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Cultivating Gratitude

November 20, 2021

Cultivating Gratitude

November tends to be the time of year where we settle in, look around ourselves, and count our blessings. This is when the annual harvest season is coming to a close, so it’s historically a time when we would all gather with our families and take inventory of everything that had been accumulated through the warmer seasons. This coming together and taking stock still carries into our modern culture, albeit somewhat differently. Once that chill hits the air, we’re still inclined to find our loved ones and hunker down. 

As the days get colder and the nights get longer, it’s also natural for us to feel our spirits sinking, but being able to practice gratitude can warm our hearts and alleviate that heaviness. If gratitude isn’t already a habit of yours, this is a beautiful time of year to begin forming it. 

Scientific studies have proven that a regular gratitude practice can improve emotional regulation, raise self-esteem, build hopes for the future, reduce stress and burnout, increase resilience, improve sleep quality, and increase overall levels of happiness. It can even strengthen our relationships with others. 

How Does Gratitude Practice Work?

When we routinely slow down and take the moments to truly notice all the tiniest bits of beauty and bliss that we encounter in our lives, it actually rewires our brains over time. Although the human brain’s default wiring emphasizes the negative as a strategy to avoid danger, we can train ourselves to instead focus on the good by adopting a regular gratitude practice. It causes us to become more aware of the positive when we see it, and that’s where our attention will then linger - as opposed to wandering off to the more unpleasant aspects of life. 

However, this isn’t a change that occurs after a few brief moments of positive reflection. It takes repetition and routine. It takes practice, but it is so worth the effort. The hardest part is getting started.

How Do I Start?

It doesn’t take much exertion at all to turn a gratitude practice into a daily ritual, and it can greatly increase your enjoyment of life. There are lots of different ways to practice too, so you’re sure to find one that fits you. Here are a few popular examples:

  • Journaling - A gratitude journal is likely the best-known strategy for cultivating a daily gratitude practice. There are many journals on the market that are specifically designed for this, but you can use any notebook you might have. Each day, set aside a block of time where you can sit down and write about anything and everything in your life that brings you joy or comfort, everything that you’re happy to have or to experience.
  • Gratitude Jar - If sitting down for fifteen minutes and thinking everything over feels too intense, a gratitude jar is another wonderful option. Instead of writing everything down at once, write down a single thing that you’re grateful for when you think of it and slip it into your designated jar. Over time, you’ll find that the more slips of paper you add, the more you’ll have to write. It’s also incredibly satisfying to watch the jar fill up as your gratitudes accumulate.
  • Art Projects - If you’re a visual person, another great way to practice gratitude is by creating an art project around it. One example of this is a gratitude tree. Go outside and find a stick. You’ll want it to have a few branching points. Put it in a vase or flowerpot, and it becomes the trunk of your tree. Cut some leaf shapes out of paper, punch a hole through them and thread a string through it to create a loop that you can use to hang it up. Whenever you think of something that you’re grateful for, write it down on one of the leaves and hang it onto the trunk of your tree. Watch as your tree grows and flourishes with all your positivity!
  • Gratitude Meditation - Not everyone enjoys writing or feels the need to see tangible results from their practice. Spending time meditating on what you’re grateful for can have just as positive an effect as any of the practices that externalize your thoughts more. However, if you’re a complete beginner, you may find this approach to be more difficult than some of the others.
  • Answering Prompts - Sometimes, when we’re in a dark place mentally or emotionally, it can be a real strain to come up with anything that we feel grateful for. This is an excellent time to use gratitude prompts. You can find lists of these online that will suggest categories, helping you to refocus. For example, you may see prompts such as “write the names of three people you’re grateful for,” “write down an experience from your past you’re grateful to have had,” or “what is one thing you can see at this moment that you are grateful for?”
  • Counter-Balancing Negative Thoughts - A gratitude practice won’t eliminate every unpleasant thought you have, but if they’re souring your mood when they do pop up, you can alleviate the discomfort and use it as an opportunity to work on further rewiring your brain. When a negative thought enters your mind, instead of simply dismissing or suppressing it, outweigh it with the positive. For every one negative you catch yourself focusing on, pause. Then, list to yourself three good things. They don’t have to be big, but they’ll change where your attention lies.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Do This?

Truthfully, this is not our natural instinct. A grateful mindset must be cultivated intentionally. As our species evolved, the individuals who were more wary of what could go wrong were more likely to survive in many situations. Those who expected to run into predatory animals while wandering would be more readily prepared to deal with that situation if it did indeed arise, as opposed to those who thought only about having a nice walk. 

That’s no longer the world we live in, however. We don’t need to worry about a lion in the bushes waiting to pounce, and so we have the privilege of being able to choose a different mindset and start growing in a new direction. We can do this for ourselves, and we can help those around us to do the same.

When we raise our children, we teach them to be proud of themselves - to be proud of their accomplishments like their grades in school, or to be proud of their talents like being good at playing soccer or learning to play an instrument. Instead, we should be teaching them to cultivate gratitude, to be grateful that they can play soccer, that they have a nice home or toys, grateful that they earned a nice grade. It creates a whole new mindset of being humble rather than being prideful. When you're prideful, you think you have something better than others, but when you're humble and grateful you realize we're all the same. This understanding brings us closer together, and fosters stronger families (biological and found families alike) and communities as a whole.

After all, isn’t that what this season is all about?

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