“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” ~Brother David Steindl-Rast
In the summer of 1993, my father was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
He was only fifty-eight. Still just a kid.
This was a devastating development, to say the least. Things had already been challenging for my family for several years before this blow.
Dad had lost his corporate banking job in Boston—quite unjustly, in our view—kicking off a nearly three-year-long bout of unemployment.
This was not an easy time for our family, but we pulled together in the ways we were able and never gave up hope.
No matter how tough things became (moving three times in three years, for instance), I was always exceedingly grateful that my parents were who they were: devoted to each other and their three kids (I am the eldest), honest, loyal, sensible, and smart.
I was also grateful that they were crazy supportive of our dreams, no matter how big they happen to be.
In 1987, I moved to New York at age eighteen to start my modeling career with a major agency. This was in lieu of college, I might add.
“Aren’t your parents worried?” my friends would ask, slightly marveling.
“No, they know how important this is to me,” I responded.
I’m sure they were concerned, but they never let it show.
In addition, they were willing to go to the mat for us, for our educations, our comfort, and domestic stability.
There may have been cracks in the castle walls at times, but never its foundation.
In the year prior to my dad’s illness, things had finally started to turn around.
My father was offered a new corporate finance job in Manhattan. My parents and youngest sibling, who was still in high school at the time, moved to Westchester, NY from our home in Rhode Island in 1992.
I had returned to live in Rhode Island to spend more time with my boyfriend (who is now my husband). I had moved on from modeling and to my long-term career goal, writing.
I was trying my hand at writing TV spec scripts with the idea of going pro. After writing a passel of sit-com scripts, I applied to a year-long writing fellowship at Disney, which if I won, would not only be a golden opportunity, but require me to move to Los Angeles.
When I wasn’t accepted to the program, I was heartily disappointed. Sure, I was used to rejection after being in the modeling industry, but I had felt optimistic about my chances of being selected.
After I regrouped, I decided to move back to New York. I landed a job at a new commercial production company where I could still work on my scripts in my free time and gain valuable production experience.
By this point, my father was undergoing daily radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, one of the world’s leading cancer hospitals and a short subway ride from my new office.
While facing the horrible prospect of losing my beloved father (a reality I could not comprehend), I began to focus on the things I could be grateful for each day.
Suddenly, I became very grateful I had not been selected for the fellowship in L.A. I would have been too far away from my parents during this critical time.
I was grateful that my father had been at his new company long enough to qualify for benefits. As terrible as this situation was, it would be even worse without insurance.
I was grateful that my parents had moved to New York, near some of the best cancer treatment centers and doctors in the world.
I was grateful that my mother, who was under an unimaginable amount of stress, rose to the challenge with strength and grace, exhibiting what is means to live in the moment.
Later, she explained, “Staying present was the only way to get through it.”
I was grateful that I got to see my father as much as I did during his illness. I would visit him in the hospital as much as I could, or travel out to Westchester on the weekends when he was convalescing at home.
I was grateful that I had my new job with terrific bosses who kept me busy, kept me laughing, and kept me going during those difficult months.
I was grateful for my boyfriend, who would console me any way he could.
I was grateful that I had good friends in the city who provided entertaining and comfortable respites between our guilty pleasure TV-watching nights (Melrose Place, anyone?) and Sunday brunches in the East Village.
I was grateful for my peaceful living situation with my two kind roommates who respected my space, for I required solitude to recharge at the end of long days.
This sad and scary period of my life taught me how to cultivate gratitude daily.
My father died on May 22, 1994.
Even though he has since missed walking me down the aisle, meeting his two grandchildren, and other family milestones, I am so grateful that I had him for a father for twenty-five years.
For the last twenty years, I have made it a practice to focus on what’s right, what’s working, and what I’m grateful for every day.
Gratitude is the fuse we must light to ignite the firecracker of happiness.
Here are some of the ways that I practice gratitude.
Remember that thankfully, the majority of our problems are not life or death.
If we strive to remember this each time we feel discouraged or overwhelmed, our challenges shrink right before our eyes. Ta-da!
Be grateful for the little things. It can be enough to shift you into gratitude.
Sometimes we may feel stalled or that nothing is quite clicking, but that’s when it’s important to practice gratitude for things like breathing.
Speaking of which, try this exercise:
Find a quiet spot. Focus on your breath. Inhaling and exhaling through your nose. Feel your chest expand as you inhale. As your chest inflates, shift your attention to your heart.
After several breaths, you will begin to feel a warm, loving sensation. Congratulations, you have just cracked open a fresh barrel of “just happy to be alive!” and are experiencing the miraculous.
Write a list of all that you are grateful for. It’s like a mantra for thankfulness.
Jot it into a mini-journal that you can carry with you or try typing it in your smart phone (if you have one) and looking at it and updating it on a regular basis.
Some days we are just grateful the sun is out. Other days, we’re grateful to know the sun is still shining above the dark clouds. This simple knowledge can be enough to spark gratitude.
Before you fall asleep at night, reflect on all that you were grateful for during your day.
Like, “Today, the dog didn’t get sick on the rug” (like I said, sometimes it’s the little things). Falling asleep in a state of gratitude means that you’re entering slumber as a happy, present being.
This will hopefully, with practice (and all of this takes practice), carry over to the next morning. If not, then continue the process. While brushing your teeth, tick off ten things you’re grateful for to start your day.
Through my experience, I have come to believe that true happiness cannot exist without gratefulness. The good news is that while happiness may seem to elude us, gratitude is always within our reach, which means we all possess the map to happiness. How amazing is that?