Gratitude: A Practical Guide to Manning Up (Part 1)

(above artwork by by woodleywonderworks via Flickr / Creative Commons)

ways for men to practice gratitude manhood masculinity mindfulness journaling

“Chin up!” “Move on!” “Let it go!”

Often when guys express a sense of loss or sadness, the response from friends and loved ones is frighteningly simplistic. We’re frequently advised to do something we’ve been told our entire lives on the football field or rugby pitch: “Suck it up!” As men, we’re often expected to keep our emotions suppressed and carry the burdens of our daily lives in silence.

Even more troubling, the idea of suppressing our grieving process and discounting our need to examine is often suggested by people whose opinions and advice we respect. It’s not for lack of trying; our confidants and guides often want to see us restored to our former glory — so not dignifying the complexities of our feelings seems a natural solution.

Truthfully, I would condone “manning up” if I knew what the term meant or how to do it successfully. I would simply turn off my need to grapple facts and obsess — treating an emotional wound with the same stalwart veneer as a physical one. Unfortunately for most of us, “cheering up” is no simple feat. It can feel damn near impossible, especially when we’ve recently suffered bad news at the job, a major break up, or are simply experiencing a general funk. The question is: how do we process our losses and failures without losing our sense of joy and ambition? What are the first steps to feeling ourselves again? And what the hell does it actually mean to “man up”?

For me, the path to happiness (or at least temporary sanity) comes from the concept of gratitude. Gratitude is the quality of being thankful. It’s the conscious focus on the things that are going right amidst a seemingly apocalyptic vortex of the things that are going wrong. Gratitude greases the emotional gears when we seem to be stuck in reverse. It’s a channeling of our obsessive energy into something beneficial to our daily lives. Gratitude is a foundation to feeling better and a welcome first step in changing our outlook. Fortunately for us — like going to gym or training for a marathon – gratitude is a practice.

In this series of posts, we’ll examine practical methods of recovery and improvement through the form of gratitude. Perhaps your girlfriend or mother or sensitive best friend has suggested keeping a gratitude journal. Though the concept may sound like keeping a diary – anathema for most men – it’s not. It is a scientifically validated way to increase optimism, bolster happiness, and improve communication.

For our purposes I’ll be outlining my own gratitude practice — sharing both my successes and failures for your benefit and general amusement. Think of this as Morgan Spurlock immersive journalism, but with middle class ambitions and a fraction of the budget.

Strategy 1: Decide that a gratitude practice is cool.

This may prove difficult as journaling is often perceived as a taxing or effeminate act. When this thought enters your mind, decide whether you would rather be a guy who journals or an emotional black hole who sucks the life out of parties and work outings.

Perhaps you’re not a wet blanket. Maybe you fancy yourself a John Wayne type and wear a stiff upper lip. I’ve encountered many guys who see sharing or writing emotions as a sign of a weak mind. And that’s a cool opinion, especially if you’re into being completely wrong. Powerful minds highly correlate with powerful imaginations and our capacity to imagine can often be the cause of our anxieties and obsessions.

Though it may seem more manly to keep your own counsel and bury your feelings, the Willy Wonka living inside your head is a god damned evil genius. He’s very capable of giving you a warped perception of reality. This type of self-counsel, though seemingly private, tends to manifest itself in odd and transparent ways to the people around us. Isolation, moodiness, self-medicating and a general disinterest in the world are often the results. In this case, the rewards far outweigh the initial discomfort. I find it beneficial to get my problems out of the ether and into a world where they can be fixed. A gratitude practice gives tangible dimensions to our nebulous concerns. What could be more Tim Allen than that?

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Strategy 2: Misery loves company.

As is the case with many practices (weight lifting, jogging, rock climbing) keeping a log of your gratitude is best done with a partner.   Chances are one of your guy friends is in need of this exercise even more than you and like most of us, he’ll have trouble reaching out. Look around you. Who’s been sleeping on the couch? Who just lost their job? Who’s got that drained look about them? Anyone you know being shadowed by a flock of vultures? Collate that group in your mind. Remember you don’t need their advice and you don’t need their understanding. You only need their confidence and their email address.

The ideal candidate is someone who you’re close with but who you don’t have to see everyday. Measure twice. Cut once. If you have the right person, it will make your experience all the more fulfilling. I chose an old friend from high school (Kyle) who has earned my trust over many years. I don’t see him but for Christmas and New Years – so this provided a means to not only better myself, but to reconnect with my friend on a new level. If you don’t have someone like this, a therapist, relative, or religious counselor will suffice. Ask this person if he or she would be willing to exchange a simple gratitude list via email for a distinct period of time. Data suggests that one list per week will yield strong results. Kyle and I chose to exchange everyday for a period of forty days. A gratitude binge of sorts. 

Be clear and upfront with your guidelines and boundaries. Perhaps you would like to have these emails deleted each day or maybe you would like to skip weekends. It’s best to decide these things beforehand.

Strategy 3: Silent but deadly

At the beginning of our exercise Kyle and I agreed upon one fundamental rule. No responses to the list. No commenting, advising, encouraging, consoling, clarifying, or critiquing in any way, shape, or form. It’s like Fight Club, but with less hitting. This rule proved critical.

When it comes to friends and family, it’s a natural tendency to want to advise and help those who seek guidance. However, I get more frustrated, become more put out, and feel more like a burden when I’m wasting someone else’s time with the obligation of giving me a pep talk. I need to get my thoughts out, but when I know I’m either being self-loathing, illogical, or just angry – I don’t really want people to dignify (or frankly see) my neurosis flapping in the wind.

Doing the list with a friend has many benefits, but gratitude and happiness rarely come from other people’s perception of our lives. Kyle and I exchanged lists, but other than a few humorous comments about the process of writing our own lists, we remained mute to what we were reading. There were no judgments, no comments, and no therapy sessions. Just two dudes writing and exchanging stuff we appreciated in our lives.

The second installment of this series focuses on the changes you can expect from keeping a gratitude practice. If this were a BuzzFeed article the headline would read, “Man keeps a gratitude journal, what happens next will amaze you.” At the very least, the next segment will mildly whelm you.

Like what you’re reading?  Please join hundreds of email subscribers who receive our biweekly digests of recent posts, and access to special content like full-length interviews and eBooks .

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