In a world gone mad, here’s how I learned to keep sane through simple acts of gratitude

It’s the little things.
It’s the little things.
Image: Reuters/ Dominic Ebenbichler
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Our everyday world is fairly bonkers. As a New Yorker, I deal with constant ambient noise: cab horns and ringtones and sirens and subway announcements and people complaining about unintelligible subway announcements and the word “latte” and people telling other people that they “can’t even.” It’s not an environment that’s very conducive to inner peace.

Then there are the more existential problems. I have money concerns and no time for the gym. I worry about my abilities as a parent and about career stuff. I worry about my health. I worry about climate change. And since I became a father and turned 30, I worry about dying. And retirement. And spiders. I hate spiders. Something about the way they move freaks me out.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. Not by a damn long shot. I have, as everyone does, some things at which I excel. I also have, as everyone does, many more things that need copious work and improvement. Finally, I do to try to do a few things every day to mitigate all the scary and lousy stuff I just mentioned. Chief among them is that I am a really, really, really, grateful person.

I think that gratitude is one of the most important things in the universe. And I don’t mean the humble-braggy, #soblessed kind of gratitude (although even that is a genuine attempt in some cases). I’m talking about honest, uncool, unsexy, unvarnished attempts to honor the things in my life that are helpful and good and create space for joy. What I have found is that gratitude isn’t something that happens to us. It’s a choice and a skill set that needs to be honed and polished repeatedly.

My personal trick for doing this is so simple that it almost doesn’t qualify as a trick. When “good” things happen to me, I make a concerted effort to be grateful in a specific and proactive way. And when “bad” things happen to me, I make a concerted effort to find reasons to be grateful anyway. There are things worthy of deliberate gratitude in every experience in our lives. Here’s some stuff I do that you can do too, if you want:

Keep a gratitude journal

It’s precisely as nerdy as it sounds. I carry it with me everywhere. I personally prefer Moleskin notebooks and Pilot G-2 07 pens. The Moleskin notebooks are awesome because Ernest Hemingway used them and if you know anything about Ernest Hemingway you know he was a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking badass. (And in my best moments, I fancy myself kind of a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking badass.) I like the pens because they fit my giant bear paw hands nicely, and I like the way they sound when they click. Also, taking them apart and putting them back together makes me feel cool in a low-level James Bond kind of way. I am not kidding about any of this. I am going into this much detail for reason! I have found (and recommend you find) actual, physical products and objects that me more inclined to do this work, because the objects themselves are pleasing to me. In this way, gratitude becomes a pleasant, tactile experience for me.

The actual process is simple. Any time I have a minute, I try not to take out my phone and mess around. Instead, I (try) to take out my gratitude journal and write in it. I start each page with the same sentence: “I am so happy and grateful beyond measure for my continued good health, safety, well-being, and prosperity and that of my beautiful family.”

Then I sit and think about things for which I am grateful. Some are big: “I am so grateful that I am able to support my family financially from acting alone.” Some are small: “I am so grateful that my train was running two minutes late because so was I and I made it.” Which brings me to the other part of this process that I like—and where I may lose some of you—I write things in the journal that I am grateful for that have not happened yet. Call it a future gratitude and specific intention practice. I choose a goal in my career or life and I write it down as though it has already happened. This makes me deeply joyful. And if the stuff I write down comes true, great. I’ll write about it then too. Either way, in this moment it was fun as hell to think about and write about.

Express gratitude to people all the time

Be forewarned: People won’t be ready for it. You’ll get a whole lot of “Ummm … okay, that’s weird but whatever but you’re welcome I guess?” kind of responses. Do not allow this to destroy your soul or inclination to continue this behavior. People are not used to being thanked, particularly the ones who deserve thanks the most. And these people react oddly because they are waiting for you to confirm that it is all an elaborate prank. Thank them anyway. And keep doing it. They’ll come around—and they deserve it.

Don’t deflect when people express gratitude to me

Look at the phrases our culture has developed for instances when someone says thank you. “It’s nothing,” “Not at all,” “Don’t mention it.” Nobody likes it when people demand thanks for the things they do. It feels weird. It feels like something is being taken from us rather than being given by us. But it’s just as lousy to dismiss someone’s attempt to express gratitude. Just accept it. Welcome it. Receive it. And don’t get weird or deflect. Don’t list the reasons why they shouldn’t be grateful. Instead focus on the fact that they are taking the time and courage to tell you thanks.

I get specific with my gratitude

It’s nice to thank people. But it’s much more meaningful if you tell them specifically why you’re grateful. Rather than being a placeholder in an interaction, this transforms the conversation into a real moment between two human beings. This is a good move, particularly if the person is involved in the service industry. I try not just to thank a barista for my coffee. Instead, I try to compliment their skill at making it. If I’m at the bank, I try to thank the teller for their efficiency and speed. If my kids draw me something, I try to compliment the colors. We all want to connect with each other. Specificity in my gratitude helps ensure that connection. People deserve that from me as a fellow human. And, as an aspiring Hemingway-esque badass, I try to live by a code.

Here’s the bottom line: People deserve to be thanked. So thank them. It will knit you to the people you come across in everyday life—and that cannot help but make the world a little bit better.