Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks. You could have probably figured that one out on your own due to the not-so-subtle hint in the name, but I wanted to reiterate it anyway. Over the years, it seems that Thanksgiving (and the holiday season in general) has transformed from a time of gratitude to a time of excess. We gather around a table covered in food and eat until we can barely move. Then some of us leave our family and friends to go wait in line to score a deal on a new television or an iPad in the name of Black Friday.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting any of these practices down. All I’m saying is that in all of the hustle and bustle, it appears that we’ve somehow forgotten the reason for the season—gratitude.
What is Gratitude?
There are several definitions out there for gratitude, but my favorite comes from Robin Stern, Ph.D and Robert Emmons, Ph.D with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. They define gratitude as “a state of mind that arises when you affirm a good thing in your life that comes from outside yourself, or when you notice and relish little pleasures”.
Gratitude is not a random feeling that is outside of your control; it’s an affirmed belief that there is always something to be thankful for, even when circumstances seem tough.
Proven Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude isn’t some new-age idea either; the social, psychological, and physical benefits of gratitude have been well-documented in hundreds of research studies. Practicing gratitude increases happiness, reduces anxiety and aggression, improves self-esteem, and strengthens relationships. Gratitude can also boost your immune system, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and reduce aches and pains. Grateful people also tend to be more helpful, compassionate, forgiving, patient, and resilient.
At first, the act of practicing gratitude may seem like just that—an act. But as you do it regularly and make it a part of your daily routine, it will become more natural, and you’ll notice a gradual shift in both your health and your mood.
Ways to Practice Gratitude
I understand that we’re all busy, and it’s not always possible to give back in all the ways we wish we could, but luckily gratitude doesn’t have to be a huge, demonstrative act. There are ways you can quietly practice gratitude each and every day.
- Keep a gratitude journal. First thing every morning, write down one thing you’re grateful for. It can be something as simple as having a pillow to sleep on or the ability to watch the sun rise.
- Smile at a stranger and say “good morning”—and mean it.
- Give out at least one compliment per day. It can be to a family member, friend, or perfect stranger. Just make sure the compliment is genuine. People can usually tell when you are being sincere.
- Accept compliments that are given to you. Instead of shrugging them off or putting yourself down in response to a compliment, smile and say "thank you."
- Call someone close to you and tell him/her how much you appreciate him/her.
- Commit to at least one day per week when you don’t complain about anything. If you find yourself starting to complain, take note, acknowledge the negative behavior, and try to put a positive spin on it.
- Thank someone who provides a service in your community—a police officer, a crossing guard, or your child’s teacher, for example.
- Quietly send positive thoughts and love to people you dislike.
- Look at yourself in the mirror and say "I appreciate you."
- Post words, quotes, or pictures of gratitude around your house. When you read them, let them remind you to stop and be grateful for that moment.
- Write a letter to someone who has made a positive impact in your life. Read it to them personally or mail it to them.
- Appreciate every moment. If you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious, stop and look around. What do you see, smell, and hear? Allowing yourself to become absorbed in a moment helps to calm your mind so you can take in the present moment.
- Replace one ungrateful thought with a grateful thought each day. For example, if you find yourself saying “This house is so messy! I can’t stand it!” replace that thought with “I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, mess and all.”
- Thank your body for everything it does for you. Thank your heart for beating, your lungs for allowing you to breathe, and your legs and feet for carrying you from place to place.
- Practice random acts of kindness. Pay the toll for a driver behind you, put a quarter in an expired meter, give a homeless person a meal, help an elderly person put his/her groceries in the car, or send flowers to a friend who could use a pick-me-up.
- Eat slowly and savor each bite of food. Pay attention to how each bite tastes and be thankful that you have food to eat.
- Write a letter to a child. Children love receiving mail.
- Offer to do an errand or take over a responsibility for someone in need. You can volunteer to bring in the snacks for your child’s classroom, take your elderly neighbor’s dog for a walk, or take over the carpool for a day.
- Allow yourself to appreciate things that you think may be trivial. Two free hours to watch a movie, getting the piece of cake with the most frosting, and having enough hot water to take a bath may seem like small things, but being grateful for the little things will define your attitude.
- Breathe. Breathing is an involuntary response, so we often don’t realize just how powerful it is. Take a few moments each day to focus on your breath and appreciate it.