Jacque Marshall

The anatomy of gratitude

Oprah Winfrey has lately been advocating gratitude journals. Every day you write down at least five things for which you are grateful. The idea is to discipline yourself to spend some time each day being thankful for what you have in life, rather than spending all your time being frustrated by what you don't have. I had tried it when I first heard about it, back in January or so, and was dissapointed. Beyond not being productive, I actually found it to be quite uncomfortable.

But last week I was in the middle of possibly the worst emotional crisis I've ever suffered. The medication I was taking for a mild chronic illness had induced deep fatigue and robbed me of my appetite. Over the course of the previous month or two I'd slid into a state of deep, hopeless dispair. In the previous three weeks, it had finally escalated into full-blown, acute panic attacks. I was about as miserable as I've ever been, and I was terrified.

That afternoon I was home from work, too exhausted to make it through even half a day. I had already called my doctor and gotten him to move my appointment up to the next day. Now I was casting about for something, anything, to keep myself going until then. It was about four-thirty in the afternoon -- Oprah would be on. Well, every once in a while, she has something on her show that's insightful. I didn't have the stamina to do much else, so I turned on the television -- just in time for a segment on gratitude journalling.

Several audience members stood up and said that the Gratitude Journal had turned their lives around. One woman said that it had shown her that, instead of striving for the better job or the new car or a bigger house -- which didn't seem to help anyway -- she already had everything she needed to make herself happy. Well, I was certainly in a receptive mood. Besides, something about the woman's comment resonated deep within me.

I remembered a winter some years ago after I had been out of work for a very long time. I had finally, painfully, gotten back into the job search. But the first temp job I got was in a stock brokerage that was dissolving around my ears. People were clearing out their desks and leaving with boxes of possessions even as I was answering calls for them. By then I was so stressed out that I was getting only two or three hours of sleep a night. The second day there I reached my nadir.

But in the worst of it I stumbled onto a totally unknown reserve, welling up from somewhere I could never identify. My sense of humor came back, and suddenly it was hysterically funny that this brokerage firm had hired me when they couldn't even find the guy who was supposed to sign my time card.

At the same time, I actually began to notice -- instead of all the things that were wrong, like the fact that my rent was three months overdue and I hadn't managed as much as a full night's sleep in the last three combined -- the things that I did have: I had gotten three hours of sleep the night before, which was two more than I'd gotten the previous night. I was actually working, even if it felt like I'd fallen into a Danny Kaye movie as conceived by Rod Serling. My rent was well past due but my landlords, bless their souls, were giving me credit.

Things started to turn around. My mood improved, and my ability to cope started to