Updated: Jul 24, 2020
In 2018, I read an article by author Elizabeth Gilbert about her “Happiness Jar.”
She described her daily practice of jotting down moments of joy on paper scraps, which she then placed in a jar. In moments of difficulty, she would pull out a scrap of paper and read a snippet of happiness, quickly reminded of the “momentary gems of life” that would otherwise have been forgotten.
Eager to launch our own “Happiness Jar” experience, we found a large glass canister reminiscent of a cookie jar (because what could possibly bring greater happiness than a giant jar of cookies?). My daughter created a label decorated with intertwined flowers and hearts. I explained to my family that we would each create daily happiness notes, which we would then fold up and put in the jar. At the end of the year, as we waited for the proverbial ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, we would open the jar and review the moments of joy we experienced over the prior year. My family dutifully created daily notes, and the jar filled to the brim with documented evidence of our happy lives.
At the end of the year, we rushed to open the jar, eager to review the greatest moments of the past twelve months. We began to read each note one by one. Some of the notes brought laughter and delight, reminding us of heartwarming moments we shared over the past year. My husband taught our daughter to catch a baseball. We found a new waterfall on a hike we’d never tried before. We closed escrow on a retirement property we had coveted for several years.
Other notes brought bewilderment. “Had fun walking the dog.” “Great time at the mall today.” “Found a pretty rock today.” While we had to assume that each recorded moment held a special place in our hearts when the note was added to our Happiness Jar, we no longer had any idea why that was the case. Our desire to preserve our most notable moments of joy turned into a fairly innocuous list of random activities we could no longer identify and emotions we could no longer evoke.
Research tells us that cultivating gratitude allows us to experience more satisfaction, love and joy. It protects us from negative emotions, reduces anxiety and depression, and allows us to trust that our lives are filled with goodness. It enhances our physical health by reducing anxiety, improving sleep quality, increasing immune function and dissipating depression. Gratitude also helps us to connect with others as we recognize our interconnectedness and shared human bonds.
Engaging in a daily gratitude practice reminds us to pay close attention to the myriad of events and thoughts in our day-to-day lives that bring us joy and uplift our spirit. There are numerous methods of tracking gratitude, including the Happiness Jar, journaling, photos and videos. Regardless of the chosen method, many attempts at a gratitude practice are ultimately unfulfilling, not because of a limited supply of inspiring moments, but simply because we miss a few key elements required to turn our gratitude practice from a rote exercise into a soul-enriching endeavor.
The first key to creating a meaningful gratitude practice is to develop a sense of being present and mindful about our daily life experiences. This requires that we pay attention to what we experience, and then allow ourselves to really feel the emotions rising within us as we have that experience. To do so, we must drop out of our human brains and into our souls, to recognize those emotions within us. We typically rush from conversations to errands to tasks without noticing what we are doing, seeing or feeling. If we can become present in our bodies and truly experience our lives from moment to moment, we recognize the tiny details that make up the fabric of our lives.
It is often easier for children to access this awareness, simply because they are inherently more mindful about their surroundings and eager to focus on whatever might capture their attention in the moment. On a busy Monday, I rushed to make breakfast before my family scattered to school and work activities. My daughter stood at the back door, staring into the yard. She said, “Mommy, look at this!” As I approached her, I realized that she was awestruck by the sky, awash in shades of pink, purple, blue and gold as the morning sun appeared over the hills. I was stunned into my own astonished silence as I put my arms around her, and my heart swelled with love as we watched the sunrise together.
The second key to a meaningful gratitude practice is to document not only the event itself, but the feelings that arose within us as we experienced that event. Our mistake in dropping notes into our Happiness Jar was that we neglected to write why the recorded moment was meaningful to us. When we walked the dogs, did we notice that our golden retriever rushed ahead of us but then checked to make sure we were still with him, or that our toy poodle looked up at us adoringly and liked to smell each new flower on our path? When we found a new waterfall on our hike, did we notice the sunlight sparkling off the water pooling in the lake below? Did we hear the birds calling to each other over the thundering falls?
When we remember to note the experience for which we are grateful as well as the reason it struck us in that moment, we recall not only the facts of the situation, but also the tug it created on our soul when it occurred. The event itself is not what inspires the gratitude. Instead, it is the feelings stirring within us that remind us of what brings delight to our hearts and beauty to our lives. By reliving those feelings, we are lifted by our gratitude, and we continue to carry the joy within us.