Grateful for The Gift of Maya Angelou

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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rainbow gratefulness spiral

Some of the things I am grateful for may surprise you.

For example, I am grateful that my tenants accidentally set my house on fire a year ago. Sound crazy? Perhaps. Yet no one was hurt, and the insurance money gave me a chance to redo everything — new kitchen, bathroom, master bedroom.

My renovated home is beautiful.

I am grateful that my ex-boyfriend took his ex-wife back, although it hurt at the time and obviously ended our relationship, because it opened up space in my life for someone new.

I am grateful that I was turned down for the mayoral fellowship I applied for in Baltimore, MD after graduate school, because it meant that I went to work for the mayor of San Francisco instead — and the move there changed my life for the better forever.

It is not always easy to be grateful when something is going wrong. Yet shifting our perspective can change everything.

Being Grateful for the Little ThingsMaya Angelou Letter to My Daughter book

In Maya Angelou’s book, Letter to My Daughter, she describes a time in her life when she was in despair.  She went to see her mentor, and told him she was going crazy.

“Here is a yellow pad and here is a ballpoint pen,” he said. “I want you to write down your blessings.” “I don’t want to talk about that,” Maya said. “I’m telling you I’m going crazy.” He insisted. “Think of the millions of people all over the world who cannot hear a choir or a symphony or their own babies crying,” he said. “Write down I can hear, thank God.”

“Write down that you can see this yellow pad and think of all of millions of people around the world who cannot see a waterfall or a flower blooming or their lover’s face. Write down I can see, thank God.” As she reached the last line of that yellow notepad, she said, “the madness was routed.”

Today Maya Angelou writes all of her books and poems on yellow notepads. “As I approach the clean page I think of how blessed I am.”

Being Grateful Is Good For Your Health

Maya Angelou’s mentor was onto something. Science has actually shown that “practicing gratitude” is good for you!

According to a study by Dr. Robert Emmons, those who kept gratitude journals:

  • exercised more regularly,
  • reported fewer physical symptoms,
  • felt better about their lives as a whole,
  • and were more optimistic about the upcoming week

Than those who recorded “hassles or neutral life events.” They were also more likely to make progress on their personal and professional goals. So being grateful — and acknowledging and recording this — is actually good for your health, and your success!

How to Be Grateful No Matter What

  1. Keep a gratitude journal.
    If you like, try an online forum like this one:
  2. When you wake up in the morning, before you start your day, take a few minutes to give thanks for being alive, and to count your blessings.
    (It beats complaining!)
  3. Look for the “improbable gifts” —-
    things that didn’t go your way but taught you lessons or created new possibilities in your life.

I am grateful for so much — for 8 Women Dream, for the chance to pursue my dreams, for the people in my life, for my good health, my home, for all the adventures. And yes, for those times went things seemingly went wildly wrong, and yet somehow turned out for the best.

What are you grateful for?


Maya Angelou introduces Letter to My Daughter —

  • Rachel, thank you as always for your wisdom… Important to remember that YOU are worth it (glad you’ve learned that!!!) – we all are. Definitely hard to seek help sometimes tho’ – I went through that for years, unwilling to seek treatment for PTSD although I definitely experienced the symptoms of it. I thought it should just “go away.”

    I did finally learn to manage it through exercise, meditation and a lot of work with spiritual teachers, but I might not have suffered so much if I hadn’t been too proud to seek help earlier. I would definitely advise anyone suffering from it to seek help – to love themselves enough to do that.

    Loved this that you wrote as well: “What are your true priorities, and how can you work toward them?”

    So important to keep doing those checks to be sure we are in true alignment with our most important goals.

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness and insight Rachel! :-)

  • Rachel

    Lisa, I do have some thoughts about dealing with those times when it seems more unhelpful. Of course, we’ll all have a bad day now and then, and even if you’re not feeling it on a particular day, the habit may still be helping you over the long haul. But if you start feeling that way over an extended period of time (I don’t know… more than a week?), then I’m thinking it means something needs to change.

    One possibility is that someone (maybe even yourself) has talked you into thinking you should be grateful for something that’s not actually good for you. I’ve seen a lot of that talking to the former MLM-ers over at Pink Truth. They “know” they are part of some wonderful opportunity, and they should be grateful for it, meanwhile, they are running themselves ragged for very little pay, or maybe just increasing debt. The work they’re doing doesn’t bring real joy, and sometimes isolates them from friends and even family. Making the effort to be grateful for the opportunity triggers cognitive dissonance. So I think the first thing to do is be sure you’re being honest with yourself. Are you really grateful (or should you really be grateful) for these things? If not, what should you change? What are your true priorities, and how can you work toward them?

    Otherwise… if you feel worse thinking about things you know you should be grateful for, or can’t find anything that you really think you can be grateful for, and feel that way for too long, it may be one of those signs that you should seek help. Either your life is so hard that you need help in some physical way (dealing with too many difficult burdens), or it may be time to look for psychological help. I read that narcissistic people have an impaired ability to feel gratitude, and I certainly have had that issue with depression — which in my case has always had a chemical (hormonal) component. These things are treatable.

    One reason we find it so hard to seek help is that we don’t want to admit we are weak enough to need it. But of course (and we all know this) everyone needs help at some time. Or we may even be afraid we’re asking too soon… being weak to think we need help when our situation isn’t that bad. And that’s what I’m talking about — this could be a sign that yes, it really is that bad. There usually are some kind of resources we can find, but it means we have to deal with the embarrassment of admitting we need it, and possibly to multiple people before we find the right solution. The thing to remember, I guess, is that it’s worth it.

  • Remy G

    I live a blessed life. I know that even if I cant see the reasons, good or ‘bad’, right now is where I need to be. On paper, my life doesn’t look too exciting or successful, but I know now its the starting point to a much better place that I will ultimately create. I love the idea of a journal…so that will be a great new addition to the morning routine! Thank you Lisa…

  • Lisa,
    I am so grateful to have you in my life.

  • Rachel, wow, I am so thrilled that you’ll be doing gratitude journaling with your kids… What an awesome family project! I will remember that someday when I have kids :-) to put this to use as a family exercise… it’s a really beautiful idea.

    I wish you all the best in getting it rolling and let me know how it goes… You’ll be giving the kids (and yourself!) a gift by getting them started on this practice. Would love to hear more about the difference it makes…

    And I do understand what you mean about how “counting our blessings” can sometimes make things feel even worse. I thought about that when writing the post and am not sure how to suggest that people work around that during those times? What are your thoughts?

    I guess maybe it is just good to institute gratitude as a practice and also to remember that life does ebb and flow and that there may be times when we are not “feeling” it and that’s OK too.

    It’s all a journey…

    Today am very grateful to be on this journey with all of YOU, for my friends here, old and new, and for being a part of the 8womendream team.

    Lucky me!

    HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL OF YOU – may it be your best one yet! :-) (full of gratitude and blessings… I wish this for everyone!)


  • Rachel

    Thanks. Of course, I only tell the good stuff.

    Lisa, I had a little more time at lunch today to look at some of that research. I’m going to go out (hopefully this weekend) and buy a little journal for each of my kids and one for me, and try to set aside a few minutes each day to write an entry as a family activity.

    One of my son’s big problems is that he gets very easily frustrated and angry, and has a hard time getting it under control. He goes through a lot of times where he finds it difficult to see anything good. I have high hopes that this will help him much more than trying to point out what’s right about his life when he’s already in an argumentative mood. And it will give me an excuse to ask my teenage daughters to spend at least a few minutes a day at home with me. (They’ll still say, “but why? Mom, we really don’t need it.” And give some very plausible reason they don’t need it, and they have more important things to do. But I will try to stand firm.)

  • Catherine, Site Admin

    Rachel, you sound like a great mom.

  • Rachel

    Just as a little correction on what I said earlier… I didn’t of course mean that it’s necessarily a serious issue where you need help if efforts to be grateful don’t make you feel happy. And even if you don’t feel an immediate change of mood with the exercise (which you often won’t), it can still mean your overall state of mind will be better than it otherwise would.

    What I had in mind there were times when trying to be grateful actually made me feel worse. When I think back on what was going on at those times for me, I really was in serious and dangerous depressions (the latest being the post-partum sort 17 years ago.)

    So yes, back to Lisa’s title point. It’s not hard to come up with all kinds of things that didn’t seem like blessings while they were happening, but for which I’m now grateful.

    Back in high school, I wanted so badly to fit in, but I wasn’t capable of it. When I look back, with a more adult understanding of what social life was like for so many of those popular kids, I’m glad I never could, and that I’ve always been stuck with just being me. I’m terribly grateful that my daughters have never tried to be popular, and have done a great job of finding true friends, and I like to think that the lessons I learned about friendship, and tried to pass on to them, have something to do with that.

    When my daughters were born, I had some very serious complications. As difficult as it was to have a time of joy turned into a time of hardship and fear, it gave me a new appreciation for life (and, when I finally did get better, health) which even at the time I knew was something to be grateful for. For much of my life before that time, I hadn’t felt like life was worth living. I’ve never been able to feel that way for more than a minute or two since (and even that only happend for a short time during the worst of the post-partum stuff a few months later.) Sometimes when people say, “we still have our health”, they say it as if that wasn’t much to crow about. I used to do that. But I never will again (how meta — I’m grateful for an increased capacity for gratitude :))

    I have a son who has been more difficult than I ever imagined a non-special-needs child could be. That isn’t something I’d have ever asked for. But I’m grateful for all he’s taught me. He’s opened my eyes to be compassionate in areas where I was once very judgemental. He’s challenged my skills as a parent. He’s given me a window into the workings of a different kind of person than any I’ve ever been so close to. And I’ve learned a little bit that I didn’t know about the people who make up the world I live in, by seeing how others respond to him.

    One thing we learn as parents, is that even when our children chew up ridiculous amounts of our time and energy (such as we’d never have predicted), they’re still worth it.

  • Veronica

    I have a lot to learn from you…..

  • Daphne

    Oh Lisa!! You are so very right to remind us all that ALL that we go through, the good, the bad and the ugly, has brought us to who and where we are today, which is exactly who we are supposed to be and EXACTLY WHERE we are supposed to be. One of my favorite quotes is from the Matrix:

    “What happened, happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.” Morpheus

    Even better is the continuation of that dialog when Neo asks:
    “How do you know?” and Morpheus responds:

    I sometimes forget that I am exactly where I am supposed to be when I am in pain; feeling sad, lonely, hurt, scared, frustrated, etc, etc. But, you, oh wise Lisa, so eloquently and lovingly in your perfect, gentle way have reminded us that it is SO very important and PERTINENT to our happiness to be as grateful for those times as we are for the great, happy, passionate, wonderful, high, pleasurable, abundant and enjoyable times in our lives. Those times show and teach us so much about our resilience and our strength as well as give those around us the opportunity to show THEIR compassion and strength. We so often think that we have to be “strong” (whatever the hell that means) and not “need” anyone. We forget that those who love us WANT to be there for us and we are actually giving them a gift by letting them be “strong” for us for a moment. I feel my most beautiful and strong when I am weeping like a child and actually FEELING!

    So, going back to Lisa’s perfect point about being grateful for even the “bad” things that happen:
    Someone once said something so powerful and beautiful to me about his childhood, which was very difficult. His father was an alcoholic and left when my friend was 11. He said (roughly, my memory sucks):

    “Maybe I had the most perfect father for me. Maybe my dad was exactly the dad I needed to make me exactly who I am, which is exactly who I am supposed to be.”

    I think it is so easy to be grateful for the people who are kind or generous or wonderful in our lives, but how often are we grateful for people who have hurt us? Think of how much we grow from our hurt and our pain. I recently had a very painful relationship and I am extremely grateful for all that I learned from that relationship; about myself, my friends, my needs, my values, EVERYTHING!

    But, all that being said…I must say, I think I am most grateful for YOU, my dear friend.
    Love, D

  • I am so grateful for you too Margs – my sister and friend – and so look forward to seeing you in Argentina soon! (we’ll miss you over Thanksgiving!).

    I am constantly amazed by how awesome you are :-) and can’t wait to see how your life continues to evolve…

    Love this, sis:

    “Just for today, do not anger.
    Do not worry, and be filled with gratitude.
    Devote yourself to your work. Be kind to people.”

    You are wise and wonderful. Love and miss you!

    Rachel, great insights as always… I appreciated this: “So something I’ve learned over the years is that I don’t need to compare myself to others, to see the good in my life.”

    So true… and also true that it can be challenging sometimes to find and focus on the good. I thought about that too as I wrote today’s post – what if you are in a tough space in your life – can you find things to be grateful for?

    Sometimes we do need help to get there… Like you said, if we cannot find *any* grateful thoughts perhaps something deeper is wrong. Because when we are in a good space, gratitude can be the baseline – that sense of gratitude for simply being alive. Doesn’t always feel so good when life isn’t what we hoped – and yet there’s always the chance to create what we want in life. Glad you have learned (as I have in my own life!) to reach out when you do need help – so important to do that for ourselves!

    It’s just a great mindset to have, I think, to always focus on the good when we can (vs. “what’s missing”) – and then we attract more of that. I love it that scientists now actually study this stuff too :-) (that studying happiness and what promotes it is a science!).

    Here’s to finding lots of ways to be grateful and share our gratitude in the coming week, and always…

  • Kim

    It’s good to try to feel grateful for sure. But sometimes you’re just in a crappy mood and nothing will help but time. Life has ups and downs, no matter how good or bad you have it. I feel that my kids have it good, and tell them that they should be grateful. But I also tell them that you can feel bad for no reason at all, through hormones, or whatever, and it should pass.

    It’s hard to relate to other people and “live” in their shoes. You only have your life. And everyone will have their good and bad days. My kids and I volunteered today and we seem to be in good spirits now. Maybe that helps. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Rachel

    Lisa, how interesting to see a study that actually indicated cause, rather than just correlation (so appropriate, your image, “… it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”) Thanks for that.

    I have been raised to count my blessings, but I have to say that there are times when I questioned whether it really works. As soon as I say that, it sounds ridiculous, because I have this overwhelming sense of the many times I’ve thought about the good things in my life, and counting my blessings has lifted my spirits. Why, then, did I question? Well, there have in fact been times when trying to count my blessings didn’t work — when it actually made me feel worse.

    So what if it isn’t working?

    Well first, I’d like to caution about this method of thinking about people who have it worse. We hear that advice so commonly, it must work for many people. And certainly there are times when it can be inspiring to see examples of people who are happy despite lacking many comforts we have. But if I’m truly going through something difficult, then thinking about people who have it worse is just depressing. If it’s difficult to even come up with a situation that seems worse than mine, then wow, that’s really depressing. And if I’m feeling sorry for myself despite the obvious fact that I don’t have it so bad, that can make me feel guilty, which is certainly more harm than help.

    So something I’ve learned over the years is that I don’t need to compare myself to others, to see the good in my life. I don’t have to think, “some people don’t have this”, to know it’s good. [It’s not hard to see that it’s good to have a roof over my head, enough to eat, good general health, a loving husband, two amazing daughters, a winderful but challenging son who’s taught me humility–as well as compassion for parents of less-than-ideally-behaved children, a place to dance, and not least of all, a Lisa to make me think (good thoughts!) and a Catherine and 6 other women to support and encourage this conversation.]

    Okay, and still, what if I try to think of the good things, and just can’t come up with anything that make me feel grateful? Suppose I try to think it’s good to have my sight, but I look around me and everything seems ugly anyway? Suppose I try to be glad I can hear beautiful music, and I react by thinking, “yeah, but I’ve lost the ability to make music, and that takes so much pleasure out of it, and besides, I hate listening to traffic noises and lawn mowers, and lately most of the music I hear is just annoying, anyway?” I can’t be the only one who’s ever been in that place. Sometimes, we may be too unhappy or broken to be grateful.

    Thinking about this research Lisa’s pointed us to, along with my own experiences, I have to believe that if we aren’t able to feel grateful, it probably means there’s something wrong we need help with. There are times when all the self help in the world doesn’t seem to be enough, and then it’s time to go the pros. It took me far too long to learn that. But I’m awfully grateful that I finally did.

  • Margaret

    I am grateful to have you as my sister. Grateful for all that you have taught me and continue to teach me as we grow and mature.

    And in the spirit of this post, I would also like to share an excerpt from how I start my days…

    Just for today, do not anger.
    Do not worry, and be filled with gratitude.
    Devote yourself to your work. Be kind to people.

    Happy Thanksgiving Lis :)

  • Cath, I’m grateful for YOU and all you do to make this dream possible for all of us… Living out our dreams together, as a team, here. :-)

    Julita, please remember how loved you are :-) and how many people are thankful that you are in your lives… Your family, friends and patients too! (even if your girls may be moody sometimes they love you…) I know some days can be hard – just keep the faith and keep going and things DO get better sweetheart… :-)

    Susan, so glad this resonated for you and that you are practicing gratitude journaling too! It literally does make a difference according to scientific studies… and just *feels* so much better to focus on what *is* working in our lives, vs. what is missing (plus, I believe we then attract more of the good, when that is what we focus on…)

    Erika you are so right, this is a good practice all year-round, not just this week… Grateful for friends like you and our beautiful little town of Troy, NY. :-)

  • Erika

    Indeed, what a great exercise in the midst of despair: to practice the discipline of gratefulness. It’s a good thing to do all the time, not just for Thanksgiving!

  • Susan

    Lisa, Isn’t it the truth…sometimes it takes an unexpected and often negative jolt to jump-start our gratitude…altho i attempt to be grateful every morning before rising, something like tripping over the dog can set my good intentions askew…love the idea of a gratitude journal. Recently discovered the benefits of positive journaling…rather than scribbling away to release the “why me” issues that get stuck in the crevices inside…the optimism from the positive journal seems to weave a constructive thread thru my day. Thanks for sharing your upbeat take on life. You’re the best!

  • Julita

    Lisa, I am grateful for your wonderful inspiring post today! sometimes I just don’t want to get out of bed when I wake up, what is the point? why even bother?

    but, I am grateful for so many things in my life, especially the people who love me.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!!!!

  • Catherine

    I love this way of thinking and it helps when one is raising a teenager as they go through the “Life sucks – I hate everything” years.

    I always relate everything to what it was like after my father died – for my mother – for me – for my brother. It changed us forever, but it taught me at the young age of 18 to be grateful as long as those you love are alive.

    Everyone has problems and situations in their lives, but those situations are typically transitory, but death is permanent – without the opportunity to enjoy the laughter of someone you love.

    I am grateful you are a part of this project, grateful for Heather, Kim, Wendy, Danelle, Veronica, Remy; grateful for my teenage son who knows everything, grateful for my mother and grateful to all my good friends and family who have loved and supported me through the years.


  • p.s. also a shout-out of THANKS to the superstars Brian Johnson (check out his amazing to “get your wisdom on) and Alexandra Jaye, surely one of this planet’s most luminous beings – see – for turning me on to

    Thanks for practicing daily gratitude you two and for always inspiring me :-)

    And big thanks to the lovely Noelle Gray who sent me the Maya Angelou audio book featured here… grateful for YOU sweetheart. xoxo

    • My mother gave me Maya’s audio book and asked that I pass it on to other women, too. I have it set up on my iPod. When I have it set to shuffle a chapter will pop in between songs and I find that whatever message Maya has to share is apropos. I am very happy to have you to pass it on to. :) I love your site! Keep on keepin’ on, sister!

  • Lisa, the famous author

    I love the little spiral quote I found to post with this blog: “In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us happy.”

    Cicero wrote: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

    Here are some more thoughts on gratitude “causing happiness”:

    I love looking at it this way during Thanksgiving week… It’s not only that I should be grateful when things are going well or for all the obvious things, but that the practice of gratitude, regularly, no matter what, actually makes me happier.

    I do give thanks regularly, not just during Thanksgiving. Hope doing this brings you extra happiness too… Life’s too short not to love who we are and what we have (even when we’re wishing for more), IMHO.

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving week everyone! :-)