For years, thought leaders and pop-psychologists have been telling us that gratitude is the long lost secret to happiness, success, harmonious relationships, wild sex, financial abundance, world peace, and the perfect brownie recipe with crispy edges and gooey middles. There’s even a bunch of quasi-compelling science to support gratitude’s transformational power.

When I first started reading about these practices, I was totally seduced. For months, I started each day by writing five or ten things I was grateful for. I tried to tell myself that I was becoming happier and that success was right around the corner.

And of course… nothing much changed. I wrote gratitude off as one of the countless things that seemed like it should improve my life, but didn’t.

That is, until earlier this year when my friend Charlie taught me a simple gratitude practice.

1) Begin by sitting down and spending a bit of time thinking about the future you want to create for yourself.1

2) Once you have a clear picture of that future, try to foster feelings of gratitude and excitement for it.

3) Let those feelings wash over you for a little while.

4) That’s it. Open your eyes and move on with your life. I know it seems like it should be more complicated than that, but it isn’t.

I’ve been spending a minute or two each morning doing this exercise, and I love it. Has it allowed me to effortlessly manifest my dream life as if by magic? No.2 Has it at least made it so that I never have bad days anymore? Of course not. However, it has made a very real difference. So far, it has:

  • Helped me see my path. I tend to take the scenic route in life, just sort of cruising around without a clear destination. While there’s nothing wrong with that exactly, it makes getting to where you’re going sort of impossible. Thanks in part to this practice, I now have a very clear idea of where I want to go both personally and professionally. Though this might not seem like a big deal, it’s exciting for me. 
  • Shown me how to stay easily focused and motivated. Since I finally know where I’m going, it’s become much easier for me to agree to the right stuff and decline the wrong stuff. It’s also made avoiding procrastination far, far easier because I don’t struggle with motivation as much as I used to. 
  • Made me happier in the moment (and equipped me to shape a better future). A simple truth about the flow of time: the present is the only gateway to the future. In other words, if you want to improve your future you can only do so by improving your present. Spending a few minutes feeling excited and grateful for what’s to come gives me more energy and creativity in the moment. 
  • Helped me find a bit of magic in the mundane. Though technically this practice is future facing, I’ve also started to notice how amazing my present is. I’ve found myself delighted by simple things that I never used to notice like my bamboo plant, or the feel of the fresh summer air. Given that this has been an unusually demanding year, appreciating the little things has meant a lot to me.

PS: Two other gratitude practices I love

While the practice above is the only gratitude exercise that I do every day, there are two others that I really love and wanted to share.

1) The Five-Minute Journal. The Five-Minute Journal is a minimal and beautifully designed gratitude journal. It guides you to spend a few minutes each morning writing down three things you’re grateful for and three things that would make the day great. In the evening, you spend a few minutes reflecting on what went well and what could have been better. Simple. Fun. Effective.

2) Mailing thank you cards. Recently, I’ve been mailing thank you cards expressing appreciation for the roles certain people play in my life. Doing this brings me more joy than I expected. It also strengthens my relationships. I’d like to tell you that I’m disciplined and I do it every Friday or whatever, but that’s not the case. Instead, I leave a box of correspondence cards around my apartment, and write a note or two when I feel inspired.

Footnotes

  1. While it’s tempting to envision a future where Richard Branson seeks your business advice, Mila Kunis falls madly in love with you, and the Dali Llama requests your spiritual counsel, let’s rein it in a bit ok? I know that self-help gurus have told you to dream big, but dreaming big is just as destructive (and delusional) as not dreaming at all. Instead, envision a future that you could create within the next year or so without magic powers. I promise it will work out better that way.
  2. (2) At the risk of losing 99% of my readers and outing myself as spiritually stunted: I don’t really believe in The Secret, or manifesting, or any of that stuff. I simply believe that smart, playful, creative, disciplined work complemented by good self-care, patience, openness, and generosity will reliably foster success and joy.
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