Most mornings, I climb into my car at the ungodly hour of 1 A.M., turn on news radio as I try to catch up on the day’s stories, and let my muscle memory get me from my north side neighborhood into Downtown Chicago. I’m usually lost in thought or trying to stay awake, sometimes realizing I listened to a block of stories without remembering a single one. I’m already planning out my morning, occasionally rehashing some conversation from the day before or worrying about what’s in store for the day ahead.
But one morning, a few weeks ago, some wispy clouds caught my eye by the way they encircled the top of the John Hancock building, glowing in the moonlight. It gave the entire skyline a spooky beauty, almost like a movie scene. The sight shook me out of my morning slump and refocused my brain, reminding me that I love coasting on this stretch of Lake Shore Drive (at least when it’s traffic free!), I love the view of this city at night, and I feel so lucky to work in one of the greatest cities in the world. In fact, I was reminded of the very first morning that I made the drive into the city in the middle of the night, and how seeing the skyline grow larger made the butterflies in my stomach flutter with excitement. (Yes, all that from a few wispy clouds!)
The whole experience (which lasted all of about 15 seconds) got me thinking about gratitude.
Since I started learning about Buddhism and mindfulness a few years ago, there are a few lessons that have popped up over and over again:
- What you think can affect your whole life
- You can control your thoughts, and keep them from controlling you
- Cultivating gratitude is one of the easiest ways to turn your entire life outlook around
It isn’t just a Buddhist thing either. Gratitude is something I constantly see as a top example of how to boost happiness and success. Just yesterday, I came across an article that listed “express[ing] gratitude” as one of the things successful people do every night.
I am deeply aware of the many ways I’m lucky in life. And yet, why is it that it seems so much easier to complain than to hold onto that gratitude? So as a reminder to myself that it feels infinitely better to focus on the positive, I wanted to share a few pointers on how to let gratitude grow:
- Feels like the first time: Just like that giddy feeling I remember from the first morning I drove into the city for my (then) new job, try to encapsulate the emotions you felt when things were fresh. Look at your spouse or significant other through the eyes of your first few dates. Instead of complaining that your apartment needs to be cleaned, revisit the excitement of when you first got the keys. Sick of sitting in traffic? Try to remember what it was like when you first got your license, and would gladly face rush hour to fetch a gallon of milk, if it meant a chance to get behind the wheel.
- See things from a simpler view: This may mean to take notes from one of your positive-minded friends. But what’s even better is to think younger. There are so many things we can learn from the carefree kids in our lives. They’re constantly learning, joyfully taking in the world, and literally seeing things for the first time. Not too long ago, my friend’s baby discovered, to her amusement, that she has feet! My other friend’s 2 year old is learning to tell jokes, and his eyes light up every time he makes us laugh. Imagine how adventurous life could feel if you saw it with the fresh eyes of a child.
This works for animals too! I don’t have kids, but I do have two dogs. Today, my boyfriend and I joked that our girl, Sadie, could spend an entire day just sniffing around in the grass. What’s usually a nuisance should actually be a reminder for me to take time to take in the world around me.
- Shut off your thoughts: This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about keeping your thoughts from controlling you. Negativity can become a habit, and the only way out is to retrain your brain. One thing that’s helped me to do that is a kind of on-the-fly meditation. Let the thoughts that pop up in your mind float away, and try to bring your attention back to the present moment–the sights, sounds, smells. Most of the time, that’s enough for me to notice something I’m thankful for, whether it’s a beautiful view out the window, the garlic I’m frying up on the stove, or my boyfriend making up a song on the guitar.
- Build in time to be thankful: The more you practice gratitude, the more naturally it will come to you, especially in times when a dark cloud of negativity threatens to take over. It could be as simple as consciously taking a moment or two before bed to look back on the best moments of your day. Or it could be something more overt, like keeping a gratitude journal. The author of the article about successful people I mentioned earlier suggests writing down five things you’re thankful for each night. Recently, I read a blog where the author said he plays a gratitude game with himself each day; he tries to come up with three things he’s grateful for, and works to find those three things by an earlier time than the day before.
The beautiful thing about gratitude is that the more you practice it, the easier it will be. So you really can’t lose with this one.
And when in doubt, just be this girl: