The word “gratitude” seems to be a buzzword these days when talking about self care or self love or mindfulness, but I don’t see too many people explaining how exactly having gratitude can help no matter what situation you find yourself in – just that you should have it at all times. For me, that’s kind of a tough pill to swallow – if I’ve just been fired from my dream job, my best friend just walked out of my life, and I’m months away from losing my apartment, you’re telling me THAT’S when I’m supposed to have gratitude? For what? Still being alive? No, that’s not the way it works – at least not for me.
I’ll add a disclaimer here: I’m not claiming to be any kind of mental or physical health expert, I’m simply someone who learned how to build my gratitude muscle and use it to see life differently.
In fact, I never even realized having gratitude was having a huge effect on my life until this past week. It crept up on me similar to any kind of self-help practice – you think about doing it, you start doing it every day, it becomes part of your routine, so you stop thinking about it so much, and then one day, out of the blue, you realize what an impact it’s had on you. So, I’ll start from the beginning.
How I Started
I have a fitness and nutrition coach. Her name is Nicole Ferrier, and she’s amazing. She listens to you, she doesn’t belittle you if you’ve made a mistake, and she’s concerned more with the “non-scale” wins. She’s never happier than when her clients have made a mental breakthrough or found the confidence to wear shorts to the gym or just generally stopped loathing themselves so much. She’s the one that suggested I start journaling and that I write down 3 things every day that I’m thankful for. I had heard about and read about and talked about gratitude before, but I had never put it into practice. I honestly thought I knew what I had in my life and I was thankful enough for it; why take the time to write it down?
But fine. I bought an app called 5 Minute Journal and challenged myself to add three unique things every day that I’m thankful for. There’s also a second portion that you fill out toward the end of the day that asks for the three best things that happened that day. It’ll even send you a helpful notification to remind you in case you “forget.” I bought this app close to a year ago and I’ll admit, I don’t use it every day anymore, but for a good couple of months, I’d find three things in the morning and three things in the afternoon to log, EVERY morning and EVERY afternoon, and that’s HARD. I’d fill out the things I’m thankful for on the bus on the way to my workout in the morning, half asleep at 6am wishing I was still in bed. At first, sure it was easy:
- I’m thankful for the job I’m about to go to.
- The fact that my building has a gym right upstairs.
- The fact that my job pays for my monthly gym membership.
Then, the next day:
- I’m thankful for my discipline to get up at 5:30am every morning.
- For the fact that I’m able to afford the shoes on my feet and clothes on my back.
- For the friendships I’ve formed that are still in my life.
Each and every day, I had to take a step back, think not only about the situation I was currently in, but about my entire life, and come up with a unique part of it that I was elated to have. Sometimes that would be a stretch – one time I remember logging that I’m grateful for the cup of coffee I’m going to have when I sit down at my desk after my workout.
Now, the evening portion where you log three amazing things that happened that day – that was even harder. Again at first:
- I crushed the meeting I was leading today.
- I hit a new personal record in the gym.
- I caught up with an old friend after work.
Now, that’s sounds like an awesome day, but not all days are great! Some days you choke during big meetings, and you feel weak AF in the gym, and you just want to be alone – but you still get a notification “What AMAZING things happened today?” And I wanted to scream sometimes, “NOTHING. NOTHING AMAZING HAPPENED, LET ME BE!” But I still filled it out. Maybe it was the fact that I bought myself Starbucks in the morning and it tasted so much better than the office coffee. Maybe someone complimented my outfit. Or maybe in the midst of all the crappy-day chaos, I took 5 minutes to myself to just breathe and reassure myself that I’ll get through it. Some days, those things are all I have to log, so I log them.
When I Started To See An Impact
Now, I mentioned I bought this app almost a year ago and I just started to see a significant impact last week. That may seem like a long time, but truth is, it takes time for your mindset to change enough for you to notice, and I hadn’t been consciously paying attention. But that said, everyone is different. I’m sharing my story to hopefully help someone else on their journey, but I’m sure your timeline won’t be the exact same as mine. Now, on to the story:
If you follow me on Instagram (@sarahearnstein), you may know that I recently moved to Texas (temporarily) and right before we moved, my car’s check engine light came on. We took her over to the shop and they said it would be roughly $2400 to fix her up, which is more than the poor girl is worth. So, I decided I wasn’t going to fix it. I was going to leave it behind with my dad who would try to either fix something or just sell it and get $1-2k to put toward a new car. Having this happen RIGHT before I’m about to make my first move away from the midwest (with a boyfriend, nonetheless) brought on nothing short of a big ball of anxiety. Now, I’d be dependent on Austin to go anywhere, he’s the only one I’d know in Texas, AND now I have to look for a new car. I’ve never looked for a car; I don’t even know how much cars cost – too much, I know that. But I started to see the silver lining right away, without even trying –
Hell yeah, I get to buy a new car! AND I don’t have to drive to Texas, I can just sit in Austin’s passenger seat and eat, sleep, do whatever I want.
I was GRATEFUL that I now have a excuse to buy a new car. The first Monday right when Austin got off work, we went over to the Volkswagen dealer and I tried out the Jetta and then the Passat, and then swiftly fell in love with the Passat. It was relatively affordable, it felt luxurious, and the best part – the 6 year, 72,000 mi. warranty that came with it. I was ready to buy it on the spot on our first trip to the first dealer we looked at. It was one of those things that just felt right, I knew this was it.
But then I had a feeling of doubt.
So I called my dad who has so often been my voice of reason. If he tells me I should buy the car, then I really know I should buy it. So, he listened to me talk all about the turbo engine, the leather seats, the backup camera, and of course, the Wolfsberg Edition was made in Germany, so I obviously need that one. He then asked how much it costs. Well the MSRP is $27,000, but the dealer already promised $24,000, and I think I can get him down to $22,000. His response, “and how much credit card and student load debt do you have?” About $50,000. “And how much debt did you have a year ago?” About $50,000.
I knew where he was going.
But Dad, I need a car. I can’t depend on Austin for EVERYTHING. “Then buy a cheap car for $1000, use it while your there and then junk it when you leave” Okay, but I have to drive to Dallas and Austin for work. “Then rent a better car when you have to do that. Look, Sarah, I’m trying to get your car up and running for you when you get back to Chicago. It’ll be fine for short distances around the city, but I can’t drive it to Texas for you. You’ve proven to me that you can’t pay off debt very well – or at all. No, I don’t think you should get this car.”
And I started crying. Hysterically. In a restaurant.
You see, my Dad has always given me so much tough love, but he doesn’t always explain himself until I start crying. In college, I told him I wanted to be a graphic design major and he sternly said no, sorry, I’m not helping you to pay for college for you to graduate with a degree in something that doesn’t have good job prospects (no offense to any graphic designers out there – I know some great ones). As much as I don’t agree with telling your children they can’t do something, his next sentence hit home and stuck with me even to this day:
“I want you to have a good salary. I don’t want you to ever want for something you can’t buy. And I sure as hell don’t want you ever to have to depend on a man for ANYTHING.”
I left the restaurant shortly after I started crying and sat in the car to talk to him. I spent about 45 minutes throwing excuse after excuse to him about why I NEEDED a new car. Realistically, I could have left that restaurant and gone to buy one, but I wanted his approval. Call it immature if you’d like, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it when he was so against it – there just had to be a reason I wasn’t seeing clearly. While we were talking he said those words again, “We both know you can’t pay off your debt.” And I started crying again. It was those words. That affirmation of failure that hurt so much. And I told him Dad, please stop saying that. All I ever want is for you and Mom to be proud of me. Please don’t say you know I can’t do it. I want to be able to do it and I need you to believe in me. And this was his response, just like so many years before:
Sarah, we are so proud of you. You’ve earned one of the hardest degrees out there. You landed an amazing job that trusts you enough to send you to Texas. I just don’t want to see you go more and more into debt. Your mom and I are completely debt free and it feels so good. I want you to feel that, too. I don’t ever want you to feel trapped in a job or with someone else in order to provide for yourself.
And even right now, as I’m typing this, I’m tearing up because I never realize how much he cares. He doesn’t show love through words of affirmation, or gift giving, or even saying I love you often. He works on my car, so I don’t have to buy a new one and he sits on the phone with me for 45 minutes while I’m crying to convince me not to add even more debt to the pile I’m trying to pay off. And the second I realized that, I didn’t care about a new car. I was so grateful that I had someone in my life that cared that much about me. He could have easily said “Sure, go ahead and buy it,” but he genuinely thought it would bring more harm to me than good, so he said something.
I realize this was a long story that may not even be very clear, but it was very therapeutic for me to type out. Through this experience, I realized that I’m starting to see gratitude in situations that are not ideal. My first instinct is to look at the silver lining and figure out how this can be a good thing or a new experience. That’s when I realized gratitude had made a huge impact on my life.
Austin and I were sitting in our new living room shortly after this day and thinking about how everything lined up to get us here. We met when I was at a really crappy job, and he emotionally helped me close the door on that and start searching for something new which lead me to my current employer that I couldn’t be more happy with. He’s landed several internships – one with BP that he absolutely nailed and one with LyondellBassell which is what brought him to Texas. I’ve been killing it in my new role which is what allowed me to come with him down South. While we were talking about all this, we were filled with such gratitude that everything we’ve worked toward is coming together, and anything that didn’t work out simply wasn’t meant for us.
My Version of Gratitude
I found that my version of gratitude isn’t finding a completely unrelated thing to be thankful for. Like I said above, if I lose my job, I’m not going to automatically think well, I still have a house over my head and friends I can confide in. I think people who think this way are saints, but that’s not me. My life is so segregated sometimes, that I can’t do that. Instead, I’m going to think this is going to be hard, but now I can start a new adventure. I can go anywhere I’d like and become anything I’d like (just not a graphic designer as now I have no skills in that department). Jokes aside, this is exactly the way my mind works now. Not only am I seeing the silver lining in difficult situations, but I’m becoming GRATEFUL for those difficult situations. If my boss puts me on the spot in a big meeting, THANK YOU, I now have opportunity to either shine or grow. If I screw up my macros and weight training on the weekend, AWESOME, I have some extra carbs to fuel my workout on Monday. You guys get the idea.
Going back to that example at the very beginning, if you lose your job, your best friend walks out of your life, and you’re about to lose your apartment, gratitude can help you see those as opportunities instead of tragedies. Instead of your world ending, now you have a new opportunity to reevaluate your goals and where you live and now there’s a space in your life for someone new and extra love to give to those that know your worth. That feels so much better than devastation.
Once you start seeing the silver linings in hard times, those hard times get a little easier, and soon enough you’ll be showing those hard times gratitude because they give you a chance to change and grow. See, gratitude, for me, isn’t just about being thankful for the “good” thinks in your life, it’s about being thankful for EVERYTHING – “good” and “bad.” Whether it’s something special ending (relationship, job, etc.), a big meeting you have to prepare for, or anything else that seems just plain scary, I now know that I will grow. I will learn something I didn’t know before and I will be better for it.
My Advice To You
Start a gratitude journal! I know it’s cheesy and lame and tedious, but it will literally force you to find happiness and good within the smallest things. This is because after the first couple days, when you think you’ve already listed everything you’re thankful for, and you’re forced to find yet another unique thing you’re happy about, it’ll be small. It’ll be the flowers you smelt on your way home, or the smile someone gave you, or that you wore your favorite shirt today. It forces your brain to find happiness in the small things and it forces you to find good in things that otherwise seem daunting, or annoying or downright scary.
If you don’t like the idea of writing things down because you’re a millennial and you don’t know what a pencil is (this is a joke – I’m a millennial), check out the app I linked above – 5 Minute Journal. It costs about as much as a journal would, and you’ll always have it with you.
And when you finally feel the impact that gratitude has had on your life, let me know! I’d love to hear about how showing gratitude is affecting you.