Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Not only do I love the food and experience with family, I also love the idea that this is a time to “Give Thanks.” I try to orient myself toward gratitude the entire month of November. In my family we have a “gratitude tree” where we all try to identify one thing we are grateful for each day and add it to our tree, so that by the end of the month, our tree is “full” and is a visual representation of all the things we have to be grateful for.
However, up until I taught a Positive Psychology class, I did not know that this was an ineffective way to practice gratitude. I won’t say it is a “wrong” way, as I honestly don’t think you can do gratitude wrong. However, I learned that there are more effective ways to practice gratitude that will more powerfully impact our emotional health and well-being.
Research has found that expressing gratitude is helpful to make people happier, more energetic, more hopeful, more forgiving, less materialistic, and more helpful and empathetic toward others. It also serves to decrease negative emotions like depression, anxiety and envy (Lyubomirsky, 2007, p.90).
So how can we optimize our gratitude practices to achieve these results?
One of the keys to practicing gratitude is that how we practice it should feel meaningful. That is why my gratitude tree isn’t the most effective, long-term solution. Practicing gratitude the same way, every day, makes it become routine, mundane, and even boring. Variety and creativity are the antidotes to this.
Writing what I’m grateful for on a leaf can be one way for me to practice gratitude but spicing up how and when I practice gratitude is better! Here are some ideas for some gratitude practices to try this month:
If writing is your thang, or you at least enjoy it, this can be a good strategy for you. This doesn’t have to be a long journal entry (unless you get on a roll and can’t stop). This can simply be a bulleted list of five things for which you are currently grateful. Don’t rush through this exercise. Take time to ponder things you are grateful for from the miraculous to the every-day. Consider individuals in your life, opportunities and memories made. Conveniences we may take for granted, and things about yourself and your life (e.g health, adventurous spirit etc).
Instead of writing down what you are grateful for, you may choose to simply ponder for several minutes on these things. Research indicates the topics you think about don’t matter as long as they matter to you and you feel a sense of gratitude when you think about them.
If you want a more guided exercise in gratitude, there are literally hundreds of guided gratitude meditations out there! You can find several great options to explore through Insight Timer, which is a meditation app that allows you search specific guided meditations. You can search for “gratitude” and several will come up for you!
Find a friend or family member, or several people in your life with whom you can share your blessings. Encourage them to share with you what they are grateful for in their lives. You will likely find this to be an enriching and uplifting experience. Also hearing the blessings of others may bring to mind more of your own blessings you hadn’t considered yet.
Gratitude visit or letter
Expressing gratitude directly to someone who has impacted your life is a powerful way toboost your own sense of well-being as well as that of the person you are thanking. This can be through a visit where your purpose is to thank them. Or this can be in a letter, where you describe in detail how they have impacted your life and how often you think of this impact, or recognize this impact. Even better yet, you could write a letter of gratitude and then read the letter out-loud to the person you are thanking.
This is a method I try to employ a lot. I engage in activities that increase my feelings of gratitude. For example, I use photography as a means to capture moments and beauty for which I am grateful. The activity options here are endless. Yoga, walking, swimming could all be practices that enhance your awareness and gratitude for your health and body. Hiking or travel could enhance your gratitude for nature and the beautiful world in which we live. Cultural experiences can increase appreciation for the rich diversity of peoples and customs around us, while also increasing awareness and appreciation for your own culture and customs.
I’m curious if you have other gratitude practices that you find to be meaningful and helpful that I haven’t mentioned?
Finally, just so ya know, research has found that practicing gratitude once a week can be more personally beneficial than doing it every day. So don’t feel bad if you miss a day…or several! Doing it once a week keeps the practice fresh and meaningful, which allows you to more fully feel the effects a gratitude practice offers.
I will continue to do our family gratitude tree during this month, because I like it! But I will be actively using these other strategies to more powerfully bring a sense of Thanksgiving into my life and the life of my family.