me in st lucia

The Gratitude Project: 365 Days in the Life of a Millennial Searching for Happiness

me in st lucia

By Maria Russo

Back in April I was invited to meet Shawn Achor, a renowned positive psychologist (he works with Oprah – enough said) and author who spends his days traveling and studying happiness in societies around the world – yes I want that job too. The meeting was centered around the promotion of a tour company that wanted us (The Culture-ist) to feature an infographic, developed in collaboration with Achor, on the correlation between vacations and stress levels.

The meeting was really no different from most PR-orchestrated chats, but I found myself buying into Achor’s every word regarding his research on happiness. He was selling these crazy theories about how we all could truly be happy if we simply taught our brains to think as such. While he was speaking, my mind wandered to the possibilities of not waking each morning with a knot in my stomach about the day’s stories for the website, the line of emails waiting impatiently in my inbox, the nonprofit I keep promising myself I will start and the four other “important” projects that always get moved to the “tomorrow” slot on my checklist.

When our thirty minutes was up, I left with my press “goodie bag”: a copy of Achor’s book, a clown nose (I kid you not) and a cleverly designed USB drive (if only I could remember exactly what it looked like) stuffed into a pretty teal and white striped box.

As I made my way back to the subway, horns blared from every direction, the smell of urine rose from the sidewalks, dust from construction overhead slipped into my lungs and yet I felt as if nothing could dampen my mood. It was that damn Shawn Achor, he and his perfect smile exuded happiness, the kind that, actually. seemed. genuine.

Over the next few weeks, I dabbled in Achor’s book, watched his Ted Talk, and read his research. His message spoke to me, I suppose because deep down I was not happy. It was no secret that I had abandoned almost every hope and dream for myself at the age of 21 to settle for a job that offered benefits and a steady paycheck. My parents are super conservative and pressured me to find job security almost immediately after I folded and stuffed my graduation gown into the abyss of my college wardrobe. I had dreams of moving back to DC, where I had attended school, and writing for TIME magazine, or even better, becoming a field reporter for CNN in some post-conflict region of the world. Instead, I dove head first into NYC, a place I hated at the time and shifted from media job to marketing job to PR job like the wind on a blustery day.

My twenties as a whole were a whirlwind – the only moments I truly remember are those that happened in places like Italy, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey. The rest became time slots filled with mindless work, or work that caused so much stress I would wake with my fists knotted into balls and my jaw clenched so hard that when I opened and closed my mouth, it clicked.

And money? Well there was none of that honey. A wedding, $60,000 in school loans and expensive rents sucked pretty much everything my husband and I earned right from under our feet. Most of the time we felt as if we were being propelled from one debt to the next. At 27, we moved in with my parents to save enough money to nail our school loans in their coffins. Once the debt was lifted, I did breathe a bit more easily…until the next dark cloud hung low.

I had been teaching, a job I enjoyed, but was nowhere near what I had set out to be the day I left American University, a diploma worth $150,000 in hand, inscribed with the words “Journalism” and “International Studies”. And as each new school year commenced, I felt more and more stifled as if someone was slowly tightening a strait jacket around my body. I made excuses that it was the rigid testing requirements that seemed to pile up more with each passing year, or the fact that I rarely had a moment throughout the week to eat a proper lunch, or that I never truly felt connected to anyone I worked with until my very last year, but the truth was, I had spent ten years of my life in jobs that left me feeling completely and utterly unfulfilled. During my final days as a teacher, when I was nearing the edge of my rope, I went months without a sound night of sleep, anxiety consumed my thoughts and I just knew in the deepest parts of my soul that I needed to make a move — in a drastic, life-changing direction.

Fast-forward six months later to my meeting with Shawn Achor. I had indeed moved on to a different life, one that allowed me to work full-time on The Culture-ist, the one thing I had created that made me feel as if I was walking on the right path. From its humble beginnings, the site brought so much joy to me and my husband Anthony. We covered meaningful topics that actually affected people’s thoughts and sometimes, even their actions. We traveled for stories, we connected with people from almost every corner of the globe that wanted to write for us and we harnessed good through its message. It was and still is our baby. Only in the world of online media, to make a dollar, the marketplace sometimes demands you to sell your baby, or better yet, sellout your baby.

The fun we initially had in creating content turned into stress that required us to put out more “listicles”, roundups, photo essays and anything that wouldn’t demand too much of peoples’ attention. The screaming in my head started once again. The knots in my throat and fists rewired themselves and I felt like I was choking.

Which leads me to this Gratitude Project.

Several times a week I will share stories from my life. Some people are under the impression that my life is extraordinary in comparison to others, but I promise you it is not. In all the ways I am fortunate, there is an equal balance in ways that I am not. This project is to focus on only the aspects of my life I am grateful for – that’s not to say that there won’t be bitching and maybe even a little crying, but I am intrigued by Achor’s theory that we can teach our brains to be happy regardless of the circumstances. My day is filled with extreme ups and downs, opportunities and losses, goals reached and dreams gone astray. I want to see if I can be content with my life no matter the obstacles by simply spending time each day focusing on what I am grateful for. Today is the first of a long journey…. I am grateful for the courage I found deep inside to write this post and I am also grateful for the hope that someone might read it and join me on this journey.

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