A few years ago I read 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute by Richard Wiseman. A lofty title, for sure, but what a confident, sturdy surname that Wiseman has! The notion of the book is that there are little psychological quirks or activities we can exploit to improve our lives, and that these activities each take less than a minute. I enjoyed the book, but wouldn’t recommend it – so many of Wiseman’s arguments rely on what seemed to me problematic interpretations of psychological studies – but there were a few activities in the book that I’ve found to be effective, if not original in Wiseman’s telling. The most prominent of these is the happiness journal, more commonly known as a gratitude journal.
As I have sometimes practiced it (a slight variation from Wiseman’s), the journal goes like this: Once a day on a five-day rotation, you set aside a little time to answer the following prompts:
Day 1: List three things you generally have going for you that you noticed or remember drawing on in the last week. You can also state what happened that made you appreciate it. Sometimes this can be as simple and obvious as “taste buds, because dinner was awesome” or “all my limbs because I did all of those limb-related activities,” but there’s no harm in going big if something more extraordinary comes to mind.
Day 2: Write about a terrific memory. What happened? How did it feel? What made it so special?
Day 3: What are three things you’re looking forward to in the week ahead and why? They don’t need to be big. I have written more than once about cereal.
Day 4: Write a letter to someone special in your life telling them how much they mean to you. No need to send it, but I haven’t regretted the few times I did.
Day 5: Write about three things that happened in the last week that went your way. Again, these can be small, like finding a good parking space or leaving work after a heavy rain had stopped.
Some of the reasoning behind this list is that the intentional act of reflecting on what we’re grateful for can prime us to be more appreciative of other things, big and small, in our daily lives. Gratitude is a muscle that becomes increasingly receptive with repeated use. Wiseman also argues that writing these things down as opposed to just thinking them is an important exercise, as it helps cement the activity and makes us more present with the thoughts as we articulate them.
So, at the end of the year and after a 4 month hiatus from blogging, I’d like write about some of the things I’ve recently been grateful for.
My partner, Michael. Eleven months of seeing the world and he still decided I was worth coming home to. Michael is one of the few people I never get tired of being around. If I’m unhappy or grumpy or frustrated, he’ll support me through it or give me the space I need to recuperate on my own. He’s one of the first people I go to if I need to talk through something I’m struggling with. He makes me laugh, and his velociraptor impression is unparalleled. We moved in together this fall and he’s made our home a beautiful, warm place. (If it had been me, we would have had newsprint taped to the wall as “art” and Formica everything.) I have tremendous respect for Michael’s thoughtfulness, his strength, and energy. He never forgets to let me know how much he loves me through his words and his actions, and he makes me very happy.
The internet. In May, this video made the rounds on social media lamenting our obsession with technology (ironically). The poem in the video basically argues that we need to make the choice between an active, engaged life or flushing all of that down the drain in favor of an ill-defined mental masturbatorium. Sure, some people spend too much time on their phones, and some people air their grievances thoughtlessly and prolifically online, but the video sets up a false comparison. The internet is nearly the sum of all human knowledge and opinions, and most of it is available for public consumption to anyone living in a free society with the means to access it. The video suggests that technology keeps people from forming meaningful connections, ignoring that dating and meet-up apps are bringing together people who might never have met without these resources. Michael and I, living in different cities and with no friends in common, met through OkCupid about four years ago and fell in love about two years later. And let’s not forget about, say, a transgendered kid growing up in an isolated, judgmental place who might know nothing about the community they belong to if not for the internet, or a person living under an oppressive government using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate activities with other activists. Consumer sites tailor product recommendations based on our taste, introducing us to new books and music. LinkedIn facilitates professional connections. Just now, YouTube taught me an easier way to peal ginger (with a spoon!). Earlier this year. Skype and Google Chat helped Michael and me keep in touch far more fully and cheaply than any other medium allowed. Sure, you’ve probably been annoyed by someone who spent too long on their phone at a dinner or social gathering. That person was probably enchanted by how amazing, strange, and hilarious a place the internet can be. Sometimes it’s all three. Let’s not pretend these people are Ignorant Sheeple Who Are Repeatedly Failing To Live In The Now. Most of us fit that description anyway, with or without technology, and technology could help with that problem, too.
The web series High Maintenance. The subjects I visit in my fiction writing as well as in the television and books I consume tend towards loneliness and frustration. This is morose territory. Last year, Call the Midwife was the perfect sorrow palate cleanser. The show visits tragedy, but when it does it always seems to do so with an awareness of how tragedy can bring people together. The characters are mostly wholesome – the unsavory ones are foils for the goodness in others. The show can be a little saccharine, and feeling more pressed for time these days I wasn’t sure about catching up on another season of the hour-long drama. High Maintenance revolves around a pot delivery guy in New York City. Each episode runs between five and fifteen minutes and depicts a particular delivery, with the delivery guy being more of a touchstone rather than a central character. I love the slice-of-life storytelling, the humor and heart of the series, as well as the writing and acting. One thing the show does exceptionally well is capturing the tone of a character or relationship in a short span of time, a strength on full display in the opening montage of the episode Heidi.
Jamelle Bouie. I was disappointed when political columnist and blogger David Weigel left Slate. Weigel had a knack for using the right quotes and distilling political drama in a savvy, incisive way. Jamelle Bouie covers a lot of the same turf, though with an attention that seems more immediate. His writings about the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have been smart, reasoned, and illuminating. When I was frustrated with politicians who treated protestors as if they had misplaced priorities, Bouie wrote Actually, Blacks Do Care About Black Crime. When the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on CIA torture, Bouie looked at some polling data and took the opportunity to write about how we’ve grown complacent with whatever happens to those we label “bad people.” I woke up last weekend to the simultaneous news items that 1) two New York City police officers had been assassinated by a lone gunman and 2) the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and a former governor of New York, two ostensibly reasonable people, believed that the president of the United States, the US attorney general, and the current mayor of New York were responsible for the murders. Their culpability stemmed from their willingness to speak out about how the law is applied unevenly to non-white criminals, suspects, and the innocent (a fact that is well-documented). Rather than be able to mourn a tragedy, I felt as if the tragedy had been scooped up and abominated into an argument against a political enemy. Bouie wrote an excellent piece arguing that the protests are not so much anti-police as they are pro-justice and pro-fair policing. Bouie is a great writer covering emotionally-charged issues in a thoughtful way. By the way, if these topics are too divisive for you, the man also knows what he’s talking about when it comes to banana bread.