Take in the good

Our brain has a built in negativity bias and that was probably a good think when we had to fight to survive.  Identifying threats quickly helped us survive. But we don’t really live in that world any longer despite historical and biological programming to respond more to negative stimuli.

Starting my gratitude list was a huge tilt for me toward taking in the good. Despite my general disposition to be positive and optimistic, I found myself focusing too much on what went wrong, what was difficult, what didn’t get done, and what I was missing in my life.  I was feeling pretty crappy about the state of my life even though “objectively” it was pretty good.

When I started practicing a daily gratitude list, I challenged myself to focus on just 5 things I was grateful for. Sometimes they were simple and seemingly small – the sound of my daughter’s laughter. Sometimes they were more complex and layered – gratitude for a difficult conversation with a colleague that aired tough issues. Some days all I could find to be grateful for were the basics on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – I had food in the fridge, a place to sleep that was warm and dry, running potable water, a healthy family.  Those days were often the days that I felt the least grateful for my life, but reducing it to the basics made me appreciate that (a) I live somewhere where I am not struggling for the basics and (b) I am not struggling to pay the rent and feed the kid. Put into perspective, life can’t help but feel better.

Research shows by programming your brain to focus on good experiences – not ignoring though parts, just changing the focus – you become more resilient, confident and happy. And feeling that, more capable in coping with the tough stuff. 


One of the practices that stuck from the workshop was a new way of thinking about gratitude. During the session the leader spoke to some teachings of Buddha. I might have this all wrong, but the teaching that stuck was that if you have a headache, be grateful you have a head.

I’m not why sure that was so profound, but it was.  I had this realization that I was pretty stuck in a BMW (bitching, moaning and whining) in my head – and maybe outside of my head too.  I felt like I needed to shift where I was spending my focus.  Like driving a car, I realized that as you steer the car in the direction your eyes go, then maybe the direction of your life is directed by whether you practice gratitude for the head, or BMWs for the headache.

I started a gratitude list on my facebook page. I committed that every day I would write five things that I was grateful for each and every day.  Some days the gratitude was easy. On other days, I reverted to the basic needs that were met in my life in appreciation that many people did not even have those with any sense of security. Some days my gratitude was for the roof over my head, the food in my fridge, the warm water in my shower, the general good health of my family members, and my comfy bed. Even writing that now, I feel deep gratitude for those deceptively simple things.

I learned that over time and I let the daily practice slip, I was crankier and less tolerant of things and people.  I was surprised to learn how much some people on my facebook friends list looked forward to the list. It touched me to learn that my gratitude list prompted others to start their own gratitude list in a myriad of different ways.  The spread of this simple practice was evident. 

The gratitude list was written solely for me. On the toughest days, it was often the most important to find the head in the headache and express gratitude for it.  But what I learned from practicing gratitude was that it had an impact on other people in my life. It shifted my focus and where I looked in my life.

I had yet to be consistent in meditation, but I was consistent in practicing gratitude. It felt like a good step in the right direction.