Back in the ‘90s, as a teenager and devoted student of Oprah, I watched her show on keeping a gratitude journal. She passionately encouraged viewers to write down five things at the end of each day that brought them pleasure and gratefulness and said she knew this for sure:
“Be thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have you’ll never, ever have enough.”
I hungrily scribbled these words on a Post-It note, instantly convinced of their truth, and started my own gratitude journal that very night.
It was an indulgent teenage affair, full of long descriptions and emotional ramblings. But it helped me work through the usual high school angst and make sense of a world I had yet to make a contribution to. And the habit stuck.
My journal accompanied me when I went away to college, and the nightly ritual of noting down the things I was grateful for during the day, now—almost two decades later—makes for some entertaining reading. (Oh, to be young again!)
But when adulthood beckoned, I left my journal and Oprah’s teachings behind. I got busy. I worked long hours. I drank cocktails in heels at night instead of scrawling in my journal. I got married and became somebody’s mom. And the days full of busy nothings chased each other by, unrecorded, unappreciated, sometimes overwhelming.
Then a few months ago, while unpacking boxes of my childhood possessions in my parents’ garage, I came across a pile of my dusty old journals. As I opened one at random, I couldn’t believe the treasure trove it contained—the words of my younger, optimistic self danced in front of me and I sank to the floor ready to revisit the past. And as I read I thought—why did I ever stop?
I made myself a promise: I would start journaling again.
The thing about keeping a gratitude journal is that it’s really the last thing you feel like doing at the end of the day. When you’ve been chasing after tiny humans and keeping the wheels of your daily life turning, it’s all you can do to crawl gratefully towards the pillow and pass out the moment the little people are asleep.
But so often it’s the things that take a little extra effort that offer the highest reward. It’s no exaggeration to say that my gratitude journal has completely changed my life because it has drastically changed my outlook.
The secret to gratitude is to search it out in the small things. Of course we’re all grateful for our health and our families, but the magic is in the little moments that pass by unnoticed if we let them.
The way that first sip of coffee tastes in the morning, the color of the setting sun, street lights dancing off the pavement in the rain, the feeling of a small hand in yours as you cross the street or the sound of a new phrase from the mouth of your toddler.
Making a habit of noting these moments down at the end of the day means having to look for them throughout the day. It’s made me see the world in a different way—I started, consciously at first and then subconsciously, to seek them out, to hold on to them. I mustn’t forget…, I would think.
And on the days I feel low or exhausted or sad—the days I don’t feel like sending thanks out into the universe—well, these are the days I know it’s more important than ever to seek it out.
And here’s the real clincher. Habitual gratitude can turn mundane situations, or even downright crummy ones, into something to take pleasure in.
Yesterday morning as I rose bleary-eyed at silly o’clock to get my toddler her milk, I was stopped short by the sunrise through the kitchen window—as the sky changed from navy to purple to orange to blue I thought about how glad I was that I wasn’t still tucked up warmly in bed, how glad I was to see this.
Later, as I inched along in traffic that was far worse than usual, I watched a ship pulling into the harbor, her deftness defying her size. I would never have absorbed this if I’d been driving fast, I would never have noticed it if I’d been watching the clock and worrying about the time.
The habit of gratitude has had a silver-lining-like effect on my whole life. Suddenly, there is nowhere that beauty can’t be found.
I see it in the extraordinary but even more so, I see it in the ordinary. It’s in the ponytail I fix for my daughter before school, it’s in the way the word “Mommy” sounds when it rolls off her lips, it’s in the $10 bill I found in last year’s coat pocket and in the grace of the person who let me in when I was driving in the wrong lane.
And perhaps best of all—something even Oprah never told me—is that once I’ve written these moments down, they can never be lost. The uneasy feeling I struggle with so much on this journey through motherhood, the feeling that time is slipping too fast through my fingers, is eased a bit by knowing that these sweet, ordinary moments are being safely preserved between the pages of my journal.
After all, our whole lives are made up of sweet, ordinary moments—how grateful I am to be able to revisit them whenever I want to.