Updated: Jan 3, 2021
It doesn’t matter which self-help, life change, career, motivational, or spiritual book you read, nearly every one lists gratitude as a vital component to life change. Although I certainly believed it and tried to practice gratitude in many ways, I always got the sense that the authors were saying that practicing gratitude improved your attitude which made all the circumstances around you change. They seemed to suggest that giving thanks could transform any problem into an easy road you would cruise on toward a better life. I often wondered if this was the miracle everyone made it out to be. As these things often go, I was about to get my own personal life course in gratitude.
Cue one of the hardest 9 months of my life. I had worked in the public school system for 15 years. I had spent 12 of those years pretty much in one building as the librarian/teacher of the gifted/math specialist (no one can call me inflexible). I can’t say I loved every moment of my job, but I loved my colleagues, I loved knowing our 200-ish students very well, I loved my library and the program I had created, and I really loved the variety of all the things I did in a week. Then year 16 of teaching rolled around and I found out my job was going to change. I would be the only elementary school librarian for the district. That meant 3 buildings, 3 libraries, 3 principals, 3 sets of staff, 600+ students, 5-6 fixed classes a day (some back-to-back), two days in each building, etc. Not only did I feel completely unappreciated and marginalized, but I knew that starting from scratch in TWO new buildings would be a long, hard road. Despite this, I had always dreamed of doing library work full time, so I decided to give it a go and try it for one year.
Let’s just say, it was the longest school year of my life. The first two weeks I cried almost every day on the way home (and occasionally during the day). By December I was down to about once a week, which felt like progress. I felt completely overwhelmed with all the new faces and systems. It was hard to make meaningful connections or make progress on projects when I moved buildings every two days. There was so much to do and I couldn’t keep track of what was going on in which building. I can’t tell you how many times I had to change lesson plans at the last minute because I left materials at another school. I felt like the world’s worst teacher. I could go on, but the bottom line is that I was miserable. Every day was a struggle. I ended my days exhausted and discouraged. The job just did not fit who I was. I had never felt so stuck.
Those nine months included a whole lot of soul searching. The universe was making it exceedingly clear that it was time to change some things in my life. I decided that there was no better time to practice the life-changing art of gratitude. Finally, I was able to put these ideas to the test and see how they could change my very miserable situation. I tried to practice gratitude every day. I was grateful for a quiet home. For a bed to fall into every night. For snow. For music. For kind people who stopped to say hello. For the few moments when I actually enjoyed my job. For cheesecake. For a hike on a beautiful day. For the times I actually had everything I needed at the right school. I tried my best to be grateful for the many good things still in my life despite my miserable job. Here is some of what I learned during this challenging time.
Gratitude did not change my circumstances. Not one moment of gratitude changed any aspect of my job. There were no miraculous changes. It was hard every day. It didn’t change the lessons I had to learn from the experience or the challenges I had to go through. I can’t say it even transformed my internal experience. I was still pretty miserable and exhausted. I still struggled through my days. I still wanted out. I was not at peace.
Gratitude was an anchor point. Although it didn’t change my circumstances, gratitude did keep me from sinking too low. It kept me from getting overwhelmed by the negative feelings. I didn’t start lashing out at others or falling into self-destructive cycles. I felt the misery and exhaustion acutely, but I knew it was not my whole experience. There were still good things in my life.
Gratitude helped keep things in perspective. I could recognize that the world was not ending. I could see that others were happy and share in their happiness. I didn’t hide my miserable state to anyone who cared to ask, but neither did I try to spread it around. The world was not wretched, it was just my particular circumstance.
Gratitude builds positive energy. Literally on the way to school some days all I could think of to be grateful for was that my car worked and I had hot tea with me. Also, the sun was shining. Oh, and I had a yummy lunch to eat. And it was Wednesday- halfway through the week! And I was wearing my comfiest shoes. And… you see how positive energy can snowball quickly? When there was an avalanche of misery coming my way, pulling any amount of positive energy in to withstand the blast was necessary. It just took one moment of gratitude to get it started. As soon as I lost it, all it took was one moment of thanks to start it again.
Gratitude is a step toward joy. If you think of emotions as a continuum, misery is pretty low on the scale and joy is pretty high. It is hard to jump from misery to joy in a moment. However, gratitude falls between the two. When practicing gratitude you are a little closer to joy, so when you catch a glimpse of it you can actually grab it with both hands and enjoy the moment. I have to say that despite my misery, I did manage to laugh a lot at the funny things kids said that year. I laughed in the faculty room with my colleagues. I could be swept away by the sight of lighting bugs in the trees or my favorite flowers blooming in the spring. The joy often felt fleeting and diaphanous, but it was there. And I was grateful every time it showed up. It reminded me to keep seeking that joy to discover who I was supposed to become.
Gratitude kept me in the moment. When you are looking around you finding things to be grateful for, you are grounding yourself in the present. You can forget briefly about how bad yesterday went or what you're dreading in the future. You can laugh at the goofy kids or appreciate a sunset because all that exists is that moment.
So did I find gratitude to be the life-changing experience touted by the authors I had read? Honestly, no. However, I do think my year would have been much worse without it. I remember being intensely miserable, but I also remember good stuff along with it. I remember crying a lot, but I also remember laughing a lot. Giving thanks kept me in a place where I could experience both. It also kept me moving toward my goal, which was to find a job that did bring me joy. Without gratitude keeping me grounded, I may have gotten lost in my misery and been unable to move forward at all. So in a way, it didn't change my current circumstances, but it did affect my future.
Which brings me to one last thing I learned. Gratitude did NOT make me accept my situation. It was abundantly clear to me that I could not do that job for another year. I was not supposed to stay in that job. It was time for some big changes. In the same way, any situation you are in right now or any place where you are stuck will not be made OK with gratitude. Don’t for one moment think that gratitude will negate any need for change in your life. If you are living in a horrible situation right now, don’t avoid gratitude because you think it will make you want to stay where you are. Embrace gratitude because it keeps you grounded in the present, builds positive energy, reminds you of love, pushes you toward joy, and keeps things in perspective. These things are all necessary if you want to change your life.
Mason Cooley wrote, “A sense of blessedness comes from a change of heart, not from more blessings.” If you can’t be grateful for a few blessings, why would you think that having more of them will make you more grateful? Or if you can’t recognize the blessings you have, what makes you think the universe will want to send you more? Notice the blessings you have right how. Give thanks for them. Know that you deserve to change your life and create more blessings.
So wherever you are right now, practice gratitude as often as you can. Who knows, maybe you will experience the miracles I didn’t. Or maybe you will be like me and can embrace the good along with the bad while also working toward big change in your life. Gratitude might not make your road an easy ride, but it will get you through where you are so that you can move on to better things.
Learn more about how to get unstuck from your current situation with the blog post Are You Stuck? (with free meditation)