‘Thank you for my horrible life’

On gratitude—and figuring out what holds us back


The woman who sat next to me on our first day of gratitude training was fidgeting and flossing her teeth — annoying me to my core. She had bleach blonde hair and a dark tan in the dead of winter. I thought to myself, “This is someone I could never relate to.”

Then, on the last day, she stood in front of me during one of many “exercises.” I was supposed to look into the woman’s eyes and see her as my mother, or sister, or anyone I loved. I had already learned that she had dealt with addiction her entire life and that she was struggling to come to terms with growing older and feeling “invisible.” I was supposed to put myself in her shoes and imagine all of her hurts and struggles, taking them on as my own.

I had vowed not to shed a tear during the seminar, which was tailor-made for emotional breakdowns, but when I finally started to see this woman as myself, I couldn’t help but cry.

Whatever the title of the seminar implied, the four days I spent in “gratitude training,” conducted by a Florida-based company of the same name, would end up being all about this type of intensely personal “work.” Various exercises were designed to help me and about 65 other people confront our fears and open up to the possibility of change.

The exercises most often included pairing up with another person in order to explore honesty and trust. On the first day, I had to look into a stranger’s eyes for two minutes. The middle-aged man looked at the ceiling the whole time, as if it was physically impossible to complete the task.

During an exercise on perspective on the last day, I sat across from a young mom with two kids who was unhappy about her marriage. I had to tell her a story from my past in which I had been “wronged.” Then I had to “flip it” and tell the same story in which I took full responsibility.

I admit, this was powerful. I had never looked at my story (involving typical family drama) in a different way. Apparently you become more powerful in your own life when you take full responsibility for the good — and the bad — and start to understand the perspectives of others.

But when were we going to get around to the gratitude part? I wasn’t the only one confused.

A college student stood up the first day to tell us why she was there. “I’m an ungrateful spoiled brat.”

She went on to tell us that she needed to be more grateful for her parents. She needed to be more grateful for everything in her life.

Then our coach, Barry Warren, a tough-talking New Yorker, corrected her. In that small, windowless Farmington Hills hotel conference room, I, too, thought that I was going to learn how to be more grateful. Gratitude, after all, is the buzzword in self-improvement these days, and I had gone to the seminar not just because a friend told me it changed her life, but also I was curious about why “gratitude” seems to be the new key to happiness. I’ve had bratty, ungrateful moments, and I’m way past college. Maybe this was my chance to let go of “me,” and appreciate what I have, even when life sucks.

I was wrong. Warren told us that the company uses “gratitude” to describe the program, but it’s not really about that. Instead, we were all there to identify the “self-limiting beliefs” that hold us back. We were there to wake up to the fact that we’ve all been living a lie — that we are all governed by the “rackets” or “stories” in our heads that keep us miserable. We were there to receive the ability to create better stories. To change the world, all we would have to do is change ourselves.

In other words, I was there to concentrate on “me” and my messed up head for four days — the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. Warren also informed us that this was the inaugural chance in Detroit to spread the gratitude movement, however loosely based on gratitude I had always understood it to be. Never before had anything like this been done here. We needed to tell our friends and family. Gratitude was here to save the city.

Jo Englesson, the founder of Gratitude Training who describes herself as a “creative peacemaker,” actually did build her company on the concept of gratitude. On her website, the former handbag marketer describes a random encounter with a man at an airport that led her to create a token of appreciation, or “TOFA.” Yes, these were real tokens. She gave each one a unique number and sent them into the world, encouraging people to give them to others who had made a difference in their lives. The tokens could be tracked online to show the power of paying it forward. Englesson eventually ditched her career to make gratitude her full-time mission. When she spoke to us in person on our fourth training day, she reiterated how lucky we were to have experienced this unique opportunity in Detroit.

Except it wasn’t unique. When Warren first corrected the bratty college student, I thought it sounded a lot like something I rolled my eyes at three years ago when a friend told me about his life training course through a company called Landmark.

Many life training companies, including Landmark and Gratitude Training, are spinoffs, to varying degrees, of the original “est” training developed in the early 1970s by Werner Erhard. His methods, taught to large groups during psychologically intense workshops, were intended to help people break free of false belief systems and experience their highest potential.

Attaching the term “gratitude” to this seminar’s title, then, seemed like a bait and switch to me, especially if the point wasn’t to learn gratitude at all, but to fix my inner dysfunction in order to get what I want. My skepticism only became stronger when I came across an opinion piece in The New York Times by Barbara Ehrenreich, a journalist who has spent her career exposing poverty in the U.S. and, in this instance, the silliness of the gratitude movement.

Ehrenreich’s comments on the “selfish side of gratitude” remind us that it’s possible to “bask in its warm, comforting glow” without “uttering a word” or helping anyone. The prosperity gospel and philosophies that tout the power of the mind operate on similar levels. Ask and ye shall receive. Think positively, and it will happen.

Perhaps I was doomed to continue living my personal “rackets,” since I didn’t see how baring my soul for 36 hours with strangers would change my mind. The day it started, I whispered cynically to a guy on my left that I would be surprised if half of us were still there by day four. Coincidentally, that would be Valentine’s Day, and suddenly I felt surrounded by divorcees or the heartbroken. Then there were those who needed to make more money, were dealing with a suicide, were in recovery, or were dealing with a kid in recovery. These were big, heavy problems.

We started light. Warren told us about how he had graduated from similar training in the 1980s, and how wife and kids had all jumped on his bandwagon. His daughter even ditched her own soul-sucking career as a corporate attorney because of it. Family holidays were now “awesome.”

Warren is not perfect, of course. He had gone into his training thinking his marriage was an eight on a scale of one to 10. But he was wrong. It was just a pathetic eight on a scale of one to 100. At the end of training he said he went home and “had the best sex of my life” and never looked back. The lesson here is that we all set the bar way too low in life. It’s possible to raise it if we’re willing to do the work.

The seminar had ground rules: not taking notes, not texting, not “side talking,” and (surprise!) attending all four days. One man said he couldn’t attend one of the days because of work, and Warren asked him to leave immediately. The man looked confused, and it took about 10 minutes for this to sink in.

I couldn’t blame him. Flexibility is the cornerstone of our culture. If we say yes, and then we say we can’t, it’s no big deal. Except it is, Warren told us. Your word is everything, and when you break it, you undermine yourself and your relationships. This was perhaps the biggest “breakthrough” I experienced during the training. If I have ever kept my word, I have broken it twice as much, and, as Warren pointed out multiple times, that’s a crappy way to live.

Only two people had dropped out before “graduation day,” proving my cynical prediction wrong. People had cried. They had confessed their darkest secrets. We had all lain on the floor for a group meditation intended to take us back to our childhoods; one woman confessed to falling asleep. But for the most part, we all changed, if only a tiny bit.

About half made gratitude training a priority, shelling out more than $2,000 for Parts 2 and 3, which is called “Masterful Living.” You’d be surprised how easily you can raise money when you make something a priority, Englesson said after several people predictably said they couldn’t afford it.

I politely declined. I just bought a house, and I’d rather buy a new couch. Which means my life is still screwed up, or I’m back to where I started.

But I’ll never forget the woman who flossed in public had ended up being someone I could love. I’m also going to keep a promise to help my friend with her cancer charities. And I’m going to plant perennial flowers for the first time in my life, which should keep me feeling grateful for years to come.