Twenty years ago, I was driving solo along the highways of New Mexico with some books on tape to keep me company. The most memorable of these was Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, a self-help classic by the late Susan Jeffers. In addition to offering good ideas about managing fear, Jeffers suggested that I take time each night to write down 50 things for which I was grateful.
“Did she say 50?” I exclaimed, rewinding the cassette. Yup, she said 50—because it’s not really about the list.
In order to create a lengthy gratitude list every night, you have to spend your days looking for things to write down. So far today, my items would include finding my favorite tea on sale at Whole Foods Market, that delightful toddler in the checkout line, the e-mail from a soul sister full of just the right words, and the delicious breeze that beckoned me outside for a walk. That’s five down, 45 to go. And so I will mentally note more to appreciate as the day goes on.
Sometimes the things that make my list reflect what did not happen that day, like a near miss on the highway, the car repair that wasn’t needed after all, and the medical test that came back negative. When I turn on the tap water, I’m grateful that I don’t live in a town plagued by drought or contamination. When my wheelchair-bound neighbor calls me for help, I’m reminded to appreciate my legs. And, because Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said something like “Be grateful for the non-toothache,” I often give thanks when pain or illness has disappeared.
It's easy to be miserable when I'm suffering. I need to be thankful when I'm well.
What Jeffers was up to with her gratitude list was getting us to flip our internal script from a running monologue of criticism and complaining (and their close friends, scarcity and lack) to one of appreciation and wonder for what we have and what is always available. For years, Positive Psychology researchers have seen that a regular gratitude practice can boost mental and physical well-being. I find that it assuages loneliness, too. When I feel as if life is serving me up a bounty of blessings, I feel companioned by benevolent forces.
On the other hand, when I focus on my problems and complain about what I don’t have, it’s as if I’m wearing super-dark sunglasses. In that state, I’m unlikely to recognize my good when it does appear, and unmotivated to strive for better. It often creates a downward spiral in which my negative energy starts to attract more of the same. Think about a shaking fist versus an upturned palm. Which is more likely to attract struggle? Which is more likely to receive?
Still, I’m imperfectly human, and there are times when it’s hard to trust that life is giving me what I need when it’s not giving me what I want. That’s when I have to flip into “Maybe there’s a good reason for this delay,” or “Well, it could be worse…,” or “Is there another direction I’m meant to pursue?” I’m not saying that I move from anger to acceptance lickety-split, but I do find that life is gentler when I reach for things to appreciate in difficult times.
“What we appreciate, appreciates,” is a favorite saying of Tal Ben-Shahar, my teacher in Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology program. I used to think that this meant practicing gratitude was like practicing magic, as in, I say “Thanks, Universe!” and presto, more good stuff appears. Today I realize that expressing gratitude instantly makes me feel abundant, expansive, and connected to source, which is where the real magic happens.
Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast, who writes extensively about gratitude, says that it begins with a sense of surprise for all that is given, rather than an air of entitlement. "Gratitude is a real practice in my mind, as valid as yoga or Zen meditation or Sufi dancing," he says. “It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us joyful.”
I no longer write a gratitude list each night because thankfulness has become a living mindfulness practice, as I pay attention throughout the day to the blessings in my life. It’s an instant mood booster and a chance to acknowledge the miracles that surround me all the time, and that makes me feel hopeful and well cared for.
I also make it a habit to voice my appreciation to others whenever possible, from my husband’s helpfulness in the kitchen to a store clerk’s cheerful assistance and funky earrings. Who knows? I just might be giving them something to add to their own list that night.
Kim Childs is a Boston-based life and career coach and writer who specializes in Positive Psychology. She is also a Kripalu Yoga teacher and facilitator of workshops based on The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron.
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