Gratitude Journals Never Worked For Me. Here’s What Did.

As it turns out, I was thinking about thankfulness all wrong.

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Westend61/ Getty Images
Westend61/ Getty Images

I like writing about things that I’ve gotten wrong, for two reasons:

1. It keeps me humble (only somewhat, obviously).

2. That’s where I’ve learned the most.

For instance, I got cold showers wrong for years. Everyone says you should take them. So I tried. 

And I quit. 
And I tried. 
And I quit. 
And I

You get the idea. 

One day as I showered, my tiny pea-brain somehow briefly expanded far enough for an idea to get wedged inside it — why not try a cold shower without turning the faucet all the way to the cold side. After all, I don’t turn it all the way to the hot side for a warm shower — that would be stupid (at least in my apartment, where the hot water temperature reaches 1 degree short of boiling). Why not make it just a little cold?

So I tried. 
And it worked. 
I’ve been taking cold showers ever since. 

(It turns out that’s the way you’re supposed to be doing it in the first place.)

What else have I gotten wrong? 

I’ve gotten gratitude all wrong. 

Gratitude isn’t something just meant for church and yoga class — it’s a particular way of looking at the world which in turn affects everything you do … and how you do it. 

I was brought up in a family where we “gave thanks” before every meal. Unfortunately, I think that backfired on me.

Instead of fostering gratitude, it taught me that thankfulness was something to be “gotten out of the way” before you could move on to the good stuff — the grub. 

As an adult who’d long since abandoned that practice (much to my father’s chagrin), the real-world importance of being grateful slowly started to dawn on me.

Gratitude isn’t something just meant for church and yoga class — it’s a particular way of looking at the world which in turn affects everything you do … and how you do it. 

With that in mind, I tried keeping a gratitude journal at least as many times as I tried taking cold showers. But I always gave it up within the first month. Looking back, I think I can see the problem. 

In journaling (a daily note of 3 things I was thankful for), I was hoping to receive the benefits of gratitude — which experts say are both mental and physical — through just the bare minimum of commitment. 

That’s a lot like my childhood, in which giving thanks with closed eyes before each meal was really just a shortcut to my parents’ approval, and had little to do with actual gratitude. 

Accidentally, I stumbled onto a better way to practice being thankful.

There are two basic requirements: to practice, and to be thankful. 

But not just act thankful. Not just seem it or pretend it or want to be it. Actually be it.

For me, this means sitting still and actively calling things to mind that I’m thankful for. Putting a visual to them helps immensely.

— I’m thankful for my capable body and physical health, so I picture myself doing activities I love.

— I’m thankful for my family, so I picture us together.

— I’m thankful to not be in poverty, so I picture the food in my refrigerator.

I try to dwell on these pictures for as long as possible, and slowly the wave of endorphins swells. If I’m patient enough, I can be there to see and dip my toes in as it breaks against the shore of my consciousness. 

Point, please.

Yes, sorry. Here it is.

Gratitude is wonderful. It really is.

So wonderful that 30 seconds a day scribbling your thoughts just isn’t enough of a sacrifice to unlock its power.

If you want to experience more profound, lasting effects, try slowing it down. Don’t expect your brain to stumble on the garden of gratitude for itself. You’ve got to direct it there.

You don’t need to invoke the spiritual side of thankfulness to reap its benefits, either. It’s just basic biology. In other words, call it meditation if you must, but in my opinion, those darn Zen monks get enough press as it is.

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