“Grateful? Are you serious?” I was overwhelmed, burned out, depressed, hopeless. I struggled to get through each day and somehow present a calm, functional face to the world. What did I have to be grateful for?
After a long silent moment, my therapist gently persisted. “Think of one thing you’re grateful for, about yourself. No matter how small it is.”
“Well,” I said slowly, staring down at my hands, “Thumbs are amazing. I am glad I have thumbs that work. My thumbs are long and have a good shape.”
Since she was as astute as she was compassionate, my therapist did not scoff. Nor did she ask me to expand my list. She simply said, “Great. Let yourself admire your thumbs for a while.” As I continued to stare at my hands, I was startled to feel a small, hopeful ray of light pierce my dark mental prison.
Though I’ve forgotten almost all the other details of that long-ago terrible year, I vividly remember that as the moment I began to recover.
Are You “All Thumbs” at Gratitude on Thanksgiving?
I hope that you are feeling nowhere near as burned out and depressed as I was at that time. But, if you’re having trouble finding time, energy, or even patience to indulge in any kind of gratitude practice, you’re in good company.
Every November, we get a big reminder about gratitude: Thanksgiving. The authors of one my favorite books about habits, “Change Anything,” remind us that reminders are one of the keys to establishing a healthy habit.
Yet, for many of us, the positive meanings of the holiday are buried by overwhelm and stress, such as marathons of extra cooking and cleaning, mandatory visits with unpleasant relatives, or vivid reminders of the living consequences of historical atrocities. At such moments, we may get lost in fatigue and cynicism. Initiating a gratitude habit can feel awkward and contrived, at first. At least, it did to me.
These days, the more I remember to walk my talk, by consciously inviting gratitude into my daily life, the more it infuses each day with positive energy. Here are six easy steps to begin to use gratitude to recover your joy, even in the midst of a busy life.
Six Easy Steps to Gratitude for Happiness
Take a moment to breathe
Take a deep slow breath. Let it out slowly. Take a deeper breath, allowing your belly to expand, then your chest. Let all that air out, slowly and
Notice where you are and what is around you in this very moment. This is an utterly simple, profound stress-decreasing skill. The more you use it, the better you will feel. Watch this quick video by Sonia Choquette to get started.
Start small, and elaborate
If you’re having a tough day – or week, or year – it may be difficult to think of anything to feel grateful for. So challenge yourself with that smallness. What is the tiniest aspect of your situation that you might feel glad for?
Now, elaborate on that idea, (as in my example of being glad I had thumbs: after a moment I was able to add that I appreciate how thumbs work, and the length and shape of my own thumbs.) What is the cause of that positive element, for you? Why are you glad about it?
Practice makes perfect. Or, at least, practice makes better. So, try being grateful every day this week.
Change it up
Perhaps daily practice, over the long run, lulls you into taking your gratitude practice for granted, so that it begins to lose its power. Change it up! Change the when, or the how. Change to three times a week. Instead of writing a list, write a letter. Sing it out in the shower, or in your car. Make a gratitude collection, or collage. This particular collection may – or may not — strike you as powerfully evocative. Perhaps looking at certain great art can summon up gratitude for you: I love looking at Kehinde Wiley’s paintings. What works for you?
Thinking in detail about one thing you’re grateful for seems to have even more power for happiness than making a list of several things.
Pay attention to the feeling of gratitude. Muse. Admire. Relish. Cherish. Wallow. Visualize this feeling sinking into you like warming sunshine. If you want the science on this part, here it is: you can actually use your mind to change your brain into a happier state. Too cool.
Of course, happiness multiplies when it is shared. Watch this wonderful video to see some great examples.
At Thanksgiving dinner, my family has had a tradition, for years, of going around the table before we eat, so each of us can share, in turn, some of the things we are grateful for this year. It's usually awkward, sweet, and precious. This year, to change it up, I'm going to ask that we do this ritual over dessert, instead of watching all our dinner cool on our plates. And that we talk a little more about why we are grateful for some of the items on our list, and focus not at all on the length of our lists.
Of course, I am delighted to share how much I appreciate you. Your support, your positive response to the book and to the mission to reduce burnout and increase joy: these are profoundly rewarding to me. They keep me going and inspire me to keep reaching out. Thank you for your love and support. Thank you, so very much, for being you!