The gratitude list: how an army program teaches that the list is a step towards mental fitness

So, as my few readers may guessed, I’ve been on a bit of a journey o’ life this past year.

It’s got a lot of complicated subplots but it all boils down to trying to figure out  how to lead a better life — one in which I’m not so dark, stormy and crazy. I know I can be a bitch, but I want to know  how can I be less of one, and do work that benefits others and not just myself. And, yes, I have to earn a living that supports myself and my family — a big challenge in these topsy-turvy times.

Throughout all this I have — ugh — begun to believe that kindness, generosity and optimism are not just keys to a better life; they can be the keys to survival.

I’m a slow, resistant student especially when it means giving up long-held routines for doing and being. For example, someone I’ll call an adviser suggested a few months ago that I start making a short list each night before bedtime. This list would name three or more things that happened in my day for which I’m grateful.

A gratitude list. I bristled at the idea, even though it didn’t seem like such a horrible thing to do. Actually it seemed pretty simple. Still, I resisted. I just couldn’t see how making a short gratitude list before bedtime would make much difference.

My friend made this suggestion after hearing me talk about how I was walking up, sometimes in the middle of the night, filled with dread: about finding work and income; future tripping about winding up old, poor and alone. I would also be flooded with feelings of sadness of regret. If only I had done such and such when I was 30, 35 or 40 — well, my life wouldn’t be the mess — or what I perceive to be the mess — it is today. 

She said the short exercise of making the list before bed might put my brain — before it goes into sleep mode — into a more positive mindset. If I went to bed focused on all the good things in my life, I might not wake up agonizing over all areas in which I think that I am failing.

Still, I resisted. I thought, it sounded like just a bit more work I had to do. Already, I tend to spend many big and small chunks of an entire  day working to maintain a positive, kind, optimistic outlook. Sometimes I have to expend quite a bit of energy and do a lot of mental re-jiggering  — remembering, for example, to take 10 deep breaths to pull myself away from that mental swamp  of irritability, hopelessness and despair. So, since I’m doing all this Power of Positive Thinking crap all day long, I was feeling I deserved to finally chill in the evening. I just wanted to zone out and watch some bad TV or read a fun magazine. I didn’t want to have to think any more.

But then, a few weeks ago, The New York Times magazine published a fascinating story “Post-Traumatic Stress’s Surprisingly Positive Flip Side.” The story’s focus was on the resilience of soldiers who lived through traumatic combat incidents, such as a deadly roadside bombing in Iraq that left one soldier with a brain injury. Actually, these soldiers didn’t just survive these incidents, they thrived. “This whole experience has helped me to be more open, more flexible,” the brain-injured soldier Sgt. Jeffrey Beltran told the Times.  “I am branching out to activities that I was once uncomfortable with.” The article also says Beltrans is pursuing promotion, taking online courses towards a bachelor’s degree and discovered a sense of spirituality. He’s gone through a divorce but remarried and reconnected with his parents.

The article references the idea that people grow in positive ways from hardship: “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Now, scientists have been taking a serious look at this idea of resilience: how people who live through adversity emerge with a renewed appreciation for life, more personal strength and improved personal relationships. And, they also feel more satisfied in their spirituality.

The U.S. military, dealing with more than 1 million soldiers returning from protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken a serious look at studies on resilience.  With the University of Pennsylvania, the army two years ago launched a program called ComprehensiveSoldier Fitness Program  to teach soldiers how to be emotionally and psychologically strong.

A key aspect of this fitness training is to cultivate gratitude and teach soldiers to “Hunt the Good stuff.” In an article on the army’s U.S. Army’s website, Ballard says “hunting the good stuff is something that we can do everyday and it helps to build our optimism.”

“Research shows that if you’re an optimistic person you’re going to live longer, you’re going to be happier,” he continues. “What we are trying to do here is to allow soldiers to make sense of what is happening, focus on what they can control, and not catastrophize and go into a downward spiral.” 

Throughout the training, NCOs are asked to keep a daily “three blessings” or gratitude journal, according to a study on the Penn Army Master Resilience Training. Each morning, the NCOs are asked to share something they “hunted” from the day before and reflect on what the positive experience meant for them.  The revelations might be simple. One soldier might share how he had a great conversation with his wife, another might explain how he learned a lot from a chat with a homeless man. 

But creating a habit of daily reflecting on the good things — big and small — that happen in life can have positive emotional and psychological benefits, the study concludes: “The research on gratitude indicates that individuals who habitually acknowledge and express gratitude derive health benefits, sleep benefits and relationships benefits.”

So, ever since reading that New York Times Magazine story, I’ve been forcing myself to do my gratitude list and to do it at night close to bed time. I mean, if it helps soldiers going into combat, there might be something in it for me. 

I usually list the things I’m grateful for. I set the bar for listing three people or situations, but I usually end up listing more. Perhaps the next step should be to reflect some more about how these situations and people made me feel about what I’ve learned.

And, as the study promises, I have been sleeping better, and I wake up less and less with those feelings of dread. Through the day,  I’m less likely to future trip or imagine looming catastrophes. Instead, I’m better able to calm down, breathe and focus on the  things — today — over which I have control. 

I’ll keep trying to hunt the good stuff. 

5 thoughts on “The gratitude list: how an army program teaches that the list is a step towards mental fitness

  1. Years ago there was a weekly column in the CCTimes on the power of positive thinking written by Doug Hooper. He has since passed away but I remember that his words were a powerful influence on me and I'm sure on many others.

    You started doing a “quote a day” a while back…maybe you could bring it back?… maybe one a week?


  2. You go girl. I think your writing is still brilliant and you should be proud of the courage it shows. Haven't checked in for a while, but please keep it up. I still feel like I'll recognize you downtown some afternoon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s