I don't remember the first time I read or heard that the key to being happy is being thankful. I do know that by the time my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I knew that one form or another of this principle could be found in the teachings of almost every belief system and philosophy.
In the first few days after my husband was diagnosed, I didn't think about thankfulness. Needless to say, my thoughts and energies were spent on "being there" for my husband and children, dealing with paperwork and phone calls, and trying to make sense of the new world my family had entered. But as the days passed and fear and sorrow threatened to consume my heart and mind, I remembered that I was supposed to be thankful "in everything".
I tried. Sporadically. When my mind wasn't occupied with medicine schedules and doctors appointments and "what nows" and a thousand other details that only those who have dealt with a debilitating disease up close and personal would recognize. When I look back at my journals from those weeks, I see evidence that I tried to be thankful but that I was struggling -- the same two or three things are listed every time -- that we found Dr. T, that my husband was eligible for a promising clinical trial, that many, many friends were praying for him and being so supportive. That's it; the same three things repeated like a mantra. I just couldn't come up with anything else.
After Steve passed away, thankfulness was far from my thoughts for months. The mental fog parted only when I was interacting with my son or daughter, dealing with some important piece of paperwork I couldn't ignore, or performing duties associated with my job.
Finally, though, I knew I had to make more of an effort to (oh, how I hate this phrase) "move on". I couldn't spend the rest of my life going through the motions and escaping through hours of television or sleep. One Friday after work, I stopped by the local Barnes and Noble, bought a chai tea latte, and headed over to the journal and blank books section. I knew myself well enough to know that unless I was very intentional about being grateful, unless I committed myself in some very tangible way to the act of being thankful, I would never be successful in focusing on gratitude. I found a beautiful red leather lined journal, gulped at the price, bought it, and immediately sat down at a table in the cafe area to write my first entry.
That red journal filled up quite quickly. Not with a list of things I was grateful for; some days I wasn't really thankful for anything, and I wasn't going to be a hypocrite about it. Instead, I simply journaled on the topic of gratitude and how hard it was sometimes to practice an attitude of thankfulness. In the back of the book, starting on the very last page and working backward, I began a list of things I was thankful for. Eventually, I committed to writing down one thing per day. I quickly learned I needed another guideline -- no repeats. Before that rule was implemented (day 17), I had written "my children" 10 times!
I got into the rhythm of my list-keeping, but it had become fairly routine and uninspired when, one day while wandering around Barnes and Noble, I saw on a small table display a book titled One Thousand Gifts: Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp. I did something I don't remember ever doing before -- I bought it without even reading the back cover!
That night I began reading, and I discovered that while Voskamp and I have very little in common (she is a home-schooling mother of several young children -- I am the mom of two adult children; she is married -- I am widowed; and so on), we do share the practice of keeping a list of things for which we are grateful. Reading One Thousand Gifts changed my perspective on my practice on gratitude, and I moved from simply listing an item to slowing down (either then or, if absolutely impossible, later in the day) to contemplate that item and express my gratitude in some way. Many days, I simply thank my Creator; other days, I do that and more. For example, if I wrote down that I was thankful for "Lori", the helpful young lady behind the counter at Starbucks, I sent an email to the corporate office sharing with them my experience and what a great job "Lori" had done.
So is it true? Is thankfulness really the key to happiness?