Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney prepare to sing "Counting My Blessings"
From the classic movie White Christmas
“You should be grateful!”
We’ve all heard those words, most often when we weren’t in the mood to listen. We’ve scolded ourselves for not being grateful - also, most likely, when gratitude wasn’t coming easily.
Yet gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for building spiritual resilience. Gratitude actually holds the power to nudge us away from depression and anxiety and toward greater peace with our world.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS GRATITUDE?
Gratitude is not the same as appreciation, although appreciation is a good first step. When we appreciate something or someone we stop to notice, to pay attention. We take the opportunity to register and savor the awesomeness of the moment. Appreciation is taking time to notice just how cool someone or something is.
Gratitude looks further to the source of the goodness. When I appreciate a plate of lasagna, I take a good look at it, I smell the delicious aroma, I pay attention to what’s on my fork and in my mouth without being overly distracted by what’s going on in the room. I appreciate the meal but I’m not considering how the meal got to my plate.
When I’m grateful I also acknowledge the cook’s skill and the time invested in preparing the meal. I can grow my circle of gratitude to include those who grew the ingredients and transported them to my grocery store. If I dig even deeper I can expand my scope to include the planet that sustains my life and ultimately to the One who created it all.
The online Oxford Dictionary goes one step further, defining gratitude as thankfulness and “a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Pretty powerful plate of lasagna.
Simply telling ourselves or our kids to be grateful doesn’t often make much difference. On the other hand, consciously shifting our attention toward the blessings in our lives can. I used to ask my high school students to list fifty things they were grateful for. I knew if they wrote a short list they would probably get stuck in clichés, but as they stretched to fill those last twenty slots their lists became much more interesting.I will never forget one student’s entry. She’d been injured as an infant while in the care of a negligent babysitter, and her beautiful face bore a noticeable scar even after several surgeries. On her list, without any explanation, was, “My scar.” I was humbled by her wisdom.
A GRATITUDE PRACTICE
A spiritual practice is a concrete action we engage in on a regular basis in order to bring ourselves back to what's real. There are lots of ways to establish a practice of gratitude. 1) You could make a list of 50 things and review it frequently, but most of us will forget, lose the list, get bored and figure it all takes too much time.
2) An alternative is to choose a time or event that happens regularly in your day, such as a meal, waking up in the morning, commuting, etc. Commit to thanking God in that moment for five people or things in your life.
3) Or, make a decision to shift to gratitude when you're tempted to ruminate about the latest news story.
4) Write a letter of gratitude to a person who has helped you along the way. For a remarkable testament to the power of this practice on both the recipient and the giver, click here.
5) Keep a gratitude journal. I recently attended a funeral where excerpts from my dear friend's gratitude journal were read. It was a touching reminder of who she was and where she had been.
6) Draw gratitude pictures, and invite the children - or the adult artists - in your life to do the same. Post them around the house, share them in social media.
If those seem obvious and simple it's because they are. The change happens when we:
A) Actually do them regularly and
B) Do them mindfully, being truly present to the moment.
Here's where the neuroscience comes in. Simply listing things intellectually uses only a small part of your brain and none of the rest of your body. We are more deeply grateful, and benefit more fully, if we engage our emotions in this practice. To do so, take time to really be present to each item on your list. Recall a person's face, a moment that captures why they are precious to you, how you feel physically when you notice that sunset. Consciously enlist your senses in your moment of gratitude. Focus long enough that the gratitude has a chance to actually register on a feeling level. This engages the emotional part of your brain, which then activates the rest of your nervous system.
Some days this will "work" and some days it won't, but intention counts and this is where the healing happens. There's a ton of research out there saying a gratitude practice can make you happier. Click here for a examples, if you don't believe me.
Better yet, test it yourself. Pick a "target frequency" - say five times a week - and give it your best shot for a time. Ideally, tell at least one other person about your commitment, and then check in with them. Or encourage them to start a gratitude practice themselves and share what you learn and experience.
Click here for a handout with a brief summary of the lesson, suggested actions, and space to jot down a commitment to yourself (and perhaps a buddy.)
The next lesson will dig a little more deeply into how we can help our brains work for us instead of against us.
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