It was a business coach called Nicole McAuliffe that first introduced to me the idea of gratitude being an intentional, daily and ritualised act. I’m not sure why she suggested it, but perhaps I was in the middle of an emotional crisis or depressive slump. (Again.) Whatever the circumstances, I’m so very, very grateful for her foresight.
Prior to my Gratitude Makeover, I had just started an honours degree (in professional writing), had my own freelance writing and editing business, taught part-time at Box Hill Tafe, and ran an eleven-piece household with my husband Steve (his six, my three). I’d bitten off a man-sized chunk of life.
I needed clarity, focus, discipline, and loads of encouragement to maintain a healthy relationship with my husband, cope with the challenges of a large blended family, sustain my editing and teaching, and conquer academia.
This is when I stumbled across Nicole. The year was 2004.
At some point in our monthly coaching interactions, Nicole spoke to me of the benefits of writing down – at the end of each day – three things I was grateful for. This simple act was supposed to give me some perspective, enabling me to look back over my day with optimism, rather than with my well-worn pessimistic brush-stroke.
I love the crispy-clean smell of a new journal, with its smooth-cut rounded corners and its feint watermarked lines. And the pen must be just right: not too fine a nib, comfortable to grip, smooth-gliding, and something my hand enjoys holding.
Opening page, in highlighter pink: THINGS I AM GRATEFUL FOR. I was ready to write and roll. Thus began my nightly ritual of The Three Things.
I wrote Three Things the next night, and then the next, the next and the next. After a few weeks, I noticed I was getting bored with the process. I’d hit Gratitude Block. I was just going through the motions and one night even wrote ‘ditto ditto ditto’. I also didn’t know what to write on the nights I felt – wait for it – ungrateful. So I missed a night now and again. And another night, and another… until I’d stopped the ritual altogether. (Ritual? You call that a ritual? A half-baked attempt over a few weeks? How about ‘whimsy’?)
My gratitude journal went into the bottom drawer, my pen in the top.
Houston, I had a problem. And the problem was this: I truly wanted to be grateful. I wanted to have an open heart. I wanted to see those clouds with silver linings my husband was so good at spotting. But writing it down, night after night, just didn’t work for me.
Nicole is a good coach. Recognising my resistance, she introduced me to positive psychology, namely, the works of Martin Seligman (whose books include: Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, Flourish et al) and his research and studies on Signature Strengths. Nicole then had me do an on-line questionnaire on my strengths. This showed me my top five – out of 24 – universal strengths.
Being the eternal pessimist, the first thing I asked when I saw the results was, ‘Yes Nicole, but what about my weaknesses?’ I’d grown up believing there was something wrong with me, and it was my purpose in life to constantly fix and improve my broken bits.
Nicole said (rather gently; she’s like that): ‘This is a report on your strengths, not your weaknesses. There are no weaknesses here.’
No weaknesses? Shut up! Get out! But I’m full of them!
She smiled. (Told you she was good.)
Needless to say, this questionnaire had a huge impact on me. It made me see myself in a different light. I’d flipped the venetian blinds the other way: same view, different perspective. ‘This is who I am’ came through loud and clear when I looked at my top five strengths. These are: Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, Humour and Playfulness, Curiosity, Love of Learning and, wait for it – drumroll – GRATITUDE!
What a leap this was. It turns out I am a very grateful person. Very, very grateful. And I enjoy being grateful. I just hadn’t found a way to express it yet. Seeing gratitude as one of my strengths gave me impetus to once again establish a daily ritual of being consciously, intentionally grateful, which I did from that day forward.
However, this time I did it my way. Given my mornings begin with yoga and meditation, it seemed opportune to start my day – rather than end it – with gratitude, and tag it onto a routine I already had in place. And instead of writing down things I was grateful for, I spoke them. It was a better fit and set the tone for my day.
On a good day, the gratitude rolls out easily: I am grateful for being born in this time, and this place, for never going hungry or thirsty, for always being warm or cool, for a car that works, for the kindness of others, for music, for the internet, for birdsong, for laughter, for afternoon’s golden light. For family, friends, teachers. For books. Stories. Humankind. The list, on these days, is long.
On a bad day, I squeeze out a snappy ‘grateful for my yoga mat’. But no matter how lousy I feel, I can always find something – anything – to be grateful for.
Even if it’s for gratitude itself, of which I am very, very grateful.
Note: Nicole’s website: www.creativeconnections.com.au
To do a free on-line strengths questionnaire: www.viacharacter.org