“The struggle ends when the gratitude begins.” ~Neale Donald Walsch
The longer I travel on my journey, the more I realize that gratitude is the universal antidote to painful feelings. In fact, it’s the quickest route I know to happiness, which makes it a good idea to be grateful all day long.
However, when we are in a low mood or something knocks us off course, it can be easy to forget just how many amazing things there are in our lives to be grateful for, even just in one single day. It’s as if a setback erases our memories of all the good things and it feels like nothing has ever gone right for us.
Like so many things in life, it takes daily practice to develop gratitude. As a wise anonymous person said, “Gratitude is not the result of things that happen to us; it is an attitude we cultivate by practice.” So just how can we practice being thankful and bring more of this into our lives?
For me, my gratitude diary is the single most effective tool to date in my self-development.
It’s not a chore, but a practice that is essential to my well-being, combined with meditation to relax and focus on the present moment. I want to share with you just how I approach this, in the hope that it might support and inspire you too.
A few mornings ago, I woke up very early feeling low, worried, and anxious, and didn’t want to get out of bed. I had suffered a lack of sleep from worrying, and nothing seemed worthwhile.
I was full of fear and doubt about the less conventional path I had chosen for my life. Shouldn’t I be following the nine-to-five work routine like everyone else?! What did I think I was doing trying to follow my dreams?!
I had been used to a fixed structure or routine in my life, like a safety net or comfort zone (not that it had been that comfortable, which was part of the reason I chose something else!) Suddenly, I felt vulnerable without it and panicky. What was going to happen to me? My inner critic was working overtime, and I was momentarily in the grip of my fears.
Luckily, I have established a daily routine of writing in my gratitude diary and doing twenty minutes of meditation first thing every morning for over a year now. I do it without fail, even when I can’t be bothered or it seems pointless. Even when my heart is not in it.
It’s an important ritual that resets my day on a positive note from the very beginning. In the words of Buddha, “Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
Within a few seconds of putting pen to paper, I am reminded of why I do it. Gratitude is a lifesaver. I can’t help but smile as the process of writing helps me remember just how many things I have experienced, even just in the past day, that I am grateful for.
It’s not so much the words on the page, but the process of recalling the memories and writing them down.
This also makes me feel, again, the enjoyable emotions that I felt at the time I experienced these things, so it reinforces the positive feelings and sets up a sort of loop of gratitude and of happiness.
In the words of another anonymous speaker of wisdom, “When you smile about the life you live, you end up living a life worth smiling about.”
So, here are my tips for how to establish and maintain an effective daily gratitude practice:
Pick a time of day that suits you.
The morning is without a doubt the best time for me to write my diary. It sets me up for the day. Not only do I have the chance to review all the wonderful experiences of the day before, but this programs my mind, right at the beginning of my day, to look for things to be thankful for in everything I do.
I also know people who write such a diary in the evening so that they go to bed having reviewed and appreciated everything in that day.
Try different times of day to see what works best for you as an individual rather than subscribe to how other people approach this.
Fake it till you make it.
Write things down even when it feels insincere. If you are feeling low, it is a great opportunity for this practice to help lift you mood. You would be surprised how quickly your mood can change for the better, even from the time you start writing to when you have finished.
If you can’t think of anything to be grateful for, start with what seem like small things: the fact that you are alive today, you have a roof over your head, you have food in your belly, you have your breath—not only does it brings you oxygen, but it gives you access to calmness and the present moment. The list goes on, and writing one thing leads to another, until you realize just how much there really is.
Do it every day.
Make this part of your daily routine. Even if your mood doesn’t change immediately, persist with the practice. To me, it seems that, like meditation, it has a cumulative effect. So, even if you don’t notice the difference in your mood over the first few days or weeks, don’t give up. It builds a reserve of gratitude in you that will eventually affect every moment of your life.
I know this might sound too good to be true, but this practice really does start to seep into every aspect of your life.
Set aside the time to do this as a gift to yourself.
It is easy to say that we don’t have time to do things. However, using that excuse means we often cheat ourselves out of practices that would really benefit our well-being.
My diary writing takes me ten minutes before I get out of bed in the morning. I keep my diary next to my bed, and it’s the first thing I do after opening my eyes. To wake up to gratitude is the best way to start my day. Along with twenty minutes of meditation, once I am fully awake and feeling positive from my diary writing, my whole pre-breakfast routine takes me just thirty minutes.
(Actually, sometimes I go for a run too, if I feel like it—another great way to start my morning.) I avoid the urge to check emails or social media. This is my sacred time that is set aside each morning for me. It’s a way of starting the day as I mean to go on, by taking care of myself.
Try a format that works for you.
I love writing, so that is a format that suits me. However, if that doesn’t work for you, try something else. What about drawing? A video diary is another option, or an audio version.
Another option is to write something you are grateful for on a piece of paper and put it into a jar. After a year, you can open it—maybe on New Year’s Eve—and read all the wonderful things you were thankful for that year. Again, don’t be swayed by the way other people are doing it. If you don’t enjoy the process then you won’t keep up the practice. Do what appeals to you.
Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
If you set a target of two pages of gratitude diary every day, you are unlikely to keep the practice up for long. Set yourself a goal that is easily achievable and doesn’t feel like a chore.
My commitment to myself (as part of a longer list of self-care promises) was to write just three things a day. Anyone can write just three things. You will be surprised, though, how easily three things can turn into a lot more.
Because I know I only need to write three items, I am relaxed and not pressured. This means that I invariably end up writing a whole page, maybe more, just because I want to and because the gratitude flows easily. You would be surprised, once you get started, just how many things there are to be grateful for.
Actively choose gratitude.
Your mind is a powerful and adaptable tool. If you program it to be a certain way, including with the language you use to yourself, then it will learn to be that way. If you program it to look for and celebrate things to be grateful for, then it will learn to do that for you. As Buddha is quoted as saying, “The mind is everything. What you think, you become.”
It’s our choice and it’s a simple question really: Do I want to spend the day being miserable, or do I want to choose to do something about it and shift my attitude? As Wayne Dyer said, “Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.”
See things to be grateful for in every occasion.
If you can even identify and be grateful for the opportunities that come to you as a result of seemingly bad occurrences, then you are a master of gratitude and well on your way to a happy life! The ultimate example of this is perhaps famous Haiku poet, Basho, when he wrote;
“Since my house burnt down,
I now own a better view
Of the rising moon.”
Mine is just one approach to keeping a gratitude diary; maybe you do yours differently. Or maybe you have another gratitude practice that works for you. I would love to hear what you do to focus on an attitude of gratitude.