how to cultivate gratitude

As we leave fall and officially migrate into the winter months, normal life begins to shift back into place. And for many of us, that’s a good thing. If you’re anything like me, you need some level of routine to feel mentally and physically well. But that doesn’t always make the transition any easier. Even though routine may be good for eating family meals or going to the gym regularly, it can be in conflict with the more intuitive sides of ourselves.

After summer vacations, weekends spent by the water, endless hours of sunshine, and brightly colored produce disappear, I recently found myself unwillingly face-to-face with the regular. Wake up. Workout. Coffee. Work. Home. Zzzz. Repeat. Feeling restricted, I began to overpack my schedule with dinner’s out, exercise classes, shopping, and travel. That worked for a time…until after an entire month of weekends away, it occured to me that I was completely burned out and wanted to hide under a rock for six months.

Wait…what? How was this possible? After all, I was doing everything. How could I possibly be anything but ecstatic? And then it hit me. On top of some basic time-management skills, what I really was craving was Gratitude.

It’s such a hard thing, gratitude. When you live in a world that operates at the speed of light and urges you to go with it, it’s hard to carve out space to fully appreciate where you are right now. It’s something I’ve been working on over the past year and in the process discovered a few great tools for fostering a little more goodness in the midst of the daily grind.

While I hated journaling at first, after filling about seven notebooks with my most genuine and disorganized thoughts, it’s really come to grow on me. Sometimes I journal when I wake up. Other times its before bed. To me, it doesn’t really matter when I do it as long as the deed is done. Depending on my time or mood, I’ll write for a few pages, recording my very raw stream of consciousness.

At the urging of my shrink, I’ve also added a section at the end where I write down a few things I’m grateful for at that moment. Sometimes the list is simple and non-prolific—yoga, my cat, hot coffee—while other times it’s an opportunity for impactful change. Regardless of what ends up on the page, I’ve found sitting down and actually documenting my gratitude helps me be more at ease and present in the moment.

But there are times when writing something down just isn’t enough. Growing up in a household where phrases like, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you’ were used very liberally, it shocked me that that wasn’t the reality for everyone. Learning how to outwardly express your gratitude to friends, SOs, and family can sometimes be one of the most challenging aspects of a relationship. And one of the most rewarding.

For a writing-inclined human, like myself, I love sending out-of-blue appreciation texts to let people know they’re on my mind. But some of the people in my life prefer showing they care through group activities or physical contact. And all of this is totally fine by me. Because everyone’s love languages vary, it’s really not about how you tell others you’re grateful but rather just finding your own way to express those feelings.

So we’ve gone over the more external things you can do to express gratitude, but what about the internal? Like oxygen masks on a plane, gratitude is something we need to foster within ourselves before I can even think about extending it to others.

One of the biggest barriers to gratitude is negative thought. These ideas can be brought on my insecurities, challenges at work, and other mood-altering events. Negative thoughts can zoom in faster than storm clouds and flip a perfectly good day on its head.

When I sense a storm coming on, I use both mantra-based meditation and apps like Headspace to break the turbulence. Mantras help me reaffirm aspects of myself while guided meditations lead me out of my stream of thought and into a more reflective space. My favorite mantra is, “Nothing is perfect. Everything is okay.” When I’m in a head mess, this saying reminds me that perfection is unattainable and that most of the time, I really am doing the best I can. With a clear head, I can finally begin to separate feelings from reality and circle back to gratitude.

Thinking back to the fast-paced consumer culture we live in, it’s easy to see why some people understand gratitude in terms of what one has, like a nice house, disposable income, and so on. Yet ironically enough, the times I feel most in need of gratitude are the moments when I have the most. After receiving a few parcels in the mail or gifts during the holidays, I feel overwhelmed and frankly a little unfulfilled. Why? Because beyond food, water, shelter, sex, and love, there’s nothing we actually need. Everything else is just an add-on. They don’t always feel that way because the world is so geared towards a culture of more and better, and pretty, shiny things are distracting. But that’s the reality.

Sure, the minimalist lifestyle isn’t an option for everyone. But learning to pause and be mindful while handling a credit card is one way to minimize this excessive buildup of stuff. Another is to take into account the items you already have. Which do you use regularly? Which ones rarely see the light of day? Whether it’s appliances in your kitchen or clothes in your closet, be honest with yourself and eventually, you’ll be more comfortable separating from those possessions.

Gratitude is a beautiful emotion. It’s not the easiest thing to feel, particularly during difficult or emotional times. Yet the more we learn to appreciate what we already have instead of seeking things to be grateful for, the more content we can become with where we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going.

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