I was recently asked by Mindful Magazine to create a series of gratitude prompts. I was pleased with the assignment, although gratitude lists are not a strategy I find all that useful. If and when I’m feeling really down, listing what I can be grateful for does nothing to move my happiness meter up. I can might write a list of 25 things I’m grateful for, beginning with Stephen and my grandchildren, and the whole time my dark thoughts hammer away.
So I was surprised at how engaged I was, once I sat down to write the piece for Mindful. The magazine asked me to divide my prompts into five areas: mind, body, relationships, society, wisdom. Some of the areas, like mind and society, felt challenging at first. And that’s when I got sucked in. In order to create original prompts that would make readers reach deeply into themselves, I had to get up close and personal. To create a prompt relating to mind, for example, I had to explore my own mind—something I don’t usually do—explore how it works, and isolate what about it works well and for what purposes. If I were going to create prompts relating to society, I needed first to define society, then focus on what elements of society I particularly appreciate.
As I reflected and wrote, I realized why I generally have a problem with gratitude lists: they tend to be the opposite of small. People list things like their home, their children, their friends, their health, etc. But these are much too broad to relate to in any meaningful way. To evoke a visceral sense of gratitude and well-being, broad doesn’t work. Instead, you need to isolate or pinpoint one or two very specific attributes of whatever you are grateful for.
And to do this, you have to slow down. You cannot simply rip through a list of the good things in your life. You have to take each item on the list and reflect on it for a moment or two, until it reveals itself to you in its specificity. If I want to include my home on my gratitude list, I have to close my eyes, walk into my front door, look around me in the entry hall, then proceed slowly to the living room, where I stand and gaze out the bank of windows, through which the light comes streaming at some point every sunny day, then turn and take in the French doors that reveal my dining room, connecting the two front rooms of my house, while at the same time providing enough separation to form two distinct spaces. It is only by doing this, scanning one room at a time, that I will experience the tingle of uplift that triggers my sense of gratitude.
If I want to really feel grateful for a friend, just writing her name doesn’t create enough of a spark to catch hold of me. No, I need to isolate several qualities I either admire or that resonate well with me before I feel the sap flowing.
Once I realized this, I understood that creating a collection of gratitude prompts was a wonderful way to practice small. In fact, practicing small inevitably leads to the upwelling of gratitude—for all the beauty, joy, connection and tenderness in the world.