When the box arrived, I was sprawled out on the couch staring the ceiling, contemplating a 10-minute power-nap between meetings. Like every day last week, it had been A Day. Dozens of frustrating emails, a running text stream of venting with work friends, a looming pile of grading getting bigger by the day. Not expecting any deliveries, I didn’t move when the FedEx truck stopped.
“What is it?” I called to Mr. T, not lifting my head.
“An Amazon box, not from Amazon,” he replied, setting a large, wee-bit-worse-for-the-wear rectangle on my chest.
When I saw the address, I bolted up, squeaking with excitement. My friend Kyle—former MA graduate advisee, now doctoral candidate—had said he’d be sending a little something.
Prying open the package, I realized Kyle didn’t lie when he mentioned his packing skills. I extricated layers of rolled up cardboard, styrofoam sheets, and bubble wrap. The gift was not going to get damaged on his watch. Laying inside, a double windowed frame showed customized fantasy gaming style cards… about me! Bluest Muse, Warrior Mage.
Gentle readers, my eyes sprung a leak right then.
Over the summer, Kyle and I worked on a manuscript together, showcasing his thesis research (brilliance that had been unfortunately rejected from another journal after a protracted delay.) After I spent an ungodly amount of time converting the paper to a tedious, journal-specific reference style during our R&R in Sustainability*, Kyle called me a warrior mage—master of the mystic arts (of academic publishing) and deadly in hand-to-hand combat (aka word whittling). Tickled, I signed my replying message “XO, WM!” and didn’t think about it again until the beautiful package arrived.
Like a lot of people in this pandemic, I’ve been feeling the twin pinches of burnout and existential malaise. Work never ends. Everything feels harder and less fun than usual. It’s difficult to look forward to anything because the world order is constantly changing. The amount of meaningful human connection seems diminished with so much still being virtual, masked, and socially distanced. So a personal, heart-felt thank you arriving on my doorstep felt incredibly meaningful.
The Benefits of Gratitude
And it got me thinking about gratitude. In graduate school, I learned about how expressing appreciation—whether directly to someone or in a journal—can significantly influence our personal happiness. But it’s more than just happiness apparently.
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, expressing gratitude can improve our overall mental health and feelings of wellbeing, and possibly even restructure our brains to be more receptive to gratitude over time and enable lasting mental health. What’s more, the benefits of communicating gratitude can improve our relationships as well. Harvard Health writers claim that conveying gratitude bolsters romantic relationships and workplace motivation. And gratitude is linked to improved sleep, increased resilience, and a host of other personal and relational benefits, including protection against burnout.
What I appreciate about a lot of the research is that the benefits of communicating gratitude aren’t only connected to grand gestures like crafting a personalized gift. Gratitude practices like meditating, keeping a journal, praying, random acts of kindness, writing letters, and sending thank you notes all work well. Yours truly just reminded herself that “Write a weekly gratitude post” is on the 2021 to-do list, so don’t be surprised if the next couple months are full of grateful musings.
And it’s important to note that communicating gratitude doesn’t have to mean gaslighting or bright-siding yourself. I’m under no illusion that expressing appreciation is going to change pandemic life dramatically, or that I can wipe out my feelings of stress and malaise solely by focusing on thankfulness. But including gratitude as a normal practice while acknowledging my full range of feelings is likely to bring substantial benefits, so I’ll be doing it more.
* Want to learn about how restaurant workers create sustainable organizational identities and resist stigma? Check out Kyle’s research here.