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The Jar

“Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” - Buddha

I chose a mason jar.

Last year, on January 1, right before I went to bed, I wrote down three things I was grateful for that day. I wrote them on a post-it note just because it was what I had at hand. The next day I did the same, and the next, and after a few days, I had accumulated a small collection of notes stuck onto one other, piled on my nightstand.

In looking for a container to store them, I chose a mason jar. I don't know if I had seen this somewhere or if it just occurred to me that it would be a good idea. What I do know is that I could picture myself writing the things I was grateful for every day on a post-it, folding it, and dropping it into the jar. I also wanted something clear, see-through because I was excited about the idea of watching the stash grow, curious about how it would look - and, more importantly, how it would feel. I could visualize it being bright and cheerful, using different color post-its, all while tangibly reminding me to look for the good around me regardless of how my day had been.

And so I began. I collected the loose post-its from the past days, folded each as small as I could, and dropped them into the mason jar. I kept at it - every day - well, kind of... even something that appeared to be as simple as this took planning, trial and error, and discipline. It was a process.

Seeing my post-it stash grow, I was encouraged to set myself a goal. My goal was to create a short and sweet daily habit of reflecting on my day and consciously acknowledging the good that had happened during the day and perhaps doing it for an entire year. To stick to it, I helped myself by using the "habit stacking" strategy that James Clear discusses in his book Atomic Habits. In his book, Clear suggests that "one of the best (easiest) ways to build a new habit is to find a habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top of it." One of the main reasons this strategy tends to be successful is that our brain is an efficiency-seeking machine. When presented with novelty, our brain dispenses significant energy in building entirely new neural networks. For every decision or action we take, whether small or large, our brain will always seek the most efficient, effortless, and fastest way to do it - to save as much energy as possible.

In oversimplified terms, the brain rakes all the archives of our past experiences, trying to see if we have been in this situation before - whether the same or similar - and draws lessons learned: what worked? What didn't? If no past experience is found, it means that we are dealing with something entirely new, so our brain will build an entirely new neural network to perform/respond to the new task at hand. On the contrary, if what we are dealing with is something we have either experienced before, again, either the same situation or similar, then our brain will build off, and as a result strengthen, existing neural networks. This innate ability to seek the path of least resistance reinforces information/knowledge we already know, which manifests when we demonstrate expertise at doing something or when a behavior (good or bad) has become habitual.

When we "habit stack," we are priming our environment to set us up for success.

When we "habit stack," we are priming our environment to set us up for success. We intentionally make it as easy as possible by deliberately reducing friction (obstacles) and seamlessly integrating the new behavior into our already established day-to-day activities. As such, I left the mason jar, pen, and post-its all next to my bed for the first few weeks. I was testing stacking the post-it journaling habit on top of going to bed each night. Interestingly, this plan didn't work as well as I assumed it would. Many nights I would only remember to do it by the time I was already too sleepy to do anything other than turn off the lights and go to bed! As a result, I found myself playing catch-up more times than I would've liked and realized my sleepiness was getting in the way -creating friction - of successfully creating the habit. I needed to adjust and make my set-up more conducive for success, so I moved the mason jar to my bathroom - next to my toothbrush on my sink. This one worked like a charm. Although I'm usually pretty tired by the time I brush my teeth before bed, I'm still awake enough to write.

With this new set-up, I was able to keep at it, day after day, rarely missing a day, yet being kind to myself for the days in which I did. Subsequently, I made sure to make up whichever missed day as soon as possible, preferably the very next day.

Priming our environment is part of the recipe, however it's not the only secret ingredient for success. During this process, I learned that another critical aspect for successfully building a sustainable practice relates to the emotional effect of performing the habit in and of itself. In this episode of "The One you Feed" podcast, Dr. Michelle Segar, a behavioral sustainability scientist from the University of Michigan, introduces her new book "The Joy Choice". During the interview, Dr. Segar spoke about how the emotional impact we derive from our behaviors contributes to habit formation. For example, we brush our teeth because it feels good to have a clean mouth, or we shower every morning because we like how it makes us feel more alert and ready to start our day. Even bad habits are sustained by leveraging their emotional impact. For example, sticking to a healthy diet may be difficult because we love soda, or going to bed earlier might prove more challenging than expected because checking Instagram in bed is entertaining and disconnects us from our daily stresses. The bottom line is that if the behavior results in a positive feeling, we are feeding our reward system (dopamine hit), which in turn increases the likelihood of consistently sustaining the behavior over time - ultimately becoming a habit.

This explanation held true for me regarding my daily post-its. Upon reflecting on my practice of gratitude journaling, I realized I genuinely enjoy reflecting on what happened during my day and actively seeking out what made me happy, as insignificant as it may seem. It also gives me a sense of closure and accomplishment at the end of each day. With that comes a sense of satisfaction and grounding - and PING! There's that dopamine hit!

Writing about these positive experiences - big or small - unequivocally evokes feelings of happiness. In my journaling, I have written anything from the most simple and mundane things, such as "made dinner that everyone liked AND ate!" or "weather today was so nice!". To more unique ones, such as: "had an amazing conversation about school with my son" or "my migraine is finally gone!". Over and over again, I realized that if by the time I was brushing my teeth at night, I was feeling overtired, worried, or upset, writing my gratitude would undeniably override these feelings with little jolts of happiness. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that writing these post-it notes magically vanished my anger, frustration, or even sadness at any given time. But I can assure you that experiencing these little jolts of happiness -amidst whatever triggered the more challenging emotions- reminded me of our innate human ability to hold space for ambiguity. This capability is a critical life skill for coping with our lives' inevitable ups and downs. Knowing that I could successfully hold ambiguity benefited my mindset and gave me a sense of empowerment.

As November rolled around, I could barely fit any more post-its in the jar. Nevertheless, I kept pressing them down as hard as possible to make space for new gratitudes. What became very apparent was that the mason jar represented my life and that it was - literally - overflowing with reasons to be grateful.

On January 1, 2023, I wrote a closing post-it for my 2022 gratitude jar, a little thank you note of sorts for all the learning and growing the year had gifted me. There were wonderful and magical moments, as well as challenging and deeply sad ones too; such is life. Nevertheless, my daily gratitude practice provided a solid ground to keep on going, gracefully reminding me - with those little jolts of happiness - of the importance of taking the time to recognize and appreciate the good things -mundane or extraordinary- ever present in my life.

New Year. New Pressure?

As with every new year, there is the feeling of a blank slate and the ubiquitous and unspoken pressure of forming all sorts of necessary new habits to successfully accomplish our New Year's resolutions. I must confess that I find New Year's resolutions a bit stressful at times; and part of why I think I was able to sustain this gratefulness practice over time, in addition to habit stacking and happiness jolts, was because it grew organically. I started it with no particular expectations. It wasn't driven by " I HAVE to do this"; there was no stress surrounding it. I recognize that some habits benefit from the ignition we draw from "eustress." So, for example, if we need to create the habit of not eating sugar because our glucose levels came back high in our last blood test, then, of course, there is a legitimate sense of urgency and pressure that will drive our efforts. There are different reasons behind all habits, the ones we already have and the ones we wish to create new or change.

Whatever you have decided to start, change, or end this new year, I encourage you to tag alongside it the incredibly rewarding habit of gratitude in whichever form, frequency, or style fits YOU at this particular stage of YOUR life. Maybe even consider it a little gift from you to you instead of a daily to-do :)

For this new year, may you discover the countless unseen little things you can be grateful for. May they spark a little light and bring a trice joy even when things seem like nothing is going right. May we all find strength in these simple joys to anchor us and propel us toward a peaceful and happy life.

Happy and healthy New Year 2023 to you and your beautiful families.

With intent,


Further reading on Gratitude Journaling:

Y. Joel Wong, Jesse Owen, Nicole T. Gabana, Joshua W. Brown, Sydney McInnis, Paul Toth & Lynn Gilman (2018) Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial, Psychotherapy Research, 28:2, 192-202, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332

Emmons, R. A., Froh, J., & Rose, R. (2019). Gratitude. In M. W. Gallagher & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures (pp. 317–332). American Psychological Association.

Emmons, R. A., Froh, J., & Rose, R. (2019). Gratitude. In M. W. Gallagher & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures (pp. 317–332). American Psychological Association.

Healthy Habits: Positive Psychology, Journaling, Meditation, and Nature Therapy

Book Chapter published 2020 in Humanism and Resilience in Residency Training on pages 439 to 472

Authors: Tara Riddell, Jane Nassif, Ana Hategan, Joanna Jarecki

More resources:


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