Making gratitude a part of my daily routine helped me in unexpected ways.
2016 was a hard year for a lot of us. That's why on January 1, I started a "thankfulness thread" on Twitter.
It's a small thing, but it's made a big difference in my life.
Every night, just before I go to bed, I think of one thing from that day that I'm thankful for and tweet it out into the world. Sometimes, these tweets are about my family, friends, or others in my life; sometimes, they're about things as simple and silly as macaroni and cheese or a movie I watched that particular day. The point of the exercise is to find one thing I can focus on, even if just for a few seconds, to be thankful for, and put the rest of the world out of my mind.
The idea actually came from my therapist — another thing I started doing in 2017, going to a therapist — as a way to break from cycles of negativity I was experiencing after the election.
For instance, in June, I tweeted about how I was thankful for my dad, writing that "he's a good dude who always did his best."
In August, I watched my beloved Chicago Cubs put up 17 runs on the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same month, I tweeted about how thankful I was to hang out with my friends Will and Tim after their band played a set at Lollapalooza.
In October, I expressed my gratitude for Kayla, my wife and all-around favorite person on the planet. I also took a moment to appreciate the crisp weather of fall in the Midwest.
What at first seemed like a hokey ritual soon turned into one of my favorite parts of the day.
These deliberate reflections gave me a fresh sense of ease and control over my own life. I felt less stressed and more appreciative, less likely to have knee-jerk negative reactions and more eager to find ways to make a positive mark on the world. While the list didn't erase any of the many ongoing horrors of the world, it did help me put matters in perspective.
I'm nowhere near the first person to experience the benefits of being thankful. Researchers have been studying this tactic for years.
A 2009 University of Manchester study found that switching your brain into a state of gratitude right before bed had a positive effect on sleep quality and duration. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper in 2003 highlighting the positive effects of "gratitude journals" on one's sense of mood and well-being. The Journal of Religion and Health published a 2015 study linking gratitude with physical health and hopefulness, and a 2012 Social Psychology and Personality Science paper found ties between thankfulness and an increased capacity for empathy.
Whether it's something like the proximity of my parents or the kindness and care of the people at my local pet supply store, making my list has helped me hone in on the mindset I needed to unlock those benefits.
As with all things related to mental health, it's important to find what works for you.
Some people benefit from therapy, others from medication; some swear by exercise and eating well, while others see help in the form of routine. As for me, it's been a combination of the above that's helped me cope with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues I sometimes struggle with.
As we enter 2018, I hope to build on some of the progress I've made over the past year, to reflect on what I'd like to change and reinforce what I love about myself. As long as I'm growing and improving with each passing day, working to overcome my flaws, I'll always have something to be thankful for.