Growing an Attitude of Gratitude

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I remember vividly one day when I was a young boy, during catechism class when the stern, habit-headed nun asked us, “What day is Thanksgiving?” – referring to the upcoming holiday.  Hands flew up, and everybody took a guess, “November 24th,” “Next Thursday,” “the third Thursday of November – no, the fourth.”

After numerous guesses fell short of our teacher’s expectations, a little light went off in my head, and I tentatively raised my hand. “Every day,” I said simply.

I can still picture the beaming smile on her face, as she replied, “Yes, indeed.  Every day is for Thanks-giving.”  And I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

Yet how do we apply it during the hustle and bustle of everyday life, especially during the holidays, when we get so busy and stressed?

Developing an “attitude of gratitude” isn’t about some compulsory mandate to run around and say thank you to others because it’s the polite thing to do.  It’s about pausing to notice and truly appreciate the many gifts that surround us every day.

It’s not about glossing over the struggles of life, either.  Rather, it’s fully acknowledging those things as well, and appreciating that we’re still here.  It’s recognizing that somehow we’ve overcome those challenges, we’ve survived that pain, and we’re still capable of laughing, loving, and learning how to enjoy another day.

When we practice being grateful, we receive many unanticipated benefits. Research has shown that maintaining a regular gratitude practice leads to improved moods, physical health, relationships, productivity, and sense of well-being.  It can decrease depression, and increase happiness and life satisfaction.

This habit of maintaining an attitude of gratitude isn’t always easy, especially if you haven’t been naturally inclined towards it.  There can be obstacles, for sure, brought about by difficult life experiences and self-defeating thought patterns.  In fact, the brain is wired for a “negativity bias” where, for the survival of the species, it remembers negative or threatening encounters most vividly.

Yet the amazing thing about human beings is that, as always, we have a choice.  We have a brain that is also uniquely wired for conscious thought.  That is, we have the ability to consider and choose how we want to respond to any given situation.

When we regularly choose to STOP, RELAX, AND THINK about what makes us happy, about what gifts we’ve received in life, about what blessings we’ve encountered – then we can start a positive snowball rolling in the direction of greater happiness and contentment with our lives.

This practice is essential to our personal well-being, which is essential to providing positive parenting or teaching, which is essential to our children’s ability to thrive!

So, how do you develop a healthier attitude of gratitude?

Dr. Robert Emmons is a prominent researcher in this area and the author of the popular book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.  I was privileged to participate in a semester-long course with Dr. Emmons several years ago on this subject, and it was an incredibly uplifting experience!  Here’s what he and others have concluded are some of the top tips for maintaining your attitude of gratitude.

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Writing in a daily journal – even simply listing three things that you’re thankful for that day, and to whom you are thankful – has been shown to relieve depression in some people as much as antidepressant medications. It develops your ability to be on the look out for blessings, to focus on and remember the things that matter most.  Ten minutes a day, applied regularly, can work wonders for your soul and your moods.

2. Come to Your Senses

Pay attention to what you see, hear, touch, smell, taste.  Be present to the here and now, and experience the natural pleasures that surround you every waking minute.  Get out of your head, and into a full awareness of your natural senses.  Become intoxicated and invigorated with life’s sights, sounds, smells, and textures.

3. Use Visual Reminders

Surround yourself with beauty, art, and inspiration.  Have photographs, images, and quotes posted all around that inspire and remind you.  To breathe.  To relax.  To appreciate.

4. Watch Your Language

Your words influence your thoughts and actions.  What you say out loud reinforces your worldview and helps to create your actual experience.  Be mindful of what words are coming out of your mouth.  Make a conscious choice to speak more words of kindness and gratitude.  When you catch yourself speaking otherwise, simply “Rewind and Replay.”

5. Go Through the Motions

The old saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it” has some wisdom in it.  Smiling sets off signals to the brain that start lighting up neural connections involving positive mood and memory.  When you start saying “Thank You” to the world more often, start writing down things your grateful for, it can start that positive snowball rolling, even if you’re not totally feeling it.  Stay with it, setting the honest intention to find blessings in your life, and the grateful feelings will start to flow.