In 1995, an unknown writer published a book of self-help musings. This book contained 365 entries–one for each day of the year–and promised to “transform your life and help you excavate your authentic self.”
It extolled the joys of simple pleasures, like “the smell of fresh laundry” and “porridge with warm apple sauce.” It promised that by appreciating the simple things in life, you would have “more.” The author doesn’t say more what. Just more.
You may have heard of this book. It’s called Simple Abundance: A Day Book of Comfort and Joy and was published under the author’s pen name, Sarah Ban Breathnach.
In 1996, after reading the book, Oprah dubbed it “one of her favorite things,” and had Ms. Ban Breathnach on her show 11 times. So of course, everyone with a vagina ran out and bought the book, making Ms. Ban Breathnach a millionaire with $7 million to her name.
In 1998, I got my own copy of Simple Abundance. In theory, it came in handy: I didn’t know it at the time, but October 1, 1998 began one of the worst times in my life. That was the day my roommate and I gave up our 2-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. She was moving to Spain, and I’d been looking for my own place for over three months, with no luck.
Homeless and chasing apartments every day, I moved my belongings into storage. My co-worker Sara generously allowed me to stay in her guest room. I would sometimes give her a break by spending the night at my abusive boyfriend’s apartment, or I’d visit my cousin, who lived 60 miles away from my job. Did I mention I hated my job? These things- homelessness, abusive boyfriend, hated job–created the perfect shitstorm.
In need of some comfort and joy, I dove headfirst into Simple Abundance. I was eager for my life to get better. This included keeping the famed Gratitude Journal, where you write down five things you’re grateful for every day. These are usually small, everyday things (laundry! porridge!) that remind you how much you already have– because, as Ban Breathnach tells us, it’s not about chasing material goods, it’s about appreciating the little things, like clean sheets and applesauce.
“The gratitude journal has to be the first step on the Simple Abundance path or it just won’t work for you.…All the…principles that can transform your life will not flourish without gratitude. If you want to travel this journey with me the gratitude journal is not an option.” [italics hers.]
So, translation: do the goddamn gratitude journal, or your life will suck.
Every night, no matter how bad my day was, I filled my journal with gems such as, “I’m grateful to Sara for letting me stay,” and “I had dinner with my cousin Angie, and we laughed.” I kept my gratitude journal faithfully for over a year.
In April of 1999, I escaped the shitstorm when I moved back to Chicago, and got my own apartment. I left behind the abusive boyfriend and soul-crushing job. But my life wasn’t “better” for having made notes of thanks each night, and I definitely didn’t have “more.” When I moved to California in 1994, I had $300 to my name. When I returned to Chicago, I had $600. In five years I had a net profit of three hundred bucks. I felt like the world’s biggest loser.
In Chicago, I temped and landed the occasional acting job, still living paycheck-to-paycheck. I continued to read Simple Abundance, highlighting passages such as, “I am what I am, and what I am is wonderful.” I wrote in my gratitude journal every day. This stuff had to work, right? My acting career was going to take off, right? All this gratitude and simplicity-appreciating was going to pay off, right? I mean it had to– according to the book, if I did that, everything else would follow.
In January of 2000, I finally had it with Ms. Ban Breathnach and her fresh laundry and warm porridge. I was unemployed and feeling low, so I read her “Joyful Simplicities for January,” In the list of 13 “simple” things we were supposed to do in January (like make a Gratitude Collage!) there was:
“Stock the pantry with real cocoa, tiny marshmallows and a bar of good chocolate (for shaved chocolate topping.) Get some whipped cream and keep it in the refrigerator…have tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. Luxuriate in an unexpected day off. “
That just tore it. I threw the book onto the floor and yelled, “You don’t get it lady!” I needed money, I needed a job, I needed to pay my rent– all the cocoa-shaving and warm porridge in the world weren’t going to change that. And it’s grilled cheese, not “toasted cheese”!
That was the last time I ever turned to that stupid pink book for comfort.
During a house move a few years ago, I threw my gratitude journal into the garbage. The book, however, stayed with me.
I read a lot of business books, and I think Ban Breathnach did something to poison the well. Business books that specifically claim they are helping women overcome the sexism of the Old Boys Network always have some passage on how we must give gratitude- or we won’t be successful. It’s as if they cribbed directly from the bullshit master herself. I think this notion being sold to women–this notion of “You have to give gratitude or you won’t have a good life”– is horseshit.
I want to be clear here. I strongly believe in giving thanks, regularly. I’m a huge proponent of thankfulness. I send a prompt, hand-written thank you for every gift I get. When I interview candidates, if I don’t get a cursory “thank you,” after the interview, I don’t hire that person.
So yes, gratitude is important. I think it’s beyond important. But when it’s held out as a requisite for success, when someone tells you, “You will not get anything you want unless you give thanks in the way that I say”– sorry, not buying it. I’m pretty sure that neither Bill Gates nor Sheryl Sandberg ever kept a gratitude journal. And I have it on good authority that Jeff Bezos didn’t either– I asked the guy who literally wrote the book on Jeff Bezos.
By the way, that gratitude journal wasn’t any insurance for Sarah Ban Breathnach, either. Following her success, she blew her seven million on Marilyn Monroe’s furs, multiple houses, and Manolo Blahniks. By 2010, she was bankrupt, and living with her sister.
So Ms. Breathnach, I’m going to give gratitude in my way, and on my terms– not because some Oprah-blessed snake oil salesman told me.
One final note, in case you’re wondering. If I hate this book so much, why do I still have it? The answer lies in the inscription. I can’t bring myself to throw it out because my Mom gave it to me: and for her, I’m eternally grateful.
My mom raised two kids by herself, while she attended school and worked full-time. My mom never kept a gratitude journal. But she gave me something better than this book. She demonstrated what it means to work your ass off, and do what needs to be done.
Thanks, Mom. You’re the reason I can stand here and make fun of this book.
 Seriously, I emailed Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store and asked him if Bezos ever kept a gratitude journal. The answer was “no.”
Mare Swallow is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Writers Conference. By day, she gives speeches about public speaking. She was named to NewCity’s Lit 50 in 2013 and 2015. She is currently toiling away at her MFA in Creative NonFiction at Goucher College. She writes essays and shares the most embarrassing ones in bars all over Chicago. Specifically, Mare has performed at First Time, Story Lab, Story Club, Is This A Thing? and Tuesday Funk. Her writing has appeared on the Brevity Blog. She’s a total Gin Snob. Beefeater? Only to clean her toilet.