I still remember my first official gratitude journal. Pink, paisley, and petite, just picking up that sparkly little book brought me calm. It was time to leave the day’s stress behind, and to cherish all the gems of good fortune that surrounded me:
- Giant, juicy mangoes.
- My family being safe and supported.
- The ability to express myself through writing, and so on.
As good as gratitude is (research confirms), one of the limits of jotting down my bedtime blessings was that I resisted my life again the next morning. Cultivating gratitude for the good parts of my life didn’t prevent me from feeling cranky all day about the bad. I wished I could experience the ongoing stressors and obstacles in my life as if they were “a beautiful part of the journey,” but how?
If you’ve ever had this issue too, here’s a variant of gratitude journaling you might like: Take a break from writing down the obviously good things, and focus on finding gratitude for the worst.
I credit Steve Pavlina’s Extraordinary Gratitude for getting me to change up my usual journaling. However, it was hard at first. What I eventually learned is that being thankful for (the positive aspects of) an overall bad thing does not mean denying the negative aspects. You don’t have to believe that everything happens for a divine reason in order to find meaning in a heartache. Even the senseless can be looked upon with a grateful heart.
Let me show you what I mean.
My imperfectly functioning brain
There’s no pretending otherwise: My quality of life would be better if I had a high-functioning brain, one that stayed cheerful and productive even when the going gets rough. Yet, there are multiple ways to feel grateful for my anxiety, neuroticism, insomnia, gender dysphoria, symptoms of ADHD or autism, and so on.
First, they make me appreciate their opposites. There is little I love more than conking out early in the evening after an exhausting day and miraculously sleeping 9+ hours straight. After I wake, I just feel these inexplicable sensations of… well-being in my body that I can’t even pinpoint. Thank you, insomnia.
Second, my problems make me work and they invite me to grow. My anxiety can be likened to an opponent in a video game or sport. It isn’t there to kill me, but to motivate me to bring my best. It makes me ask myself what I can do to be more resourceful, to better meet my needs, and to help others feel at ease—reaping what I sow—as we dance our way together through this Land of Imperfect Mental Health.
Third, our weaknesses are often linked with our strengths, such as empathetic folks being more prone to anxiety. My imperfectly functioning brain is a powerhouse of wacky ideas, it is passionate about writing, and it cares about all animals. I wouldn’t change that for the world!
From childhood to age 28, my web of mental struggle has spurred me to learn and get stronger. I feel so appreciative of the story of personal growth I have gotten to tell with my life. When anxiety strikes, I know my next chapter is excited to get written.
The stressful jobs people are stuck working
Possibly the #1 thing I end up supporting my friends with is their jobs (and school)! It is disheartening to live in a world where “work” often means boredom and stress, and where there are even 40 million people in slavery. Despite knowing I am lucky, I never lose my looming worry of getting stuck in meaningless drudgery, as I have experienced before as both a student and employee.
But the problem of work prompts me to celebrate what I can control. The reality or possibility of being in an unfulfilling job keeps me on my toes. It stimulates me to be smart about how I spend my priceless free time and available energy. That motivation gets doubled when I think of all the people picking produce and doing other labor I couldn’t live without. The stress of work gives us such opportunities to listen to each other, thank each other, put in our honest best effort, and strive for a more equal world.
And while it is a sad fact only 20% of workers feel actively engaged, work provides daily structure, goals, relationships, and status which make employed people generally happier than the jobless, according to World Happiness Report. If your work future is uncertain, like mine is, let’s revel in the mystery of how we might make it a more engaged, purposeful, and satisfying experience going forward.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the types of pain others go through that I can’t even imagine. However, I have realized that the worse a situation, the greater gratitude can potentially be discovered. Last spring I was starting my mornings with the audiobook Man’s Search for Meaning (while working out). In this book, Victor Frankl described some of the worst human suffering. Hearing about it helped me be less affected by my tiny little problems. I was surprised a book about the Holocaust could be so good for my mental health! (Getting endorphins while listening probably helped.) Reminded every day of how easy I had it in life, I was more motivated to be disciplined on behalf of myself and those around me. I had my own bed! I was well-fed! No one was threatening my life or beating me if I didn’t work! I was free to be healthy and do meaningful things!
So while extreme suffering is always atrocious for those going through it, those who are currently doing okay can train themselves to make suffering a trigger for gratitude in action. In another of my favorite books called Altruism, author Matthieu Ricard showed me how to avoid “empathetic distress” and instead respond to the world’s ills with a warm heart and hands that are ready to help.
Gratitude journaling, the way I originally did it, trained me to remember my favorite things. My next step was to take a look at my least favorite things, and learn how to feel thankful for them as well. I want to go about my day with a sense of peace and playfulness about the challenges I am facing.
Also by Phoenix: 3 Tips To Heal From The Past, According To A Clear Beliefs Coach
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Photo: Estée Janssen via Unsplash