4 Things I Learned from 75 Weeks of Gratitude

Pack your bags, kids. We’re moving to Thailand because the Western world is going to shit and I can’t take it anymore.

  • We have fridges full of food but don’t know what to eat.
  • Yelp curates a list of nearby restaurants that offer cuisine from the rest of the planet. We’re already sick of all of it, so we opt for a good-old carb-and-fat combo at Hamburger Queen.
  • Then we go to Target to clean our greasy American hair and come out with random junk instead because the wall of products didn’t carry our favorite brand of shampoo. Don’t you know some people have to use real poo?! #firstworldproblems

But you know what, there’s so much we can appreciate in reality:

  • Locksmiths are a call away if you lock yourself out of your place at 8:30 PM (oddly specific).
  • Most of us have working bodies and that can take us anywhere.
  • We probably don’t suffer from burn injuries that constantly torment us all hours of the day. Or from constant nausea from a condition or medication.
  • If there’s a traffic jam, it means it’s such a desirable city that everyone wants to be there. Plus you can be productive even inside a car by listening to podcasts and audiobooks, walking your Pokemon egg, etc.
  • Some of us have siblings who we talk to twice a year but are happy to talk anytime we need advice.
  • The first world is more peaceful than it’s ever been (and collects taxes to provide infrastructure and services), so much so that we created an outrage culture to complain about trivial things.
  • It’s awesome that elevators don’t crash usually (N/A in China).
  • Global competition also means we can make friends globally.
  • We can tap into the thoughts of the rest of the world via the Internet (you’ll never run out of things to learn, but be wary of being influenced as well as overloaded with information).
  • We can share our thoughts with these very words.

You get the point.

And after recovering from a bold night of spicy Thai food, who doesn’t appreciate peaceful bowels that inspire the belief that life is worth living after all? (Never mind, kids, we’re staying.)

There are many things within our everyday events that we usually take for granted when we stop and think about it.

I realized this abundance of appreciation after doing an exercise that combined multiple concepts:

Below are 4 takeaways from doing this exercise for 75+ weeks, but first…

Background: The Weekly Exercise

On March 4, 2015, someone asked if we wanted to make a gratitude list with him. It was in a topic created by someone on an online forum. I had already been doing this in my head, but it was a good chance to actually write them down and keep track.

I started with 5 things, then came back every week. Over time, I grew it to 10 or more things a week. I’ll link you to my lists below.

To be specific, the exercise became this: Every Sunday, describe 10 things from the past week that I’m grateful for. I have a reminder set at 12:30; sometimes I don’t need it, and sometimes I can’t do it exactly at that time since other things will come up.

If you’re considering trying this, it helps to say why you’re grateful for a particular thing. If you articulate your reasons and are specific, it allows you to look back and remember why you were thankful for those things (as I did while creating my compiled lists).

Or you could try something else, like journaling or meditating — whatever you think will bring positive change to your life.

My lists also included what kind of kind deeds, if any, I’d done over the given week. This was inspired by the quote, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” Did I live only for myself or did I help other people (as long as they wanted it)?

More importantly, my lists usually described different things every week. They avoided generic flowery feely weely kumbaya nondescripts like ~family, friends, job, house, my wife~

Why?

Simply identifying general constants in your life is too easy so as to make the exercise meaningless.

But that’s not to say you’re doing it wrong if you do it your own way or think the whole thing is useless. Everyone faces temptation to disregard things that are perceived as low value. It’s heuristics. (And then there’s people like me who read every email and categorize them and not have time to enjoy their free time. The line appears to be extremely thin.)

In our case of gratitude, the fact is that most people do stop after writing one generic list—the equivalent of throwing a “like” at an Internet motivational poster as compensation for a spike of good feelz.

What would be the point of that? Is it for a grateful life, or is it just another recreational Thanksgiving moment (like the day before people scramble over one another to get the same deals you can find online)?

So although being prompted from someone else was a good initial motivator, I wanted to see for myself the power of habitual gratitude, if there was any. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from this exercise. Perhaps I was just doing it for its own sake without trying to force a result, like a journal. I only happened to observe lessons afterward.

Fortunately, for your benefit and preference toward immediate gratification, I’m here to curate a list of lessons acquired over 75+ weeks of doing this. I’ve also put together my actual weekly lists here (just so you know I’m not bullshitting you), edited to sanitize any sensitive information and to fix typos. See how they evolve. Please ignore any awkward phrasings since they were mostly notes to myself.

This a long piece, so you can always close out if you’re Too Busy to take 15 minutes to possibly learn something useful.

Otherwise, let’s see what happens when we search for things that make you say “thank you.”

Here are 4 things I learned from 75+ weeks of gratitude…


1. Gratitude becomes the norm—and creates free energy.

I finished a strategy call with a supervisor at work and said “thank you very much for your time” without even thinking about it. She laughed and said “you’re welcome.” Oops!

I say thanks to every reader who emails me. Thanks for your note, your comment, your question. Thanks for telling me I helped. Thanks for relying on me. Thanks for sharing your story.

I say thanks to customer support. They help answer questions, and I don’t think anyone treats them all that well. One time our call disconnected after my problem was solved. Should I call back for closure or no? I ended up calling her back to say I really appreciated her help for finally resolving an ongoing issue. I felt awkward, but I also felt it was the right thing to do.

I even appreciated the times when it felt like I was the one serving this Gumroad customer support representative. I appreciate any help I can get since I’m the one who needs to know. Thanks for telling me you can’t do it. It frees up my attention, and now I don’t have to ask you about it anymore.

I don’t know why greed is one of the seven sins, but I guess it’s supposed to be a good thing that I became less greedy about expectations. James Altucher says that the fewer expectations you have, the happier you are. Tony Robbins says to “trade your expectations for appreciation.”

So gratitude became part of my state of mind. There’s evidence of neuroplasticity; that is, as your mind changes, your brain changes. Behavioral change happened right in front (or behind) my eyes as I found myself thanking people and giving them the benefit of the doubt more often.

“[I]f you aren’t feeling grateful and calm on a regular basis, then you will be anxious and it will be harder to come up with ideas.” — James Altucher, The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth

It seems like gratitude doesn’t cost anything and brings abundance and empathy instead. Appreciation creates abundance in both myself and others. It’s free energy!

2. Consistent follow-through is a superpower with disproportionate results.

The scariest thing about hunters is that they never stop tracking and following their prey—until the prey gives up from exhaustion.

In the forum topic where I wrote that weekly list, no more than a few people posted more than once. In Facebook posts calling for people to write about what they’re grateful for, people leave a few things and dust off their hands until the next time inspiration falls from the sky.

On the other hand, I was able to take at least 10 minutes (sometimes fewer than 10, sometimes more than 20) to write something every week for more than 75 weeks. It was something that appeared useless for the first half of it (more on it in point 3 below).

That’s at least 12.5 hours of appreciation over a year and a half so far. How did I do it?

I used the power of habits. It’s compound interest. Habit evidence is more powerful in court than character evidence. Apparently, everything we do is a product of habits that we’ve learned since being born.

Let’s be real for a moment here. Just because you read this article doesn’t mean you’re going to do any of this for the long term, although I will give you some first steps at the end. I’m most likely just entertaining your brain.

That’s why if you’re interested, start with the smallest baby step. For instance, take just a minute to come up with one detailed statement of gratitude. Ramp it up over time like I did.

Eventually, just the fact that it was Sunday (or that Sunday was coming) triggered an automatic reminder in me to write that list. Although habits are powerful, sometimes life happens. It was a good idea to place a recurring reminder on my Google Calendar to help maintain and enforce the habit.

That’s great and all, but at the end of the day, it’s also about discipline and consistency. Motivation is a spark that starts the reaction but is unreliable and insufficient by itself over the longer term. (This goes for anything you want to accomplish, whether you want to get used to studying all day for months for important exams, to stick to a new theme or goal, or to change your mindset.)

Yes, it takes some conscious effort in the beginning to overcome the initial hump to start new habits. It’s understandable if you just don’t feel like it on a given day. You’re tired, busy, or not in a situation to think of gratitude (which BTW is precisely a reason to sit down and do the exercise).

But think of the long-term consequences of a slippery slope, where if you skip “just one time,” what’s stopping you from skipping the next week or skipping any week? It’s risky. On the other hand, a habit becomes etched into you. It becomes a chain you can’t break (a la the Seinfeld method), and you might even look forward to it after a while.

It’s about consistency of small actions over time. I actually don’t expect most people to have it in them to act on their thoughts. It’s not an insult, just an empirical observation.

In fact, when it comes to trying a different thing that might change their lives, I’ve noticed that fewer than 1% of people consistently follow through. Others cycle through or abandon their goals, promises, and plans—big or small—based on whims and distractions. Some are too addicted to novelty and need their neverending loops of daily minutiae. Or simply, it’s too troublesome.

That’s OK. For most of us, there’s always something else that’s a higher priority over a given thing, even over things that require a very low time investment or effort. Priorities can change. Or you don’t care for it. Or maybe you find that it’s just not right for you, like running (this and the cult around it, I could never get used to) or cold showers.

That’s one reason the health (i.e., fat loss) industry will never die when 80% of problems can be mitigated simply by consistently eating real food, eating less in general, and moving more. It’s simple but easier said than done.

We all know what we should do, but nodding along vs. doing are totally different things. For example, I could—and do—review my notes on speaking skills every week, but I find myself falling back to old habits (breaking eye contact, speaking too fast, rambling, etc.) in real situations. To see changes, I suspect that I need to go out and emotionally chisel these mistakes into my soul instead of merely relying on knowledge (as many people tend to do).

Have you ever had an idea for something, got started excitedly, and it petered away in a couple weeks? Or told someone you’d do something or get back to them on it and went radio silent?

What we need is to put in enough activation energy to get to that place where we need to be. And it’s hard to do something consistently until that initial friction is overcome and we can start coasting.

Following through isn’t always so easy, but it is also the greatest lifehack that delivers highly disproportionate results.

(I said “lifehack” as bait for you to keep reading. Deal with it.)

As Ramit Sethi likes to say about his principle of disproportionate results, you can get 5x the results of ordinary people if you put in 2x the work. I’ve seen this “fat tail” effect (introduced to me by Taylor Pearson) play out in my own life many times.

What do you potentially give up if you don’t?

I’ve been running a website to help people prepare for a very difficult and high-stakes exam. When people pass, they are overcome with joy and passion. Sometimes, they want to do something similar to what I do. Inspiration has struck them from the heavens.

It’s a dopamine bomb. They’ll entertain the thought of starting a noble mission to share their thoughts with the world but inevitably never do it. They’ll start posting tips for a while or even register a domain name. Then the high wears off. I’ve seen this repeatedly in the past three years.

One person went so far as to ask me about how I got started. He then started his own tutoring website even after I warned him in gruesome detail about the time and effort required (at least for me) and how people end up quitting their new project.

Awesome, I thought, someone who actually has grit.

He then asked me to promote him because it “would definitely help [him] out.” I asked him to give me some ideas and outlines for a guest article. I liked his idea and asked for a draft to publish. Sounds great, he said.

It’s been over 3 months of silence. I had hope (despite his self-interested request), but now I can’t promote him, at least not until he follows up and delivers on his own.

Did you notice, though? All he had to do was send an article, and he could have had access to my readers and potentially referrals worth thousands of dollars (based on the offerings listed on his website). Just ONE article… for THOUSANDS!

You never know what you could accomplish if you simply do what you say you would do. The common traits of readers who end up reporting back to me with their success story are (1) being specific about their problem and (2) taking action.

Writing a weekly list of 10 gratitudes doesn’t seem like much. Yet how many can say they’ve done it consistently? Every time my brain sweats to come up with that last item on the list, I prove to myself that I can do anything if I stay the course with baby steps. A few minutes of discomfort for a rich reflection. Being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing.

At its core, doing what you said you’ll do is an exceedingly simple concept. But it’s so rare to see this being done consistently! If you do this, you’ll stand out immediately (in fact, charisma expert Felicia Spahr has said the same thing). You’ll be above your peers or competitors who don’t even show up.

Even this article is a product of follow-through. I told a stranger I was writing an article. She told me to post it. I said I will when it’s done. That was almost 6 months ago.

I don’t know what will happen if I post this article. At the same time, I never know what will sprout from this mystery seed I’m planting.

There’s something magical about the powers of consistency and sincerity. For everything worthwhile in life, you have to play the long game. I always noticed that thoughtful consistency was important if I wanted something to happen.

What could you accomplish instead if you set aside some time every so often working on an endeavor or learning about it? Or got that conversation started with someone you admire?

You could be persistent and get your goals off the ground, whatever they may be.

If you don’t want to, that’s fine too. You set your own priorities in life.

3. Mind follows action.

Even if I was having a bad day, if I did this exercise, I couldn’t help but feel better.

Was it a sense of accomplishment? Or the fact that I solved a difficult gratitude problem?

According to Eric Barker, if you make the positive more salient to your left brain (which is reactive and emotional), you become more convinced that’s “how life is.” And a “do good, be good” approach revises your own self-perception about what kind of person you are (e.g., those who volunteer often come to view themselves as caring, helpful people).

So whatever action you take reshapes how your mind thinks and feels. It turns out, however, worthwhile benefits come later like many things in life.

For me, it took about 32 weeks to see a definite change in how I appeared to be a positive person (see Week 32 in my lists to see what exactly my acquaintance noticed about me).

Also, this exercise does make gratitude easier and thus more frequent. If you’re used to doing 10 at a time, you’re able to flip any situation you want into a positive one (James Altucher’s concept of an idea muscle appears to hold water).

Beware that it could work TOO well…

  • You might have road calmness instead of road rage. Your passengers will be angry instead, and it will feel like you were the one who made them angry for not being angry.
  • Your inert calmness might appear like apathy or being a pushover, but you simply have a different point of view.
  • You might even seem like an unbiased weirdo or an unfeeling robot in response to things that should typically arouse empathy. That’s probably true only if you’re like me and don’t normally show emotions.

By the way, appreciation is not forgiveness. Gratitude isn’t necessarily entirely positively motivated. You can, for instance, give due thanks to someone who has wronged you or focus on a positive aspect arising out of the wrongdoing. However, that doesn’t mean all is forgiven (see, for example, Week 68 in my lists).

4. I became more reflective.

We often react to something, whether positively or negatively, and then those feelings inevitably evaporate some time later. Resolutions made for the new year born out of a burst of motivation are often forgotten within the same month. We’re overcome with appreciation or malice that comes with a half-life. We pay a premium for a new toy, then forget about the price and the toy.

Having a way to remember these feelings lets you selectively reap the positivity over and over.

Tim Ferriss says in his “25 Great Things I Learned from Podcast Guests in 2015” podcast episode (starting at 36:20) that a retrospective is more important than setting resolutions for the year ahead. His retrospective includes an assessment of what did you do right or wrong or what could have been better.

Every week gave me an opportunity to stop and savor a small moment out of my week to reflect on what happened over the week prior. At first, it seemed like a weird activity, perhaps a chore at times. I mean, those 10 minutes could have been spent watching a recommended video on YouTube!

You know what, though… Even though 10–20 minutes a week sound like a lot in our busy schedules, looking back, I don’t think I regret all these weeks spent.

Not only does completing a list for the nth week in a row feel like an accomplishment (even small accomplishments, over many repetitions, can be celebrated), it let me be mindful and deliberate about not taking things for granted and not forgetting the things I was grateful for.

It even works in more immediate, short-term situations: Whenever I get negative thoughts, instead of steaming over it (for too long, anyway), I tend to float toward, “What’s really happening? How can this actually be something to appreciate?”

Sometimes it’s hard. A positive aspect in a situation is not always immediately apparent.

But the mere act of searching for positivity, at the least, serves as a distraction. It directs you away from reasons why you should be annoyed, angry, sad, etc.

Jordan Harbinger says that “events themselves are actually neutral. They’re only our perceptions, interpretations, and reactions that color these events, and with practice, those are the things that we can actually control.”

This kind of reappraisal is something we can use to our advantage. It’s freeing to know that I’m personally responsible for what happens to me and how I feel.

Moreover, looking back on a previous entry (usually accidentally) served as a great reminder of things I was grateful for in the past. If I was grateful for something before, I should still be grateful for it later. Whenever I happened to stumble upon a previous entry, it was an extra boost to my positivity.

Again, it was an opportunity to savor a reflective moment. Savoring indicated to me that the time spent every week was just as valid as spending time on any other weirdo activities people do like “watching the game” or “traveling” or “waiting in line for an hour to eat at that overpriced brunch place.”

If you want to see more tangible byproducts of gratitude after you savor it, women’s dating coach Sally Kathryn suggests that there is a critical second layer to gratitude logging—following your alleged gratitude with action (follow through!):

“If you are just journalling about gratitude, you’re doing half the work in my opinion. . . . Here’s an example: I’m grateful for my ability to learn. Now if you wrote that in your journal today, why don’t you also decide to set an intention to learn something new and read for 30 mins today? You’ve just expanded your mind in some way today while showing gratitude for your mind.” (Her response in her FB group after I asked for clarification on the video)

Now you’ve created more things to be grateful about.

5. Conclusion

Whew, you’re still reading? Let’s summarize what we can take away from my gratitude exercise:

  1. Gratitude becomes the norm. This creates free positive energy all around.
  2. Practicing consistent follow-through (acting on what you say) can get you several steps ahead. Habit helps with consistency.
  3. Mind follows action. Do a thing to feel the thing.
  4. Use retrospection to savor the moment, selectively recall what you take for granted, and identify next steps.

What you can do starting today: Write just one thing you’re grateful about. This might be easy, or you might struggle given your current situation. If you have trouble writing one thing, try to write two things.

Baby steps. Whatever you’re inspired to do, remember to be consistent. Decide to try it for a set amount of time and see what happens.

“This is all too much. You’re expecting too much of me, so I’m not going to do any of this.”

That’s totally fine. I’m only here to divulge what I found out from my gratitude exercise.

Just pretend you never read any of this and continue doing the same things you’ve always done. There is a 99% chance that this will have happened anyway. I also have things that I decide aren’t right for me after trying them for a few weeks.

No shame or excuses needed. There is a universal, ultimate excuse that people use to blunt their disappointment: “You’re human. It’s only human to do that.” I don’t see what being a human has anything to do with it, but it sounds pretty convincing.

As for me, I found this exercise so interesting that I’m going to do it indefinitely until further notice to myself, barring some other overriding reason like a huge life event or “gratitude is bad, according to research” or someone giving me permission to stop.

Thank you for reading. Will you be the kind of human who wants to see positive life changes? Only way to find out is to try it yourself.

Brian (@hahnbriant) has no email opt-in form for you to deal with today because his work is not directly related to what he wrote above. However, he would be grateful if you clicked the green heart, left a comment, and shared this article with just one person who would find it interesting.