September 3, 2014

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The secret to contentmentMost 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.

Choosing to be thankful completely changes your perspective!

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!

Your gratitude is infectious!

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.)

10 responses to “Combat Negativity with Thankfulness”

  1. Olwen says:

    Thank you for sharing

  2. Sheila says:

    Thank you for your posts, I share your posts with others that I work with, they in turn work with children with special concerns… the impact ripples are great and we appreciate and look forward to what you share next.

    • joellen says:

      Hi Sheila! That’s so encouraging to hear! Thank you! I will try to keep that in mind for the times I need a blogger pick-me-up!! 😀

  3. I always knew how great gratitude was for our own happiness and well-being, but love how you point out how good it makes other people feel to be around someone who is happy and grateful!

  4. Dakota says:

    Oh my, yes, I’m another person who tends toward perfectionism, criticism, constant wishing for things to be different… and like you I try to use thankfulness as a way to reset. Actually, the blog post I’m working on today has to do with when some things are going really well and then other things are… not.

    Do you also struggle with not making negative blog posts about things? I find the difference between what I try to project on my blog (not trying to not be real or portray myself differently, just not making it all negative!) and what it seems like I experience in every day life.

    Thank you for this… for reminding me that I’m not the only one struggling. 🙂

    • joellen says:

      I do struggle with that! There is definitely an edited version of myself here, for better or for worse :). I strive to be real, but this probably isn’t the place to spew all my thoughts with no filter ;).

      (And just FYI I ended up revising/editing this comment for like 5 minutes… lol).