Gratitude Mile

Back in early December, as the air grew shrill and the sky assumed a gloomy gray tone, I began an experiment that changed my day-to-day. Sure, Oprah had her gratitude journal. But my whole livelihood is already a variation on journaling. So I adapted her idea slightly and came up with the gratitude mile. It’s become a ritual to look forward to each day.

Running and yoga are two of my favorite pastimes. But in winter, gearing up for a frigid cold-weather trek is hard. When my normal route along the East River promenade in Carl Schurz Park was blocked due to construction, striding became that much easier to skip.

Brisk walks were the next logical endpoint. That was how it started. I am constantly writing actionable advice about healthy living, encouraging readers to make exercise as simple as bundling up, juicing the iPhone, and tying your shoelaces. But could a brisker really be fulfilling?

Yes. Yes, it could. And there were more benefits than anticipated. What I discovered is that my brisk morning walk (oh, yes, those arms are swinging, as, lately, I’ve been rocking to Pandora’s LCD Soundsystem station) — when combined with a very simple gratitude meditation and a scan of new and old local businesses close to home — brought me great, simple joy.

Gratitude research has largely been pioneered by Professor  Robert Emmons, PhD, at UC Davis. Among the smattering of positive study findings to peruse on Emmons’ lab website:

* One sample of adults reported more high-energy positive moods, a greater sense of connection to others, more optimistic ratings about his or her life, and better sleep duration after a three-week gratitude experiment compared to a control group.

* Another study (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons) found that children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward their families and school.

On my own walks, down 25 blocks to a coffee shop and bridge, and back 25 blocks, my objective was easy. Just look for things to feel good about, to celebrate, that make me say “Yes!” inside.

Of course it was corny! But anyone who knows me understands that I never shy away from mawkish sentimentalism (aka cheesiness) and that I outgrew the word cool eons ago. Blinders on, I try it, and go with what works.

It didn’t take me long on that initial morning to pinpoint my first source of gratitude.

Within blocks, I saw a hurried high-school-age boy wearing a backpack stop, turn around and notice the elderly woman behind him, and see that she was about to cross the same street as he. In one swift big-hearted gesture, he swooped up her frail arm, wrapping it around his strong arm. Slowly and securely, he led her across the street.

Oh, her face. I think of it often. Its bright glow could have lit Carnegie Hall.

Another day, it was the fresh scent of Christmas tree row. Yet another it was the guys cleaning awnings with sudsy water in icy temps whom, still smiling, managed to shout out a friendly greeting as I walked by (tapping my soft-spot for hardworking New Yorkers).

I’ve discovered a hole-in-the-wall health-food store I never knew existed, and a locally owned NY bakery and coffeehouse decked to the nines in holiday wreaths and lights (Beanocchio’s puts Starbucks to shame). I’ve thought how wonderfully odd — and yet, how great — the name A Hair’s Castle is for a salon.

When there was nothing to look at, I thought about the amazingly optimistic and talented people in my life and the good things going on. I said a silent thanks to the friends whom have sent projects my way or referred me to new editors whom showered me with assigns. Some days, I was just thankful to have my little studio to live in, to still be able to see the good in people, to be healthy, and fit, and to have nourishing food to eat.

I have found that gratitude is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it grows. Now, gratitude strikes me at random times throughout the day, sparked by a song, an email or a text.

It’s really hard to feel bad about people, about the world, and about life in general when you look for the good. It’s there  when you seek it. I promise.

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