Published in Legacy Magazine
August 2015. I’m sitting in an oversized leather chair in a small therapy office in the city. My palms were sweaty and I remember feeling embarrassed about being there in the first place. I was 22 and fresh out of college. My then boyfriend (now husband) just moved across the country to start USAF pilot training, thus beginning our dreaded 1.5 years of long distance. I had just started my first “big girl” job in a field I wasn’t too excited about, and all my friends dispersed across multiple states - far from the comfort and familiarity of our university row- to start this so-called “adult life.” I was unsure about a lot, but perhaps my biggest uncertainty was my future and myself. What could have been a relatively normal, awkward transition phase turned out being a downward spiral of crippling anxiety – anxiety that showed up in any matter from a fluttering heartbeat to racing obsessive, intrusive thinking. I was simply not ready for change, and evidently my brain wasn’t either. It was going on my third week of secretly crying in the bathroom of my high-rise office, so I reluctantly researched a therapist.
Dr. Clare was a clinical psychologist in her late thirties. She was a specialist in OCD and anxiety treatment, particularly utilizing exposure and retention therapy. In short, she comes up with creative ways to expose you to your biggest fears and, if all goes well, proves to you that you can handle it. This, of course, wasn’t easy nor fun to sit through, and so the nature of our sessions was rather uncomfortable, despite her lovely persona.
One day, I asked Dr. Clare what she thought was the secret to inner peace. She thought for a moment, and said, “I have found throughout my work that depression and negative emotion cannot thrive when you are genuinely grateful.”
Hm, gratitude. Surely it wasn’t that simple. Maybe for people who already have it all, but what about the people that have nothing? How would gratitude help them? My task from then on was to jot down three things I was grateful for everyday. I remember it sounding cheesy, but I also remember leaving that appointment curious and, most importantly, hopeful.
I knew that I was grateful for bigger aspects of my life, like my significant other, my parents and my friends. But what ended up being a big game-changer throughout my early gratitude practice was writing down even the seemingly most ordinary details in my daily life that I often took for granted — a smile from a stranger, a nice cup of coffee, that post-rainstorm smell, someone’s quirky laugh, or the way the tree leaves blew in the wind. I wrote it all down.
Fast forward 3 years and I have gone through twice as many life transitions, from getting married to moving across the country to moving across the world. I still hit those anxious waves, and probably always will, but I have found that my ability to be thankful for everyday occurrences has allowed room to embrace the bigger opportunities, as well as hardships that come my way. After all, hardships are opportunities for growth, and growth is always something to be grateful for.
So, we’ve heard the benefits, but how DO you incorporate gratitude into your daily life? I am no expert; I am a normal woman with flaws and inconsistencies, but whenever I find myself falling into a funk, I bring back these 5 practices:
Keep a journal.
Whether it’s your iPhone notes, a spiral notebook, or my current favorite Five Minute Journal, have a place to document what you’re grateful for.
Schedule a daily time to write.
With your coffee in the morning, right before bed (or both!), but set aside a few minutes to write. When I first started, however, I was typing everything in my phone I could think of as I was going about my day, then adding it to my physical journal later.
Include the ordinary.
Write down those things you take for granted. This is especially helpful when you really feel like you have nothing to be grateful for. Did you get out of bed today? Jot down your gratitude for the strength to do so. I promise, there is ALWAYS something.
Be mindful. Be present. Take a short walk around the block and take notes on what aspects of nature or yourself make you feel more alive. Mediation can help you feel grateful for you breath, your ability to move your body, your ability to see, feel, taste or smell. Taking this time out can help you start a list of those little, ordinary but very important details.
Give to those who are less fortunate than you.
Another thing Dr. Clare included in her observation on the connection between happiness and gratitude is also the correlation between happiness and giving. Helping your community in a small way, donating to a cause you believe in, or taking a trip abroad to a 3rd world country to work with an organization can not only make you feel good about doing something for another human, but also give you a sense of worth and importance to the good of this world. It doesn’t have to be huge, but try to do something for someone else as often as you can.
Throughout my travels I have been to a few 3rd world countries. One of them being Bali, Indonesia. In the midst of the hustle of bustle of the record-high tourism lies a local lifestyle that, from the outside, is sadly poverty-stricken beyond repair. But as I walked through these rural towns of stray dogs and poignant-smelling streets, a smile was worn by nearly every human who walked with towering baskets on their heads. Children played in the rice fields and waived at you - the tourist, who has infinitely more than they ever will - with enthusiasm and acceptance. Women dedicate a time everyday to make and deliver Hindu offerings - a token of gratitude to their Gods. From seeing the nonstop hurry and dissatisfaction that arises from major Western cities, how utterly eyeopening it was to see a culture that had nearly nothing be so full of peace and love, a theme I have seen in nearly every 3rd world country I’ve visited.
How can a country who struggles so deeply economically be so content? An image of a little girl playing with a stray dog in the middle of a trash-filled street crosses my mind:
They find joy in simplicity; they find gratitude in the ordinary because they have to. We can learn so much from a culture who may never know what lies outside of their little island. Perhaps we can start by getting out of our “situational happiness” mindset, that is the notion of “once I have X, THEN I will be grateful” or, “once I move HERE, THEN I will be happy,” and get back to basics. Your ticket to peace is right where you are.
So, if you want find that ticket, find gratitude.
Be sure to check out this article + tons of beautiful content over at Legacy Magazine
So honored to have been on the cover, too!