Gratitude for what I have – and also for what I did not

Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard

This has been a year of big changes for me, most of them for the good. After three years of under and unemployment, I rejoined the workforce this September in a full-time job that, I’m happy to say, seems to be going quite well. While I miss the daily rural beauty of western Mass, I’m also deriving real (if surprising) pleasure from being back in a city. Plus friends and a weekly UMass Amherst teaching gig still draw me back on a regular basis.

My situation at this time last year was very different – as reflected in the title of last year’s holiday post: Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful). I had just started this blog – that post was its fifth – and was still having a hard time making sense of my life’s trajectory. I’m doing what? I’m living where? All that work, all those credentials, and I’ve ended up here?

This year, I have no trouble tapping into gratitude: Work, friends, writing, home – all of it, right at the moment, feels pretty good, a testament to how suddenly life can turn around.

But along with these obvious reasons, I’m grateful for something more: I’m grateful both for what I have now and for what I didn’t have then.

I’m grateful for how this time in the jobs wilderness forced me to expand my sense of who I am apart from my credentials.

I’m grateful for the ways it led me to become braver as a writer – to take risks that I likely wouldn’t otherwise have taken.

I’m grateful for this blog and other writing opportunities – for the intellectual sustenance, support, and friendships, connections that I am taking with me into this next stage of life.

I’m grateful for having had a chance to move to the country and deepen my ties to a part of the world I love.

I’m grateful for the ways this stretch of life fostered greater compassion for millions of people struggling for reasons that are often largely (or entirely) beyond their control.

And most of all, I’m grateful for the fact that I can feel grateful – for the fact that I had the resources to navigate these challenges without being crushed by them. In that, I was very, very lucky. Many, of course, are not.  As I look to the future in Plan B Nation, gratitude strikes me as an excellent foundation for thinking about how to change this.

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

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Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniversary of my exit from the salaried workforce and my entry into what I’ve taken to calling Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Harvard Law School, where I’d handled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Washington, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplomatically, not an easy time. The economy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I mention the Great Recession?) Floundering in spring 2009 put me in excellent company. Yes, I was freaked out and unemployed, but I certainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the road I’ve traveled since those anxiety-ridden days and feeling a lot of compassion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve learned and what might be worth sharing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Transitions take a long time.  

I’ve written about this before, and it’s a really important point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life accident.”  Five to seven years is common.  A related point: Transitions tend to meander—to be less like ladders and more like the classic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the center, almost arrive, and then suddenly find yourself on the outer rim, and then, just as unpredictably, back at the center again. I often find it helpful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Sometimes the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leaving the Boston area for more than a year on the theory that wherever you go, there you are. Could moving to another place really make me happier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequivocal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that moving to an area that I love is probably the single most important step I’ve taken to move my life forward.  In particular, moving to a place where I have a strong network of friends has made everything far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start moving anyway.

Transitions, by their nature, generally involve a temporary loss of clear inner direction.  That was certainly the case for me: I was searching without really knowing what I was looking for (which, not surprisingly, made it really hard to find).

Looking back, one of the most useful things I did during this time was to take action even if nothing felt quite right—to experiment, try things out. That’s how I came (lackadaisically, glumly) to write my very first personal essay—which led to a blog on Huffington Post, which led to writing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writing for SecondAct (including Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly column), Psychology Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remarkably enough, actually does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across similar advice in books by career guru Barbara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. “You won’t encounter accidental good fortune—you won’t stumble on opportunities that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoffman writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do something you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mindfulness by now, but this quality doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psychology professor Kristin Neff is a pioneering researcher on this topic, and her book Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind is geared to a popular audience and provides an excellent roadmap for further exploration.

5.  Let yourself be surprised.

The biggest difference between lucky and unlucky people may be that lucky people are open to seeing the unexpected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expanding your peripheral vision can do a lot to expand your opportunities.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to consciously expect the unexpected. (Most recent example: I’m about to go off to look at a potential new home that I discovered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far better than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both meaningful and creative. I have a great community in a place where I love living. The road I’ve traveled to get here was pretty remarkably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did something wrong. It simply tells me that I’m human.

6 things that cracked me up in 2011

The Happiest Place On Earth

Who needs positive thinking when you have a dark sense of humor?

This was my Facebook status update on Tuesday, billed as my “Insight of the Day.” (Actually, it was my first and only insight likely to be so labeled, but Facebook  is forgiving that way.)

In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about humor lately—and the critical role it’s played during my past year in Plan B Nation. Of all the qualities that serve us well in this place of uncertainty—optimism, gratitude, and perseverance, being just a few—humor is perhaps the only one that comes naturally to me.

People often tell me that I am funny, and it’s true that sometimes I can be, but where I really excel is in recalling funny things I’ve read and heard. In that spirit, here are six things that cracked me up this year—and helped make my roller coaster search for work both bearable and (at times) entertaining.

1. I’m sorry I bit you during my job interview: For most of us in Plan B Nation, job interviews are serious stuff.  In any case, rest assured that whatever happened at your last interview, it was nowhere near as bad as this guy’s.

2.  And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles: But perhaps you are totally sick of thinking about jobs, work, the economy, or anything remotely related to any of these. If so, perhaps the time has come to spend some time reflecting on BIG METAL CHICKENS.  Seriously, I recommend it. You’ll be glad that you did.

3. Adventures in depression: Still, no doubt about it, life in Plan B Nation can really suck, and you may find yourself becoming just a teensy bit clinically depressed. In which case, I’d like to introduce you to this darkly hilarious little cartoon about how even the saddest among us can still find a way through.

4.  Why yoga can be so irritating (although you should go anyway!): Of course, one of the best ways to avoid depression is regular exercise. Yoga has the added benefit of fostering a deep sense of connection to the world around us—except when it doesn’t.

5.  An honest Facebook political argument: Just because you are home alone on your computer looking for work doesn’t mean you can’t take part in discussions of the major issues of the day.  And where better to do this than Facebook?

6. Need a role model? If so, look no further than bestselling author Laura Zigman, whose Xtranormal video series has quickly been gaining a cult following and offers textbook examples of Plan B Nation humor.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed these. Please help add to my collection! Share your personal 2011 favorites in the comment section below.

On life in a small town (plus a gratitude update)

“It’s like you took a big city, raptured up all the fun and interesting people, and then plopped them down in western Massachusetts.”

That’s how I recently described Northampton to a friend. It seemed an especially apt analogy, given that local boosters of my new hometown sometimes call it Paradise City.

Just before Thanksgiving I wrote about cultivating gratitude and that, while it’s never been my natural default mode, I planned to give it a shot. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve made a daily practice of listing at least three things that lifted my spirits that day, and while I’ve missed a day or two here and there, I’ve pretty much stuck with it.

While I can’t say the practice has changed my life, it does strike me as having had a subtle yet pervasive impact.  Buddhists often talk about the way we “incline” our minds: Are we training our minds to move towards happiness or towards suffering?  The daily gratitude practice seems to help with this.  Rather than scanning the day’s landscape for things likely to go wrong, I now tend to keep a mental eye out for things that are going right.

And of all the things going right in my life, I’m repeatedly reminded that this little town and its people are high on the list. The essay below explains way. It’s about a freak October snowstorm, a loaf of bread, and how friends make all the difference.  (A slightly abridged version previously appeared in our local paper, the Hampshire Gazette.)

It Takes a Village to Make a Loaf of Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread in the Happy Valley during a Time of Climate Change.

When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer.  (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)

“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie.  The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.

Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”

And indeed, he was right.  Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread.  With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.

The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan.  My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.

“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved  “I’m. So. Bored.”

Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October!  I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.

Then everything went black.

No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.

This did not happen.

When I got up the next day, it was really cold.  I flicked the light switch. No response.  No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.

A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally!  Absolutely!”  It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.

And then I remembered the bread.

There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently.  Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.

I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9.  He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on.  We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.

But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open.  A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck.  (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)

I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit.  Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission.  “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.”  But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no.  Again, I was back to square one.

Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal.  A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.

So far so good.

But not so fast.

There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up.  Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission.  Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven?  We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam.  And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared.  Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.

That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines.  It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow.  Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.

Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films?   An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town.   Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears.  (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.)  At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against.  It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.

We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw.  Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal.  Almost but not quite.  Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow.  Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.

I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round.  “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook.  And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.

In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom.  We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread.  And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.

Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful)

Looking ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday, a friend expressed some trepidation. This year, several guests at a usually festive annual party would be newly unemployed. My friend shook his head. “It’s going to be strange this year.”

As the world economy stumbles on, wreaking chaos in countless lives, it strikes me that this experience is likely to be widely shared–and that the spirit of gratitude may well prove more elusive than in boom years past. Researchers would seem to agree.

“It is relatively easy to feel grateful when good things are happening and life is going the way we want it to,” observes University of California-Davis Professor Robert A. Emmons, whose book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier devotes an entire chapter to gratitude in trying times. “A much greater challenge is to be grateful when things are not going so well, and are not going the way we think they should.”

Speaking from personal experience, a prolonged job hunt can be a serious hit to the gratitude balance sheet, however much you try to focus on the positive. In part, that’s because evolution designed us to remember danger more than pleasure. (That’s how our ancestors kept from getting eaten.)  Research psychologists call this our “negativity bias.”

Moreover, gratitude may always come harder to some of us than others, due to our (genetically determined) temperaments. When I took the Newcastle Personality Assessor, I somehow wasn’t shocked to find that I scored high on the personality dimension associated with high sensitivity to negative stimuli—a trait of some use in the evolutionary sweepstakes but less well adapted to my current purposes as a latté-drinking inhabitant of a New England college town. “What your ancestors needed to survive is not what you need to have a pleasant life,” researcher Daniel Nettle helpfully explains in his book Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are.

Now it probably won’t come as a huge surprise that gratitude correlates with happiness. Grateful people cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, have more satisfying relationships, are more optimistic, and all in all, are happier with their lives than their less grateful peers. They are also: less anxious, less envious, less materialistic, and less lonely.  In sum, “happiness is facilitated when we . . . ‘want what we have,’” Emmons concludes.

All well in good if you feel grateful, but what if you just . . . don’t?  What if you really don’t want what you have, thanks all the same? And what if you have some pretty good reasons for wanting life to be different?

Happily, research suggests that gratitude can be cultivated—even by those of us for whom it doesn’t come naturally. (Emmons actually puts himself in this category, noting that he spends far more time thinking about gratitude research than practicing the quality he studies.)

The most common mistake? Assuming that gratitude should spring up effortlessly. Not so, says Emmons.  For most of us, developing gratitude requires ongoing discipline.  We have to learn to act first, regardless of how we feel. “While gratitude is pleasant, it is not easy,” Emmons writes. “We have to work at it. It must be consciously cultivated.”

For those who want to test his theories, Emmons offers ten suggested practices for cultivating gratitude. They include keeping a daily gratitude journal, remembering the hardest times in your life and how  far you’ve come (maybe not so helpful if those times are now), and making a point of expressing gratitude.

While the idea of “counting your blessings” is an ancient one, it was Emmons and his colleagues who gave the idea its scholarly bona fides. In one 10-week study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three weekly reporting groups. One group was asked to report back on five things they were grateful for, the second to describe five hassles, and the third simply to report five things that affected them.

The result: At the end of the study, the gratitude group was not only a full 25% happier than other participants but also reported fewer health concerns and spent more time exercising. (Later research showed that daily practice was even more effective.)

Sounds good, but will it work for you?

Here’s one way to find out. Go to the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness website and complete both the General Happiness and Satisfaction with Life tests. Then, every night for the next two weeks spend five minutes listing up to five things from the past 24 hours for which you feel grateful. At the end of the two weeks, take the tests again. If you’re happier than before: Continue. (This experiment is suggested by Penn Professor Martin Seligman—often referred to as the grandfather of positive psychology—for those who score in the lower half of either the Life Satisfaction test or Emmons’ gratitude survey, which is also available on the website.)

While I’ve kept gratitude journals before, I’ve never stuck with them for all that long, but thanks to my recent reading, I’m giving it another shot.  In fact, I’ll start now: First of all, I’m really grateful to you—to everyone who’s read and commented on this blog in the past ten days. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a project as much, and I couldn’t (wouldn’t) do it if it no one were reading it. So: thank you, thank, you! And have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

P.S. For anyone inclined to join me in keeping a gratitude journal, here’s a helpful list of tips I came across while procrastinating researching this post.