“Give thanks for a little and you will find a lot” ~Hausa Proverb
In my early, dark days of first acquiring a disability, I didn’t feel I had an awful lot to be thankful for.
It was like I had spent my whole life getting to the point where I had a thriving holistic therapy practice I loved, an amazing social life with great friends, and my beautiful dog, who I would regularly take into the country for long walks and my adrenaline pumping exercise routine.
Life was perfect. I had so much to be grateful for, but then it was suddenly snatched away.
I was left with constant pain, immobility, and three children who I felt I couldn’t care for properly. So what did I have to be grateful for, right?
Well, I was alive, yes. Some people may say that’s enough, but they are probably either people not dealing with chronic pain on a daily basis or those with a far more positive mindset than I had at that time.
I thought back to all the advice I had given to my therapy clients over the years on healing emotional pain and moving forward, but even though I knew it worked from the positive feedback I’d received, I couldn’t apply it to myself.
The problem was that I was very good at talking it, but, as I had always felt good about my life, I had never actually had to put it into practice.
The previous ten years had been the best I had ever experienced, and I was naturally appreciative of all I had. After my accident, appreciativeness soon turned to hurt, anger, self-pity, and eventually self-loathing.
I caused myself more pain by resisting the enforced lifestyle change and couldn’t see a purpose in anything. It was at this point I knew I had to make a change.
I looked at the handout sheets I had previously given to clients (practical tips for living a positive life), and since I love writing, gratitude journaling seemed to be an obvious starting point.
That night I sat with my journal, intending to start with three things I was grateful for that day. Just three. Piece of cake, right? After an hour, I gently closed the cover on the tear-stained, still blank first page and cried myself to sleep, mentally adding “failure at journaling” to all my other perceived shortcomings.
A couple of days later I decided to try again. Determinedly opening up the book, I quickly wrote my children, my home, and food to eat. Feeling a smug sense of satisfaction, I replaced the pen lid. I was done, right? Objective achieved.
The next day I opened the book and froze. What could I write? The three things from the day before were all I could think of. I couldn’t repeat them, and yet nothing else came to mind.
I laid the incredibly crumpled but virtually blank book down again and rested my head against the window. I watched a robin tentatively sitting on the garden fence, anxiously watching all directions while trying to keep an eye on the birdseed my son had put on the feeding station before school.
For half an hour, this beautiful bird made several trips, came back with friends, and triumphantly cleared all that we had offered.
It dawned on me that while I had been watching, I hadn’t felt sorry for myself once. I had felt in awe of nature and how beautiful it can be.
Excitedly, I reached for my book again. I ripped out the first page and discarded it. Yes, my children, home, and food were things to be grateful for, but I just wrote them for the sake of reaching my goal. I wasn’t really feeling anything at the time I wrote them, and I knew the exercise had been an empty one.
That little tiny bird, with its beautiful red breast had evoked a truly positive emotion, and from that I started to become more and more aware and recognize these precious moments as they occurred, which they generally do if you watch for them each day.
It hasn’t been easy. It is now five years on, and journaling has become an important part of my life. It has really helped me change my mindset and move forward.
There is joy everywhere, but it can be overshadowed by pain if you allow it.
When I have a bad day now, I read back over my journal and I remember that life has so much to offer. I still have a lot to be grateful for. Yes, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a life and I love it.
If you want to start a gratitude journal I recommend the following:
1. Don’t just go through motions. Make a decision to be consciously more grateful.
Don’t reluctantly journal because you think you should. Feel what you write. Believe it.
2. Don’t set yourself a minimum number of things to write per day.
This is a toughie. Many sites will recommend five or so things per day. In my experience, there are days I have less, and that’s perfectly okay. On balance, there are days I can fill a page. Don’t put yourself under pressure to stick to the same amount each day. Be flexible and don’t take the joy away by being too regimented.
3. Don’t wait for the right time.
I try to integrate this into my bedtime routine, but if I have a joyful experience, I often write it down straight away. This reinforces the positivity felt and ensures I don’t forget anything.
4. Elaborating on why you are grateful allows you to really explore your feelings.
If, like me, you intend on flicking back through your journal, make it clear why you are grateful for the items you add. For example: For the first entry, I put “my children.” On day two, I wrote, “my children for putting on a sock puppet show after school and making me laugh.” That triggers so many memories each time I read it and always makes me smile.
5. Focus on people rather than things.
As much as I love my iPod, it can never give me the same warm, fuzzy, loved feeling my partner instills by making me a surprise breakfast in bed.
6. Don’t rush; savor every word.
Don’t see this as another chore to get through. The fact that you can make a list of things that make you feel grateful should make you feel, umm, well, grateful!
7. Include surprises.
Unexpected events often elicit a greater emotional response. They’re also wonderful to look back on when you feel that life is mundane and the same old routine all the time.
8. Keep the negative out.
If you want to keep a diary to record how you feel, this can be constructive, but leave your gratitude journal as a purely positive only exercise.
9. Mix it up. Don’t put same thing every day.
Expand your awareness. The more you do this, the more you’ll start to really appreciate what a gift life is. The world is beautiful. Learn to really experience it.
10. Be creative.
Who says a gratitude journal has to be full of lists? Mine contains everything from concert tickets to photos and restaurant receipts. Have some fun with it.
11. Give it a fair chance.
Some experts say it takes, on average, twenty-one days for a new habit to form. Don’t give up or dismiss it as not working before then. Commit to just three weeks and then see how you feel. What have you got to lose?
I would love to hear how you get on.
About Louise Jensen
Louise Jensen is an award winning holistic therapist. A regular writer, Louise has overcome living with a disability and has 12 years of experience helping others to heal. Louise recently co-created The Happy Starfish, an online community dedicated to celebrating health, happiness and peaceful living.