I distinctly remember the day I sat in my junior English class after returning from Christmas break. My teacher asked us what our New Year’s resolutions were for the year. To be honest, I can’t remember mine, but I remember a classmate’s: starting a gratitude journal. That sounded like a good idea to me, too.
Today, it’s been nearly 12 years since I made the commitment to keep a gratitude journal.
Over the years, what started as practicing gratitude slowly evolved into living a lifestyle of gratitude, two slightly different things. Think of it this way: When you announce to your officemates that you’re going to start running, you make a decision to run each day for so many miles (let’s face it, some days are better than others); however, as you begin to become more consistent in your commitment, what began as a practice evolves into a lifestyle of health and wellness. The same goes for gratitude.
On Thanksgiving, Americans will take the day to be consciously grateful and most likely celebrate gratitude with family and friends over a meal. However, especially more recently, the idea of giving thanks has extended to the entire month of November. Lately, my Facebook news feed has been buzzing with people’s everyday gratitude, a sort of virtual journal. People seem interested in living more than one day of gratitude. But, how do we know when we’re living a lifestyle of gratitude? How long does it take? What are its fruits? The answers are different for everyone, but I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how you can start your commitment, and how you can tell it’s growing.
First, the key to any practice of gratitude is presence. As I began my practice of journaling, I came to see it as taking the temperature of my life, so to speak. Some days, I would scribble lots of lists of things I was grateful for; other days, I would really struggle. On the days I struggled, I asked myself what was really going on. Were there really less things to be grateful for that day? Often, the answer was no. The problem was my being present to those things. The days I struggled the most were the ones when I simply went through the motions, riding the wave of everyday life. My interactions were tepid, and I would wrap myself up in a “zone” on my way to school, my thinking consumed by stress and to-do lists. This is not true presence to life, and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to finding gratitude. If we want to recognize the gifts in our lives, we first have to put on the mindset of presence; otherwise, many wonderful things pass us by every day.
Eventually, my lifestyle of gratitude began to include others. If there are all these wonderful things happening in my life every day, shouldn’t I also be expressing my gratitude toward others? Here, presence is also critical. Let me ask you a question: Have you ever ordered coffee or bought something at the drugstore in a mindless exchange of words? Maybe you say to the cashier, “Hi, how are you doing today?” and he/she says, “Fine. How are you?” Maybe at that point, you’re fumbling around in your wallet or putting your things on the conveyor belt. You don’t respond. Perhaps he/she doesn’t even notice that you don’t respond. We’re so programmed to go through such mindless pleasantries each day. What if that changed? What if we looked that person in the eye? Genuinely asked questions? In extending our gratitude to others, presence is still the key. Unless we are truly present to others and the big and small ways that they help or serve us each day, we cannot fully express our gratitude.
All of this might seem like a big task, but realize it takes time, each day, for months, even years. It’s been 12 years since I started focusing on living a lifestyle of gratitude, and I still struggle to be truly present each day. The key is to start small. As I said, commitments to lifestyle changes often start with practices. Here are a few tips:
- Work on being present. Realizing the gifts in our own life or extending our gratitude toward others cannot happen without presence. Make more eye contact. Hold your head up when you walk around, and take in your surroundings. Spend a few days on public transit without earbuds or a magazine.
- Start a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal is not used to make a point about how good or bad any person’s life is. Rather, it’s to make us aware of the gifts in our life on any given day. If you don’t like writing at length, try making a list. Try to write five things you were thankful for each day. If that becomes easy, write 10, and so on.
- Be kind to yourself. When we make a commitment to health and wellness, we often gauge our success by how many miles we ran this week, and beat ourselves up when we take a nap on the couch instead of going for a run. In your commitment to gratitude, know that you are fighting a lot of modern day norms, like the mindless lack of presence that threatens us in day-to-day life. It will take time. Stay the course, and measure your success by how your awareness is changing.
I’ll end with this: I’m a total sucker for romance. I love flowers and cards and chocolates and date nights. Not surprisingly, in my quest for a lifestyle of gratitude, I came to realize that God is absolutely in love with us. God is constantly trying to woo us with beautiful sights in nature and the kind gestures of complete strangers. Living a lifestyle of gratitude is one way to say thanks to God for constantly expressing His love for us. The poet Mary Oliver understood this well. In fact, it was the basis for her idea of prayer. I’ll leave you with her words:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together, and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
— Mary Oliver, “Praying”
(Originally published November 18th, 2013)