Taking a look at human history, you could draw some confusing conclusions about our species. We claim to love each other, yet we kill each other on a regular basis; we say we want to be free, but we’re willing to give up our liberty for security; and we’ve eagerly interconnected ourselves more than ever with the Internet, which helps us experience new existential crises daily.

Our view of life on Earth is often dependent on perspective, though, and our perspective can flip at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it just takes hearing one rude comment on the train and suddenly I want to give up on all humanity.

By the same token, our emotional whims stand ready and eager to revise history for us whenever a new situation in the present colors our attitude. For instance, when I remember the days I spent in homelessness and active addiction, I can recall my experience in diametrically opposite ways. I can be proud that I made it through those painful years, viewing my survival as a life-affirming tale of human strength. Or I can despair that I’m a broken person with such a traumatic past that surely I’m forever unlovable. Or I can be evenhanded with my memories, realizing that brokenness, survival and all the life experiences that go along with both—the good ones and the traumatic ones—are simply part and parcel of being human.

Perspective, then, is the lens through which we determine our individual realities, and it’s often born from our state of mind. It’s the old glass-empty-versus-glass-full scenario—but the thing is, how we view the glass today is also affected by how we’ve gotten used to looking at glasses in the past. While some of us are anointed with a naturally cheery disposition and outlook, others are pointedly not, whether through jaded experience or innate personality. And, like it or not, nobody likes hanging out with a perpetual pessimist. As much as we may snicker daily over the snark that populates our social feeds, there’s nothing particularly heart-warming about sarcasm or irony.

I mean, take a moment and picture one of the happiest, most graceful people you know. Are you picturing an endless scroll of sharp retorts and smackdowns and troll-face memes? No, almost certainly not.

Changing that perspective is necessary, then, in order to live more positively. Hell, if you’re one of those natural pessimists, it’s vital to stay conscious of your perspective just to make sure you’re accurately assessing reality. (That’s no big “secret,” either, regardless of what some guy tried to sell you on a talk show last decade.)

As it turns out, fostering a sense of gratitude is highly effective at making people happier. That’s not just rhetoric: A pair of research psychologists, Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have focused on happiness and gratitude. “In one study,” reports the Harvard Mental Health Letter, “they asked all participants to write a few sentence each week, focusing on particular topics.” The researchers divided their subjects into three groups, asking each to record either positive, negative or indifferent things that happened over the course of a week. Within three months, the participants who focused on positive things were happier and had a better perspective on their lives compared to the other two groups—especially those who focused on negative memories. The gratitude-focused participants also “had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”

Putting that idea into more DIY sort of practice, author Elizabeth Gilbert blogged a couple years ago about a thing she’d crafted to orient herself toward the goodness in her world: a happiness jar. In the years since, the idea has gradually picked up steam online—not the least on Pinterest, which is where Elisa Leon picked it up, ran with it, and brought it to her Instagram, where I found it.

For the past two years now, the 45-year-old Chicago sales representative explains, she’s taken an everyday mason jar and begun filling it with tiny notes she writes. Those notes contain nothing but good things that have happened to her. Over the course of 2014, she put hundreds of the little dispatches in the jar. By New Year’s Eve, the jar was overflowing with good tidings.

“The first year I did it,” says Leon, “it just seemed like a fun idea. At the end of the year, you read everything in the jar and reminisce.” She discovered, though, that it wasn’t just about reflecting on the year gone by—it organically helped her cultivate a different viewpoint. “This was a way to remember the good” in life, she explains. “So much time is spent on concentrating on the negative that it’s just nice to focus on things that make you happy.”

All the project takes is a jar, some paper and a daily or weekly commitment to pause for a second and record the good things you’ve encountered. Leon notes that, since social media has become an automatic daily activity for many people, the idea of updating something regularly isn’t as off-putting as many may have found it pre-Facebook. “I also maintain a 365 photo blog on Tumblr where I post a photo every day,” she notes, and “the good-things jar isn’t nearly as time-intensive. There’s no pressure to add to it every day; some days, you can’t think of anything good. Other days, lots of good things happen.”

For her, some of those good things are as matter-of-fact as getting a good deal on airline tickets. Others are about the weather. “4/20/14,” one reads: “A perfect day in Chicago, sunny and warm!” Another, “10/3/14,” was a day for long-distance friendship: “I had dinner with my friend Allison in Columbus, OH.”  Some days, Leon even recorded the simple joy of meeting new furry friends, like “Hildy and Blue, two greyhound dogs in the neighborhood.”

The key point is that all the notes in the jar are positive observations. “When I read the good things, they make me smile, and sometimes I laugh, because they’re silly things,” Leon says. “Warm and fuzzy. I keep the jar on my desk, and if I’m having a day, I’ll crack it open to remind myself of things that have made me happy.”

Most importantly, while the practice begins as a reactive activity, it holds the quiet power to turn one’s attitude adjustment proactive. As Leon puts it: “Instead of concentrating on how terrible life is, you start to look for good things to fill your jar.”

About The Author

Contributing columnist

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His @PhillyWeekly column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” took the First Place Spotlight Award for weekly newspaper commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists in both 2014 and 2015 and the Second Place Award for weekly newspaper commentary in the U.S. and Canada from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in 2014; and, the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association presented him with the Edith Hughes Emerging Journalist Award in 2015. Along with his column, Josh blogs daily for PW on various topics including queer culture and news, mass transit, politics, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, civil liberties, activism, media and everything else Philly.

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