This week our thoughts turn toward pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, family, friends, and gratitude. Many of us will gather around tables and perhaps a grown up (gasp … I think I might be that grown up now) may encourage us to say something we are grateful for. Admittedly at times in my past (especially as a teenager) this was an awkward exchange and felt a tad cheesy. But I think the practice of gratitude deserves some further exploration and it could serve us well to incorporate it into our daily lives, not just around a table once a year.
Studies have been done on the role that gratitude plays in a person’s life. The book The Five Minute Journal, talks about studies that show that the practice of intentional gratitude improves the overall physical and emotional well-being of people. This begs the question: How do we do that? It is easy to do when things are going well, but often harder to practice when we are experiencing difficult times, loss, grief, or even when we are just having an off day. The practice of gratitude does not not entail ignoring the realities of life, but rather celebrating in the midst of them.
5 Steps to Incorporating Gratitude into Daily Life
The following are 5 things that I have practiced (sometimes more consistently than others) that have made a real difference for me in living a life of intentional gratitude. Perhaps they can be a jumping off point for you as well.
Start a Gratitude Journal
Get a notebook and start listing what you are thankful for. That’s all. Choose a time in your day whether it be upon waking, while you sip your coffee, around the dinner table, or as you go to bed to intentionally list out 3 things you are thankful for each day. Grab a pen and start writing. Try not to repeat yourself. It is truly amazing that number of things that can be celebrated! It is also a great way to keep a record to look back on during difficult times that can serve as an uplifting tool. So do it as something you can do to benefit your current self and your future self as well.
Focus On Who, Not Just What
If thanksgiving literally means the giving of thanks, then there is naturally someone to whom thanks can be given. This makes the focus not only on what you are thankful for, but takes it a step further and allows you to recognize to whom you can give thanks. As a person who believes in God, I tend to give thanks to God as kind of a catch all for everything I am thankful for. As I’ve been writing this post I have begun to consider the people to whom I can direct my thanks. So if you aren’t someone who believes in God, or even if you are, try considering which people to whom you could express thanks. For example, being thankful for food can lead us to be thankful for the farmer who grew it, the worker who harvested it, and the person who stocked the shelves. As I consider who these people are, even though I’ve never met them, it draws an awareness in me that I am just one part of a greater community of people. This allows me to think about a life experience outside of my own, which is a great way to consider the important role each of us plays in our communities, relationships, and the world. So, next to your list of the things you are thankful for, write down who can be thanked as well.
As you consider the people who you can thank, if it is possible, tell them. This act of expressing gratitude draws us into relationship with other people and there is transformative power in living life alongside others, investing in them and being invested in. Expressing gratitude to others can be as simple as a text to your friend telling them that you appreciate the role they play in your life, writing a note and sending it via snail mail, delivering cookies to the local fire or police department, or handing a bottle of water to the person who collects your garbage. At a minimum, practice saying thank you. Sometimes the frantic pace of a day leads me to interact with people and I don’t pause long enough to say thank you for the simple things people do for me every day. The person who makes my coffee, the delivery person who brings the packages, the person who cleans the table at the restaurant or fills my water are all things that I am indeed grateful for, but sometimes I forget to express it.
I have a friend who also happens to be a member of the FLDWRK community and she asks the best questions. Instead of simply asking the expected “How are you?”, she asks things like, “What are you most looking forward to today?”, “What is your favorite thing about fall?”, “What are you working on that is really life giving?”. When she asks these questions it always gets me to pause, think, and intentionally reflect upon the good that is a part of every day. Another way to ask questions that point toward gratitude is the game Highs and Lows. We often play it around the dinner table as a family and it entails each person sharing the best and worst parts of their day. It fully acknowledges that there are hard parts of life and yet there is always room for gratitude even right alongside the not so great stuff. Sometimes when it is a particularly bad day, my default “high” is, “I drank coffee.” And, let me tell you, I am legitimately thankful that there is always coffee.
One Good Thing
Let’s be real. Sometimes it’s really hard to practice gratitude. This life is full of incredibly wonderful things and horribly heavy things. Sometimes there are seasons where it seems like nothing can possibly be called good. What if in the midst of the thick of it, something good can be found? My thoughts during these times in my own life can go one of two ways. I can spiral into every possible negative outcome of my current circumstances and end up feeling continuously worse and worse or I can acknowledge and experience the sadness for what it is, and then identify one good thing. Just one. It requires some creativity, and it is surprising to me that it is usually the direct result of the current suffering. For example, several of my best friends are people who I met as a direct result of going through some of the darkest seasons of my life. Most of my greatest personal growth has occurred during times of difficulty. Sometimes, when I can’t possibly see anything good in the suffering, I choose to change my focus (even if for a minute) and be thankful for sunshine, chocolate, coffee, and warm blankets. So if you find yourself in a place of struggle and all of this focus on positivity is a bit too much, I want to encourage you to allow yourself to be sad & share that grief with others, but also take a tiny step in the direction of gratitude. If nothing else, in acknowledging and experiencing grief, we can allow these times and seasons to develop relationships with others who have experienced similar challenges, and that is something we can celebrate.
It is in this posture of thanksgiving — the giving of thanks— for things and to others, acknowledging the brokenness of the human existence and the simultaneous beauty of the many things we can celebrate — it is here where there exists the power of gratitude to transform individuals, communities, and in turn, the world.