Practicing Gratitude: How Five Minutes a Day Made Me More Thankful
September 15, 2015
After years of resisting the idea as superficial, even saccharine, I recently started keeping a gratitude journal.
I’m not sure if it’s my Yankee upbringing or simple biology, but I’ve always been anxious, constantly scanning my environment for threats large and small. Journaling has by no means cured me, but I’m amazed at how, after just a couple of months, I sense my negativity bias shifting at the edges.
We’re all primed to feel the bad—and remember it—more than the good in our everyday lives. It’s an adaptive trait that served us well in the hunter-gatherer days, but it’s also a habit that can fray our nerves.
Psychologist Rick Hanson explains that our ancestors were prone to two kinds of errors: believing there was a tiger waiting to pounce from the bushes when all was actually fine, and being lulled into a false sense of security when there was indeed a tiger waiting to bite your arm off.
“The cost of the first mistake is needless worry, while the cost of the second one is no more gene copies,” he writes. “Mother Nature designed us to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.”
The result? As Hanson says: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
Shifting that mindset is tough, especially because chasing happiness often feels as futile as chasing sleep. It’s not something you can consciously demand of yourself; it’s about creating the right conditions for the thing to happen. Gratitude, rather than happiness, strikes me as the best baseline for overcoming the indignities of life. It’s also a more tangible concept for which to aim.
A quick perusal of my journal over the past couple of months suggests that it really is those little everyday moments—the otherwise forgettable ones—that can add real value when captured.
Despite spending so much time in my own head, I find that I respond with gratitude most often to visceral experiences: a sunny day, a conversation with an old friend, cuddling up on the couch with my partner, comfort food. Big wins at work make their way into my notes occasionally, but they’re the exception, not the rule.
The practice itself is about as simple as it sounds. I have a small journal and pen at my bedside, and most nights as I’m getting ready for sleep, I’ll write down three or four items from the day for which I’m thankful. I find the practice works best when I’m specific (“goat cheese from the farmers market” versus “cheese”) and add a line or two about why I’m grateful for that thing or experience. (Here’s a list of additional tips for getting started.)
For better or worse, the vast majority of our experiences are mundane—the meetings at work that seem like they’ll never end, standing in line at the grocery store, catching happy hour with some buddies. And major life events don’t change our happiness set points as much we might think or hope. Once the big event has passed, we quickly get fixed in the “new normal”—what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Appreciating the day-to-day grind is central to combatting this process.
The science behind gratitude journals is surprisingly robust. Studies have found that practicing gratitude improves our physical and emotional health, as well as our relationships. Participants have reported sleeping better as well as feeling more alert and less lonely. You don’t even have to commit to doing it every day to reap the benefits—some research finds that writing once a week is more effective.
Perhaps the biggest benefit for me has been what I’ll call a “mindfulness feedback loop.” By putting more awareness on the small pleasures that brighten my day through writing, I’m more likely to appreciate those moments as they’re happening, too. I’m also more primed to appreciate the big stuff I’m lucky to enjoy—family and friends, a comfortable home, a good job, and my health.
It’s not a perfect system, and there are still too many days when I operate on autopilot, letting a snide comment or missed train ruin my morning. But increasingly, there are moments of real-time gratitude. And for that, I’m thankful.