How a 30-Day Challenge Changed the Course of My Life
I have a tradition. For years, I have kept a Gratitude Jar—a large, clear, decorated mason jar—on my family’s kitchen table. Each New Year’s Eve (along with fondue!), my family empties the jar and we read our gratitudes from the previous year. On New Year’s Day, we create a new jar. On January 1, 2020, we created our seventh Gratitude Jar!
Although this simple practice of consistently recognizing what I’m grateful for sounds likes the perfect New Year’s resolution, it wasn’t one. Statistically speaking, most people fail at those anyway (myself included). This was something altogether different. My gratitude tradition stemmed from a challenge I gave myself while enrolled in WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology (CiWPP) course. Here’s what happened.
In 2013, at a point in my life when I was searching for joy, I challenged myself to write about five things that brought me joy each day. I learned that it takes 30 days to create a new habit, and that’s what I was going to do! I also learned that we could rewire the neuroplasticity of our brains through positive thinking. This blew my mind. Like other things I had practiced in the past (swimming, triathlon, piano), I knew that the more I practiced, the better I would get. Deeply humbled after learning about growth mindset, I realized that if I wanted to be happier, as with anything else, I would have to work at it.
Initially, recognizing joy each day wasn’t easy. Looking back, I knew joy was all around me, but I couldn’t always see it. Physically writing it down each day helped me to first intentionally look for joy and then, through writing, make sense of what I was feeling. This two-step process helped me become the active agent in my story, rather than the passive victim I had perceived myself as. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was literally writing myself into the next chapter of my life, one where I could see joy in even the most difficult and painful situations.
As any social psychologist will tell you, happiness is contagious. My classmates noticed what I was doing and started keeping and sharing their own joy lists. This sparked the creation of the Circle of Joy, an online forum within CiWPP where a dedicated group of us committed to writing about joy each day. The interpersonal sharing was so powerful that I was inspired to include my family. Yet I knew this type of exercise would be too difficult for my young children. In its place, I crafted a simple Joy Jar from a mason jar. Each night thereafter, my husband, children, and I shared five things we found joyous that day. After first verbally sharing, we then selected one “joy” to write down and place in the jar. This habit became part of our regular dinner routine. I loved watching the little scraps of joy fill up the jar over time, and so did my family. Once again, positivity was spreading!
As I continued to focus on boosting my positivity ratio, I noticed another interesting phenomenon. The more I recognized joy, the more grateful I became. “Words create worlds,” said Ronald Fry, co-creator of the Appreciative Inquiry method, and he was right. In my pursuit to become happier—by paying attention to joy—what I discovered was gratitude! And so in 2014, I converted my Joy Jar into a Gratitude Jar and kept on going.
One year passed and I had yet another revelation. Realizing that people never knew how much I appreciated them, even when their name repeatedly wound up in my Gratitude Jar, I got to thinking: If the act of placing someone’s name in my jar made me feel so happy, how great would they feel if they knew that I had done so?
And then I also wondered … How many times had I wanted to tell a friend, colleague, or family member how grateful I was to them, but felt too vulnerable to do so? How many times did I let my ego get in the way of expressing my true, human emotions? How many times had I let too much time pass without communicating my appreciation to others for their amazing qualities? And why was it so easy to appreciate people from afar, but much more difficult to express my gratitude to them directly?
People who know me know that I’m good at saying thank you. Yet this was different. I wanted to do more. I wanted to move beyond acknowledging material and service-oriented gifts. I wanted to recognize others for their exceptional “personhood,” express my appreciation for the ways in which they touched my life, and honor our shared connection, whether it was a single interaction or decades of reliability. I wanted to do this in writing—but not in a quick text, email, or Facebook “like.” And I wanted to do it with no strings attached, no pressure to “like” me back. One hundred percent exclusive of social media, where you won’t find me anyway.
And then I came up with the solution—Gratitude Jar postcards! Letting others know that I had placed their name in my jar, and why, I began sending one unexpected, openhearted postcard at a time. And you know what happened? Gratitude spread, just like joy had. Why? Because, like joy, gratitude is contagious!
Research shows that when we incorporate gratitude into a conversation, it changes the conversation in positive ways. Robert Emmons, arguably the foremost expert on the study of gratitude over the past two decades, contends that the practice of gratitude involves not only appreciating all of the goodness and gifts we have received in our lives, but also acknowledgingthe many originators of these gifts (whether they be people or a higher spiritual power). Sonja Lyubomirsky, UC-Riverside Professor of Psychology and happiness expert, agrees. She tells us that the practice of gratitude, by definition, involves focusing on the present moment and appreciating one’s life, and everything and everyone who has helped make it this way. Without even knowing it, I was doing just that. The happiness that I craved at the beginning of 2013, the joy that I was looking for—I had found it through a process of appreciative inquiry that resulted in discovering gratitude.
Six years ago, I set a simple intention to pay attention to joy. I had no idea where this exercise would lead me, but I was committed to the challenge. Since then, I have found that the more I committed to gratitude (by way of joy!) as the principal guide in my life, the more my life has flourished. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Over the past two decades, hundreds of studies focusing on the benefits of gratitude have found that the more we recognize and appreciate the good in our lives, the more we practice gratitude, and the more we express gratitude to others, the healthier and happier we become. All of us!
So I propose a challenge to you this year. Set an intention! Ask yourself what you’re looking for, what’s missing in your life. Then, commit to that intention for 30 days. It’s that simple, and you never know where it might lead you.
Jennifer A. Minotti is an Artist-in-Residence at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rightsat Suffolk University and a PhD student at Lesley University. Jen is the founder of the Women’s Writing Circle, Co-creator of the World’s Very First Gratitude Parade, and helped establish Gratitude Day in the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts. For 17 years, Jen worked at Education Development Center(EDC) in a variety of technology, research and management roles for projects that focused on education, health, and human development. Learn more at gratitudejar.org.