(A version of this article also appears on A Hopeful Sign)
I share this story not to persuade you that you should be grateful. (As if you need to hear that again). Or, that you can follow my easy steps to really feeling gratitude (yuck). Or because I have the market cornered on being grateful. (I do not.)
In fact, it took some time for me to understand the real meaning behind gratitude. A lot of time. Truthfully, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t that I was ungrateful…exactly. But I didn’t consciously think about it either. At best, I was absent-mindedly grateful. At worst, I was too blocked, too baffled and too busy to give thanks.
Yet for a while (a long while) everything I read, heard or saw on TV seemed to feature another personal growth expert expounding on the power of gratitude. Occasionally, I’d half-heartedly try a recommended exercise, but my attempts felt hollow and insincere. These exercises didn’t help me to feel better—or grateful for that matter. Instead they felt awkward and hokey. But that’s probably because I was calling them “exercises.”
The billboard shouting Be Grateful at me as I passed it twice a day should have gotten my attention. These days, I would probably not ignore such a big (and literal) sign, but I was stubborn—and clearly not all that grateful.
Accordingly, I willfully continued to ignore the signs and advice. I just couldn’t fake feeling grateful. Still, the cues persisted for many weeks, until one day, in a moment of weakened defenses, I followed a nudge: What if I could draw a Mind Map of gratitude?
Curious, I sat down with a pad of paper and a handful of colored markers. My mind went blank as I stared at the equally blank sheet of paper. After several very long minutes, I took a deep breath, finally writing in the center of the page “I AM GRATEFUL FOR…” I added a few words off the center, easy things like my family, my friends, my home…. Then I connected a few more thoughts to those words. In defiance of cynicism and clichés, what happened next was spectacular. The ideas kept flowing. A half hour later, I had filled the page. And my Mind Map allowed me finally to see what had always been right in front of me: plenty to be grateful for.
I had unlocked something important, something potentially life changing. Recognizing this fact, I decided that I would create a Mind Map every day for a month. While I had no idea what to expect from my experiment, I was willing to see it through the thirty days. In retrospect, my willingness made the difference.
For the next month, I drew my Mind Maps. On some days, I filled the pages from edge to edge. On others, I used few words, leaving plenty of open space. Most of the time, I included lots of color and silly drawings. When I traveled for a weekend, I even scribbled a few on Post-It notes, I felt so committed to seeing the experiment through.
I allowed my Mind Maps to take whatever shape they needed. In return, they provided me with whatever I needed.
Gratitude had found a voice. Who knew it would be my voice? And in that discovery, I learned that I didn’t need words to tune into feelings of gratitude—I could do that as easily while laughing, playing, walking or simply watering my plants.
Before this experiment, my mind had failed to appreciate the empowering nature behind gratitude. It is just not an abstract, thinking exercise. Feeling gratitude implies trust, faith, love…and humility. A sense of humor and a little grace don’t hurt either.
All of these heady emotions imply opening our hearts, which I’ll admit comes at a price. Following my thirty-day Gratitude Quest, I called my sister one morning to tell her that I was glad she was in my life. With suspicion and alarm, she quipped, “What’s wrong? Are you OK?!”
OK, so people notice. And spontaneous bursts of unfamiliar emotion—like appreciation and general well-being—occasionally assault me for no particular reason. But it’s a small price to pay.
I’ll reiterate that I am not telling you to be grateful. My point is that feeling grateful seems to entail finding a voice that rings true, meaning that the only essential ingredient it requires is…you. Gratitude will always resonate with your voice, your images, your creativity and your unique expression of thanks. And that is something for which to be truly grateful.