How Gratitude Works

UPDATED: November 7, 2022
PUBLISHED: November 6, 2022
How Gratitude Works

You know that feeling when someone asks you “how’s it going?” and you have to physically restrain yourself from releasing a deluge of information including, but not limited to, the health of your children, the location of your spouse, and your crazybusy (yes, one word) schedule in the days to come and those just passed?

I hate that.

For several weeks I just couldn’t shake this unbalanced feeling. Then, one morning, I decided to attack it head-on. I googled for solutions to “feeling out of balance” and received several suggestions:

  • Yoga. But I’ve never been very flexible.
  • Meditation. But I’ve never been very good at sitting still.
  • Tightrope walking. But I’m not crazy.

I wanted a coping strategy—something I could implement in just a few seconds at the beginning or end of each crazybusy day. I was just about to give up when something caught my eye. It was a headline to the effect of Gratitude, Nature’s Cure All. I scrolled swiftly and found a link claiming that Oprah herself attributed her massive success to a gratitude journal. Jackpot!

And just then I heard the unmistakable sound of a cup of milk crashing to the floor of the kitchen and the cry of an unattended toddler. I knew I had just seconds to spare.

“For 16 years, every night before bed Oprah writes down five things she is grateful for that day,” the article read. Practical and quick, I thought. Totally doable. I’m feeling better already.

“What’s going on?” my husband said, appearing in the doorway after hearing the spilled-milk cries.

“I’m trying to be more grateful!” I snapped. Off to a great start.

However, I spent the rest of the day on a gratitude roll, making mental notes of things to record. That night I ceremoniously pulled an untouched journal from a stack I had collected, and numbered five lines:

I am grateful for…

  1. My adoring husband.
  2. My precious son.
  3. My feisty daughter.
  4. My work.
  5. My friends.

Then 56 seconds later, I closed the journal. Done! And while I didn’t necessarily sense an increase in balance, as I lay my head on the pillow, I started planning my very own Favorite Things episode.

For three whole days I lived an efficiently gratuitous life, spending 56 effortless seconds before bed jotting down my five items. Then came the fourth day.

The fourth day was a crazybusy, imbalanced blur. I’ll refrain from sharing the details.

I crawled into bed that fourth night crabby and exhausted. Just before I passed out, I thought to myself, Oh shoot. I forgot to be grateful. I sat back up, hastily pulled my journal off my nightstand and numbered the lines:

I am grateful for…

  1. Spanx.
  2. Iced coffee.
  3. Nutella.

I stopped at three. I didn’t have time for this. It was dumb.

I immediately abandoned my gratitude strategy. It just wasn’t working. And I was pretty sure if I sat down with Oprah and asked for the truth about her gratitude journal, she would lean forward and in a throaty whisper say, “Oh honey, I only made it three days… who’s got time for that?”

These thoughts, among others, raced through my mind the next morning as I drove my son to preschool. Per usual, he talked the whole way—the only person on the planet who can outtalk me. On that particular morning, the one-way conversation centered entirely on the color turquoise.

“Oh! Look Mama! I just saw a turquoise car! Did you see that turquoise car? Mama! Did you see that sign, that sign was turquoise. Oh! Mama! Look at the sky, the sky is kind of turquoise. The ocean is turquoise too. Oh! Mama! Look at that gate! It’s… it’s… TURQUOISE!

“Mama!” he crescendo-ed from the confines of his car seat. “Mama! There is just so much turquoise in the WORLD!”

He paused. Then slowly, quietly, thoughtfully said, “This is my world. My beautiful, turquoise world.”

There was breathless wonder in his voice. He was completely overwhelmed—with gratitude.

I pulled into the parking lot and sat for a moment.

I was doing gratitude all wrong. I was trying to manufacture it, or simply retrace it. But that’s not how gratitude works. Gratitude takes us by surprise. It overwhelms us and fills us with wonder. In its truest form, gratitude can’t be captured on a list or strategically felt in less than a minute. If I wanted to shake my imbalanced life, tallying good things at the end of an otherwise disconnected day wasn’t going to straighten me out. I had to engage in my own turquoise world and, from the confines of my crazybusy days, be aware of its beauty.

That night I pulled my mostly untouched journal from the nightstand and instead of writing five things, I wrote about the time I drove my son and all his gratitude to school. It took me 30 minutes. And for the first time in a long time, I felt my balance return.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by FG Trade/IStock

Kindra Hall is the bestselling author of Stories That Stick and a sought-after keynote speaker. She is the president of Steller Collective, a marketing agency focused on the power of storytelling to overcome communication challenges.