Change Your Life With This Simple Exercise

Gratitude is a foundational strength. When you feel gratitude, a lot of other strengths can be built on top. For instance, the ability to love and be loved would be difficult, if not impossible, without gratitude.
04/22/2013 11:53am ET | Updated June 22, 2013
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Vintage desk set up. Antique eyeglasses, old notepad - book, fountain pen, spectacles on wooden table.

Gratitude is the thankful appreciation of things received, whether tangible or intangible. It helps us connect with something outside ourselves, often transcendent and larger than ourselves. I have been practicing a gratitude exercise, and you can do it too. It's very simple. Each night I reflect on my day. I recall three things I'm grateful for and write them in a gratitude journal. The things I'm grateful for are those amazing moments, wonderful conversations with friends and family, or even just watching birds or squirrels going about their business. It might be a moment of beauty that is striking or uplifting.

Being grateful for people and things in my life makes me more aware of my own good fortune, and it helps rewire my brain to be more optimistic. If you are feeling down, how blue can you feel if you have a fat journal of things you are grateful for? Writing my gratitude journal keeps me mindful and aware of what's great in my life. I've noticed clients who have practiced this exercise are happier, far less stressed and get through their day with less difficulty than they used to.

An article on gratitude from Harvard Medical School states: "In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships."

Having accomplished my journal every night for the past year, my greatest challenge these days is to find the gift in tough things that happen to me. I believe that things happen for a reason, but even so, lessons can be hard to glean in these situations. If I don't find the silver lining in a challenge, I am doomed to repeat it and usually get punished repeatedly. For instance, if I procrastinate doing my taxes, and I am penalized and charged interest, I can be angry or I can recognize that I was being taught a lesson. The sooner I can appreciate the lesson, the less likely I am to procrastinate in the future. A simple reframing makes a huge difference in my habits and in my life, and can make a huge difference in yours, too!

Gratitude is a foundational strength. When you feel gratitude, a lot of other strengths can be built on top. For instance, the ability to love and be loved would be difficult, if not impossible, without gratitude. Perspective is a strength that is reinforced by using gratitude. You might be down on your luck with everything working against you, but a bit of gratitude can show you that a lot of other people are worse off than you. Faith and spirituality just don't hit the mark without gratitude. If you are feeling a little flat and wonder what's missing in your life, try a little gratitude and see what happens.

It might not surprise you if I told you many of my clients find keeping a gratitude journal difficult, even impossible. We are so wired to be wary and negative, so socially acceptable to complain, that gratitude can sound a bit Pollyanna-ish. One of the main reasons gratitude can be difficult to see is that we don't to stop long enough to notice things. Entrenched negativity is another reason people fail to be grateful. Breaking the habit of being mindless or negative can be difficult and needs a fair amount of coaching to help you recognize the special moments when you could feel gratitude. But the results are worth it. Opening my eyes to gratitude really does shift something in me. It makes me so much more aware of what is wonderful in my life. It's changed me from being a fault finder to a merit finder.

So how do you do this exercise? Get a blank pad or a notebook, or use an electronic device. You can do this with your partner, or even your kids if you don't mind being shown up by them! At the same time each day, get out your journal and reflect on three things that really stood out for you today. How easy will this be for you?

It might be difficult to recall them at first, but as you continue this exercise, you may find dozens of them. You will also have to slow down and watch for them -- in other words, you will become more mindful. Thumbing through my list, I feel gratitude for moments with my friends and family, beauty, a particularly good cup of coffee, the antics of animals, feeling lucky for what I have and so on. Try it right now -- what are you grateful for at this very moment?

Gratitude helps you to be happier with what you have rather than striving for some vague happiness in the future. As you might have guessed, I think gratitude is a pretty amazing strength, one that will make you more resilient and happier the more you use it. But the gratitude journal is only one way to help you become more grateful. These are other ways to help you focus on being more grateful:

  • Meditate
  • Pray
  • Reflect on what's going well in your life
  • Write thank you notes to people you are grateful for
  • Verbally appreciate others

I'm sure you can imagine that it's highly unusual to find someone who is both negative and grateful. They are like oil and water. So try this exercise and let a little more gratitude into your life. Really appreciate what you have and see what happens, but try it for at least a month. What's the worst that can happen? Gratitude is a strength that gives you so much to be grateful for.

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