When I was a fifth-grader, I overheard some kid in my French class say that I was one of the most pessimistic people he knew. Not really a compliment for a person of any age.
But I guess his assessment was, in many ways, true. My chosen reaction — and perhaps a common one — to living in an uncertain world has often been anxiety and fear, culminating in constantly expecting the worst.
I recently became determined to permanently reverse this mindset. I enrolled in a DeCal about positive psychology — the study of what brings happiness and meaning in life.
In one of the first lectures, our instructor encouraged us to begin writing in a gratitude journal. The results of gratitude journaling have been studied extensively by the UC Davis Emmons Lab. Researchers found that those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis experienced a host of benefits:
- They exercised more regularly.
- They reported fewer physical symptoms.
- They experienced better sleep quality and duration.
- They felt a greater sense of connection to others.
- They were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals.
- They had higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy.
- They felt better about their lives as a whole.
Jason Marsh, director of programs at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, simply defines the practice as writing down things for which we’re grateful. This can be done on a daily, weekly, monthly or anything-in-between-ly basis, incorporating anywhere from one to 100 things they’ve experienced recently that they’re grateful for.
“The entries are supposed to be brief — just a single sentence — and they range from the mundane (‘waking up this morning’) to the sublime (‘the generosity of friends’) to the timeless (‘the Rolling Stones’),” Marsh said.
Excited by these findings, I’ve kept my own gratitude journal for the past month. Before going to sleep, I write down three things I’m grateful for.
The first night I wrote in my journal, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of unbridled joy. Reflecting on the infinite number of things to be grateful for, I was almost frustrated that I’d limited myself to writing only three.
Each night that followed, I continued to experience these positive emotions — but never to the extent of that first night. I did, however, begin to notice long-term effects.
Comparing who I am today with who I was in early February, I’ve realized that I’ve experienced all of the social, psychological, and physical benefits the researchers listed, along with several more.
Notably, I feel more confident, optimistic and friendly. I think this is partly because people seem less scary to me than they used to. Football players, mind-blowing professors and student government leaders don’t intimidate me as much anymore. I find myself starting conversations with people I used to avoid eye contact with, because I now believe that we can both learn from each other.
Psychologically, I’m transitioning from a fixed to a growth mindset; I no longer see setbacks as inevitable failures but rather as opportunities for self-improvement.
For instance, last week, I received a grade on my paper that was lower than hoped for. In the past, this would have signified inferior intelligence or subpar writing capabilities. Now, however, it indicated to me that I’m doing well and that I can learn to do even better.
Tonight, as I read through the more than 30 entries of my journal, reflecting on just some of the hundreds of thousands of things I had to be grateful for, I felt overcome by the same delight and happiness of the first night.
Entries ranged from the abstract (“expression of honest emotions”) to the concrete (“technology that allows me to talk to my grandmother all the way in Iran”), the external (“the nighttime sky and feeling like I could swim into it”) to the internal (“becoming closer to the person I want to be”), the lighthearted (“friends who stay up with you until 6 a.m. writing English papers”) to the philosophical (“that love exists in the world”) — all extraordinary in retrospect.
Eventually, I noticed patterns emerge. Several items showed up repeatedly throughout the journal, ranging from the “human ability to endure and overcome” to “making and sustaining connections with people.”
I also noticed interspersed entries regarding my personal growth, including “the opportunity to be challenged intellectually at a top-tier university,” “ability to change my circumstances and situation,” “learning to speak up for myself,” “making mistakes so that I can grow from them,” and “feeling comfortable in my own skin.”
Tonight, rather than write in my journal, I’ll share three things I’m grateful for here:
- My meditation class, which reminded me today of the power of mindfulness — of recognizing that I am alive with each inhalation and exhalation
- The diversity of people in the world when considering the astonishing fact that we’re all 99.9 percent genetically the same
- The opportunity to share my thoughts with a public audience through writing and the capacity of both writing and reading to momentarily take us away from reality so that we may return to and live within it with greater understanding
Negin Shahiar is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]