Starving Artist No More Blog

004: An Attitude of Gratitude

daily habits gratitude mindset social psychology thanksgiving Nov 22, 2022
Starving Artist No More | Jennifer Jill Araya
004: An Attitude of Gratitude

What are you thankful for? I’m not sure when you’re listening to this, but for me right now, as I’m recording and releasing this episode, we are just two days out from Thanksgiving in the United States. It’s a time of pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes and (my personal favorite) sweet potato casserole. It’s a time of family and joy and togetherness. For many people, it’s time for a Thanksgiving Day run! My husband, Arturo, and I are running the Cincinnati Turkey Trot 10K on Thursday, which I’m super excited about.  And, of course, this is a time of thanksgiving, of gratitude. An attitude of gratitude is more than just catchy phrasing. It is a real and powerful way for artists to carry the joy of their best creative experiences with them long term, regardless of the current circumstances. A mindset of gratitude can completely change your perspective on your life and work as a creative.


Hey there, thriving artists! I’m so glad you’re here with me today. Happy Thanksgiving! I’m Jennifer Jill Araya, and I’m thrilled to be sharing my time with you this Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Right now, as I’m recording this episode, Arturo, my husband, and I are looking forward to the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot 10K, which I mentioned in the introduction, and of course I can’t wait to celebrate the holiday with my family later this week.

I don’t know about your family, but every Thanksgiving, before we enjoy the incredible deliciousness that is the Thanksgiving Day meal, my family always goes around the table, and one by one, we share what we are grateful for this Thanksgiving. We take a moment to reflect on the past year, on all of its ups and downs, and we make a conscious choice to focus on the good, on the blessings, on the joy. This ritual might be a bit of a cliché, but I’ve still always found it very moving. This yearly process of reflection has, for me, always set the right tone for the coming holiday season. As a gigging musician, the holidays are one of the most stressful times of the year for me. From Messiah performances to holiday pops concerts and Christmas cantatas, my performance schedule is always full to the max in the months of November and December. When I was teaching private music lessons, the two or three weeks following Thanksgiving were always a frantic rush to get all of my students fully prepared for their performances in my end-of-semester studio recital. And even if your creative work isn’t in music and you don’t have performances coming up over the next 6 weeks, I’m sure you can agree that, as much as we’d like the holiday season to be only joy and laughter and merriment, the holidays are often accompanied by a healthy dose of stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and busyness.

For me, the ritual of naming my gratitude on Thanksgiving Day is one small step to counter the busyness of the coming weeks. It is my family’s way of saying that we won’t let our holiday season be consumed by consumerism or stress or the craziness of the season. We start the season by focusing intentionally on the many ways in which we are blessed.

Even if your family doesn’t practice the annual “what are you thankful for” ritual, if you’re in America right now, I have no doubt that gratitude and thankfulness have crossed your radar once or twice recently. The holiday is called “Thanksgiving,” after all. If you’re in the United States right now, it’s a little hard to get away from gratitude at the moment. Enough so that it might seem like thankfulness is something saccharine, something artificial, not something real. But gratitude is absolutely a mindset worth cultivating year-round, not just during the holiday season, and a perspective of thankfulness is particularly helpful for the creative. In today’s episode, we’re going to look at several reasons why that is true.

Let’s start with a bit of a “throwback” story that I’d like to share with you. This story might seem like an odd tale to include on an episode about gratitude, but I hope you’ll stick with me. It will all make sense in the end.

So, now for the story. My first car, when I was a sophomore in high school, was a black, hard-top Jeep Wrangler. It was such a fun car! It didn’t have AC, other than the window variety, which is not a good state of being for a black car. And it only had 4 cylinders, which might be a fine engine size for most cars, but for a vehicle as heavy and bulky as a Jeep Wrangler, it was a real deficiency, especially on the many hills of West Virginia, where I grew up. Oh what a fun car that was, warts and all!

One of the best attributes of my Wrangler, though, had nothing to do with my car itself and everything to do with other drivers. You see, Jeep Wrangler drivers wave to each other. Or at least, they used to. I haven’t owned or driven one in several decades at this point, so things might have changed. But at least when I owned my Wrangler, every single Wrangler driver I passed, day or night, waved at me. And I waved back. Let me tell you – you have NO IDEA how many Wranglers are on the road until you have to start waving at every one you see! Especially in West Virginia, where off-road vehicles like Jeeps are particularly popular, sometimes it felt like I was waving at every other driver I saw! I didn’t learn to drive in my Wrangler – that honor went to the Jeep Cherokee that my family used as our family car at the time – so the “Wrangler waving” took me by complete surprise once I switch to driving the Wrangler. I had never paid much attention to Jeep Wranglers before, and I had no idea how many I’d encounter on a daily basis. It was like they were everywhere, with more and more Wranglers on the road on a daily basis! It seemed like they were multiplying!

Obviously, Wranglers weren’t actually multiplying. They were being sold and being driven at the same rate before and after my acquisition of a Wrangler. The same number of Jeep Wranglers had all been on the road the whole time. But because I was now forced to notice and acknowledge every Wrangler I saw, my perception was that they were popping up everywhere. When you intentionally notice something once, you are more likely to notice it again in the future. Noticing one Wrangler made it that much easier for me to register the next Wrangler, until I was noticing them everywhere.

This phenomenon is actually a recognized psychological reality. It’s called the Frequency Illusion, Frequency Bias, or the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. This last name for the situation comes from one of the first popularly documented instances of the frequency illusion in action. In 1994, a man named Terry Mullen wrote a letter to his newspaper about a situation in which he came across information about the Baader-Meinhof Group, the first time he had ever heard of them. Then shortly afterward, he coincidentally heard the group referenced again from a completely different source. How was it possible that he heard of the same obscure group two times in such quick succession? Had they suddenly become more popular? After his letter was published, others wrote into the newspaper to share stories of experiencing the same thing, and a pre-existing social truth came to public consciousness. The more you notice something, the more likely you are to notice that same thing in the future.

Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky, who coined the term “frequency illusion” for this situation, says it happens for two reasons: first, we have selective attention bias. We notice things that are important to us and disregard the rest. Before I got a Jeep Wrangler, Wranglers weren’t important to me. I disregarded seeing them. But once I became a Wrangler owner myself, they became important to me, and I started noticing them. And secondly, once we start noticing something thanks to selective attention bias, we use confirmation bias – when we look for things that support our beliefs while disregarding things that go against them – to continue to reinforce in our minds that whatever it is we’re noticing is everywhere all the time. Whatever you call it – frequency illusion, frequency bias, or Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon – the tendency to notice something a second, third, and fourth time once we’ve noticed it the first time is a universal human trait. If we see something once, we’ll be on the lookout for it in the future and see it again and again and again.

So, where am I going with this? What does it have to do with existing in the world as a creative?

My point is this: as creatives, we can use this universal human tendency to our advantage by focusing on the good in our creative lives, by focusing on gratitude.

Being an artist, a creative, is hard. Really hard. Society is constantly telling us lies about who we are, our place in the world, and the value of our creative work. We often have to fight to be paid fairly for the projects we complete. And even if we intellectually know that scarcity is not the reality in which we live, even if we know that the creative world is one of abundance and opportunity, as I discussed in episode two of this podcast, sometimes it’s really hard to believe that in our feelings. It’s sometimes hard to take that head knowledge and make it heart knowledge. Finding real-world examples of that abundance is not always easy.

The frequency illusion might be a universal human trait, but so is the negativity bias. The negativity bias is the term psychologists use to describe people’s tendency to remember negative occurrences more strongly than positive ones. This trait was useful for humanity hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was important for early humans to remember that this particular place was where a pack of predators lived, and so they needed to remember not to go back there. Negativity bias gave lots of importance to negative experiences and helped keep early humans alive. Now, however, negativity bias is less useful. But it is still a part of what it means to be human and how we experience the world. We remember the negative review and give it more weight than the positive one. The one critical line in an otherwise positive review will leave us hurt or in tears. The cutting offhand remark will be remembered more powerfully than the thoughtful, kind compliment. The awful experience of stage fright, or the horrible performance when you flubbed your lines and made every possible mistake, will linger longer in your mind than the high of a performance well delivered. Those bad creative experiences will haunt you for days or weeks or more, negatively impacting your present-day creativity and keeping you from being your creative best … unless you intentionally work against that tendency. You have to fight against the negativity bias so that it doesn’t commandeer your thoughts. And this is where the frequency illusion can help.

Remember, if you notice something once, you are more likely to notice it again in the future. And your mind will place particular weight on these repeated instances of noticing, meaning that every occurrence of the thing you are noticing gains ever increasing importance in your perception. If the thing that you are noticing is your creative wins – the experiences and the moments in your creative life that you are thankful for – if you are intentional about noticing the good things about your life as a creative, then you will notice more and more and more that is good. The frequency illusion will start to work for you, positively shaping your perception of your work.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any help noticing the hard things about being a creative. The difficult aspects of the life of a creative entrepreneur just keep popping up on their own, no matter how much I try to focus elsewhere. The life of a creative is anything but easy. And when I am bogged down mentally and emotionally by the difficulty of the creative life I lead, I am not my creative best self. This is not when I do my best work. Doing my best work requires a mind that is open to possibilities, free of distraction, and welcoming of other perspectives. My mind is none of these things when I am struggling to find my creative home in this world, when I am fighting to figure out how to best exist as a creative entrepreneur.

Noticing the positive, noticing the creative wins takes work. But oh, it is so worth it! Just one or two instances of making myself focus on the good is all it takes to start a positive feedback loop. I intentionally notice something positive about my experience living and working as a creative, and that causes me to notice another positive experience or event, which leads to noticing another good thing, and another, and another, and another. The difficult parts of being a creative haven’t disappeared or really changed in any meaningful way, but my experience of those difficulties has drastically changed. And since my personal reality is all about my perception of that reality, changing how I experience my work – changing the way I think about and how I feel about the wonderful and difficult things that make up my life as a creative – changing my feelings actually changes my experience of the reality of what it means to be a creative.

This positive feedback loop also improves the quality of my creative work. When I am not stressed about how my business is working, when the doubt and the “imposter” voice in my mind is at its quietest, when I’m focused on the joy of creativity rather than replaying the latest critical review, my creativity is free to flourish and flow. Quite frankly, if any of those things I just mentioned are true – if I’m stressed about some administrative aspect of my business, if my feelings of being an imposter are forefront in my mind, if I’m doubting my worth as an artist and a creative, if a negative review is running on repeat through my brain – if I’m dealing with any of those things, or any of the million other negative things that can torment creatives, then I’m not able to create. I can’t get into a flow state with my work. I make mistakes. My mind won’t focus on the task at hand. I’m unable to get to the mental and emotional place where my best work happens. If I’m focused on the negative and the difficult and the critical, my creativity suffers.

By contrast, when I intentionally notice the positive, those negative elements get quiet. Their influence on me starts to diminish. It’s like I’ve turned down the volume on a little devil sitting on my shoulder, telling me that I’m not enough and that my work isn’t good. I’ve not quite muted him, because those things still pop back up from time to time, but his volume level is low enough that I can barely hear the lies he’s telling me. I’m able to instead revel in the joy and delight of the creative process. That positive feedback loop buoys my creativity in a way that is truly extraordinary.

Focusing on the good is particularly helpful if I’m going through a dry spell in my work. Perhaps I overbooked myself, which I know I shouldn’t do but sometimes still find myself doing anyway, and I’m feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Or maybe I’m having the opposite problem, not enough work coming my way and I’m stressed about how I’m going to fill my calendar. Maybe I have a series of projects where problems and difficulties stubbornly keep popping up, making my work unusually taxing in some way. Or, since I’m an audiobook narrator and exterior noise can prevent me from doing my job, perhaps I have a roof leak at my house that requires major repairs, requiring me to record at night during the weeks that the contractors are here making the repairs. Focusing on the positive can give you – and does give me – the emotional strength needed to power through these difficult times.

That last example of a problem is a true story. For a period of several months this summer and into fall, I had to record almost exclusively during the overnight hours while major roof work was completed on my house. I work from home. My recording booth is located in one of the bedrooms of my house. So the roof work was being completed not just on my house but also on my place of work. The noise of the banging and the drilling that the workers needed to do for the repairs could be heard in my otherwise-mostly-sound-isolating recording booth. I couldn’t record while the workers were here, meaning I had to record at night. Working nightshift is not when I do my best work. It was an incredibly difficult period for me as an artist. I was tired and stressed a lot. And literally the only thing that got me through this period was noticing and then focusing on the good things as they happened. It gave me the creative energy boost I needed to power through 2 am recording sessions and exhausting days when I was trying to sleep through the noise of roof repairs. It kept me focused and allowed me to find flow, even when my recording sessions were split between the early morning and the late night. I was able to keep working during that period solely thanks to my habit of intentionally noticing and focusing on the positive. Noticing the positive is powerful.

And gratitude is all about noticing the positive. Frankly, gratitude is just a single-word way to say “noticing the positive.” My personal gratitude habit consists of a daily gratitude journal. Well, I say daily, but I don’t always remember to write in it daily. I enjoy writing in journals of many different types, but I almost never am able to make journal writing a truly daily practice. It’s more of a “most days” practice than an “every day” practice. But regardless, most days, I sit down at some point during the day and jot down three things I’m thankful for. Usually, these three things are very brief, sometimes just a word or two. “Great dinner with Arturo!” “Fun outing with my daughter.” “Had an excellent recording session today!” And sometimes they’re more extensive, spanning a paragraph (or more) as I fully describe an uplifting or creatively refreshing experience I had. I write as much or as little as I feel like writing. But I do it more days than not, and I have been doing this for years at this point. I have several journals full of the little moments of life that bring me joy, both in my personal life and in my creative life.

When I’m truly feeling down, when things just aren’t going well and I’m struggling my hardest to find the willpower to keep going, when my creative well has run dry and I just don’t have the creative energy needed to complete my projects, I refer back to those journals. Flipping through those pages is my own personal “greatest hits” playlist. From the mundane and trivial to the big and lifechanging, it’s all there in my gratitude journal. If it lifted my spirits, if it made my heart sing with joy, if it simply put a grin on my face, then it’s recorded in my gratitude journal.

If you follow my social media accounts, you know that I performed a concert recently in which the renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured soloist. I’m a section cello member of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and Itzhak Perlman performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto on our season opening concert this year. Mr. Perlman was kind and gracious in rehearsal. It was truly a joy to perform with him. The night of the performance, the concert hall was completely packed, and the energy of the crowd was incredible. The audience practically gave Mr. Perlman a standing ovation as he came onstage, before he’d even played a note! The best performance experiences are ones in which the audience and the performers are co-creating the event through a shared energy and joy, and that was absolutely true for this concert. The audience’s excitement and delight were palpable, and it made the entire evening just soar. Added to all of this, which would have already been absolutely incredible all on its own, the other piece on the program was Shostakovich’s 9th symphony. This symphony is one of my top-three absolute favorite pieces in the entire orchestral repertoire. Performing that piece, which I love so much and which speaks to me so deeply, in front of a crowd that enthusiastic and energetic and invested in the performance …. WOW. I can’t even think of an adjective incredible enough to describe the experience.

When you add together all of those elements – the thrill of performing with Itzhak Perlman, the excitement and energy emanating from the crowd, and the joy of playing one of my all-time favorite pieces – you end up with one of the best, most rewarding, most exhilarating creative experiences of my entire career! I guarantee you that my notes about my experience of that concert are in my gratitude journal. I recorded that event with care, knowing that my incredible memories of that concert, laid out right there in black and white, will sustain me through many difficult days as I navigate the ups and downs of what it means to be a creative, an artist, in today’s world.

But my gratitude journal isn’t only full of the remarkable and memorable, like that recent concert. It’s also full of the mundane and ordinary, in which I sometimes can find just as much joy. The recording session that felt really good. The perfectly turned yellowish/goldish/redish leaf I noticed on my morning run. The light in my daughter’s eyes as we laugh together. All of these things bring lightness to my heart, and I am thankful for them, too. And so they all find a place in my gratitude journal.

If I’ve had a day that was truly horrible, and I can’t even find enough positive elements of the day to start my internal positive feedback loop, I’ll instead refer to my gratitude journal, full of the big and the small and everything in between. I can use my memory of those moments to turn my attention away from the difficult and toward the good and rewarding. And when I am able to shift my focus to the positive, my stress level begins to lower, and I am able to be my creative best, despite the difficulties. I feel better, and so I am able to be better, both as a person and as an artist.

This experience of an improved sense of wellbeing is not unique to me. Study after study after study has shown that when people incorporate some kind of gratitude practice into their lives, their health improves. As just one example, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that grateful people are happier, less depressed, and less stressed. And the scientific literature is full of studies like this. Grateful people are more joyful and have fewer harmful coping strategies. Grateful people even sleep better, because their minds are focused on positive experiences rather than negative experiences in the moments just before falling asleep. Two recent studies suggest that gratitude may have a unique relationship with well-being, in a way that other personality traits do not. These studies found that gratitude is correlated more strongly with more aspects of well-being than any of the Big Five personality traits. Gratitude is powerful. Gratitude can improve your wellbeing in real and measurable ways. When you take the time to be grateful for the good things in your life, you are able to be the best version of yourself. And who doesn’t want that? I know I do.

Creativity is, at its core, a joyful act. Author Neil Gaiman said that “the world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before,” and he is so absolutely right. As an artist, as a creative, your work centers around the act of creation: bringing something into existence that did not exist before. How incredible! How amazing! What a privilege it is to get to do the work that we do! When we give life to the deepest parts of ourselves, when we bring our truest and best selves to our work, to that act of creation, magic happens. I don’t know of any other way to describe it. Even when the music I’m performing is profoundly sad or angry or turbulent, or the book I’m narrating is dealing with the worst of the human experience, there is an element of joy in the creative process of bringing sound and life to those projects. My gratitude practice is what allows me to find joy in the midst of darkness and difficulty, and sometimes because of darkness and difficulty. Focusing on the positive allows me to achieve creative flow even when the project is daunting or difficult. The positive feedback loop recharges my creative energy and allows me to give the very best of myself and my focus to every project that comes my way. Regardless of the project, gratitude helps me do my best and be joyful in the midst of it.

So this Thanksgiving season, as we approach the busy months of celebrations and Christmas parties and family gatherings and New Years galas, not to mention the stress of year-end performances and projects and deadlines, I challenge you to find time to be grateful. Take a moment each day to count your blessings. Notice the positive as it comes your way. And then notice it again. And again. And again. And express gratitude that these wonderful and amazing things are part of how you experience life.

If you struggle with this, put your creativity to work! You’re an artist, a creative, and you are fully capable of figuring out what kind of gratitude practice works for you and your unique needs and circumstances. A most-days gratitude journal is the gratitude practice that works for me, but it’s far from the only option. Some people write letters of gratitude to others in their life. Prayer can be a form of gratitude practice, or you can meditate on gratitude, such as with the “count your blessings” meditation exercise. Sometimes, simply being intentional about consistently saying “thank you” and truly meaning it can be an incredibly effective gratitude practice. Your gratitude practice can be as big or as small as you need it to be. It can be whatever works for you. But once you start to incorporate it into your daily life, I promise you that it will make a difference. You will intentionally notice things you are thankful for, and then do it again, and again, and eventually, you will be noticing those wonderful parts of your life without even trying. Like the Jeep Wranglers when I drove a Jeep Wrangler, you’ll be seeing good things everywhere! And your life, both personally and creatively, will be better as a result.

Thanks for spending time with me today. If you are listening to this when this episode is published and it is still Thanksgiving week for you, I hope you and yours have an amazing Thanksgiving this week. I really hope you’ll follow through on this and that you’ll find a way to incorporate a gratitude practice into your daily life. If you do that, or if you already have a gratitude practice, I’d love for you to share with me your experience. You can reach out to me on my website, And thanks again for listening. Of course, I’m always grateful when you subscribe and when you leave a review and when you share this podcast with others. But mostly, today, I’m grateful that you choose to spend time with me, listening to this podcast. Today, you – my listeners and my fellow creative entrepreneurs – YOU are what I am grateful for. Here’s wishing you a week full of joy and creativity and gratitude.


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