Making Sense of Modern Life
Leveraging social media engagement algorithms to improve my quality of life.
There’s no shortage of evidence these days regarding the power of a daily gratitude practice. Medical studies demonstrate that it’s good for your heart. Psychologists recommend it for improving relationships, and combating depression. Employees even work better when they feel appreciated. It’s hard to find a domain of social life that’s not improved by regular expressions of gratitude. The only question is, “how do we do it?” A lot of that is dependent on where you want the effects to manifest.
A few years ago, I undertook a daily practice of sharing a short post on Facebook each day about how I experienced gratitude. It lasted for five hundred days! I have a sort of cavalier approach to trying things that might affect my life. Everything is a one-off experiment. From moment-to-moment we are all changing, so what I did yesterday is not the same as something similar today. And a life that’s interesting and fruitful is rarely entirely safe. This attitude has admittedly gotten me into trouble at times, but it’s also let me be very open to break out of where I’m comfortable or was expected to stay by friends and society (hello gender transition).
The gratitude practice stemmed initially from one of those viral five-day challenges that crop up on Facebook. Someone challenged me to post five things that I was grateful for every day for five days, and tag five people each day. I didn’t want to challenge a certain number of people, because I find that irritating. But all that being said, I appreciated the value of gratitude, and I did want to thank the people in my life that mattered in a genuine manner. And so it began…
Each day, I sat down at some point, and thought of a few things that I was grateful for in that moment. If someone in particular touched me, I tagged them in the post. Fairly quickly I realized that folks loved it when they’d got a tag, and really weren’t people the most essential part of my world for which I was grateful?
After five days I thought, “Well, I kinda like this. But I don’t think I’ll keep thinking about this on my own unless I do it longer… Doesn’t it take 21 days to form a habit? (It’s more actually) That’s three-by-seven. I like those numbers… screw it, why not?”
When a month passed, I still didn’t feel like my habit was set well enough so the new goal became a hundred. By then, it was fun, and the target stretched to five-hundred, maybe we’ll think about a thousand. As the experiment progressed, still what I tended to appreciate the most were intangible things like my heart connections, sunsets on the water and other intangibles. Mindfulness and connection became key, and I started to tweak my life to have more of those moments.
I also found that the days when I appreciated these posts most were those when I struggled. I started in a pretty severe bout of depression that reached the level where I struggled with daily suicide ideation. On those days, remembering a few things that I felt gratitude for helped me get through to the next. It didn’t save me, but it definitely made things better, not worse.
The project began to invade the rest of my day in little ways. In odd moments, I’d stop and muse, “Was this moment a thing that would make it into my post later? Would there be something later that nudged it out of the coveted top five?” Then, it occurred to me that there was no reason to limit myself to five things. It’s an an arbitrary limit. “This is my practice! Who cares but me how long it should be!” The list grew some days to more than twenty items.
Sometimes, I let a few days go between posts. I always posted at least a couple things for each day, but tool stayed lightweight. The point was to enrich my life, not give my mind another reason to emotionally bludgeon myself. I certainly didn’t want to be getting on Facebook solely to post, if I had no other reason. I was an early Facebook adopter. It came out in my junior year, and I had moderately large network. I used it for some business related promotion, and really did not need any more screen time. I saw the effect long sessions had on myself and others. I still sometimes miss those halcyon days of early social media, but there is no doubt that it can be highly problematic.
One key reason that this gratitude habit worked so well is that I tied it to a highly-effective engagement and reward system. Facebook’s news feed algorithm favored written word, tagging, likes, and highly-commented posts. Each time I posted a shout out, it guaranteed the post would be seen and interacted with by at least that person. It also ensured that mutual friends saw and engaged with the post. Soon I had people that interacted with every gratitude post, whether they were tagged or not, they were gratitude fans!
Friends began their own versions, others applied it to alternative abstract concepts like modes of love. This meant that my entire network started to shift. Each day when I logged-in to keep up with my network of friends. In addition to the normal flood of images and advertising, I had notifications to both remind me to be grateful and validation for what I’d already expressed. I tethered social media’s most addicting quality to a healthy practice, and it was actually helping.
Like most things, eventually the practice itself became a little problematic. When I was around the four hundred and fifty day mark, I realized that my ego was starting to attach itself to my gratitude posts. By then I was planning on a thousand days, and then maybe writing a book or some such nonsense, time to end the public-facing portion. I picked five-hundred days as my end point and wrapped things up.
And yet, the practice continued. I don’t post gratitude on social media very often anymore, but I notice it. I thank people more than I did. I am much more aware of the blessings of my life. I make choices to ensure that I have more to be grateful for, and my relationships continued to clarify and improve. I softened, got the therapy I desperately needed, and life got more interesting.
When I began my gender transition, I created a private group to have a safe public space to play with my ideas and identity. I don’t know that I’d have trusted anyone or seen the point of trial-running that sort of thing online prior to the gratitude experiment.
In the end, I am grateful for the practice itself. Much of our political and commercial lifestyle depends on cultivating an overwhelming sense of lack. It makes it easy to blame the other, sell you stuff you don’t need, with money you don’t have, and sew disorder amongst communities. In this context, the act of being grateful is a revolutionary act. It is not necessarily easy to foster. Which brings me to my conclusion regarding this:
Gratitude itself is worthy of gratitude.
Find ways to foster it for yourself on days more than just today, but start now. Happy Thanksgiving,