At the end of this year I will celebrate my 5 year milestone of keeping a daily gratitude list. It’s part of My Daily Recap, an evening journaling ritual that I created in part to test the theory that writing down what we are grateful for makes us happier.
So, does it?
Before I answer that, here are a few notes on my process and the goal.
I began this experiment on January 1, 2014.
If you’re a regular reader, I probably don’t need to tell you that I haven’t missed a day.
Creating consistent daily streaks is my thing.
So I have a pretty decent sample, both in terms of longevity and seeing this ritual through various periods of my life.
I’ve maintained my practice in my highest moments and my lowest moments.
When I started, I committed to write down 3 things each day. By the second year I increased to 5 things each day. Last year I experimented with 10 per day. This year, I’m back to 5, although often I’ll go over.
Gratitude is often touted as a way to find “happiness.” Happiness is simply not a meaningful goal in the first place. I believe happiness is overrated. The word gets tossed around so much that it’s lost all meaning. Happiness is a factor of outside circumstances. A better metric is joy, which comes from within.
Does Daily Gratitude Practice Increase Happiness?
Ok. Now back to the question. Does daily gratitude practice increase happiness (or joy)?
Writing Down Your Gratitude
I can’t say that writing down my gratitude every day made me happier or even more joyful.
Writing down the things you’re grateful for can feel rote. This practice can feel stale after a while.
The trick to making this work for you over the long term is not simply to write down your gratitude but also to feel it. Connect with what you’re grateful for on a heart level, not just a mind level.
Connecting and reflecting on what I’m grateful for has proven far more powerful than just writing a list.
Even stronger is the combination: reflecting, connecting, and writing it down.
Lesson: To truly get the benefits out of gratitude practice, fully reflect on your point of gratitude, connect with it, and write it down.
The effects of a daily gratitude practice are more profound and nuanced than “happiness” or even joy.
Gratitude provides perspective. It opens us up to the ways in which we are blessed, and primes us to see more blessings in our lives. Even when times are tough.
Especially when times are tough.
There was a time when I couldn’t see my blessings easily. Times when I felt there was nothing to be grateful for.
In those moments some like to suggest “be grateful you’re alive.” This is well-intentioned, but doesn’t work well if the person you’re suggesting it to is actively looking for a way to not be alive. To someone in that state, being alive is not a blessing.
In those moments, I would play a different game. I would ask myself,
If I’m forced to be alive, what can I be grateful for?
Riding the subway or even walking down the street often provided me with the perspective I needed. I would see amputees. I’d watch as people of all ages came on the train, apologized for interrupting and asked for money or food or a pair of socks. Anything. I’d see the people sleeping on subway grates to keep warm.
And I’d go back to my warm apartment and even when I didn’t love it I would be grateful. Grateful that I had working limbs and full use of my body. Grateful for a bed to sleep in. Grateful for food to eat. Grateful for a family who, even if they didn’t quite know how to express their belief in my vision, wouldn’t let me reach a point where I was forced to beg on the subway.
Even on your worst day, even if you don’t want to be alive, you can be grateful for something.
And if you stick with it, the gratitude practice will lift you to a new place.
The Lasting Benefit of Gratitude Practice
It’s common to diminish our problems by calling them “first world” problems. And that doesn’t serve us either. Problems are problems to the people who have them. And gratitude is not a magic pill that makes problems disappear.
Gratitude, practiced on a regular, consistent, basis does something far more powerful: it opens us to solutions.
When we are open to what’s good, we open to all that’s good. Not just our external blessings but also our internal reserves and resources.
In a state of gratitude, we see solutions to our problems.
That’s something that lasts far longer than happiness.