“Although my circumstances may not be exactly as I wish, I still have reason to be grateful. Right now, as I sit in my cell, it’s hot and the air is stale — but I hear a little bird chirping happily somewhere outside my window. “Scott Zirus, TX
Does gratefulness truly make us happy? How does gratefulness serve us during difficult times? What is your experience of gratitude as a person who is incarcerated and denied so many of the freedoms and privileges associated with happiness? These are some of the questions we explored through Grateful Anyhow, a project in partnership with Prisoner Express (PE) that engaged approximately 350 incarcerated men and women in an exploration of the transformative power of gratefulness.
As part of the project, prisoners received articles, scientific studies, stories, and practices on gratefulness, along with questions for reflection from Grateful Living via PE. In response, participants were encouraged to share their thoughts and experiences in writing via letters that were mailed back to PE. The perspectives and stories that prisoners have shared are moving, illuminating, and extremely humbling. We thank each of the participants for extending themselves to share a glimpse into their journeys and the profound challenges of prison life — the reflections are a gift in educating us and informing our sense of the potential impact of gratefulness.
Below are excerpts of some of the letters we received from participants:
“I’ve been — for a week now — writing in my Daily Planner 3 things I’m grateful for and it makes me think of good things, focus on (the) positive and it makes me feel good inside and happy. So far it’s done me good. When someone speaks to me, I actually take time to listen and respond instead of getting away and it makes me feel good to just listen to someone and give them a smile. This is going to be good for me. “
– Ashley Law, TX (read more of Ashley’s story here)
“I think I’m still on the path of “awfulizing.” Talking to people, I hear that I am bitter. When I write I allow myself to be free, and I paint certain pictures of things the way that I want them to be, not as they are…Honestly, I read through the packet with skepticism. The quotes and poems and steps make you feel better in the moment but how do you turn that into a lasting feeling?“
– Moses Valdez, TX
“Over 75% of inmates in prisons today are victims of dysfunctional families, of single parent households, and abusive foster care systems. We don’t sit around scheming to be more ruthless and corrupt, striving towards ill-gotten gains. We wake up each morning in fear of whether or not we’ll be raped, or beaten, or stabbed because someone wants our food or our shoes…We are dehumanized in these places until we become what we were accused of being in the first place…When we learn to be thankful for even the most seemingly inconsequential of things we are training ourselves on how to live in the moment and to fuel positive thoughts in that moment which leads to positive feelings of contentment and happiness which lead to positive, constructive behavior. So what we do when we are thankful in the moment for our health or even a prison meal is we learn to build a cycle of success. Since we are focused on the moment we aren’t thinking about (the) future or past or building expectations that when not met will lead us back into the negative cycle. “
– Danny Brandon, FL (read more of Danny’s story here)
“Your ‘Grateful Anyhow’ newsletter arrived just about a month ago, and I put it aside until I could get in a better state of mind. That was not happening, so I decided this morning to read it to see what it was about. It wasn’t until I got to page 10 and read “The Value of Gratitude in Prison” that I finally got it.
Although I am very angry for a lot of things (being in prison for my past rather than something that is a crime, etc.), I can be grateful for a few things. First and foremost is still having the ability (i.e. sanity) to comprehend your newsletter and write you. A lot of those around me — even at my age — cannot read and write. “
– Steven Maher, TX
“Enclosed is a copy of a gratitude letter I wrote to my sister, which was inspired by a prompt in the packet:
My Dearest Li’l Sister:
I am currently participating in a course called “Grateful Anyhow,” which challenges me to think about the things I’m grateful for despite my difficult circumstances. You immediately came to mind, since I am most grateful for you allowing me to be a part of my nephew’s life. It’d be very easy for you to cut me out entirely — especially considering the nature of my offenses.
I think about this whenever I look around and see so many guys who don’t even have contact with their own children, which makes me feel all the more lucky whenever I talk to P. on the phone, get pictures of him in the mail, and you bring him to visit. P. is the most important person to me because he makes me want to be a better person, and I can’t thank you enough for allowing me to play a role in his life.
Love Your Big Bro,
– Chad Frank, NC
“The hardest part of prison for me has consistently been living with different individuals. I came to prison very ignorant, young and afraid. I roomed with several strong personalities and ended up getting run over. I didn’t have a voice, and I was scared to even try to have one. With each new room and situation, however, I became bolder and more confident. 4 years later I believe I now possess the power to use my voice and be assertive. I’d still be a scared little girl if not for my many difficult living situations…When I’m grateful life feels bright and meaningful. I have purpose, peace, satisfaction, and often, happiness. There are no “downsides” to practicing gratitude. “
– Hadassah Huber, MN
“My reminders for opportunities or gifts in a moment have always been blessings of nature. The other day a bee landed on my shoulder. A friend of mine immediately wanted to swat it. I said, ‘No, let it be.’ It was a privilege for me to have attracted that bee. Shortly thereafter, the bee flew away. All we have to do is stop, look and listen, nature gifts us with so much, our cups are filled to overflowing.”
– Arnie Zepeda, CA
This project sheds light on how Grateful Living might cultivate resiliency and well-being in some of the harshest environments in the U.S. Participants’ responses invite us to consider how to learn, develop, and articulate a framework that is meaningful to people who have little control over their environments, activities, relationships, or future. Hearing personal reflections on if and how gratefulness serves those in difficult circumstances furthers our understanding and articulation of this framework as a beneficial force in the world.
Wisdom, struggle, and perspective shine through the letters we are receiving, and we will continue to look to these reflections for important lessons and insights. We hope that the experiences of these individuals informs your own practice of gratefulness, especially when you find yourself facing difficulty.
We offer immense gratitude to Gary Fine at Prisoner Express and the good folks at the Durland Alternatives Library (which provides a home for Prisoner Express) for their partnership and important work. Learn more about their programs at prisonerexpress.org and alternativeslibrary.org. We are also profoundly grateful to the Greater Good Science Center for generously sharing their research and for their ongoing partnership in supporting happier lives and a more compassionate society.