Last month I wrote about the gratitude practise that I have shared with my beautiful friend, Dr. Melinda Norris, for over eight years. This month the two of us sat down (virtually speaking) and had a chat about our project, its benefits, and how easy it is to incorporate an everyday gratitude practice into your own life. Please give a very warm welcome to my close friend, and longtime gratitude partner, Mel.
I’m still basking in the afterglow of the wonderful day we spent together when David and I were in Australia last month. After dinner at your place, I noticed a copy of your thesis for your doctorate in Psychology being used (egad!!) as a keyboard stand. And I was absolutely blown away by it. It’s such an impressive work. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Of course. My thesis was an applied PhD as part of a longitudinal project with Victoria Police. I followed 7,000 staff over three years with a focus on wellbeing. My research particularly looked at how people cope effectively with the daily hassles and stresses in work and life. Which strategies are most effective? How stable is our behaviour over time? And, how much can be predicted by our personality, versus learnt by life lessons. It highlighted the value of humour and seeking emotional, and practical, support as three highly effective coping strategies. It also showed that a lot of our stable patterns of behaviour are just as much, if not more, learned rather than purely a product of our personality. Which is great, as it means we can learn new ways, and improve how we cope with the challenges that life throws at us!
This might be an obnoxious question, but do you ever take inspiration from our gratitude practise and incorporate it back into your work as an organisational psychologist?
It’s really rewarding to tap into my passion, research and personal experiences to help others. So I do take inspiration from our gratitude practice all the time, and build it into work, formally and informally. For example, I try to explicitly express my gratitude for any support and collaboration with leaders and team members. This builds relationships and trust quickly, leading to more effective collaboration as a result. It also helps me to appreciate the small things every day, and to get through setbacks better. I notice I don’t get stuck in a negative mindset anymore. I can bounce back quicker, and find a more optimistic outlook.
I think I got really lucky that you asked me to be your gratitude partner. You’re someone who’s made the wellbeing of others their life’s work, and I don’t think it gets any better than that! Do you remember how our gratitude challenge started all those years ago?
Yes, I clearly remember how it started. I was reading your Freedom ejo in our kitchen and getting really engrossed in your story. I got the clear sense that you were committed to staying in Dubai for a variety of good reasons (career, travel opportunities etc.), but that you missed Australia desperately (your friends, family, the environment and climate). And I got the sense you were struggling with the downsides of your day-to-day life.
I could relate. I too was struggling to feel the joy in my daily life, but for different reasons. I was working in a high pressure, deadline-driven job with a lot of responsibilities. Working four days a week, but squeezing what felt like at least five days of work into those days. I was also a parent to two gorgeous young boys, and I wanted to be more a part of their lives. I felt so much guilt and sadness, having to utilise before, and after, school care. I found a solution with a nanny for a few years. Kim picked the boys up from school, helped them with homework, and prepared dinner three days a week. Still, I felt incredibly torn. I wasn’t succeeding in all my roles in life like I wanted to. And that was just the two most consuming roles. I also wanted to be a better wife, a better friend, and a better sister. There just weren’t enough hours in the day, the week, the year! I was efficient like a ninja, making every minute count. Doing so much work on my daily commute, so that I could drop everything when I got home and be fully present. But I still couldn’t help feeling torn between my career and my family.
I’d been trying different strategies to enhance my wellbeing and help make my life more enjoyable, and less stressful. As a psychologist, I knew of the power and benefits of practising daily gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. I tried writing a gratitude journal, but found it tough to stick with, so that strategy didn’t work well for me. Something was missing. A key ingredient.
As I read your ejo that day Chryss, I was inspired by the idea of a gratitude partner. Adding a social component to any wellbeing strategy has an amplifying effect on the benefits. Just like exercising with a fitness partner; you enjoy it more, you keep up the habit, and therefore you experience the full potential benefits on your wellbeing. I was so delighted with the idea and thought that you would be the perfect gratitude partner for me. You seemed like you’d be open to it, like you needed it too; and we were good friends. Friends that had lost touch a bit over the years, but you were a friend I could trust, and be open with. A friend I wanted to stay close to, but found that hard with the tyranny of distance.
So I wrote to you then and there in my kitchen, letting you know that I’d read your ejo, and that I could relate; that I thought we’d both benefit from sharing the things we were grateful for with each other at the end of every day. I suggested that we keep it simple. I didn’t want it to feel hard, or like a burden for either of us. I hoped it would help me to stick to my commitment and form a new habit. But more importantly, I hoped that you would reciprocate, and also experience the benefits of practising daily gratitude. What eventuated was much more than I’d ever really hoped for! It certainly proved that my idea of adding the ingredients of social connection and reciprocation was incredibly beneficial.
After the success of our first year of gratitude, we both decided that we wanted to keep it going. What is it about our gratitude project that’s kept you wanting to continue, year after year?
I’ve found it so helpful to have you as my gratitude partner. It has definitely been the key ingredient that’s contributed to the desire to keep at it, and to continue the routine. For me, it makes it so much more than just searching for, and noticing, all the good things that happen each day. It makes it interesting and rewarding. And it’s the reciprocal nature of the relationship that makes it really special. Having you, Chryss, as my gratitude partner, was a winning selection! You care as much about it as I do, so we are well matched in our commitment to the habit. You’re also a friend whose opinion I value, and a friend who I want to stay close to. One precious outcome was that our old friendship was rekindled and deepened. Actually, I don’t communicate this regularly with anyone else! So the relationship provides me with a strong social connection, and frequent deep exchanges that I really enjoy, and need, to experience my best life.
Another surprising benefit for me has been that I’ve felt heard, understood and even supported through some incredibly difficult times by our relationship and regular contact. We agreed not to communicate negative things, or use it as a place to complain. We didn’t want that to creep in. We’ve both been very good at keeping that promise, demonstrating discipline and sticking to our commitment. And I believe that has maximised our experience, and the benefits. We keep each other going, encouraging each other and reinforcing the practice. There are days, here and there, when we don’t communicate, but we always catch up. These pauses tend to happen when we are on holidays, or deeply engrossed in a busy and challenging time. Which is when it matters the most to keep at it. The other partner keeps sharing and asking questions to nudge and help the other person along, but without guilt or judgement. It has always felt supportive and uncomplicated. Never a burden or a hassle. Just a reminder that this helps, and that there is someone who cares and notices, in loving kindness.
It has also cultivated empathy. You share in the other person’s triumphs and challenges. You realise that everyone has small and big struggles in their lives, regardless of how “successful” or “happy” they seem on the surface. You live through that with the other person. Another thing Chryss, is that you always have a way of asking me very insightful questions or making thoughtful comments that trigger self-reflection, or just help me feel really understood and supported.
Thanks Mel, I feel exactly the same way. I always love getting your feedback, or a question probing more deeply into something I’ve shared with you. And I think that’s another facet of our routine that has contributed to us becoming closer. It’s never just a list of things. It’s a real conversation.
So, you and I have both experienced some pretty big emotional challenges over the last eight years. Can you talk about how our gratitude practise may have helped you get through some dark times?
Our partnership started just fourteen days before Cara, one of my closest and most treasured friends, was diagnosed suddenly with terminal breast cancer. It came out of nowhere, and at a stage that ruled out the hope for remission. The only options were lots of treatments to prolong and preserve her life. It was devastating news; news she only shared with me and one other close friend for a long time. During that period I had a demanding job that required a huge amount of my energy and brain power. And I was a mum to two beautiful primary school aged boys that needed me too. Around the same time, my oldest son was suddenly, and frequently, hospitalised with recurring post viral myo-pericarditis. Essentially, his heart, and the lining of his heart, became inflamed every time he became unwell with a cold or flu. So as you can imagine, my life at that time, and for the next five years, required a lot of emotional energy each day. It made practising daily mindfulness, gratitude and empathy critical for my own wellbeing. Critical for sustaining myself during significant upheaval. I think this helped establish a strong habit early on in our partnership. I really needed it! It got me through five incredibly hard years, and the death of a dear friend. I coped well with this, and felt resilient, even greatly in touch with the meaning of life. Trivial upsets, I could see clearly as being just that!
Over the years, things have improved and I’ve not had so many huge challenges in front of me. Or maybe I have, but my perspective has changed me forever! Actually, when I reflect on this now I can see that there have been huge challenges – a global pandemic, my son having surgery on his heart in between lockdowns, and my nephew being diagnosed with leukaemia. Mostly, I’ve come to realise that it’s like going to the gym each day to stay fit. It’s only a habit if you keep it up; it only has the desired impact if you keep the recipe consistent. You can’t expect to stay fit, if you don’t work out regularly! Practising gratitude daily is the same. It only works well if you form a rewarding habit that keeps you coming back for more!
Do you have any suggestions for people wanting to start their own gratitude project with a friend?
Find someone you feel you can share this experience with. Someone who matches your commitment, and also desires the same outcomes. Someone you care about and are motivated to help. Most importantly someone you can be honest with, that won’t judge you, but simply offer support and encouragement.
Develop and agree to your own guiding principles for how you share. Maybe you love writing in a journal each night. You could simply photograph the page, and send the photo to your friend. Maybe you send an email, or start a chat in Signal or WhatsApp. You can make this your own. But whatever you do, I’d recommend making it easy to do each day for you and your partner.
The only core element that I’d say must be included is finding and communicating at least three things each day that you were grateful for, no matter how small. The secret is in noticing and being grateful for all the little things each day that we often take for granted. If we only notice the big positive things in life there can be a long time between drinks!
In last month’s ejo I offered to be a gratitude partner to whoever was interested in trying it out for themselves. A lot of people told me that they enjoyed the ejo and that they loved the idea, but so far no one has taken me up on my offer. Why do you think that might be?
Perhaps they need time for the idea to take hold. I think you have to be ready for it, and really want it. You and I had already been working up to it, so our desire and readiness was matched. Snap! Perfect timing; perfect partner. I wonder if people also see that you already have partners in me and your sister, so they don’t want to add to that. Perhaps they’d rather find their own special partner?
Fair enough. I do hope that more people give it a shot. But if the idea of doing a gratitude sharing project like ours feels too daunting, what is one piece of advice you can give to people right now to find more gratitude in their lives?
Even the act of thinking about what you are grateful for is beneficial! So I would try to notice gratitude in the moment, to be mindful of it. Most importantly, to express it then and there if another person is involved. Express your gratitude to others explicitly in the moment, when you feel it. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll feel better for it. Be specific about what you’re grateful for, and why. What’s the impact on you? A simple wave when someone lets you in, while driving. A clear thank you to your partner for making dinner. Thanking your colleague for offering to buy you a coffee. It’s not that hard but it makes your day, and the day of others, so much better.
I know you’re a super busy working woman and mother Mel, so I really appreciate you taking the time to have this awesome chat with me. I’ve really enjoyed taking a deep dive into our very special gratitude ritual, and I hope that by sharing it with the world we’ve been able to inspire others to look for, and express, more gratitude in their day-to-day lives. And finally, at the risk of sounding terribly corny, I’d like to express how very grateful I am to you for being there with me, every day during the last eight years. And how grateful I am that I can count on you being there with me again tomorrow.