It was five days until Christmas; a time when people are either joyous and giving or stressed to the max. I was having a rare quiet, calm moment in the Starbucks drive thru. All three children were either at school or their daycare centers. The rush of the morning had given away to a peaceful silence. I had placed my order for a chai tea and picked up my cellphone to check work email, as I had several cars in front of me.
All of a sudden a loud obnoxious honk startled me back to reality. ONE car had moved forward and the person behind me was clearly concerned that I had not moved forward. In the past, there were days that this would have been incredibly frustrating for me. How dare this person honk at me over one car moving? I mean, how rude can someone be?
But not today. Today I breathed calmly, and thought, “that poor person is clearly having a stressful day.” When it was my turn to pay for my chai, I asked if I could please buy the coffee of the woman behind me. It felt so good to spread kindness and I hoped it would make her day a tiny bit better.
I left Starbucks feeling grateful for my sense of peace.
I haven’t always been a grateful person. Sure, I have been kind most of my life and relatively positive, but it took training my brain to find gratitude even in small moments. Two years prior to my Starbucks experience above, I was in a low place. I had just miscarried a baby for the second time and was struggling. I had two beautiful children at home and a supportive husband, but miscarrying is a hard thing to get through, no matter what your circumstances are. It was starting to affect how I felt about the world.
A short time later, I was introduced to the Bounceback Project of Minnesota, which is a collaborative group that provides resources on teaching kids and adults to thrive amid stress and build good coping skills to deal with stressful situations. I learned about the incredible mental health benefits of expressing gratitude, and how helpful it can be to emotional well-being.
In 2019, over 40 million Americans struggled with depression and over 18 million Americans struggled with anxiety.
New research is revealing that there are other ways beyond medication and therapy to combat depression and anxiety, and simply expressing gratitude and showing kindness towards others can be one of those steps. In fact, one study found that writing 3 “good things” each day (or things that we are grateful for), had positive effects lasting over 6 months.
Expressing daily gratitude has been found to have a more positive impact on individuals than taking antidepressants alone, and has been associated with better sleep, improved mood, increased optimism, and improved health.
Neuroscientists used to believe that our brains were done changing once we reached adulthood, but there is new research that shows that our brains are able to develop new pathways far into old age. Meaning, we can train our brains into being more positive! A quick Google search will help you see this in effect, or check out resources such as Psychology Today, Harvard, Berkley, and Positive Psychology.
So How Does It Work?
In the beginning, I had a journal beside my bed and I would write three good things about my day before I fell asleep. This was fantastic for me; I was replacing my negative rehashing of my day (e.g. “I should have, I could have”) with, “Today I felt thankful for…” The constant negative thoughts were slowly replaced by the gratitude I felt for my supportive family and love I had in my life. Even on my worst days, I found joy in my children and my warm bed.
Not long after, I moved expressing gratitude to bedtime prayers with my children. I had come out of my fog and together we were able to share the joy we felt in each other. Now expressing gratitude has become our nightly dinner routine; we each list three things good about our day. Because I also want to know if my children had struggles during the day, we allow for expressing one low moment as well. My children have grown to look forward to this time each night and I can feel us growing in our gratitude experience together.
Can gratitude fix everything? Of course not, and as a mental health professional, I strongly encourage the support of counseling and medical intervention as needed. But does expressing gratitude lead to a happier heart? I am 100% certain that it does. When things go wrong, I can change my negative thinking into more positive thoughts. I can find empathy for the incredibly frustrated woman in the Starbucks parking lot. I can thank God for my beautiful children and wait for his plan when I struggle with miscarriage. I can find peace in every day, because I am grateful for all of the gifts I have.
Most importantly, I can share this gift with others: helping my children to find gratitude, helping the students that I work with to find gratitude, helping our community to find gratitude, and maybe along the way we will find a peace within ourselves as well.