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

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

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.