In my nightly journal, I write three things I was grateful for (or, rather, remember being grateful for) that day. Of course, this is a nice reflection. Usual entrants onto this list: sunset, J cooking, beach/nature/trails, connection with a friend, dogs. Sometimes it’s hard to think of three, so sometimes that third thing is something quotidian, like the smell of coffee or clean sheets. It’s a nice way to end the day, and start my journal entry, as it gets my mind in a bigger headspace than the minutia of how I’m feeling, what happened at work that day.
The trick is, also, to do this throughout the day, as a form of checking in, even if I don’t remember what it was I stopped and noticed in order to write it down later. That’s not the point, the point is to be in the moment for even a fraction of a second. It’s almost a form of meditation, but instead of coming back to the breath, it’s a coming back to the world around me.
For me, there are two important elements related to these daily gratitudes that help me with the way my brain seems to be wired, and to help me feel less like I’m passively drifting through my life rather than being IN my life fully.
First, it’s trying to disconnect the definition of worth from external validation. On a personal scale, this is taking the time to appreciate my own accomplishments and hard work and value, in the moment, even if I’ve received zero praise or laudation, even if no one other than me would even notice.
It’s beyond any sense of external validation, or a specific outcome of something I did. It’s being grateful for a smile of a stranger, the smell of eucalyptus, the way the light reflects off a building. It’s not “I’m really grateful that I nailed that writing project or task at work and got praise;” rather, it’s “I’m grateful I had time to write this morning.”
These gratitudes become breadcrumbs that life is being lived. What I tend to do, instead, is focus so much on the what’s next, now what, that before I know it I’m in the future without ever having appreciated the lineup of moments that got me to that point. They blur together because I rushed right through them. For example, it’s hard for me to truly mark having a manuscript as an “accomplishment” because there’s still more to be done to get it published. So it’s that balance, between having completed a step, appreciating that step being an accomplishment, and at the same time look forward to the next one.
Anytime we have to hold contradictory thoughts in our head, it means we’re going to resist and fight and defend: it’s really hard! It challenges our assumptions, our definition of what’s real. In this case, if something isn’t done, then it can’t be deserving of celebration.
If you, like my therapist, is asking, “So when does it end, when are you done?” then you can touch on the problem with this: apparently I don’t get to appreciate anything until I’m dead, and maybe not even then, because hopefully I’m going to go quick and not be able to think about loose ends before I die. So, instead, it’s about learning how to both be satisfied with something and keep going to the next thing. To pause and appreciate without being complacent—the thought of never growing or doing something new, of one day sitting back and saying about my life, “You know, everything’s good enough, I think I’ll just stop and hang out now,” just isn’t realistic. But something can be good without being finished.
Second, it’s about what I mentioned last week: it’s to fire a synapse that makes me feel good when I look at a sunset, because maybe it’s the only time that synapse fired all day, if I’ve been stressed at work and in relationships and with the world. If I’m feeling depressed. This may mean going through the motions, and that’s fine, but little by little those synapses will become stronger than the ones that only look for the bad stuff. If you go out into the world, you’ll naturally notice the irritants: the people driving like idiots, the rude email, someone tossing their cigarette butt onto the street. It takes conscious effort to instead notice the good, or even neutral, stuff: the person holding a door, the smile and thank you from a cashier, someone moving out of your way on a sidewalk. Oh, but think about how much better we’d all feel if we noticed the good stuff and realized just how human we all are.
Importantly, this gratitude practice isn’t about putting on a pair of rose-colored glasses and pretending everything is great when it’s not. It’s not a masking of the terrible, but an addition to the terrible. A diluting of the terrible. Because if absolutely everything is terrible, then really, what’s the point?
So, then, maybe there is a third element: taking the blinders off and reminding myself that here I am, on earth, in my body, part of a bigger universe. It is at once a grounding within my body and being awestruck by how expansive the universe, life, is.
How do you practice gratitude and appreciation in your day-to-day life? Comment below or on my Facebook page.