The Life-Changing Practice That Will Help You Feel More Gratitude

·4 min read

Credit - Illustration by Beci Orpin for TIME

I spent the first long months of the pandemic in suburban Maryland alone and away from my family. The world beyond my door became a stream of timelines, a social media cascade of triumphs and accomplishments. Everyone else, it seemed, was leaping to new feats in baking, in writing, in everything. Meanwhile, the blank page waited for me, cursor blinking. I struggled to kindle a steady writing practice, to find my way through the suffocating pressure to Be Productive.

My days slurred into a routine: I hunched over a laptop, then leashed up my dog and wandered the tree-lined streets for hours, listening to audiobooks in a near-trance, the changing seasons marked in the changing grasses. There seemed so little to anchor myself to. My family tested positive in New York and my partner tested positive in Moscow, and I was supposed to—somehow— go about my days.

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As a forgetful, easily distracted person, I have always found comfort in lists. Lists of errands to run, emails to return, books to read. And somewhere, in the depths of my pandemic solitude, I began to list the ways in which other people had helped make space for my writing career. I wrote down my parents, who no matter how financially stretched or busy they were, never denied me a book from the Costco rack or a trip to my local library. A graduate-school mentor who put his faith in me and pitched my work for an exciting new anthology. A local friend who doesn’t write, or buy many books, who came over with a bottle of wine, a marked-up copy of one of my recently published stories, and a list of questions about how it came together.

Whenever I think of someone who’s supported or invested in my writing, in a big or small way, I put them on the list. To my surprise, I’ve never run out of names. The work of logging acts of kindness reminds me of what’s gotten me this far, and of what’s possible to do for others. And while it’s a practice I established to keep me motivated as a writer, I believe it’s one that could be useful to anyone who needs a boost these days. Which is to say, most of us.

Here’s how to do it: Write down the name of every single person who has believed in you, who has reached down to pull you up when no one else would, or who made time for you. Folks who say your name when opportunities come up, strangers who hold open the door a few extra seconds when you’re struggling with groceries and everything in between. Write down the actual gestures too, anything that moved you, that made your day even a little better.

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Many years ago, everything seemed to be going wrong as I scurried, sleepless and late, and hoisted my suitcase onto the scale at the airport. It had been a hard week: I was moving by myself to Brazil with no financial safety net, and felt unanchored, weepy and harried. The woman at a check-in counter glanced at my luggage (at least 10 pounds overweight), then back at me, and quietly let me board without charging me an excess-baggage fee. I doubt that woman has thought of me since then, but I think of her, and that moment, often, that much-needed grace, given swiftly, and with generosity.

But how many moments like that have slipped the weary sieve of my memory? Our bias toward the negative is rooted in survival instinct, after all; it is more important to identify potential threats than it is to note the positive. Our most primal minds look for signs that something is not right: that our place in the pack is in peril, that a predator is in our midst, that our food supply is running low.

These past two years disoriented and disconnected us in unexpected ways. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that we’re not alone. The pandemic showed us how fragile some of our most trusted infrastructures are, and how small we are in the face of an unfathomable collective grief. But I have found comfort this year in thinking of the ways in which we help each other find a way forward, day by day.

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The idea of a gratitude practice is, of course, neither uniquely mine nor particularly new. But that’s the point, really, to find sustenance in what has always been true. Nothing in this brief life is promised but this one miraculous, irrefutable truth: there are good people out there—some of them strangers, some of them not­—who mean you well, and who show up in these moments of everyday kindness.

The work of living and writing is easier when I remember that bounty. I write alone, but when I think of the number of people who have fed and protected my flame, it burns brighter and brighter.

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