A FEW WEEKS ago, I sat at my desk, engaged in a staring contest with a vertical line on a blank Word document. Although the text cursor was on a stupendous losing streak, blinking every second, I kept playing with lackluster effort for about 30 minutes. Then I gave up. To be honest, I was feeling particularly uninspired about this month’s topic: gratitude. After a tumultuous year punctuated by unpleasant life events, my “Thank You(s)” to the universe have been somewhat halfhearted or even nonexistent. A day and several attempts at originality later, I knew I had to rely on someone or something other than myself for this piece.
While perusing internet studies linking thankfulness to happiness, decreased anxiety and depression, a dip in headaches and cardiac stress, I thought, with some skepticism: Really? So I reached out to Dr. Erick Messias, associate dean for faculty affairs and associate professor of psychiatry at UAMS, who, back in September, gave a talk about happiness and research in positive psychology. He was quick to note that gratitude is not just an emotion, but also an activity that can be changed and modified.
“The human brain is biased in the way it thinks,” he told me over the phone. “The first thing to do is to recognize that the way you feel is going to color the way you think. When you realize that, you can make specific decisions on trying to use your thinking to affect your mood.” Instead of focusing on the year as a whole, which will bring the most traumatic and grim incidents to the forefront of the brain and subsequently alter the way you feel, Dr. Messias recommended savoring the small wins and jotting them down as part of a daily gratitude exercise. “I would say, go small and go short,” he said. “If you start collecting the small stuff on a regular basis, that’s going to help you have a more balanced view of your life.”
Later that day, when I plopped down on the couch to get started on my gratitude homework, I heard the sound of my dog’s nails clicking against the floor as she sprinted toward me, her floppy ears and curly pompadour bouncing and bobbing. She curled up into a donut against my thigh, and looked up at me, with a combination of vague sweetness and hunger in her eyes. That! I’m grateful for that, I thought as my fingers started flying across the keyboard. As I typed, I was grateful for my laptop, which had survived a full-to-the-brim coffee spill a few days before.
That evening, after my fiance had grilled a thick, tender tri-tip to perfection, I was thankful for the meal that had made its way into my belly. For the next couple of days, I stuck with my plan, making note of mundane little things I was grateful for. I was grateful for coffee—for good coffee. Nice neighbors who didn’t mind me borrowing the steamer for the third time that week. (Oh, and magical, wrinklebanishing steamers!) That perfect stroll to the grocery store on a just-chilly-enough day under a dull, mid-morning sun. That rare moment when the internet stars aligned and Skype delivered a crystal-clear image of my grandmother from halfway across the world. My grandmother’s mini lectures on life, bookended by one too many “I love you(s).” Christmas lights at the mall. Avocados. An (almost) traffic-free drive.
I realized, in just a week, that I was noticing simple, small triumphs throughout the day that had previously gone unacknowledged. In the evenings, when I wrote them down, I recalled those moments, and, as Dr. Messias had predicted, they flooded me with positive emotions (and a hankering for grilled steak). I didn’t achieve a profound state of well-being or maximum personal happiness in a mere week, but I did notice a significant switcheroo in attitude. In other words, I stopped being a complete grouch. I went small and short, and shortly after wrapping up the week, I dug out a small, blank notebook I’d never used and placed it on my nightstand. Every night, I now scribble my tiny moments of gratitude by hand—and sometimes, I even let them claim a whole page.
Journaling every day might not be everybody’s cup of gratitude tea. Here are three other exercises for folks who need a little help looking on the bright side
Gratitude Letters and Visits
Think of someone who had a significant impact on your life—a co-worker who helped you learn the ropes, a high school friend who was loyal to you even when you were morbidly uncool, a teacher who changed how you felt about math. Write them a letter expressing your thanks, schedule a tête-à-tête with the recipient and read the letter out loud. Not only does this kind of interaction amplify your positive emotions, it strengthens your bond and gives the recipient all the warm fuzzies.
Here’s a less dramatic exercise that can be done in solitude, and that’s just as straightforward as it seems. Take a 20-minute stroll and savor your surroundings—the sights, the smells, the sounds. Avoid the urge to Instagram. In fact, just leave your phone behind, if you can. Instead, take the time to explore, notice and reflect on the positive things you stumble across.
Place a vessel—a mason jar, maybe, or just something that allows you to see its contents— somewhere in plain sight. Jot down the rest of “I’m thankful because…” on a slip of paper, fold it up and stash it away in your jar daily. Watching the jar slowly fill up is a satisfying visual reminder of your blessings. You can even designate a jar for the entire family and read your notes of appreciation at the end of the year—or just whenever you need a boost of positivity.