How to Write a Gratitude List

Thank-yous can be a healing tool that shifts mood and attitude--if you write them down

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As a veteran of more personal-growth workshops than any human without a steady income has a right to be, I am no stranger to the techniques—both snazzy and simple—designed to move us from darkness to light. Add to that the time I spend in 12-step recovery, with its tips for happy, healthy living, and you’d think I’m the perfect candidate for this business of writing gratitude lists.

Well, I wasn’t. I was already keeping a shopping list, an errands list, and, ever since my estrogen levels plummeted, a list of daily reminders. Yet another list? Horrors.

A “gratitude list,” in case you’re not hip to trendy techniques for feeling better, is an exercise designed to shift your mood and attitude. A major midlife meltdown provided the impetus for me to try it, and someone actually strongly suggested that I scrounge up 25 reasons to feel grateful for my life in all its dismembered glory.

In fact, I only managed to eke out 15 entries by imagining what someone else in my situation might possibly celebrate, such as owning intact pairs of socks, having cats who coughed up hair balls nowhere near carpeting, and finding only slightly bruised papayas for under a buck. Amazing! It worked and I felt better. Who knew?

Now, almost five years later, writing gratitude lists has become a comfortable, even treasured component of my regular spiritual practice. I do them on an as-needed basis, which is to say shortly after something—or someone—has really ticked me off. It is during times of profound irritation that gratitude lists have the most salutary impact on my life. Strange but true: Gratitude and anger cannot inhabit the same emotional space. Go ahead, try being grateful for that clean biopsy and mad at the same time.

If you want to try this handy way to shift consciousness without ingesting anything illegal, let me offer three suggestions for getting started.

1. Hand-write your gratitude list. The kinesthetic experience of actually writing is valuable for several reasons: First, the physical act helps imprint the feeling of gratitude at the cellular level. Also, since it is a slower process than typing, writing by hand provides more time for contemplation, which makes for a more thoughtful list.

2. Set a realistic goal. Avoid immediate collapse by starting off with a reasonable number of items. If you set out to enumerate some insane number like 50, you’ll end up including stuff that not even the most zealous gratitude junkie would list. Better to limit yourself to one good reason than to dredge up sludge from a too-deep well.

3. Fake it, if necessary. Don’t worry about actually feeling grateful for anything, especially if during your formative years you confused gloom with sophistication. Until you are consistently inclined to see the glass as half full, act ‘as if.’ In other words, start by pretending that you are an authentically grateful person and write down what this alter ego is thankful for. If even this feels like too much of a stretch, maybe you’re getting stuck on semantics. Instead of calling yours a gratitude list, title it “Hey, it could be worse” and take it from there.

From Vegetarian Times (Nov. 1999). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (12 issues) from Box 420235, Palm Coast, FL 32142.