Decide you want to be joyful. Choose to believe that the world and the majority of people in it are good. By trusting in the inherent goodness of others, you’ll be more apt to look for the positive. If that’s too optimistic for you, at least wake up each morning with the determination to find something good in each day, even if that one thing is a smile from a stranger in the grocery store.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon.
Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. She is a certified grief counselor and Therapeutic Art Coach. Mary works as a program coordinator at a spirituality center and is the author of seven books, including “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity.” She founded an annual grief retreat and writing conference and conducts workshops on creativity, expressive writing, and finding hope in grief.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
Mine is a long and convoluted path to discovering my purpose and passion in life, which is helping others. I do that through my writing, workshops, and the programs I plan as a program coordinator at a spirituality center. I’ve always been fascinated with what motivates people to behave or live a certain way, which explains my interest in psychology and research. That predilection for research has filtered into every aspect of my life. I learned everything I could about the publishing world before I began submitting to magazines in 1987. I interviewed homeschooling parents and read every book and magazine on the topic before I made the decision to home educate my children in 1992. There’s a reason my husband turned to me when faced with the choice of a clinical trial during his cancer treatment in 2006; he trusted me to unearth the research so he could make an informed decision.
I didn’t simply grieve when my husband died in 2012, I researched the science of bereavement. When I discovered journaling facilitated my own healing, I studied the power of expressive writing. The articles, essays, and books I write are all nonfiction; memoir, inspirational, prescriptive, or a combination of all three. I apply what I learn in the workshops I teach and in planning how best to meet the needs of the public in programs our center offers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My life is guided by my faith, but that doesn’t mean I never have doubts. When I signed my first book contract in November 1993, I noted with some trepidation that the final manuscript would need to be submitted on a computer disk. We didn’t own a computer. My husband had lost his job the month before, a week after the birth of our fifth child. Back then, the publisher’s modest advance of $500 wouldn’t even cover the cost of a secondhand computer. When I shared my dilemma with my family that night at the dinner table, my husband just shook his head in defeat, mirroring my own despondency. My two oldest children, however, were enthusiastic in their response that we “pray for a computer,” as if that were the answer to my dilemma. Their simple faith in the power of prayer was a lesson to me. So, I prayed out loud, asking God to bring us the computer I needed. My children repeated the prayer every night at bedtime, before discussing all the games they would play on the computer they had no doubt was coming. On Christmas day we visited my mother’s house, where family gathered. My brother Lyle asked how my book was coming. When I told him about the computer disk requirement, his eyes widened.
“So that’s why I wasn’t supposed to sell my computer,” he said. “I’m supposed to give it to you.” Evidently, he’d purchased a new computer because of some minor problems with his older model. Twice he’d gone to the newspaper office with an ad to sell the old computer, both times leaving with a very clear conviction he was not to sell it. Hearing my story, he suddenly knew why. Lyle offered me the computer, free of charge. We used $50 of the advance for repairs to the computer. The remaining money helped keep us afloat until my husband found work. In the meantime, because he was home to help with the children, I finished the manuscript in record time, easily meeting the deadline and the computer disk requirement. I remind myself of this story every time I experience doubt.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I’m a collector of meaningful quotes, copying those that resonate with me in my journal. I am surrounded by quotes in my home decor; on wall hangings, plaques, even on the mugs I choose for my coffee. At different times in my life, one quote or Bible scripture will resonate with me more than another. All this to say it is difficult to choose one favorite quote, but in regard to the practice of gratitude, I’m not sure who to attribute this quote to but it seems more than one person has said it: “You can become broken or broken open.”
I often order personalized fortune cookies with this message inside for the grief presentations I do. Why? Because while we don’t have control over most of the difficulties we face in life, we do have control over how we are going to handle those experiences. Losing three important people in my life (mother, husband, grandson) in the space of three years, could have broken me. It nearly did. Instead, because I chose to actively work on healing and began reaching out to others, I mined the pain and gave it purpose. My heart was broken wide open. I’m a different person now because of those multiple losses; more empathetic, caring, and authentic in my writing and speaking.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
There are so many books and authors that have made an impact on me. One I’m re-reading for the third time is Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Author Father Gregory Boyle shares the lessons he learned during his twenty-plus years working with gangs in LA.
“If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than others,” he writes.
This book makes me want to be a better person, to be kind and show compassion for others.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very excited that I just completed a manuscript for the children’s book I’ve struggled to write for nearly nine years, the one my daughter needed when her dad died. At my husband’s wake, when the funeral director saw my youngest daughter, he informed me the loss of a loved one is especially difficult for that particular age group, children between the ages of six to nine years old. At that age, they understand the finality of death but have not yet developed the coping skills of an older child or teen. Determined to find some help for my daughter, I reached out to counselors, the local Hospice, and my church, to no avail. They had nothing outside of booklets that dealt with grieving for adults. I turned to bookstores and libraries, with disappointing results. Either the books hinted at death in a circumvent manner (leaves falling off trees, soup made of tears) or were targeted for children who had lost an elderly grandparent or a pet. Working as a librarian two years later, I discovered few resources for patrons looking to help a child deal with death. I knew then I wanted to write a book for children who grieved the loss of a loved one, but every attempt failed. One morning, the perfect first sentence came to me and I couldn’t stop writing. The words just flowed. When I read the completed manuscript, I started crying. It was exactly what I would have wanted to read to my daughter, the words I didn’t have for her then. This book will help so many children affected by the loss of someone they love.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people who have encouraged me in my journey as a writer and public speaker, but my husband was truly the wind beneath my wings. He never doubted that I could be successful in whatever I chose to do. He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. It’s very empowering to have someone who believes in us. I had that from my parents too. My mother snuck a Big Chief tablet in my sock drawer when I was in third grade. Before I had anything published, my father asked me to use my maiden name in my writing so that people would know he was related to me. Words and actions like that stick, just as negative words and criticism do. I’ve worked with people who were told by one teacher or person of influence that their writing or painting wasn’t any good, so they stopped doing whatever their heart wanted for the next thirty or forty years. To think that one person’s words prevented them from pursuing a passion!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
Gratitude means being thankful, apart from, or despite, negative circumstances. The word derives from the Latin gratia, meaning grace or graciousness. It is an affirmation that there is goodness and beauty in our world, and if we can look for that goodness and beauty, we discover good even in the bad. I believe gratitude is a choice.
Pete Sulack, America’s leading stress reduction expert and founder of Stress RX, agrees.
“It is a choice to look around and take in the beauty that surrounds us instead of seeing the ugly,” Sulack says iin a January 19, 2016 article featured on DailyPositive.com.” It’s a choice to remember the good and let go of the bad. It’s a conscious decision to find things for which to be grateful each and every day. It’s difficult; but it’s worth it.”
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
Negativity is our go-to response to stress. Humans tend to put added weight to the negative. The term is negativity bias. For example, with authors, actors, or other creatives, one negative review seems to cancel out the hundred positives that came before it. If the boss praises your work four days of a workweek, but has constructive criticism the fifth day, what do you tend to worry about over the weekend? That one criticism, however small. It’s human nature. We have to train ourselves to look for the positive. The good thing is our brain is neuroplastic, with an ability to rewire itself to form a new habit; the habit of being grateful.
This might be intuitive to you, but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
In October 2000, the Templeton Foundation brought a group of thirteen scientists to Dallas, Texas for the purpose of advancing the science of gratitude. They explored the subject from the perspectives of anthropology, biology, moral philosophy, psychology, and theology, drawing on their own research and examining the evidence that “an attitude of gratitude creates blessings.”
Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California who was present at the summit, details some of the benefits of gratitude in his book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. The blessings include a strengthened immune system, lowered blood pressure, higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, and increased optimism and self-esteem. Emmons looks at gratitude as “receiving and accepting all of life as a gift.”
Before learning any of this, I instinctively turned to gratitude after my husband’s unexpected death. Forty-eight hours after he died following heart stent surgery, I picked up an empty journal and filled three pages with things I was grateful for. I was grateful for the life insurance policy that had been reinstated just 27 days before. I was thankful for the five and a half years we shared after his cancer diagnosis. I could have lost him then. I was grateful for the deep conversations my husband and I had shared in the previous three months, talking about things we’d never discussed before, not even during his cancer treatment.
My personal experience of looking for things to be grateful for after my husband’s death prepared me do the same during the pandemic. While I had to learn how to pivot my programming online, I was grateful I still had a job and something like Zoom existed. Though my loneliness was certainly heightened by the lockdown, I could be grateful for the time to get to know my teen daughter better. I was definitely grateful for my son’s land where my adult children and I could meet socially distanced and outdoors until winter.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
Studies have demonstrated gratitude strengthens the ability to bounce back from trauma. A 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to an individual’s resilience following the September 11 terrorist attacks and a 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy suggest that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude were less likely to experience posttraumatic stress disorder.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
#1) Practice, practice, practice. A grateful attitude doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a process we need to practice and develop as a habit, training our mind to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. One way to do that is to reflect on a time in your life you faced adversity, and then consider the good things that happened because of it. My husband did this naturally after his cancer. Our marriage improved dramatically during his six months of grueling cancer treatment and my stint with caregiving. For years afterward, David would often take my hand in his and remark “If it took cancer to get this kind of marriage relationship, then I’m glad for the cancer.”
#2) Decide you want to be joyful. Choose to believe that the world and the majority of people in it are good. By trusting in the inherent goodness of others, you’ll be more apt to look for the positive. If that’s too optimistic for you, at least wake up each morning with the determination to find something good in each day, even if that one thing is a smile from a stranger in the grocery store.
#3) Begin a gratitude journal. Expressive writing is a proven tool for healing. Journaling is a wonderful way to work your way through tough times. Ending a journal entry on a positive note or with a gratitude list is an excellent way to develop the habit of gratitude. Even if you don’t choose to journal your thoughts, taking time to make a gratitude list at the end of each day is helpful. Some people use gratitude jars, listing what they are grateful for each day on a piece of paper and ending the month or the year by looking back and counting your blessings.
#4) Reach out to help others. Gratitude doesn’t just enhance our lives, it enhances us. Grateful people are more apt to live a life reaching out to others. Scientists at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley have studied the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, finding that people who make gratitude a consistent part of their life are more likely to act with generosity and compassion. There are intrinsic rewards in giving of yourself. Prosocial behaviors that benefit others triggers our brain to produce endorphins, the feel-good hormone. Not only does it feel good, but helping people helps us. It never ceases to amaze me how much helping others helps me.
#5) Discover and develop your passions. A joyful heart is almost guaranteed if you are doing what you were designed to do. Pursuing a meaningful passion and getting lost in the flow of something we love doing helps us get past pain and unhappy circumstances. In pursuing our passions, following our hearts, believing there is good in the world, and helping others, choosing gratitude and joy becomes second nature to us.
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
Meditative prayer and journaling helps me get through particularly tough times. Getting out in nature does wonders for the soul. When I read that people in Iceland were hugging trees to alleviate the loneliness brought on by the pandemic, I attempted it in desperation. The tree in the schoolyard across the street from my house did nothing for me but walking in the woods on my son’s land was very healing. The trees there seemed friendlier, somehow, maybe because I grew up walking in those woods. Sometimes, though, we need to reach out for help. It might be baring our soul to a trusted friend or searching for a support group. I recommend talking to your doctor or finding a counselor if nothing else seems to help.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubornirsky
Live Happy: Ten Practices for Choosing Joy by Deborah K. Heisz
Random Acts of Kindness Foundation https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/
World Gratitude Map https://gratitude.crowdmap.com/
KindSpring: Small Acts That Change the World, a Global Movement of Kindness https://kindspring.servicespace.org/
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I wouldn’t be the first to suggest a random act of kindness movement, but we can all do this in our own little corner of the world. I do random acts of kindness in honor of my grandson Jacob who lost his battle with cancer in 2013. He was one of the kindest, gentlest souls I ever had the privilege of knowing. I wanted to be more like him, so I started doing random acts of kindness shortly after his death.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
You can find me on Facebook and Instagram under Mary Potter Kenyon or on my website at www.marypotterkenyon.com
Learn more about my books at Mary Potter Kenyon-Workman Publishing
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!