Gratitude: The Practice That Saved My Life

I was talking with my Publisher last week as we prepared for the launch of my 5th co-authored book, Gratitude and Grace. We were discussing the “aha” moment I had in April of 2013 when I realized I was living someone else’s life. I had done such a great job of doing everything I “should” be doing that, from the outside looking in, everyone thought I had the perfect life. Yet, on the inside, I was miserable – my marriage was failing, I was depressed and my life was being ruled by my eating disorder.

But that’s not when the shift started. What prepared me for that “aha” moment in 2013 was a small gratitude practice I had begun nearly a decade before.

It was Christmas 2004. A few months prior, I had given up tenure and 5 years of my career to move across the country for a job as an Assistant Professor at Boise State University. I felt like I was in the middle of a war zone. My colleagues were fighting, my husband was unemployed, we were trying – and failing – to get pregnant, and my mother and I had had a big blow up argument. My anxiety was through the roof, and I was questioning everything. For months, I couldn’t even sleep.

I don’t even remember who recommended this practice, but what I do know is that in the midst of all of this chaos, somewhere I got the idea that I should start a daily gratitude practice. This was long before I read The Secret, or watched What the Bleep Do We Know. I didn’t know about energy levels or planetary alignments or even fully understand how my hormones affected my moods. All I knew was that was I was doing – not sleeping and trying sleeping pill after sleeping pill – wasn’t working.

When I first started my practice, I struggled. Each and every night I would wonder, “What I could possibly be grateful for?” I can’t get pregnant. Work was so hostile that one of my colleagues and I were seriously considering pitching a reality TV show called “The Department” to a local network to expose the dirty underbelly of academia to the world. My marriage was on the rocks – thanks to the move and my infertility. Yet, somewhere inside of me I knew that this little gratitude practice was critical. That it would end up be life-saving.

So I endured. Day after day, I made myself write down 10 things I was grateful for each night before I went to bed. Some days I would quit at 5 and call it a success. Some days, I would make it to 8. But, as the months went by, a funny thing happened. 10 became easy; then 15; then I would run out of room on my little planner I had purchased to write down my 10 items per day. I started sleeping again. My anxiety got better. Work calmed down. Things started to shift. It would take almost a decade for things to shift enough inside of me that I was ready to have my big “aha” moment. Yet, I see that little daily gratitude practice as the foundation – the one change I made in my life that made everything that happened after that possible.

I don’t know where you are in your journey. Maybe you’re just starting. Maybe you’ve been reading self-help books for decades. But I do know this: gratitude changes everything for the better. It helped me heal – my eating disorder, my endometriosis, my anxiety. It literally saved my life.

12 years after I started that little daily practice, gratitude is still a part of my life. My “10 things” list turned into a more in-depth evening practice. I added a morning practice of gratitude, meditation and nature time somewhere along the way. But the gratitude practice has remained. Even on days when life gets busy and my schedule is jam-packed, that is one thing I will not give up. Even on the days when I sometimes still struggle to come up with that first item, I know that if I do, the others will flow quickly and easily. Even on the days where nothing seems to be going right, I know that if I shift into gratitude, my day will change for the better almost instantaneously. Because there is always something to be grateful for – even on our darkest days – there always something to be grateful for.

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