The challenge: Write down 10 different things I’m genuinely grateful for each day.
Seems like a lot, right? I mean, before I started this list I considered myself a pretty grateful. I say thank you almost every time someone does something nice for me, so that makes me a pretty grateful person, right?
Boy was I wrong! The first few days of writing this gratefulness list was SO DIFFICULT! I found myself waiting for someone else to do something nice, or even looking for something significantly good to happen. You know, like when the person in front of you buys your coffee, or you find $5 crumpled on the sidewalk.
The problem is, most days, extraordinary things like this don’t happen! I mean, they are called extra for a reason, right? I would try to write the list at the beginning of the day but I couldn’t think of what to be grateful for right off the bat. The second day I waited till right before going to sleep so I would have a whole day of experiences to choose from. At the end of the day I felt disappointed, thinking I didn’t have much to be grateful for, quickly running out of things to put on the list. I mean, I already used up “my husband” “my kids” (which I ended up separating to count for 2 since I was having such a hard time finding things I was truly grateful for! haha!) as well as “my house,” “my car” and of course “coffee.”
What to do? Give up on this gratefulness business? I’m grateful I have a stubborn streak otherwise I would have!
I started the gratefulness challenge because of some research I read on happiness, how training your brain to be grateful is one of the scientifically proven things to improve happiness. (See: Harvard Health Research ) I was finally coming out of a time where I was truly struggling with my health, my attitude, my fitness, my body image, my purpose in life. I figured if research proved being grateful could make me more happy it was worth a shot.
By the middle of the first week I was out of options, struggling to find 10 unique things. I didn’t want to be fake and write down things I wasn’t genuinely grateful for just to complete the list, but I didn’t know what to do differently.
As I sat down to write my list in the evenings, I thought through the happenings of the day. Things to be grateful for seemed scarce and all the things that annoyed me kept popping up instead. I would think of how I wished a situation would have gone, or what I wished someone else would have done. The smallest things would throw me for a loop, defining my day as “good” or “bad.”
People weren’t doing things that I could thank them for and nothing extraordinary was happening to be grateful for.
Did you catch that?
I approached gratefulness like a victim. I realized I believed I was someone who had no power over my circumstances and therefore I had no choice but to limit my ability to be grateful.If something really good didn’t happen to me then I couldn’t find a reason to be grateful. My gratefulness was dependant on external factors, and I allowed the smallest frustrations to bother me, keeping me from being happy.
Even worse, I was a gratefulness snob! I realized I was placing high requirements on what I deemed worthy of my gratefulness. Something couldn’t be ordinary or normal for me to be genuinely grateful.
Or could it?
This evidence of my arrogance took me by surprise. I thought I was a grateful person but after seeing how difficult it was for me to honestly write this list each night I realized I wasn’t. I needed this gratefulness experiment more than I realized. In order to be more grateful I had to lower the bar for what I was grateful for. (Apologies for the hanging preposition. Suggestions for improvement are appreciated. See what I did there? 😉 )
I lowered it so low that I was afraid if I told people what I was grateful for they might think I am frivolous. But I couldn’t wait for the big, extraordinary things. If I did, I would have nothing to be grateful for. This is kinda cheesy, but in the same way I can’t do a pull-up challenge without having my feet on the ground to help push my body up, I can’t do a gratefulness challenge without lowering what I can be grateful for. (Darn that hanging preposition, I can’t figure out how to avoid it. So, I am grateful this is not being graded for grammar.) This seems like a beautiful picture of how gratitude actually grounds us, keeps us humble, in a place of receiving. Either way, the fear of looking shallow didn’t stop me from my pursuit of gratefulness because of what happened next.
I started looking for anything that I could appreciate, no matter how ordinary or mundane it seemed. Simple tasks, even necessary ones, were examined for pleasure, learning, and goodness. The coolness of water as I washed my hands on a hot day. Running water, both temps, at the touch of my fingertips. The sewer system. That’s something I’d never thought to be grateful for, but when I thought about it I truly felt thankful! Dirty water of every kind just whisked away so I don’t have to deal with crap (literally)? So grateful! Three things for my list that night in the space of a few moments! My gratefulness lists began to grow exponentially.
As I examined and purposefully appreciated these small things, I noticed other things I’d been missing out on too. Like how I would buy scented hand soap but never take the time to lift the suds to my face for a smell. What is the point of buying something only to never allow myself a moment to enjoy it? It literally took 2 seconds longer than normal but I wasn’t giving myself that small gift. Why not? As I inhaled the smell of citrus I added a fourth thing to my list.
The next day I made myself a new mantra and shared it with a few friends: #stopandsmellthehandsoap
Yes, it is a small thing and yes it could be called frivolous, but gratefulness in any form is an act of humility. It means appreciating any gift, no matter the size. It means acknowledging anything and everything can be a gift if we approach it with humility and gratefulness. Yes, even the difficult experiences or unmet expectations can be a gift, the opportunity to grow, to mature, to experience a different or new perspective, an expansion of our capacity to empathize.
In the course of this Gratefulness Challenge I find that in lowering the bar for gratefulness I have raised the bar for what bothers me. With so much to be grateful for it takes me a lot to let something get me down. In a way, things have flipped. With all these little bits of beauty and joy embedded in the ordinary and mundane, it beginning to take something extraordinarily difficult to upset me. And even then, as I lean into the discomfort I am also examining it for what I can get out of it- how I can grow, what I can learn, anything I can be grateful for.
Recently I had an experience where I felt the need to challenge something a leader of a group was saying to the entire group. I believed I had said it in a respectful manner despite disagreeing with the premise the leader had just shared with the group. After an intense discussion a few days later I was shocked to realize the leader and a few of the other group members had taken what I said as a personal and aggressive attack. You don’t need all the details to know that this was a very difficult and emotionally charged situation and all I wanted to do was to not deal with it. I just wanted any conflict to disappear and for this to never have happened. But that is not reality and I was in the thick of it. For two weeks I could barely eat anything (a little thing about me- I am not one of those people that “forgets to eat” or “doesn’t feel like eating” so for me to not have an appetite means I was experiencing really big and really negative emotions!) and I had trouble sleeping because I was so bothered.
This is an actual picture of someone who is bothered, even though it’s not an actual picture of me:
Anyway, long story short, now I have gone through that situation and can look back on it, I can honestly say I am SO grateful for it. Even if it totally sucked for awhile. I learned so much about myself, about the group, about communication and conflict and too many things to list here. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life but it was also one of the best growing experiences I’ve ever had. Months later I am still learning from it, and I am so grateful for so many of the things I would have never learned if I had not had that experience.
-I thought I was grateful, but I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be.
-I decided to try being grateful on purpose.
-I realized I was not very grateful and actually quite arrogant.
-I lowered the bar for gratefulness, examine everything, every situation, (positive, negative, or neutral) for something that I could be truly grateful for.
-Because I am looking for opportunities to be grateful I now see them everywhere, finding beauty and opportunity in the “ordinary” things I previously deemed “not worthy” of my gratefulness.
-Additionally, the bulk of my gratitude no longer depends on the actions or intentions of anyone outside myself. If no one does anything extra for me to be thankful I still have days full of gratitude.
-I find I am both more happy and more humble, taking control of what I enjoy and enjoying so much more than ever before.
Consider this your official invitation to join the Gratefulness Challenge with me! Join me in listing 10 things you are truly grateful for every night. Nothing external in my life has changed (finances, free time, how easy things are, etc), but I am enjoying so much more of that same life. It is hard to have a bad day because even when something negative happens I am learning there is always something good for me waiting in the shadows of difficulty.
Let’s lower the bar for what lifts us up and raise the bar for what brings us down, together.
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