In the midst of a global pandemic and growing unrest in various corners of the world, it might seem strange to speak of gratitude. And yet, it’s times like these when cultivating gratitude can make the biggest difference in our lives. Practicing gratitude is a tool of resilience; a way for us to maintain a sense of hope and even joy amid the difficult circumstances many of us have faced this year.
When life gets hard, we may have a tough time accessing positive feelings. Gratitude doesn’t always come naturally, and cultivating it (or not) is a choice we make. But being grateful reminds us that even when we’re faced with immense challenges, we can still find parts of our lives worth celebrating. Even in the darkest of times, we can find sparks of light -- as long as we’re willing to look for them.
As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, here are some simple suggestions for growing and deepening a sense of gratitude that can help support you and your loved ones through difficult days.
Give yourself the space to feel any and all emotions.
Practicing gratitude is not about denying reality. It’s not about pretending that everything in our lives is easy and perfect, and it’s certainly not about acting happy when we don’t feel it. Nor is it about forcing ourselves to feel grateful amid pain, loss, and uncertainty.
We often label emotions like fear, anger, and grief as “negative” feelings, and sometimes we repress them in an effort to seem more positive and upbeat. While this instinct is understandable, it’s self-defeating because these feelings are part of who we are. To deny them is to reject ourselves. Only through self-love and acceptance can we process and ultimately release these types of feelings.
The first step to accessing feelings of love and gratitude is to embrace all of the difficult and conflicting feelings within yourself. Once you become aware of these emotions, you can start to own them while realizing that they don’t define you -- that there’s a deeper presence within that exists beneath all of the thoughts and feelings.
It won’t be an easy or overnight process, but once you let go of fighting these feelings and start working to accept them, they’ll begin to loosen their grip on your mind, heart, and soul, and you’ll begin to live from a place of greater clarity and peace. From this space, it’s much easier to see the good in your life and make the choice to practice gratitude, regardless of how you feel in the moment.
Reframe the difficulties and setbacks you’ve experienced.
If you’re like many people in this country, you or your loved ones may have faced some serious challenges and hardships this year. Sometimes, though, even the most difficult experiences may have a silver lining, a lesson to teach us, or other unforeseen positive effects on our lives.
Often, it’s the hard times in our lives that shape us, that make us stronger and more resilient. Zhena Muzyka, author of Life By The Cup, says that our pain, our heartbreak, and our despair “carve” us, smoothing our rough edges and transforming us into vessels that can hold greater love and happiness than ever before.
When changes happen that are beyond our control, it can help us to look for meaning within these experiences and understand how they shape us. Sometimes we are better able to see that meaning in retrospect after the worst is over. But if nothing else, facing adversity can remind us to appreciate parts of our lives that we’ve taken for granted in the past.
Make a list of everything and everyone you’re grateful for.
You’ve probably heard of this exercise before: taking a piece of paper and writing down all of the things you feel grateful for. We all have blessings in our lives -- it’s just a matter of opening our eyes to them.
Not sure where to start? Think of where you live, and how fortunate you are to have shelter. Or contemplate the food you eat, and the nourishment you receive from it on a daily basis. If you’re healthy, it’s worth being grateful for your wellness. There are probably people who make your life special -- perhaps a partner, family, friends, or others in your community who’ve supported you over the years. These are all things to celebrate.
It might feel strange or difficult to think of what you’re grateful for at first, but once you get started, you’ll probably think of more and more items to add to the list. When you finish, read back over what you’ve written. Keep your list somewhere where you can see it again and again. Being reminded of the many gifts in your life can fill you with warmth and gratitude even on the worst days.
Think grateful thoughts each day.
To make gratitude a habit, spend a few minutes each day reflecting on what and whom you’re most grateful for. You could refer to the list you made, or you could simply give thanks for the first couple of things that come to mind.
When and how you practice gratitude is up to you. Some people practice gratitude meditations, while others like to give thanks at mealtimes or during prayer. You might like to practice silent gratitude each morning when you wake up to start the day off on an upbeat, positive note.
Regardless of how you do it, the more you intentionally think grateful thoughts, the more naturally it will come to you, and the more positive your mindset will be.
Resist the urge to complain.
We all do it -- we’re only human, after all. But complaining is a surefire way to bring down our moods, as well as those of the people around us. Worse, more often than not, it just perpetuates more negativity; it usually doesn’t solve our problems.
It’s okay to vent now and then if you need to blow off steam. Plus, angry and upset feelings can be helpful if they motivate us to make positive changes. So next time you feel agitated, try channeling these feelings into finding solutions to problems -- you’ll pave the way towards improving your life for the better.
If you struggle with complaining, ask for help from the people around you to gently let you know when your words start to take a negative tone. You can then make the choice to change the subject of the conversation to something more upbeat.
Express your gratitude to others.
Gratitude is not only a mindset that we choose -- it can also be expressed through our actions towards other people. Look for ways to help your loved ones, lift their spirits, and make their lives easier. Surprise your partner with a spontaneous love note, or bring a friend lunch at work. Random acts of kindness make you and the other person feel wonderful, and they help spread goodwill throughout the world.
One of the simplest things you can do is take a moment today to text, email, or call someone special to you. Let them know how much you appreciate their presence in your life. Everyone likes to feel appreciated -- so never underestimate how powerful it can be to just send a few caring words to someone.
Gratitude is a beautiful practice that can dramatically change the way we see the world. Focusing on and celebrating the positive aspects of life helps us get through times of great challenge -- and often times, we come out the other side as stronger, wiser versions of ourselves.