Cultivating Life: January/February 2013

Practicing gratitude

By LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly

There’s a reason this column is called “Cultivating Life.” Yes, it’s about cultivating plants in your garden or good food in your kitchen. But it’s also about basic tenets of simple things that bring us happiness. It’s the beginning of a new year, and I’m wondering if we should eschew the tired approach of resolutions and instead go straight to the core of it: increasing happiness. What makes you truly happy?

I keep coming back to gratitude. Harvard researcher Shawn Achor pinpoints gratitude as a key to happiness. In his studies, the act of practicing three gratitudes a day, where we scan the world for the positive rather than the negative for 21 days in a row, creates a pattern in our brain that results in positive, lasting change. He says our belief system of “If I work harder I will be more successful and therefore I’ll be happier” is broken and backwards and that our brains work in the opposite order. “Achieve happiness in the present — your creativity, intelligence and energy rises. The happiness advantage is becoming positive in the present.”

What do you see? Another rainy grey day in Portland, or a world filled with beautiful moss and lichen?
If I’m to add a new practice to my day, this year it will be the act of practicing gratitude, and I’m doing that by picking up my camera. Not my iPhone camera, but my digital camera. The day of the Newtown shootings, I turned off all media, shut down my social media, and picked up my camera. I carried it with me and looked at the world in a different way that day. It helped me see beauty in little things — like a bright blue sky, the pattern of my leggings combined with the tile floor, and how the steam curls from a freshly poured cup of hot tea. It took my eyes, and my brain, to a different place when it would have been so easy to have been overcome with grief and shock, and I learned that contemplating life, composition, pattern, and the world around me is a form of meditation when using my camera.

Adding a new practice, or resolution, into our lives means clearing space and making room, both figuratively and physically. Those household drawers full of crap are done for and I already have a good start on clearing them out. But this goes for time and space in your life as well.

Two years ago at the end of a busy and exhausting year, I sorted through end-of-year data that enlightened me to the actual hours I had spent on volunteer and pro bono projects. It was over 300 hours of time. This was in addition to my full time work of running my own design consultancy. I pondered what I could have done with those 300 hours if I had given them to myself instead of away.

And so I did. For that year, I said “no” to every pro bono project, I resigned from the board of directors I served on, and kindly explained why I had to decline new volunteer projects. Within the first month I turned down seven requests. And every conversation I had about why I was saying “no” was met with “I wish I could do the same” or “Good for you.” I was doing what all of the over-achievers wished they could do. The world didn’t come to a halt, colleagues didn’t hate me for it, and I created space in my life for something I really wanted to focus on — for myself — and that was my health. I joined a gym, committed to healthy eating, and spent a summer kayaking, hiking, and being active. I began running, learned how to stand-up paddleboard, and figured out how to cook fish on the barbecue. It was a transformative year and I learned an incredible amount from it. But it began by creating space for new things.

So this year I’m creating space for gratitude, giving thanks, and seeing how high I can get my happiness quotient. And along the way, I expect to take a whole lot of photos. Here’s to 2013; here’s to gratitude.

LeAnn Locher gardens and cooks from her home base in North Portland. She loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her, and other like-minded domestic arts bad-asses, at