The Simple Trick That Helps Me Feel Grateful (Even on Bad Days)
I’m a positive person, but I’ve never been one for affirmations and I cringe at motivational calendars. But here's something that does work for me—and maybe it will work for you, too.
Last year around New Year’s, I started seeing Facebook posts about something called a “gratitude jar.” I had just finished spending the holidays alone with some sort of bug, wanting to keep my germy self away from my then-pregnant sister. The bug, which lasted a few weeks, was just one of many ailments that kept me housebound for more days than I could count. With obstructive sleep apnea, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and sacroiliitis flares, sometimes it feels like I’m playing whack-a-mole—squashing the effects of one condition only to be affected by the other.
I’m a positive person, but I’ve never been one for affirmations that aren’t rooted in something tangible. I cringe at motivational calendars, and I believe words of affirmation are stronger when they’re felt, as opposed to when they’re said. This year I even bought an “un-motivational calendar,” filled with phrases like, “The struggle is real” and “Don’t be an idiot.” I practice occasional acts of positive self-talk. “I’m so glad I can afford comfortable shoes,” I tell myself as I take them off. “I’m so fortunate to have heat,” I remind myself as I turn on the heater.
But these moments of conscious gratitude had been few and far between until I came across the idea of the “gratitude jar.” The concept is simple: Place slips of paper with moments of gratitude, however small in some sort of receptacle throughout the year. At year’s end, the participant has their own special journal of sorts through which to look back at those special moments they may have otherwise forgotten.
I chose a paper Gilmore Girls coffee cup from a Netflix-sponsored event that I had attended just a month before. That event marked the last time I felt truly elated, before I came down with the mysterious bug. With the cup, my gratitude was already off to a good start, and it was even laced with some of my motivational aversion, with a quote from protagonist Lorelai Gilmore stamped on the front: “Coffee please. And a shot of cynicism.”
Some online friends wanted to fill their jars with one good thing every day, but that felt like setting myself up for failure. After all, I have a hard enough time keeping a daily planner. Like many people, I measure my days by what I can cross off my to-do list, and I measure my successes by work and paychecks. Even when I don’t keep up with a planner, I text my best friend my daily accomplishments, just before I turn out the light. With my chronic illnesses, I have a hard enough time giving myself permission to rest. So on tough days, even “I took a shower,” makes the list. It’s a trick I’ve taught myself ever since I started getting sick many years ago, as a way to focus on what I’ve done instead of what I’ve failed to do. But I didn’t want my jar to turn into either a place for self-congratulation or a place to wallow in times of forced rest. If it was going to work, it had to have its own narrative. My goal was to write down one good thing that happened each week.
I remembered my assignment at least half of the time, which I’m counting as a win. At first, I had difficulty thinking of something to be grateful for that wasn’t tied to my career or my health. I had been so programmed to chronicle my life based on strict parameters that it was hard to see beyond that limited vision. But after contemplation, I was usually able to think of something applicable. My first slip of gratitude read as follows: “I watched Under the Tuscan Sun with Ingrid for New Years. And cried a little at the end.” Other, similar, moments of happiness followed: “Saw a shooting star with John at Joshua Tree.” “The rain came in through the window and landed on my legs during a nap in the extreme heat.”
Just like I thought, by year’s end, I had forgotten most of what I’d placed in the jar. This past Christmas, I flew from Los Angeles up to Washington state to see my extended family. My grandma, who had lived with my aunt and uncle for the past few years, had died a couple months’ prior. On a desperate whim a few weeks after her passing, I bought a plane ticket. I needed to enter the house, walk down the hallway, and see that she really wasn’t there. And I needed to be with family who had seen her on those final days.
Back home after the trip, I took out each slip of paper and read them one at a time. “Learned how to cook rib eye steak,” one slip read. “Saw a rainbow on Melrose,” read another. And then one that made my eyes well up: “Grandma greeted me with, ‘There’s my biggest girl.’” I had written down that special moment after having flown up in spring. I had no idea when my grandma spoke those words, as she walked down the hallway, that it would be our last visit.
The power of these slips of gratitude isn’t just the memories, but seeing them written out in my own hand. As a teenager, I was an avid journal-keeper, and I still have dozens of journals stashed away in bins under my couch. Once I went to school for literature, I got out of the habit. But seeing these notes in my own writing, and being able to picture myself with pen in hand, pressing on the paper, makes the memories that much more real.
This year, I’m keeping a gratitude jar once again, still using my paper Gilmore Girls cup. The first slip of paper is from my stepbrother’s wedding. His new wife is as much into Gilmore Girls as I am. The slip reads: “’Reflecting Light’’ [a special song from the show] came on during family photos at Jeremy and Lini’s wedding.” Already, I can tell it’s going to be a great year.