Back in college, one of my best friends discovered a book called “14,000 Things to Be Happy About.” It began,“A stream-of-consciousness list going roller-skating on a Saturday morning with corny organ music in the background social and emotional intelligence Holland cheese sniglets, or made-up new words.”
It delighted us with all the things big and small, abstract and specific, nostalgic and forward-looking, that we could learn to appreciate in our lives, even if just for a moment.
My friend promptly started her own list. And I actually began writing down things to be happy about, starting a lifelong practice that, no matter how intermittently I have practiced it at some points, has stayed with me over the years.
How to Practice Gratitude
No matter what form your list takes, it’s a free and utterly enjoyable way to enrich your life.
“Gratitude as an attitude or way of life has a lot of benefit,” says Jennifer Macaluso-Gilmore, the owner of Something Different for Women, a company that offers inspirational courses for women looking to make positive life changes. “It allows me to continually see what I have and build upon that. I always say in my courses that what you put your attention on in life grows bigger, so if you focus on what you have, your life begins to expand and grow in that direction.”
I’ve found that my practice deepens my experience of life by helping me celebrate little victories (being grateful that I made it to the gym two days in a row), and big ones (getting up the courage to email someone I was nervous about approaching). The list has also changed my habits: After seeing “healthy food” pop up again and again on past lists, now I make a bigger effort to hit the farmers’ market every weekend and pack my lunch every day. My list literally helped me reorder my priorities—not to mention save a few bucks.
Of course, the perfect time to start your own gratitude habit is always now, but it might be especially easy for you to kick it off this Thanksgiving week when gratitude is at the top of your mind.
How to Get Started With Your List
As with any new habit, start small: Decide that every day, starting today, you’re going to write down five things you’re grateful for. Eventually, you can make your list any length you want, but to start, set a goal of coming up with at least five things a day.
There are only two rules to getting gratitude right:
First, pick a place to keep all your lists, so it’s easy to refer back to them—and chart how you’ve changed. You can use a journal, a Google document or even a notepad program on your phone.
Second, when writing your list, make each item a full sentence that begins, “I’m grateful for …” or “I’m grateful that …” This way, it’s a complete thought, and you’re not just listing things or people, but actively associating them with giving thanks.
Other than that, it’s up to you: Your list can be composed of specific things—honeycrisp apples with almond butter, cabs, an upcoming trip to Iceland—or abstract—courage, perspective, help in all its forms. It can be about small things—funny things people write on your Facebook wall—or big ones—friends and their love. Just go with what comes to you. Also, consider sharing your list with others. Each morning I email my list out to a few like-minded friends, and we share our gratitude lists with each other.
How Being Thankful Can Help You
There are many benefits associated with cultivating gratitude. In “The Happiness Project,” author Gretchen Rubin cited studies showing that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives -- they even feel more physically healthy and spend more time exercising.
And that’s not all. She also points out ways gratitude can improve how we feel about our financial picture:
• It makes us unlikely to feel envy, because you’re grateful for what we have instead of pining for something else
• It makes it easier for us to live within our means
• It makes it easier for us to be generous to others
Once you start seeing the extra goodness your list brings to your life, you may find one more thing to be grateful for: the very practice of gratitude itself.
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