One recent New Year’s Eve, journalist and former Parade Editor-in-Chief Janice Kaplan committed to “the bright side,” which really meant experiencing gratitude every day—even if it wasn’t easy, at first. (One of her earliest “gratitude diary” entries is “I’m glad this is a pretty blank book.”)
Because Kaplan is an experienced journalist (she’s the former Editor in Chief of Parade magazine) and author (she’s written 13 books), she has a great network of psychologists, academics, doctors, philosophers, and even celebrities (Matt Damon on gratitude—swoon) who provide expert research on the transformational power of gratitude.
I spoke to Kaplan in November 2015 from her New York home, and the first thing I told her is “I’m grateful you wrote this book!” She laughed, but in the true spirit of “The Gratitude Diaries” said “You’re welcome, and thank you for reading it.”
A few years back, there were a lot of books about happiness. Why gratitude, instead?
Janice Kaplan: There was a huge happiness cult that went on. Somebody I interviewed for “The Gratitude Diaries” noted that happiness seemed so binary. The danger with searching for happiness, which is a good thing, is that it’s very fleeting and ephemeral. If you’re waiting for happiness, you can be waiting for a very long time.
You say gratitude is an “action.”
Gratitude is much deeper than happiness, and in an interesting way, gives you much more control. It’s not events determining your behavior, it’s your perspective and attitude towards them. You could have a great year, or a terrible year, but how you respond to it can make all the difference. That’s you taking an action and making a choice. Gratitude feels so powerful. You don’t have to wait for “something good” to happen. You can take any event and reframe it and find the good.
Gratitude is much deeper than happiness, and in an interesting way, gives you much more control. It’s not events determining your behavior, it’s your perspective and attitude towards them.
For me, in actually doing that—it was dramatic. I really didn’t expect as big a change to occur as actually happened. You wind up wanting to tell other people about it, because you’re so surprised—and they are, too.
Does gratitude mean giving it all up and becoming, say, Mother Teresa?
Just about anyone who’s going to read my book has a pretty wonderful life already, but what’s missing for most of us is the ability to see and appreciate and enjoy what we have. So it’s not about uprooting yourself and turning your life over to charitable works; it’s really about the change in you.
Gratitude doesn’t have to take you out of the world. It’s just adding a layer of understanding. I didn’t stop taking meetings, working on projects, or going on vacations with my husband. I gained perspective.
What I found is that being grateful makes you happier! That’s what every page of this book is about: Gratitude changes your attitude. I don’t think when you’re happier you become more grateful, I think being grateful makes you happier. It’s not about the stuff that you have, but about how you respond to it.
How do you respond to people who think gratitude equals sappiness?
People fear gratitude becomes a placating thing, but I disagree. I’m from New York, I have a bit of an edge, and anything that’s sentimental or saccharine isn’t going to work for me. People don’t realize you can be grateful and still be ambitious. You can still say “Next year, I’d also like to do X.” But gratitude helps you to keep a balance, appreciate what you have in the moment, and not focus so much on X that you don’t experience the here and now.
The power of experience over material goods is tangible. You tend to be able to appreciate an experience more, and don’t undermine it as much. It’s harder to compare experiences. If you’ve had a great afternoon laughing with your loved one on a walk in the woods, well, nobody else could have had the experience. You can’t talk about happiness the same way you can describe a great experience, and so having experiences instead of things adds to how we shape our memories.
Bad things do happen, though. What does gratitude teach us about tough times?
I heard many hard and even horrible stories in working on this book, although the kicker is that so many people who related those stories said “I appreciate things so much more, now.” They weren’t being superficial. Awful situations can wind up with nothing more you can do, but you have to find the way to move on, which is to appreciate what you have. I was so moved when I wrote the book to hear people say “There’s nothing I can do about what happened, but here’s what I can do, now.”
Where does gratitude lead?
I think gratitude leads to so many different things: generosity, compassion, for example. But I think we also have to be a little bit careful to keep it away from those things. True gratitude isn’t about obligation. Think of a thank-you note: Its power is in its effect on you, not just the person you’re sending it to for something. Gratitude leads to confidence, because you’re appreciating the power of another person to affect you. That’s what really matters. All of us need to be reminded of how deeply and interconnected we all are and how important all of these connections in our lives can be.