Gratitude has become popular as a practice to remind us to live in the moment, one day at a time, and appreciate all we have — in turn making us realize we have all we need.

Gratitude journals and other types of gratitude practice are helping people live their best lives, but one Fargo woman is taking it to another level. Living each day in what she terms “Gratitude Nirvana,” Trina Michels turns ordinary life into extraordinary.

Trina lives gratitude. She embodies it. She exudes it. Spend a few minutes with her, and you’ll feel it.

A pragmatic, practical person, Trina has applied an ideology to her gratitude practice — a method by which to actually gauge your gratitude to determine where you are among four gratitude levels.

Trina’s current relationship with gratitude didn’t start off that way. It’s taken a journey to get her there.

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Gratitude grows up

Trina explains that she used to think practicing gratitude was for bad situations. She thought she could take a step back, slap on some rose-tinted glasses for a moment, then keep ongoing. Situation transformed, right? The new attitude of gratitude, right?

Not so much. It was fake gratitude.

“I came to think gratitude was stupid,” Trina confessed. “I thought it was this big fluffy emotion — this idea that you’re standing in the midst of all of this rubble, and you just take some rainbows and slap them over your eyes. What I came to realize over my journey is that gratitude is having the strength to be able to sift through the rubble in order to find the precious gift that is in there. And that gift doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s priceless.”

What Trina hadn’t realized was that gratitude was part of who she had always been. She’d once taken a Predictive Index test, which pegged her as effusive. For the longest time, she didn’t delve into what that meant for her. Turns out, it is in her core makeup to express feelings of gratitude in an unrestrained and heartfelt manner. Realizing that, Trina decided that gratitude wasn’t stupid, but had been a vital part of herself.

“Gratitude has always been a part of my life,” Trina reflected. “I got away from it for a period of time because I thought I needed to be someone else.”

Looking back, Trina sees that even when she was a child, gratitude was always present, even if it looked and sounded different than it does now. She remembers her father often saying, “You should be thankful for what you have because it could be worse.”

As she became older, her gratitude shifted to what Trina calls “comparative gratitude” — when you need to compare your life to someone else’s in order to feel thankful.

“I could find myself being grateful,” she remembers, “as long as I could keep my focus on someone who had less than me — but that was outside of myself. It wasn’t intrinsic.”

Gratitude that grips

Trina Michaels shares how she developed gratitude and compassion even through a divorce and the loss of her father. Submitted Photo/Special to On The Minds of Moms
Trina Michaels shares how she developed gratitude and compassion even through a divorce and the loss of her father. Submitted Photo/Special to On The Minds of Moms

When Trina went through the United Way of Cass Clay’s 35 Under 35 program, she was introduced to and impacted by the book "The Artist Way" by Julia Cameron. She continued on to "The Vein of Gold, "also by Cameron.

“The whole point of The Vein of Gold is to find something that has continuity in your life,” Trina explains. Trina consciously decided gratitude was that one continuous thing for her — but at the time, she was experiencing what she refers to as “gripping gratitude,” which she describes as desperately holding on and trying to be happy about what you have, because it could all be taken away from you at any moment.

In 2009, there was a point when Trina thought her marriage was over.

“Who I was at that point in my life was a person who would change whatever I could about myself, not being true to myself, in order to keep the promise I made in my marriage vows. Over the years I couldn’t understand how I could be so disconnected from myself. I was so happy in my job, and I was so happy with my friends, yet I was so unhappy in my marriage, but I was still committed to that promise.”

Trina and her husband decided to make their marriage work. When her daughter was born, Trina remembers holding her in her arms and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I could have missed out on this!”

She found herself gripping everything she had in her life, trying to hold on. One of the analogies she uses is that of a weight bar.

“As more and more blessings came into my life, it became harder and harder for me to hang on,” Trina said. “It was as if when each good thing came, I became more and more concerned about it falling off or going away. I was always focused on how much I could lose.”

In 2016, Trina’s father passed away after a battle with cancer. She was still gripping, holding on to all she had left — her marriage, her daughter, and now a son, too. The next year, Trina and her husband separated, which led to divorce. It was then that Trina finally realized, “I can only be me.”

Submitted Photo/Special to On The Minds of Moms
Submitted Photo/Special to On The Minds of Moms

The day Trina knew for certain that her marriage was over, she needed her mom. She found out her mother was with the support group Beginning Experience, a group for those who are divorced or widowed. They were having a social at a restaurant downtown.

“I drove to the restaurant downtown, walked in, found my mom and said, ‘I need to talk to you.’”

Trina and her mom stood outside the restaurant doors on Broadway. Trina told her mom the news and proceeded to fall apart.

Her mother invited her back into the restaurant.

“There I was among 30 other people who were all on the other side of losing their primary person in their relationship,” Trina remembered. “There was no better place I possibly could have been that night. It was fate.”

Her mother, Helen Franck, recalled how it was the perfect place for her daughter to be at that moment.

“Trina was definitely in the right place at the right time,” Helen said. “She was surrounded by people who were proof that life goes on. And now she’s one of those people. She’s a great mom with a zest for life and takes everything in stride.”

Cultivating 'gratitude attitude'

Before that day, Trina felt as though she had been gripping everything. She learned that in order to find what she calls the fourth stage of gratitude, “gratitude nirvana,” you have to take time to reflect on your life, because when we’re in it, we can’t see it.

She remembers that night vividly.

“When I reflect back on that evening, I saw all of these people that were okay, even with their own loss,” she said.

After Trina’s divorce was finalized, she remembers that even though she didn’t know what would happen next, she felt everything would work out.

“I didn’t know how, but I knew in the depths of my heart that I was going to be okay,” she said, “even though everything had suddenly changed. I felt as though I had lost half of my life — I had spent 17 of my 34 years in that relationship. And now half the time I thought I was going to have with my children was suddenly wiped out with the signature of a judge.”

Fast forward to six weeks after her divorce. Trina was with her daughter as she ran off the soccer field. In the distance was a double rainbow. Her daughter looked up at her and said, “Look that beautiful, rare moment.”

Trina says the words that came out of her mouth in response didn’t even feel as if they were her own: “Yes, Ruth, whatever you look for in life is what you are going to find. If you look for beautiful moments, you will find them in more places than you can imagine.”

After Trina put her kids to bed that night, she sat on her couch, and suddenly remembered something she had wanted to do: make a picture book from Instagram photos. But first, she had to create the content.

“I decided I was going to post something beautiful I experienced each day,” she recalls. This was how she was going to weave gratitude into her daily life. This was how she would live gratitude — always paying attention, looking for that special moment to capture each day.

That night, Trina posted a picture to Instagram of Ruth on the soccer field, with the double rainbow in the background. She shared it to Facebook. She added the hashtag #gratitudeattitude.

And that was the beginning.

“I didn’t do it for reaction or followers, just for me and my healing,” she explained. “Over the course of time, people reached out to me to tell them about how my posts affected them. One person said a year later, ‘I just have to tell you how much I love the #gratitudeattitudes. Your posts always make me smile and puts things into perspective.’”

People shared with Trina that her posts helped them to stop and see the beauty in life.

“We get to create the world we live in and sometimes we forget that we can have an influence,” says Trina.

Kirsten Jensen, a friend of Trina’s who knew her when she went through her divorce remembers being in awe of Trina as she “gracefully” handled her divorce.

“Trina saw the beauty in the small moments during the most difficult time of her life,” Kirsten says. “I found it so inspirational and continue to find inspiration as I see her impact others.”

Kirsten was equally impressed when she saw Trina tell her story to a large audience at a recent FMWF Chamber Women Connect event.

“I was really thankful for how vulnerable she was when she shared her stories. It would have been easy for her to be academic about gratitude, but to know the profound impact for her in a time that was so difficult, gave so much hope to her message and so much impact,” explains Kirsten.

Reflecting on her journey, Trina clearly sees how her path took her through four phases of gratitude: Cautious, Comparative, Gripping, and finally, Nirvana.

Four stages of gratitude

  1. Cautious: The thought of “It could be worse” and expecting that perspective to cause gratitude
  2. Comparative: Comparing your life to someone else’s in an effort to feel better about your own
  3. Gripping: Trying to find gratitude by holding on to all you have and hoping it won’t all fall apart
  4. Nirvana: A genuine feeling of gratitude without fear or comparison

Trina travels often for her job as a senior manager at Eide Bailly. Recently, she was on a plane and as usual, struck up a conversation with the person seated next to her. The woman Trina encountered was struggling with her bag, telling Trina she had injured her ankle and hand in an ATV accident.

“Thank goodness I still have my right hand,” the woman explained. “I need to do all I can with what I still have.”

Trina, ever-experienced in gratitude, recognized this stage as gripping. The woman was holding on to what she still had.

A cautious gratitude example would be if she had said, “At least I only hurt my ankle and hand. I could have lost so much more!”

A comparative gratitude stage would have her saying, “Some people don’t even survive these sorts of accidents! I am lucky to be here.”

What would nirvana look like? “My injury provided me an opportunity to accept help and has brought new people into my life!”

Gratitude in practice

Gratitude is about the whole person — There is a difference between celebrating record-breaking sales and applauding a caring and helpful spirit.

Gratitude is not one-size-fits-all — Like love languages, there are many different forms of gratitude languages. Learn them.

Gratitude must be embraced by leaders — it cannot be forced, as that is not genuine gratitude, but it can be planted.

Make gratitude a daily activity — There is consistency in practice.

Follow Trina on Instagram @GratitudeNirvana

Editor’s note: Story was written by Carrie Carney and originally published in the April/May 2019 issue of the On The Minds of Moms magazine. Forum Communications Company is re-publishing these stories as On the Minds of Moms staff members develop a new online community.

Carrie Carney lives in Fargo with her son Jack and their gravity-defying dog Dudley. She works in marketing and communications and loves living and playing in the Fargo-Moorhead community. Originally from Minnesota, she is often drawn back to her hometown when the pines and lakes call to her.