On Having Gratitude This Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! If you’re reading this post today, and you’re currently in the U.S., you’re probably engaged in any number of annual rituals – from cooking to watching football, to silently (or not so silently) cursing family members who drive you crazy. Many of you might also be thinking about what you’re grateful for right now. If you are, I’m right there with you.

As my sister, Kris, can confirm, I’ve always been a huge dork about having gratitude on Thanksgiving. For other people this holiday might be about turkey or pilgrims, but for me it’s always been about taking one day to really focus on the things I have in my life that are positive. While I incorporate gratitude exercises into my regular journaling throughout the year, each Thanksgiving I make a bigger effort to list everything that I can think of to be grateful for, including the “little” things. I also try to take the day to just generally reflect and give thanks.

The good news is that in recent years, study after study has shown us that there are real, hardcore benefits to experiencing and celebrating gratitude. Research has demonstrated that people who keep daily gratitude journals (giving thanks for about five things/day) can experience as much as a 25-percent increase in day-to-day happiness in as little as a few months, and that this is even true for people who suffer from painful, life-threatening illnesses. Some studies also show that exercising gratitude can improve your health (namely by moderating stress and improving sleep quality).

The reason why this works is because the neural networks in our brains operate on the basis of habit, and you can think of this in terms of practicing a behavior. Any action that we take, or thought that we think, gets recorded in our brains by becoming imprinted in our neurons. As we repeat those actions or thoughts, grooves (effectively) get created in our brains that make us more likely to engage in that kind of thought or action again in the future. From this standpoint, by looking at things on the bright side — by having gratitude for the things that might otherwise go unnoticed — we are literally training our brains to do more of that in general.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that your problems aren’t real ones, or that there’s never a time or a place for acknowledging and accepting the things in life that are painful. On the contrary, I think that sadness, grief, and anger are all normal emotions that are part of the human experience, and we have to make room for all of it. It’s just that this post isn’t about that — it’s about taking the time to notice the things in life that we can otherwise take for granted. Think of it as an exercise – an exercise that can benefit you no matter what your personal circumstances are.

This is just anecdotal to my own experience, but I will say that it seems like the more I practice gratitude the more I have to feel grateful for. I think I’m just better able to look on the bright side than I used to be. I also notice that my frustration tolerance has improved, as I’m more able to focus on the positive in moments that would otherwise be difficult, challenging, or even just plain annoying.

Here’s what I do, and I suggest that you try something similar: My list always starts with what seems most basic or fundamental, and I work my way out. I’m grateful today, for example, for the parts of my body that work. I am blessed with the gift of sight and — despite some occasional joint pain — two hands that are capable of typing out these sentences right now. From there I can be grateful for my home and my bed, my family or my friends, my sweet little dog and his four, fuzzy paws.

If you lack one of the things I just listed, or feel emotionally triggered by a loss of some kind as you read this, can you think of something else you can feel grateful for right now? Something that might otherwise go unnoticed? The goal is to stop and give thanks for the little things that might be overlooked on a different day.

If you’re reading this and you’re still having a hard time thinking of what you have to feel grateful for, challenge yourself today by trying a little harder. To paraphrase Danielle LaPorte’s post on similar subject matter, if you’re reading this right now, you have internet access, which means that you also have electricity. That alone is something to be grateful for.

So yes, I’m giving thanks for many things this holiday season. I will also be, per my usual custom, inspiring and annoying my family members by making them talk about what they’re grateful for all day long. Please join us: What are you grateful for today?

Photo credit: mtsofan