In 2003, two social psychologists by the name of Emmons and McCullough did an experiment that involved counting blessings vs. burdens. Their results found that participants who practiced exercising gratitude (over the course of the ten week study) reported better emotional and physical health than their control experiment counterparts.
For many people, gratitude is thought to be an essential and powerful part of well-being, because it has the ability to shift perspective and attitude. I believe that practicing gratitude not only makes you a better person, but keeps you open to happen upon more wonderful things.
In my own pursuits to practice gratitude, I want to acknowledge a gift I will never stop being grateful for, the many different places I’ve explored.
So today, I want to share my gratitude for the Connemara National Park in Ireland, specifically the hike up Diamond Hill.
“When anyone asks about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.” -Edna O’Brien, author of The Country Girls
My sister and I had talked about traveling to Ireland for a long time. I can’t remember exactly when the plan was hatched, or whose idea it was. It occured somewhere between age 14, ripe with teenage angst and newly claimed emotion, and my final year of high school. I just know that Ireland existed for us as a place that we must go.
For us, going took the shape of ten days of backpacking at the end of August. We met at the Dublin Airport, having flown in from different directions of the world. My sister was living in Switzerland at the time, and I’d come all the way from Michigan. We rented a car, and spent the first few days stressfully adjusting to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, inhabiting cute little bed & breakfasts dotted along the countryside, and laughing about how I’d managed to get poison ivy on my back (from a particularly comical sexual experience).
This trip was important because it marked the beginning of becoming an adult for me. Maybe that’s why Ireland remains one of the most beautiful places in the world to me, a place that I still hope to return to. It’s landscape is rough and ragged, with hills of rolling green and yellow grass that move in the wind the way the ocean does on a stormy day. Boulders rise up out from the hillsides and mountains like jagged teeth. It’s wild- which is sort of my impression of adulthood as well.
Tucked away within the Connemara National Park is Diamond Hill, consisting of four loop hikes in the park. We did the Upper Diamond Hill Walk that runs about 7km long and rises 400m high. This is my favorite memory of this trip, and to this day, one of my favorite hikes.
It’s slow to start, like all good things. The path meanders its way lazily up boardwalks and around boulders, some larger than I was and some smaller; all left behind in a golden field that knelt at the foot of the mountain. The trail becomes a tiny, one person, single file sort of trail, edged by rocks that guide you up the steep side of the mountain. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed, and just when I thought we could reach the heavens because of how close we were to the sky, we had to climb a little more.
I’m a heavy breather. I inherited my mother’s exercise induced asthma. So when I climb up a hill, I pant, and wheeze, and generally sound like I’m about to die. I used to be embarrassed by this. I was embarrassed at how many times my sister asked me if I was okay on this climb. Now, I try to love the way my lungs show me how far I’ve come.
The thrill in mountain climbing isn’t just being at the top. Yes, there’s joy in the adrenaline pulsing through your veins, in the thin air pushing your lungs and making you feel a little light-headed, a little giddy. There’s joy in the pride in yourself that you feel at the top. These are all good things.
But I’ve come to realize, there’s also joy in the struggle.
The struggle is putting one foot in front of the other on that tiny path. The struggle is keeping my calves from cramping up on the climb. It’s keeping my mind motivated enough that it doesn’t inhibit my body and tell it to stop. It’s breaking that mental wall that loves telling me I can’t do it, that I’ll never make it to the top, that I’m not strong enough, or fit enough, or good enough. There is so much joy in proving that voice wrong.
Adulthood embodies much of this struggle. We reach goals, only to realize there are more goals still to be met. Sometimes they don’t get met at all. Sometimes, we lose sight of the top. I have reached peaks, only to realize that most of the mountain is still before me. That doesn’t stop the view from this point here being any less beautiful.
However, I did make it to the top of Diamond Hill that day. It was awe inspiring. I stared down at the place I used to stand, and marveled at the place I was now. The wind whipped our hair around our faces uncontrollably, and it was so loud that my sister and I had to shout to hear each other speaking. I remember laughing, screaming and cheering jubilantly. We took videos to document how we were feeling, and what it looked like to be here, to be us in that moment. I could look out and see an ocean that was miles and miles away.
If you do get the chance, do the hike.
Be grateful for the struggle.