The Gratitude Project and its Origins
If cultivating a habit of writing gratitudes every day can change something so foundational as our thought patterns, what could engaging in purposeful demonstrations of gratitude do? [Reference: 21 Days for Happiness] [Here is my completed Gratitude Project]
With that thought in mind, I will use myself for this experiment. I have found that habitually writing my gratitudes has indeed changed me. For me, the most tangible proof of this is the state of my neutral mood, my default mode. Before explaining this further, a little more background is necessary.
I suffered a serious and life altering injury nearly five years ago and as you might expect from such a description, my recovery has been a long one. In fact, it is predicted to last me to the end of my days. I lost my livelihood and had to learn an entirely new discipline, in fact, there was doubt I would ever get off the very couch upon which I am writing this. My injury was bad. Really bad. Most of my disabilities are now invisible to casual acquaintance, but I can’t always hide them. Some only appear in certain situations and others I struggle with every moment. I fell a very long way from my previous ability status.
To be clear, I am not pursuing your empathy on this subject, only giving a clear point of reference. A point of origin for my ideas.
As you may imagine, a loss as I have -albeit vaguely- described above comes with many consequences. As careers go, my former one was demanding cognitively and physically. And I loved it. Deeply loved it. Most people I know do not say that about their jobs, but I did, with regularity. I worked a great deal of overtime because I wanted to be at work. In many ways, you could say I lost a love when I lost that career. Thus I endured the duel heartbreak of losing my purpose in this world and (I thought at the time) the ability to find a new one in one fell swoop.
I do not bandy the word depression around lightly because it is a diagnosis and I shudder to misuse the term. I beg my readers not to apply the term liberally to my descriptions of my mental status surrounding my injury. Have there been periods of time over the past five years when I have been clinically depressed? Maybe. But I think it is much more useful to avoid the label in favor of explication and understanding the mechanisms of my emotions. Simply, I do not want the word depression to be used as a mental short-cut, a laziness and oversimplification of what I have learned as a result of this journey.
It is quite true that my sadness in the beginning and a good part of the middle of the story reached significance and impacted my ability to take on my challenges, but it had another function too. It is my considered understanding and personal opinion that emotions serve a purpose. For me, my brain produced sadness to keep me from over reaching my capabilities. My brain forces me to do what is necessary to heal. Now, when I notice a seemingly exaggerated sadness, I know it is a signal that my body needs rest and a time-out. My unprofessional opinion on the matter is that this sadness is not pathology, it’s a signal. And an important one.
That’s why I don’t want to use the label depression for my episodes of sadness and low energy. I suspect clinical depression is something else, something whose edges I have sniffed, but I do not believe I have ever been truly submerged, embedded long term, as they say.
So why, if I am seemingly so contented to allow, understand and use my bluer moods, am I so invested in cultivating happiness?
Because, in short, I want to be happy. These two ends are not mutually exclusive, not a cognitive dissonance of mine.
I spoke earlier of a neutral mood, a default, maybe even to be described as what happens between moods. I’m referring to the resting state between moments of stronger, even if not extreme, emotional conditions. The mood that happens while doing mundane tasks like walking or dishes or in moments of idleness.
Left untended, where do your thoughts go?
In the harder moments of this recovery, my thoughts were not positive without distraction, effort and at times outright attempts to trick my brain into doing something, anything, other than being miserable about my condition. My neutral wasn’t neutral, it was negative.
I don’t want that from life, no matter my situation, that is not how I want to live. So how, how do I, unable to change what is unchangeable by me, make happiness?
The first step was realizing that I could. That I do have a lever over my own thoughts, emotions, my mental landscape. Without the need to ignore my problems, I could still make room for other things, happier things, if I took the trouble to do so. There’s much more space in my mind that I realized when I was allowing myself only to see the horrible.
I must thank a friend of mine, whom I will not name without permission, because she planted this seed in my head. Her story isn’t that dissimilar from my own and she found this piece of wisdom somewhere and had the wherewithal to apply it and then tell me about it. At the top of this article, I gave a reference to a TED talk which set the ball rolling. I will in no way pretend that the link between gratitude and happiness is my invention or discovery, it is only something I stumbled upon and then embraced with both arms. Further disclosure, ACT (Acceptance, Commitment Therapy) and whole acres of other psychotherapy have brought me to where I am now. I will take credit, however, for applying what has been given to me. And I will claim that I did in fact come up with the idea of a gratitude project on my own with the above described foundational knowledge. My models (below), interventions if you want to call them that, are also my own invention.
The basic concept of a gratitude project is this: if thinking and writing about gratitudes can bring about a change in thought pattern toward the positive end of the spectrum, doing something about that gratitude could cause a pattern of pursuing happiness by creating it in the moment, establishing a pattern of positive and goal directed action, and perhaps, resulting in an increased sense of confidence via accomplishment.
The model looks like this:
I can: noticing current capabilities and believing in them. Take stock of what is possible. Everyone has limits on their capabilities, but accomplishment stems from stringing those capabilities together effectively to achieve something that would otherwise exceed a particular capability on its own. For example: at first, walking to the mailbox with a cane was the extent of my physical ability for one day, but I am also creative.
I will: planning to achieve a greater goal based on those capabilities. In order to expand my ability to walk, I cultivated a habit of pacing while talking on the phone. Yes, I believe I even fell down while on the phone at least once. That’s ok.
I am: noticing the present moment while acting on a plan. “I am” happens more or less by accident. Now I walk for miles to and from work (after a LOT of hard work and therapies over the years). I am still a fall risk in certain situations, and probably always will be, but I’ve been daydreaming about trying to ski again. In essence, steps one and two are really step three, but there’s no step three without steps one and two. Achievement happens while in the process of trying.
With the recipe for getting stuff done explicit, what constitutes a Gratitude Project?
True gratitude is the essential foundation of the project which means that a definition of gratitude is necessary. Gratitude is always a positive emotion, but other things can masquerade as gratitude, complaining being chief among them. For example, “I am grateful for the sunshine today,” is gratitude where “I’m grateful it didn’t rain today,” is actually grousing about rain, even if on other days. It’s negative. It follows that a gratitude project must stem from gratefulness for a positive experience of some kind.
- The project must stem from gratitude resulting from a positive life event or situation.
- The project can be aimed at another person or people, but this is somewhat flexible.
- The project must require action aside from thought.
- The project must require planning.
- The project must require effort.
- The project must originate emotionally from the desire to express gratitude and not from the desire to acquire something from someone else. Expectations must be non-selfish in nature.*
- The project cannot be an obligation or punishment imposed by society, or any individual person, including the self. A gratitude project can never be a homework assignment, for example. It can be a suggestion, though, so long as it is in no way pressured or coerced. Gratitude must be given freely or it is not gratitude.
*Non-selfish meaning not a social bribe or payment for goods or services.
About motivation. Getting down to brass tacks, it could be argued that deciding to do a gratitude project because I want to generate my own happiness is a selfish motive. But let us not confuse selfishness with self cultivation. It is about me but here’s the news: that’s ok. Self interest is not necessarily selfishness any more than self-care is a failure of altruism. Selfishness hurts other people, but self cultivation does not. The self is important and left un-nurtured, cannot nurture others. Gratitude isn’t a contract, but rather it, wonderfully, nurtures both ways. Put another way, happiness is a dish best shared and gratitude is a main course at that banquet.
Do the project with the expectation of getting nothing at all in return from the recipient. The actions generated by the project and expressing/experiencing gratitude are the points of the endeavor. That said, hoping to delight someone else, or hoping for a positive outcome in general, does not defeat the purpose of the project. It isn’t selfishness to hope for a good result, whatever that may be, so long as the project isn’t used as currency or relief from guilt.
There are many potential side effects to doing a gratitude project, many possible positive outcomes. Some of them might include learning, creativity and possibly even teamwork. Working on a gratitude project together with someone else might strengthen a friendship, or improve family dynamics. Hoping for these outcomes does not defeat the purpose of the project. Remember that the purpose of the project is to promote a pattern of positive, goal-directed behavior and confidence via accomplishment with the added bonus of noticing happiness along the way. This is ultimately self-cultivating, but these attributes make gratitude no less genuine.
I am afraid that it is impossible to escape the need for a disclaimer. I have designed the above intervention for myself, for the purposes of my own healing, happiness and well being. In point of fact, writing this article, designing this intervention and publishing it are all mechanisms which generate happiness in me. That said, I will not take responsibility for the health or happiness of anyone else for any reason as I have no license to lean upon and little formal education on the subject. While I may have extensive experiential understanding of the subject matter, I am in no way equipped to make recommendations for other people. I am the guinea pig in this experiment and choose to make it public. I have submitted no human subjects description to any governing body for approval.
If you choose to try this for yourself it is, therefore, entirely at your own risk.
If you do, I would passionately love to hear about it and beg you to comment below describing your projects and experiences with them.
Lastly, uncomfortably, this is my work. My intellectual property. Though this clause may perhaps not be a formal copyright (but it might be and I just don’t know it), I will ask that you not take my ideas as your own and make money from them. That’s shameful. If you do decide to do that, the shame is yours and I will always know that. If, however, you think these are good ideas and want to approach me about helping me publish them more broadly, I would welcome that and most definitely want to talk to you. Comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Update! I have now completed my gratitude project and you can see it here! I’m very proud of this work.
Before you go, you can check out my research project! I have conducted a study of OUAT viewer preferences and you can check on my progress here. Yay for science!