A few years back I worked in a university building that also housed an entire department full of psychologists, all of whom seemed to see us administrative types as perfect guinea pigs for their latest theories. I learned to be wary of answering seemingly casual questions in the elevator. If an eager graduate student showed up in my office bearing a tray of pastries and asked me to pick one, I'd cast a chary glance and ask "Why?" before grabbing the apple fritter.
So one day, when someone from the Psychology Department posted instructions in the bathroom exhorting all of us to "Think about five things for which you're grateful every day for a week!" my response was frankly suspicious. I did the math. Five things a day for seven days is a lot of brainpower to expend without so much as the promise of an apple fritter.
I wandered into the office of Heidi Zetzer, the director of our school's on-site Counseling and Psychological Services Clinic and a Very Smart Person.
"What's with the gratitude thing?" I asked.
You don't ask an academic a question — even a simple one — unless you're prepared for a lengthy answer. Heidi perked up, and I sat down. That's when I first heard the term "positive psychology."
For the longest time, Western psychologists and psychiatrists focused on treating clients' problems. Traumatized? See a counselor and talk about what happened. Depressed? Have your shrink write a prescription. Hysterical? Paging Dr. Freud.
In the late 1990s, a notable group of researchers, led by Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and the late Christopher Peterson, posited a different approach to mental illness and maladies: What if practitioners focused on individual clients' strengths and resiliency, rather than their negative experiences and wounds? What if "happiness" could be actively learned?
The new positive psychologists wrote books and spoke at conferences, promoting the theory that ancient practices and modern science could be combined to enhance the lives of patients. As president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Seligman chose positive psychology as a yearlong theme for the APA.
Supported by solid research and ultimately confirmed by numerous longer-term studies, the field had burgeoned by the time I learned about it. "The gratitude thing," as I had called it, was but one small and simple element of the practice. Kind of like training the brain to focus on joy, my friend Heidi explained.
"It's only a week," she urged. "Try it."
I did. And guess what? It worked.
Every day for a week, I found five distinct things for which I was thankful. They had to be different every day. I couldn't get away with just being grateful for my wonderful husband. But I could, suggested Collie Conoley, another colleague and noted positive psychologist, express my gratitude for specific aspects of a certain person each day.
He's a great cook.
He always puts our family first.
He's a stone-cold fox.
By the end of that week, I found myself slowing down a little. Taking time to notice things I might have walked past before, like a monarch butterfly or a bunch of students laughing together in the quad. One good thought led to another. These kids are so smart. And optimistic. It gives me so much hope for the future!
Fast-forward about a decade — to an ugly race for the American presidency that left many of us on all points of the political spectrum feeling sullied. And on a personal note, a surfing accident knocked me on my back and required two painful operations with what felt like an interminable period of recovery.
I was pretty bummed. And I was not alone — my psychologist friends confided they were struggling to keep up with the demands on their practices wrought by general malaise. It was just so easy to fall into a slump.
Then I remembered "the gratitude thing." After a few busy years, I had fallen out of the regular, conscious discipline of thankfulness.
By sheer coincidence, right when I was at the nadir of my own depression, I read a glowing review of business executive and lecturer Sheryl Sandberg's latest book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.
In it, Sandberg — a tragically young widow — outlines how the practices I've come to identify with positive psychology helped her emerge from the crippling morass of grief and reclaim a measure of joy in her life. I thought, If she can do it, so can I.
I started looking for my five moments of gratitude in each day. Like riding the proverbial two-wheeler, it wasn't hard to get back in the swing of it once I got started.
I am surrounded by love.
Friends brought meals every day this week.
My oldest son took his vacation to come and help out at home. He took me to all my medical appointments, and made me laugh by titling his spring break, "Driving Miss Leslie."
An unexpectedly wet spring and the quiet kindness of a colleague with a green thumb made sure my plants stayed alive until I could care for them again.
... and he may be more gray than not, but my wonderful husband is still a stone-cold fox.
Life will never be perfect. I still see news stories that distress me. The traffic in my city is maddening. I wish I could speed up my recovery. But with just one simple exercise, I'm rediscovering the serenity of that old prayer: accepting the things I can change, working without complaint to change what I can, and being wise enough to know the difference.
And all it took was a little gratitude.