I had a fantastic run today. One of those runs where everything clicks and you feel like you could run forever. It was sunny, the sky was blue, and I did not run forever, but I did run 8 miles. This run would have been a normal run for me just 5 years ago, but I have been dealing with injuries and the limitations that come with getting older, so what used to be a typical run became a fantastic run.
I am one of those runners who loves to zone out when I run. Sometimes I will run with a friend or my husband Bill, but most of my runs are done solo. I don’t run with headphones. My internal monologue is entertaining enough for me. I go for a run and return home with all of my problems solved, conflicts resolved, and arguments won. (I then, of course, step back into reality, and I still have problems, conflicts and arguments.) When I am running, I am brilliant, rational and convincing in my own mind. Sometimes, the internal narrator is silent, and I run in peaceful bliss. The miles just glide by. Lately, rather than solving problems or zen-ing out, my mind is occupied with aches and pains and my deteriorating running form. It is not nearly as much fun to run when I am thinking about the ache below my butt that is now radiating down my hamstring, or when I am focusing on keeping my knees pointed straight ahead, the weight on the outside of my foot, rolling my foot forward, pushing off my big toe, taking shorter strides…..aaaagggghhhh!!!! That’s not bliss!
I realize now that I took those typical runs for granted. I was usually not grateful enough for those runs. There were some exceptions. Once, while running the Grandma’s Marathon, which is run along the shore of Lake Superior, I remember thinking “I am so lucky to be able to have the strength, the money, the stamina, and the inclination to do this!” The day was a bright June day, the course was flat, the scenery was beautiful, and it was the beginning of the race. Of course, by the time I finished the race (in a personal worst time), I was staggering, cramping and exhausted. As I passed a bank in Duluth near the end of the race, I looked at the thermometer – it read 91 degrees! I was in survival mode. My gratitude had completely evaporated by then, and I just wanted to sit down with an icy drink. Preferably one that contained an umbrella.
Once, I kept a gratitude journal just to remind me how very lucky I am. I wrote about one thing every day that I was grateful for. I started out with the big things – my husband, my kids, my grandkids. Each one I am immeasurably grateful to have in my life. Each one I know I take for granted sometimes. I then listed other family members, friends, my job (I am a retired school teacher), running, good health. All very important in my life. After I ran out of big things, most days I wrote about something that happened that day that I was grateful for. I wrote about little things like having a snow day to catch up with schoolwork, getting an income tax refund when I expected to have to pay, or a vanilla latte that my husband brought me after a long cold run.
The goal of the project was to help me develop a grateful attitude. I didn’t just want to be grateful once in a while when a big event came along. I wanted to change how I looked at life. To be grateful, I had to examine all the good things that came into my life. Gratitude forces you to have a positive outlook. It is tough to harbor negative thoughts when you are constantly writing about the good things that have happened to you. Reading my gratitude journal makes me realize how optimistic gratitude forces you to be. Studies show that exercises in gratitude decrease stress and anxiety, and even lower the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in our bodies. It has been shown that choosing gratitude can improve our self control. Good to know – especially when I am opening a bag of Cheetos! (Side note: my self control is usually pretty good. I do like salty and sugary treats, but one Wilbur bud is enough to satisfy my sweet tooth. A few pistachio nuts are all I need. Cheetos are a different story. I can eat Cheetos until they are coming out my ears! Yeah, I know….gross orange color, high in fat and salt. I still love them. I never buy Cheetos – too dangerous!)
Gratitude forces you to look outside of yourself. Gratitude is by definition directed at someone (or someOne) other than you. Who are you grateful to? If you are grateful toward a person, and you let them know it, it’s a double plus. First, you both get to feel good. The other person gets acknowledgment and you get to see how happy your recognition has made them, which makes you feel good about yourself (for being such a caring person). Second, there is a good chance that the person that you recognize will pass the goodwill along and a network of positivity will develop. Many religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, recognize the importance of gratitude. The purpose of the five daily prayers in Islam is to show gratitude to Allah. Jewish teachings encourage the faithful to give thanks each morning for waking up that day. Christians are taught to be grateful for redemption through grace. All of these religions encourage the cultivation of gratitude – to literally count your blessings. It is important not only to express gratitude to a higher power in order to build a community of faith, but also in order to live a good life.
Why is this so hard for me to remember, then? The benefits are so obvious. My goal for the gratitude journal was to list 1,000 things I am grateful for. How many did I get? 89. My entries became more and more sporadic, then they stopped. I guess it is just like running. You know it is good for you. You feel good when you do it, but it is hard to make it a practice, especially at the beginning. You can’t beat yourself up because you missed a day or two or 700. That’s not productive, and it doesn’t relieve the guilt anyway. You can always start again. The most difficult part is to take that first tentative step, to write those first shaky words. OK, here it goes. I’m going to get my journal and start writing #90 right now. I know just what to write about being thankful for. At my last race, they were giving out small snack-sized bags of Cheetos. I (of course) ate mine immediately. My husband said that I could have his, so I stashed it. I think I hear it calling my name right now. I am sooooo grateful to my husband for giving me his Cheetos. How about it? Are you with me? What are you grateful for?