It’s Not as Bad as you Think: The Performance-Boosting Power of Gratitude

One of my all-time favorite short stories is “Fantastic Night,” written by the great Austrian fiction master Stefan Zweig in the early 1920’s and set in late Bell Époque Vienna. It concerns a wealthy 35-year-old baron, an orphaned inheritor of a large fortune and dedicated gentleman of leisure who leads a pleasant but unfulfilling life of bohemian comfort that is blissfully interrupted one fateful night in June 1913, when a chance series of events triggers a dramatic internal transformation. Of his pre-awakened self the baron writes, “I can say with certainty that I felt myself by no means unhappy at the time . . . But the very fact that I had become accustomed to getting all I asked from destiny, and demanded no more, led gradually to a certain absence of excitement, a lifelessness in life itself.”

The baron’s transformation begins during an afternoon at the horse track, when the baron comes into possession of another man’s betting slip and finds himself suddenly and uncharacteristically caught up in the excitement of the particular race it pertained to. That the horse chosen by the rightful owner of the betting slip wins only intensifies the strange spell he’s under, an intoxication of the spirit that sends him careening through the seedier parts of Vienna, hobnobbing with prostitutes and shakedown artists and eventually giving away all his money to strangers as he wanders home in the wee hours.

“There was some kind of delirium in me, an outpouring like lovemaking,” the baron recounts, “and I knew a freedom I had never known before. The street, the sky, the buildings, all seemed to flow together and towards me, giving me an entirely new sense of possession and belonging: never, even in the most warmly experienced moments of my life, had I felt so strongly that all these things were really present, that they were alive, that I was alive, and that their lives and mine were one and the same, that life is a great and mighty phenomenon and can never be hailed with too much delight. It is something that only love grasps, only devotion comprehends.”

Ostensibly written four years after these events took place, the baron reports that the spell he fell under on that night never abated, but was only the beginning of a permanent awakening. What’s most interesting to me about the tale is that, according to the baron, this internal transformation led to no outward changes in his lifestyle. He continued to live the same dissipated life of play, following the same routines he had previously, and yet he experienced them entirely differently, relishing the same experiences that before had just barely sufficed to ward off ennui.

In glib modern terms we might refer to the narrator’s new mindset as an attitude of gratitude. At any given moment in our lives, some things are good and others not so good. There may be five good things and five not-so-good, nine good things and one not-so-good, or one good thing and nine not-so-good. The point is, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s at least one good thing about your present situation. And regardless of the balance between good and not-so-good, each of us has the power to focus more on the good than on the not-so-good. This is the attitude of gratitude, and when you have it, any situation you may find yourself in will be more pleasant, and not only that, but the situation will be more likely to improve.

I’m not just making stuff up. The effects of expressing gratitude have been heavily researched by psychologists, and the benefits are clear. For example, a 2015 study conducted at UC Berkeley found that counseling coupled with “gratitude writing” improved mental health in college students seeking psychotherapy services more than either counseling alone or counseling coupled with “expressive writing.”

I myself got a powerful lesson in the value of gratitude during my first Ironman in 2003. Everything went wrong in that race. Less than a minute into the swim, my watch was torn off by a flailing competitor. Less than a minute later, I suffered a vicious calf cramp that brought me to a dead stop in the water. A few miles into the bike leg, I was hit with a bullshit three-minute stand-down drafting penalty. By the end of the bike leg, the pain in the calf muscle that had cramped earlier had spread throughout my entire right leg. During the subsequent marathon, the pain intensified before slowly morphing into a sort of scorching numbness, like when a limb falls a sleep. I got so bad that I couldn’t feel my foot touching the ground and had to run looking down to keep from falling.

In short, I was pretty miserable. But at some point my better self slapped my self-pitying self across the cheek and said, “Get ahold of yourself!” I made a conscious effort to catalog the aspects of my situation that were good. I felt gratitude for the lovely September weather in Madison, Wisconsin, for the pleasantness of the racecourse, for the cheering spectators, for my fitness, and for the presence of my family, who had flown in from all over the country to support me. At that moment my perception of the race changed completely. I started having fun, and I pulled out of my performance nosedive, managing to complete the marathon with dead-even splits.

Ever since that day I have made gratitude an everyday tool in my personal sports psychology toolkit. When I start to brood on what is not so good about a workout or the state of my body or whatever else, I shift my attention instead to what is good, and it helps every time. Do you express as much gratitude as you could in your athletic endeavors?