I’ve kept a journal on and off throughout my life, but several years ago it occurred to me that I tended to use it as a tool for venting my frustrations – and that if someone were to read it someday, they might get the impression that I was a very unhappy person, which was not the case. I didn’t want to leave behind that kind of legacy in print.
Somewhere I came across the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. The idea was to spend a few moments at the end of each day writing down five things for which I am grateful. It is simple to do and only takes a minute or two. However, this practice has had a profound, positive impact on my life over the past five or more years that I have been doing it. Adopting a daily gratitude practice is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I select a journal that strikes me as beautiful and feels good in my hands. I prefer journals with pages that can lay completely flat. The one shown below has a pocket in the back that’s handy for holding ticket stubs, photos, notes, etc. I also use a pen that writes smoothly and feels good to hold. The experience of keeping a gratitude journal needs to be inviting. It may or may not involve a cup of herbal tea. (Usually it doesn’t, but I like the idea.)
Pausing to recall beautiful moments and impressions is a lovely way to end the day. I fall asleep focused on happy thoughts rather than anxieties. This makes for better sleep.
Also, remembering and re-experiencing positive experiences and emotions sustains them and allows them to sink in more. It helps to rewire your brain and change your nervous system in a lasting way. Deliberately scanning our lives for the positive counters our brain’s hardwired negativity bias and grows inner resources.
I write down anything that struck my fancy or uplifted me during the day: Conversations with family members, the earthy smell of a homegrown tomato, the proud smile on a student’s face when he showed me how he learned to write the number five, comfortable clothes, eating a pomegranate, holding my husband’s hand while taking a walk, a smile from a stranger, the sound of my children’s laughter, heated car seats, the aroma of bread baking, having a washing machine – anything at all.
When feeling down, it’s comforting to open up my gratitude journals and remember all that has brought a smile to my heart. Some days (for example, when I am tuned to the “overwhelm” channel) it is more difficult to think of things for which I am grateful, and the list may consist simply of: good health, electricity, warm house, plenty of food, and a steady paycheck. But think about it: These basic things are tremendous blessings! Consider food: 47% of the world’s population doesn’t have food security! Sometimes it’s useful to acknowledge and appreciate these fundamental blessings that may go unnoticed on other days. Doing so is a surefire antidote to feeling sorry for oneself.
I find that when I set the intention to write in my gratitude journal each evening, my mind is busy looking for examples throughout the day. The result is that I notice more of the good stuff than I did prior to keeping a gratitude journal. Noticing is the first step. When you are able to notice, you can more fully savor the positive elements of your day. I literally find myself stopping frequently to smell the flowers or take in a beautiful sight. My mind is being trained to catch the fleeting moments and really experience them as they happen – which means I experience more joy.
After practicing gratitude for several years, I find that I am a happier, more peaceful person. Even in the midst of a difficult situation, I can glance out the window and appreciate a bird flying by or a leaf twirling gracefully to the ground. They are like little teachers reminding me that beauty is all around, even when I’m knee-deep in muck. Attuned to gratitude, it is easier to put challenges into perspective and not give them too much weight. Most of the troubles with which we burden our minds are so petty!
At this point, keeping a gratitude journal is no longer necessary in order to more fully savor and appreciate the goodness of life; the compass of my awareness points in that direction. However, I still try to maintain this daily practice. I also focus on gratitude as I drive to work each morning, reminding myself of what I’m grateful for. In this way, the morning commute becomes a rampage of gratitude that feels great!
Some people develop a grateful heart as a result of some kind of wake-up call in their life – perhaps an illness, injury, or loss of some sort. For me, I think it was financial hardship. At some point when my children were young, I came across the book, Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel, which helped to put things in perspective for me. Although it was published in 1994 and is now somewhat dated, it remains on my bookshelf, and I pull it out (along with my gratitude journals) when I feel my life situation is somehow “not enough”.
This book features portraits of families from 30 different nations outside their homes surrounded by all of their possessions. In some portraits, there’s little more than a few pots or jugs. Some families live in war zones with mortar shell holes blasted through their walls. What an eye-opener! After spending a few minutes with this book, I realize how privileged I am. Peter Menzel has a number of books out, and all of them are wonderful.
I remember hearing my friend, Al, tell me about a trip he took to Calcutta and how he saw children who were impoverished beyond belief radiating great joy while experiencing simple pleasures. Al, himself, is one of the most content people I know, despite having very few material possessions aside from an extensive record collection that brings him great joy. Likewise, my friend, Trish, and my daughter’s friend, Dionna, remind me to be truly grateful for good health.
Our lives are full of blessings that are often taken for granted. Something magical happens when we become more aware of the big and little things for which we can be grateful. Speaking from my own experience, life becomes a more joyful journey. Gratitude imparts a buoyant quality to life.
© 2012 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, Reiki practitioner, and mindfulness meditation teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.