New Heights of Gratitude

Gratitude is frequently discussed in personal development literature. A Google search of the word “gratitude” yields 1,020,000,000 results in 0.65 seconds. That’s a lot in very little time! Clearly, gratitude is a popular concept. The positive psychology and strengths movements tout the benefits of practicing gratitude—living it as a verb, not just considering it as an abstract noun.

Robert Emmons is considered the world’s leading expert on gratitude. In this 2010 article, he explains that there are two characteristics of gratitude—acknowledging goodness in life and recognizing that sources outside ourselves—other people, higher powers, animals, nature, etc.—are responsible for some of the goodness we experience.

If there has ever been a time when the world can benefit from a gratitude practice, 2020 certainly qualifies. Amidst the pandemic, social unrest, political ugliness, rage over masks and incredible uncertainty, finding reasons to be grateful—to practice gratitude—can help us to live more resiliently and productively. In the same article referenced above, Emmons lists benefits of gratitude that have been seen in studies he and his team have conducted. Among these are stronger immune systems and better psychological health, two things that we can all use right now.

I don’t keep a designated gratitude journal or jar, and I don’t have a specific gratitude practice, but there are certain practices that I incorporate into each day that nurture my sense of gratitude.

I have referred several times in this blog to Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things practice. It is simple, yet profound. Every, single night, before I go to bed, I write in my journal three good things that have happened during the day and why they were good. I also do this several other times during the day in my head. They don’t have to be big things. Often, one of my things is, “I rode XX miles safely.” It may be, “The sun is shining.” Other times, it is something bigger. Sometimes, I have to dig deep if it has been a particularly difficult day.

In addition to this practice, I incorporate statements of gratitude into my daily meditation practice, as well as at intervals throughout the day.

These things really help me to feel happier, more peaceful and more centered.

We have a choice every day, pandemic or not. We can focus on what is going wrong and stressing us out, or we can focus on our gratitude for the many gifts in our lives. Focusing on gratitude does not mean that we are denying problems and challenges. On the contrary, it positions us to face them more proactively, rather than from the perspective of a victim.

Like most people, our family has been feeling the heaviness of the uncertainty and fear that this pandemic is causing. It seems to have been particularly hard on our 15-year-old son. His situation is no different than that of millions of kids worldwide. But he is ours, and we see firsthand how it affects him. He was a freshman, just starting his first high school track season when everything blew up in the US, and schools closed for the rest of the academic year. Then, everything was cancelled. Our regular summer trips couldn’t happen. As the months of pandemic life wore on, his motivation waned, leaving him vulnerable to negative influences and bringing down his mood. We were all becoming discouraged and disheartened.

Finally, we decided that we needed a break and planned a road trip to South Dakota for a lot of hiking, fresh air and natural beauty. We had never been and didn’t really know what to expect. We just knew we needed an escape. So, we made reservations though Airbnb (our first experience with it) and set out last Friday. The 11-hour trip to get there was harrowing and humbling. Logan and I thought we would share the driving, but Kenny doesn’t usually give up the wheel. He didn’t this time either, and I am glad.

On I-80, in Nebraska, a loaded car-carrier truck started to pull into our lane, and Kenny had to react quickly and go to the shoulder. That was alarming, but nothing compared to what was to come.

On Highway 385, also in Nebraska, we were enjoying the scenery on the two-lane road, in the winding hills. Suddenly, Kenny said, “Is that guy going to make it?” I looked up to see an oncoming car passing three or four vehicles, including an RV, on a hill. The car was in our lane and moving at over 70 mph. Kenny answered his own question, “No, he isn’t!” (We don’t actually know if the driver was male or female.) Thankfully, Kenny reacted quickly and calmly, pulling onto the shoulder at 70 mph. Coming to a stop as quickly as we could, we sat stunned, as the passing car whizzed past us, presumably making it past all of the cars and moving on down the road. Kenny expressed our good fortune that the oncoming vehicle did not also come on to the shoulder, in effort to avoid a collision. Eerily, we had seen multiple electronic signs on I-80 stating, “Slow down. 109 people have died on Nebraska roads this year.” I awoke early the next morning with the near miss playing in my head and thinking, “We would have added at least four (including the passing driver) to that total.”

It also hit me in those early-morning hours how very grateful I was for Kenny’s quick reaction and the blessings that kept us safe.

The rest of the trip unfolded with less danger, although we encountered some thunder on a couple hikes. But, all in all, the trip felt like a miracle, for which I felt tremendous gratitude. I was also grateful for pain-free travel. I have piriformis syndrome, which causes sciatic pain. Sitting and car rides have become increasingly uncomfortable. At the last minute, on a whim, I decided to take my buckwheat meditation cushion and sit on it. Although I was quite tall in the seat, it worked! I had no pain coming or going. That, too, felt like a miracle.

As we were walking around Hot Springs, South Dakota on very first evening, we came across a boy who was preparing to run. He was clearly a trained runner, and Kenny asked him how far he was going to run. He said, “Oh, six or seven miles,” and we had a brief conversation. By wild coincidence, it turned out that he runs for Maize South, less than 15 miles from our home! Logan had not packed his running shoes because the weight of the pandemic had doused his fire. Upon seeing this boy, he decided he would like to run. We ended up making a 100+-mile trip to Rapid City to buy some, even though he had some nearly new running shoes at home. It was so worth it. He ran each night for the rest of the trip, even after strenuous hikes during the day. Along with his renewed motivation, the mood in our family lifted. We took in unbelievable sights and worked hard together climbing the highest peak in South Dakota and east of the Rocky Mountains. We had real conversations and laughed together. The views were breathtaking, and the bison, antelope, deer, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and chipmunks we saw were delightful. The bison, especially, seemed like a totem of sorts.

We didn’t want to leave. It was all so spectacular. My heart swelled with gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy the beauty together and for what the escape had done for our family.

Real life has returned, including a 13+-hour workday on Friday, my first day back to work (My cushion kept me pain free for that, too!). Still, I hold the gifts of the trip in my heart, and they warm me when I recall them.

We were protected in two near misses on the highways. We stayed safe and joyful on our challenging hikes. Logan regained his motivation. We enjoyed each other’s company.

In many ways the highlight of a getaway that has been the highlight of 2020, so far, was reaching the summit of Black Elk Peak together. All of our hikes were good, but that one feels symbolic of the new heights of gratitude I felt. Even as we return to the struggles of non-vacation life, I will always be grateful for this special time and special place. They were true gifts, helping me to remember what is important, reinforcing the impermanence and fragility of life and instilling a poignancy that urges me to strive for optimal living in each and every moment. Like a long, strenuous climb, it is a journey, a process, but the feeling of accomplishment upon reaching the summit is so worth it.

How do you practice gratitude in your life? What experiences inspire the feeling of gratitude for you? How does this sustain you in difficult times? Let us know in the comments.

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How a Nightly Journaling Practice Can Help You Increase Happiness and Achieve Goals

I have journaled for many years. For a long time, I did it frequently, but without any real structure or schedule. That changed in 2011, when I was looking for strategies to help me feel more positive about life, during a particularly painful time. I learned about Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things” practice. I have written about this practice previously because it has been (and continues to be) so meaningful to me.

The simple “Three Good Things” practice became the foundation for the journaling that I faithfully began doing each night. Every single night—even when I am Biking Across Kansas—I write in my journal about three things that went well during the day. Sometimes they are big things. Often, they are small things. The point of the practice is to stop and notice that good things happen, even on the most mundane day. Sometimes it is more difficult than others to come up with my three things. On a particularly difficult day, it might be something as basic as, “My warm shower felt good.” This helps me recognize gifts and blessing in the midst of challenges and disappointments. In addition to naming my three things, I follow each with the question, “Why?” and then write about why this was a good thing. This reflection is brief, but it is key to noticing why I feel good about something. In a 2005 study by Seligman, et al., participants who used the Three Good Things” practice for a week experienced improved mood for six months. I recognized the benefits so quickly after starting it that I made it a permanent practice.

This practice is so helpful that I have added check-ins throughout the day, when I am feeling stressed or tired or anxious. Mentally, I will take a moment to name three good things that have happened up to that point in the day. A variant that helps me get out of bed in the morning is to identify three things to which I am looking forward in the coming day.

Over time, I have added other questions that have benefitted me. Currently, in addition to my Three Good Things practice. Here are the others I use:

  • What do I want for and from myself tomorrow? This helps me to begin to set an intention for the next day. When I think about how I want the day to look, I can approach it consciously, making decisions that support my intention.
  • Do I have any regrets about my choices today? As I wrote in this post, my theme for 2019 is “No Regrets.” By checking in with myself each night, I take an honest look at the choices I made during the day and assess whether they were aligned with my values, goals and priorities. This idea of living to avoid regrets has become so compelling that I have recently refocused my coaching practice to help people who have become aware of how quickly time passes develop the energy, mindset and well-being to accomplish what they want to accomplish and live with no regrets. I strive to do this in my daily life, as well.
  • How will I live with no regrets tomorrow? This is when I decide if and how I need to adjust my choices the next day. It is also when I consider my responsibilities for the day and plan proactively to remain in alignment with values, goals and priorities.

Within the last couple months, I have added to my nightly journaling practice with the “Three Question Journal,” developed by Angeles Arrien. This practice has been used with medical students to help them recognize meaning in their work. I find that it can help me identify and acknowledge meaning in my life, too. Rather than overlooking or taking for granted events that have taken place during the day, I acknowledge the meaning they help create in my life. Here are the three questions:

  1. What surprised me today?
  2. What touched my heart today?
  3. What inspired me today?

The key with these questions is to write the first thing that comes to mind and to briefly reflect on it. One of the profound insights that I obtained in reading Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, is her assertion that “A meaningful life is a stressful life.” I realized, upon reading this, that the mundane things that are part of my daily life, like work and family, while being significant contributors to stress in my life, are also significant contributors to meaning in my life. Recognizing this was truly life changing for me. This three-question practice reinforces this recognition.

My nightly journaling does not take all that long, but it is time well spent. It enables me to finish the day feeling centered, having integrated my daily activities and my thoughts and feelings about them. I finish by reading until I am ready to go to sleep and then choosing a quote from my collection for reflection, as I go to sleep.

My nightly journaling practice is one component of my non-negotiable self-care practices. Other things, like my morning mindfulness practice, exercise, plant-based nourishment and my various check-ins throughout the day round out my practice. Any of these is important alone, but together they support each other and add a greater sense of meaning and contentment to my life.

I encourage you to begin a nightly journaling practice, if you don’t already have one. You may want to use some or all of the questions I include. While there are times that I simply free-write in my journal, these questions are always part of my nightly practice. If you are starting with just one part of what I do, I recommend starting with “Three Good Things,” since this has been shown scientifically to enhance happiness in people who did it. Anecdotally, I can attest to its effectiveness. Once you have that practice in place, trust your instincts to add others—either from the ones that are meaningful to me or some that you adapt.

I have tried and abandoned some strategies because they didn’t serve me as well as these do. Several months ago, I subbed, “Was I better today than yesterday?” for “What do I want for and from myself tomorrow?” I missed the latter question, so I added it back and included my “no regrets” questions. This feels like a better fit.

I find that the structure of the questions and the soothing ritual they provide increase the centeredness I feel from the journaling. The practice helps put everything in its place for the day.  I hope you will give structured nightly journaling a try and let me know how it affects your life.