It’s October 2019 and I’ve now graduated with my hard-earned PhD, moved in with my loving partner, started a fulfilling new job, and adopted an adorable furry friend. It’s been busy and hectic, but I finally have a chance to catch up with some of my friends at a birthday dinner. One of my best friends meets me at the restaurant early so we can catch up on our own a bit first. It’s a lovely evening of socializing and reconnecting with my friends. Then I get a text message from my friend afterwards saying she’s sorry things are so stressful for me right now.
It doesn’t take much reflection for me to realize why I gave her that impression. In the brief time together before the rest of our friends arrived, I unloaded on her about the logistics of a car accident I’d been in recently, extra work I’d been given at the office, and an unintentional slight from a friend that I was still processing. We hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks and had maybe 15 minutes of quality time together before the group arrived, and these were the pressing items I needed to update her with before the clock was up. Her surprising empathy was no longer surprising at all.
This is an aha moment for me. I should be able to use my portion of a 15 minute conversation to talk about good things going on in my life. I contemplate for a moment the things I should have told her, and realize I am actually struggling! Is this what I bring to every conversation with people? I can certainly come up with big, broad, general things that make me happy – great friends and family, a great relationship, my health, etc. However, I can’t seem to list anything more specific. I start to realize that maybe I should practice coming up with smaller, definitive things going on in my life so that I’ll be better prepared for the next conversation.
This is how I sort of independently stumbled upon a scientifically proven practice called a “gratitude journal“. After this enlightenment, I picked up a journal with one previous five-page entry where I had mostly gone into detail about my current anxieties that I hadn’t picked up since (probably because that exercise left me feeling more anxious) and tried listing three things I was happy about that day. My first entry was pretty brief:
- My German friend is planning a trip to visit me in NC in the Spring.
- My partner gives me the space to feel my emotions and sort through them even when I make mistakes along the way that frustrate him.
- I finally came up with something to do on my birthday that I was looking forward to.
I’ve now been writing in my gratitude journal regularly for three months. My entries vary greatly in length, content, and importance, but they consistently make me feel better after I list them. This exercise made me realize how often my subconscious is repeatedly listing the stressful things going on in my life and how that affects my anxiety, my mood, and the stamina I have to get through the week. Jotting down things I’m currently happy about has made a HUGE positive impact on my mental health, which has increased my productivity and overall happiness.
In hindsight, it’s not surprising at all that this exercise has been so helpful. Many of the pop psychology books I read end up with a similar underlying message about the power of mindfulness – aka taking stock of your subconscious thoughts so you can practice directing them away from places you don’t want to waste all of your energy. My gratitude journal is a form of meditation (a scary or silly word for many that I’m sure I’ll devote a future post to) that trains my mind to keep my daily life in a more realistic perspective. As much as I’ve benefitted from a gratitude journal, I’m sure my poor friends who had to listen to all of my complaining are just as grateful.