I Practiced Gratitude For One Year — Here’s What I Learned

Mark Paulo Jabay
10 min readJan 5, 2021

2020 was my first year of conscious daily gratitude. From January 1 to December 31, I wrote three or more post-it notes every day about things I was grateful for, and then put them into a box. I compiled somewhere around 1,200 notes.

The gratitude practice was inspired by Dr. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection, which I had read a year earlier. Brene’s research shows that people who feel joyful and fulfilled in their lives practice gratitude. They don’t just wait for life circumstances to evoke a sense of gratitude; they proactively cultivate it.

That was interesting. Intellectually, I had always thought that practicing gratitude was probably worthwhile. That it was good to be thankful for my blessings, and good to “count” them at night. Anyway, it couldn’t hurt to be grateful, right?

But in hindsight, I had probably treated gratitude too casually. It was something to do when convenient, when I had time for it — like at night during my prayers (if I wasn’t too sleepy and I remembered to pray, that is).

After reading Brene’s book, I got curious: What if I took gratitude a little more seriously? What would happen?

Well, I’m glad I did, because along the way I learned to appreciate a few things, some of which I hadn’t expected.

The More Obvious Stuff

But first, here’s what I did expect…

Yes, I learned to be even more consciously grateful for things that probably most people would be grateful for, such as windfalls of good fortune. It was easy to be grateful, for example, for unexpected gifts from family and friends, or job offers from clients old and new.

It was also easy to be grateful for things that went well but weren’t surprising. Things like a package arriving from Lazada or Amazon, or even food delivered by FoodPanda.

And, of course, it was easy to be immensely thankful for all the frontliners keeping everyone safe amid the pandemic.

All of these examples are ones whereby most of us would naturally say “thank you” to the other person.

But for me, the gratitude practice involved much more than that. Something naturally emerged from my experience, which hearkened to a theme that also emerged from Brene’s study: Research participants contextualized gratitude as a spiritual practice “bound to a belief in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.”

Somehow, because of my practice of writing my gratitude down, I was always reminded to thank God as well. And each time, I felt a stirring inside to pray for the other person, too.

So, many of my post-it notes went something like this:

  • “{XYZ happened}! I’m so grateful because… Thank you, God. Please bless {person or company} always. Amen.”

Eventually, I realized that, at least for me, gratitude and prayer go hand-in-hand. God used the other person to bless me, and one of the best ways to give thanks was by praying that God bless them, too.

The Less Obvious Stuff

It’s not every day that big wonderful things happen — things that, to borrow Marie Kondo’s phrase, naturally “spark joy.” Most days are uneventful.

That’s why I quickly learned to become vigilant about my blessings. I became keenly watchful throughout the day for things I could jot down later at night.

Fortunately, the habit stuck, and it’s probably my favorite takeaway from this gratitude practice. It’s now much easier to find meaning in circumstances wherein I wouldn’t have thought to look for it before.

So here’s what else I learned to be grateful for…

The “Ordinary”

Seemingly ordinary moments can become extraordinary the more deeply present we are within them.

Sometimes, we realize this only during life’s most painful tragedies. Because in those situations, all we desperately crave are the ordinary moments we took for granted.

So how do we stop taking them for granted? To be as present within them as much as possible. To stop mulling over the past or worrying about the future. To instead soak in the here and now, and to truly appreciate the way life has unfolded in this moment.

Here are some of my most cherished kinds of moments from last year:

  • Having a deep, honest conversation with a friend
  • Sharing a genuinely human interaction with a stranger beyond our roles, for example, of customer and cashier
  • Allowing my budgies to gently perch atop my hand
  • Winning the trust of an infant as I hold him in my arms
  • Preparing a meal with mom
To this day, I relish any opportunity to cook with my mom, probably because some of my fondest childhood memories are with her in the kitchen. (In this photo, instead of cooking, she obviously made me do something else.)

And in many other moments, I was by myself — whether getting into the groove doing work, or just buying some groceries at a market.

On my way to one, I remember a cousin accosted me with concern. “Have someone accompany you,” she said. “That way, you won’t be lonely.” What she didn’t know was that I, simply being present, was perfectly at peace then. There’s a big difference between loneliness and solitude.

I’ve also learned that ordinary moments of prayer and meditation — if I sit with them deeply enough — indeed can be part of, as A Course in Miracles would call it, one’s “problem-solving repertoire.” There’s nothing quite as recharging and sometimes as insightful as a sincere attempt to listen to “the small still voice for God.”

Other People’s Happiness

A spiritual path is a path of the heart, and it recognizes that all of us are connected. For years, then, I believed that what’s truly good for other people is ultimately good for me.

But only last year did I allow myself to really empathize not only with other people’s sorrow, which I think most of us already do — but also with their happiness and joy, which I think can sometimes be easy to ignore.

When someone loses a loved one, yes, we offer our condolences and send our prayers. But when someone enjoys a success or a special occasion, we can join the celebration, too, even without being physically present.

What might that look like? Externally, maybe we send a social media “heart.” Internally, where it matters most, we hold in our consciousness a desire to send love. I think that if we’re truly sincere, at least on a subconscious level, most people will feel that love.

Photo by Cristian Dina from Pexels

And if we go even deeper, we might sit still with the feeling awhile and maybe thank God for the occasion, even if it didn’t directly pertain to us.

Sometimes, though, it does pertain to us, because we might have directly contributed to that person’s happiness.

But really, when I can help someone out, I think of that blessing as coming from God, and being a vehicle for it is a blessing in itself.

Here are some example notes from last year:

  • “It’s {person’s} birthday! Thank you, God, for granting them another year of life and letting me be part of it. Please bless them always.”
  • “{Person} will get to reunite with their family again! Thank you, God, for keeping all of them safe and well. I pray for their happiness today and always.”
  • “Thank you, God, for giving me the capacity to help with {XYZ}. Please continue to use me, that I might continue to know the joy of being used by You.”

Lessons Almost Learned and Finally Learned

From a spiritual perspective, people who enter our lives physically — whether for a reason, a season, or a lifetime — are assigned to be in our lives because they have a lesson to teach us. The same goes for people who enter our lives even just mentally, in our thoughts.

And that lesson is always the same: ultimately, how to be loving. And if we consider ourselves already loving, they can still teach us how to be even more loving, and more often, if not all the time.

The closest people in our lives, because of our long histories with them, are often the best ones to teach us this lesson. That’s because they’re in a good position to trigger old wounds that tempt us into anger, defensiveness, passive-aggressiveness, resentment, or any other manifestation of fear, or lovelessness.

Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

From that perspective, then, these people show the conditions we place on that love: “You have to be this way or that way, or do this or do that, for me to love you.”

And therein lies the opportunity to learn. The opportunity to grow. The opportunity to expand the limits of our capacity to love, if not dissolve them.

This isn’t to say that we’ll never have healthy boundaries. But it does mean that even when we say no, or even when we disagree, it’s less likely that the other person will feel judged or condemned, and more likely that they’ll still feel respected and loved in our presence.

But to be sure, the learning process is indeed a process. Because when the lesson isn’t learned, the opportunity to learn it will return in another form in the future — maybe with the same person, maybe with a different one.

Each time we’re triggered into loveless behavior, the learning process might look something like this:

  • The first time we’re triggered: We lash out and realize it only much later. Healthy remorse sets in, and we start to learn our lesson.
  • Second time: We react and regret doing so sooner than the last time.
  • Third time: We react and become aware of it in the moment. We’re keenly aware, moment by moment, that it’s wrong to be reacting this way.
  • Fourth time: We no longer react but instead simply try to ignore the behavior.
  • Fifth time: We perceive loveless behavior as an expression of hurt and a call for love, and we respond with compassion.

How many steps it takes to learn the lesson is up to us. Last year, I had a number of them. So, some of my gratitude notes went like this:

  • “Dear God, thank you for helping me see what I did wrong. I’m sorry I reacted the way I did. Please help me and {other person} heal. I surrender this experience to you. May it serve your purposes of Love.”
  • “Dear God, I responded calmly when {incident happened}. Thank you for helping me stay centered. Please lay your healing hand upon {other person}, and use me as an instrument of healing and a conduit of your Love.”

Karma

Sometimes, karma has to rear its ugly head because we’re taking way too long to learn our lesson. Here’s one personal incident…

Early last year, every so often I’d make a sarcastic remark to my mom. Sometimes she wouldn’t react; other times, she’d say, “That’s mean!” Not in an angry way, but not in a joking way either.

It never sunk into me how mean the remark was because it seemed pretty harmless. Of course, that was just my perception and not her reality.

Well, during a get-together with close friends, one of them made a sarcastic remark about me in front of everyone else, and it felt absolutely terrible. Fortunately, I think I was centered enough at the time not to react, playing it off with a smile. But inside, I felt deeply hurt, and in that moment, all the times I offended mom hit me like a ton of bricks.

My entry that night went something like this:

  • “Dear God, thank you for helping me understand that sarcasm can be so painful. Please help me never to be that way with mom, or anyone, ever again.”

And since then, I don’t think I ever have.

Somewhere in the Bible, it’s said that what man intends for evil, God intends for good. In regard to the incident, my learning the lesson was the good, but it didn’t stop there. Months later, I gently brought it up with my friend. Not because I held a grudge and wanted to get it off my chest (I had already silently forgiven him shortly after it happened), but because the opportunity presented itself naturally in the flow of our conversation.

In the end, he realized he could have been more sensitive, thanked me for my honesty, and said he’d try to be more thoughtful with his jokes — not just for me, but for his own family, too.

  • “I had a meaningful conversation today. Thank you, dear God, for using me to shed light on the darkness, that all of us might heal.”
Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

For most of my life, I’ve probably been a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I think last year especially helped me realize that indeed my “cup runneth over.”

Life unfolds moment by moment, and a meaningful moment never just happens — it must be consciously chosen, always. I’ve learned that gratitude can imbue more meaning in quite literally everything: the happy, the ordinary, the sad.

Because of the nine-month lockdown and quarantine measures last year, perhaps it can be said that in 2020, for me, not much happened on the material plane. But I know for a fact that a whole lot of gestating happened on the spiritual one. What that births into 2021 through the providence of God will be a thing to behold, and I’m sure another thing to be grateful for.

My favorite gratitude song

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Mark Paulo Jabay

I see the world through a spiritual lens. It recognizes that at our core — regardless of religion, tradition, or any label at all — we’re one and the same.