocolate chip cookies.” Sometimes my entries are longer, like on April 27, when I wrote a whole page about the unexpected healing power of our weekly family Zoom chat. Sometimes they’re as short as two words: “I voted!” or simply, “Pulled pork!”
Why do I do this, aside from the rare opportunity to get my face out of my phone for five minutes? I write in my gratitude journal every night because about two years ago, I learned there’s science behind the act of expressing gratefulness that indicates it can rewire our happiness-starved minds. And especially after my partner’s awful trip to the doctor—with the world caving in around us every day—I knew my brain was going to be due for a serious tune-up. So in the weeks leading up to her biopsy results, I relied on my gratitude journal more than ever before. Night after night, the positivity I found in my journal entries helped to keep the floor from falling out beneath us.
The coronavirus didn't just create a worldwide health pandemic, it’s also unleashed one of the worst mental health crises in modern history. According to one study reported on by the The New York Times, symptoms of anxiety this past June were three times as prevalent among U.S. adults as they were a year prior. Depression was up by a factor of four. NBC News reported in July that Americans were less happy than they’ve ever been. All around the country, people are trying to mitigate the trauma by picking up new hobbies, whether it’s running, assembling LEGO sets, playing Animal Crossing, or baking bread. Journaling, it seems, is just one of many forms of relief that people are relying on to keep some semblance of normalcy intact.
I first heard about gratitude journals from comedian Louie Anderson, whom I cherish. He was speaking on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2016 about comedy, his lifelong struggles with depression, and weight loss when he mentioned The Happiness Advantage, a 2010 book about the psychology of happiness. Louie brought up the book over and over in the interview—and he continues to speak about gratefulness even now. I was between therapists and struggling through a nasty break-up when I listened to the podcast, so I decided it was worth a shot. And I found, almost immediately, that Louie was right. The Happiness Advantage, unlike the bulk of “self-help” books I’ve read (such as Unf*ck Your Brain and The Body Keeps the Score, both of which are just fine), is accessible, uncomplicated, and full of science, offering clear-cut psychological guidance for daily life.
Written by “positive psychology” expert and speaker Shawn Achor (check out his TED Talk; yes, he’s a TED Talker), the book breaks down seven principles of living happier lives. Achor’s principle about gratitude is called “the Tetris Effect.” He cites a study that found that, after playing Tetris for hours a day, subjects began to see life in the form of Tetris blocks. The game was literally creating neural pathways in the subjects' brains, as they suddenly noticed how all the ridges and slopes of reality could fit together in tidy little squares. While seeing Tetris blocks in your cereal may be useless from a functionality standpoint, it’s useful to think of the mind in this way. “Everyone knows someone stuck in some version of the Tetris Effect,” Achor writes. That means getting stuck in a “pattern of viewing the world”—a pattern which, he says, is often focused on the negative and the bad, on always seeing “the one thing to complain about.” So, like the subjects who played Tetris all day and began to view the world through Tetris blocks, The Happiness Advantage argues that by making gratitude a part of our daily diet, we can actually train our brains to perceive the world in a more positive way.
I’m not going to make the claim that a positive attitude can cure depression. Of course not. And Achor doesn’t go that far in his book, either. But having suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, I can tell you that, after writing in my gratitude journal every night, I started to feel different in my day-to-day life. The depression was still there—it always is—but instead of rushing home to dwell only on the six things that pissed me off from the day, I began to kick back in my apartment after work and smile at the funniest mistakes I’d made, the best-tasting food I’d eaten, the subway transfer I’d miraculously made, or the stray cat who’d meowed at me. It’s not as if I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses, I’m just learning to recognize the good parts of my life, of which, apparently, there are many.
I don’t always keep up with the journal. It’s hard. Day in and day out, the act of expressing gratitude can feel like lifting dumbbells with your brain. But being positive never, ever, feels bad, even on the worst days. And, between scary doctor’s visits and the ever-present fear of losing a loved one to COVID-19, we’ve had more than a few of those over here. It’s not always about reframing; I don’t think there’s any way to reframe a cancer scare into something positive. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reflect on other little things from the day—all the moments of joy or relief—to build a kind of fisherman’s net of positivity into which all the bad, scary things can safely fall.
The night that my partner was told by her doctor that “there’s a very small chance” she didn't have cancer, I wrote in my gratitude journal, “Went on a nice walk through the park. Saw an adult man get stung by a bunch of bees while his daughter ran around him laughing and screaming.”
On the day the pandemic hit New York City and we were forced to cram ourselves into my tiny studio apartment for months to come: “We decided to live here for a while. Will be nice to be together.”
And then: “Mixed all the whiskeys in my apartment tonight. The corona blend!”
A month into being isolated from all of our loved ones, away from the joys of daily life that we swore we’d never again take for granted: “My pen is fading. That means I’ve been writing a lot!”
Days after we moved away from my tiny studio apartment, where multiple people in the building had died from the coronavirus: “Moved into our new place. I have a real dinner table now??”
And then two weeks after that initial diagnosis—those horrible weeks when we had every reason to believe that the doctor was right, that he’d seen something so blatant, so outrageously ugly in the ultrasound that he felt it necessary to make a call before even doing a biopsy, I wrote in my gratitude journal: “Finally got the results from the new oncologist…he said this is only the second time this has ever happened in his 17 years in the profession, but, SHE DOESN’T HAVE CANCER!!”
You Might Also Like