There likely wasn’t a Thanksgiving as it was described in the history books, a day when the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sat down to a feast and gave thanks together. Even if it’s …
There likely wasn’t a Thanksgiving as it was described in the history books, a day when the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sat down to a feast and gave thanks together. Even if it’s just a legend, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea to count our blessings and be grateful this holiday season and, in fact, every day of the year.
I call gratitude the inoculation against all painful emotions: sadness, anger, anxiety and despair. It’s what helped me most after the death of my husband.
I’ve written about our brains being hardwired for negativity before, and it’s an important concept to keep in mind. This dominant wiring for negativity is necessary for our survival. It helps us to be focused on danger and what we lack. This tendency protects our physical well-being.
However, it does nothing for, and may even hurt, our mental and emotional well-being. To really enjoy your life when your physical safety isn’t at risk, it’s important to develop a parallel neural pathway to positivity in your brain. The only way I know to do this is to consciously practice gratitude, not just at Thanksgiving, but every single day throughout the year.
Here are some tips if you are just beginning to build your gratitude muscles:
Are there things you want that you currently don’t have? This is the human condition. If you focus on what you don’t have, you will feel deprived, frustrated and envious of those who do. Focus instead on what you do have that you are grateful for.
Are there some things you can no longer do that you wish you could? I wish I could still do a cartwheel. I probably could do one, but I fear I will break my wrist if I try. My focus is on gratitude for the fact I have legs that take me where I want to go and arms that are always able to hug those I love, especially my grandchildren.
Have you lost people in your life to either death, divorce or decision? You can focus on the loss or you can focus on the relationship you had. For this, I love Dr. Suess’ quote, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” And look forward to the future and the new people you will meet.
Are you in a painful situation? You can focus on the pain or you can instead look for the GLOW—the gifts, lessons, opportunity and wisdom in the situation. It’s always there when you are ready to find it.
Do you find yourself fearful about the future? Be grateful you have five senses to anchor you to the present moment. Be grateful you are safe at this moment.
Do you sometimes fall short of being the person you want to be? Be grateful you notice and that you even ask this question. Make amends, if possible, and be grateful that you get the chance every day to reinvent yourself by taking a step closer to becoming the person you want to be.
Living with a grateful mind, heart and spirit isn’t hard. It just requires your conscious attention and daily practice until it becomes your habit. And don’t worry; you won’t lose the ability to focus when you’re in a dangerous situation. You are simply developing an alternative behavior for when all is well. Let November’s Gratitude Month kick you off to a lifetime of love and appreciation.
When I found myself in a wheelchair after breaking both my legs in a hot air balloon accident, it would have been so easy to feel sorry for myself. I couldn’t walk, obviously, and it was truly difficult to put pants on when I wasn’t permitted to put any weight on my legs at all. I missed Thanksgiving, my son’s birthday and my granddaughter’s baptism—but instead I concentrated on what I could do. I remembered a girlfriend who had broken both her wrists in a skating accident. She was in hard casts and couldn’t feed herself, blow her nose or wipe her own butt, but I could do all those things. That’s what I focused on.
I mentioned gratitude helped me after my husband died. Naturally, my brain began in negativity. It was the biggest loss in my life. The man I loved and the father of my children died from leukemia at age 37. This was horrible! How could I find anything to be grateful for?
The worst holiday for me after his passing was Valentine’s Day, not because my husband was a big romantic, but because of all the commercial messages to “buy the one you love” this or that, “take the one you love” to this place or that, and “do this with the one you love.” I told myself that nobody loved me. I had a real pity party those first few years on Valentine’s Day.
One day, I decided I wasn’t going to fall prey to that again. That year on Valentine’s Day, I sat at my kitchen table practically the entire day writing thank-you notes to all the men in my children’s lives who had stepped up and contributed their time to help my sons after their father died. There was a multitude of notes to write to family, friends, teachers, coaches and community members who had reached out in support and encouragement to my sons. I thanked them and expressed my gratitude for the specific things they had done. When I was done, I realized just how loved I was. It was a wonderful initial effort at sincere gratitude on a large scale. I had written over 100 notes that day.
Throughout my life, I have practiced gratitude off and on. It began as a child when I would recite my nighttime prayers. Later, I would mentally give thanks to the universe as I was going to bed. That turned into a practice of writing things I was grateful for in a bedside gratitude journal. I even blogged about it during the year I turned 50. Today, I have a gratitude partner. A like-minded girlfriend and I email each other every day with our gratitude list. Our lists always contain at least three things to be grateful for that day and sometimes there are bonus items. It adds a fabulous layer of accountability to the practice. We haven’t missed a day in over a year.
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