I’ve recently started doing something that in a past life I might have considered a little bit cheesy: I’ve started keeping a “gratitude journal”.
What is a Gratitude Journal?
It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a journal in which one writes down things for which one is grateful. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t even have to be lengthy. It can be as simple as a numbered list - three things you’re grateful for today. They can be broad (“I’m grateful for my health.”) or very specific (“I’m grateful for the latest episode of The Crown.”). The list can be long or short. The contents can be anything and of any quantity. The point of the exercise is to become conscious of the good things in life that may at times go overlooked.
Why Is This Important?
In recent years I’ve become more and more conscious of people’s (including my own) tendency to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive. We seem hard wired to latch on to, talk about, and internalize bad news. Why is this? We are inundated with negativity in news media, to be sure, but we seem even to harp on events we perceive as negative in our day-to-day lives. Why is it so easy amid the chaos of our modern existence to take the good things for granted and to give more mental and emotional space to the bad?
The aim of the gratitude journal is to shift the way we think about our day-to-day lives, and to put the bad stuff in perspective. The little trials and tribulations we face daily may induce less anxiety, anger, and stress, if they are viewed as part of a bigger picture in which we recognize how fortunate we really are.
Gratitude in Hindsight
The start of a new year is an appropriate time to reflect on the year that’s just gone. When I look back on my year from a personal perspective, there are two ways I could describe it: the way I instinctively want to describe it, which is perhaps the narrative that I tell myself, and the way I ought to describe it. The events are the same, but the two narratives are very different.
The Negative Narrative
2017 was a really tough year. In the beginning of the year I was living in India, which was incredibly challenging and at times very lonely, as I navigated a completely foreign culture while trying to do my job. Then, in the summer, I lost the job I’d held for 7 1/2 years, and left the company that had launched my career (and sent me round the world). The same week that I got the news of my redundancy, I also suffered a miscarriage. In the next few months I would return to the US, sell most of my belongings, and spend a month separated from my husband before moving to the UK, far away from my friends and family.
The Positive Narrative
2017 was a really dynamic year. I had the opportunity to live and work in India, which, though challenging at times, immersed me in a culture that would forever change the way I look at the world. My experience in India inspired me to change the course of my career, which happened to coincide with my redundancy from my job. Though it was difficult to say goodbye to a job I’d held for 7 1/2 years, my experience in India made me ready to do it. I then had time and the security of severance pay to launch a new business of my own. Though my miscarriage was a difficult loss to endure, it did not compromise my long-term health or my ability to have children in the future, and sharing my experience with others helped me find solidarity in women who have suffered similar losses. My move to the UK was difficult because of the distance it put between my family and me, but the quiet pace of life it affords me is exactly the recovery I needed after a year in India, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet new and interesting people.
Acknowledging the Bad Things
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging the hard stuff. Pretending the hard stuff doesn’t happen or exist doesn’t serve anyone. But it’s important not to let it overshadow or take the place of the good stuff. No one’s life is sunny and rosy all the time, but very few of us fully appreciate the good things that we do have. That’s where a gratitude journal can really come in handy.
The Big Picture
How might such positive thinking change the narrative of what’s going on in the world? In the environment? A look back at 2017 from a global, political and social point of view reveals a lot of bad stuff: climate disaster events, mass murders, terror attacks, racism, police brutality, sexual assault. If you focus on the bad stuff, you might feel yourself part of a story in which the world is spiraling towards its inevitable demise. In that narrative, how inspired do you feel to affect positive change?
What if the narrative included the good stuff that happened this year: a new treatment for ALS, technological advances that could soon end our dependency on fossil fuels, increased awareness about the impact of animal agriculture, plastic bag bans being implemented across the globe, a multi-racial, multi-national engagement in the English monarchy, women who are empowered to speak out about sexual assault? Wouldn’t you rather be part of a story in which people come together to educate and embolden each other to create the world they want to see?
Will my gratitude journal change the world? No, but I believe it can change the way I view and interact with it.
Would you keep a gratitude journal? What might be included in your first entry? I’d love to hear from you!