If You Were Dying… Would Gratitude Be Your First Thought?

If You Were Dying... Would Gratitude Be Your First Thought?

What would you do if you were told you had only a few weeks to live? When Joan Zawoiski Lewis found out she was dying from pancreatic cancer, the grandmother from Pringle, Pennsylvania, told family and friends: “Don’t make a fuss. Just do something nice for somebody else. Then tell me about it.”

People from every state and continent would eventually heed “Joannie from Pringle” as her request spread and made the news. Word of good deeds came daily, and Joan Lewis enjoyed reading the accounts again and again.

“An acquaintance of mine didn’t have enough to eat the past few weeks, so I stopped off with a few bags of groceries,” wrote Julia Kristan on Joan Lewis’ CaringBridge.org page. “Thank you for living such an inspiring life. You’ve turned sadness into joy and hopelessness into a rippling pool of raised spirits and good deeds. If even a quarter of the world decided to live more like you, what a world it would be.”

“I cleaned up trails at Addison State Park in central Vermont just for her,” Drew Johnson wrote.

“I gave my co-worker a hug in your honor this morning,” another person said.

“First day of school is always a challenge for teachers. We made a batch of lemon bars and sent them to the faculty with our seventh-grader today to make their day a little sweeter,” KW wrote.

“Gave an elderly woman on the streets in Dublin some money because Joannie from Pringle would do it,” wrote another.

Meanwhile, Joan Lewis’ days turned into weeks. In 2009, a month after being told that her stage four pancreatic cancer had metastasized to the liver, limiting her lifespan to just weeks or even mere days, Joan Lewis felt well enough to cross off bucket-list items. She floated in a hot air balloon over farms and old barns in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lived with her daughter Jocelyn Lewis. The next week, she stayed in the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and sat in a second-row seat for a taping of ABC’s The View.

Months turned into a year. Her attitude, natural fortitude and the outpouring of positivity from others enabled her to hang on long enough to undergo—and then tolerate—chemotherapy, says her daughter Jacqueline Lewis.

“Not only is Miss Joannie still alive one year after her grim prognosis (because of YOU!! And all the good deeds you’ve shared),” stated an update on the Joannie from Pringle Facebook page from Oct. 15, 2010, “but last week she was even able to drive again. So keep those cards and letters coming.”

As a result of all of this, Jacqueline Lewis was inspired to start the World Gratitude Map, a crowdsourcing website launched in October 2010 that invites everyone around the world to briefly tell others why they’re grateful. If her mom had, against the odds, been able to live so long by focusing on good deeds, she thought, why not start this map so that we could all focus on the positive and feel good? Public health practitioners use maps to track bad things like gun violence and flu outbreaks—what if we used maps to track good? “Gratitude is contagious,” states the map’s motto. “Click on ‘Submit a report’ to tell us why you’re glad. Your ‘red dot’ will appear on the World Gratitude Map.”

“Grateful my brother got a new job after being out of work for three years,” wrote an Austin, Texas, resident for one dot on the map.

I love what I do and the people I work with,” wrote someone in Tupelo, Mississippi.

“I’m thankful my boss/landlord helped me get an apartment so my boys and I wouldn’t be homeless. I still need a warm place for my chickens,” jotted another.

Gratitude can be transformative. A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that writing daily about things that make you grateful brings a better sense of well-being, happiness and satisfaction. Additionally, a 2020 review of existing literature on the subject determined that gratitude has the potential to improve sleep quality.

“The stories we tell create the people we become,” says Jacqueline Lewis, who blogged about resilience at GlobalResilience.net. Her mother’s experience of seeking out stories of hope and generosity helped create the sunny world she chose to live in. “We’d say, ‘In Joannie’s World, the sun is always shining, people wake up singing and the cocoa is made from scratch.’”

Joan Lewis herself was taken aback as more months passed, letting her add and cross off more bucket-list items, including watching, from her wheelchair, the University of Connecticut women’s team play a March 2011 NCAA tournament game. (She flirted with a police officer there, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter noted. “I don’t miss any opportunities, you know,” Joan Lewis quipped.)

“These last 18 months have been like Tom Sawyer’s funeral, a chance to hear and be surprised by people thanking me for affecting them. I am so blessed, the luckiest woman on Earth, really,” Joan Lewis told a reporter via email for an Apr. 1, 2011, article in The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “I especially love the notes that tell me what good deeds people have done in honor of ‘Joannie from Pringle.’”

Her luck eventually ran out. Twenty months after her diagnosis, Joan Lewis, 74, passed away in her bed at home surrounded by sweet-scented cut rhododendrons, lilacs and roses. This coming May 7 marks the 12th anniversary. Jacqueline Lewis reflected: “Her 20-month survival was nothing short of miraculous—but it’s not just the length of time which is notable here.”

Try this gratitude exercise

For the next five days, do the following daily:

Think of three things that happened that day for which you’re grateful. Jot them down. As days pass, you may notice that you’re now on the lookout throughout the day for reasons to be grateful. You may easily come up with a dozen candidates that you’ll whittle down to three for your list—and your attitude will perk up as you start to see the world in a more positive light, says Jacqueline Lewis, co-founder of the World Gratitude Map. 

This article was published in March 2014 and has been updated. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock

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