A few months ago, I made a resolution to practice gratitude daily so that it would become a habit and eventually, a way of life. I resolved that the way to truly find peace and happiness wasn’t to achieve something more but was to be present and grateful for what I did have. Mindfulness and gratitude, it seemed, were the surest way to this state of being.
I wanted my goal to be a short term and achievable goal, so I set out to spend a few minutes every day for 18 days writing down 3–5 things that I was grateful for. I read somewhere that the shortest amount of time that a habit can be formed is 18 days. I wanted my gratitude to be specific: instead of saying, I’m grateful for family, I wanted to pick one person to express gratitude for and reflect on specific things I loved about and was grateful for in them. I was confident in my plan- I felt that I could easily achieve what I set out to do and I had grand visions of coming out the other end of this exercise full of peace, wisdom and the will to continue on a lifelong gratitude journey.
At face value, I completely failed.
Let me explain. Like all resolutions, I started out strong. I started writing down my daily gratitude list in the morning before work. I was specific. I wrote down my gratitude for the ability to attend my niece’s end of year performance, for being able to have dinner with a friend when he was visiting for work, for a short evening walk with my boyfriend.
It didn’t take me much time and to be completely honest, I didn’t actually start feeling more grateful overall. It felt like a task that I had to check off. But my goal was time-bound so I stuck to it. Then one morning about a week in, I was running late in the morning and I forgot. No worries, I told myself, habits all take finessing. I decided before bed was the best time to do it because I always got into bed at night, so it would be something I could guarantee would happen. Using a sharpie, I wrote “GRATITUDE” in block letters on the backside of an envelope and placed it on my nightstand.
This worked too, at first. I even started to feel an effect, faint albeit, of my new habit. One evening when driving home after a long day, my mind wandered to the delicious self-pity mode that had become somewhat of a default. As I was listing things that were wrong with my life and that just weren’t fair, a small voice crept in, beckoning me to remember the things that were wonderful, that I was lucky to have, that I was grateful for every day. It was the smallest of voices and it didn’t completely get through to me, but it was definitely there. This, I thought, must be what practicing gratitude as a way of life feels like. I felt hooked. But then, life happened. One night I was so exhausted that I rolled into bed, forgetting my gratitude envelope. The next night, it didn’t feel worth it. I’d already fallen of the bandwagon twice. Gratitude be-damned, I had had a long day and wanted to watch Netflix. I had given up.
Then, about a big week later, on a lazy Saturday morning as I was putzing around the apartment with a coffee mug in hand, I paused. I had a few minutes to spare. I didn’t have anywhere to be. I sat down on the couch, opened my phone to the notes section where I had been previously writing down my daily gratitude list, wrote down the date and started a list. Again, it didn’t feel life changing. I didn’t feel like a new person. But it felt like something.
I haven’t started a daily list again. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But I have found myself, on occasion, in moments of still and in moments of chaos, either mentally or physically composing a list of things and people I am grateful for. For now, that seems like something.
The lesson I learned through this resolution exercise wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, but it feels significant nonetheless. See, I have realized that big proclamations are grand and they can be made in an instant, but they mean nothing in comparison to the small choices we make every day to try to stick to our resolutions, forgive ourselves when we don’t and most importantly, get back up once we’ve fallen off the bandwagon.
The fancy things, the list of resolutions, are things to be proud of, sure. To write on pretty paper and share with friends and hang on our fridge and heck even frame. But what can change our lives aren’t these resolutions. It isn’t setting them at all. It’s the ability to look ourselves straight in the face and say “you will not succeed in doing this every day. You will probably fall off the bandwagon more times than you would care to admit. But every time you do, you must resolve to be kind to yourself and get back on.” Life is not linear. We don’t make changes and forever forward stick to that path. There are so many roundabouts and wrong turns and yellow lights and red lights and, heck, full stop dead ends. The most important skill we can practice is not the ability to plan a route and stick to it, but the ability to learn how to re-route, how to know that you will not arrive on time. You might not even arrive in the same decade that you planned. But you will never, ever arrive if you decide to give up once your first set of directions fails you.
This year instead of resolving to be grandly different, I’m going to resolve to continue to take small steps that will add up to something bigger. And more importantly, to make sure I get back up every time I fall. And most importantly, to be kind to myself along the journey.