Jenny Loughmiller of The Dalles, Oregon, healed her broken spirit with gratitude. Along the way, the artist discovered that thankfulness is intertwined with joy and social connection. Now she is changing lives with her Hundred Hearts Project and a gospel of gratitude.
By 2016, Jenny had lost herself. A tempest of depression, the demands of four young children, deep exhaustion and increasing isolation crippled her. Quick to blame herself for what she perceived as a personal failing, she hid her pain from others.
“My heart had holes in it,” Jenny says. “I couldn’t feel love and couldn’t love others very well. I felt faulty and broken, but I smiled over the top of it.”
It was a financial crisis beyond her control that thrust her into despair. Fearful of how to keep a roof over her children’s heads and food on the table, she struggled with an overwhelming sense of doom.
“In one day, everything just fell apart,” Jenny says. “I just knew my life was over. I thought I had carefully constructed this foundation, but I found out I had been using playing cards. A wind came up and blew it all away. There was nothing left.”
Jenny suffered through years of despondency. Feelings of unworthiness led her to abandon her bed and sleep on the floor. It was not until her family grew and became more independent that she noticed how far she had fallen.
“I didn’t recognize myself,” she says. “I had really let myself go. It was like I had been sitting under water this whole time. I bobbed up, took stock and thought, ‘Where am I?’ A fire started inside me—that I could do more than I thought I could, that I’d been using my kids as an excuse—a reasonable excuse—not to do things.”
She was eager for a new beginning. As Jenny describes on her website, “I needed something big, something I couldn’t avoid, something so important it HAD to change my life.”
When Jenny discovered an artist who had painted 100 paintings to thank people in her life, the discovery changed Jenny’s life forever.
“It was like an electric shock hit me through the heart,” she says. “I knew I had to do this for myself.”
Jenny rearranged bedrooms in her house to create an art studio and began a secret project. She would paint 100 hearts for 100 women she was grateful for.
“At first, I was nervous and couldn’t think of a hundred women, but I decided not to worry about that,” Jenny says. “I just started painting.”
For an hour a day, the artist expressed heartfelt gratitude with brushes and paint, and her list of women grew.
Jenny’s eyes sparkle at how powerfully she was impacted.
“As I started to focus on specific women and why I was grateful for them, this magic started to happen,” she says. “I began to see how there were other things in my life to be grateful for. I could pay the bills; the kids had clothes and enough food to eat. All the fallout from our financial collapse was still there, but where before I felt barren and empty, now with fresh eyes, I was able to see abundance and growth. There was so much to be grateful for.”
It turns out gratitude is healthy for the brain. A 2009 National Institutes of Health study shows gratitude and acts of kindness flood the brain with dopamine, a chemical that creates a natural high. Because it feels good, the study claims, “We are motivated to feel it again and become more inclined to give thanks and do good for others.”
Gratitude lifts one’s mood. Practiced daily, it can change lives. Finding thankfulness healed Jenny in ways she never imagined. By prioritizing gratitude, her confidence and spirit flourished. She was excited about her future and took delight in everyone around her, “quirks and all,” she says.
Eventually, Jenny’s secret project begged to be shared with the women who inspired her. Despite her fear of showing her art publicly, she organized a local art gallery reception. Beside each woman’s art, she placed a note of why she was grateful for them and invited all 100 women for her big reveal. She laughs at the memory.
“That day was right up there with the birth of my children,” she says. “I kept taking grounding breaths to keep from floating. It was really therapeutic for me.”
“The energy in the room was electric,” Jenny beams. “The women responded with such thankfulness. It felt miraculous that something born from sadness could reach such joy and celebration.”
Post traumatic growth is a theory that explains this kind of transformation following trauma. Developed by clinical psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, the theory asserts that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity often experience positive growth afterward.
“People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life,” Tedeschi explains.
Having discovered gratitude’s transformative power, Jenny felt it was her duty to spread the word. She created the Hundred Hearts Project to teach others how to embark on their own powerful journey of gratitude. She shares her story—all 100 colorful paintings, the letters she wrote to each woman and detailed steps to help others create their own gratitude project.
Jenny says the positive feedback she has received has been extraordinary.
Theresa Roth, a nurse leader in health care, found herself stuck in a rut. She heard about the Hundred Hearts Project through a friend.
“I was just going through the motions of life,” she says. “I was intrigued by the idea of reaching out to others and sharing the gratitude I had for them.”
Each month, Theresa sent 10 notes—100 in all—to different people who had touched her life, including former college professors, teachers, health care professionals, friends and family.
“I can truly say I gained a new affirmation that I have a lot to be thankful for,” she says. “The project served as a vehicle to get me unstuck and moving forward as a person. I gained tools to find my serenity when life gets in the way.”
Addie Case, a property manager in The Dalles, Oregon, says she also found herself just going through the motions of life: work, parenting, marriage and friendships.
“I was numb to what was going on around me,” she says. “All I remember thinking was, I don’t know 100 women to send cards to, but it’s worth a shot.”
Addie’s trepidation was short-lived.
“I loved the process,” she says. “It was amazing for me to thank the women that have impacted my life. It was much more heartfelt than just picking up the phone or mentioning thanks in passing. It made my circle of true friendships stronger. I grew in more ways than I could imagine.”
The Hundred Hearts Project—100 paintings and letters—is currently on tour across the Northwest.
“Thousands of people have seen this project,” Jenny says. “They return to it over and over and bring friends. Some are brought to tears as they read the letters and are reminded of the women in their own lives.”
The closing reception is in September at Oregon’s Hood River Columbia Center for the Arts. Jenny will present each woman her painting and letter and thank them for being the inspiration behind her incredible journey of gratitude.
“The story of the Hundred Hearts Project is not just for women; it’s for everyone,” Jenny says. “It’s recognizing the reality that we are surrounded by good people. It helps bridge the gap between us and them. With gratitude, any interaction is healing and puts any discussion in the foundation of humanity and compassion.”
Ready to start your Gratitude Project? Follow these steps.
- Make a list of people who have touched your heart. Don’t worry about getting your list to 100. Just begin recognizing the people who have touched your heart in some way. You may know them personally or not. There is no right or wrong.
- Decide how you want to thank your people. Choose something that feels right for you: notes, poetry, photographs, dinner invitations, service projects or whatever comes from your heart.
- Get started! Don’t wait for perfection—just start. Gratitude is incredibly powerful. You do not want to miss out.
More tips, tracking sheets, notecard sets and project tour locations and dates are available at www.hundredheartsproject.org.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite and Currents magazines, spotlights Heroes Among Us each month, sharing the unique stories of volunteers and difference-makers in communities across the Northwest and West. The series, which seeks to inspire community involvement, receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.