With gratitude, I’m learning to have more contentment for all the things I have and all the things I can do, versus being disappointed with the things I don’t have or can’t do.
For example, when I see my friends celebrating their 25th or 30th wedding anniversaries, sometimes I am sad that M and I will never have an opportunity to achieve such a milestone. Then the gratitude meter checks in and I become grateful for the 24 years we did have together. It’s more than many couples get, especially with the rate of divorce in this country.
Wearing Gratitude on My Wrist
I wear a MyIntent bracelet on my wrist with the word “Gratitude.” It acts as a constant prompt to be thankful for all the things I can do. “Breathe because you can,” said my yoga teacher N in a recent class. N is right; I am grateful that I can breathe.
A Bucket Full of Gratitude
If I could put all my gratitude in a container, it would fill a huge bucket. In that bucket would be my daughter A and my son D, my boyfriend L, my BFFs L and R, my sister N, my late mom and dad and many more friends and family members.
I’d add gratitude for my beautiful home and my condo on the corner at the shore, and I’d top that with my yoga and meditation practice and the retirement I earned from my full-time job that is enabling me to live life to the fullest during my second act.
There’s more, more, more gratitude for you my blog readers who bring me great joy each week when we connect through my posts.
Ah, yes, the gratitude bucket sometimes gets blown over by negative thoughts that creep in, especially when the aches and pains of my aging body act up or I see more wrinkles on my face. Then I remember that gratitude is a practice, and it’s not going to be perfect every day.
Benefits of a Gratitude Practice
Nancy Rones from Yoga Journal wrote: “Practicing gratitude four times a week by keeping a gratitude diary and listening to a guided recording for fostering gratefulness in life lowered study participants’ levels of depression and stress and increased their happiness within three weeks, according to a recent Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine study.”
Wow, in less than a month this little practice can boost happiness!
When I honored M at our temple services on the 19th, my gratitude bucket was full as I held him close in my heart. The framed quote that hangs in my office reminds me of how truly grateful I am to have had M in my life for 24 years. It says, “When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.”
The Minor Tragedy
The other day I ordered takeout from one of my favorite Indian restaurants for dinner. My family had a tight timeline that night, which meant we would only be together for an hour before everyone had to run off in separate directions.
We picked up the food and drove home, but when we opened the bag we realized that the restaurant had forgotten to include one of the main dishes from our order.
In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal. Missing half of the dinner that you bought from a nice Indian restaurant in suburban America is a classic example of a first world problem. That said, we had an issue at the moment.
Either someone had to drive back and get the food while the others packed for their trip later that night or we had to settle for eating half of the dinner we ordered. It seems frivolous in retrospect, but this is exactly the type of little hassle that can ruin the mood and pull everyone into a negative spiral–especially when you are in a rush.
I wasn’t going anywhere later that night, so I volunteered to drive back to the restuarant and pick up the missing food while everyone else packed their bags for their trip. When I returned 40 minutes later, we finally sat down to eat dinner with about 20 minutes to spare before we needed to get back in the car and leave. Basically, it was a rushed evening.
So, this was the mood in the room–frustrated, rushed, and stressed–when our simple gratitude habit came to the rescue.
When I sit down to eat dinner, I say one thing that I am grateful for happening today.
On this particular day, after the frantic rush of the evening, I said that I was grateful for a short shopping trip earlier in the day because it allowed us to spend time together that we didn’t get to spend later in the evening.
Everyone else contributed their own grateful moment from the day. And in those 10 seconds, the energy completely reset in the room. It was like we all breathed a deep sigh and said, “Ok, that was annoying, but we’re over it now. We live a very good life and it’s time to move on and enjoy the moment.”
Now, let’s talk about why this gratitude habit is so effective.
Here’s what I have learned about starting a gratitude practice:
This is a spiritual practice that gains momentum over time and with practice. If you are like me you will have days where you can find every reason under the sun why you can’t possibly do it. (Isn’t putting the rubbish out much more important?!)
Gratitude doesn’t seem to come as easily as grumbling does, and you will likely resist this exercise until the cows come home, as they say in New Zealand. Waiting for the resistance to pass is futile. Just do it.
I have learnt from this experience that even when you can hardly summon up the energy to shift into gratitude even when you have to force yourself to begin, it still has magnetizing power.
So do it. Sit down with pen and paper or at your computer and start, “I am grateful for …” Maybe you will have to stop there for a minute and wait because you just can’t think of anything. But just wait. Surrender to the moment. Something inside you will shift. The words will come.
This force that you are tapping into is bigger than you and it is bigger than your problem, no matter how big that is. That tide of fear that is overwhelming you is not all there is. There is so much more to you than that.
Your gratitude list is a bridge across those troubled waters to a resting place on the other side.
3. Write it down.
Sometimes, if we were both very busy, we would tell each other what we were grateful for during our daily phone conversation. For some reason I never felt this had as much power as writing. There was just something about the energy that seemed to surround the written list that set it apart.
4. Feel it.
Some days you will write without feeling a shred of gratitude. That’s ok. Just do it anyway. And when you can summon up the feeling of gratitude in your heart, let it percolate through every cell in your body. Embody it. Place your hands on your heart. Raise your head, lift your body up, and raise your arms.
Move into the feeling. Dance it. Sing it. Aspire to a fullness of heart, no matter what is going on around you.
5. Choose a set time of day.
You may want to do this when you first wake in the morning or late at night before you go to sleep. This is a tricky one for us since we live in different time zones. The best we can manage is that she usually writes her list to me while I am asleep and I usually write my list to her while she is asleep.
6. Practice present-moment gratitude.
As you move through your day, pause now and then when you remember, and think as you do something “I am grateful.”
I like to do this with my morning cup of tea. Try touching your tea or coffee cup with gentle love and appreciation before you take your first sip. Moving through your day with awareness and grace in this way will mean that when you do sit down to write your gratitude list those things will come to mind.
7. Share the gratitude.
Partner with someone. You may not have a life partner half a world away as I do (lucky you!) but find someone to partner with. You will keep each other going and that sense of obligation to that person will give you the push you need to write your list on those days when it just seems too hard.
Reading what the other person has written helps you to access your own gratitude more easily, and it is fun to watch your gratitude email grown longer and longer and longer! You can see your progress.
8. Don’t stop once you start to see results!
When we first began to see results we thought we’d take a break from gratitude for a while. We quickly saw though that the energy surrounding our recovery would then start to lag and lose some of its oomph. So we’d drag ourselves back into the practice again and, as if by magic, our recovery would regain its momentum.
9. Allow yourself to be human.
Grumble if you must. Miss the odd day here and there. Write “I am grateful I am writing my gratitude list” five times if you can think of nothing else. We sometimes went three or four days without writing.
We would deal with that by either playing catch up—writing a few days in one—or by just letting those few days go and starting back again where we left off. Beware the little voice that says “You’ve missed a day. You’ve failed miserably at being grateful!” Ignore it. Get back up on your horse and keep riding! Your best awaits you.
Why It Works
After using this mini-habit for three years, here are my biggest lessons learned.
- It is a really good idea to force yourself into a positive frame of mind at least once per day. Everyone has bad days and frustrating moments, myself included. But no matter what happens each day, when I sit down for dinner I am forced to think about the good in my life for at least a few seconds. The result is that there is not a day that goes by without me specifically stating something positive that is happening around me. Positive thinking opens your eyes to more opportunities.
- The individual impact of any one piece of gratitude is small, but the cumulative effect is huge. The power of this habit comes from a multiplier effect that takes hold after practicing it for a month or two. You begin to realize that nearly everyday is a good day (at least in a small way).
- You start to realize how insignificant monetary things are for your day-to-day happiness. The majority of my grateful moments don’t cost a dime: time spent with friends and family, something nice someone said, a good workout that day. That’s not to say money is unimportant, but there is something comforting in realizing that the moments you’re actually grateful for each day are free.
- I have stuck with the habit because it is stupidly small. I can’t name many habits that I have been able to pick up immediately and follow every day for three years. Perhaps the biggest reason that I have maintained so much consistency with this habit is that it is incredibly small. Do things you can sustain.
- I have stuck with the habit because it is perfectly tied to another behavior. Using the idea of habit stacking, I stacked my gratitude habit on top of my habit of eating dinner each night. It is so much easier to build a new habit into your lifestyle when you choose the right trigger.
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