In 1998, I bought a journal to start a practice of gratitude. I was living off $524 a month plus food stamps and I was a single mother. I didn’t have a car. I had my hours cut at work when they found out I was pregnant. They didn’t fire me, just said there were no extra hours for me this week. Or the next week. And the week after that.
I was struggling every day with sadness, stress, and anxiety about the past and the future. I was constantly wondering what was going to happen and how was I going to make it better. I had generally been a pretty optimistic person and a believer in planning my way int a better future. But this time, I was not so sure. I wrote some pretty depressing thoughts down one day really questioning what the purpose of everything was. I was really looking for something different. So I watched a lot of Oprah because television was free. She had recently started Change Your Life Television, which was a content change in for her talk show. It was just what I needed. I watched and tried to implement the advice of various guests. I got a journal and I wrote down things like, I am grateful that I paid my phone bill. I am grateful that I got a ride instead of having to use money for the bus.
I tell that story to people all of the time. I learned a lot from watching Oprah. Practicing gratitude was an essential lesson for my life. I learned to appreciate small things, which is why today, I still get a good feeling from paying bills and my taxes. I don’t often hear people say that they are happy to pay their property taxes, but I am. I remember when I lived in a small apartment with no yard or even a balcony. I remember when I needed to use taxpayers money to buy top ramen and Krusteaz pancake mix. When I pay taxes, sometimes I think that I might be helping someone out. Someone who needs Medicaid.
For the last twenty years, I have had to return to this practice of gratitude repeatedly. And it is a practice. It turns out I couldn’t just use it that one time and move on. Life happens in all kinds of beautiful and very difficult ways. Gratitude has been helpful in working through hard times in my marriage and relationships. It helped me to focus on the value of my relationships even when things were really hard. I used gratitude when I was scared about the things I could not control that were happening to loved ones. In those moments, I was grateful I could miss work. I was grateful for health insurance.
“When we focus on our gratitude, the tide of disappointment goes out and the tide of love rushes in.”
Sometimes practicing gratitude sounds like putting your head in the sand and ignoring the difficulties around you. When you are a caregiver, you sign yourself up to do work to help others. When you see others suffer, you may feel guilty being happy about what you have. Is it fair to be grateful when people are sick, are homeless, are separated from their loved ones? But gratitude isn’t about ignoring the plights of others. Its creating and fostering resilience in your life to navigate through difficult times. Gratitude changes the way you see things and experience the things around you. Gratitude is how you can get back up and help others. I know I would not be here if it weren’t for the help of others. My gratitude for help keeps me working to help others be successful in their own goals. My gratitude gives me energy when other things are using up that energy.
So how do you cultivate a practice of gratitude?
Do it every day.
Choose to do one of the things on the list below. But remember to set your intentions to do these things. This isn’t a to-do list to pressure you or to make you feel like you aren’t doing enough. It doesn’t mean you won’t have hard days. Its a strategy for managing the hard times and finding joy in the present moment. And remember, its a practice. So we keep practicing. If you aren’t very grateful today, you can get up and try again tomorrow.
- Use a journal to write three things you are grateful for.
- Go around the dinner table with family or friends and say something you appreciate about each other (we used to do this with our kids when they all lived at home)
- Sit outside for 5 minutes each day and practice being present. Let go of thoughts about the past or the future and use your senses to experience the moment. See, feel, hear, etc.
- Put a calendar reminder on your phone to pause, breathe and express gratitude.
- Pray or meditate.
- Volunteer for a charity.
- Write a thank you note to someone who has helped you.