Today was my first real American Thanksgiving, and I have to say that I am totally sold (not that I thought I would ever turn down an excuse to have a big feast!). I love this holiday’s focus on spending time with family and friends, and the idea of having a special day every year to remember to give thanks for all of the blessings in our lives.
As Verily shared today, gratitude needs to be a habit that we practice all year round, not least because it comes with some amazing health benefits. Did you know that “human beings are typically biased toward negative information”, and that the benefits of making a conscious effort to overcome this negativity bias include better mental health as well as a stronger immune system, amongst other things? The interesting thing here is that research shows that positive thinking doesn’t necessarily come naturally to most people, meaning that it has to become a habit that we prioritise, just like exercise and healthy eating.
It seems like this has become common knowledge recently, with apps like Get Gratitude to help, as well as plenty of gratitude journals and daily planners featuring gratitude sections. My friend just launched a beautiful daily journal called Bloom Lovely that asks you a simple question every day to encourage reflection, alongside inspiring quotes to keep you focused on the important things in life. I love journaling, and am a big believer in the therapeutic power of writing and reflecting on your day.
This Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do when we find ourselves unable to focus on the positive, or when it feels like a big emotional strain to think of things that you feel grateful for—and I think I have the answer.
I’ve always thought of myself as an optimist, and prided myself on being able to make the best of a bad situation. Living through a rough few years, though, I’ve realised what it’s like for positivity to not always come naturally. It took me a while to accept that that was just the way that I felt and I couldn’t change it by giving myself a pep talk. Once I did accept this, though, I found a new way of injecting some colour back into my world that I think is pretty magical, and I would love to share with you.
Every day, I started trying to find one beautiful thing—whether that was a sight, a taste, a smell, or a sound—to write down in one short sentence at the end of the day in a simple pocket-sized notebook. One time it was a freckle on my daughter’s knee, then a flock of noisy seagulls as they flew low over a bridge in the bright afternoon sunlight, then the delicious taste of olives and a cold glass of Pinot Grigio.
I wasn’t trying to force myself to think of something that I felt grateful for. I certainly wasn’t trying to “think positive” or “look on the bright side”. In fact, the habit didn’t require anything of me at all, emotionally—all that was necessary was for me to observe the world around me more carefully, which was actually a pleasant way of distracting my mind from the things that made me feel blue.
Far too often, we try to hurry along our emotions, and force ourselves to deny or hide what we’re truly feeling or simply will ourselves to feel something different. But your emotions can’t be manipulated like that. If you don’t feel gratitude, or happiness, you can’t force that on yourself. What you can do, however, is change your mindset, and redirect your thoughts. We may not have a choice about how we feel, but we do have a choice about what we do, what we say, how we act.
The glorious thing about my habit of keeping a beauty journal (rather than a gratitude journal) is that while it only takes only a few minutes to do every evening, it has the power to completely transform my outlook for the entire day without forcing me to feel anything, one way or the other. In the back of my mind I’m always watching out for the magical moment that I would like to record; some days when the sky is grey I have to look a little harder to see something special in the quality of the light or to hear the beauty in the sound of rain drumming on windows, and other days I feel dizzy with the flood of beautiful details everywhere I turn. As Louisa May Alcott says in one of my favourite quotes, “It’s amazing how lovely common things become, if only one knows how to look at them.”
I’ve found that keeping what I call my beauty journal has started to create a habit of open and receptive watchfulness; it doesn’t even matter if I occasionally forget to write down my daily beautiful thing, because the habit is becoming a natural reflex.
When you think about trying to develop a more positive outlook on life, it can sometimes seem like an impossible task. But I’ve discovered that gratitude and happiness stem from living in the moment and simply observing the world around you. So if you’re ever feeling down, don’t try to force yourself to feel any other way—try simply looking out for one beautiful thing a day and see what happens.