As we settle into the season of gratitude, I always get the same feeling I do when Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or Valentine’s Day rolls around. Why is it that we are so focused on being thankful, and showing or sharing our gratitude, during this season? Why not all year long?
Hallmark has cashed in on the idea that we are a nation of people who are too busy and too overwhelmed to show love and respect for our mothers, fathers, and partners most days of the year. We are urged to spend upwards of $3 on a card (let’s not forget the gifts) to send to someone who raised us, sacrificed for us, and loves us in May, June, and February.
Similarly, as October winds down and November leads into December, we are assaulted by products that remind us to be grateful, to give thanks, to gather.
It’s been well documented that gratitude is good for our general well-being. Studies have shown feelings of gratitude and thankfulness are related to overall good mental and physical health.
When we experience gratitude, we sleep better, feel less stress, work harder and are more focused, and are, let’s face it, nicer to those around us. Obviously, gratitude won’t make us or our lives perfect, but you get the gist.
So why all the focus on gratitude just in November and December? Again, why not all year long?
Research tells us humans feel gratitude in two ways. The first is obvious - when we receive a gift or something good happens to us, we feel grateful. The second is more of a life-style choice and harder to stick with - it’s a general inclination towards a happy and appreciative attitude.
But let’s be honest, not everyone is born with that in their genetic make-up. And it’s no sin. Some people struggle more on a day-to-day basis and feeling appreciative doesn’t always come easy.
Most of us are familiar with the first example. As children we’re taught to show gratitude when someone does something nice for us, such as give us a gift, invite us to a party, or compliment us.
But once that good deed is over and done, how many of us continue to feel fueled by gratitude days later?
Honestly, in today’s world it’s hard to cultivate a daily habit of gratitude. Face it - we have full and diverse lives. For example: school; romances gone right or wrong, either way it’s a struggle; two career marriages; maybe a couple of kids to look after; a dog or cat; a lawn to mow; committees to participate in; children with special needs or illnesses; parents who are aging; a significant other who needs and desires our attention; a boss who is demanding; bills that need to be paid; extended family and friends who want to spend time with us. And, let’s not forget, our own hearts and minds that need to be cared for and cultivated.
We can’t depend on people doing nice things for us, or for good luck and karma, to keep that feeling of gratitude alive within us.
When we are facing the reality of our modern lives, it is not uncommon to move through our days without feeling a moment of gratitude. It happens to all of us. In fact, studies shows it can happen so often we may go days without realizing it. In the end, everyone suffers - we do, as well as those around us.
That’s where the second, more fulfilling example of gratitude comes in - cultivating a general inclination towards a happy and appreciative attitude.
How do we cultivate a life where we are inclined towards this happy and appreciative attitude? Where do we find the time for that? Every. Single. Day.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it would be normal to be flying high all the time. Sometimes things happen and we just don’t feel grateful, no matter what. Constant happiness is not some kind of goal for us to reach, nor is it proof that we are enlightened spiritual beings.
In fact, forced or fake gratitude has been shown to be just as detrimental to our overall well-being as a lack of genuine gratitude.
Pretending does not allow us to sit with our pain and disappointment. Life is full of bumps and bruises, some more serious than others, and it is important to acknowledge these struggles and to live through the journey in order to pass through times of stress.
One thing I know for sure is this. Even during the worst heartache - a divorce, the death of a parent or a spouse - or the most trying of times - loss of a job, a child who is physically or mentally ill - the sun rises on a new day every 24 hours and, eventually, a new day will dawn that presents a little less pain and anguish than the day before. That is when we must decide - am I going to continue to dwell on the problem and prolong the agony, or can I find a way to focus some of my attention on something better?
I’m not suggesting that if we are depressed or struggling we just need to buck up and get over it. Far from it. Research shows clinical depression and/or anxiety cannot be cured by that approach.
But there are things we can do that will help us, no matter where we are on the scale, and enhance treatment options.
What I’m talking about is working to develop a kind of gratitude that comes from the heart and cannot be created in or by our minds.
Recently I read that “gratefulness exercises” do not improve or change the way someone might respond to a gift or a nice gesture. However, it seem such exercises can aid us in cultivating the general inclination towards that happy and appreciative attitude I mentioned earlier. This can be especially helpful for those who are experiencing a difficult time.
On the advise of my mother, some years ago I started the practice of trying to set aside some time every day to think about, if not put down on paper, a list of at least one thing for which I felt grateful. Thus began my attempt at a “gratefulness exercise”.
This hasn’t been easy and I haven’t always been successful. Some days really suck, and my brain is so clouded, that the fact that I am alive and have a roof over my head or that my children are safe and warm or that my husband is healthy never even enter my mind. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there have been times when the only thing I can say I’m grateful for is my dog Roxie.
And, like many people, a day or more can go by - maybe I’m stressed or maybe I’m having a run of really good luck - when I forget to stop and make my list. This is where my yoga practice has made all the difference.
A happy and appreciative attitude is not built on what is happening TO us or FOR us that makes us feel good. It arises, instead, naturally from a heart that is centered and this aids us in releasing stress. It helps us develop our inner life rather that being focused on getting awards or achieving goals. And this is how we begin to cultivate a general inclination towards a happy and appreciative attitude.
A regular yoga practice leads naturally to feelings of gratitude and thankfulness. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Google it! Just the act of being present on your mat, as you move through the various poses and focus on what your body is telling you, opens a space inside that generates positive energy. And positive energy breeds thankfulness and gratitude. It happens without us even thinking about it. It’s this amazing involuntary, subconscious side-effect. It’s our body and brain chemistry working to make us more open and accepting of ourselves and of others.
Don’t forget - Yoga and meditation are about controlling our mind so it cannot control us. Together, they can be an invaluable tool to help us, although they are not a substitute for care or treatment if depression and anxiety persist.
With the help of my “gratitude exercise”, and the added support of my new yoga practice, I’m striving to continue the season of gratitude and thanksgiving long after December has turned the page to a new year.
Is this something you have thought about and want to implement? Maybe some of you have been working on this for a while now. We’d love to hear from you!
Please take a minute to share with us your thoughts on cultivating a happy and appreciative attitude - whether the idea is new to you or old hat.
And, as always, we appreciate the time you spend here on our blog. And, please, keep sharing with your friends and family!