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Most people who know me think I am a very positive and happy person. Many would never guess how much I tend towards being negative, critical, and judgmental. I loathe this about myself, and it wasn’t until college that I found a very effective way to combat this.
I was at a retreat when the speaker challenged us to write down 10 things we were thankful for every day. That seemed like it was going to get repetitive, fast: shelter, food, family, friends, an education, clothes… I was very much at an 8-year old level when it came to seeing the blessings in my life. But I took on the challenge, and started a blog solely for the purpose of chronicling 10 thankful things I was thankful for every day.
It was amazing.
After a few weeks, I began to see everything with fresh eyes. Food tasted better, and friendship brought more delight. Every interaction with other people brought me special joy; small moments of laughter and inside jokes brought more pleasure, and unexpected acts of kindness and thoughtfulness thrilled me like never before.
Soon, my daily list of 10 grew to 15, then 20, and oftentimes more. Every time something lovely happened, my brain immediately recognized it as an item to add to the list, and I was excited to look back at the end of each day and literally count my blessings, one by one.
Not only was I able to catch the tiny details that used to go unnoticed– the bright morning sun, a driver waving me to walk across the street first, the bus waiting for me– but I even saw hardships in a new light. When a car cut me off, I was able to appreciate that I didn’t get hit by a negligent driver. If the weather was unpleasant, I could appreciate my umbrella all the more. If I missed the bus, I was grateful for a healthy body that could walk easily. Not everyone has that.
One unexpected result of this was how others began to respond to me. Because of the public nature of my blog, other friends were able to read about the things I was grateful for, and I think it changed the way they saw me, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They viewed me as a grateful and appreciative person (which was becoming more and more true every day), and they responded in kind. People were more appreciative around me, more appreciative of me, and this gave me more reasons to appreciate them. It was like an upward spiral of happiness. Me being happy… made others happy around me… which made me more happy!
Maybe it’s just the way I was seeing the world at the time, but I really felt like people were more positive around me because that’s the kind of person they saw me as: positive.
Of course, there were days when it took me a really long time to come up with 10 things. Or I really had to stretch it to find the positive in a very difficult situation. But if I worked at it long enough and persevered in exercising that gratitude muscle, I was rewarded with a positive perspective. I know, it sounds a little cheesy, but it’s true.
I really do think thankfulness is like a muscle that you have to exercise. Practice thankfulness regularly, and you will find it easier and easier to find more things to be grateful for. It will take mere moments to sprint through a list of 10 things you are thankful for in one day. Neglect that muscle, however, and before you know it, negativity will sneak up on you like a silent shadow, robbing you of your joy. What used to be easy now takes so much more effort.
I know this because I’ve “let myself go,” a few times over the years since college, and experienced periods of discontentment and negativity. I have pulled myself back into the discipline of gratitude a couple of times, and have been rewarded with deep contentment and joy each time. Lately, though, my gratitude muscles have grown pretty flabby. But hey, here’s to taking the first step. Again.
I know I’ll be doing this again and again in the years to come, because I’m human, and that’s what we do. We fail, we get back up, and we try again. And that’s okay. I am thankful for fresh starts.
(…One down, nine to go.)