I am a natural-born worrier. I can spin into the land of what-ifs at warp speed if given the inspiration and a few moments’ time. My brain has dark, brambly parts that I frequently get lost in. I can laser-focus on what’s wrong with any given situation or argue why I shouldn’t do something with ample evidence, but what I have found is this only keeps me anxious, negative, and stuck. There is no life there, just fear.
I used to think it was a deeper meditation practice, stronger faith, or better breathing strategies that I needed to fight anxiety, but it’s not. It’s simply stepping out of the whole conversation and focusing on gratitude instead. Anxiety, for me, is looking for what’s wrong (or what could go wrong) and getting stuck on it. Gratitude tells me to look for what’s right and get stuck there in the glow instead. Focusing on gratitude changes everything. It’s a total change in perspective. It is impossible to be anxious while also being grateful. They cancel each other out. Same goes for negativity. Gratitude is the antidote for all things scary and dark.
Gratitude invites presence and contentment. It opens my eyes to what is right in front of me. By practicing gratitude, I move through my day acknowledging all that is good rather than feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed by what is wrong. Gratitude has a different pace. It makes me more purposeful and deliberate, intentional. It keeps me in my own lane, grateful for the space I’m in. It eliminates the distraction of comparison, ‘shoulds,’ and hurrying, because I’m good right where I am. I don’t need to rush to what comes next, yearn for what was, or try to be someone I’m not. I can do the tasks set before me with a quiet mind and a happy heart.
As an avid self-help connoisseur, I have read plenty about the benefits of a daily gratitude practice. Gratitude literally changes your brain. An article for Positive Psychology, which reviews the neuroscience behind gratitude, states that dopamine and serotonin are released in the brain when a person expresses gratitude andwhen they are on the receiving end of someone else’s gratitude. Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions. Simply put, when dopamine and serotonin are released, we feel happy. The article states, “By consciously practicing gratitude every day, we can help these neural pathways to strengthen themselves and ultimately create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves.”
I read that and I’m super excited about gratitude! Yes, GRATITUDE for the win! But how do I apply it so that I am “consciously practicing gratitude every day,” as the researchers prescribe?
Here are some ways I have found to commit to the practice and make it work for me.
Choose a Time
If anything is to be done in my world I need to plan for it or at least have the intention for it to be done. When I float through my day without planning or setting intentions, I get VERY little accomplished. Scheduling my gratitude practice like I schedule a yoga class or a doctor’s appointment helps me ensure that I do it. The best times for me are first thing in the morning with coffee or at night before bed. I’m also working on giving myself a good dose of it whenever I notice myself tensing up midday or during that afternoon slump. Pick one time or multiple times a day. Set reminders in your phone to help you stay accountable. Put a post-it on your bathroom mirror or next to your coffee pot. Be intentional about committing to the practice.
Choose a Method
I already keep a journal, so that’s where I put the things for which I am grateful. One of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, keeps a Happiness Jar. At the end of every day, she jots down her happiest moment and drops it into the jar. A jar like this could be a whole-family project and kept in a central location, encouraging everyone to reflect on the good rather than the bad. Or, it can be a small box kept on your nightstand just for you. Gilbert says when she’s having a particularly hard day, she reaches in, pulls out a slip of paper, and is reminded that there is so much good and so much to celebrate, even in the darkest of times.
Maybe you keep an ongoing list in the Notes app on your phone, or maybe you simply pause and breathe a few times throughout the day meditating on a few moments that brought you peace, joy, laughter, presence. Gratitude can also be layered onto other daily activities like exercise, chores, or even showering. During activities that don’t require much brainpower, activities during which our minds often wander to worry or to-do lists, think about all the things you are grateful for instead. There are so many ways to weave a purposeful gratitude practice into your life. Find what works for you and commit to doing it.
In all honesty, when I first started a daily gratitude practice, I didn’t really feel any different. If your list looked like mine, then you probably didn’t either. My initial gratitude lists looked like this…
I am grateful for:
- My husband
- My children
- My house
- My faith
- My health
- My family
- My family’s health
And as you can imagine, my list was pretty much the same the next day too. So, what was the point? Yes, in a rote way, I was able to recite the things I was grateful for, but that list didn’t leave me feeling grateful. Anyone could look at my life from the outside and tell me I should be grateful for these things.
But when I write a specific list with details, images, feelings, memories, I FEEL it. I know I’m blessed in specific ways that I can touch and smell and taste and feel and hear. I can see the evidence, and I can feel the goodness in all of it.
I am grateful for:
- …the way the warm air feels when I walk outside after being in the stagnant, freezing air-conditioning for too long.
- …the hilarious way my two-year-old son lay with his belly down on the swing today, all flailing arms and legs, clawing the air in a wild frenzy.
- …the sun-bleached
chicken-wing boneDINOSAUR BONE my four-year-old found at the park, which he said made him “a real paleontologist.”
- how my prayers of fear and anxiety were calmed by the knowledge that God is in control, not me (thank God).
- …my husband, who surprised me with cupcakes with my favorite icing for no reason.
After I write that list, I feel everything that the researchers say I should feel, the dopamine, the serotonin, the happiness, the gratitude, the positive energy, all of it.
What is special about the items on your list of people and things you know you should be grateful for? When you write that list, you’ll know the why behind the list, and the prize is in the why.
Tell the people in your life that you are grateful for them and why. Send a note or a text. Say a meaningful thank you to the store clerk who was especially helpful and kind or the drive-through teller who was cheerful instead of cranky. Spread the good. This blesses them and you.
Take it a step further and connect your gratitude with your faith. When I say prayers at bedtime with my children, we start with things we are thankful for from the day, but boy, am I convicted by the fact that I don’t do that for myself. When I pray for myself, I usually start with all that’s wrong with me and the world around me, all the frustration, all the fear, all the worry. I’m Chicken Little and the sky is falling. But by starting with the things I am thankful for instead, I am reminded that’s it’s not so bad after all. It puts everything in perspective. And it keeps me humble, reminding me that every good thing in my life is a gift, none of which I am entitled to possess. Gratitude is the evidence of my faith. It is the proof that I am so very blessed. It is dwelling on the many, many answered prayers rather than the ones that have yet to be.
Gratitude is the first step in positive thinking. It is a total mindset shift for me. It’s like wearing a pair of magic glasses that shine a light on things that are good and minimize the bad. The big scary things seem so much smaller, while the good things that I so often overlook, abound. And in a world that is broken in so many ways, I’ll take those glasses.