In order to be thankful, to be grateful, we have to have the ability to recognize our gifts, blessings, good juju, and great fortune. Most of us don’t, but then we have not trained ourselves to stop or merely pause and take it all in. What does that mean take it all in? Do I mean our life, the moment, a gesture, all of our surroundings, or ourselves? The answer is all of the above. Our ability to recognize kindness, good fortune, and beauty in our lives is in direct correlation to our happiness and overall life satisfaction level. Like an Olympian trains using practice, awareness of skill level and focus on mastery: We can use these same techniques to achieve a higher level of satisfaction, happiness and hopefully joy. That said, I am not running, jumping or getting on any kind of balance beam to do this; that is nothing but a long-ass-day in the ER if nothing else. What I am doing is actively practicing the skills that will rewire my brain.
My taking time each day to look for three new things to be grateful for either at the end or the beginning of the day sets my intent and my brain in looking for these moments all day long. That action then makes me more aware of what they might look like, feel like, and gives me the ability to recreate more of them, more often. The difference in recognizing things I am truly grateful for has more to do with feeling than thinking. Here is what I mean: I use the following exercise in class and it helps to make the distinction of thinking about being thankful and feeling thankful.
Think of something that you love, like a great burger, a sunset on the beach, a nap. How does that make you feel? Now think of someone you love, think about how they make you feel and how they add to your life. How does that make you feel? For most of us the first example made us happy, or smile; it felt nice, even good. In the second example, where we are thinking of a person something in our chests expands like in the Grinch who stole Christmas at the end of the book—our heart feels expanded. There is warmth and an expansion in our core that is visceral, we feel it deeply. That is what I am talking about, feeling what thankful feels like. This is an indication of the level we want to look for and find daily. At first it might be smaller things but in time it grows and deepens. It’s all good and it all counts.
Sometimes talking about our trifecta-of-goodness list is a nice exercise to do over dinner at night with those you love around the table. It invites in lots of interesting conversation and creates a culture of positivity, wellness and being open. What happens when we retell a good experience is we release all the good chemical compounds like dopamine and endorphins, and we start to feel like we did in the moment and derive the same physical, emotional and spiritual benefits as if it were happening again. On the same note, if we retell stories where we feel wronged, that reminds us of instances that made us angry, hurt, cheated and dismissed where we are making our selves small same thing happens. In telling those negative stories either out-loud or in our head we are re-traumatizing ourselves over and over, releasing detrimental chemicals like cortisol and other stress hormones. Doing this long term we damage our endocrine system in that we burn it out so it no longer can regulate.
We need to process things and talking about bad experiences is a fine and a healthy way to work through those experiences—being self-reflective is good. Defining ourselves by reliving old anger, painful filled stories over and over, is not. Forgiveness is an act for self, not for others. It does not condone or minimize what happens to us, it merely means we are not defined by those actions and chose to learn from them and move on. That doesn’t mean that there is not an external benefit to forgiveness in relationship or community in building bridges and empathy, there is that as well. Anger is like a hot rock, the only person hurt is the person holding it. Complaining falls into this category: it does not fix anything, it makes us feel awful, and we are then focused on the problem and not on a solution. It is a way to self-sabotage that is social. Some folks feed on it; some folks are repelled by it. Be mindful of where you fall on the spectrum of negative spewing. Again, we all do some complaining; however, if you do it all day long, that is a problem Eeyore.
Sometimes we are much more aware of our blessings after bad things happen. Then we recognize how precious our health is, the comfort of a bed, food to eat, our family and friends. Sometimes we have to lose something or someone to find what we need, or to find ourselves. We cannot have light without darkness: each brings gifts to recognize the other and we learn from each. We learn far more from our struggles, our challenges and losses, here is where our true character is revealed and hones itself against the rough. There is a reason we are drawn to things that are shiny: they have been crafted through blood, sweat and tears. We also then understand that all the goodness we have is but fleeting, as is our pain, and all of it deepens our appreciation of our lives and those in it. This brings us to deep gratitude for what is.
Taking time to find, recognize, then revel in moments we are grateful for is time well spent. It is wonderful to find abundance in your life by stopping and looking for it. It is there and always has been but we generally speed past it unless we practice taking that pause, that breath and soak it in. Then in turn we role model that practice for others and show them how to do it. That can be our children, our partners, our friends and colleagues. Happiness is external, it is derived from external stimulus and how we chose to react to it. Joy however is internal, it springs from deep places and it is brought on by practices such as gratitude, learning to be compassionate, kind and finding out and accepting who we are in our light and in our darkness. We are a mirror of what we think and believe, so by changing how we think, we change our lives. By reaching for meaning, and space to appreciate what we have and what we are, we then can connect to ourselves, to others and to our lives in a deeply satisfying way. This practice grounds us and sustains us through the winds of fate and of course the martinis of doom. So go out there and practice thankfulness or gratitude not just for the turkey or tofurky come thanksgiving but every day, all day and in building these skills your build a life worth living.