November 22, 2019 | Feature
three good things
making to-do lists something to be grateful for
My to-do lists piece together my past. Above reminders to turn in my math homework on time, nagging notes to go to the gym and clean my room, and the boxed due dates for essays and projects is my list of “three good things”––three things I’m grateful for on that particular day. I write all of these lists in a small black Muji notebook, and when I flip through its pages, the top of each list is a snapshot into the past months, reminding me of the little things that kept the days from blurring together.
In high school, my three things often revolved around my beloved car, my friends, and the Driftwood Deli sandwiches that we would race off to get during lunch. When I was a junior and overwhelmed by my parents’ impending divorce, the lists included more and more phone calls and FaceTimes with my sister. During my senior spring, I recognized how grateful I was for the teachers who understood that we were checked out and let us revel in the trivialities of the last weeks of high school.
Recently, I’ve been grateful for the kittens and bunnies who appeared on Wriston Quad when it was raining and cold and miserable, for the friend who put me to bed with a glass of water and Advil in preparation for the next morning’s headache, for the classmates whom I spend an ungodly number of hours with in Barus and Holley until we finish our engineering problem sets. On my own for the first time, practicing gratefulness has forced me to consider the minute interactions that alleviate the burdens each day brings.
My practice began when I took part in the “Thankfulness Challenge” sponsored by Sources of Strength, a national mental health resource program with a big presence at my high school. My English teacher handed out strips of paper a few inches wide called “Thankfulness Posters” on which we were asked to record three things we were thankful for every day for the next 21 days. So, before learning new vocab words or analyzing Othello, we’d spend 30 seconds writing down what we were grateful for and another 30 seconds reflecting on one item on our list, taking care to recognize exactly what it was we felt grateful for.
The challenge began second semester of my junior year when I felt weary and exhausted by AP classes and SAT subject tests as well as the college application process looming on the horizon. A stressed-out mess, I didn’t think much of the exercise besides the fact that it provided a brief mental reprieve from everything else racing around in my head. In the beginning, I defaulted to appreciating practical things that were the easiest to recognize, like having food in the fridge, clean running water in the era of the Flint water crisis, and the educational opportunities afforded to me courtesy of my public high school. But soon enough, the science behind the gratefulness practice started to kick in. Writing three unique items became a motivating challenge, and I found joy in recognizing the overlooked bright spots of my days.
At first, I was skeptical of trendy mindfulness practices like the Thankfulness Challenge that promise to increase your happiness (as if happiness can be aggregated), but the research is convincing: Practicing gratitude every day can help rewire our brains to focus on the positive instead of ruminating on the negative. For instance, a 2016 study published in Psychotherapy Research found that college students seeking mental health support who wrote “gratitude letters” in conjunction with receiving psychotherapy reported significantly better mental health after just four weeks, even more so after 12, than those who received only psychotherapy.
This makes intuitive sense: When we write about the things that made us happy, we feel happier. Yet, in analyzing students’ gratitude letters, the researchers found that mental health improvement wasn’t predicted by the number of positive words or emotions––it was about the lack of negativity. Students with fewer negative emotions or words in their letters were more likely to experience improved mental health. This is comforting to me, that my happiness doesn’t have to rely on exuding positivity; it’s more about shifting my focus away from toxic emotions, holding myself back from jumping into a tempting pit of negativity and self-pity.
Aside from improving quality of life, gratitude has been associated with increased life expectancy. A study in 2001 analyzed letters written by young Catholic nuns about to begin their clerical roles. Researchers ranked the letters—reflections on their lives and futures—according to positive emotional content. Sixty years later, 90 percent of the nuns whose letters were ranked highly lived past 85, compared to only 34 percent of those who wrote the lower-ranking letters. In general, people who consider themselves thankful for the people around them get better quality sleep, as indicated in a 2009 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.
If that weren’t enough, gratitude can even help us find love, both platonic and romantic. Expressing gratitude strengthens our relationships; it is associated with greater motivation to work through issues and increased relational confidence. The effects of expressing gratitude ripple through social circles, improving “prosocial” behaviors that benefit every group member. Everyone wants to be appreciated, and a study published in the Personality and Individual Differences Journal shows that expressing gratitude is linked to increased relationship quality, providing opportunities for both members of the relationship to grow closer.
I’ve found this latter phenomenon to be especially true. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by my gratitude lists when friends rifle through my notebooks, because I worry it might seem to them like some sappy, trite exercise. I worry, irrationally, that they’ll see their names and cringe, that they’ll think I care more about them than they do about me. But that is never the case. I am met with genuine smiles, hugs, and gratitude in return. The research checks out. People love to be appreciated, to feel noticed.
After the 21 days of my first thankfulness challenge were over, I read over my flimsy thankfulness journal, and the past three weeks came to life from the few words scribbled on each line. I recalled the day both my chemistry teacher and I arrived late to class, so I wasn’t marked tardy; the day “Animal” by Neon Trees played on the radio and I belted out all the lyrics while I drove to school; the time I dipped out of class to call a friend in college, and my physics teacher, instead of berating me for skipping class, asked to say hi and talk to my friend (her former student). Memories that would have otherwise been forgotten were captured on those weathered pages.
My daily planner replaced my thankfulness journal, and I continued to capture vignettes of my last two years of high school through my lists of three good things. At this point, I have filled many of those Muji notebooks, a few of which I’ve brought to college. Flipping through them reminds me of important dates:
Thursday, March 28, 2019—thankful for getting into Brown!!!
Tuesday, April 9, 2019––thankful for my amazing ADOCH host and her music recs and my visit to Brown being so gooooood.
Monday, June 3, 2019––grateful for graduation and Gunn High School and everything that happened over the past four years.
Sunday, September 1, 2019––grateful for Excellence at Brown (pre-orientation) and no longer feeling lost on campus, haha.
Friday, October 4, 2019––grateful for Shake Shack and going to the BDW with Jonah to build whatever I want.
And these lists will continue. I want them to; including gratitude at the beginning of all my to-do lists is essential to the lists themselves. And, when I occasionally choose to omit the list in order to save space for my tasks on a particularly busy day, I immediately feel a bit guilty. I’ve grown immensely in the way I handle negativity and unhappiness in the past couple of years, and the lists have certainly aided in that. Thanksgiving is no longer the only time I give thanks––every day, when I open my notebook to plan my work, I find my three good things.