It’s that time of year again — everyone’s buzzing about resolutions.
Eating healthy. Getting a gym membership. Meal planning. Budgeting. Losing the baby weight. We’re all striving for better, faster, and stronger in hopes that we’ll ultimately be happier.
But all too often, we take on too much with our resolutions; life gets in the way, we don’t follow through, and we actually feel worse.
Take, for example, my failed Whole30 attempt last January. I was determined; I pored over cookbooks, planned meals, and cleared the pantry. It went swimmingly — until my baby spiked a 103-degree fever on day five, and because I couldn’t hold him and chop cabbage at the same time, I opted for takeout. Whole30 done.
If you’ve ever set out on some lofty new-year-new-you path and only made it a week before throwing in the towel, you’re definitely not alone; research suggests that while half of us make resolutions each year, only about ten percent of us follow through.
And to further complicate things, the chaos inherent in life with small children makes it all the more difficult to make lasting lifestyle changes.
So this year, I’m going to suggest a different approach:
Forget the resolutions.
Sure, eat a little healthier; move your body a little more; get a little more fresh air. Those are all good, healthy things, and the fresh start of a new year might just propel us in the right direction in areas like these. But we don’t need to make strict, rigid, all-or-nothing resolutions in order to do these things.
Instead of resolutions, make it your intention to do this one thing, at least some of the time, in 2019:
Gratitude: What is it, really?
Most people would agree that it’s a good idea to be grateful. But then we have a bad day, and we let go of gratitude, focusing on instead on what isn’t going well.
And amidst the unpredictable chaos that is raising little kids, it’s really easy to focus on the hard parts. It’s easy to get bogged down in struggle and frustration and default to just surviving. It’s easy to feel like gratitude is too far away in those moments — unreachable to us, but “nice” for those who can get to a point where they can be grateful.
But here’s the thing you need to know: Gratitude isn’t reserved for happy people with perfect lives; practicing gratitude is a conscious choice that anyone can make, even in the hardest moments.
The idea is pretty simple: If we shift our perspective from what’s wrong with our lives to what’s right with our lives, we’ll be happier. But it takes work, and it’s not a one-time thing. To truly use gratitude to improve your life and help you feel happier requires an ongoing effort.
So why invest the effort? Is it really going to make a difference?
In short, according to lots of research — YES. Gratitude is associated with more happiness, less anxiety and depression, less illness, and more altruism. Gratitude is also increasingly recognized as a powerful psychotherapy intervention. This makes sense because gratitude increases hope, and hope helps keep us going — even when things feel impossible.
The thinking behind these positive effects is that gratitude actually changes our brains; gratitude can “rewire” neural pathways and ultimately shift the way we respond to the world.
Think of neural pathways like paths through the woods — the more we walk on them, the easier they become to walk on, and the more likely we are to choose them because of the ease of walking on them. So following this analogy, the more we “walk the path” of practicing gratitude, the easier it gets, and the more our brains default to focusing on what’s good.
How to Practice Gratitude
Okay, so let’s say you’re sold on practicing gratitude. You’re ready to start, but you’re not sure exactly how. It sounds so simple, but we talked a lot already about how easy it is to return to our current default of getting bogged down in the hard, frustrating parts of our reality. Especially when you’re parenting little kids.
Here are a few ways to shift yourself into a place of gratitude:
Use a gratitude journal. Take five minutes after the kids are asleep or in the morning when you wake up and write down everything you can think of that you’re grateful for. These don’t need to be big things; they can be as little as your favorite kind of chewing gum or a pretty cloud you saw on your commute.
Take a few minutes for mindfulness throughout the day. Maybe you read the above suggestions for little things to be grateful for, and you thought to yourself, “I don’t notice any clouds on my commute.” You can increase your ability to tap into gratitude by being mindful, which essentially means focusing on the present moment — what you can see, what you can hear, what you can smell, what you can taste, and what you can feel. Take a moment when you’re on a walk with your kids or while cooking a meal to really be present, and see what feelings of gratitude come up.
Make a list while you walk. Or while you’re getting ready. Or while you’re in the shower. Or while you brush your teeth. You get the idea. Yes, your thoughts might shift to things that frustrate you or stress you out, but that’s okay; just acknowledge those thoughts and refocus on what you’re grateful for.
Reframe negative thoughts that come up as moments of gratitude. This is, admittedly, the hardest one for many people—but it’s also potentially the most powerful. If you can master the art of shifting your thinking from negative to positive, you’ll really feel a shift in your life.
Now, to be clear, I’m not advising you to stop feeling your feelings or stuff down the hard parts of life; it’s completely okay and important to acknowledge where you’re at, to figure out what you want from life, and to feel your grief or sadness or anger. But you can also feel gratitude amidst those painful feelings. Once you’ve acknowledged your pain, it’s okay and important to re-ground yourself with hope and gratitude.
Even within the day-to-day, you can shift from negative thoughts and feelings to gratitude. Here’s what this might look like:
You see that your partner left dirty dishes in the sink again and you’re annoyed; you acknowledge your annoyance, and you shift your focus to how you’re grateful for your partner’s hugs or support.
Your preschooler is particularly difficult today, and you’re frustrated; you acknowledge your frustration, and then you shift your focus to how you’re grateful for your child, even though today’s really, really hard.
You open the electric bill and feel anxiety about money; you acknowledge the anxiety, and you shift your focus to feeling grateful for the warmth and lights in your home.
You’re sitting in traffic and you’re feeling down; you acknowledge this low feeling, and then you shift your focus to the pretty sunset ahead.
These are just a few of the ways you can integrate gratitude into your daily life. You’ll find your own little tricks as you set out on this journey. And you won’t be perfect at it; you’ll catch yourself focused on the negativity, and you’ll find moments where you feel like you can’t find a single thing you’re grateful for. In those moments, I challenge you to keep looking.
There is always, always something to be grateful for, no matter how small.
But if you’re willing to take this challenge — to actively pursue gratitude in your life — I feel confident that you’ll start to feel your life shift to a more positive place.
Let’s all make this year the year we’re more actively grateful. Cheers to 2019!
Dr. Hilary Mandzik is a Licensed Psychologist serving Cary, NC and the Triangle area. She provides therapy for children, therapy for new parents, and support for parents through consultations and workshops in her Cary office and offers online therapy and consultations for parents throughout NC and VA. Click here or call 919–344–1296 to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if working together is a good fit for your family’s needs.