This blog was updated April 23, 2020
When it feels as if you’re getting one set of bad news after another, it can be difficult to stay positive. Whether they are related to your health, the well-being of a loved one, finances, work, or relationships with others, these unexpected hardships can make it difficult to remain upbeat. Because negativity tends to attract more negativity, being optimistic during tough times is essential. This is particularly important for those in recovery, as added stress can often push these individuals to start drinking or using again as a means of coping. One way to focus on the positive aspects of your life is to create a gratitude list, sometimes referred to as gratitude journaling. Multiple studies, including one by UC Berkeley, found that an “attitude of gratitude” can change the brain and contribute to mental well-being. Now is a great time to start protecting your mental health, so ask yourself, “What am I grateful for today?”
How to Make Your Gratitude List
Find a quiet place to reflect. Before starting the list, you should allow yourself time to destress and unwind from the day’s responsibilities. Having a cup of tea, taking a bath, meditating, or doing any other mindful, relaxing activity will allow you to be present while you consider how to start your gratitude list.
Choose how you’d like to keep the gratitude list. Some might choose to create a “mental gratitude list,” which requires less preparation than a written list and allows you to compose your thoughts on the go, if you wish. Recording your thoughts on paper is another option that will ensure you don’t forget anything important. It also gives you something physical to look at when you’re feeling down and in need of reminders about the opportunities that life has given you. Writing things down also fosters accountability and makes it less tempting to stray from routine.
If you are choosing to keep a physical list, consider how you’d like it to look. This step might seem trivial because the content of your list matters more than the formatting of it. But this is an added opportunity to make the list your own. Aside from simply choosing whether you want to use bullet points or numbering to list each of your thoughts, you can personalize your list in other ways. For example, you might choose to include an inspirational quote. Maybe you would even find it therapeutic to doodle in the margins of your list. However you choose to format the list, try to keep it looking organized and neat. Aside from nurturing a positive attitude, a well-kept gratitude list can help you structure your thoughts and work through mental clutter.
Start giving thanks for people, places, things, and experiences in your life. If you plan to incorporate your gratitude list into a daily routine, you should start small so you don’t overwhelm yourself. Changing negative thought patterns into positive ones can take time. The first day you start your list, you can find three parts of your life that you are most thankful, and gradually add more points to it. These might consist of significant parts of your life that you are grateful for — such as your loved ones or the roof over your head — and less conspicuous ones, like a stranger opening the door for you. Material possessions can make up a small portion of the list, but you should aim to focus on things that do not come with a price tag. As you’ve likely learned during tough times, it is your loved ones and the experiences in your life that cannot be replaced and will make you feel more emotionally fulfilled.
Add to the list by turning negatives into positives. Now that you’ve acknowledged the first things that come to mind that you are thankful for, try to dig deeper within yourself and see if you’re able to find appreciation for something more unexpected. You may already feel more positive after starting your list. Try to keep this momentum going by opening yourself up to perspectives you may not have considered before. You may find that you can look at a negative situation in your life from a more positive standpoint. For example, maybe rejection led you to an even better opportunity or ending a toxic friendship allowed you to align yourself with better influences.
Refer back to your list when you are in need of positive reminders. If you are having a particularly stressful or difficult day, focus on the existing points on your gratitude list and try your best to add to it. In doing so, you will become more resilient by consciously rejecting any damaging thought patterns that can exacerbate stress.
Mental Health Benefits of Keeping a Gratitude List
It encourages self-acceptance and self-confidence. Choosing to think about what you are most grateful for makes you proactive in your own healing. You are not passively waiting for some positive experience to make you feel better in the future. You are creating your own happiness in the present. This makes you feel empowered, confident, and in control of your life, allowing you to accept the things you cannot change and make strides to improve the things you can.
It can provide a powerful mental health boost in a short period of time. Thinking about or writing a gratitude list should not take much time out of your day because lists tend to be concise and easy to remember by nature. If you do not have the extra time or you are not willing to write at length, a gratitude list allows you to focus on the “greatest hits” of your life. Because you also get to choose how long you’d like your list to be or how much time you’d like to spend thinking about it, this therapeutic activity can fit in seamlessly with your busy schedule. Once your positive thinking becomes routine, you may even be able to make your list twice as long in half the time!
It changes your mindset for the better and fosters mental clarity. Creating a gratitude list pushes you to think about the good and the bad. In the beginning, you may find that starting to list the parts of your life that make you happy can help temporarily ward off feelings of sadness, emptiness, or low self-esteem. Over time, you are likely to find more and more points to add to your list because you are becoming more open-minded and positive as you focus more on the good in your life. While reflecting on your life, you may even find that something you once perceived as a negative experience could actually have benefited you in a way you never realized before.
It helps you attract positive influences. As you practice taking inventory of everything that you appreciate, you will become more skilled at separating the positive influences in your life from the destructive ones. This has a snowball effect: the more time you spend with positive people, the brighter your outlook will become. And because others can distinguish between positive and negative energy, you may start to attract new positive friendships and relationships with the help of your newfound optimism.
It teaches you to sit with discomfort. Keeping a gratitude list is like sticking to a gym routine (or an at-home workout routine) in a sense. Often, the instances when you don’t feel like following through are the times you can benefit most from taking action, such as when you are feeling especially disheartened or fatigued. Being able to push through discomfort is an especially useful skill for those living with addiction because it can make a person less likely to make impulsive, unhealthy decisions to cope with stress.
Fostering mindfulness and a cheerful outlook can take time, but you will feel more content with your life when you make a pledge to create your own happiness. Everyone needs to experience periods of darkness to appreciate the light-hearted moments in their lives. A gratitude list is a reminder of how far you have come and how much you can accomplish in the present and future, allowing you to feel at peace. By taking a microscope to the most rewarding aspects of your life, you can cultivate a positive mindset that will help you attract more positivity.