Forget Gratitude Jars! 6 Ways to Access More Joy, Presence (And, Yes!) Gratitude without Adding More Tasks to Your List


“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough.”
— Meister Eckhart



Have you ever tried to start a gratitude jar with your family or a gratitude journaling habit that just didn’t stick?


It seems like everywhere you look, there’s an article or book all about the benefits of gratitude and how and why you should start up a gratitude practice. Trying to get through the stress of the holidays? Practice gratitude. Want to improve your health? Practice gratitude. Want to feel more satisfied in your career? Practice gratitude. Is family stuff getting you down? Practice gratitude.


OK, OK, we get it. I mean, it’s sound advice. There’s definitely science to back it up. Gratitude can ease anxiety, negativity, undo perfectionism, alleviate stress and promote more feelings of joy, happiness and connection.


The problem is: If you’re already overloaded--so overloaded that you probably need the benefits of a gratitude practice more than anybody--making room for even a tiny gratitude practice becomes one more thing you have to get done in a day, one more thing you have to clear brain space for, one more thing to feel guilty about when it doesn’t get done.


This is especially true during the holiday season, when there’s so much emphasis on feeling thankful and expressing it to others.  


But, guess what? Presence and gratitude are a two-way street with joy at the center.  


That’s good news because if starting up a new gratitude list habit just feels like one too many to-dos right now, you can access more gratitude (and therefore more joy) simply by shifting your attention while doing what you already do. No need to add more things to your agenda!


In other words, when we are more mindful and more present throughout our day, we naturally feel more grateful.


Author and Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield says that, “The cultivation of mindfulness—which modern neuroscience has now shown in 3,000 papers and studies in the last two decades to help bring emotional regulation, steady attention, and physical healing—really allows us to become present for our own body, for the person in front of us, for the life we’ve been given. Out of that grows quite naturally the spirit of gratitude. Now it turns out, like all good things, they feed one another. Cultivating an opening to gratitude also helps us to become more mindful of the life around us and what circumstance we’re in.”


Ready to give it a try?


Here are some ways you can shift your awareness while already going about your day:


#1. Put your senses front and center. 


Perhaps one of the best things about the fall and winter months is all the cozy, yummy, nostalgic sensory elements that become part of our everyday. Pumpkin spice lattes, holiday cookies baking in the oven, the crackle and glow of a wood-burning fire, fuzzy sweaters, the smell of fresh pine in the air… Every scent, texture, flavor is an opportunity to practice a little mindfulness and our senses are a direct point of entry. All we have to do is take a moment to notice.  


Take the classic chocolate meditation. This might be one of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness.  


How to do it is simple: Get yourself one piece of chocolate. Take a few deep breaths and relax. Observe the rich color and aroma of your chocolate. Then take a bite. Let the chocolate melt slowly on your tongue. Notice the feeling in your mouth. See if you can pick out all of the flavors it contains. Swallow it slowly and feel it going down your throat. Then notice, did you enjoy the chocolate more because of this awareness you brought to it? Did you find yourself distracted? Where did your mind go? Take another bite and try again.  


Now, if this isn’t an excuse to treat yourself at Godiva (or Ginger Elizabeth’s if you are local to Sacramento) while out holiday shopping, I don’t know what is! But, if chocolate isn’t your thing, you can still get the same benefit with your cup of coffee or even the bagged lunch you took to work. 


Other easy ways you can practice this sort of mindfulness:   

  • Lie down or stand in the grass barefoot for a few minutes while your kids are playing in the yard, noticing how the earth feels under your feet, how the air smells, the ambient sounds around you, and how the breeze feels.  

  • Make dinner with fresh herbs or wash dishes in the sink with a couple of drops of essential oils in the water or fold laundry fresh out of the dryer. (Yep, chores can be an opportunity for mindfulness! I mean, you have to do them anyway, right? So why not make it a sensory experience!)  

  • You can even do it while taking your morning shower.  


The key is your awareness in noticing the textures, the temperature, the smells, and the colors. Be fully present in what you’re doing and enjoy the gift of your senses!



#2. Do something childlike.  


Last year, at Christmastime, my daughter begged me to take her caroling around the neighborhood. Let me tell you, I had zero interest in singing in public, much less knocking on people’s doors unsolicited to do so. But she begged and begged, and I just couldn’t let that sweet little face down. So, we recruited a few other friends of ours to do it with us, we picked a day and we just went for it.  


We were so well-received! People were pleasantly surprised to see us. Some welcomed us with baked goods. Others heard the commotion outside and peeked out to see what was happening. I think the neighborhood really enjoyed it.  


My daughter had a blast, and to my surprise, I did too. So much so that we’re planning to do it again this year.  


Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should do this. I mean, by all means if you’re inspired. But really, what stands out to me from that experience is just the act of giving permission to myself to be immersed in something so playful and carefree.  


If you don’t have the time or desire to go caroling, don’t worry. There are plenty of small ways you can be a little childlike in your day.  

  • Twirl till you’re dizzy for no reason.  

  • Skip from one room to another instead of walking.  

  • Blow bubbles in your drink.  

  • Sing in the shower.

  • Have a dance party in the kitchen with your kids while you make dinner. 


Do something silly for no reason except that it feels good. Something that forces you to only think about what’s happening in the moment. Even just putting your phone away and reading a storybook to your baby or child will do--because think about it: How many other thoughts can you have simultaneously while reading a book aloud?  


Want to know my personal favorite? Do something to make your kids laugh. Nothing shakes off my bad mood better than the sound of my kids’ giggles. And I know they might not think I’m quite so funny once they hit their teenage years, so I’m taking full advantage now while I still can!


#3. Raise your gaze.  


I don’t know about you, but when I’m deep in my own thought cycle, I’ve noticed that my field of vision is pointed downward. I’m looking down at the sidewalk as I hustle to my car or at the waist-level shelves and displays as I breeze through looking for the aisle I need at the store. If I’m deep in thought like that--especially if it’s a negative thought cycle--it’s hard to tell myself to stop or to think about something else.  


But, almost like magic, if I just raise my gaze to eye level, without trying to disrupt my thoughts or behaviors, they naturally change. I notice the people around me. I make eye contact and even smile at others or make conversation. Often, they reciprocate.  


What’s most amazing about that small shift is that the changes linger. I don’t slip back into that old thought pattern quite so quickly. I feel a little lighter. I’m more aware and present in the world around me.  


I think we’re all starved for meaningful connection with each other, even if it’s a tiny fleeting gesture. We all want and need to be seen. 

#4. Notice how you help yourself.  


Remember that famous Mr. Rogers quote about looking for the helpers around you? Well, he may have been talking about large-scale times of crisis, but I think we can apply it to the personal too.  


Some examples: Let’s say you are feeling really alone because your mother-in-law isn’t very supportive of your parenting style, you aren’t on the best terms with your own mother, and you just don’t feel like you have found your “mom tribe” yet. So, you call up your long-distance friend to vent about how hard motherhood is because even if she doesn’t relate, you know she’ll listen.  


Or, let’s say that things are financially really hard on you and your partner right now. You’re struggling to pay your bills, you’re starting to feel the strain in your marriage, and you just can’t seem to get off this debt-fueled hamster wheel. But, you just remembered: you received an alert this week that your credit score just jumped up a little. Maybe your efforts are beginning to pay off.


That reaching out to a friend, that little credit score boost--These are the helpers in your life right now. 


These are things you did for yourself. Notice and acknowledge them.


Life still may be a struggle in spite of all the ways you’re helping yourself, but nobody ever said that doing better would be easy. Congratulate yourself and reap the benefits of your good choices anyway.


#5. Drop the “Should.”


Sometimes you might say to yourself, “I shouldn’t need this much help from others” or “I should have known better than to get in this situation in the first place.” Or, the king of shoulds: “It shouldn’t be this hard.”


When those thoughts pop into your mind, stop yourself right there and ask yourself how you can reframe them.


When you say you shouldn’t need help, what I hear in that is that you have realized that you DO in fact need help. And, believe it or not, that’s progress. Because before you had that thought, there was a time when you hadn’t yet realized you need that help.  


When you say you should have known better, I hear instead that now you have new wisdom and awareness around the problem. I see that you have expanded.


When you say that it shouldn’t be this hard, I hear you acknowledging that, yes, things are hard right now and it feels unfair or lonely. 


Noticing what you need or feel IS taking care of yourself. Without that noticing, nothing else changes. 


That word “should” isn’t helping you. In fact, it’s belittling, invalidating and judgmental. It’s holding you back from getting your needs met and is taking you out of the present moment because what “should be” isn’t based in your current reality.


Instead, “should” often comes from old stories we’ve stored away in our brains. These “shoulds” came from somewhere else: maybe from your parents, maybe from society, maybe from your imagination getting carried away (which is all worrying really is).  Your heart or your innate wisdom would never deny you of what you need or feel.


And believe it or not, you can re-parent yourself by changing that thought pattern by catching yourself when you say “I should” and stating it in a kinder way.


#6 Remember that unglamorous self-care is still self-care.  


OK, I’ll admit, with all the extra stress the holidays put on us, just one spa day to recover really would be nice. Like, REALLY nice.  


With all the time constraints we already have, plus extras due to holiday parties and shopping for gifts and all the other things we have to do (not to mention the extra strain on our finances), a spa day is just not realistic for most of us.  


But, remember, that’s not all that self-care is.  


Spa days are like paying to have your car detailed. It’s nice and all, but what good is it if you don’t have gas in the tank? Unglamorous self-care is the fuel that will keep us going so we can show up more fully.


In fact, sometimes self-care doesn’t even look like “care” at all. Honestly, sometimes it looks a lot like WORK.  

  • It’s scheduling that doctor’s appointment we’ve been dreading.  

  • It’s paying our bills on time, so we can improve our credit score.  

  • It’s brushing our teeth and washing our makeup off when we’re so tired that we’d rather skip it all and just crawl in bed.  

  • It’s setting boundaries, even though we know it will upset some people.  

  • It’s driving through McDonalds when we don’t have time to cook because full bellies are better than hungry ones.  

  • It’s putting off greeting our families for five minutes while we lie down in a dark room, because we know we need it to reset.

  • It’s crossing off ALL THE THINGS that don’t really matter on our to-do lists and letting ourselves off the hook for once.


Look at it this way: We all do a lot for our families, right?  (And our friends, and our jobs, and so on.) We do all the unglamorous stuff for the people that matter most to us because it’s how we care for others.  And we don’t stop doing those things just because we don’t feel like doing it because if we did, someone or something would suffer.


For example, my daughter has really bad allergies and asthma. I hate doing laundry probably more than anything else, but I wash her bed sheets often because I know it will help to get rid of allergens so she can sleep better at night. Of course, that means there’s one more thing I have to do each week, but I would never say that doing that ISN’T an act of love.


It’s not something I skip. Clean sheets help her to sleep better, which then means she can wake up happier, do better in school, be a better friend, and grow up healthy. 


We should all turn that same attitude toward ourselves.


Remind yourself of why you do what you do. Remind yourself of why it matters. And if you realize something doesn’t matter, let it go.



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