There was nothing happy about my 25th birthday. Instead of celebrating, I spent the night at home in tears. Reaching this milestone highlighted the fact that my life looked nothing like I thought it would at that age.
By 25 I thought I would have a master’s degree, a job in the art world, a husband, and would be starting a family. Instead, I had student loan debt, lived paycheck to paycheck, and couldn’t find work in my field. At home I was in a miserable relationship, and as 20-somethings, he and I struggled with whose dreams and goals were most important. My reality was a stark contrast to my vision of what life should have been, and I carried a great deal of stress and sadness as a result. I could only see the negatives in my life, and they became my focus.
While visiting home, my parents recognized my misery and became increasingly concerned. Their daughter, traditionally an optimistic go-getter, had lost her smile and felt trapped in her own life. They were right -- I was dragged down by everything that had gone wrong, and needed some happiness and hope.
Ever the intuitive caregiver, my mom sat me down and assigned one very simple task. “I want you to make a list of ten things you are grateful for,” she instructed. I let out a nervous laugh. Sitting there at our dining room table, I paused as tears filled my eyes. There was absolutely no way I could find five things, let alone ten.
She noticed my struggle to take the first step, and let me know that I could feel grateful for anything, no matter how small or seemingly obvious. I began:
1 I am healthy.
2 I have a roof over my head.
3 I have a job.
4 I am not starving.
5 I am smart.
6 I have a family who loves me.
7 I have friends I can count on.
8 I have a really great cat.
9 I am only 25 and still young.
10 I have the ability to look for silver linings.
After making my list, I cried happy tears and felt a sense of relief. Throughout the darkness and uncertainty, I discovered that all was not lost. I had several positives in my life, it just took a bit of digging to uncover them.
The list with my mom may have been my first, but it wasn’t my last. I completed this exercise whenever I felt down, trapped or overwhelmed by life. I kept coming back to this simple tactic because the outcome was profound. I felt happier, less stressed and became very good at finding things to be grateful for, even in the midst of negatives. For example:
1 My relationship ended. I am grateful for the opportunity to discover who I was, what I wanted and didn’t want with future relationships.
2 He moved out and I wasn’t sure how to pay rent. I am grateful for the memories I made with my friend who became my roommate for several months.
3 I couldn’t find work in my field. I am grateful for the opportunity to attend graduate school and earn my master’s degree. I ended up with a career in the art world!
You too can try this simple trick. Make a list as often as you need to, or if you prefer imagery, create a gratitude board. Admittedly, some days are harder than others, but do what you can, even if it’s just a list of three items you are thankful for.
Focusing on the positive will change your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. I promise you, the more you look for things to be grateful for, the more of them you will find.