My one-year morning gratitude experiment
Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted to start a homestead. Oh, how satisfied and happy she thought she would be.
Until one day she moved to a farm. Only to realize that, in fact, she wanted more. She didn’t just want to homestead, she wanted to start a blog and learn 52 homesteading skills in one year. And then oh, how satisfied and happy she would be.
So, she started writing. Only to discover herself thinking how nice it would be to grow the farm, get more animals, and write a book. And then oh, how …
Wait a second?
It took me a while to catch on (I’m a little slow) but I finally realized that I’m living with a little happiness-sucking gremlin. His name is “hedonic adaption”.
“The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations, and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.” – Wikipedia
Maybe you are too. Have you ever thought: I will be happy when (fill in the blank ie: find the right person, promotion, earn $X amount of money, achieve my homesteading dreams, retire)
I’ve been chasing “satisfied me” my entire life and every time I think I’m about to finally reach her, the hedonic adaptation gremlin grabs her arm and skips away to a new point in time.
Many years ago I read the book, “How to get from where you are to where you want to be” in preparation for an interview with the author, Jack Canfield (you may know him as the co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Souls book series).
It was a great motivational read, but I couldn’t help wondering: “What about the people who are happy with what they have?”
Mr. Canfield admitted it was possible (he mentioned Buddhist monks), but that most people want more.
I thought he was right. I love setting goals and then testing myself as I try and climb up the next exciting peak to a new adventure. This, as it turns out, can be a positive trait.
“We know that people are happiest when they’re appropriately challenged—when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach,” says Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness.
The problem is that I always discover more “fun” challenges and off I go on my incessant chase, which, if I’m not careful, can leave me feeling depressed and exhausted at the end of the day.
But what if I was on to something in that interview all those years ago? What would happen if I consciously made an effort every day to truly enjoy the journey. To take pleasure in whatever I have right NOW which, I should point out, just so happens to be the things I was wishing for not that long ago.
The Morning Gratitude Experiment Begins
I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at gratitude.
I go from bringing the kids to the school bus in the morning to collecting eggs from the coop and bringing water to the sheep – often without ever stopping for a second to think how nice it is to have that time with the kids, how lucky I am to have fresh eggs or how much fun it is to own a few smiling sheep.
Instead, I might complain about the cold as I walk to the bus. I might get annoyed at the chickens for laying their eggs under the ramp, which means hunting for them on my hands and knees on the floor of the poopy chicken coop. Or I might question my life as I pick burrs out of the sheep’s wool because they somehow tangled themselves in another patch of the annoying stuff.
It’s not that I never appreciated all that I have. I know I am extremely fortunate! But I certainly was not giving thanks often enough.
So, at the beginning of this pandemic when I was feeling particularly low, I decided this was the ideal time to make more of an effort to consciously focus on the good (read: ordinary) things in my life whether that was sipping a large mug of foamy hot chocolate or listening to the sound of my goofy kids’ laughing. Instead of letting these moments pass by without much thought, I took the time to really savour them and think to myself as the author, Kurt Vonnegut, says:
Since the pandemic hit, every morning I’ve written three different things I’m grateful for every day. It may sound a little woo-woo, but I can honestly say that this one minuscule, 5 minute action (or longer depending on how grateful I’m feeling at that particular moment) has made a huge difference in my life over the past year.
Are the Touted Benefits of a Morning Gratitude Practice True?
Gratitude increases mental strength
It turns out that a pandemic may be the best time to start a morning gratitude practice. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – especially during the worst times of your life supposedly fosters resilience.
For example, highly grateful Vietnam War Veterans experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to this 2006 study. Gratitude was also a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11, according to research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
My results: Being grateful has forced my brain to remember there is still so much to be thankful for each and every day despite the never-ending anxiety-inducing media reports and the real-life tragedies of a pandemic. PS. It also helps if you don’t watch/read the news (or at least limit the amount you take in).
Gratitude improves relationships
It turns out that you can not only get used to things but people too. Of course, I personally have never nagged my partner about leaving his towels on the bathroom floor or leaving his tools scattered in random places throughout the house. I always appreciate everything he does for our family and I constantly say thank you. You believe me, right? No? OK, so maybe I can be a little naggy at times. Maybe I learned a lot from this new gratitude habit. I think you will too because this is not just my experience.
In this study, couples who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationships.
In fact, everyone around you will benefit from your new morning gratitude practice. Here’s why. Many days I found myself writing things like:
I am thankful for…
- Jack (my 7-year-old son) for making me laugh at myself as I try my best to copy the movements of my online pilates class instructor (apparently it’s very funny to watch me try and bend and contort myself into ridiculous positions).
- Jeremie for staying up past midnight to help me edit my video for the Mother Earth News Fair.
- Ella (my daughter) for feeding the sheep this morning.
- My mom for making me the most delicious gluten-free squares.
- My friend Isabelle for inviting us over to swim in her pool (during the yellow phase of Covid-19 when we could still do fun things like this).
- A nice comment a reader left on my blog post.
The more I wrote, the more grateful I became for all the amazing and caring people in my life. And guess what? The more grateful I became, the more I expressed this. And how did that make the other person feel? I actually have no idea. But I’m guessing they felt happier and more positive too.
It’s like doubling your income
Sadly, I didn’t double my income over the past year. But the happiness boost injected into my everyday life may have been equivalent. (P.S. If you already earn $75,000, more money will not result in more happiness, according to the experts.)
Skeptical? Doubling your income will improve your happiness levels by 10 percent, according to this study from the American Psychology Association. But participants in this study who kept a weekly morning gratitude journal showed a 15 percent increase in optimism. Let’s hear it for gratitude! The theory is if you believe your everyday life to be positive, you will also believe your future to be just as awesome. Of course, when we are feeling optimistic, we are also likely feeling happy.
My results: Let’s be honest. It would have been really nice to have doubled my income. But my happiness levels did increase. I can’t say exactly how much. I do know it’s waaaaay too easy to get used to whatever you have and to start wanting more or a better version. Being grateful has helped me fight my hedonic adaption monster but it is a skill I continually have to work at.
Say goodbye to feelings of envy and insecurity
Envy can be positive. Sometimes it can be used as a beacon to point you to what you want to have or achieve in life. For example, I often feel envious when I see photos on Instagram of cupboards full of preserves. Yes, you read that right. Some people may envy gorgeous bodies, beautiful homes, or happy couples frolicking on beaches. But all that is lost on me. I get canned goods envy.
Of course, envy and insecurity can have dark sides. The goods news is you can’t feel envy and gratitude at the same time. So, instead of being jealous of all those canned goods, I say a silent thank you for inspiring me to get busy planning next year’s harvest and hopefully jars and jars of preserves, which I will definitely post on Instagram.
Counting your blessings is better than counting sheep
Next time you can’t sleep, start thinking of the people and things you are most grateful for. If you’re being thankful, you’re not worrying or stressing about work, the kids, or your mile-long to-do list.
My results: I’m usually too exhausted by the end of the day to have trouble falling asleep. But we do have a household rule that we don’t discuss any potentially stressful matters in the hour before bed.
There is a good chance that if you focus on gratitude, you will end up spending less time chasing money and achievements. Instead, you will find yourself spending more time with friends and family and pursuing your passions. If that’s not your jam, don’t practice gratitude.
Your smile lines may deepen
If your mind is busy feeling grateful for a kind word or your favourite pair of woolly socks, it will be difficult for your brain to also ruminate on whatever might not be going well in the moment. Giving thanks shifts your focus to the smile-worthy!
How to start a morning gratitude practice
Set aside 5 minutes
Five minutes of gratitude is all it takes to increase your happiness and the more often you do it, the bigger the boost. I can’t think of a better investment of my time.
Nowadays, I don’t need to set time aside although I still do. But if you can’t, simply make a point of noticing opportunities to be thankful throughout the day.
Don’t expect overnight success
It takes between 4 to 12 weeks of consistently practicing gratitude before you will see any mental health benefits, according to the John Templeton Foundation Expanding Gratitude Project. So be patient. This is a new skill you’re learning. You are training your brain to remember to be grateful. If you’re terrible at gratitude like me, this won’t be easy. But over time, you will start giving thanks throughout the day without even having to think about it.
Make gratitude a habit
Pick a time every day to sit down and write at least three things you are grateful for or, if you are a meditator, why not try focusing on what you’re grateful for in your next session? The important thing is that you take a few minutes every day to actually feel grateful, which brings me to the next point.
Don’t just write. Feel grateful.
You can’t just chuck a few nice things on paper and expect to see results from your morning gratitude practice. They have to be authentic. You have to actually feel grateful for what you are expressing. It helps if you are specific when you are writing. So, for example, instead of “I’m thankful for my husband”, I’ll write: “I’m thankful for Jeremie for taking the time to massage my feet at the end of the day even when he’s tired.”
Try thinking about the people, places, things, and activities you are thankful for and how much you’d miss them if they were gone. If you start to run out of ideas, here are some great journal prompt ideas.
I didn’t think a morning gratitude practice would work either…
To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for my morning gratitude practice when I started last year. It sounded absolutely ridiculous that something so small could make much of a difference. But I needed help! Desperate COVID times called for desperate COVID measures. So I ordered a fancy-schmancy gratitude journal (not necessary) and began to write.
On top of writing, I also took time to savour some of the simple things in my life based on advice from the most popular Yale University Course – The Science of Well-Being. Combined (gratitude and savouring), can give depression a powerful one-two punch.
So, what is savouring? Basically, taking the time to appreciate experiences in our lives. It may be as simple as an excellent singing session in the shower, a walk in the fresh air, or a particularly delicious meal. Take a second and capture the moment in your mind (and/or with your camera – maybe not if you are in the shower) and think about how lucky you are to have those experiences. Then share them with another person for bonus happiness points.
The astonishing result: A morning gratitude practice is life-changing!
Over the past year, I discovered something about myself. I’m not (or at least I wasn’t) a very grateful person. I took A LOT for granted.
Not only do I get used to bad things that happen in my life but the good too. And I don’t want to take my husband or my kids for granted. I don’t want to take chocolate, sunsets or the funny sounds my sheep make when they baaaaaa at me to hurry and feed them in the morning for granted. I don’t even want to take my two functioning legs for granted.
But the truth is. I still can’t say I am thankful for everything all the time. But I am 100% appreciating my life much more than I used to. My happiness has at least gone up by a few percentage points, my stress levels are lower and I feel more connected with those around me.
Gratitude has not made the bad things go away. But I think it has increased my chances of mentally surviving the tough times and really appreciating and savouring the good ones.
I have also discovered that my happiness is actually found in ordinary moments and everyday things – but only if I take time to savour and actually feel grateful for them.
Will I still set goals to try to get where I want to be? Will I still try and improve myself every day? Absolutely! But will I remember to enjoy the journey and be grateful for what I have? I am determined to try my best.
If you’re like me, maybe you too are skeptical of starting a morning gratitude practice. But I hope I’ve convinced you to at least give gratitude a try. It’s free. It only takes a couple of minutes. And it could just be the best, most life-changing, and easiest habit you’ve ever begun.
PS. Thank YOU for reading and following us along on our life/homesteading journey.
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