I'm sure you know the feeling of all of a sudden being incredibly thankful for everything you have in your life. Like a warm wave of gratitude is making its way through your body. Like no challenge life throws at you can bring you down, because there's so many good people and things surrounding you. You're so happy and centered that you almost feel invincible. Feels nice, right? Chances are, you probably don't feel this on a daily basis. If you're a regular human like the rest of us, you may experience intense feelings of gratitude a) after hearing how bad someone else has it (sad but true), b) when a personal success or a close person's act of kindness makes you realize how lucky you are or c) in those rare occasions when literally everything seems to fall into place.
That's bad news, because it means that the majority of time you are an ungrateful brat. Preoccupied by the problems of the privileged first world (assuming that's where you are), you spend an absurd portion of your life complaining and stressing about things. Things that go wrong, things you don't have and things you used to have but don't have anymore. Some of these things are meaningless and some are actual problems, but they still take up a disproportional amount of your headspace. If your reasons to be grateful form the sun, those "things" are clouds. If your reasons to be grateful for are hoarded on bursting shelves like sweets in a candy store, that "thing" is the lack of cake that you're really mad about. Knock, knock, excuse me? Would you please take a look at your life and stop complaining? No but really, we love to focus on the negative, while forgetting about how blessed we are.
Ironically, this may actually be a good thing. I recently read an article whose author proposed that "our capacity for unhappiness is our greatest gift - the motivational force that's seen us conquer just about every other organism on the planet". That's a funny way to look at it, and I guess there's some truth to this. It's true, if we were 100% satisfied, there would be nothing to aspire to and nothing to work towards to. However, being 100% satisfied is not in our nature and many of us are actually more tilted towards being unsatisfied. I don't think that's necessary to be successful. I believe it's completely possible to chase your dreams while being grateful for everything you already have.
So, nope, this is definitely not a plaidoyer for not being driven and ambitious. It's a reminder to put on a realistic pair of glasses when looking at your life and to create balance between the sun and the clouds in your mind. Between the candy you've collected and the cake that you're still chasing. OK, enough with the metaphors - how can we accomplish this? Gratitude, like most desirable things, is elusive and hard to hold on to. So if you want to make it a semi-permanent state of mind, you need to make room in your life and actively practice it.
One technique to do that is gratitude journaling, which I’ve been doing regularly for a whole year now. At first I didn’t expect much of it and merely wanted to see what the hype was about. But I really came to love it. I started catching myself smiling while thinking of something I would write into my journal later that day. And I started to both loudly and silently appreciate the little things more.
You will be pleased to learn that gratitude journaling is likely to work for you too. Why? It is science-approved: A 2013 study reports that writing down a list of positive events at the end of a workday leads to lower stress levels and improved wellbeing. Here are my top four tips on how to keep a gratitude journal:
- Make time for around 10-15 minutes in the morning or evening (or a few minutes each). Decide if you want to journal every day, or just a few times per week, whatever feels right for you.
- Prepare a notebook, piece of paper, your phone or laptop and keep it next to your bed so you don’t forget about it. Maybe set an alarm the first few times.
- Write down whatever comes to your head and don’t worry about an elaborate explanation. “Met an old friend today”, “petted a dog” or “my family” totally count as things to be grateful for. Reflect on your day and look for the details that make you happy.
- The days when you don't feel like thinking about gratitude are precisely the days you should reach for your journal.
That’s it. As you can see, incorporating this little habit into your life is easy. Personally, I use the Five Minute Journal because I love the design and the structure it comes with. In the morning, it makes you write down three things to be grateful for, three things that would make your day great and a daily affirmation of yourself. In the evening, it asks for three amazing things that happened that day and a reflection on how you could have made the day better. I definitely recommend it, but you can literally use any notebook and structure that appeals to you. It’s not about the journal, but what goes on in your mind. Happy journaling!