Practicing gratitude to change your life

The year was 2013. I was finishing up grad school and like many students, was feeling overwhelmed. I was balancing a lot- working on my thesis, counseling students at a local university, taking classes at night, and adjusting to my new life as a newlywed. All good things, all things I was happy to be doing.


I could tell by the tension in shoulders and my increased cravings for Ben & Jerry's that it was getting to be too much. All the newness and change had started to take a toll. There needed to be some unmoving, unchanging routine in order to manage all the newness and change.

I began to look for something to help me feel more calm, less anxious, and able to focus on the present. As a counselor-in-training, I was constantly talking with my clients about the importance of self-care and daily routines to cultivate calm. 

Enter the gratitude journal.

I went out to my favorite stationary store, bought a pretty notebook, and got started the next morning. Now, allow me to interrupt this story to say- a gratitude journal can be highly personalized to whatever you need it to be. There are many ways to do this, and you can truly make it your own. For me, it was best to keep it short and sweet. I made a rule for myself that I didn't have to get fancy or flowery in my language, and that it didn't need to become a full-on, legitimate journal. Instead, I wrote the date and then listed three things I was grateful for.

On tougher days, my entries looked more like this: "I'm grateful for this coffee. I'm grateful that Parenthood is on tonight. I'm grateful for this couch."

Yep. Remember how I said I wasn't going to get fancy about it? 

It didn't take long for me to start looking forward to this morning routine- I actually looked forward to waking up, making coffee, and settling in with my gratitude journal. My short, begrudging sentences became more enthusiastic and genuine. Over time, I noticed myself feeling grateful for small things- someone letting me onto the freeway during rush hour, the different shades of green on the trees outside my window. My focus shifted from the stressors in my life to the beauty that was all around me.

What you focus on, increases. When you shift your focus from what you are lacking to what is already there, you will feel different. Gratitude widens your perspective and opens up your life- it makes what you already have enough. It changes everything.

Research backs this up- studies show the amazing benefits. Practicing gratitude has been shown to have results like increased optimism and happiness, plus improved sleep, self-esteem, relationships, and depressive symptoms. And negative side effects? I'm not sure there are any.

For me, it was best to start a gratitude practice first thing in the morning. Here are a few ideas for how to get started:

How can you practice gratitude?

  • When you first wake up, to start the day on a positive note

  • When you go to bed, to promote more peaceful sleep

  • When you find yourself comparing your life to others, to redirect your focus on your own life

  • When you are stuck in a negative mindset, to intentionally shift to a positive headspace

  • When you feel empty or directionless, to guide yourself in a positive direction

Give it a try this week- make a point to write down three things you are grateful for each day. Notice what changes in your mind, body, and spirit. 

Anxious thoughts and feelings can make it hard to cultivate gratitude. The good news is, it doesn't have to stay this way. Counseling can help. To get started, schedule your first appointment today.