Need a Boost? Try a Little Gratitude

I’m not supposed to be here.

I’m trapped on an island in the Mediterranean. The skies are an ugly, threatening blue. And sheets of rain have been lashing an angry sea all day, stirring up waves high enough to sweep over the Strand Road by the harbor.

But I’m not supposed to be seeing this at all. We should be over in Sicily, raising a glass with our American friends as they celebrate Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the weather’s too unstable for a 4-seater plane.

By all accounts, we’ll miss an incredible feast. And we’ll miss sampling from the hotel owner’s carefully chosen cellar. But this time of year is about so much more than just indulging yourself in 5 star cooking and maybe a little too much wine.

For my American friends, Thanksgiving is typically a time to look back at the past, and to reflect on all those things we’re grateful for in our lives. Sure, it can be fun to indulge in a little nostalgia. But that gratitude is also tremendously important to your success.

Pausing to think about everything that you’re grateful for brings your life back into perspective. Those small annoyances don’t seem so important anymore. You feel energized. More alive. More positive about yourself and the world around you.

Gratitude also makes you more resilient in the face of setbacks. Tell me, what’s more productive? Getting mad at your staff for making a mistake that just cost you a pile of money and a customer? Or taking a deep breath and feeling thankful for the fact that those very same employees also make it possible for you to avoid the tasks you hate and focus on the stuff you’re great at?

The second choice will melt your anger like a ten-penny candle. And it’ll get you back to focusing on action rather than self-indulgent lamentation.

Gratitude just makes sense.

So how do you do it? How do you actually go about identifying all those areas to be thankful for in your life?

I like to use this great little exercise. I found it many years ago in a rather hokey self-help book. Now that’s not normally my kind of reading at all. But the exercise made me sit up straight, fold down the page and come back later on to make a few notes.

Here’s how it goes…

Grab a piece of paper, and write these words across the top: “I’m thankful for…” And then divide your page into 3 columns.

Label the first column “Things”. Take a few minutes to write down all the material things you’re glad you have. For example, I’m thankful for my espresso machine. For my collection of books. For having a reliable computer and a nice big Apple monitor. You get the idea.

In the second column, labeled “People”, list all the people in your life, past or present, who you appreciate. I’m thankful for my wife, who has supported my dreams and goals for the past 15 years. I’m thankful for my old hometown friends, who have been as close as family since our high school days and beyond. I’m thankful for having a great partner in my online business, and an amazing team of dedicated employees. And the list goes on.

Finally, label your third column “Other,” and list anything that doesn’t fit into the other two.

Most people find this last category confusing at first. But I thought it was the easiest one of all.

I’m thankful for my freedom. For having the ability to exercise. For good health. I’m tremendously thankful for my love of reading, because it’s opened so many doors. I’m grateful that I had an opportunity to experience life on a small Mediterranean island, in a 400 year old stone palazzo. I’m thankful for music that inspires my writing. And I’m incredibly grateful that I have the ability to travel and experience so many exciting new things, and then to share those things with my readers.

I’m also grateful that my book Vagabond Dreams is published, because the experience I wrote about was so meaningful, and I know it has the power to transform lives.

You get the idea.

It’s a really great exercise because it reminds you of just how much you have to be grateful for. It also opened my eyes to how much I complain in the day to day — when most of us really have so little to complain about.

Sure, I tend to focus on what’s not perfect in my life. I’m driven, so I’m always tweaking things, trying to improve the road ahead rather than just sitting and looking at my past small accomplishments. But still…

Taking a few moments to remind yourself of just how many great things you have in your life changes the way you feel about everything. It brightens up your day. It gives you more energy. You walk taller, and you learn to let those small annoyances slide.

No matter how bad things are, you’ll always find something to be thankful for. And I can say this even about my most frustrating poverty years, when I felt so trapped and when I thought I’d never be able to live my dreams. Looking back at those times, I’m thankful I had access to an excellent public library. And that I had music to inspire my writing.

I encourage you to find a piece of paper and a pencil and give this little exercise a try today.

It doesn’t matter if you live in the United States and you’re celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday surrounded by family and friends, or if you’re an expat Canadian like me who’s just going along for the ride.

It’s worth a few minutes of your time. I promise.

[Ed. Note: Ryan Murdock is the author of Personal Freedom: A Guide to Creating the Life of Your Dreams. When not helping people find their own brand of personal freedom, Ryan travels the world’s marginal places as Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost magazine. He recently released his first travel book, called Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America.]