Every November my Facebook feed fills up with posts from people who are logging things they are grateful for. For 30 days, I am bombarded with posts that say things like, “Day 5: I’m grateful to have so many wonderful friends!” and while it seems like a wonderful exercise on the surface, I can’t help but feel that a lot of these posts are forced and empty. Many of these posts seem like they were put out only to please others and follow the trend, rather than from a place of pure gratitude…especially when they stand in stark contrast to the things those same people usually post.
This isn’t to say that this is a bad exercise or that everyone is lying. Far from it. Spending 30 days practicing gratitude is a great way to start a healthier mental regimen. Read that again: it’s a great way to start. The trouble is, as soon as November ends, most of these people will stop the daily practice of finding the blessings in their lives. After all, it’s a lot easier to stick to a habit when you feel like you have an audience to hold you accountable. The thing is, feeling gratitude is a deeply personal thing, and one that should be experienced 365 days a year.
That sounds like a tall order, I know. But it is totally doable, and it’s effects on your life are profound.
Before I dive into all that, allow me to share a little bit about my experience with this practice.
Long before I decided to pursue Psychology as my major in college, I had a habit of reading any self-help book I could get my hands on. Both my mother and my grandmother had stacks of them, and regularly offered nuggets of wisdom they had gleaned from within their pages. When I’d find myself struggling, I’d be reminded of certain mental and spiritual tools and I’d promptly put them to use…for a while. Then I’d go back to my daily life.
By the time I hit college, I had repeated this cycle countless times. For the next four years, I continued reading up on self-improvement and “pop” psychology during my downtime. I remember being routinely amazed at how often the things talked about in class mirrored the things I had already been studying. I would be excited whenever I’d see hard research and theories that backed up the things I had known all along. This was almost too easy! By the time I graduated I would be the best therapist ever. I would help so many people!
And yet, I still found myself struggling in my personal life. I had all this knowledge and all these tools, and still had all the same doubts and fears. I still battled depression and anxiety. I still wasn’t cured.
Eventually, I decided to seek help. For years, I’d find myself in and out of therapy, doubling down on the self-help reading, and seeking advice from all over the internet. I’d make lists of techniques and create my own system to finally break free.
I’d then fail to put them into practice.
I didn’t always fail to start. Maybe I’d work at it for a few days, or a few weeks, and then, life would happen. Still, with each round I’d find myself a little better off than I had been. It became easier to pull out those tools when needed.
Although the line-up has shifted with each new self-care regimen, one practice has been a part of every list: Gratitude.
When we are grateful for what we have, we focus less on what we don’t have. When we focus less on what we don’t have, we feel less stressed. We feel happier. When we practice gratitude, we begin to approach life from an abundance mindset, which in turn sets us up for receiving more blessings. How is this possible? It’s simple: we tend to get what we’re looking for. If we’re looking for opportunities, we’ll find them simply because our mind opens up to possibilities we would have been blind to before.
So how, exactly, do we practice gratitude on grander scale?
I recommend getting yourself a notebook and jotting down three things you are grateful for each day. Or, if you are already in the habit of keeping a journal, leave space to list these things every day. You can do this in the morning, which I find to be a great way to start the day, or you can write them down at night as you reflect on your day. If you chose to do this at night, I recommend reading over your list each morning as well to start your day off on the right foot.
Sounds simple right? Perhaps to simple.
The key here is to not just write these things out mindlessly. It’s to train your brain to notice all the wonderful things you already have in your life. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as silly as a song on the radio or a pair of jeans that makes your butt look amazing, if it brings a smile to your face, even for a moment, it’s worth noticing and appreciating.
As you dig into this practice, you will find yourself noticing more and more things to be grateful for every day. At first, you’ll probably file it away to add to your list later, but I want you to go a bit further than that. When you notice something wonderful unfolding in your life, no matter how small, slow down. Fully experience the moment. Mentally assert that you are grateful for this small miracle and hold on to it for later.
For example, maybe your spouse falls asleep on the couch with your child. They look so cute cuddled up together that you can’t help but smile and feel lucky to have such a beautiful family. Go ahead and stare at them with adoration for a while, burn that image into your brain, sit with those warm fuzzy feelings for as long as you need to. Say to yourself, “I am grateful for this moment and for my beautiful family.” Then carry on.
The bonus here is that the more you create these memories and associations, the more material you have at your disposal when you need to cheer yourself up.
Inevitably, you’re going to have a bad day. Maybe it’s a series of minor irritations, maybe it’s a larger crisis, but it will happen. You’ll find yourself feeling bad about your life and focusing on what is going wrong, what you’re lacking. It is in these moments that you can take a deep breath, take out your list or reach into your memories, and remember what you have to be grateful for. You can show yourself that this rough spot is just an anomaly in an otherwise great life and that without it, you would have nothing to contrast the positives with.
The power of our minds is an incredible thing, if you can harness it. And a daily attitude of gratitude is one tool that can help you do just that…