Words and photos by Danielle Alling
It’s easy to get used to good things. Most of us don’t blink an eye at having food on the table, a coat to keep us warm, or friends to call upon in times of need. We have our most basic needs met, yet many of us still aren’t quite satisfied. Why is that? Why is it that we so often take things for granted, and how can we overcome?
A simple gratitude practice can help. By cultivating gratitude, we can see our perspective shift and we can become more mindful. Last month my partner and I chose to take time each evening to focus on gratitude. Inspired by the work of Dr. Michael Gervais, every night before bed we’d write down three good things that that happened to us that day. Featured on the Outside Online podcast not too long ago (where we first heard of him over our morning coffee and breakfast routine), Dr. Gervais studies the intersection of mindfulness psychology and high-performance sports. He’s considered an expert in brain training for peak athletic performance, and as it turns out, practicing mindfulness can help athletes continue to improve their craft even after they’ve perfected their technique and their physique.
But even if you’re like me and you aren’t a professional athlete, there are still a plethora of benefits to enjoy from practicing gratitude. While writing down three good things each day might sound simple—and it is—the results were undeniably positive. Here’s a just a sample of the changes I noticed in myself over the course of just 30 days of gratitude:
- My priorities fell in line. After a few weeks of reflecting on the good, I started to notice patterns. Good food, small gestures from friends, and opportunities to exercise and play outdoors stood out to me. Taking stock of these things helped me to realize what I value in life, and conversely allowed me to begin letting go of the things that don’t matter quite so much.
- It gave me an opportunity to slow down. At the end of the day I sometimes found myself stressing over work I didn’t do or errands I didn’t run. But instead of silently agonizing as I lay my head to sleep, I’d spend 15 minutes cozied under my comforter reflecting on the good from the day. That gave me 15 minutes of focused, quality time with just me and my journal, looking back over the day’s events in quiet contemplation. And I’d fall asleep with a slight upward curve to my lips.
- I felt like I had more time. Conversely, even with a feeling of slowing down I felt more time opened up in my day. Maybe this was a result of straightening out my priorities so I knew what things were more worthwhile. More yoga? Check. Spending more time outside? You got it. Devoting time to learning a new skill? For me it was watercolor painting, and check that box, too.
- I slept better. Because I journaled before bed I wouldn’t be catching up on emails, watching Netflix, or otherwise staring at the lighted screen of my smartphone until the moment I fell asleep. Studies have shown the detrimental effects of blue light on our sleep patterns, so making sure I avoided this before bed was key to getting a more restful sleep.
- I realized how fortunate I truly am. And if you’re reading this then you probably are, too, even if you don't always realize it. Sure there were days when my attitude wasn’t so optimistic and I struggled to think of a single good thing that happened that day. But that gave me an opportunity to take a step back and look at the forest instead of the trees. My three good things then might include my good health, the fact that I have two strong legs to walk on, the good fortune of my job, or that I live in a cozy apartment with someone I love. And being grateful for all of those things can help me get through some pretty bad days, because let’s face it, not every day can be sunshine and lollipops.
And not least of all, but I like to think I was generally a more pleasant person. Take a person who’s exercising more, seeing more sunsets, learning new things, and spending more quality time with good people and you’ll have a generally happier person. The practice of gratitude is a virtuous cycle: the more you practice, the greater the rewards.
The practice of gratitude is just that—a practice. Like learning a new skill, it takes time and effort to hone. For me, writing down three good things for 30 days straight helped to turn the practice into a habit, and even though nowadays I don’t get to it every night I’ve made it a point to continue this practice at least a few times per week. It’s easy to allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed by stress, but shifting our mindset and focusing on the positive can have immensely beneficial results. The world we live in is full of good things and wonderful people—sometimes it just takes a little bit of practice to see it.
What three good things have happened to you today?