Gratitude is a word we hear thrown around often–in quotes, from wise elders, or from our favorite podcast. In theory I think most of us know how important gratitude is, and even though I’m not a naturally optimistic person, I’ve always acknowledged what I’m grateful for in my life. However, after diving deeper into the concept, I learned about the importance of the practice of gratitude. My favorite is a 2003 study by Emmons and McCullough where for 3 months participants wrote daily gratitude lists. The findings demonstrate that writing down what you’re grateful for improves your optimism and increases the amount of time participants exercised.
Even though this study struck me, I carried on with my normal life, and hadn’t started a gratitude practice. Then the pandemic hit. Like many people, my anxieties about everything were through the roof. I started noticing San Francisco Arete Team Leader Heather had posted her gratitude lists each day on her instagram stories. Her list included the tiniest things, and I was moved by her ability to recognize so much good amidst so much struggle.
If something as simple as a daily gratitude list could reduce anxiety, increase gratitude, and lead to a calmer outlook during a stressful time, then I wanted to know more. So I asked Heather to share her practice with us, and how we might get started. Thank you for sharing, Heather.
Gratitude in the Time of Crisis
By Heather Rennie
Gratitude. While I have always been one to try to take the perspective of others, consider other viewpoints, and look for silver linings, I never consciously practiced gratitude before last fall. I had come across a variety of Instagram posts about gratitude, but usually scrolled through quickly without much thought about how I could use the concept in my own life. Sometime in the summer of 2019, I started to take interest in the gratitude lists posted by Amelia Boone, but it never really struck me as something that I could use to improve my own life. I kind of had the mentality that I was already “grateful enough” in my own ways, and didn’t need to make a list to prove it.
Sometime in September, one of my good friends had the idea for us to begin a “runners’ book club”. For our first book, we settled on Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run. Our first meet-up (remember pre-Zoom life?!) was scheduled for about a week after I had foot surgery. Side story – short version: this surgery which had been thoughtfully arranged to take place just five days after I completed the Chicago Marathon. The procedure was to correct a congenital bone problem that had been causing me pain inconsistently; the idea was to have the surgery then have enough recovery time to run my first Boston Marathon. Anyway, needless to say, the wheels were already turning on activities to stave off lack-of-run depression, and I was grateful to have a book club to look forward to.
Just reading this book began to totally transform my thinking and inspired me in ways I don’t remember ever feeling from… just reading a book. (10/10 recommend, if you have not read it!) However, I was not expecting to have such deep and thought-provoking discussion during our meet-up. We talked a lot about Deena’s steadfast positivity and gratitude throughout her book and in general how she carries out her life. It occurred to me that there was no better time for me to begin exploring what gratitude meant to me, and start my own daily gratitude lists. My friends and I agreed we would all give it a try and hold each other accountable by sharing them with each other. This seemed like an especially good idea for me personally as I knew I was going to have some mental and emotional struggles coming up, with not having my regular outlet of running available as I recovered from surgery.
I decided too that I wanted to begin posting these gratitude lists on my Instagram stories (which is where the inspo from Amelia Boone came in), as I felt that it would provide another outlet and possible source of connection to others, either so that they could message me about things I had written, or inspire them to write their own lists. I also thought it would be a great way for me to focus on small signs of progress in my recovery from foot surgery.
The thing I noticed most immediately when I began this process is that I was constantly looking for small positive moments throughout the day. Things like my husband moving the wet clothes to the dryer, him getting me a glass of water, etc. Using a tip from Let Your Mind Run, I also began to consider how to reframe less desirable or frustrating moments. One of my favorite examples Deena shares is she was out for a run in windy conditions, and instead of feeling frustrated by the wind and its impact on her workout, she thought of it as making her stronger and further building her fitness. I began to find myself using the same approach day-to-day: “the stoplight turned red -> oh well, now I have time to find my water bottle in my bag”; “it’s rainy for this long run-> it’s allowing me to practice gear and mental tricks in case my race is rainy, too”. The more I began to do this, the more I this thought pattern has become more natural to me. In turn, I began to find myself generally happier and less irritated in day-to-day life.
A welcomed outcome of writing these gratitude lists is the unexpected number of people that have since reached out to me to share that they have started their own gratitude practice. Nothing has been so rewarding as to hear about how this simple practice positively impacted their lives as well!
Here are some tips to begin your own gratitude list:
- Start small, even just thinking of three things throughout the day is awesome! It also is amazing how much easier it gets over time (just like a muscle getting stronger ☺)
- See what works for you in terms of timing: some people enjoy starting their day with gratitude to set the tone, while others like to reflect on their days at the end
- Consider sharing daily with just one friend or family member so that you can hold each other accountable
- Optional: buy yourself a pretty journal or pen
- Use an app on your phone or a sticky note at your desk so that you can quickly jot down a few things to add to your list when you go to write it (admittedly, I’ve not done this myself but I really should as I often find myself later remembering things I wish I had remembered to put on my list!)
- If you’re having a tough day, think about little tangible things that you have or use every day, but maybe don’t consciously think about (i.e. having gas in your car, wearing a favorite pair of socks, the freezer keeping your food cold…get creative!)
- Set a goal for writing X number of lists or X number of days in a row, then give yourself a little reward for doing so (again it does get easier as you go, so you probably won’t have to incentivize yourself for ever)
This should be an obvious recommendation at this point, but READ DEENA’S BOOK! If anyone wants to borrow it from me, first dibs and I will mail it to you on loan ☺
Thank you, Heather! Follow along with Heather’s gratitude journey on Instagram at @hjrenn, start your own practice, and let us know how it goes.