The Gratitude Project, Part 2

I finished my Gratitude Project on Saturday, October 6, 2018.

I must say, it was amazing and totally exhausting at the end. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the wonderful and challenging things about spending an hour or two everyday for 100 days, writing and journaling about gratitude.

When I really think about it, it was actually much more time because I spent the day thinking about the letters. Maybe I was feeling good about the letter from the day before or maybe I was thinking of who to write that day, but my mind was on the project for much of the day, every day. If anything, I’m sort of missing it now; or maybe mourning the end of the project. I know that I’m already ready to write to someone I forgot to include. That feels good, because this practice of thanking the people who impact my life, isn’t a habit I want to break.

But let me get back to what I learned and what effects I felt during and after this project. It turns out that gratitude was just one piece of the project. It was actually about something so much bigger, but I’ll get back to that later.

First I want to talk about how I structured the project in case anyone else wants to do their own 100 day gratitude project. I just said how time consuming it was, which may scare people off! I hope not, because while it’s true that it took time, it was totally doable. The only thing I tended to miss out on, was watching television. So, truly I missed nothing.

I’ll restate the rules I used.

Write 100 letters in 100 days.
Write one letter everyday.
Write to anyone and everyone you are grateful for.
Go deep and be specific about why you are grateful for the person.
Don’t share that this is part of a project, in other words, no excuses for why you are writing to them.
Expect nothing in return.
Write about the experience.

I have to note that the results are partially confounded by something I wasn’t aware of during the project. I didn’t just practice gratitude. I also spent time journaling about the letters. It turns out that there is research, according to happiness expert Shawn Achor, that journaling is another way to boost happiness. So I was getting more benefits that I would have without journaling and reflecting on the gratitude project.

The way I started was to think of someone I’d been wanting to thank, but never did. I’m sure we can all relate to this experience where we have great intentions of gratitude but sometimes don’t follow through with putting pen to paper. After the first letter, I liked the result and I stayed on a theme for a while. I started thanking people who had helped me get through my Mom’s Funeral in some way, shape or form. I thanked the people who spoke at the service, the people who helped us plan the event and lots of the people who showed up to honor her.

Then I moved to other themes like writing my close female friends. I let each of them know, very specifically, the things I love about them and what they bring to my life.

Another theme was my Family. I wrote almost everyone in my family to express my gratitude for what they bring to my life. This felt especially powerful because, if something happens to me, they know exactly why I was grateful for them and how much I loved them. Somehow that is a relief. Likely because I didn’t get to do that with my Mom. She died before I had the chance to say everything I would have said if I’d known she was going to die.

I kept going with lots of different short themes. I thanked the people who helped me when I had back pain. I thanked my ex husband and his wife for our ability to co parent so well. I thanked old bosses and mentors.

Then the project got even more interesting. I began to push the limits; to see what gratitude is capable of. So, one day, while in a fight with my husband, I decided to see if I could use an unrelated gratitude letter to get past my anger. And it worked! It was really cool. I started off having trouble because I was stuck being mad. But then I made myself get out of the trees and into the forest. And what I mean by that is that I stopped picking apart the fight and made myself think of the big, overarching reasons that I love him. I could feel my resistance at first. But I made myself go back to the memories I had of falling in love with him. How he helped me in so many fundamental ways when I was struggling during a really hard time in my life. And as I let my mind go to those memories, the letter began to flow and the gratitude went from forced to organic and I felt my whole body relax. I’m not kidding when I say that it sounds hard, but it is so much easier than staying mad for days.

My next experiment was to see if gratitude could overcome difficulties in relationships. I thought about the really tough relationships in my life and wondered if I could use gratitude letters as a way of clearing the air, or maybe repairing the relationships. This part was a lot trickier because I felt vulnerable and, in a few of the cases, I didn’t have clean gratitude. I wrote about 4 or 5 of these letters and the results were interesting. I wasn’t nearly as happy and positive on those days because I was remembering back to things I’d done that resulted in problems or even the loss of a relationship. So, my mood wasn’t as good and I felt some shame. The responses were varied as well. In one case, the letter was met with hostility, which, honestly, I expected. But, in one case, the letter mended an important relationship. Despite the fact that the most of the relationships didn’t change, I actually found the process powerful. Here’s why. By going through the process, I got rid of my shame. I was able to forgive myself because I owned my part of the problem, asked for forgiveness and sent out gratitude. Once again, I felt a calm and a closure. My mind doesn’t have to go there anymore.

I remember around two thirds of the way done, I started really notice this new sense of calm in a big way. I now believe that the calm was created by putting all my affairs in order. I wrote everyone and thanked them for everything. I promise that there is something calming about doing that. Maybe like going through all your old photos and getting them organized. Or cleaning out a pantry. There are no loose ends.

For me, as I stated above, it turns out that so many of my letters focused on my Mom and her sudden passing in 2016. When I neared the end, it became evident that the project was centered around my grief. By using letters of thanks, I was slowly, day by day, able to let go of my pain. Because I’m a psychologist, I often ask my clients to write a good-bye letter when someone dies. But, of course, I’d never done it myself. My 100th letter was not a good-bye letter as much as a thank you letter to my Mother for being the most wonderful, loving Mom. It was the secret gift of this project. I didn’t just gain gratitude; I let go of pain.

Here is a quick list of what I got out of practicing gratitude daily.

  1. My mood improved overall. I also found I could improve it instantly if I wrote a letter.
  2. My memory got better as I went through all the details of my past, reliving good times as I thanked old bosses or mentors.
  3. My awareness increased which made time slow down. Instead of going from task to task all day, I noticed how I was treating people and how they treated me, always looking for the gratitude letter of the day.
  4. I realized my power; both because of the feedback from others about how much I affected them, and my realization that I did something hard and big from beginning to end.
  5. My thinking became much more positive.
  6. I’m able to get out of anger by using gratitude to look at the big picture.
  7. Gratitude can be used as a coping tool when another tool is taken away. I used to exercise but after I broke my foot I couldn’t. I found that writing letters caused me to have the same mood boost.
  8. My connections to friends got deeper and better.
  9. I processed my grief through gratitude letters. For me, it turns out that this was the main purpose of my Gratitude Project. Using manageable letters, I was able to look back at all the people who helped me get through the pain. And my last letter, was, of course, to my Mother.

This is not a comprehensive list. I hope it inspires someone to think about using gratitude as a formal practice. I know it changed my life forever. I can’t go back and not know what I know. Gratitude takes time and effort. But what you put in will come back so much bigger. I promise.

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