Gratitude. It’s the thing that makes all the difference. It’s the thing that makes the little things, the big things. It’s the thing that makes you realise how lucky you are to be alive. It’s the thing that makes you see the world through a different lens, one with clarity, appreciation, and noticing the small everyday pleasures.
Gratitude suggests a way of life in which you regularly focus on what is positive and less on what is negative, on what you can do rather than on what you can’t do, and on what you have rather than on what you don’t have.
From someone who didn’t really feel a deep sense of gratitude when I was healthy, to feeling an overwhelming gratitude for even the smallest things since I’ve become ill, it has got me thinking about why it often takes a dramatic illness or life-changing event to feel this deep sense of gratitude.
Knowing you should be grateful and truly feeling gratitude are two very different things. Just like how thinking about something you are grateful for is very different than actually feeling grateful for something. You may know you should feel grateful for having a roof over your head, or food at the table, but that doesn’t mean you actually feel gratitude for it. A lot of us might think and read about gratitude, but never really understand how to apply it to our life. Gratitude for some people simply doesn’t come naturally or easily. It is a very personal experience and so for each person it will differ in what they feel most grateful for and what is most important to them.
In order to actually feel gratitude, you have to dig deeper and reflect upon just how fortunate you are. You need to start asking questions such as, what does gratitude mean to me? What does it even feel like? Do I know how to recognise it? Here are some tips to help you discover what gratitude means to YOU:
You need to find your WHY – One of the easiest ways to feel a deep sense of gratitude for something and to keep on feeling gratitude for it, is if you have a big enough WHY. For example, if you want to feel grateful about being able to exercise, saying something such as “because it makes me look good”, depending on how important your appearance is to you, if it’s not a high priority then this WHY probably isn’t big enough for you. Instead, try and look a little deeper. Maybe your why is because not everyone is able to exercise, maybe you have a loved one who can’t or maybe at some point in your life you weren’t able to exercise, so being able to do this now is something so incredible. Or maybe it’s because exercise makes you feel so good, so the fact your body is able to do it AND it instantly makes you feel so good and happy on the inside is a big enough why for you. Or maybe it’s because exercise helps you to stay fit and therefore it enables you to keep up with your kids or friends and this brings you a lot of happiness. If you find something you are grateful for with a big enough WHY, then you’re going to feel that continuous sense of gratitude long-term.
Realise that you truly can’t take life for granted – I always reiterate the fact that no one knows what will happen in the future. I never knew I’d become so ill I couldn’t leave the house. People who are involved in accidents resulting in spinal cord injuries didn’t know that one day they may wake up and never be able to feel or use their legs again. Others didn’t know that loved ones would be taken from them too young. If you take something for granted, you don’t worry or think about it because you assume you will always have it. And yet all the things we take for granted every day are being taken away from someone in the world every second – the ability to walk, the ability to read, the ability to say “I love you” to a loved one. There’s a gratitude exercise which can help remind you not to take the everyday things for granted. The exercise entails imagining losing some of these things, such as your home, your ability to see or hear, your ability to walk, a loved one, or anything that currently gives you comfort. Imagine losing them and realising all the things you couldn’t do and how you would have to cope. Then slowly, imagine getting each of these things back, one by one, and consider how grateful you are to realise you can still do all those things.
Compare yourself to others – This may or may not work for you, but often by focusing on the suffering of other people it can really help you to realise just how lucky you are. But again, if you want to feel that long-term deep sense of gratitude, it needs to have a personal spin on it. Therefore, comparing yourself to the starving children in Africa may not necessarily make you feel a lasting gratitude for what you have now because it may be too general and simply not have enough personal connection to you, so maybe try something a little closer to home. For example, something I am grateful for every single day is not being bed bound. I sadly know people who have M.E. and can’t get out of bed, they can’t dress or feed themselves or even move, and that for me hits home as to just how lucky I am not to be that ill.
Play the what if game – If comparing your life to others as a way to feel grateful isn’t working for you, then try the what if game instead. For example, some people might go to the gym and think to themselves, “I should feel grateful for this because some people aren’t able to work out”, although this may give you some sense of gratitude, it might not give you a truly deep sense of gratitude. Instead, by playing the “what if” game, you might think to yourself, “There may be a time when I can no longer work out so I should make the most of this amazing ability while I can”.
Write a constant list of things you are grateful for each day – The only way you can truly know what you are grateful for is by stopping and taking the time to reflect. Getting a piece of paper and pen at the end of each day is the simplest way to delving deep and discovering what gratitude means to you. Mentally go through your day each evening and write down all the things you are grateful for as you go along. You may want to aim to think of a certain number of things each day, but something I often do instead is simply write a list of all the things I am grateful for until I run out, because as soon as I start writing a few things I realise just how many there are and I can end up filling a whole page. The things you write down can be as small as “clean sheets” or “candles”, to bigger more meaningful things such as “being able to use my legs to explore new places”, “living in a safe country where freedom is a given”, or “having a family who love and support me continuously, I don’t know where I’d be without them”.
Be mindful – Being mindful is actually one of the most effective ways to have a constant supply of gratitude, as you’ll always be noticing new things to be grateful for that you might not have even noticed. For example, the little things such as the morning sun on your face, your morning cup of tea that warms your body, the calm inducing glow of a candle light, the soft duvet against your skin… By being mindful you are pausing and taking the time to notice these things which you might have otherwise missed.
Write yourself a letter for the future – There’s no denying that writing your future self a letter may seem very weird, but the good news is you don’t have to share it with anyone. The purpose of this letter is to write about something you can’t do right now and explain how much you miss it and wish you could do it. The point of writing your future self this letter is it will help remind your future self how you felt in this moment when you couldn’t do it, so then when the day comes when you can do that thing again, reading the letter is a way to remind yourself never to take it for granted again. To explain this more clearly, here is a letter I wrote to my future self about not taking seeing friends or family for granted:
I’m writing you this letter for the future because I want you to remember this moment.
Right now you are lying in the garden staring at the beautiful summer sky.
You’re happy, you’re content, but you can hear the chatter and laughter of friends and family from nearby gardens and it reminds you how much you miss your own family and friends.
You don’t have the energy to see them right now and you haven’t for a long while, and this makes you feel sad.
You never considered seeing your friends and family as something that one day you wouldn’t be able to do.
You never knew that this thing you used to take for granted would be taken away from you.
You never saw it as something to be grateful for and appreciate.
So I’m here to remind you not to make the same mistake twice.
I’m also writing this letter to you because while travelling the world, meeting new people, and experiencing new things is something you constantly dream of and desire, if you had to pick one thing you could do right now, you really just want to spend the time with the people you love.
To be able to visit your brother and sister and see their hometowns, to see your grandparents and spend time with them, to chat endlessly to your best friend and go on adventures together blaring Hamilton out the car, to sit around the table for a family meal and to be together during holidays and birthdays, to have dinner parties and picnics with your girl group and join them on holiday.
This is what you want right now more than anything.
I want you to remember this, because while big adventures are amazing, and going off and catching up on your 20s is at the top of your list for things to do when you are better, as tempting as it may be to just get on the first plane out of here, if you were to fall ill again, or something happened to you and this was all you chose to do, you would regret it immensely.
Please don’t ever take being with loved ones for granted again.
Right now you miss them more than anything, so if in a few years you’re trying to figure out where to prioritise your energy and time, I hope this will help give you your answer.
Love E Xx”
Read memoirs – A different way to think about comparing yourself to others as a way to feel gratitude is by recognising that where you are born is a lottery. When I think about the fact that I was born in such a safe country and somewhere without extreme poverty, it reminds me just how privileged I am. The way I feel this particular sense of gratitude is through reading books, specifically memoirs. The reason memoirs are so powerful is because they allow you to become personally intertwined with the authors story meaning you can easily imagine yourself in their shoes and hence feel a deep sense of gratitude for what you have which they don’t. Here are some incredible memoirs that have completely changed my attitude and perspective as to making me realising how privileged I am to be born in a safe country:
I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai
Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, by Manal Al-Sharif
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park
The War on Women, by Sue Llyod-Roberts
I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity, by Izzeldin Abuelaish
Depending on your age, life experience and acceptance of mortality will influence what you find most important – Studies have shown that in general, the younger people are, the less they value time spent with people they are emotionally close to such as family, and the more they value time spent widening networks or friends and connections. When people reach the latter half of adulthood, however, their priorities change markedly. As your horizons contract, when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain, your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you. However, many studies have also shown that maybe what is most important to you isn’t to do with age per se and instead simply perspective – your personal sense of how finite your time in this world is. Those who have to contend with life’s fragility and those who don’t means your perspective on what is most important to you and what you are most grateful for will keep changing.