This time of year, we are reminded to think about the things for which we are thankful. Our family has a Turkey on the Table who comes out in the beginning of November. When we sit down as a family, we write something we are thankful for on the feathers. There are no requirements and no judgement. If my kid wants to write that she is thankful for her electronic devices, we all take time to thank our phones, computers, pods and pads. Honestly, they do a lot for us that we take for granted. It’s a great tradition, supports a good cause, and I’m sure the feathers will be treasured reminders as the years go by.
It is a lovely time of year. But what about Gratitude as a practice? We practice yoga to make our bodies more flexible. How does the practice of Gratitude change things?
Why do we need to practice gratitude?
In Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu writes “He who knows he has enough is rich.” Why do we have such a hard time realizing we have enough? Well the answer has been hypothesized to be biological and evolutionary. Generally speaking, it is not the things that are going well in our lives that serve as threats and our minds are wired to identify threats. We are much less likely to pay close attention to the kind neighbor who delivers vegetables from her garden than we are to the people driving at high speed throughout the neighborhood. One is a threat to health and safety while the other is not. We naturally pay more attention to threats and sometimes this is beneficial. It can also leave us feeling anxious, on edge, and wary. What if we paid more attention to the kindness of our neighbor?
What will change if I start a gratitude practice?
Daily gratitude practice retrains our brain to identify the good. Simply put, practitioners of daily gratitude have found that when they hold themselves accountable to identify one thing for which they are grateful at the end of each day, it changes their thoughts and focus throughout the day. They find that they start looking for positive things and focusing less on the negative. They feel less anxious, sleep better, and enjoy better relationships with friends and family. There is so much power in recognizing our ability to choose our focus especially in situations over which we have little control.
Gratitude in the real world…
When our neighborhood was redistricted and we learned the school our daughters would be attending had lower ratings on test scores, I felt frustrated. My daughter quickly pointed out that perhaps the reason for the lower scores was that the curriculum was less focused on testing and more on exploration. What a beautiful example of shifting focus in a situation over which we have no control. Her observation not only made me feel immediately better about the school, but also made me feel proud of my daughter for her awareness that exploration is an academic value we hold and her ability to find a silver lining. Gratitude has a domino effect.
How do you do it?
How does one practice gratitude? Gratitude practice can take many shapes and forms. Some people keep a gratitude journal in which they record one thing for which they are grateful each day. Families can make it a practice at the dinner table each night. Some families have a requirement that each family member text things they feel grateful for during the day. Again, to compare gratitude to yoga, there is no right way to practice. Do what feels right to you and your mind.
If you are interested in learning more about gratitude, I recommend the book, The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan. It is a personal account of a year of looking on the bright side. It is informed by research and conversations with professionals.
In closing, thank you for taking the time to read this blog. As a mental health professional, it feels good to have a venue to write about the things I think about every day.