I grew up writing thank-you cards. Every year after our birthdays and Christmas, my mother would get out the stationery, and my sisters and I would race to see who finished first. Getting a present was great, but writing those notes felt boring and tedious. Unmoved by our complaints, Mom made sure we committed to the practice of expressing our gratitude.
Years later I added the habit of recording my blessings in a journal. Daily acknowledgment of divine grace helped me to feel connected, and I started to see God as both supporter and ally.
Even so, in 2010 I wasn’t feeling especially appreciative. I longed for something more. I had everything I needed to be happy—a good job, friends, and a faith community—but my life felt lacking in surprises and adventures. I fantasized about moving to the United Kingdom. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to get my graduate degree overseas? The problem was funding.
One afternoon, I stumbled upon a scholarship opportunity for study in the U.K. I met the qualifications to apply. It would mean selling everything I owned, quitting my job, and moving there. The more I thought about it, the more excited I felt. I emailed the graduate advisor at my former university. She urged me to start the application process, which she would oversee. Her enthusiastic support felt like a sign.
Blessed and Supported
My entourage of supporters grew steadily. Former professors were eager to help. I wrote to a successful writer in Britain. How, he replied, could he best help me? It was the start of an exciting friendship and collaboration. I felt blessed and supported but also, I felt a connection and belonging to humanity that was inspiring.
I practiced visualization and repeated affirmations daily. God felt close, and my journey seemed assured, even destined. Appreciation flowed through me for the daily discoveries of kindness, connection, and opportunity to realize my dreams. Two months later, I submitted my application. When the notifications went out in January, I hadn’t even made the first cut.
I felt humiliated and disoriented. I was meant to go overseas, I knew, so what had gone wrong? I stayed home from work. That afternoon my coworkers sent flowers with a card that read, “Don’t give up.” As word of my rejection spread, commiserating emails flooded in from every corner, and by the end of the day I’d heard from every single person who had joined me on the journey. I appreciated and acknowledged their efforts and felt grateful for their expressions, but nothing could shake my sense of failure.
Later that week, I visited an older couple, good friends who’d navigated life’s highs and lows. Cathy handed me a glass of wine as she shared her own failed dream. As children, she and her little brother had run away from home. They had hopped a train, intent on riding the rails to freedom. The adventure was short-lived, and soon a traffic cop had spotted them and hauled them into the station.
The true gifts were not even found in how I would get there and who joined me on the ride. The real treasure was in the life-enriching act of gratitude itself.
Ingredients for Happiness
Cathy was not happy to be “rescued,” and she vented her fury. I laughed until I cried as she detailed how she, at 8 years old, had scolded the police officer. Her parents were more worried than angry, and their loving response eventually helped Cathy realize she was lucky in what she already had. It cheered me to laugh and that, she said, had been why she had shared. I knew, even though her story was light, that she saw me in my disappointment and understood. Her message was not lost on me: I, too, already had the ingredients for happiness. Gratitude for Cathy’s compassion welled up in me, displacing my disappointment.
Driving home, I fell back into my habit of cataloging blessings: the flower basket, the emails. I realized even greater blessings—the generosity of people’s time, interest, and enthusiasm in the recommendation letters, in their advice, and in the frequent feedback on the application process.
Gratitude for every gift filled me until the final epiphany landed: I would get there, but it wasn’t about where I was going. The true gifts were not even found in how I would get there and who joined me on the ride. The real treasure was in the life-enriching act of gratitude itself.