Lessons learned from my 20-year practice
Today is my 20th anniversary of keeping a nightly gratitude journal. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to share what that practice has done for me. It’s caused me to shift my focus from negative things to positive things, and to appreciate things I long took for granted. I’ll share more details on the rewards of practicing gratitude, then some personal stories to illustrate those rewards. Then I’ll go into a few suggestions for starting your own gratitude practice. I’ll present several strategies, in case the way I’ve done it doesn’t appeal to you.
The rewards of a gratitude practice.
Practicing gratitude puts the spotlight on what is good, rather than on what’s not so good. When we purposefully put the focus on the things that are going right, or things that we value, we appreciate them. The things that aren’t so good fade when not in the spotlight. They lose their importance. This means we spend more time and energy in the joy of life than in the negativity of life.
From lack to abundance.
Gratitude shifts the focus from what you don’t have to what you do have. Many of us focus on what we don’t have, especially in this consumer society. When we do this, we can always find something we lack. It’s potentially a never-ending exercise to focus on what we don’t have. When we shift our focus from what’s missing in our lives to what’s present in our lives, we’re more likely to appreciate what we have rather than missing what we don’t. That is, our focus is on abundance rather than lack.
Making a regular habit of gratitude takes just moments. Yet it can have a huge impact on the quality of your life. This is especially so if your life sucks. I was absolutely devastated less than two years into my gratitude practice. I used my gratitude practice to focus on good things rather than my pain. It didn’t take the pain away, but it took my focus off the pain. This lessened the impact of the pain.
The story of my gratitude practice.
I started keeping a gratitude journal 20 years ago today. July 23, 2000 was my first entry. It was in the green and yellow journal in the lower left of the picture above. Those are my 35 gratitude journals from the past 20 years, including the one I’m writing in right now.
That’s 20 years of going back through my day to identify things I’m grateful for. I read about doing this practice in Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Simple Abundance. She recommended writing a minimum of five things each day for which you’re grateful. I’ve hardly ever missed a day in these 20 years. I’ve often written more, but always at least five things daily. It’s been quite a commitment that has really changed my life. It’s one of the most important things I’ve done to improve my life. It’s been transformative, actually.
Now that I’m in 12 step recovery, I’ve upped my daily gratitude list to at least 10 things each day, but that’s because it’s so easy. It’s so, so easy to find things I’m grateful for because my life is so much better than it was. My worst days in recovery are infinitely better than my best days before recovery. It’s easy to see why I’ve become such a grateful person. I have a habit of reviewing every day to find things I’m grateful for. This practice has turned out to be an incredible foundation for the work I’ve done in 12 step recovery.
It was difficult to find gratitude at first.
When I first started keeping a gratitude journal it was pretty difficult. I had a hard time finding five things every day that I was grateful for. Over time it got easier and easier. I started getting sensitized to the notion of gratitude. I’d start spotting things while they were happening. I’d think to myself “That’s going in my gratitude journal!” It really changed my perspective on life because I was walking around going, “Oooo, something to be grateful for!”
The biggest payoff is when things are shitty.
When this practice really came in handy was when things were shitty. Like when I was traumatized, hysterical or in a deep depression. Even if I couldn’t find something in my everyday life to be grateful for, I would search for things because I had this commitment to write down at least five gratitudes every day.
That meant I started paying attention to being grateful for things that I’d taken for granted like I can read. If I think for a moment about how different my life would be if I couldn’t read, there’s no way I could not be grateful for that. I’ve also thought things like I have access to clean water. I can walk five steps, turn on a faucet and clean water comes into my house.
I know someone who traveled to a remote place in another country. A local person asked, “Is it true that Americans bathe in drinking water?” At first I thought, “That’s crazy! Of course we don’t bathe in drinking water!” But when I thought about it, I realized it’s true — we do bathe in drinking water! The water we bathe in is of higher quality than the drinking water available in many parts of the world. I am so grateful for the fact that I have easy access to plenty of clean drinking water.
I’m also very grateful that I have a home. I live alone in a two-bedroom condominium with a finished basement. There are families with many more people living in spaces that are smaller than mine. There are people who live outside, many of whom don’t live outside by choice. Yet I have this huge space all to myself.
I have access to food at all times. Even if I had no money, there is plenty of food in my vicinity. I could steal food from the grocery store if necessary to eat. Yet there are people who live in regions of the world where food is very scarce.
I also have plenty of access to fuel. If I ran out of natural gas or oil, I could chop down a tree and burn that. There are people who have to burn animal dung for fuel. And then there’s the fact that I have heating and air conditioning! The list goes on and on and on. This perspective keeps me focused on the good things. No matter how bad things get, or how bad they seem, there is always something to be grateful for. I might not have taken the time to appreciate these things had I not been seeking to be grateful.
Even when shitty things happen, there are still plenty of opportunities for gratitude. And this leads me to tell you about my philosophy of life.
Practicing gratitude led me to this life philosophy.
Here it is:
Sometimes good things happen.
Sometimes bad things happen.
Sometimes a whole bunch of good things happen in a row.
And sometimes a whole bunch of bad things happen in a row.
Rest assured, good things will happen and bad things will happen. It’s not personal. It’s not what happens to you but how you handle it that determines the quality of your life. It’s not whether good things happen or bad things happen that determines the quality of your life. Bad things happen to everyone. Some people are just a lot better at managing their lives when things don’t go as planned. (p.s. Those people probably keep the focus on the good things instead of dwelling on the bad things).
Gratitude is such an incredible practice because it helps me keep the focus on what’s good. I turn the spotlight on the good things every night before I go to bed. When I started practicing gratitude daily, it meant I started looking for silver linings throughout my day. That changed everything. Here are a couple of stories to show you how this practice helped me handle things that normally would have taken me down.
Personal stories of gratitude in action.
Decreasing the pain of heartbreak with gratitude.
In 2001 I started dating a guy and we fell in love very quickly. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Now I realize he was probably my other codependent half, that’s why it was so rapid and intense.
From the beginning of the relationship, we talked about spending our lives together. But after several months he dumped me, seemingly out of the blue. I didn’t see it coming and was absolutely devastated. I was a complete mess. It was the worst thing that had happened to me up to that point. It was the most painful thing I’d ever gone through. I’d had my heart broken several times before that, but not like this.
And then I remembered the most important book I’ve ever read in my life. Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh. In that book, God said, “At every moment you are choosing who you wish to be. You are declaring to the universe, in every moment, who you are.”
I thought about that. “Who do I choose to be, given what’s happened?” And I realized. “I choose to be grateful.” I’d been keeping my gratitude journal nightly long enough to know that it shifted things for me. So I started making lists of reasons why I was grateful that he had come into my life. It didn’t take my pain away, but it helped me to shift my focus away from the pain. Not focusing on the pain decreased its impact.
Then, lo and behold, he came back several months later. He said he needed to do some soul searching because he had been a self-proclaimed bachelor for so long. Not long after that he asked me to marry him. I said yes.
Then five months later he dumped me again. And (of course) I was absolutely devastated again. And again, I went back to the practice of gratitude.
Gratitude on the road.
Here’s a more current story of the role gratitude has played in my life. In the fall of 2018, I was fortunate enough to take a six-week solo road trip in a camper van. I had never done anything like this before. I rented the van from someone in upstate New York through Outdoorsy which matches RV owners with people like me who are looking to rent. My plan was to head south from Connecticut toward Atlanta to visit friends. Then head west toward Arizona, then north toward Montana. From there I’d head back east on the northern route.
Instead, something completely different happened. The first 2 ½ weeks I had the van it saw four different mechanics and the owner of the van put over $2000 in repairs in it. Essentially, the first 2 ½ weeks of my dream vacation of a lifetime was spent troubleshooting and problem-solving. I was on the phone finding repair people, trying to figure out what was going on with the van, corresponding with the owner, Outdoorsy and roadside assistance.
I was not sight-seeing. I was not visiting the nine National Parks I had planned to see. I was not having the adventure of a lifetime I had anticipated.
The beauty of it was, I was able to stay focused on the good things all while this was happening! I was safe. I had a cell phone so I could make calls and look up places that would be helpful. I was able to depend on the kindness of many strangers. When I was in Tupelo, Mississippi, a wonderful human being (Marty the RV mechanic) worked on the van for two days. Luckily, I stayed in town for a third day. On that day I suddenly heard a loud scraping noise coming from the back of the van. The exhaust pipe from the generator had fallen. The van owner’s mechanic had jerry-rigged the pipe on both ends and the wire (or what Marty called a “NY style muffler clamp”) had given way on one end.
I was extremely grateful that I hadn’t left Tupelo because I could call Marty. He was able to fix it the next day with an actual muffler clamp. I was also grateful because I could have been on the highway in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phone service when the pipe fell off. Instead, I was in a place where I had some familiarity and someone who’d already been helpful to me.
Two days later when I was in Oklahoma City I woke up because there were raindrops hitting my feet. This was while I was sleeping inside the van. The van’s roof was leaking through the vent. I was really grateful that I wasn’t in a region where it rains all the time.
The first time the van actually broke down, it was on the side of a desert highway. At that moment I realized, “This is my greatest fear, realized.” I was extremely grateful that I had cellphone service. There were a few minutes there where I lost service, so you can imagine how grateful I was to get it back! That morning a friend had shown me how to share my location using Google maps. Thus, I was able to share my location with roadside assistance. Boy was I grateful she showed me that!!
I was also really grateful the second time the vehicle broke down on the side of the road because I was on the phone with a dear friend. He stayed on the phone with me until I got to civilization. And I was extremely grateful that the town I broke down in (Holbrook, Arizona) had a shuttle service. An angel named April was the driver. Luckily, she had a minivan. That meant she had room to carry all my belongings (i.e., my six weeks of supplies). She was later able to use her van to take me and all my belongings 90 miles away to get to a car rental place.
After that breakdown, it was clear the van was not going to make it. So I was extremely grateful to Outdoorsy for finding me another camper so I could continue on with my trip. And that I rented it near the Phoenix Airport so I could easily get there to fly home when I returned the camper to its owner. And by the way, the owner of the second camper used the money he made from my rental to pay for an upcoming surgery. He was quite grateful!
I eventually visited six National Parks rather than the nine I had planned on visiting. But how many people ever get to visit six National Parks in one trip?? And how many people get to experience that level of freedom — having the time and money to take a six-week solo road trip around the country??
I could go on and on about the things I was grateful for on this trip, even while my dream vacation was turning out to be something quite different from what I had expected. Not the least of which was having the resources and time to go on the trip. And the absolutely, stunning, incredible beauty of the earth. But I will wrap up here by saying that, for me, approaching my life with a commitment to being grateful has been absolutely transformative. I would have lost my mind several times over during that trip if I wasn’t so focused on gratitude.
If you think you’d like to start practicing gratitude, I’ve got some suggestions for how you might begin.
Various methods of practicing gratitude.
I highly recommend a consistent practice of gratitude. As you’ve seen from my stories, it can be transformative. If a consistent practice seems like too much for you right now, then try starting by writing a gratitude list when things aren’t going well. See how that impacts you.
I recommend writing nightly in a journal and listing a minimum of five things you’re grateful for. That’s what worked for me, so I know that it’s fruitful. However, if that doesn’t seem doable, there are other ways you could practice gratitude that might work better for you. Before I go into those, I want to say a few things about why I believe the method I used was so fruitful.
Writing. Writing in a journal is qualitatively different than typing. Not only does it feel different in your body, you get to see how much gratitude you’ve expressed (like my 35 gratitude journals pictured above). I also think that writing it out is much more effective than mentally making a gratitude list. I’ve done this a few times when writing wasn’t an option for me, and it wasn’t the same.
Nightly. I choose to write the gratitude list at night because that means I review my day. I go back through the day and specifically pull out things I’m grateful for. This often results in me reinterpreting my entire day! In addition to doing it at the end of each day, the consistent practice of doing it every 24 hours has changed my perspective permanently. I have done this so often for so long that it has changed how I view the world. I was definitely an optimist before this practice, but this has cranked up my optimism several notches. Optimism is usually about the future. Gratitude is about the past and present, though it can have far-reaching effects into the future.
I’ve learned that “consistency in small things is no small thing” as the saying goes. Anything you do consistently is going to make a difference in your life. This is true whether they are positive things or negative things. Writing for a couple of minutes every night takes very little effort but has an enormous payoff. If you hate your life and always focus on negative things, it’s a simple way to put in very little daily effort with a huge payoff for years to come. It’s the consistency that people usually have difficulty with. If you need help with that, try setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to write in your gratitude journal.
A minimum number of entries. I chose to write five things daily for years because that’s what Ban Breathnach recommended. You could choose more or less. I upped it to 10 once I got into recovery because five was so easy it took almost no effort. The idea that there should be a minimum is important. It forces you to look for things to be grateful for so that you reach that minimum. That doesn’t mean you have to stop at that number. It means you have to keep going if you haven’t reached the minimum number. Stretching to meet the minimum is incredibly helpful in ensuring that you make an effort. When you seek you will find. This is especially important when things are going badly.
If writing five things daily seems like too much, you could reduce it. You can either lower the number of items on the list, or the frequency, or both. You could start by making a list of three things you’re grateful for. Or, you could write gratitude lists only when you’re down in the dumps. As you start to see the impact of changing your focus, you might want to increase the number of items on your list. And then you might want to increase the frequency you write out those lists.
Practicing gratitude consistently can change your entire perspective on life.
For me, the greatest benefit of keeping a gratitude journal came from the repetition. I made it a habit so that it’s just what I do — seek out things to be grateful for. The second greatest benefit came when things were going badly. Making gratitude lists didn’t take my pain away, but it shifted my focus away from the pain so I wasn’t wallowing in it. Not focusing on pain eases it. It also shows that pain and negativity is not all there is. There is so much more than that. And it also helped me better appreciate many things I had been taking for granted.
I hope I’ve inspired you to make a commitment to searching for things to be grateful for. You deserve it!
If you like this article, you might need help with your spirituality, or you might have issues with resentment which is common for those with addiction and compulsion issues. If you want help you with your spirituality, to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who are struggling with their spirituality. If you’re dealing with addiction or compulsion issues, check out this page on my website that has a bunch of other free resources for those with addiction and compulsion issues.