Whatever you do, don't let Thanksgiving be a one and done gratitude fest. Giving thanks every day instead opens you up to an array of pretty incredible benefits. It was also a lifeline during a year that could have easily broken me, a year when I made gratitude a habit.
It started sixteen months ago, on my birthday in late July. I felt a strong and unexplainable nudge to fully throw myself into listing every single thing for which I was grateful. It was something I couldn't resist. I had to do it. When this happens in my life, I know it's a God thing. Looking back, I think it was a gift. He was preparing me for the storm I didn’t know was coming.
The experience was so powerful that I decided to write The Big Joy of Little Things, twenty one days of forming a new gratitude habit. I had always been pretty thankful, but this was different. It wasn't just noticing things in passing. It was sitting for a long while, being still and quiet, and literally basking in giving thanks. It was carefully, joyfully noting every blessing in my life. Intentionally. Indulgently. Every single day.
I spoke the names of small good things:
Your presence in this journey and your words of encouragement as I write,
a hot cup of coffee,
my favorite gum,
A phone call from a friend,
the feeling of warm water running over my body in the shower and the clean smell of soap.
I listed big blessings:
my family’s health and safety
a home to shelter us,
my husband and I hanging in through twenty-four years of marriage,
my faith and clear signs of God's presence in my life
The lists went on and on, longer every day.
When I started this practice, I was curious. I wondered how it might affect me over the course of twelve months, the amount of time I committed to doing it. I wondered if I would last the entire time or if I’d get busy with other things and eventually drift away from it. I wondered if it would change me.
Three weeks after starting my daily gratitude practice, the proverbial poop skipped the fan and slammed straight into my family. The details are personal and, for our purposes here, they don't matter anyway. What's important is that it was the hardest year of my life and it changed us in a variety ways. It forced each of us to look at ourselves and our lives, which were messier than we had thought. What a revelation for me, the one who feasted on self improvement and thought she had a healthy dose of self awareness, the one who saw herself as the glue in the family, but who now realized my glue kept me stuck in some less than helpful patterns.
To say all of this was hard is like saying the sun is a tad bit warm. It broke us down and forced us to rebuild. The work continues now, but that first year was deep and emotional and made me feel like I was walking across a high wire in the middle of a hurricane. While God and an excellent therapist kept me from falling off (Thank you Brad Reedy!), daily gratitude was like the long pole I tightly grasped to help me maintain some semblance of balance as I teetered. In the midst of big and bad, it reminded me that good remains. I'm not sure how I would have gotten through it if I hadn't already developed the gratitude habit, if I hadn't gotten good at noticing most every little blessing.
So what's the effect of more than a year of this? Much more than I would have guessed.
Gratitude is now effortless. Taking time out for it is automatic. And because I do this, my focus falls more often on the good that crosses my path. That means I don’t have to go looking in order to notice small things I didn’t see before. These little nuggets are joy boosters and emotional bumpers that give me padding to absorb the hard knocks of life.
I also find that pausing in the quiet to give thanks is calming and relaxing. I swear there’s a little high to it and it turns out I’m not imagining that. This linked article in Psychology Today cites a 2009 National Institutes of Health study that showed ongoing gratitude activates parts of the brain associated with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. So yeah, we get an emotional boost from it. The study says it's strong enough to lessen despair and depression, things I could have easily gotten lost in during my hell year. It actually enabled me to feel some happiness during that time and remain optimistic, which is nothing short of astounding.
Studies also show people who are grateful are healthier, happier, have more determination, attention, enthusiasm, optimism and energy. They sleep better and have less anxiety.
I found one additional benefit, too. My daily gratitude practice allows me to put myself in a positive space where I can spend time with my Maker. I feel more connected to God because of it and that allows me to feel more connected to others. That, in turn, creates more positive energy in my life. There is a wonderful flow to it all.
So let Thanksgiving be more than one day. Use it to start your own daily practice. Try it your way or borrow the approach that works for me:
I wake up every morning and before jumping straight into my day, I pause at the edge of my bed, where I look out of the window you see in the picture above. I give thanks for a new day and the ability to go out into it. I start with my feet, saying thank You that they can hold me up. Then I work my way up slowly, grateful for legs that can walk and a digestive system that works, covering every part of my physical being until I eventually make it to the top of my head.
From there I journey inward, giving thanks for my deepest self, the Spiritual part that is who I really am, the part connected to God who is connected to all. And then my gratitude begins to flow outward to everyone and everything outside of me. And all of that noticing my blessings continues on its own accord throughout the day. Automatically.
List every little bit of goodness you can think of. Don’t rush this, gratitude warriors. It is something to bask in and enjoy. Don’t worry if it feels stiff and forced at first. This isn’t what most of us grow up learning to do. Give yourself a chance to get used to it. Commit to three weeks and see what happens from there. I can't wait to hear!
Let Thanksgiving be the kickstart of you tapping into your best self. It is a surefire way of finding what I call The Big Joy in Little Things. And know that I count you when I count my blessings.
Wishing you a happy thanks-giving every day.
(If this resonates with you, be sure to share and like it. Someone you know might really need it.)