Gratitude. It’s a word that’s been bandied around for eons, yet how many of us think about it on a daily basis? Usually it slips by quietly only to be examined on its annual birthday, Thanksgiving, where we ponder it over a plate of turkey. Outside of that, gratitude is typically only a fleeting thought. Yet gratitude in and of itself is a powerful thing. It’s an incredibly effective tool to help focus the mind on the good stuff in life, no matter how big or small. When we focus on what is going right in our lives, it lessens the tendency to fret about the bad stuff. Essentially it’s a choice. We can spend our time playing with positivity or we can entangle ourselves in the seductive arms of negativity.
As simple as it sounds, this choice is no easy feat. When you roll out of bed in a fury and the day quickly turns from bad to worse it can feel almost impossible to remain positive. It may seem a gargantuan task to find something, anything, to be grateful for when you feel like life’s battering ram. And this is exactly why gratitude matters so much.
Gratitude is looking for the tiny speck of goodness amongst a sea of missed appointments, parking tickets or terribly behaved coworkers. Sometimes a microscope is required just to remember the good stuff in a day that is quickly morphing into a sea of shittiness. The perfect morning latte delivered with a smile by your local barista; your child’s shriek of delight as they wriggle in for a morning cuddle.
As poignant as these moments are, they can be easily forgotten as we get swept up and away by the tone of the day. This is precisely why keeping a gratitude journal can be one of the most important things we can do for ourselves.
Noting how beneficial this ritual of saying thanks is I decided to start by own gratitude journal, writing out five things I was grateful for at the end of each day. Initially it was hard to find the time, days would pass me by without an entry. However once I ritualized the process by keeping my journal bedside, carving out five minutes before I went to sleep, the process started to become less burdensome. It became something I started to look forward to.
Over time the process ingrained itself as a habit and started to create some positive shifts in my life. It also taught me a lot about myself and showed me the following three poignant lessons.
- Picking The Positive
The very act of combing through the day to pick out the positive moments began to change my mindset. Before gratitude, I would review the day focusing on what went wrong, where I could improve. I would berate myself for not getting out of bed earlier to fit in a morning workout; for not speaking up on a work conference call; for neglecting to reply to a friends email. I replayed these negative moments over and over in my mind. Yet when I forced myself to pick out the positive I began to re-frame these moments. What if these seemingly shitty moments could be turned on their head? Perhaps I could be grateful for the fact that I got some much needed extra sleep that morning; for the fact that despite remaining silent on the call it was productive and resolved an issue with an important client; the fact that I had a wonderful friend who sent me hilarious emails. Mentally re-framing these moments showed me that perspective is everything and that even in the midst of an apparently awful day there is always something to be grateful for.
1. Opening Up To Optimism
Gratitude is strongly correlated with optimism, which in turn makes us happier, improves our health and generally makes us better humans. Being mindful about reviewing my day, focusing on the good stuff, slowly steered me onto a more optimistic path in life. Before gratitude my glass was always half-empty, yet after a few months of nightly journaling the glass began to look half-full. I discovered that what you focus on expands and in focusing my thoughts on the good parts of the day it negated the bad stuff. Sure, it didn’t make it go away but it changed my attitude to it. Even after some of the crappiest days where I struggled to find one positive moment, I would eventually find it. Being yelled at by an infuriating colleague was not something that I wished to repeat but after much searching I found I was grateful for the fact that I stood up for myself and set my boundaries. Had I not had the deeply unpleasant experience which left me shaking with rage, I wouldn’t have known that when pushed I am able to defend myself. Upon reviewing this moment in my journal I came away from the experience feeling proud of myself instead of feeling filled with anger and resentment.
2. Learning To Like Life As It Is
Being somewhat of a wishful thinker, I was prone to such thoughts as “As soon as this situations improves, I’ll be happy” or “As soon as I have X amount of dollars in my paycheck, then I’ll be content”. I was guilty of pushing the happiness quotient just out of reach so that I was always striving, always searching. Yet the practice of contemplating the good stuff everyday taught me to appreciate life exactly as it is. I might still have credit card debt that I’m not proud of. I might not be where I thought I’d be in my career. Yet instead of berating myself for these perceived shortcomings, my gratitude practice highlighted the fact I was exactly where I needed to be at this moment. Sure, I could always be richer, fitter or a better writer but in staring at the horizon of what my life could potentially be, I was missing out on what was right in front of me. Through the practice of focusing on all the good stuff that I’d achieved so far I started to feel proud of myself. I started to like myself a little more, be a little less critical. I was doing the best that I could and this realization buoyed my sense of self-compassion, made me excited for the future instead of focusing on why I wasn’t there yet.
Ultimately everything in life is about perspective and a daily gratitude practice can lead to a deeper understanding of life. Despite the fact that there will be dark days, days where we do things we aren’t proud of, there is always a silver lining lurking. In revealing this lining through the practice of gratitude it can teach us that there is always something to be thankful for, no turkey required.
Victoria Cox currently resides in NYC. She's a contributor to The Conversation, Tiny Buddha, Elephant Journal & Dumb Little Man. You can connect with her on Instagram @vcox23