"Gratitude" is more than just a trite buzzword.

When I was in my early twenties, I encountered a woman who said 27 was the worst year of her life. Now that I’m in my later twenties myself, I understand what she meant. Moving from grad school back into the job world has been a challenge, and I’ve also noticed changes in my outlook on life. Put simply, I’ve lost much of the hopeful buoyancy of my 22-year-old self. This year, common things like going to the dentist to get a filling or getting my car fixed have seemed overwhelming, not to mention expensive. I’ve felt so much more alone and in need of a support system that is closer than a quarter day’s drive or even a phone call.

But this struggle has also presented me with a unique opportunity—to experience the generosity of others in ways I’ve never noticed before. There was a time last year when my dinners alternated between lentils and a fried egg on toast (making the experience of a conference lunch glorious). This past April, a community volunteer at the nonprofit I work for presented me with the gift of a chocolate cake from a fancy chocolate shop in town. I was dazzled by the extraordinariness of this act of kindness. I came to find out that this volunteer had heard I’d published a poem, and this was his way of saying congratulations. I had not mentioned this small accomplishment to him, which made that chocolate cake more than an invitation to celebrate. It was a tangible reminder that I am noticed, that I am cared for. And I’m finding that this is what I’ve needed most this year—to open my eyes to the beauty of others and the myriad ways they have been generous to me.

In some circles, gratitude has become a buzzword that carries connotations of a false happiness to put on in times of struggle. But gratitude, etymologically, is linked to the term “good will.” For me, the feeling of gratitude is one of wonder and expansiveness, a feeling that the world is more good-hearted than I had previously imagined. Research has also linked gratitude to increased mental and physical health. In the midst of personal distress, I’ve found that implementing a few gratitude practices in my day have made me a bit more attentive to the positive in my life.

01. Keep a gratitude journal. 

For me, the blank page is the place where I become my most honest self. Writing allows me to examine the joys and sufferings of the day as they really appeared to me at the time. A gratitude journal is not just a place to write down positive things that happened—my journal allows me to write about my whole day in the context of gratitude. When I write daily, I notice I’m more aware of my life in general. The smallest details of my days often delight me—a crushed orange rose on the sidewalk on a rainy day, the way steam curls itself against the sunlit wall of a coffee shop. When I stop to record these easily overlooked moments, I find myself happier.

If you’re not a writer, a gratitude journal can be a series of sketches, or even a voice recording or video log of your day. It can be a one-liner about something silly or lovely that happened in your day, written or verbally expressed. It can be a photograph, or, as this article from Greater Good Magazine suggests, a letter of gratitude to someone you know.

02. Notice people. 

In a society where we’re often encouraged to notice people only when we’re giving them a bad rating online, I try to notice people for their goodness and to point out this goodness when possible. When the community volunteers in a couple of the English language classes I teach volunteered to buy textbooks for the students, I was floored. I wrote a letter to these tutors, letting them know how much their gift and their presence in the classroom meant to me. In ordinary life, I try to look checkout workers at the grocery store and coffee shop baristas in the eye and to ask them how their day is going. I am trying to reach out to friends I’ve lost touch with, even when I feel the distance between us has grown too great.

I’ve taken my cue for noticing people who are or were great “noticers,” like Mr. Rogers and Mother Teresa, but also a student of mine who often stops me between the coffee pot and my desk to talk about life. Who in your life is a noticer? What are they teaching you? How can you become a noticer?

03. Enjoy the no-cost/low-cost opportunities around you. 

I know a person who is attuned to the panoply of happenings in our community—the free events at libraries and local museums, even the places he can get free wine and cheese. I never realized before how many things happen in my community that I can attend with ease. A friend and I recently attended a free wine and sewing event at a local museum. A trip to a nearby blueberry patch yielded more blueberries than I’d ever buy in a store at a much lower cost. Part of my gratitude this year has been tied to these events that bring people together and remind me that whatever stage I’m at in life, I can do new things and experience joy. I’ve also found that where I’m unable to pay, asking to volunteer at an event sometimes gets me in for free, like at the local tea festival that happens every fall in my community.

Seeking out no- or low cost opportunities is not just a savvy way to save a buck, but can also be a diverting game. I have a friend who, when she was dating her now-husband, established the practice of going on “free” dates—to a library, to an ice cream shop with coupons, to a local arboretum. This idea of “free” dates is one I use as a part of my own self-care. I purposely take myself (and invite friends) to places that will intrigue me. The goal, again, is to spark wonder, to appreciate the undiscovered places within my own city, and to experience them with fresh, thankful eyes.

If hard transition is the reality of this season in your life, know that I’m right there with you. Being able to discern the goodness around me this past year has been an exercise in seeing with my whole being. And the response that I’m continuing to cultivate is gratitude. It doesn’t make the struggles of this season go away, but the fact that gratitude exists alongside my struggles reminds me that the good flourishes in mysterious ways, even when things are difficult. 

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