“We change the world not by what we say or do, but as a consequence of what we have become.” ― Dr. David Hawkins
It’s what you dream about, right?
To sail through the day with confidence and poise. Deftly handling all challenges and provocateurs that come your way while graciously accepting manna that falls from above.
You know the type I’m talking about.
Self-assured and self-possessed, they manage all situations with aplomb. They know exactly where they’re headed. Nothing shakes their confidence, and it seems as though a golden path unfolds before them.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of alright. But for you, well, things are never quite that easy.
In fact, your days are full of doubt. And you’re so afraid of making a mistake, that you take no risks at all to avoid the possible pain of failure.
Naturally, there are no rewards either. And nothing to feel grateful for.
No breezy sauntering amidst admiring eyes for you.
Instead, it’s one day the same as another. Hiding in the shadows, slowly marinating in a sour brine of anger, resentment, and self-pity.
And of course, ever-increasing problems. The “haves” get more and the “have nots”, they get more too. Of not having.
It’s just doesn’t seem fair!
Or is it?
Science tells us that whatever you give your attention to grows and expands in your awareness.
This means that good or bad, right or wrong, the results you get come from where you aim.
If your results make you unhappy, the problem is poor aim. Which is a good thing, because you can correct your aim. And there’s nothing unfair about that.
To see the world, your world, as full of grace instead of grievances, and to be one of the “haves” for a change, a gratitude journal is an incredibly easy and elegant practice.
One that delivers numerous beneficial, science-backed results that includes improved happiness and self-esteem.
I started my own practice 30 years ago in my first year of sobriety and it’s been a key element in changing all aspects of my life for the better.
And it can change yours too.
Let’s dig in so you can begin to enjoy the benefits immediately.
What is gratitude?
“In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Gratitude (noun) – the quality or state of being thankful. Also a willingness to show appreciation or return a kindness.
Of course, gratitude is much more than a dictionary definition.
It can be a rich, emotional state or a beneficial personality trait.
Thankfulness is an elevated emotion, an attitude or mindset, a skill, and a practice.
It can be a coping technique, or a mental filter to defend against emotional baggage like negative thinking and scarcity.
It’s also a lens, clarifying what’s important and meaningful to you. And it can transform the meaning of events into things that happen for you, not to you.
Counting your blessings creates a pathway to greater abundance, health, and happiness. And it can be a portal to spirit if you’re so inclined.
It’s also a poignant reminder that we’re not alone nor self-sufficient.
Freely available to everyone, gratitude is a choice with a self-expanding quality. When we appreciate the good things already present in our lives, it lifts a veil, revealing even more goodness for us to enjoy.
Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis, is the world’s preeminent expert on gratitude and says it has two key elements – affirmation and recognition.
First, it affirms the presence of goodness in our world. Then it recognizes that the source of these gifts comes from outside of ourselves. From other people, nature, or a higher power.
It’s a response that sits dormant until the action of an outside agent brings it to life.
And not surprisingly, gratitude feels good. Really good.
The ripple effects
“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault
Counting blessings is a primary life tool I use daily and recommend for my clients as well.
But aside from personal experience, studies in recent years have produced a growing body of evidence that prove outstanding results.
According to Dr. Emmons, the benefits are many, and include the following.
- Gratitude lowers blood pressure, improves immune function, improves kidney function, and produces a better quality of sleep.
- It’s also associated with better cholesterol levels (both HDL and LDL). It also enhances cardiac coherence, which is linked to less stress and greater mental clarity.
- Thankful people engage in more exercise, have healthier diets, and are less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol. They’re also better at adhering to prescribed medications.
- Counting blessings corresponds to lower stress, improves interpersonal relationships, happiness, and reduces materialism.
- It helps reduce toxic emotions like envy, jealousy, and resentment. And at the same time, improves happiness, life satisfaction, and self esteem.
Practices like gratitude journaling or letter writing act as a forcing function. That is, it forces your attention away from negativity and onto the positives already present.
We can’t feel negative and positive emotions at the same time. So prioritizing thanksgiving is a natural, gentle way to dissolve toxic emotions and rumination.
And it breaks the pattern of destructive cycles by changing our focus and rewiring the brain. This frees us from repeating past mistakes and allows us to create a new and better future.
When gratitude doesn’t work
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
With so many quantifiable benefits, why don’t we employ gratitude more often?
Well, humans are a quirky lot.
We tend to undervalue that which is free, believing that cost –money, effort, or time – is what determines worth.
We take the commonplace for granted. And assume the gifts of life, fresh water, clean air, starry nights, healthy food, and social services to be our due.
We don’t like it when we’re indebted to others, human or ethereal, and like to take credit for the good in our lives. We think we’re independent, self-made, and self important. But that’s simply delusional. Without others, we’re nowhere and no one.
And when we lose the thread of our connection to benevolence – the benefits, blessings, favors, generosity, kindnesses, mentorships, and protection – we create scarcity.
A deficit occurs in our integrity and spirit. A veil drops down, hiding what’s of true value behind the screen of self-absorption.
It’s hard to feel grateful when all you see is inadequacy, lack, and problems.
And just as counting blessings produces virtuous results, ingratitude delivers vice.
According to Dr. Emmons, ingrates tend to “an excessive sense of self-importance, arrogance, vanity, and an unquenchable need for admiration and approval… They expect special favors and feel no need to pay back or pay forward.”
Even when ingrates do receive what they feel is deserved, they lack the humility to credit outside agencies.
Not surprisingly, a mindset of entitlement and self-importance gives us no reason to feel thankful. Ingratitude always finds more gripes than gifts.
And this is where humility becomes so important.
Because with humility, we recognize that life is a gift, not a right. The truth is we’re not self-sufficient and we do depend on others to supply for us the things we can’t supply ourselves.
Humility gives us the grace to accept, nurture, and extend the gift.
It’s humility, not humiliating
“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” ― G.K. Chesterton
Contrary to popular thinking, gratitude creates a state of humility and strength. Not humiliation.
In his Map of Consciousness, Dr. David Hawkins calibrates gratitude at the 500 level. (Gratitude itself isn’t on the map. But in his book Transcending the Levels of Consciousness, Dr. Hawkins lists it as a quality of Love, which sits at 500.)
On the Map, consciousness levels below 200, such as Anger, Desire, Fear, or Guilt is “strongly rivalrous and self-interested…possessive, competitive, hostile…” Perfect fodder for disappointment, disillusionment, and grandiosity.
At the levels of 200 and above, we “shift to the more benign… life becomes more harmonious.” This occurs naturally as we rise to the levels of Courage, Willingness, and Acceptance.
At level 500, the barriers to humility have fallen and egocentricity has been relinquished.
Why is this important? Because humility plays a critical role in recognizing when goodness comes from without, not within.
Unfortunately, in our egocentric, self-aggrandizing society, humility is often seen as weak and rejected in favor of hubris.
And when we’re stuck in hubris, we’re a long way from the benefits of a thankful heart.
The gratitude journal practice
“Once you have mastered the craft, you can use it for whatever purpose you choose.” ― Hassan Fathy
Regular journaling is a simple tool to track the goodness in life.
It removes our attention from the negative and switches to the positive. Which in turn, increases life satisfaction and self-esteem.
To develop mastery of your new mindset, consistent application is needed.
Here are the basics to creating an effective practice.
When to journal
“Journaling is paying attention to the inside for the purpose of living well from the inside out.” – Lee Wise
The most effective time to journal is before going to sleep.
As we prepare for sleep, the brain slows down and operates in alpha waves – you’re awake and relaxed, but many of the filters used in alert waking states are quiet.
This allows easier access to the subconscious, which processes the day’s events while we sleep.
And when we feed our subconscious a consistent diet of anything, it assigns them value and importance.
Once something is assigned a high value, it’s then allowed through our filters and into perception. Then we can act to receive more of what’s important to us.
Of course, you should feel free to count your blessings at any time. But right before sleep offers optimal conditions.
“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.” – Anthony Robbins
An interesting note in the research shows that gratitude journaling is more effective when not done daily. One to three times per week has greater impact.
This goes against our consumer mindset that more is better. But when we constantly focus on positive events, we quickly adapt to them. This results in a reduction of their value and importance.
Include thanksgiving in your journal every second or third day for maximum benefit.
Pen and paper
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
To improve the efficacy of journaling before bed, use the old-school medium of pen and paper.
Writing is a more laborious process than typing and makes us slow down. But the extra time and effort are worth it, as it obliges us to be present and focus on what’s important.
Studies also show that we retain information better when written in longhand versus typed notes.
Also, the brain’s motor cortex likes the complicated and refined motion required for handwriting. It produces an effect similar to that of meditation, so it has a somewhat therapeutic effect as well.
Plus, we know that the blue light from screens – computers, phones, and tablets – can decrease serotonin levels and prevent sleepiness. Best to stay away from these at bedtime and brush up your cursive skills.
What to journal about
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth
When you’re not sure what to journal about, look to the external objects and experiences that make you feel good.
Gratitude can be expressed toward other people. Such as colleagues, employers, family, friends, and neighbours. Include pets here too.
It’s often found in the beauty, power, and solace of nature – the beach, garden, mountain trail, or wherever your happy place is.
We can also feel appreciation for institutions or governments. For qualities like democracy, education, infrastructures, and supportive social services.
It can be toward invisible entities like God or your spirit. And for events that evoke a sense of inspiration or guidance from the oversoul, such as intuitive inklings, kismet, and synchronicities.
The arts, books, and music can also inspire thankfulness. As can sensory pleasures like eating fresh, healthy produce, a memorable fragrance, or the feel of spring sunshine on your skin.
Lift up your eyes and look around. There’s plenty to feel grateful for.
Make it specific
“Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.” – Jacqueline Woodson
The more specific you can be, the better the results.
For example, “I’m grateful for my friends” is nice. But “I’m grateful for my friend Jessica because she listens without judgement and is always supportive” gives better returns.
Specificity pinpoints what’s important and helps clarify values. And knowing what you value and why you feel appreciation fuels your motivation for more.
Also, by focusing on the details of a single person or a particular aspect, our appreciation is deepened compared to a cursory list of many items.
Limit your writing to three items you’re thankful for but explore them in-depth.
Open to the feeling
“Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening.” ― Greta Garbo
The more you attend to the feelings of gratitude, the more you’re able to access it with ease.
As you journal, pay attention to where the feelings manifests in your body. But don’t analyze, just observe and note.
After a few minutes of watching, let go of your thoughts and accept the feelings without attachment or expectation.
Open to the experience and welcome it. Despite all of our inadequacies, benevolence is here and now. And through no merit of our own, it flows through all of our lives without exemption.
When finished journaling, take the feeling into your sleep. Let it inform the subconscious or your new priority.
With practice, you’ll find yourself waking in the morning with a heartful of thankfulness. A nice change to our typical morning state of lack and limitation.
When you can’t feel the feeling of gratitude
“The best way out is always through.” ― Robert Frost
For some, finding the actual feeling of gratitude can be hard.
Which is understandable. Because by its very nature, gratitude also evokes emotions of dependency and vulnerability – the same feelings many of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid!
When you’re stuck at the intellectual level, try the following.
- When you have 5 to 10 minutes on your own, sit quietly and close your eyes.
- Relax and decide to let go of all your problems and worries for the next 10 minutes. It’s okay, you can have them back soon. But for now, just relax and let go.
- Take a few deep, centering breaths. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 6. Hold for a 2 count, then breathe out through your mouth (like you’re whistling) for a 7 count.
- Say aloud or imagine the words “I’m grateful”.
- Gently put your attention on your body. Watch for any tightness or tension when you focus on the words. Observe any negative chatter that might arise.
- Take another deep breathe and relax deeper.
- Mentally review a typical day in the last week, month, or year.
- What or who could you feel thankful toward?
- Let your mind produce a review reel for you and watch your body for glimmers of gladness as you watch.
- If nothing is immediately apparent, keep going with the review.
- Scan your body for signs of resistance and take another deep breathe.
- Keep looking until you find an elevation in emotion and notice the effects – in your body, feelings, impressions, or sensations.
- Does it make you feel more open, expansive, or relaxed? Has your mind stopped its negative narrative, if only for a moment?
- Stay with the feeling and hold it in your awareness as long as you can.
- Take a final deep breathe, wiggle your fingers and toes, then open your eyes.
With consistent practice, you can rewire and retrain your brain to consistently find things to feel thankful for.
Who you become
“Don’t sacrifice who you could be for who you are.” – Jordan Peterson
Gratitude is a beautiful thing. And the most beautiful result is who we become when we cultivate a thankful mindset.
Life owes us nothing, and every atom of goodness is a gift freely given.
Keeping a gratitude journal helps us to accept, receive, and enjoy life’s gifts. And it’s intensely liberating.
But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this practice.
We can be insanely stubborn in holding onto our stories of lack and limitation. And you’ll meet with resistance.
So, set yourself up for success. Be consistent with your journal to build confidence and self-esteem. And from that point, you can create the future of your dreams.
Because this world is sorely in need of more grateful hearts, more humility, and less hubris.
So express your gratitude by becoming your best self. Your world will overflow with things to give thanks for!