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Most of my life has been a perpetual struggle between doing what I think I should, must, ought to be doing and doing what I want to be doing.
I found it easy, especially in a world as fast paced, connected, and work heavy as ours to get sucked into the societally sanctioned version of what achievement is supposed to look like, instead of honoring what achievement looks like for me.
I criticized myself for not meeting some of the stereotypical “milestones,” mainly marriage and financial independence, and compared my life to the lives of friends and strangers alike on social media.
Perfectionism made it even harder to know what I really wanted. Unchecked and unmanaged, I strove to live my life by the external measures set forth by other people, had unrealistically high standards to achieve said external measures, and approached the task with a level of black and white thinking that made nothing less than 100 percent good enough.
In short, I was miserable, anxious, and despite all of my effort to live life the supposed “right way,” I felt no more fulfilled.
It was not until I started looking at my life a little more mindfully that I began to quiet the external noise, quell my perfectionism, and step into the murky waters of defining my own fulfillment. And one of the biggest supports on this journey to fulfillment was an unconventional use of the gratitude practice.
What is a Gratitude Practice?
Before I get into how I used a gratitude practice to re-evaluate my personal fulfillment, let’s talk about what practicing gratitude even is.
A gratitude practice is a specific form of mindfulness where practitioners take time to appreciate simple pleasures within their day. Like any other mindfulness practice, its focus is on what exists within your life right now—not perfect but still worthy of your time and attention.
According to a study for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, gratitude has been associated with “better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction and decreased materialism…” Gratitude has been also linked to prosocial behavior and helps to maintain social relationships.
Simply put, engaging in some kind of gratitude practice has many benefits, but I took my gratitude practice one step further and used it to shed light on what I really wanted out of life.
What Matters to You (and How to Use Gratitude to Find Out)?
Practice gratitude frequently enough and you will start to notice patterns about what matters to you. From small moments in the day we typically savor, to bigger people, places and activities, a gratitude practice can show us what aspects of our life we return to again and again for joy, pleasure, and purpose. We can then act on these moments of appreciation by building a life where what we value takes center stage.
Before I started a gratitude practice and noticed patterns in what brought me joy, I would base what I wanted out of life on others’ expectations of me. Expectations I ultimately couldn’t meet. But, as organizational psychologist Matthew Buckley says, “Not meeting an expectation doesn’t make you inadequate. It means that it just wasn’t right for you at that particular moment.”
Practicing gratitude helped me see what was right for me in a particular moment. I learned I enjoyed spending time in nature, living in a smaller space, and working with people in person. Instead of relying on external metrics to dictate what I should value, like a big house or a fancy digital nomad lifestyle, I was able to actually notice what mattered to me.
Trust Your Gratitude Practice
Over all, my gratitude practice helped me to tune back into myself and quiet the outside noise of shoulds and musts and oughts. It helped me be in the present moment and honor what I wanted. The more I noticed what I was grateful for, the more I could trust in myself. I started saying no to activities I wouldn’t enjoy, like clubbing in Boston, and yes to activities I would, like going on a four-day canoe trip in Maine.
Likewise, gratitude helped me evaluate what social milestones actually meant to me. I learned I did want to achieve a milestone like marriage but I didn’t want the stereotypical house in the suburbs. I wanted more financial freedom as well as opportunities to live in different places.
While it can be hard to go against societally expected norms, especially as a perfectionist, the results of doing so are worth it. We can stop living by the expectations of others and stressing over what we should be doing with our life. And instead, we can define those expectations for ourselves.
Start using a gratitude practice to notice patterns in what makes you feel fulfilled—and then act on these patterns. Trust that you know what is right for you. The more you notice, the more you act, the more you trust.
In my experience, this practice has helped me become more confident in my own decisions. I know I am living a life that is fulfilling to me and I can ignore all of the external noise that says anything else.