So many things compete for our attention these days. Interacting with family and friends. Opportunities to engage with one another. Commitments to work, whether paid or volunteer. Making sure we meet our financial obligations. Focusing on caring for our bodies, preparing food, taking time for movement. Keeping up with current events and staying informed. Leaning in toward new opportunities. Keeping up with lifelong learning. And we live in a time with many entertainment options. Given all the competition, it’s no wonder so many of us struggle to make time for ourselves.
Several years ago I realized that when I completed two simple activities, my days went much more smoothly. For me, that still stands. I feel far calmer, happier, and far less likely to become irritated with others on days when I take as little as 15 minutes a day for some meditation and give myself some time – from 2 minutes to 2 hours – to write (whether a journal entry or crafting stories, but excluding emails and work-related tasks).
On days when I traveled for work or had other unusual time-sucks to deal with, these soothing timeouts sometimes didn’t happen. What I learned from this, thanks to the obvious difference in my stress level during days when I rushed around feeling frazzled, was to take time to pay attention. In my rush to care for family, do my best at work, and move through the day as efficiently as possible, changing my focus from the task-orientation to something a bit softer did not come easily to me. I learned a little at a time.
During the Greater Good Science Center class, “The Science of Happiness,” the instructors discussed the power of spending time in nature, engaging in simple walks in a park or even a minute or two looking at a tree (or other large green growing plant). Not one to accept such advice without trying it out, on a particularly difficult day at work, I stepped outside, walked to the back of the building where a large tree towered over a neighboring office. I stared at the tree for a minute or two, daring it to make a difference. Frankly, I found it difficult to direct any frustration toward the tree. It stood, firmly rooted, leaves rustling in a light breeze, apparently unconcerned about the humidity or the temperature or cranky clients or a complaining coworker. In spite of doubts, I stood watching the tree, breathing, and felt my tension slip away.
Surprised that a tree, however beautiful, had any impact, I vowed to remember that simple tool. And to try out more things.
Through the “Happiness” class[i] I experimented with a few different ways of paying attention to gratitude. One was to write 3 things daily for which I felt grateful. Another was to write 3 things on 3 different days each week. The final technique I tried involved gratitude writing once a week, stating 5 things for which I felt grateful and adding a sentence or two about what impact each had or why I felt so thankful.
A few years later, I’m still using the third technique. Someone gifted me with a lovely journal and though I resisted writing in it – who desecrates such beautiful works of art?! – I finally gave in and started a gratitude journey. This weekend I realized I’m nearly out of pages. I’m not ashamed to disclose I’ve missed weeks and picked up where I left off. I’ve also stared at the page a few times, after jarring weeks, slowly pulling something up from deep inside myself for which I could honestly claim I felt grateful. Most of the time, though, I strive to give little premeditated thought to the process. Instead, I go with the flow. I write the numbers 1 to 5 on 5 lines, then quickly jot something down, something that generates gratitude in my heart. After that, I give myself more space to write a 2 to 3 lines about each of the 5.
My entries will never win any prizes, and they often mention people – family, friends, coworkers, the stranger who bought me coffee. They also mention the weather, a spectacular sunset or full moon, a story that touched me, a sushi combination that surprised me, the roof over my head, the public library, the midnight blue color of the night sky, my health, access to healthcare, charming places, beautiful noise, services (like food delivery or my CSA), animals and birds, flowers and trees, easy trails. Several years of those weekly notes live in one journal that I rarely examine unless I want to remember.
Both of these simple practices – taking time outdoors to appreciate nature and developing a gratitude habit – can tweak a perspective enough to inspire more positive changes. Start slow. Stay consistent. Try different things.
This week I’m re-reading The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a book I learned about through The Science of Happiness class. I plan to write more about that book next time. For now, though, I’m wishing you some relaxing time in nature and hoping you find a rewarding gratitude practice that lifts you and keeps you mindful of all you have.
May you be healthy, be happy, be strong, and be safe.