My gratitude journal helps me see the light on the darkest of days

It’s the clip I always come back to when the world gets too grim – four baby pandas gleefully hurling themselves face-first down a slide in a Chinese conservation centre.

Ninety seconds of pure joy that never fails to cheer me up.

My gratitude journal helps me see the light even on the darkest of days.

My gratitude journal helps me see the light even on the darkest of days.Credit:Stocksy

In an age where we’re bombarded with bad news, sometimes it’s the simplest pleasures that help keep us afloat.

An insatiable 24-7 news cycle and social media’s immediacy can paint a bleak picture of the world that leaves us feeling as if we’re perpetually teetering on the brink of the apocalypse.

From the moment we wake up and reach for our phone we’re greeted with a series of calamitous events and doomsday predictions right there in the palm of our hand.

All too often it has left me feeling overwhelmed and sent my anxiety soaring. How can I survive in a world with so much awfulness?

This onslaught of bad news makes it difficult to see the good in humanity. But over time, I’ve trained myself to find the chink of light on even the darkest days.

It started with a gratitude journal. In the midst of a serious bout of depression that left me crippled by anxiety and unable to work, my psychologist urged me to record my wins each day as an extension of our work in therapy.

Every night before bed I’d write down three things that I’d achieved or that had gone well that day. Some days it was a struggle and my entries were as basic as they come:

  • The pharmacist who held my hand when I was crying
  • Going outside for a walk when I wanted to hide from the world
  • The sound of the rain on the roof

Four years later, this daily practice has helped change my view of the world. I’m still conscious of the bad news but I now see things I might have previously missed.

When disaster strikes I see the helpers – the ordinary men, women and children running to comfort strangers in the midst of grief and tragedy.

I see the scale of the global refugee crisis but also the everyday people extending a hand of human kindness to newly arrived asylum seekers in their own communities.

And I see joy in the little things – the blissful way my cat curls up in a sun trap on a warm day.

Or the innocent abandon of a small boy reaching out to stroke the beard of a visiting prince.

I’m not suggesting we slap a smile on our face and repeat affirmations in the mirror that “all is well” while our house burns down around us.

Nor do I think we should gloss over injustices or turn our heads from tragedy.

But when we actively seek out the small wins it can give us strength to tackle the bigger problems.

Research has shown that when we practice gratitude we feel less hopeless and over time it changes the way our brain processes events.

Conversely, consuming a constant stream of negative news can lead to a state of "learned helplessness", paralysing us with a sense of apathy that makes us less likely to act.

Biologically, we’re hardwired to react to bad news because when we sense danger it triggers the body’s fight or flight response, prompting us to pay attention.

Regularly practicing gratitude activates dopamine – the brain’s ‘feel-good’ chemical, which can lower stress, increase our connection to others and even help us sleep better.

These days, when the news cycle becomes overwhelming I remember that it rarely reflects how the world is changing but simply tells us what goes wrong.

It focuses on single events – plane crashes, terrorism attacks, natural disasters and acts of violence – while positive developments happen in a much more gradual way but rarely make the headlines.

Sometimes when it gets too much I have to switch off. I used to feel guilty for looking away.

Now I see it as an act of self-replenishment. If I want to make a difference I have to be armed with the energy to fight for change.

In an era of deep political and social division, where toxic levels of anger and hatred appear to run rampant in public life, the only thing I can control is how I behave in response.

So I try to live my life with compassion and kindness and accept that while I might not be able to singlehandedly solve the refugee crisis, fix climate change or end human rights abuses, I can still exact change in my own backyard.

With my actions and my behaviour and my vote, I am not powerless.

Collectively, our small wins gather momentum. That is how culture changes.

And when the bad news gets too much, I look for the chink of light.

In the kindness of strangers, the sound of the rain on the roof, or the sheer joy of a baby panda careering down a slide, it is always there if you know where to look.

Jill Stark is the author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad.

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