Friday, April 08, 2011

Too Blessed To Be Stressed*

"I'm grateful I live really close to a place where I can get awesome sweet potato fries for $3."

The above is but one of the genius entries in my new Gratitude Journal.

Last week I mentioned Happier, the book I was reading (and have since finished) about the study of "positive psychology." Considering how I dog-eared literally half of its pages, I think it's fair to say that I liked and would recommend the book. I wouldn't really consider it a self-help tome -- it's more a mix of research findings, interesting anecdotes, and simple "exercises" you can partake in if you want to put some of author Tal Ben-Shahar's theories to the test. One such exercise I gravitated to right away was "Keeping a Gratitude Journal."

The concept behind a Gratitude Journal is pretty simple -- research has proven that those who are acutely aware of the good things in their life tend to experience higher levels of emotional and physical well-being. So by consciously reviewing what you've got going for you, or what you have to be thankful for, on a daily basis, you're bound to keep things in perspective and not let setbacks rattle you as much as you might have otherwise. In short, you'll be happier.

Ben-Shahar recommends jotting down at least five things you're grateful for each night before you go to bed. I'd bought this cool "e" notebook last year (for $1! I'm grateful for $1 bins!) and decided it would be perfect for the cause. I've been keeping up with it every evening since March 28, and now truly look forward to composing my nightly entry just moments before I hit the hay. You don't need to come up with monumentally huge things you have to be thankful for (see sweet-potato-fry line above) -- and you don't have to worry about repeating yourself over the course of time. The key is to make a habit out of the practice -- to keep what's good in your life at the forefront of your mind.

Knowing that I'll be writing at least five "gratitudes" in my journal every day has helped me to be more conscious of things I usually take for granted -- things that actually make me REALLY happy. The sound of my dog snoring. Working in my pajamas. Lighting a new candle for the first time. The neighbor who's always fixing up our building. A coupon for a place where I would've gladly paid full price. A message from an old friend. Losing myself in a great book. My morning cup of Earl Grey.

None of this is life-changing stuff. But that's kind of the point. I've traveled to third-world countries and have seen awful, awful things -- conditions no human being should ever have to live in. And every time I returned from one of those trips I swore to myself that I would never complain about anything again. Ever. That I would never get jealous of anyone, that I would never get upset about something stupid, and that I would always remember how incredibly lucky and privileged I am compared to the vast majority of the rest of the planet's population. (Anyone reading this can most likely say the same thing, right?)

But within a week... definitely within a month... I would somehow push those sad memories and experiences from my mind and be back to fretting over lame, inconsequential stuff.

Humans are simply hardwired to forget what they've learned from life's most painful or uncomfortable lessons. Typically it takes a horrifying event or natural disaster to make each of us stop in our tracks, put things in perspective, count our blessings, and treat one another more kindly... until our memories fade and we're back to worrying about the silliest of things again. I'm the worst offender of them all.

That's why I think the idea of a Gratitude Journal is so genius. Every 24 hours it forces you to reflect on how much you have to be thankful for. If we're not taking note of the things that have the power to bring us joy, keep us safe, and inspire us, then it's going to be really tough to achieve any sort of lasting peace in this lifetime, isn't it?

- e

* I saw this saying on a t-shirt some guy was wearing at The Taste of Chicago years ago. It popped back into my memory when I was struggling to think of a creative title for this post. So consider me grateful for the Random Dude Wearing the "Too Blessed To Be Stressed" tee!


Lani said...

Thanks for sharing this, e. I *love* this idea! I have millions of reasons to be thankful and sometimes finding myself stretching to complain (it's revolting). I justify it as part of human nature, but it doesn't make it ok. I'm going to start a journal too...


Kelly, UK said...

It's the small pleasures in life that bring me joy - my boys giggling together, sunshine in the morning, laughing with my husband at some silly TV programme, a feel-good song, someone thanking me, a chat and a coffee with a good friend, new pyjamas, a new book by a favourite author, the anticipation of a holiday, relaxing with my sister, trying a new recipe that turns out really well, walking through woodlands, taking photographs of my children playing, chocolate cake...

Jill said...

And maybe it will help you fall asleep - another thing to be thankful for! : )