I remember being told when I was young to count my blessings, and getting even more disgruntled. It was usually when I had been refused something I wanted and felt like a reprimand for not being grateful enough, not being a good enough person. I had no desire to be a saint! But I have learnt that it works to count the good things in a day, because it makes me feel better about myself and my life.
Our definition of good things will be quite individual: it is the times in our day that make us feel that we are living our lives well. It may be finally getting that job done you have been putting off, or relaxing into a conversation instead of worrying about whether you have time to just stop and talk, or allowing yourself to read a couple of chapters of that book you’re enjoying – you get the theme… They are the times when we behave as we would prefer to behave, whatever that means to us.
Notice that this is about how we would prefer to behave, not how we ought to. For me, this is the important distinction: it’s about making my own version of a good life, not some cultural standard that I need to match up to – I still don’t want to feel saintly!
We are taught to ‘do the right thing’, whether that be being polite or getting the job done efficiently, and we get lost in all the rules about how you should behave especially since some of them are contradictory. Most of us develop a keen sense of how often we fail to meet the required standards, and even when we meet them, we may not feel good about it – have you ever spent the day being both considerate and hard-working, but felt resentful and exhausted at the end of it? This is not helping us to live our lives well.
For me, there came a point where I had had enough. I realised that life felt like a constant effort with small reward – we don’t get a lot of recognition for the times when we do meet those standards, from others or ourselves – and I’m human, I need to feel it’s worth it!
I still get caught up in noticing my own ‘failure’ sometimes, but I’m getting better at avoiding that trap, and would like to encourage you to do the same, for several reasons:
- It makes you feel better: life feels more satisfying and enjoyable
- It makes you feel better: you become less stressed and more energised.
- It makes you feel better: you are more motivated to behave in the ways that make you feel good and improve your life
- It makes you feel better: you feel as if you are in control of your own story rather than making constant efforts to fit a story imposed on you.
So how do we start?
- As ever, we begin by noticing the times when we feel good about ourselves, to tell ourselves consciously the categories of things that make us feel good. It is important to use our emotions rather than our heads to do this identification, because our emotions are a more accurate indicator of our true nature. My head may say I was ‘wasting time’ reading that book for a while, but I feel calmer and more relaxed, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, my head may tell me that it was good to spend four hours on a Sunday afternoon clearing emails, while my emotions remind me that I feel resentful, weary and don’t really want to go to work tomorrow – not a good thing!
- We start counting. Catch yourself doing it right, feeling good about yourself at the end of an activity, even if it were only five minutes long. For example, if you allow yourself to sit down to eat your toast in the morning, instead of eating it as you continue to get ready, count it. Or if you stopped doing emails after an hour, and said that’s enough for now, count it.
- Keep a record of your score. This does two things: it gives us a sense of achievement instead of failure; it also helps to motivate us to enhance our scores – can I do better than yesterday? What small thing would make me feel good about myself this evening? Those of you who have been to my home will know that I keep score with brightly coloured beads, hung in my living room, because I like the visual reminder of my progress in living my life how I want to live it. It doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you do record the good things every day.
Now if all this sounds too much, you can bring it down a notch. You may begin by just counting one aspect of your life that you want to be better at: how many times can you laugh in a day? How many times do you allow yourself to relax for a little while? How many times do you genuinely pay attention to others? How many times do you take a five-minute break?
This is a gentle and fun way of gradually making our lives feel better, and it starts to reverse the cultural norm of noticing our failures rather than our successes. It may not turn you into a saint, but it will surely make you feel better!