A couple years ago, a good friend came to visit. She had just read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts and was overflowing with excitement — the book had left her with a new perspective on life. It had opened her eyes to the power of gratitude. And she couldn’t stop talking about it.
“Our lives are filled with little gifts from God,” she explained. “We just have to learn how to see them.”
My friend’s enthusiasm grabbed full hold of my curiosity. The journalist in me was begging to investigate. What is it about gratitude that had left her contagiously happy? The therapist in me was begging to figure out how to break down this idea of learning gratitude into teachable steps. What action steps do I need to make gratitude my default mindset?
So I got to work.
I started by reading recent research studies and books about gratitude. I dove into a 2015 study from University of California San Diego, and learned that gratitude is associated with lower fatigue, better sleep, lower depression, and increased cardiac function.
In the Journal of Religion and Health, a 2015 paper stated that those who were more grateful for who they are and what they have were more hopeful and also physically healthier, with decreased cortisol levels (which rise when we’re stressed) and increased oxytocin levels (a feel-good neuropeptide).
Then I read about how gratitude changes the brain’s chemistry. According to Owen Griffith in Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, being grateful activates areas of the brain that produce positive neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (the neurotransmitter increased by antidepressants like Prozac or Zoloft). When you think of things you’re grateful for, you naturally focus on the positive aspects of your life. This thought pattern increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Gratitude even changes the brain’s anatomical structure. Connections to the
“happiness center” of the brain (in the left prefrontal cortex) are strengthened by practicing gratitude, according to Dr. Earl Henslin in his book This is Your Brain on Joy.
In Dr. Rick Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness, he explains that the more you exercise your “gratitude muscle,” the bigger the area of the brain that controls empathy (pregenual anterior cingulate) becomes. Increased empathy leads to improved life satisfaction and better relationships as one’s ability to identify with others improves.
Increased happiness, better sleep, better relationships, less fatigue – yes, I wanted in on the power of gratitude. But how?
I’d read about busy, on-the-go moms who do a gratitude check with their children whenever their car stopped at a red light. I’d heard of moms strategically placing pictures of loved ones around the house and then, when they see the picture, thinking of why they are grateful for that person.
I’d even heard of moms finding “gratitude partners,” or someone to hold them accountable with texts or phone calls when beginning to practice gratitude.
But I wanted to record my gratitude moments. To capture them in writing. I loved the idea of a list that captured the gifts God was sending my way each day.
So I put a plan in place. I implemented three steps that I knew would help me grow in gratitude:
01. I found my “why.”
First, I journaled about why I wanted to be more grateful. I figured out why I didn’t want to miss the little moments that made my heart happy. When our baby imitated my sneeze with an adorable “achoo,” I wanted to fully capture that feeling. When our four-year-old daughter spontaneously started dancing salsa on an afternoon walk, I wanted to remember that moment and thank God for it. I wanted to see the beautiful gifts gracing my life that I had been missing.
02. I created visual memory cues.
I put visual reminders to be grateful in places I knew I’d see often. A note card reading: “See the gifts. And tell Him thanks” went on the bathroom mirror.
Another card reading “What are you grateful for today?” went on the microwave. A reminder set on my phone asked the same question.
When I saw a reminder, I would stop and meditate a moment on what I was thankful for right then. Eventually I found the question “What I am grateful for?” popping into my mind without seeing my visual reminders.
03. I recorded what I was thankful for.
After identifying a gift and saying thank you, I would write it down. I used the Notes App on my phone so I could record things on the go. A beautiful sunset. Big brown toddler eyes over a strawberry ice cream bar. My husband’s golf swing. Hummingbirds over fuchsia flowers at the Kansas City Zoo. Being told “Mama, thank you for taking good care of me,” at 3 am. The taste of Pinot Noir. My favorite NeedtoBreathe song being played in a store while shopping. A quality phone conversation with my mom during nap time. Small fingers creating candy patterns on Christmas cookies.
I tried to record three things a day. If I couldn’t record something the moment I observed it, then, I would pause before plugging in my phone at night, reflect on the day, and record three things I was grateful for.
As I began practicing gratitude, the things in my day didn’t change, but I did.
As I became more aware of joy-filled moments by recording them and thanking God for them, I began to feel joy more deeply. I realized I was content more often, not longing for what might happen in the future, but thankful for what was happening in the here and now.
Coming from a place of contentment, I began to want less and buy fewer things. My actions became more patient and my words more uplifting. Complaining less. Encouraging more.
This doesn’t mean I became always happy and always patient. That’s not real life, and it would be unhealthy not to feel other things. But I do know practicing gratitude has made me more positive. And when I do feel “in a funk”, reading through my gratitude journal allows me to shift into a better mindset as I remember beautiful moments.
Spontaneously singing into olive oil bottle “microphones” with my daughter. A gingerbread tea latte from a hole-in-the-wall Austin coffee shop. Nursery rhymes whispered under a makeshift tent. Blowing white dandelions on an early morning walk. Tiny hands playing with my hair. Laughter over blueberry smoothie mustaches. Family strolls on stunning fall Sundays. And the list goes on.
My gratitude journal now has 736 entries – moments that continue to fill me with joy that I otherwise would have overlooked or forgotten. Capturing these gifts is powerful. So I’ll keep counting them, and, God-willing, keep growing in gratitude.