In this episode, we tackle a subject that Nancy has VERY strong opinions about. Gratitude. Sometimes it seems like people use the idea of gratitude as a way to wipe away the pains and sorrows of life. But that isn’t very effective, and can end up making us feel worse. Nancy talks to journalist and author Rob Walker about how we can use the art of noticing the everyday as a way to tap into a deeper sense of gratitude for the world around us. Rob shares some tips, prompts, and suggestions for using simple attention as an alternative to the stale notion of gratitude. Listen to the end for some excellent dog panting sounds!
Listen to the full episode to hear:-
Nancy VO: Hey guys, it’s me, Nancy Jane Smith. Welcome back to the Happier Approach, the show that pulls back the curtain on the need to succeed, hustle and achieve at the price of our inner peace and relationships.
I have one question for you today, what the f is gratitude?! Not to get all Webster’s dictionary on you. But the actual definition of gratitude is: “the quality of being thankful, readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” So on one hand, gratitude is great. Yes, we should always appreciate what we have. But what does gratitude really mean in practice? A lot of the time, it’s a word that’s tossed around as a solution to all our problems. We treat gratitude, like it’s a pill we can take to wipe away pain. But sometimes being told that I should be thankful during a difficult moment actually makes me feel worse. And that can be more harmful than helpful.
I’m sitting at the crowded bar, wine glass in hand, enjoying happy hour with a friend. I’ve spent the weekend with my dad, who’s dealing with Parkinson’s with dementia. And it’s been a tough weekend. I’m sharing the experience with my friend while sitting at the bar. I say, “It’s just so hard watching dad struggling with dementia. I mean, it is the hardest thing I’ve ever faced.” She is quick to reply with, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Quickly following up with, well, maybe it would be helpful to find the gratitude here. And then she went on to list all the things I had to be grateful for. My dad had lived a good life and was in his late 70s, we had a good relationship. And at least he knew who I was. I’m sitting there stunned. I take a sip of wine and try to gather myself.
My first thought of Wait a minute, I just shared something really hard with you, and you’re playing the gratitude card!? is swiftly followed by my monger who pops in for an appearance. “She is right, you should be grateful. Quit your whining and remember how blessed you are.” I quickly changed the subject, recognizing immediately that she just can’t go there with this topic. feelings of hopelessness and guilt wash over me, my takeaway, don’t share hard moments with friends at happy hour.
In moments like that, gratitude can be tricky. Gratitude should help us gain perspective in a positive way. It shouldn’t be a quick fix to a bad mood, or a way of wiping away our pain and suffering. So sometimes with gratitude, it’s more about going deeper, taking the time to notice what’s around you and let it sink in. Rather than making gratitude a balm for your bad days. And wouldn’t you know, incorporating gratitude into your life in this holistic helpful way, is actually a process that takes time, attention and effort.
Rob Walker: You’re talking to me on a Friday and I have a thing with sort of with my wife, we call it flower Friday.
Nancy VO: This is Rob Walker, he is a journalist, columnist, writer and author and this exercise he’s talking about, it’s a lesson in attention.
Rob Walker: We sort of make it a point to try to notice flowers. Now that’s a little corny.
But it’s a real thing.
Nancy VO: Rob is literally an expert at noticing the little things. In fact, he wrote a book about it. It’s called The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration and Discover Joy in the Everyday.
Rob Walker: There are 131 prompts, games, provocations, ideas, like I wanted it to be a book you could flip through, get inspired by and find things in it that you could really add to your life.
Nancy VO: Attention and curiosity originally drove Rob towards his career as a writer.
Rob Walker: I sort of discovered writing in the form of journalism. When I was in college, that was a sort of classic, no particular direction. 18 year old, my thinking at that point was like, well, Stephen King That looks like fun. Maybe I could be Stephen King. I very much randomly stumbled on the student newspaper, I stumbled across literally a flyer, they were looking for record reviewers. And I went and screwed up my courage and applied. I consider it very fortunate because I knew the minute that I began writing in the context of journalism, nonfiction writing, I knew this is what I wanted to do. And I consider that very rare fortune. I was very shy. So journalism gave me a framework for dealing with the world. Journalism is a field that rewards curiosity that sort of justifies curiosity. I was sort of maybe not interested in what the teacher was saying and more interested in you know, why is the room laid out this way? Or what kind of bird is that out the window, you know, this kind of thing. And journalism actually rewards that It rewards the idea of noticing things that other people aren’t paying attention to and
Sometimes even the idea of paying attention to what you’re not supposed to pay attention to.
The endless curiosity thing is still the driver. That’s the one through line to all of this.
Nancy: So talking about the curiosity and noticing what excites you about right now about the everyday world around you? What are some of your favorite details to notice like in the world?
When you’re allowed to go to new places, again, I advise people to ask about the weirdest thing in the room.
Because this is always what gets the best stories. Like if you go to someone’s house, and you’re looking at the mantel, and like, you know, there’s a family photo, there’s, um, obviously beautiful vase or something that’s like, Oh, well, that’s a collectible. And then there’s some weird tchotchkes. And it’s like, why would you have that, and usually you people just ignore that. And in fact, if anything, they’ll say, Wow, that’s a beautiful vase. But I recommend the opposite, which is like, ask about that weird thing, because there’s a reason that it’s there.
And this works in restaurants and places like that, to where you get the best stories by asking about the things that don’t seem to belong. And people appreciate those things being modern society wants your attention, there’s a huge war on to steal your attention and direct you into looking at a certain thing at a certain time and a huge amount of our waking life now, and especially with these phones that you and I are both holding right now. It’s not just advertisers vying for your attention. It’s everyone you’re connected with on social media. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a conspiracy or like a horrible Black Mirror situation necessarily. But it is the function of the way we live. I call it the war for attention. And I felt it is very important to hold on to your attention to be able to direct your attention where you want it to.
You’re never going to discover anything new if you don’t put yourself in unexpected situations. And that means truly unexpected situations. That means when you are in a place that you’re not interested in, I’m particularly a fan of taking of making it a point to take a walk.
I was in I guess, Santa Clara or someplace like that, where it was not really a pedestrian friendly situation at the hotel. And there was a whole foods, I wanted to get the snack and it was a
five minute Uber ride or a 25 minute walk through kind of not super pedestrian friendly territory. But I did it anyway. And I actually ended up passing this restaurant that I never would have seen and I ended up having dinner that night, you discover things, it expands the way you’re experiencing the world. Because you’re not just like shuttling from one place to another in these hermetically sealed efficiency machines all the time, giving yourself a chance to be surprised. I think it’s one of the most valuable things you can do.
Rob Walker: The things that you notice that other people don’t notice are what make you an individual. And they are the basis of really all great art, and all great entrepreneurial ism, there is no being an entrepreneur, without spotting an opportunity that other people have missed. You can’t be a successful entrepreneur by saying like, Oh, well, this category is really successful and dominated by a lot of people who are already buying and selling it all do that too, that you have to use your powers of attention and noticing to zone in on what other people are missing and to believe in it. Believe in your own vision and your own point of view.
I regularly give the assignment of find something to complain about. A lot of what entrepreneurs noticed that other people miss is problems, is something that’s wrong, something that needs fixing. Why isn’t anyone fix this? Here in New Orleans, there’s tons of potholes, we have terrible street conditions in New Orleans. There’s an Instagram feed, whose name I can’t repeat in good company, but it’s basically look at this terrible bottle. So it’s documenting these things with sense of humor, it’s pointing out problems and essentially could say like, well, they’re just complaining, but they’re complaining in a delightful way. And I think that that’s legitimate, and I think that that’s valuable. That’s just a different way of looking at the world and I would argue a different form of being productive
Nancy: I have a pretty strong stance on gratitude in the sense of that a lot of the people in my world in my, a lot of the listeners, a lot of my clients have a I should be grateful belief rather than so they will whatever they’re experiencing the pile on top gratitude to make themselves feel better because they should be happy all the time. but even the find something to complain about still like at its core? There’s some gratitude in there. I think what I like about the find something to complain about, it is really observing the world and saying, this could be better.
I think someone that came in with the positive thinking bent or super grateful would be like, Oh, no, no, we need to be grateful for the fact that we have streets to begin with, you know.
And that’s where we get in trouble, I think is we just get too stuck in that positive bent rather than really noticing there could be change here.
That’s the problem in my mind with gratitude. Is that you know, it’s very much that idea of it. It keeps us stuck.
Rob Walker: Yeah, exactly that we just be grateful that we have streets until eventually the streets would crumble into nothing and we would not have streets. And then I guess we’d be grateful that we have kind of clearings that we can drive on still sort of a little bit, there’s actually a lot of discourse around gratitude that I think does lead people to put it on their list of like, Today, I’ll be grateful for something. And there’s a kind of roundness to it, that is just like another box to tick off. So I heard someone recently used the word, so I’m not making this up. But I can’t credit it because I can’t remember where exactly it came from. But I’m fascinated with it. Use the word savor.
So this is a variation about being grateful for everyday things. Like let’s say, you walk outside to get the mail, your brief break from the day, and it’s blue sky, you know, sometimes you go outside and it’s, you don’t have no idea what’s going on. Outside you go. It’s like, oh, wow, it’s actually a nice day. So is to savor that. And so this is a form of gratitude. The challenge is to actually pause and experience that’s why I like the word savor because it reminds you of like, when you’re eating something and you’re like, you know, you kind of actually slow down and actually let the food rest in your mouth so you can savor it, as opposed to just swallowing it so you can get on to the next thing, that attitude, if you can apply that to whatever, maybe it’s something that your dog does, like savor your dogs, that sounds maybe serving but you know, or your children or your spouse, just really have gratitude in the moment for the small things. Or maybe it’s just some objects that you own. That’s like, you know, this is a really good hedge trimmer or whatever. That is a slightly different angle on the challenge of gratitude. I think that maybe invites you back into the world and takes it out of this thing of being another, you know, to do list.
Rob Walker: This is why I tried to de mystify the word not demystified. But de-fang, the word complain. And this sounds funny, but complaining gets a bad rap.
Oh, no one likes a complainer. No one likes a critic. But you know what, we need critics. Without critics, there’s no progress. So people who say critics are no good, usually just don’t want to hear criticism. And that’s fine. Sometimes we have to shrug off criticism. But let’s not pretend that there’s no role in that. And there is gratitude built in the critic the complainer is trying to build a better world ultimately. And that is an act that is wrapped up in gratitude for how things could be.
Nancy: I know for me this this art of noticing and slowing down and even being able to focus on you know, even on
the dog walks, it isn’t natural. It’s going against my programming of get it done, Hustle, Hustle, Hustle, keep pushing forward be as productive as possible.
Rob Walker: Of course, I struggle with it. I think everyone does. And I think there are even evolutionary reasons for you know, we’re in we’re built to seek out threats and rewards. If you leave this interview with just one thought it is please stay off your phone while you’re walking, be with your dog while you’re walking your dog, your dogs not going to be there forever. Take those moments. It’s a great move to try to figure out what is your dog paying attention to and you know, zero in on that, like, what’s the smell or he or she smelling were they looking at were they hearing it’s kind of using that mindset like adding this to the menu of things that you need to get done or that you find value in and my hope is that there’s a sort of degree of gateway drug ness to this that once you have the experience of, you know, maybe having an unexpected epiphany that you will find value in it.
Nancy: Okay, buddy.
Let’s get the leash moving.
Let’s do it. Let’s do it. Do it. Here we go.
Door opening, birds chirping
Okay, so it is crack o’clock early in the morning Waterston. I are headed out for our walk, fellow goofy talking into my phone. But here we go. We’re going to be noticing I’m going to try to notice whatever Waterson follows. We have lots of bunnies around here. So still
I’m going to be doing a lot of bunny noticing.
But it is a beautiful, sunny cool morning here in Ohio.
He’s all weirded out because I keep looking at everything he’s looking at.
I always try to be really aware in our walks, just bringing my attention to looking around and not usually on our walks, going through my to do lists and figuring out my plan for the day.
So trying to shut that off and just be present is different.
And then the number of times I have to bring myself back to now we’re noticing we’re just noticing instead of letting my mind go into the to do list and all that stuff, this is a fascinating our squirrel in the mind is.
The other thing I wanted to notice was red, because that is something that stands out easily so for as we head towards Main Street, there’s red umbrellas and red stop signs red stoplights.
Even the library has windows or red.
Okay, let’s cross the street.
Red and a basketball hoop, red tail lights.
There red in the bricks.
The red of Watterson’s tongue.
In the red leaves, the red trees, the trees look red, but that just the leaves are red.
Now my brain is just constantly scanning for red, red, red, red, red, which is very different than how I normally do a walk.
But the red really causes me my brain to hook into something different. Because I can look for now when I see something red, I’m like, oh red, red, as opposed to, as I said, going through the to do list so it gives my brain something to do which I think is helpful.
But even like noticing the red American flag, the red and the signs, it is fascinating to me how the more I do this, the more I notice.
And it is a form of gratitude, I think gets you in that mindset of gratitude. Because you’re just slowing everything down. You know that we can take this walk every morning through this beautiful space and be safe and see other friendly people and just it’s makes me very grateful.
So I do think that this is what I love about this is what I believe gratitude is going deep and slowing everything down and being able to appreciate what it is you have.
Rather than it being just something I tell myself to pull myself out of a bad mood. still finding the red in the no parking signs the red bricks of the capital stadium.
Now we are headed down the alley towards our home headed back. Noticing the red and someone painted their garage door read the people door. That was a red car.
My mom and some of the family members always say that the cardinal which is red is the state bird of Ohio. And we have a lot of them around here. And mom will always say whenever she sees a cardinal that it’s a dad there’s there’s a belief that people who have passed in habit
The Cardinal I don’t know where that came from.
For a long time when I was doing these walks, I would hear what I now know is a pigeon or a dove would hear that and think of the sound would remind me of my home. My parents home and certainly my dad. And so that sound would always bring him alive to me. And I love it when we’re walking the dog. I haven’t heard one this morning, but I love it when I am walking the Dog and I hear that sound because it makes me think of him.
Okay, we’re round on the corner. Here we go. Waterson
Here we go. finish everything up.
We did it. Thanks for going on our walk with us.
You ready ready.
Nancy VO: As I sunk into the art of noticing on my walk with Watterson and went deeper with my gratitude, I was able to relax and really savor that cool July morning, while holding the memory of my dad with me. That is the power of gratitude. It’s the same with that story I told earlier about sharing my heart experiences with my dad in his dementia with my friend at the bar. Despite that negative experience, I was able to find gratitude in the little moments with him. I can slow myself down and notice moments of connection, soaking up one of his hugs, savoring a voicemail message he left, even now paying attention to the Cardinals and mourning doves on my morning walk, noticing him and the gifts he gave me.
That’s it for this week. Next time we’re going to talk about spiraling but not exactly in the way you might think. We’ll talk to an expert on the mind body connection about getting out of our heads and into our bodies. And I’ll be taking a special trip to a place where meditation and movement intertwine. That’s next time on the happier approach. The happier approach is produced by Nicki Stein and me, Auntie Jane Smith, music provided by pod five and epidemic sound. For more episodes to get in touch or to order a copy of my book, the happier approach you can visit live dash happier.com. And if you’d like the show, leave us a review on iTunes. It actually helps us out a lot Special thanks to rob Walker for speaking with us for this episode. You can find more information about Rob, order his book and subscribe to his newsletter where he shares prompts, icebreakers and conversations for incorporating the art of noticing into your everyday life at Rob Walker dotnet the happier approach we’ll be back with another episode in two weeks. Take care until then.