How To Cultivate Gratitude When Life Bombards You With Lemons

Some gratitude comes easily. A beautiful day. A smile in response to a kind word. A tax refund. The Netflix release of the latest season of your favorite series.

But life isn’t always about easy. That beautiful day can be followed by a tumultuous storm, washing away everything you cherish. The person who uttered the kind word may never speak again. That tax refund may abruptly transition from fun money to survival funds when the layoffs occur. And the latest season of your favorite series may mark the end of the show.

Usually, we are grateful for the good days and endure the bad, putting gratitude on hold until things look better and the assault ends.

But that’s not the only way.

In fact, gratitude cultivated during the rough parts is paramount for thriving regardless of what life has to offer.

Gratitude is the sugar that turns those sour lemons into lemonade.

Maintain a Smile File

On those really tough days in the classroom with the kids, I have a certain strategy that I like to employ. I stop the lesson, sometimes mid-sentence, walk to file cabinet and pull out a tattered manila envelope with a crudely-drawn smiley face on its exterior.

Without a word, I sit at my desk (something I never do while teaching) and begin to read the contents of the envelope silently. Without fail, the kids fall quiet and stare at me curiously until one pipes up, “What are you doing?”

“Reminding myself why I still teach.”

That envelope is filled with all of the thank you letters and cards I have received from students and parents over the years. It’s a powerful reminder that although that day in the classroom may suck, that day is not the entire picture.

A smile file is a way of collecting and storing life’s good moments to help in the bad ones, much like food is gathered and stored to prepare for the winter ahead.

Apply Gratitude to Wounds Immediately

Gratitude works best when it occurs immediately after (or even during) a bad moment. It not only changes the face of the situation by offering perspective, it also helps to derail the cycle of negativity.

While I was making large monthly payments on the totally unfair and utterly sucky debt my ex left me with, I started a coinciding gratitude list. As soon as I would click “Make Payment” on the website, I would pick up my pen and add one item from my current life that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the former life ending in a violent explosion. It changed my thinking. Instead of viewing those installments as bloodletting, I saw them as a down payment on a better life.

Be careful with this strategy, the knee-jerk reaction to rapidly apply gratitude can become habit-forming. While I was weeding the other day, the thorns from a nearby rosebush drew blood as they raked across my exposed side. And after my initial PG13 utterance from the surprise and the pain, I found myself saying thank you for the opportunity to see the final blooms of the season held just above the offending spikes.

Choose Your Words Carefully

I’m bad at this one. When life gets overwhelming with its demands, I have a bad habit of moaning about being too busy. Or too stressed. Or anxious. I’m working on changing the words I choose to assign to these moments.

“I’m lucky to have a life filled with so much.”

“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do so many things.”

“I’m excited to see what this time might offer.”

The words we say to others have influence. The words we say to ourselves have power.

You cannot change what happens to you, but you can certainly adjust how you label it.

Start by refraining from calling a situation “good” or “bad.” Because good and bad always coexist.

Craft a Gratitude List

Simple enough. Write down what you’re thankful for. It can take the form of a daily gratitude journal, a “top ten” list posted on your bathroom mirror or the screen saver on your computer.

As long as you follow two simple guidelines – write it down and put it where you see it.

Bonus points if you tackle this radical gratitude challenge.

Take a Media Fast

The constant bombardment of media can be detrimental to your well-being. Pintrest reminds us that no amount of hot glue or eyeliner will ever make our lives photo shoot worthy. The news breaks us down with images and stories of suffering while fertilizing our minds with fear. And Facebook encourages comparisons, wondering why our lives always seem to fall short.

So turn it off. Listen to yourself and those immediately around you. Recenter.

And find gratitude for what remains.

Celebrate the Small Victories

Sometimes gratitude is found in the big picture and sometimes it is found within the small moments of hope and joy in a bleaker terrain.

When you’re in the middle of one of those “growth experiences” that life loves to test us with, make the effort to celebrate every little shining moment. Each is a victory worthy of notice.

Pass It Along

When you can’t find anything in your life to be grateful for, give somebody else something to be thankful for. You’ll both feel better.


Still struggling to cultivate gratitude?

Here are some ideas to get you started:

I am grateful for the reminder about what is really important in life.

I am grateful to be forced to slow down.

I am grateful for the opportunity to find out how strong I really am.

I am grateful to discover who my true friends really are.

I am grateful to have been blessed with people in my life whom I miss.

I am grateful that this experience has made me more compassionate towards others who are suffering.

I am grateful for the chance to adapt and transform through change.

I am grateful for what I have learned through this experience.

I am grateful that my eyes opened this morning and that I have the opportunity to be grateful today.

And I am grateful that I can choose to take those lemons and …



Thank you for sharing!

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