Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Everyone in the country celebrates food and family, no one religion dominates, and we are all permitted to do nothing but eat, sleep, and watch football. Maybe take a walk, but no pressure. On Thanksgiving Day, my social media feeds multiply by the thousands as people post their thanks to food, family, and other loved ones and things. This is wonderful. But even more wonderful is the opportunity to use this awareness of what we have and the positive tones surrounding the holiday as a launching date for a full on, daily gratitude practice because being grateful is not a once a year deal.
Within the research of positive psychology over the last 30 years, the effects of gratitude have been tested and studied with pretty amazing results. A regular practice of gratitude is proven to increase optimism, decrease depression, strengthen the heart, increase the likelihood to exercise, boost the immune system, heighten emotional intelligence, increase ability to perceive something bigger than ourselves, increase our capacity for compassion, and the list goes on.
Gratitude is about being grateful, not just occasional lip service. However, while verbalizing gratitude is not the same as living or being it, using words to remind us what we're grateful for quickly lends to a more positive perspective, more meaningful and compassionate interactions, and therefore a changed lifestyle where we can truly say we're living in the way of gratitude. One of my favorite stories comes from a TED Talk in NPR's TED Radio Hour. The episode is called Amateur Hour. One of the interviewees, A.J. Jacobs, has created a successful writing career by choosing topics he's interested in but literally knows nothing about, delving into them and living them, and then writing about his personal experiences. One of Jacobs's ventures was The Bible, and for a whole entire year, he lived by every rule of The Bible to best of his ability in the context of New York City in the 21st century. One of his greatest takeaways was the rule of gratitude. (Disclaimer: that I am not religious, nor am I endorsing Christianity or the act of living by the rules of The Bible)
"One thing that really struck me was this idea of gratitude because The Bible says you should give thanks for everything in your life. And I took that literally. So I would press the elevator button and I would be thankful the elevator came. I would get in the elevator, and I would be thankful it didn't plummet to the basement and break my collar bone. It was a strange way to live, but it was also quite beautiful because you realize there are hundreds of things that go right every day that we totally take for granted, and we focus on the three or four that go wrong. I've tried to keep this perspective, and it's made my life better." A.J. Jacobs
Obviously this is an extreme situation. But, I began my personal gratitude practice about 9 months ago by listing only three things I'm grateful for as I sit down to meditate. Just bringing my attention to those three things a few times a week before my meditations brightened and widened my perspective, and I found myself feeling grateful for random things throughout my day much more often. It seems too insignificant to make a difference, but I guarantee you will notice a shift after a few practices, because if you're truly experiencing the positive energy that comes from a thought of gratitude, you cannot simultaneously focus on something negative. And energies are contagious, so the more time you spend in the positive realm, the more you will find to be thankful for, and the cycle continues.
The practice can literally take less than 20 seconds, listing 3 things (obviously feel free to bring more to mind but not less than 3) that you're grateful for in that very moment. Nothing is too small or insignificant to be part of the practice. In fact, the larger things in life such as homes, loved ones, and careers are the easy things for which to be grateful. But as A.J. Jacobs mentioned above, the small things are the ones we take for granted and can truly reside in the heart of the practice. If you find yourself stuck, you can always find gratitude in the fact that you are still breathing!
To solidify a gratitude practice, the key is to attach the practice to something you already do regularly. If you attend a physical yoga practice regularly, you can add your gratitude practice during Savasana. If you meditate you can add it during the beginning of the meditation right before you begin. You can do it while brushing your teeth! If you make a cup of coffee every morning, do it then.
Stay tuned for a short guided gratitude meditation soon. And, keep practicing.