When I first heard about making a gratitude list, I wrote down the good things that I have and waited to feel the warm glow of genuine gratitude for them. I didn't list mere objects; I wrote down big concepts like family, home, and employment. Then I gazed at the page, feeling nothing. After a few more tries, I admitted that this might not work for me. Maybe I needed a different approach.
I bumbled across this different approach in a kindergarten classroom where a little girl had misbehaved. She had been disciplined, lost privileges, and the teacher had made a phone call to her home. Now, by naptime, the girl was distraught. Her sobs filled the room, preventing everyone from resting. I was asked to help quiet her down.
I sat down on the floor next to her. She squirmed around on her blanket and began to tell me her troubles. "I had to go to the principal, and I'm gonna get in trouble when I go home!" she wailed.
There was no denying she would have to answer for her actions, so I said, "I know, it's awful. I'm sorry about the things that happened today. But you did good things, too. I know - I saw you."
She stopped crying long enough to look at me.
"Sure," I said. "I saw you help your friends put away the blocks this morning." I paused, unable to think of anything else. But she seemed to be waiting for more, and while she was listening, she wasn't crying, so I added, "You've done all kinds of good things today. For one thing, you got to school on time, didn't you?"
"And ... you've got on the school uniform, just like you're supposed to. And your shoes are tied. And your hair is done so nicely. What a pretty bow you're wearing!"
These comments seemed silly to me, but they weren't to her. To my surprise, her eyes began to flutter closed. She murmured, "And I threw away my trash after snack time."
So I said, "Well, now, there you go. You're the kind of girl who also does good things at school." There was no need to say more because she was sound asleep.
Later, I wondered about the effect my words had. It seems that by simply listing the good things she did, we implied qualities: She was helpful, punctual, obedient, and clean. The despairing child was so grateful to hear this different view of herself that she relaxed enough to go to sleep.
I wondered: Would this kind of gratitude list have the same calming effect if I tried it on myself? It did!
Now I make a mental list of the good things I've done during the day. When I've made mistakes, I take a moment to switch my thoughts to what I've done right: I got to work on time, I held a door open for someone, I said hello to a new co-worker. When I review even the worst day this way, small acts reassure me that I really am good - and I feel grateful for that.
Who knew I could discover so much by going back to kindergarten?