HOW GRATITUDE PRACTICE CHANGED MY LIFE
We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.
- Abraham Lincoln
Over the past year, gratitude practice has taken a central role in my life. What started as a tool for stopping negative thoughts has blossomed into a deep sense of satisfaction and centered-ness on a soul level.
My journey began one day in February while my husband was traveling for work. Scott's work trips tend to come in clusters, so I'd been solo about 50 percent of the time. And as luck would have it, James got sick every time he left. It would start with a cold, then move into his ears, leaving us both exhausted and cranky.
We'd planned a Valentine's Day date at a nice restaurant on a weekend he was home. We texted back and forth all week, sharing our excitement about spending quality adult time together. I'd bought a great dress on sale months ago for such an occasion: a black, body-con mini with long sleeves and lace-up sides. I secretly thought of it as my Erika Jayne dress, and I felt like one sexy mama when I slipped it on.
The trouble started when Scott didn't want to go for a drink before dinner. He was tired from his trip, he said. Immediately, a nagging voice piped up inside my head. He's tired! Ha! He hasn't been caring for a sick kid ALONE all week! The least he could do is try to have fun.
Once that voice started, it seemed there was nothing stopping it. I scowled at my husband over my menu as we sat in the perfect window table at the romantic Italian restaurant I'd chosen. I seethed at the fact that he hadn't complimented my dress, nor noticed that I'd thoughtfully paired it with the beaded clutch he'd gotten me for Christmas. And I silently criticized him for not being a more lively conversation partner. Fortunately, I had enough self-awareness to realize this was my stuff and I kept my critical thoughts to myself.
Monday came and Scott had to travel again. That evening, I sat in bed watching TV, simmering in my disappointment over our lackluster date. My internal monologue cycled in a loop of dissatisfaction with my spouse, criticizing everything from the way he spat out his toothpaste (THERE SHOULD BE NO TOOTHPASTE LEFT IN THE SINK WHEN YOU'RE DONE!) to whether he'd taken the plastic off his dry cleaning before hanging it (OMG how lazy are you?! PUT IT ON THE RIGHT HANGER!)
Eventually my thoughts turned to how crappy it felt to be so angry. But instead of blaming Scott for yet one more thing, my heart of hearts spoke up in his defense. He's not doing any of this to you. He's not even here! And as I sat with that realization, I discovered that my negative thoughts had more to do with being overtired and missing him than anything he had or had not done.
Thanks, Dr. Google
Desperate to put a stop to this nonsense, I did what any loving wife would do: I Googled "How to stop hating your husband." Okay...maybe that's not the exact phrase I used, but you get my drift. I quickly learned that 60-70 percent of our thoughts are negative. Whether we're dwelling on personal failures or the annoying habits of a spouse, most of us are pretty damn miserable most of the time.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
Every single search result prescribed gratitude as the antidote to poisonous thoughts. It turns out that focusing on the positive aspects of one's life is the most potent medicine against negative thoughts and feelings like anger, anxiety, and even depression. Even better, it was something I could start right then and there and its only side effect was happiness.
My Gratitude Practice
I'd tried and enjoyed loving kindness mediation before, so that seemed like a logical place to start. I decided to spend five minutes sending Scott love and gratitude every night he was away, starting immediately. And every time I felt that nagging voice start up, I'd take a deep breath in and send love and gratitude with the exhale.
Within 24 hours, I noticed I felt much more content and positive. Within 48 hours, I was chuckling and shaking my head at my husband's idiosyncracies instead of getting angry. And more than six months later, our relationship has deepened in ways I could not have predicted. I handle conflict more calmly, listen better, and when he does actually mess up (as we ALL do!), I'm more likely to be compassionate instead of passing judgement.
When I noticed how quickly practicing gratitude had improved my relationship, I began to wonder how I could deepen my practice so its positive effects were farther reaching. I extended my loving kindness meditation to James - especially on challenging days. I'd see a stranger on the sidewalk tossing an empty soda cup into the trash and think Thank you for making the effort to care for our world. I even tried sending love and healing to politicians I don't like!
Over time, my gratitude practice has imbued me with a general sense of hopefulness and optimism. I'm less afraid of failure, and I want less because I'm focused on the things I have. Now I incorporate gratitude daily as part of my mindfulness practice. My gratitude practice is simple, requires no special instruction, and is a lot cheaper than therapy. Here are some simple ways you can start your own:
5 Ways To Start A Gratitude Practice Today
Try loving kindness meditation. If you've neer heard of it before, the basic gist of it is that you send love to people as you meditate. I like using the free Stop Breathe Think app to guide me through it.
Start a gratitude journal. Spend a few minutes each day writing in detail about something you feel thankful for. Nothing is too big or too small. I've written about everything from my college education to my son's laugh. If it makes you happy, it's worth being thankful for.
Write down 10 thing you're grateful for every day. This is my favorite part of Rachel Hollis' Last 90 Days challenge (which I'm doing right now). I try to do it right before I go to bed so I fall asleep thinking happy thoughts and feeling good.
Treat every dinner like it's Thanksgiving. I've started a habit of going around the table and having each person say something they're thankful for that day. I love that it keeps our family focused on our blessings instead of wants or things we're unhappy about.
Pay more compliments. How often do you notice something great about someone and say nothing? We could all benefit from being complemented more often, so why not spread the love? Tell a stranger you like her blouse. Tell your child you appreciate that they've listened well. Tell your spouse that you noticed that they washed the toothpaste down the sink this time. (Ha!) Whatever you do, don't underestimate your power to make yourself and others feel good on a daily basis. Often, all it takes is a little gratitude.