Gratitude. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people were more grateful for the things they have instead of focusing so much on what they lack? And by focusing on the positive, won’t it automatically make them happier? How could it not?
“This challenge is going to be an easy one. And what’s not to like about being happier and more positive?”, I told myself cockily beforehand.
For this reason it may come as a surprise that this particular challenge will go down as an epic failure. Did I see it coming? Clearly not.
So what the fuck happened?
A day into my challenge, I came across the best-selling book “The Magic” by Rhonda Bryne, which just happened to be about a 28 day gratitude challenge. Since this provided me with a more structured and varied guideline for my challenge, I decided to go along with its instructions. I’m not an expert on this topic, so why not, right?
Now before you all go all judgmental on Rhonda, I’d like to make it clear from the get go that although I wasn’t a fan of her repeated references to magic and other new age jargon, the failure of this challenge is all on me.
So anyway, Day 1
The thing the book instructed me to do was to write down 10 things I am grateful for in my life every morning (as if mornings weren’t hard enough already). After writing the list, I would go back and read or say out loud each of my blessings that I’d just written down, followed by “thank you, thank you, thank you” and feel the gratitude as much as possible.
This approach made sense to me. We should all probably focus more on what is great in our lives. The act of complaining just robs us of our positive energy and steals our present moment in which we could be taking action toward the things we want.
So far so good.
The second day started with writing down 10 things I was grateful for, followed by finding a “magic” rock (really, a magic rock? Jeesh!), which was to be kept by my bed. Before going to sleep, I held the rock in my hand and thought of the best thing that had happened to me that day.
So as the book instructed, each day from now on began with listing 10 things I was grateful for and ended with the “magic” rock exercise.
A little weird, but ok. I found my little rock, parked it on my night stand and did the exercise. The idea is to associate feelings of gratitude with the rock each day, and thus eventually create a self-reinforcing cycle every time I get in bed.
I really liked the evening exercise where I thought about what had been the best thing about my day, because in order to find the best thing, you need to go through all the good things that had happened that day. The more thoughts and memories of gratitude, the better.
After day 2, I’m enjoying the exercise even though having a “magic” rock has put my BS sensors on alert.
In addition to writing down my 10 blessings in the morning and thinking about the best thing that happened to me in the evening (while holding onto my rock), my task for day 3 was to focus on three relationships I am grateful for.
As instructed, I picked three people, found a photo of each, and wrote down five things that I was grateful for about each of them.
For this exercise, I wrote sentences that went something like “Thank you, Ric, for always making me laugh.”
Every time I saw Ric’s photo that day, I would say “Thank you, Ric”.
This made me feel good and more compassionate toward my friend. I more easily looked past his little faults (Ric has his fair share – Love you, Ric!) and really appreciated the best parts about him.
Most of us spend far too much time bickering, judging or resenting the people around us. I do. This was a good exercise to shift my mind in a more positive direction.
The special task for day 4 was to focus on being grateful for my health. Coincidentally, this came at a time when I was battling a finger injury as well as a tweaked hamstring, both of which I had sustained playing sport, so I was ready to appreciate the health that I still had left.
I was instructed to think about each part of my body and how I should be grateful for the function of each of them. My legs and feet, for example, carry me from place to place, enable me to move and play. My arms and hands allow me to pick things up, write, feed myself, and scratch an itch. My senses allow me to see, hear, feel, communicate and taste. And so on.
Next, I wrote down “the gift of health is keeping me alive” on a piece of paper and placed the paper somewhere where I would see it often. I decided to put it in my wallet.
I particularly liked this exercise and I should do it more often. Sport has always been a big part of my life and having two injuries at the time, helped me realise and appreciative even more so how easy it is to take our health for granted when nothing is broken or aches.
I also believe that paying attention to the different parts of our body enables you to notice minor aches and pains that would otherwise be missed. This helps us treat those nicks sooner and more efficiently.
I do have doubts, however, as to whether doing this exercise somehow improves my health, as the book suggests.
On day 5 the book instructed me to direct my gratitude toward money. Money is something to which many of us relate anxious feelings, and the point of this exercise was to turn that anxiety into gratitude and thus somehow get more money. The exercise prescribed feeling gratitude for the money I presently had and had ever been able to enjoy.
As I went through the list of things I’d received in my life – food to eat, clothes on my back, holidays, hobbies, etc – I said “thank you for all the money that I’ve ever been given throughout my life”.
The more you feel gratitude for money, the book argues, the more money you will receive. It’s hard to imagine how that process works exactly. Regardless, I’m certain that replacing anxiety with gratitude can only be a good thing.
It was at this point that I started to have some doubts and concerns about the book. The law of attraction is a black box – whatever your dominant thoughts are, that is what the universe will give you more of. While it sounds great, no one can credibly explain how the law of attraction actually works. It becomes, in many ways, a question of faith, and I wasn’t sure if I was willing to take the leap.
Day 6 was when my progress started to stall. Not only were we moving house in a few days and I was running around organizing a thousand and one things, I also had several other projects that were needing attention at the same time.
Up until now, I had been doing the morning gratitude lists every day, but I’d been a little hit and miss with doing the evening gratitude exercise with the “magic” rock.
Anyways, day 6 involved finding things to be grateful for at work. For the self employed, that came quite easily to me. If I were still working for someone else, I probably would have struggled more with this exercise, but I would possibly therefore have benefitted from the exercise more, too.
On day 7, my task was to frame negative things in my life in positive terms. For example, if you were laid off, you might make statements such as “I am truly grateful that this is the first time I have been unemployed”.
It felt surprisingly good to do this exercise. It’s like you focus on the golden edges of a dark cloud instead of focusing on the dark cloud itself. After all, when it rains it rains and there’s nothing you can do about it except enjoy what you can.
Day 8 & 9
On day 8, our move was in full swing and I didn’t have the time to do any of the exercises. Ditto for day 9.
We had moved in but still living in the middle of a hundred moving boxes. My wife was pregnant. Our dog needed exercise. There were just too many competing interests and many of them were loud and urgent.
I didn’t end up finding time on day 10 to put in the work either. After going three days in a row of not putting in the work and falling further and further behind, I was ready to pull the plug.
Takeaways from the Challenge
My general takeaway from this brief stint with gratitude exercises is definitely positive – it helps cure one of our biggest sources of unhappiness: expecting far too much and appreciating far too little.
However, I remain skeptical of the power of gratitude miraculously improving your health, your finances and your relationships on its own, but I have little doubt that gratitude exercises are emotionally beneficial.
The more gratitude you feel, the happier you generally are.
The more you focus on things you appreciate, you notice even more things to appreciate.
The more you focus on positive outcomes, the more it empowers you to take action.
I believe all these things help us become more compassionate, happy and productive.
At some point in the future, I intend to redo the gratitude challenge so that I can give it the full 30 day treatment. For now, I believe I have gained a basic understanding of the benefits of gratitude, which I have already started incorporating into my daily life.
While I am generally inclined to believe in the law of attraction, some of the claims in this book were a little hard to swallow. There were simply too many that were impossible to verify. “If you believe hard enough, you will get the results you want. If you don’t, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough.” While this may work on some, for me it’s not enough. I’m all for believing but there’s got to be more to it than that.
On a personal note, I am going to need to do a better job of looking ahead when starting new challenges. I didn’t give myself a very good chance to succeed by thinking I could juggle so many big projects at the same time.
Lesson graciously learned.