Lady sitting in front of plant

Photography by Brooke Schaal

The surprising gratitude practice that worked for me

I could never keep a gratitude journal for long. But my marriage breakdown opened me up to something better.  

I’m always trying to find ways to love a little harder, live a little better and accept things a little faster. But it was my divorce three years ago that led me to finally get serious about gratitude.

After 12 years together, I left a good partner, whom I’d met young, to figure out who I was and to have experiences I felt I had sacrificed. I knew in my heart this was necessary for me to grow. But when it finally sunk in that my relationship to the person who had been my best friend was forever changed, I felt distraught. All I could think about was what I no longer had.

After about a year of grieving, I knew that in order to move forward I had to flip my focus from what was lost onto all that was good, meaningful and fulfilling in my life. In fact, as much as I ended up struggling after the decision to end my marriage, I ended up feeling grateful for the temporary void that was created in my life. It was in that seemingly endless space that terrifying unknowns turned into exciting possibilities and the idea of who I could be turned into who I would become.

Lady walking in park with dog

I’ve discovered that the best way to forge ahead and live with intention is to listen to my gut. We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress in popular psychology, but less about post-traumatic growth, a blessing I hadn’t anticipated at my lowest point. One of the most valuable tools I used to transition into a whole new way of being post-divorce was my gratitude practice.

Gratitude has become a buzzword lately, and the Oprah-endorsed trend has ushered in a slew of how-to articles and Pinterest boards of inspirational quotes aimed at encouraging us all to practise being thankful. Some people do it by noting their blessings in a gratitude journal; others write thank-you letters to loved ones or even acquaintances who have touched their lives; and others still practise gratitude as a family or group of friends, perhaps around the dinner table before sharing a meal.

According to a post about the science of gratitude in Harvard Medical School’s HEALTHbeat, “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.” Interestingly, the benefits can be physical as well as emotional.  In the post, the author describes one study where participants were split into three groups to write about their week: one group wrote about what irritated them, another wrote about events that had affected them—positively or negatively—and one wrote only about what they were appreciative of. After 10 weeks, not only were those who undertook the gratitude practice reporting higher levels of optimism, they also reported fewer visits to their physician and increased levels of exercise.

Learning about the benefits of gratitude convinced me to take up a practice, but science and pop-culture gurus weren’t enough to keep me motivated to continue. In the year after my separation, I tried—and failed—to keep a gratitude journal. Each time I felt disappointed in myself for lacking the self-discipline to write in it every day. I felt riddled with guilt for not practising gratitude “the right way” and, by default, for being un-grateful. In the end, what was supposed to be a peaceful practice of introspection became a source of stress.

When I would read articles about other people’s experiences keeping up a regular gratitude practice, they would stir up inadequacy and despair—the exact feelings I was trying to combat.

Sitting lady looking away from camera

That is, until I started listening to myself more.

I realized I had to go beyond trying just to follow step-by-step instructions, and to pause for a moment to pinpoint exactly why I wanted to make a habit of expressing gratitude if I were to sustain the type of practice that would be both meaningful and motivating to me in the long term. I also had to figure out what had been my downfall in past attempts at keeping a daily gratitude journal.

As I did more research, I discovered that my struggles to muster up gratitude 365 days a year were not uncommon. Some scientists have even suggested that such a rigid schedule could be counterproductive. In one study, University of California professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that counting your blessings once a week boosted happiness, but doing so three times a week actually had less of a positive impact on participant’s happiness. Lyubomirsky hypothesizes that the practice might have felt more “fresh, meaningful and rewarding” for weekly blessing counters, and ultimately “boring” for those who practised daily and inevitably “had difficulty generating things for which to be grateful.”

In an interview for NPR’s Morning Edition, Lyubomirsky went deeper into the drawbacks: “If you’re depressed, and you’re asked to express gratitude … you might have trouble thinking of what you’re grateful for.” In other words, when you’re navigating grief after difficult life events, some days you need to give yourself space to feel your pain instead of pushing it aside.

Lady on couch with dog

It’s not just the frequency but also the method of practising gratitude that needs to resonate for each individual, if it is to become a habit. I’ve always gravitated towards in-person connections, and I find that building relationships within my community and giving back allow me to express my gratitude in a concrete way that doesn’t just make me happy, but boosts other people’s emotional well-being too. Ultimately, volunteering became a huge part of my gratitude practice.

Over the past three years, I’ve volunteered at the Children’s Book Bank storefront, a United Way-funded organization that helps kids in low-income communities develop a love of reading. I’ve mentored youth from equity-seeking communities through Canadian Running’s and NIKE’s Lane 6, an intensive running program. And I’ve also mentored artists at Sketch, another United Way-funded organization that offers free art programs to youth living with homelessness or poverty.

Connecting with others through volunteering heightened my sense of gratitude over and over. I’d feel it in something as simple as helping a kid find a very specific book they were interested in and then being the one who got to tell them, “Yes, it’s now yours!” My gratitude soared as I watched a teen with a heavy home life run with abandon alongside new friends in a relay race. And I found deep pleasure in admiring the depth and beauty of a work produced by an artist in the Sketch studio, someone who otherwise might not have had an outlet for their creative gifts and a place to reflect on their next steps. The privilege of being part of their journey as much as they were part of mine has expanded my feelings of gratitude in immeasurable ways.

As a gratitude practice, volunteering—and writing about volunteering, to inspire others to volunteer in ways that are meaningful to them—actually multiplies what I have to be grateful for by connecting me with other people in the community and allowing me to share in their unique gifts, stories and journeys. As well as keeping me motivated to recognize—and nurture—the goodness that’s so abundant around me, this form of gratitude practice reminds me to slow down and savour small, yet meaningful, moments instead of striving towards the next new thing.

Lady sitting on chair facing away from camera

All that is not to say that journals, thank-you letters and other common tools for practising gratitude can’t be helpful, especially if you’re just starting out on your gratitude journey and want to make a conscious shift in your awareness. But we don’t have to stop there, and we definitely don’t have to feel boxed in by what other people prescribe.

For me, the combination of advocacy and volunteering has allowed me to shift from treating gratitude as an exercise and to turn it into a lifestyle. Through my practice, I’ve become more compassionate, both with myself and with the people around me. I’m not perfect: There are days when I find myself wallowing or indulging in ways I know will not make me love harder, live better or accept faster—at least not in that moment. But a genuine gratitude practice is also about acknowledging life is sometimes hard, and that there is always goodness, even amid the messiness. And you know what? I’m extremely grateful for that.

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