What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

During the day, my initial stay at Princess Margaret Hospital was full of welcome distractions. Between procedures, blood work, visitors and flirting with the nurses, I didn’t have much time to brood on the fact that I was a 27-year-old patient with an aggressive form of leukemia. 

But at night? That was a different story. After my friends and family returned home, I was left alone with my thoughts. Very quickly, the anxiety would creep in, and my mind would spiral to some dark places. I knew I had to do something to stay positive and keep myself motivated.

So one night, I pulled out the journal my friend Rachael had given me. At the top of a new page, I wrote the words “Reasons to Fight.” I then proceeded to write anything and everything that came to mind about what made life so awesome and so worth fighting for. The idea was to create something to keep me energized when times got tough — like psychological helium, lifting me up when I started feeling low.

And before I knew it, I had a list that was 118 items long.

Reviewing my hastily scrawled inventory, a number of things stood out. First, I was surprised how much food made the cut. The fact that “bagels with cream cheese” preceded “Mom” should tell you something about how sick of hospital food I was when I made the list.

Food bias aside, the people in my life certainly made a strong appearance — my parents, brothers, sisters, friends, cousins, aunts, uncles.

But the list also burst at the seams with life’s simple pleasures and experiential riches.  Lying on what could very well have been my deathbed, what mattered most to me were things like … 

On top of keeping me motivated, my Reasons to Fight exercise showed me how valuable gratitude can be. That’s not surprising. A slew of research on the topic points to its many benefits.

In one study, a group was asked to write about the things they were grateful for from the week that had just passed. Meanwhile, another group wrote about the annoying and negative things that happened. After ten weeks, the gratitude group reported feeling more optimistic and better about their lives than the second group.

That same research also found that the grateful group reported feeling healthier, had fewer visits to the doctor and exercised more frequently. Meanwhile, a 2011 study showed that writing in a gratitude journal before going to bed led to better and longer sleeps.

Gratitude has also been shown to help create healthy relationships. One study confirmed that people who express appreciation for their partner had a more positive view of the other person. It also made it easier for those couples to talk about problems they might be having. And another study revealed that showing gratitude to new people you meet increases your odds of establishing positive, ongoing relationships with them. 

Finally, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania looked at how gratitude can help managers boost productivity. The study divided the school’s fundraising team into two categories: one that got a little pep talk from their boss telling them how grateful she was for their work, and one that didn’t. The results were impressive, with the group that got the message of gratitude making fifty per cent more fundraising calls the following week than the other employees.

The idea that gratitude yields positive results may be nothing new to you. But if the benefits of gratitude are so clear and well established, why can it be so difficult to practise it? 

Why does it seem to take a health crisis or period of hardship before we appreciate the awesome things in our lives? And how do we sustain that appreciation after we’ve settled back into our regular routines? In other words, what can we do to cultivate gratitude in our daily lives?

There are loads of ways to foster an attitude of gratitude, and everybody’s different. What works for one person might not work for someone else, so it’s important to find tactics that fit you and your lifestyle. 

That might mean starting a gratitude journal or a list like I did. If you’re religious, you might find prayer is a helpful way to count your blessings. Some people use meditation to help them focus on the things they’re grateful for. Or you could get into the habit of doing a mental inventory of the positive things from your day while you brush your teeth. 

Whatever approach you choose, just remember that gratitude is like any habit: practice makes perfect. Getting it to stick takes effort and discipline. It might be hard in the beginning — and you’ll have days when you suck at it — but stay with it, and before long you’ll be reaping the many benefits of appreciating the little things. 

It certainly benefited me during my cancer journey, helping me to appreciate all the amazing things in my life and embrace the everyday awesome — whether it’s sunrises (#78 on my list), sandwiches (#99) or even a good fart (#58).

Small deeds, big impact

My Reasons to Fight list also taught me to respect the power of small. A doctor’s reassuring hand on my shoulder did wonders for my nerves. A friend stopping by to share ridiculous stories about his dating life sparked much-needed laughter, fuelling me for the week ahead. And a few words of encouragement from a stranger in the waiting room made me feel ten feet tall. 

Little deeds go a long way. So don’t underestimate them. Offer a friendly hello to the cashier. Call a family member just because. Buy an extra bagel with cream cheese for your co-worker. Because small actions can have a big impact.

Next: Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

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Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience