I have a confession: I’m a complainer.
It isn’t just a habit of listing my troubles out loud, it’s a habit of thinking. I often catch myself going over and over what is undone and unpaid until I feel hopelessly overwhelmed, and spend the day grumpy and miserable.
How to exercise “the discipline of gratitude” throughout the New Year
A few years ago, my dad told me that he’d started writing down five things he was grateful for every night before he went to bed. He said that in a few weeks, it had completely transformed his outlook on life. Because the benefits of gratitude are well-documented, I tried to follow my dad’s example … although I don’t write things down because I have five kids and let’s be real, if I manage to be fully horizontal before falling asleep, I consider that a win. Instead, I’ve found two ways to practice gratitude each day … particularly during times of stress and anxiety, when life’s challenges seem insurmountable.
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, editor-in-chief of Positive Psychology, that’s exactly the time when gratitude is most powerful.
In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.
This is not the same thing as the idea of “offering it up” or “taking up my cross” — I’m not saying that I’ve cultivated the virtue of being grateful for challenges. It’ll take me a long time and several rounds of Purgatory, probably, to get there.
Confessions of an ungrateful crumb
Instead, these are just two simple ways of reminding myself internally and externally of the gifts surrounding me all day, every day — and they’re named after hit songs, because I have a teenager.
1. Shake It Up (by Selena Gomez)
You know that scene in Big Hero 6 where Tadashi holds Hiro upside down until he sees something he didn’t before? That’s a really important component of gratitude. My kids like to make me gifts — all.the.time. To be clear, these aren’t actual gifts, they’re used wrappers or beheaded toys encased inside a Magna-tile prison, and I used to seethe over having to stop everything and feign excitement while opening the present.
One morning at breakfast, I distractedly told my son to just put it down and I would open it later. The day got busy, then busier, and I forgot about it completely.
While I was trying to make dinner that evening I kept tripping over that same son, who was hovering near the stove. Finally, I snapped and said, “Why are you just standing where I’m cooking?!”
He looked up at me and his chin quavered a little as he pointed toward the neglected “gift,” which had been shoved to the back of the counter. “I’m waiting for you to open your present, Mommy,” he said. “I want to see you smile.”
I want to see you smile. That phrase broke my heart, and forever shifted my perspective on my kids’ gifts. They weren’t trying to give me something of value — they were just trying to bring me joy. How could I not feel grateful for such love?
2. In Case You Didn’t Know (by Brett Young)
When my eldest daughter was feeling despondent one day, I told her how much I missed the sound of her singing all day long. Her eyes got wide as she responded, “But Mom, you always tell me to stop making noise so you can think!”
I winced because it was true. With five kids, life is noisy, and the cumulative effect can make me feel a little insane. But it wasn’t until she stopped singing that I realized how much her constant singing had formed a background of cheeriness in our lives.
How Gratitude Can Transform Your Life
Now, I try harder to pay attention to what my kids are doing before I ask them to stop. Often I’ll realize that they’re not doing anything wrong at all, and usually they’re doing something pretty delightful — like showing their baby brother how hands make different noises on the table, the tile, and the wall. (This is all part of shaking it up, btw … you have to shift your perspective first.)
As soon as I see what they are doing, the noise doesn’t bother me as much … but if it still does, I tell them that I see how thoughtful (or funny, or considerate) what they’re doing is and appreciate it, and then ask them to be a little quieter.
Most of the time, they look at me like I’ve just tap-danced on the ceiling. Often, I get spontaneous hugs. And always, always, they do what I ask immediately.
When I feel overwhelmed, my family usually feels that way, too. But when I take the time to see and appreciate them out loud, it’s easier for all of us to overlook the crazy and focus instead the joy.