Carly Keyes: List the things you're grateful for

By Carly Keyes, Daily Health and Fitness Columnist
Published March 25, 2014

I could quote some brilliant scientists and well-cited academic research that proves why cultivating an attitude of gratitude creates benefits for your physical, emotional, and mental health, but I think it’s fairly obvious that counting my blessings is a far healthier pastime than complaining about my life circumstances.

So, instead of the “Why?” I’ll focus on the “How?” and reference the wisdom of Joni Mitchell and her song “Big Yellow Taxi” regarding my experience with gratitude: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you got / Till it’s gone.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t learn the definition of gratitude by looking it up in the dictionary. For me, gratitude wasn’t learned; gratitude was earned, but not in the usual way that your earn something. Not in the usual way that you earn money by excelling at a chosen trade or a medal for finishing first place in a competition. In order to earn the attitude of gratitude I now sport, I had to lose … almost everything.

And while Mitchell’s catchy track zeroes in on valuing the environment, the practice of losing something in order to recognize its importance is a universally understood conundrum. Whom I don’t understand are you gifted individuals who can, almost inherently, be grateful for what you have, and fully acknowledge the gravity of what it means to be healthy, loved and happy.

I salute you, and I am eager to adapt: I’ve got my list.

At the end of each day, I write down twelve things for which I am utterly grateful based on my experiences of the previous twenty-four hours. It could include something as simple as “Had a great text convo with my sister” or as exciting as “I got to work with some incredible people today on the set of my music video,” or as monumental as “My friend just celebrated five years sober.”

And, though I do my best to make these twelve items unique to each day, there are three things that always, in some way shape or form, find a way onto my paper:

In no particular order…

#1. My car

I remember feeling so uncool because the Chevy Trailblazer with leather interior that I got when I was sixteen was used. “It’s actually ‘Certified Pre-Owned,’ ” I’d tell people … like maybe that made it sound fancier.

Fast forward five years, and after a second DUI, the State of Michigan no longer deemed me suitable to operate a motor vehicle … for at least a year. When that happens, any car is your dream car.

Then after a year without a license, in which I walked, bussed and hitched rides to wherever I needed to go, the State granted me a set of restricted driving privileges, which included the installation of a breathalyzer in my car. Before I could turn the key in my ignition, I had to blow into a machine to ensure I had no alcohol in my system, and then I had to blow periodically as I drove.

And I was grateful.

After a year without driving, living in suburban Michigan, I was ready to blow into the tail pipe if that’s what was asked of me. Eventually, in Nov. 2013, after three years of sobriety, I was granted my full license back, the breathalyzer was removed from my car, and I am free and clear of any legal consequences. Back to normal, but so much different … and grateful.

So, on Sunday, when I went to go pick up equipment from the basement of North Quad to shoot my latest project for a class, I knew it would be a tad strenuous. I had to drive around a bit to scope out a spot, I had to lug a lot of heavy stuff a relatively long distance and load it in my trunk, and I knew that eventually, I’d have to unload it from my trunk and lug it back.

But what was on my mind? “I’m so glad I have a car to do this and that I’m allowed to drive it.”

I had the privilege of driving around to scope out a spot, I had the privilege of lugging a lot of heavy stuff a relatively long distance and loading it in my trunk, and I had the privilege of unloading it from my trunk and lugging it back.

Number one on Sunday’s list: Driving is a privilege, and for that, I am grateful.

#2. My freedom

Incarceration. Unfortunately, it was another consequence of my past behavior; fortunately, a necessary dose, or heaping helping, of gratitude. Never did I ever think that I’d ever know what’s it’s like to feel metal handcuffs wrap around on my wrist … twice. And the second time around, jail came as a package deal.

Ten days. I spent ten days in Oakland County jail during Jan. 2011. It doesn’t sound like a long time, and it really isn’t in the grand scheme of things, but it is when you’re inside. I got there around 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday evening, they took all of my possessions, my shoelaces, pretty much everything but the clothes on my back, and I still remember how it felt to walk behind those bars and how the door sounded as it shut.

Closed. Cold. Closed. Colder.

I went through a series of roommates within ten days — people were always coming in and out, making room for more — including a pregnant seventeen year old with multiple felonies for drug dealing and an elderly woman who would be there for six months for shoplifting. I wrote on pieces of loose-leaf paper with a sawed-off little pencil that a kind soul there gave me, and I read through those memories from time to time, just to keep in touch.

And then I’m always presented with reminders.

Monday, I attended a screening for my TV theory class, and it was an episode of “Orange is the New Black.” I’d watched it before because even though it’s fiction, make-believe, merely actors in orange jumpsuits, and even though I was at a County jail and ten days doesn’t compare to the usual amount of time people remain in prison … I see women behind bars, and I see my past.

Number one on Monday’s list: Freedom is a gift, and for that, I am grateful.

#3. My sobriety

Considering numbers one and two above, this seems like a given, right? And it is. Every day I wake up, it’s the first thought that comes to my mind: “Damn, I’m so glad I don’t have to drink today,” and that my first action isn’t to hop in my car, speed to the liquor store and replenish my personal stock.

But there are times, now few and far between thankfully, when it’s not so clear. Times when, being young and a college student, sobriety can feel isolating as I walk about the campus and overhear this conversation about that party or that conversation about this party.

I’m fortunate, though, that I have some incredible people in my life who are also committed to staying sober … friends of all ages, genders and races, who just get me, and when I explain how I’m grateful for my car and for my freedom, they just nod their heads, because they’ve been there, too. My relationships, my human connections run deeper than they ever did when I was partying and relying on alcohol to lubricate my social life.

Number one on Tuesday’s list: I have an authentic relationship with myself and others, and for that, I am grateful.

When I first started making a gratitude list, I didn’t start with twelve items. I started with three. But, what you appreciate, appreciates. So, find three things to be grateful for as you go about each day, jot them down before you go to sleep each night, and I promise, you’ll find more without having to look too hard. And, I promise, you will be grateful you did.