Finding joy through gratitude

Lately, we’ve heard so much about practicing gratitude. Does it really make a difference? I first learned of gratitude years ago as a strategy for suicide prevention. I was attending an in-service training to learn what to do for students who were at risk of suicide. I was quite nervous going into the training, thinking we would hear too many painful facts and depressing statistics. Instead, the instructors encouraged us to add gratitude exercises into our teaching plans. There was a bit more to the training than that, but that was my biggest take-away.

Finding joy through gratitude

Right away, I asked students in my writing classes to begin the period by writing down three to five things for which they were grateful and why they were grateful. Each day, I suggested they come up with additional things to be grateful for. They never had to share these unless they wanted to, and they were never required to turn these in unless they wanted to include them in their writing journal. For my non-writing classes, we spend time during those beginning moments, when everyone is trying to settle in, to allow students time to jot down a short list of things for which they were grateful and why. Again, they were never required to share unless they wanted, and I was pleased to discover that they often did want to share good news. 

The best part of this exercise was observing the difference it made. Although students may have come in tired, irritated, or just wishing they were somewhere else other than school, their attitudes changed after this simple exercise. There was a general feeling of good will (or at least less negativity than before). Students were more ready and willing to participate in whatever activity we were doing that day. I could not believe what a subtle difference that simple practice had made! And believe me, I was so very thankful, definitely willing to continue this practice, and delighted to share this strategy with others. The students were more than happy to have these quiet reflective moments to themselves. The more mature ones also noticed the difference it made for the entire class. 

I decided to add moments of gratitude to various groups I belonged to where I was at least partially in charge.  In these groups we also noticed an uplifting beginning to our activities. It was at this point that gratitude not only became an essential part of my personal daily practice, but also a gift of thought that I wanted to share.

Facing our lives with gratitude is a steppingstone to finding less fear and more Joy in our lives. It helps us see past all the negative situations that come our way. With continued practice, I have seen how it has actually turned around my life as well as the lives of my students, my friends, and my family.

When and where is gratitude most important? 

The answer to when and where to use gratitude, of course, is at least once or twice a day—and more often if you can. I spend the first several minutes of my waking hours running through a list of what I am thankful for each day. It brings me a peaceful joy that lifts me up to start my day. I also like to end my day, as I am getting ready to drift off to sleep, again thinking through the good in my life, particularly what I was especially thankful for that day.

At various times during the day, you may want to turn around a negative situation by shifting your thoughts to gratitude. I am going to share with you an incident that occurs frequently with children. Consider this child-like behavior as a pattern that we develop as children and carry into our adult lives. Consider also how important it is to change this pattern.

Analogy of the incident of the “cheater.” I recently worked with PE classes at a local elementary school. It was physically exhausting but also fun and enriching. Overall, students made an honest effort to participate at their ability level, were well-behaved, and practiced good sportsmanship. Most of the time, the students were happy to run around just being involved in structured physical activities. 

A couple of times during the week, however, the activities were stopped suddenly, making everyone quite uncomfortable. A student would accuse another student of being a cheater. Angry words were exchanged: “You did such and such. You cheated.” “No, I didn’t.” “Yes, you did.” “Nuh uh!” “Uh huh!”  “NO, I DIDN’T!!”  “Oh yes, you did!!!!”

Or I also heard: “You cheater. You can’t do that.”  “Why not?! That’s part of the game.”
“No, it’s not.” “YES IT IS.” Etc., etc. Anger. Hurt feelings. Defensive posturing. No one was happy any longer.

 While some students attempted to alleviate the tension by stepping in to moderate or serve as witnesses, most were forced to wait in discomfort. 

I used these incidents as teachable moments. Why do we have to get so angry with each other, exchange cruel words, and stop the productive, even happy, activity around us? Why does it have to break abruptly into yelling and accusation? Of course, we do not want to let a rule-breaker go unchallenged. However, why does it have to be accompanied by so much anger, sadness, and misunderstanding? 

The best way to resolve it, of course, would to be to quietly and calmly allow each side to share their perspectives. From there, we could review the rules, try to find a consensus, apologize to each other for the perceived rule-breaking, the name-calling, the anger, and the disruption to all those involved. All of that should be done quickly and efficiently so that we can get back on track with the prior and future activities. However, that is not how it usually happens. Too often, one side or both refuses to admit that they may have done anything wrong.

This is a lesson that we, as adults, can learn from as well. Do we become too focused on what others have done wrong, and perhaps what we have done wrong (but hoped no one would notice)? Are we so hurt and angry and mistreated that we focus too much on the wrong and not on what we need to accomplish? Is there a way to get past the pain, the fighting, the arguments, so we can resolve the issue and return to something more productive?

The best way, of course, is through communication. If we can calmly and effectively resolve the issue, it is then much easier to move on. If not, we need to find another way to forgive and take charge of our own behavior in a way that will move us in a more positive direction. 

That is where gratitude comes in. It is not what happens to us that matters most. What truly makes the difference is how we respond to what happens to us. That response then creates the outcome:  S + R = O. As I discuss in my new book Own Your Thoughts - Own Your Life, this formula indicates that situations (S) occur. We respond (R) either positively or negatively. How we respond will then determine the outcome (O). (Note: this formula was adapted from Jack Canfield’s Success Principles.)

For example, if a storm hits and we allow ourselves to become a victim of its destructive force, the result will be that we become hopeless victims. If, however, we choose to be strong and rebuild with constructive strategies, the result is that we have a renewed home or business that may be even better than before. And we have new faith in what we can accomplish.

That sounds nice, but perhaps you are thinking that is unrealistic, that too many situations happen to you and others that are just downright awful and maybe even impossible to recover from. How can we possibly find a happy outcome from the worst of situations?

I believe the answer is to train your brain. Learn to focus more on the blessings and less on the disasters that strike in your life. Practice gratitude. Find joyful peace in taking time to think about the blessings more than the negatives. If we are always thinking the world is about to come to an end, then our world indeed will feel like it is spinning toward disaster after disaster. On the other hand, if we believe there can be some good in our world, and we seek out that good, nurture that good, and show gratitude for that good, then our world will seem sunnier and feel like a happier place to live.

That is why we need to practice gratitude. It will lead us to finding joy so we can live a happier, healthier life. Sounds easy, but it does take time. It takes time to train your brain to think differently than the patterns you have practiced for years. Train you brain to reach for joy.


What exactly is JOY?

We have a wide variety of emotions, which go from fear at one end of the spectrum to pure joy on the other end. In his book The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology, philosophy, and neurology, determined that there are two basic feelings: fear and joy. All other emotions are a variation of those two. 

Joy is excitement mixed with an inner peace. It is knowing that at this moment in time, everything seems right in the world. Joy is knowing that you are truly loved and feeling a divine love in return. There is an innocence to joy because we feel there is so much good in the world that is greater and more important than pain and fear. With joy, we feel that life is truly wonderful. Joy is a choice. You can choose to be a victim of the fear and pain, or you can choose to reach for joy with gratitude and thanksgiving.

Some methods of practicing gratitude

Close your eyes, if you feel safe to do so. If you practice this often enough you can do it any time with your eyes open as well. Run through a list of gratitude of ten to twenty items you have prepared ahead of time. You will need to create this list now so you can be ready when you need it. Run through it several times each day. First of all, do it because this simple act will make your life calmer, richer, and more joy-filled. But also visualize it over and over until you have memorized it, and it comes to you more easily whenever you face adversity. 

Your list does not have to be limited to blessings that you have already received. It can also include items and dreams you would like to have. However, they must be tangible items that connect with you, personally. For example, don’t dream of world without hunger. While that might be nice, it is not personal and so would not work effectively in your gratitude. It is also important to view these dreams as if you have already received these gifts. “Wanting” the gifts will leave you always “wanting” and not believing you can actually receive.

Include items in your list that you can visualize. For example, I wanted to lose 20 pounds, but I could not visualize that. Instead, I visualized myself in a pair of skinny jeans. Another example is that I wanted my back to heal. Again, I could not exactly visualize that. What I could visualize was climbing out of bed, walking, and sitting completely at ease with no pain in my back.  (Note: I began visualizing each of these years ago and received both. Once I was able to fit into skinny jeans, I took the vision out of my list and replaced it with something else. The pain-free back vision, however, is still on my list even though I no longer suffer from them pain. I am so deeply grateful every day for the freedom of movement I had once lost but have now regained.)

Once you have completed your list, repeat it over and over until you memorize it. Some people create a video in their mind where the visual images run through in a series. This would be most convenient. I am more of a word-oriented person, though, so I found it more effective to number each item, give it a title, and allow the visualized image or idea to pop up with each number and title as I count through in my mind. 

Practice. Continue running through your list of gratitude at least once or twice a day. You can add to or take away from the list any time you wish. Just have a gratitude list ready to use any time you want less fear and more joy.

Other valuable ways of practicing gratitude can be found in Rhonda Byrnes The Magic. She provides a 28-day guide to add one method of practicing gratitude each day. For example, for Day 4, she suggests you find a “magic rock” and place it near your bed. Before falling asleep, she says to “hold your Magic Rock in your hand and think of the best thing that happened today.” You then say “the magic words, thank you, for the best thing that happened” that day. She recommends you practice this every night for the next 26 nights (p. 41). The repetition helps develop a good habit. I believe the point is to create a daily routine in which you choose to experience a moment of joy. 

Reflecting on the good things that happen to you each day reinforces your choice to practice gratitude and choose JOY over fear. Joy truly is a choice. No matter what happens to you, try to find a few moments each day to find joy through your practice of sincere gratitude.

Works Cited

Byrne, Rhonda. The Magic. Atria Books, 2012.

Canfield, Jack. Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. William Morrow Paperbacks, 10th ed., 2015.

Damasia, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens. Mariners Books, 2000.