How often do you take time to stop and appreciate life? Even when it feels like everything’s going wrong? It’s not a test, I just want to encourage you to honestly consider how often you purposefully notice the good in the world. How often do you pause? You might be the kind of person that never does this, or the kind that laughs it off as some more mindfulness nonsense (I know that word can get on my nerves sometimes). Or maybe you try but it’s too difficult, or you feel like you aren’t present enough, aren’t appreciating things enough, so you might as well not try because you’re not getting it right. Maybe sometimes you do this a lot and other times not at all.
Personally I make a list at the end of every single day with things I’m grateful for. And some days I really deeply feel that gratitude – somewhere indescribable in my core. And other days I’m more like going through the motions. But I make this list every day, and I have for the last 617 days – since I started addiction recovery. I guess that’s kind of been helpful for motivating me to continue with the gratitude practice because I do kind of see it as a life or death thing personally – I either do the things that keep me sober or my life takes a serious turn for the worse. However, that’s not the only reason I do it; I’ve genuinely come to love what practising gratitude in specific (such a small thing) does in my everyday life. And looking back on my mental health journey I’ve realised it became an instinct for me to practise gratitude very early on – though I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing. And that’s interesting.
When I started to recover from my first full-blown, 9 months long, very-not-good depressive episode, I started this little practice for myself. Every day I recorded: 3 good things I noticed in the world that day, 2 good things I did that day, and 1 good thing someone else did for me that day. They could be as small as I ate some food, or got out of bed (which are not always small feats at all), or someone said hello back, the colours of the leaves are changing on the trees etc. Sometimes they were much bigger than that of course, but actually the best emotional rewards came out of finding those tiny little things to list every day, especially on the days it felt like there wasn’t anything good in the world. I realise now I had created for myself a sort of gratitude practice.
This came about because at one of my very lowest points, in a desperate attempt to help myself (I was essentially in a headspace of ‘this has got to work or there is no hope left’) I came up with the idea to write two lists. First I wrote a list of all the good things in the world – with the caveat that I didn’t have to think they were good at the time – because nothing seemed good at the time – I just had to have thought they were good/ fun/ not utterly miserable at some point in time. The second list was all the things I would never get to do if I wasn’t around anymore. And something incredible happened while I was writing those lists. Half way through writing the first list I started to realise I wasn’t just remembering things that used to feel good, I was actually starting to feel a faint sense of happiness about these things in the present. Half way through writing the second list I realised I wasn’t listing things I would never get to do, I was listing things I wanted to do in the future. I could actually, faintly, see a future and feel joy.
It’s interesting to me looking back for several reasons:
- My natural instinct when searching for something to help me was to practise gratitude
- Practising gratitude had an immediate effect
- Despite not wanting to do many things, I wanted to continue to practise gratitude
- Practising gratitude consistently actually started to change my perspectives on the world and allowed me to be able to take a step back when things got tough again. It essentially created and trained a little voice in my head that no matter how bad things got was there whispering that it would be ok, that not everything was awful
My instincts for survival and healing are fascinating to me because as someone who slipped through cracks of the mental health system, I find them a practically spiritual thing that came to me in depths of hurt. Of course that might not be the way you look at it, and gratitude has been proven in multiple studies to be a powerful tool, but for me the fact that I automatically reached for gratitude suggests that there must be powerful forces of ‘good’ and love in the universe.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself in addiction recovery, where practising gratitude daily is a foundation of healing. That’s where I realised that what I had done those years before in creating those lists was practising gratitude. So I started doing it again, listing things I am grateful for every day, and in fact sharing them with others – another very healing exercise. Being grateful doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt and wrongdoing in the world, nor does it mean we have to settle for the way our lives are currently. But it does allow us a stable basis to build from; a calm to return to. And it really increases how wonderful the bright things in life feel!
From a scientific standpoint gratitude has been proven to yield many benefits. Here are just five:
- It improves empathy and reduces aggression
- It helps improve sleep
- It boosts self confidence
- It strengthens relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners
- It aids the immune system
Personally it grounds me, makes me feel connected to the wider world, helps me feel more peaceful and content, and takes me out of my thoughts.
I encourage everyone to try practising gratitude daily for a few weeks, and see how it affects you. If a few weeks seems like too much, then just start with today. The very simple way to practise gratitude is to simply ask yourself the question: What am I grateful for? Allow any thoughts, images and feelings to arise, and try not to judge them. It might help to take a deep breath and sit somewhere quiet – or it might help to have something to entertain your hands like a fidget toy, depending on how your brain works (it’s stuff that gets said a lot, I know, but it is actually helpful).
Here are some questions to ask and ways to record your gratitude practice:
- You could try writing out a list of 10 things you’re grateful for; that’s what I do most often
- You could do a mind map
- Illustrate some things you’re grateful for
- Make a moodboard on pinterest or from magazine clippings
- Ask, what is a kind thing someone else has done for me today? What are the kindest things people have ever done for me?
- What brings me joy? What used to bring me joy as a child?
- What makes me smile?
- What are the three most important items to me?
- Who are influential people in my life?
- The possibilities are limitless
I really hope you enjoyed reading this blog and that you give some gratitude practice a go! Best thing is it’s not a new skill, it’s something you’ve likely felt many times throughout your life – all we’re doing is tapping into an emotional tool with intentionality. Let me know your experiences in the comments below!
Sending love and support to you all today xxx
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