Gratitude, Perspective and Balance Can Help You through the Tough Times

Summer vacations are over. The fall routine has returned. Activities are starting up that both enrich us and add stress to our schedules. Days are getting colder. There’s less daylight. The fall and winter holidays are approaching, but they are sad and lonely times for some. And this is the reality even before you’ve consumed any news broadcasts.

If all of this makes the world feel a little more bleak than it did during the sunny days of summer, then cultivating more gratitude, perspective and balance may help to bring us back to a place of calm, hope and optimism. Here are some techniques to try when your outlook needs a lift.

Good news: Sometimes it’s about the little things

It may not take much to snap you back to a better psychological and emotional place. A few small actions can add up to make a big difference in regaining your perspective:

• Keep a “happy notes” file. Anytime someone writes or says something nice to or about you, file it away to read when your self-esteem needs a boost. These compliments and words of support and love can quickly remind you that you have much more worth than you may believe at that particular moment.

• At meals with family members or friends, take turns sharing a “gratitude”: some large or small thing from that day that you saw, felt, heard, thought or experienced that made you feel thankful. 

• Or, keep your blessings to yourself by writing in a gratitude journal each night. Writing just one thing daily is easy (so you’ll be more likely to keep it up), and those notations quickly add up to remind you that ordinary life can still be pretty grand. Even on a day when the best thing you can say is that it’s over, be OK with that. Tomorrow truly is a new day.

• This may sound gloomy, but during an adventure with breast cancer that I had some years ago, I invented the “How could it be worse?” game. Whenever I was scared or feeling sorry for myself, I thought about the many, many ways in which my life could be worse, and I immediately felt much better. 

Be present

Up on a ledge in my house, I used to have large, gold letters that read, “Be present.” That message was meant to remind me that there is no greater gift that you can give to yourself or someone else than being wholly “there” in the moment: listening, engaging, experiencing. It requires focusing fully, not leaping ahead or interrupting, and expressing that you’re paying attention through your eyes, facial expression and body language.

But why be present? I think the best reasons are that you get more out of any activity, whether you’re alone or with others; you show that you care about those you’re with; and it fosters gratitude. It’s hard to focus so completely without seeing a person’s, thing’s, moment’s or event’s inherent worth shine through. 

I can’t claim to be very good at being present, but the gold letters reminded me that it’s a standard to strive for every day. Those words are part of how I end my annual holiday letter as well: “Be present. Be grateful. Be awed.” (Being awed is a surefire path to gratitude and perspective.)

Try a little kindness

Certainly you’ve seen bumper stickers urging you to “commit random acts of kindness.” The Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Foundation expands on the idea, inspiring people to become “RAKtivists” through compassionate acts. It advocates replacing Black Friday shopping with RAK Friday, and it will kick off its next RAK Week (Feb. 16-23, 2020) with RAK Day on Feb. 17, 2020. Can’t wait that long? Participate in World Kindness Day on Nov. 13, or make every day RAK Day. 

When I told a friend about the RAK Foundation, he responded that the randomness idea had never resonated with him because randomness is hit or miss – and often miss. He said, “An orientation of systematic acts of kindness makes more sense to me: developing habits of kindness or consideration that kick in relatively automatically, that become routine and all the more pervasive and effective for that routinization. Holding doors open for other people is a trivial but typical example. Having a pattern of contributing to food pantries or donating blood, without the stimulus of special drives or events, are some others.”

I like this idea a lot, especially because kindness, compassion and volunteerism cultivate gratitude, perspective and balance. Caring for others in small and large ways reminds us that we are not alone in our troubles; others’ worries may be much greater than our own; and other people can benefit from what we have to give, however imperfect.

Speaking of imperfection …

You’ve heard of feng shui, but how about wabi-sabi? 

Wikipedia’s definition reads, in part: “In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.’ … Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.”

Wabi-sabi nurtures the authentic by acknowledging that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect. So if nothing is perfect, we can not only accept imperfection, but we can even celebrate it! It’s going to occur (a lot) anyway, so we might as well embrace this way of seeing real beauty in imperfection. We can then perhaps be amused by it, appreciate it, forgive ourselves for it and view it as another strong reason why cultivating perspective is a very mentally healthy way to go through life.

Cut the worry

Reducing worry and the resulting stress can definitely foster gratitude, perspective and balance. As we so often hear (but so seldom heed), most things that we worry about never come to fruition, can’t be changed or are just petty, so why worry about them? That right there should cultivate some serious perspective. 

Then pursue alternatives to worrying: Seek more information, develop options, take action and accept the emotional or actual price tag of that action, or decide to release or defer your worry. Those are all better than fruitless rumination.

And reduce the negativity. Whenever something upsetting confronts you, think of positive responses or reactions, assume people mean you no malice and don’t take things personally. Because so few things are actually worth worrying about, you might as well approach an unknown-outcome situation with a more upbeat attitude.

But what if there’s a genuine disaster? Worry is still futile, but take positive action if you can. And take things one day at a time when long-range thinking is too scary: Deal with today’s concerns today, but don’t conjure up future problems that may not materialize.

One last anti-worry tactic: Whenever I have a lot on my mind, I write it all down, date the piece of paper and file it away for three or four weeks. When I review the list after that much time, I find that some of the concerns may still be active, but I’ve resolved others; some resolved themselves or at least improved; some became less important to me; and others never amounted to much. That means that my fretting would not have done any good.

Gratitude, perspective and balance: May they bring you some calm, hope and optimism to help you through the dark times.

Paula Apfelbach, the former owner of Breathing Room Professional Organizing in Madison, is now the copy editor of the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living magazine.