On Gratitude (Or, My Husband Was Unemployed For a Year And All I Got Was This Sense Of Inner Peace)

Call it a humblebrag, if you like, or even just a brag. I know you’re thinking it. I just can’t get over how awesome my life is, and how grateful I am for it all.

Aug 11, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

I am a worrier. I have worried for as long as I can remember -- indeed, some of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories involve worrying. I come from a long line of worriers, and while I’ve often wondered whether my worrying was something I learned, or a gift I was born to, the origins are irrelevant. I worry like I breathe. 
The past year has seen a lot of worrying. In May of 2013, my husband became unemployed after six months of me worrying that it was going to happen. What followed was a full year of worrying about his unemployment, and where he would land, and what we would do for money in the interim. I worried when his unemployment insurance payments got held up for three months owing to an admistrative error, and we had to use our savings to pay for what my paycheck couldn’t cover. When the unemployment payments started coming in, I worried about what would happen if they ran out before Dennis found another job. 
All of that having been said, his unemployment was less difficult than I had expected, and markedly less catastrophic than my worrying had made it out to be. My stressed-out imaginings didn’t adequately prepare me for the experience -- many of the things I worried about hardest were never a problem, while things that hadn’t even occurred to me loomed large -- neither did it prevent bad things from happening. Worrying was, in the end, a tremendous waste of energy I could have been putting into areas of my life that might have helped me relax more during a weird, difficult time.
In May of this year, after a lot of freelance writing and looking for new steady office work, Dennis was offered a full-time job at last. It was a bittersweet moment, as the position was far below his qualifications, but I still burst into sobs and collapsed on the living room floor like a drama queen when he told me, because it meant One Very Big Worry could be abandoned, at least for now. Truth be told, I was also crying because it seemed so unfair for him to be in a place where we had to accept a job that was several steps below where he’d been just a year previous, and a job with virtually no room for advancement at that.
I’d shed one worry, but now I had a new one. I could barely spare an instant of relief before I started thinking about how unhappy this job would make him. 
But then, at the eleventh hour, an editor at the Daily Dot contacted Dennis because he wanted a full-time games writer. This was the opportunity Dennis had spent four years hoping for. I was worried anew: what if he hated writing every day? What if both of us working from home made us miserable? What if what if what if.
He took the job. He started in June. He’s a full-time writer. I’m a full-time writer and editor. We both work from home, the stereotypical writer-couple. Our marriage, weirdly, is stronger than it’s ever been, and I credit that in part to having gone through that year of unemployment.
At some point my life turned into my childhood dreams, and I’m not sure how it happened. Well, being married was not part of what I envisioned; if I was going to marry anyone, I never planned for that to occur before I was 35. And even then, I didn’t think too hard about what would come next, because 35 seemed impossibly distant and adult and everything that came after would have to be extraordinarily boring. (For the record, I’m 37 now and I feel only marginally more grown-up than I did at 23. Also, my life is ten billion times more interesting than it was then.)
I look at my circumstances now and I am just gobsmacked at how great things are. My life is fantastic. This is not to say everything is perfect and without problems. There will always be bad days. But I am living my literal dream and I keep having these moments in which I can’t grasp how it happened or what I might have done to deserve it. Even this -- I am writing this from my favorite café in Boston on a Friday morning, after having a really delicious breakfast, and with my partner working across from me. Call it a humblebrag, if you like, or even just a brag. I know you’re thinking it. I just can’t get over how awesome my life is.
But what I have realized in the past two months is that I have a fear of gratitude. 
When I run out of things to worry about, I worry about that. I worry that something will happen to punish me for failing to predict something I should be worrying about. It’s as though I think that the moment I stop to appreciate my life, I will draw the attention of Bad Things which will rush in and happen to me and ruin everything. 
This is grotesque for a few reasons.
1) It sabotages me from feeling contentment and relaxation even when circumstances allow for it. It’s little wonder I freak the hell out when life is ACTUALLY stressful, if I can’t even chill out when it’s not.
2) It keeps me from being present in the moment, as I am always thinking about what could hypothetically happen next, instead of accepting and appreciating what I have right now. 
3) It locks me into a cycle in which I involuntarily seek out and latch on to one or two negative things amongst a sea of positive ones.
Psychology tells us that happiness is like a snowball rolling downhill -- the happier you are now, the more likely you are to continue to be happy in the future. Indeed, being happy is a force that has measurable impact on your life, and not simply a feeling you get when things go well. Individuals who are happier experience better outcomes at work, in relationships, and even in their mental and physical health -- all things that support continued happiness and fulfillment.
Practicing gratitude breeds more happiness. There’s actual research that backs this up:
In one study, participants [were asked] to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
Practicing gratitude can take lots of forms, from more nebulous spiritual approaches like prayer and meditation, to simple concrete methods. Saying thank you to someone who has helped you, or writing a note to that person, is an easy start. Even just thanking someone mentally inside your own head has positive effects (if you doubt that something so simple can have an effect on you, watch this video and see if it doesn’t change your mind).
You can also keep a gratitude journal, which is as basic as it gets -- just take five minutes every day to write down a few things you’re grateful for. (And yes, there’s an app for that. Of course there is.)
For all my worrying, I am still a pretty happy person. It seems I required a year of having actual serious things to worry about to make me realize that expending ANY energy on worrying over things I can neither control nor change is a pointless, tragic waste. I want to work harder to recognize and embrace the multitudinous awesome things in my life, rather than focusing on the one dark cloud in an otherwise clear sky.
And if the past year has taught me anything, it’s that even when things get difficult, I can handle it. The hardest experiences of our lives can have positive outcomes, if we know how to look for them. After all, worrying does not operate as a protective force against misfortune. No matter how hard we stress, that will never stop the unexpected and the awful from ocurring. It simply distracts us from appreciating good things in the moment we have them.