Each year, when Thanksgiving rolls around, we're reminded to take time out of our busy lives to give thanks. But why wait for Thanksgiving to be grateful? Recent psychological studies suggest that cultivating a year-round attitude of gratitude can actually have longterm effects on our happiness. And I don’t just mean your daily thanks for chocolate and a glass of wine, but actually finding a way to be grateful for everything in your life.
With a little imagination and a whole lot of optimism, you can generate appreciation for everything — including bad hair days. (Hey, you get to wear that hat you bought last spring and at least you learned never to sleep with your hair in braids again.) It might sound hokey, but you'll notice the amazing affects that cultivating everday gratitude has on your life. I know was totally bummed that I didn't have enough cash to fly home to New York for the holidays this year, but then I considered what I can be grateful for instead, like how I get to avoid busy airports and how much fun it will be to feast with friends. Yep, not so bummed anymore.
Turkey Day is the perfect time to start some simple habits toward grateful living. Here are five activities you can do to be more thankful this Thanksgiving season, and all year round.
1. Create a Gratitude List
Many of us are familiar with the tradition of sitting around a food-laden table with stomachs growling as each person shares what they're grateful for. Under pressure, most of us give easy answers such as family, friends, and good health. Trust me, I appreciate the brevity as I stare at the steaming turkey.
Writing a gratitude list before Thanksgiving can provide a less-famished way to think about what you appreciate. Yes, I’m grateful for family, but why? I write it down: I’m grateful for the support they give me, so that I can be myself and follow my dreams.
After compiling a list of things you are grateful for in life — and why — consider reading it every morning and starting off your day in a place of gratitude instead of protest. (I know I’m not the only one who protests waking up and going to work.) Appreciate what you have, instead of complaining about what you don’t, and you’ll suddenly realize that you have so much more than you realized.
Finding time to volunteer amongst holiday schedules and gift shopping can seem like an impossible feat, but even the simplest acts can help us appreciate what we have, instead of yearning for more. Perhaps you have time to volunteer at the local food bank to serve up hot meals to people who don’t have a kitchen or can’t afford a turkey. If you have less time, you can drop off cans at a local donation center. Just take a moment to consider how many of those cans you have stockpiled at home in case of a zombie apocalypse and how fortunate you are that you can afford them. You can even make sandwiches and pass them out to people in need that you notice on your way to work. Their smiles might be gratitude enough.
Choose the cause that means the most to you to make it meaningful. I like to pick up trash around my neighborhood. This works for me because I can do it on my own time. When I do this simple act, I consider how thankful I am to live somewhere with clean water and fresh air. Not everyone is so fortunate.
3. Send Blessings
When I first started this little activity as an experiment, I felt a bit awkward, but in time, I found that my attitude toward people altered in significant measure. Once a day, I went through a list of people in my life, near and far, and said, “Blessings to…” An image of their face popped up in my mind and I could see them as clearly as if they were sitting across the table from me.
Initially, my intention was to send good vibes their way, kind of like a prayer. I chose people that I missed (my mom) or had struggles with (my ex-boyfriend), or who were sick or going through a hard time. Interestingly, I noticed that if I saw them later that day or week, I felt an even stronger connection to them. Even weirder, they often called or emailed out of the blue as if they knew I was thinking of them.
Sometimes, I sent blessings to strangers simply because it looked like they could use it. I have no idea if it affected their lives, but it helped me to feel grateful for those everyday interactions with people. In time, this practice can bring greater gratitude for our relationships with people we care about and our relationships to humankind as a whole. We’re all connected by our humanity and it’s a great reminder that we’re not alone.
The practice of meditation, done properly over time, can connect us with a feeling of inner peace. Meditation quiets our minds and tunes out the constant chatter of thoughts. I don’t know about you, but my mind wavers somewhere between berating me for that idiotic thing I said to that guy at that party last week and dreaming about how I could spend my first million. Meditation helps me to stay present in the moment. This simple practice allows us to be more cognizant of the big picture as we let go of petty concerns that suddenly don’t seem so significant anymore. A regular or frequent meditation practice is the gateway to living a life of gratitude.
My meditation practice has taught me how to be grateful — even when I’m not initially feeling that way. It gives me a perspective on the inner workings of my mind, and encourages me to welcome the joy as well as the discomfort. By being able to see the core feelings at the root of my negative thoughts, I’m often able to turn them around. Perhaps I’m stressed and anxious, but these feelings remind me to take a moment to breathe and I’m grateful that I’m alive and thriving. Perhaps my friend just got the dream job I wanted, and I’m jealous as hell. I’m able to see this for what it is, just that, jealousy. I’m grateful I know what I want and my vision is all the more clearer for it. I can be happy for my friend and see that if she can do it, so can I.
5. Gratitude Affirmations
If you've already taken on the first four acts of gratitude, this one will fit in easily with your new routine. If you feel like the first four are just too much work, then this last one is also for you. A super simple act like saying an affirmation can have a huge impact on your thinking and emotional state. Here are a few gratitude affirmations you can try on your tongue and see which one works for you or maybe you can make one up for yourself:
"I am fully appreciative for all that shows up in my life."
"I choose to be grateful for everything I have."
"I am grateful for this moment."
At times, it's easy to use a gratitude affirmation. The other day, while I was out walking the dog after work, I watched the white mountain tops turn fuchsia with alpenglow. Right there and then, "I am grateful for this moment," was easy to remember. However, when I was stuck in traffic and late to get my daughter and her friend to gymnastics class, "I am grateful for this moment," was so far out of my mind that I really had to work to conjure it up. "What was that I wanted to say? I know there was something I wanted to say right now in the midst of this crazy crap tornado. It's on the tip of my tongue ... Oh, yeah, I am grateful for this moment." Somehow, it made me feel better to just say the words. Use your affirmation as much as possible throughout the day and you'll feel more grateful for your life.