Finding Gratitude in the Chaos

 In Divorce, Health Transitions, Life transitions, Midlife Crisis, Transition Writing

When we’re in the midst of a life transition–career change, divorce, grief, medical illness–gratitude can be the furthest thing from our minds. And it’s understandable. We’re simply trying to get through the day, or figure out the next step, or navigate the healthcare system. In short, there’s a lot on our spinning plates.

Yet finding gratitude is important. And not only because it seems the thing to do, especially this time of year. Rather embracing gratitude creates a new lens, a new perspective. Instead of one focused on our fears which accelerates a more downward spiral, gratitude boosts us up and beyond ourselves. We discover a connection to others, to something greater than ourselves, even to God. And our minds and bodies benefit from this positive shift.

Benefits of a Gratitude

The negative states of mind that are with us in a life transition can either paralyze us or cause us to make rash decisions. Finding gratitude forces us to slow down, to pause, and actively seek out what or who can be the recipient of our thanks. When we do this, a lot of goodness happens on our insides. Research has shown that gratitude journaling can:

  • Lower levels of depression
  • Strengthen relationships and connections
  • Improve physical and emotional health
  • Boost exercise
  • Boost optimism
  • Boost progress on personal goals
  • Boost alertness, enthusiasm, and energy

Recently, I’d gotten away from my usual gratitude expressions in my journal. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the “negative” things happening in my life, I grabbed my journal, opened to a fresh page, drew a line down the center, and simply began on one side listing all the “horrible” things happening. Then on the other side I began listing all that I was grateful for. I just simply started where I was, which was sitting in warm bed, in a sturdy home with a non-leaking roof. The list moved on to clean water, a car, a fridge full of food, the changing leaves on trees, sun, moon. And then the list moved to my family, friends, the opportunities. As I continued writing, I felt my heart opening, my shoulders felt less tense, my mood lifted. Within 10 minutes, my mood had shifted from one of scarcity to one of abundance.

Gratitude Journaling

Gratitude journaling is not about creating a brag list. As I wrote my list above, I was very much aware of the plight of the earth and her inhabitants. Instead, writing down what I’m grateful for reinforced to me that every sentient being in this world deserves to be in this state of abundance and thanksgiving. If anything, gratitude increases empathy.

So ready to get started? Here are a few ways to practice gratitude in the pages of your journal. Depending on any given day or stage of your life transition, choose the type of journaling you wish to do based on suggestions below:

  1. List making. Whether you create a list of three, or a list of 100, or even 1000, simply bullet journaling what you are grateful for is quick and easy. If you create a longer list (like 100 or 1000), see if you notice patterns or categories. If you want to a list of 100 quickly, set a timer for 30 minutes; repeating is expected and encouraged.
  2. Mandala Gratitude Wheel. Create a circle in your journal. I like using an old CD for this. From here, the process can vary. Divide the wheel into maybe 7 days, or 5 days, and on each day, write in to who or what you feel gratitude. Feel free to be creative here: use markers, crayons, colored pencils, different colored pens. You can also draw, or add images to your wheel. After completing, observe your mandala. What do you notice? What makes you smile? What do you want more of in your life? Write all this down.
  3. Write in response to this prompt: “I am so happy and grateful that…” While list and mandala making are good for times when life is chaotic, longer writes are good for gaining insight and new understanding. So set a timer for 5-10 minutes, and see where this goes. Afterwards, read through your writing. What to you notice? Is there an action step you’d like to take based on what you notice? You can use this promptly daily or even once a week.
  4. Write an unsent letter. Perhaps there is someone or something in your life you wish to express gratitude, but for whatever the reason, they are not available to you. This could be someone who is deceased, or even a country you visited. Letters to God, or your Higher Power are also possible here. The premise behind writing this type of letter is that you will not send it. Simply begin, “Dear….” and let your thoughts and thanksgiving flow. Be sure to sign your letter when done. Then read through it, again with a reader’s eye towards what you notice.

How often to write?

This question always comes up in my writing circles and workshops. There’s no wrong answer here. Yet, my response based on my personal experience is: Consistency is more important than regularly. Meaning, perhaps you decide to write once a week, or once a day, or once a month. It doesn’t matter. You choose what works for you, realizing that what works one week may not work the next. So keep the writing commitment fluid and flexible. Some days we don’t need another single thing on our plates, and the journaling doesn’t happen. And other days, I don’t know where I would be without writing in my journal. So practice your gratitude journaling with self-compassion.

Lastly, G.K. Chesterton reminds us that…

…thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

When the chaos of life strikes, and we don’t know where we are or where we are going, pausing for a moment to discover gratitude can make a big impact on our outlook, our mood, even boost our immune system and energy. All of this makes us happier and more open to possibility and to wonder.

This time of year, it’s easy to repeat a mantra of “Be Grateful.” But perhaps journaling your gratitude is a way to “Do Gratitude.” And the act of writing it all down is what makes the difference.

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