Years ago, before I realized there was such a thing as trying too hard to be happy, I had a ritual I did before going to sleep every night. I’d climb into bed, turn off the lamp, and the moment my mind and body settled into its comfortably sweet sleep spot where stress, overwhelm and the day’s responsibilities gave way to peace, quiet and promises of flying dreams, I’d realize I had forgotten to write in my daily gratitude journal.
Such a chore it was. So on came the lamp and up I sat, pulling the obligatory journal out of its nightstand where only moments before it was happily resting undisturbed, something I wished I could’ve been doing.
In a hurry to get it done so I could get back to the hypnotic spell of slumber, I’d mechanically write ten things I was grateful for, without much thought or feeling. My list looked like this:
For many of us with active lives, keeping a gratitude list has become yet another requisite staple in our ever increasing list of things we should do to be happy. So we begrudgingly carve out the time in our busy days and rush through it, often marking items as we would a grocery list, with no feeling of gratitude or appreciation whatsoever.
The act of keeping a gratitude list is futile when no authentic feelings of gratitude or joy are elicited from it. It then only serves the purpose of satisfying the ego’s sense of achievement for finishing yet another task on the spiritual seeker’s To-Do list.
While my commitment to the practice was commendable, the way I performed the task was a waste of time and energy. After too many nights of frustratingly trying to come up with different things to be grateful for and ending up writing the same things over and over, I finally realized that I was approaching it all wrong.
It’s not a grocery list, it’s a gratitude journal. The key word being “gratitude”. Gratitude is a feeling. And if I wasn’t feeling grateful when writing it, what was the point? If anything, I felt a sense of obligation, resentment and frustration.
Often, I felt first-world guilt because I knew I should be grateful for the things I had that many others in the world didn’t. No matter how amazing a hot shower feels, usually I don’t get all gushy over taking one or having the ability to take one. Whisk me away on a week long camping trip without running water and I’ll come back overflowing with gratitude for that exquisite hot shower. But given that I can take one every day, any time, it simply becomes another thing I take for granted and have a hard time finding that magical feeling place of gratitude for, on a daily basis.
Once I realized that I was trying too hard to be grateful, and that instead of trying to shove gratitude into my heart, I simply needed to LET GO of all my rules and ALLOW gratitude to be, I finally discovered joy in keeping a gratitude journal.
I let go of the required ten things I once had to list every day and decided that if I didn’t feel like writing in my journal one night, or if I felt like only writing one thing, I would be grateful that I could let myself off the hook guilt-free. Releasing the burden of having to keep a daily journal gave me a sense of lightness and made it more enjoyable and playful.
Writing in my gratitude journal became a creative ritual in and of itself, to allow me to move into feelings of joy, appreciation and light heartedness. My gratitude journal became a place I went to FEEL GOOD. There were no more rules, pressure, or obligations.
It felt so good that instead of limiting my gratitude ritual to only writing in the evening just before sleep, I carried the playfulness with me throughout the day by pretending like I was on a treasure hunt. From the moment I woke up, like a kid before Christmas, I’d actively look for things that brought me joy and I’d keep the memory of it in my mind in anticipation for being able to write it in my journal at night. It was as if I was able to bottle it up in my being until the evening when I could spill it out onto the page and feel the joy all over again like I had earlier in the day.
Below are 5 simple creative changes I made that transformed my experience of gratitude, along with images from my own personal gratitude journal, to help you supercharge your lists and get to the feeling place of magic and joy.
1) ADD LIFE TO YOUR TEXT
Don’t be afraid to draw, scribble, use different color pens, glue images and photos, dried flowers, or whatever you want. If you went to a Bruno Mars concert and you had a great time, glue the ticket stub in it and write around it. This is your book, infuse your personality into it. Make it more than just a text book. Turn it into a scrapbook or an anything-goes book. Unleash your creativity and have fun with it.
2) ADD DETAILS
I have a stuffed bunny that I’ve had for over 2 decades. Throughout the years, when I was depressed and lonely, she gave me comfort. When I was happy and fulfilled, she brought more joy out of me. Sounds silly for a grown woman to sleep with a stuffed bunny, but I love her to death and wouldn’t trade her for a million dollars. She often finds her way into my journal and instead of writing “Bunny” and moving on to the next item, I add some details. What do I love about her? What do I love to do with her? The details carry you deeper into the feeling of gratitude and keep you there longer.
3) ADD REASONS
Why are you grateful for something? If you’ve listed your home, write about why you’re grateful for it. Does it bring security, comfort, rest? Does it give you electricity, running water, heat? Don’t just list the thing you love, list the reasons why you love it. Embellish them. Bask in them.
4) PICK SOMETHING SPECIFIC
If you are grateful for your partner, instead of listing them for the hundredth time, change it up by picking something specific about them that you love. Do you love the way she looks at you and only you? Does he make you breakfast in bed on Saturdays? Pick something specific that you appreciate and write about it. Sometimes being general is helpful to start the momentum of gratitude (“I love my husband” – and in this case, you would take it further by adding details or listing the reasons why) but sometimes specificity thrusts you deeper into appreciation and elicits involvement from your physical senses (“I love my husband’s smell”), which helps you to quickly and effortlessly click in to the feeling of gratitude, especially when you re-read it months later.
5) RE-READ YOUR LIST OFTEN
If you had a bad day and need a quick pick-me-up, look through your gratitude journal. The details and embellishments you’ve added will help take you immediately to the feeling of gratitude. They not only serve you in the moment of writing them, they continue to serve you as you re-read them, acting to spark your memory in a way that awakens the emotion in your heart, not just the thoughts in your head.
When you do any of these 5 things, your gratitude journal moves from an activity of the mind to an activity of the heart. This practice doesn’t only infuse your list with vibrancy and color, it infuses your LIFE. You gain a deeper appreciation for all things and while you will start receiving more things to be grateful for, you will discover that there’s no end to the amount of joy and appreciation you can feel, no matter what you have or don’t have. The depths of joy and appreciation are endless and your gratitude journal becomes a catalyst to thrust you deeper into your joy.