Before I talk about keeping a gratitude list, I want to talk about the word itself — gratitude.
Gratitude can be a nebulous and meaningless term. It can be a crutch to hide from your ambition. Or, it could be the key to true happiness, sanity, and contentment.
How you define and use gratitude means more than anything else. And that’s where keeping a gratitude list comes in.
Keeping one can remind you of life’s greatness. It can also serve as a reminder that you once wanted what you have now.
When you’re feeling truly low, you can use dramatic comparisons to make yourself feel better.
Before I talk about how I keep a gratitude list, let’s go through the different forms of gratitude, how to interpret them, as well as how they affect your life.
Base Level Gratitude
I once saw a video where people in third world countries read aloud tweets from people with “first world problems.”
There’d be a Kindergarten-aged kid, with one of those malnourished bellies that stick out, in a filthy t-shirt with no shoes on, reading something aloud like:
“Ugh, I hate it when I’m laying in bed and my charger cord doesn’t reach all the way.”
This juxtaposition was used to show how ridiculous most people’s complaints are.
I realize that life in today’s society isn’t perfect. There are injustices. Things could be better. But some of you really annoy me with your lack of gratitude.
If you live in America, you are part of the once percent compared to the rest of the world.
I’m a black male and I’m thrilled that, while there’s still plenty o’ racism, I don’t live in bondage or Jim Crow.
You can make these type of comparisons in current times. If you dial things back even further, you should thank your lucky stars you live in this era.
Black plague anyone? Famine? Are hunter-gatherers getting eaten by Saber-Tooth Tigers? Chill. Things could be much worse.
“But what about the problems in the world? Third world countries? Poverty?”
Yes, those are very real problems, but they have nothing to do with your actual life and you know it. It’s all outrage porn rooted in self-loathing and lack of achievement.
Can I call a spade a spade?
You want something to point to that has nothing to do with you, so you can paint a narrative that absolves you of personal responsibility. No need to self-actualize if the sky is falling.
Even though the standard of living has increased 100x in the past century, people are still complaining. Why? Because humans think in relative terms. It doesn’t matter if society ascends if they feel like they’re at the bottom.
Alas, one of the best ways to ground yourself is to realize that, in relative terms, you are insanely well off.
True Gratitude > Crutch Gratitude
Base-level gratitude just keeps you from being a pretentious dweeb. But it can quickly turn into a crutch you use to justify your lack of achievement in life. See, most people want more for their life. We’re humans. We’re wired to improve, adapt, and strive. But some people just come to the conclusion that dreams are
So gratitude then transforms from a useful exercise to a form of mental masturbation. When you practice fake gratitude, you twist base-level gratitude into fake-contentment.
“At least I have a roof over my head.”
“I’m paying the bills. Gettin’ the job done.”
“I have family and friends (so does everyone else in the world for the most part). That’s all I need!”
Real gratitude happens when you are grateful for bi-products of your growth or things that support it.
For example, I am grateful that I live in an age where anyone can become a writer, start a business, or become a media star for little money and a lot of effort. But I root that gratitude in a mission I’m following.
See the difference?
I’m grateful for the ability to be present with my friends and family because I spend time on my mission. I am not the prototypical sitcom dad who can’t stand his family because he hates his job and comes home tired and drained.
I’m grateful for the physical health that affords me the energy to do what I do. But I also contribute to my own health by working out and eating right.
Ok, I’ve beaten the dead horse enough. But this form of gratitude can change everything for you. I promise.
I’ve found an interesting way to flip obstacles and challenges into things to be grateful for. And I actually mean it.
For example, I just became a full-time writer. I’m excited, but I’m also super paranoid and worried I’ll be out on the street any day.
Contrary to popular belief, going out on your own isn’t blissful freedom, it’s, in many ways, more stressful. But it’s a different form of stress — eustress. This is the type of stress you experience when you’re working hard on a goal or mission.
I welcome this stress. I’m grateful for it.
I just started a YouTube channel. It’s fun, but now I remember all the crappy feelings that come with being a beginner. While I’ve built a following as a writer, nobody knows me on YouTube. I have to start over again with little to no views.
I’m experiencing the hurdles I had when I started writing — technical issues, minutiae, all the things you don’t know that you don’t know. I’m grateful for these negative feelings because I feel more grounded again.
When I finally reached one of my major writing goals, I started, as the kids say, “feeling myself.” I got cocky.
But I know that believing you have the “golden touch” can cause you to become arrogant and lose it all. I’m grateful for that realization, which led to an opportunity to start over, which lead to more gratitude.
See a theme here? Real gratitude is…real. And you know it’s real based on the situation you’re currently in.
Gratitude, like almost everything in life, is context-dependent. Use it wisely.
How I Use My Gratitude List
I have a morning routine of sorts. I wake up, drink coffee, shower, meditate for 20 minutes, then journal.
The first part of my journaling routine involves writing down three things I’m grateful for. This short gratitude list often provides a perspective I can use to stay motivated and grounded throughout the day.
The things I put on today’s gratitude list are:
- “A fresh clear-headed Monday” — I had a hectic prior week. I barely worked on my writing and felt frustrated about it. Today, I felt grateful to have peace and quiet for work.
- “A growing network both online and offline” — I recently separated from my wife and moved to a new city. This all happened as my career hit a crescendo. I’m meeting new people through my writing and in the new city I live in. I turned something bitter/sweet into something to be grateful for.
- “The opportunity to really create a legacy and an empire.” — I’m an ambitious guy. I want to make a dent in the universe. After years of work, the stars have aligned for me to have the opportunity to do…a hell of a lot more work. I’m not even close to done and things are actually going to get harder. But I love it.
So today’s gratitude list was upbeat. But sometimes, I will dip into base-level gratitude when I feel down.
When I take a major financial hit, I do remember that I’m not destitute or impoverished.
I once wrote down that I was grateful to have functioning hands during a time where I was struggling with my writing.
The key here? Adjust your gratitude list to your current needs. Context-dependent. Always remember that.
The Other Side of Gratitude
So what’s this all about, really?
What’s the point of keeping a gratitude list?
I spent more time talking about the underlying meaning of gratitude instead of rattling off a bunch of bullet point ideas for what to put on a gratitude list. I did this because this is the same way I think about all habits. They’re always a means to an end, not the end itself.
So to what end should you keep a gratitude list for?
The world is going batshit crazy. Everyone’s mentally masturbating to outrage porn, faces buried in their phones Tweeting about politics instead of looking up at the sky to realize they live in a floating globe in the middle of a mysterious abyss.
You keep a gratitude list so you stop worrying about dumb shit all the time.
You keep a gratitude list to avoid this from happening to you:
“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.” — Charles Bukowski
You keep one to remind yourself how pretentious and ungrateful you can be, which in turn lets you know that when other people act this way, they often can’t help themselves. This makes you more compassionate.
Life isn’t perfect. It isn’t fair. Hell, it’s not even very nice at all sometimes. But it doesn’t have to be any of the above for you to love it unconditionally.