In the spirit of this Thanksgiving season, I thought I’d reflect on a popular but possibly misunderstood spiritual practice. I know that when I started I was doing it all wrong.
I’m talking about the gratitude list, a daily reminder that we always have something to be grateful for, no matter what our circumstances are. I’d heard about these for so long from self-help gurus, from memoirs of spiritual seekers, and even in the CatholicMatch forums.
Studies have shown that regular expressions of gratitude lead to better physical and mental health, increased job satisfaction, more stable relationships, well-behaved children and an overall better outlook on life. Who couldn’t use a bit of that? This particular spiritual practice seems even more well-suited to singles, who are often maligned in our culture, to think more positively about being unmarried.
The general procedure for a gratitude list is just as it sounds: to make a list of things that you are thankful to have in your life. Anyone who wants to try it can write a list as few or as many things as they want, and as often as they are comfortable with. What I’d been instructed to do was write five things I’m grateful for each day either first thing in the morning or right before going to sleep.
I experimented with the number on my list, trying for as many as I could possibly think of. Some people make a point of not repeating list items in order to keep looking for new things to be grateful about. I thought it would be OK to repeat any items I’d already listed earlier, as long as I was still grateful, but I also tried to add something new each day.
I also experimented with the time of day: first I wrote immediately after waking up. I thought it set a nice tone to the rest of the day. Then I tried right before bed, and that was great too; it allowed me to review my day, and if I faced any particular challenges, I tried to practice seeing the value in them and be grateful.
But I also noticed that the first few lists were not exactly in the spirit of giving thanks. It didn’t take me long to realize I was doing the wrong thing, and that I really needed to examine what it means to be truly grateful.
Here’s where I went wrong: I kept putting in caveats to the things on my list. For instance:
- “I’m grateful I have indoor plumbing (even though my bathroom sink drips and it’s making me crazy).”
- “I’m grateful I have a home (even though I can’t afford my mortgage).”
- “I’m grateful I even have a job at all (even though I’m underemployed).”
Looking back on it, I have to laugh, because it really is absurd – and ultimately, ungrateful. It revealed my tendency to be critical and look for the negative in all things.
I was also thinking too globally. Of course, I was thankful for all those things, but I was also missing the tiny but significant things I appreciate every day: my dog’s ears, a gentle breeze, my thriving houseplants. I thought it best to start small and then work up to the bigger things.
After a while, I found that I was changing; it really was working. I thanked people more often, smiled more and let my loved ones know that I appreciated them for who they are. This approach really is contagious, as people let me know how much they liked being thanked and appreciated.
I also started repeating a funny little phrase I heard from a former co-worker. When she first said it to me, I was complaining about something or another – thankfully, I can’t even remember what it was!
While I was mid-rant, she put her hand up, smiled and said, “Honey, count your blessings; ’cause if that’s your biggest problem, you got no problems!”
She was right. Whatever the problem, it wasn’t worth the rant. I really did need to count my blessings.
And that’s just where the gratitude list comes in. Think about it: if each of us could count just five blessings each day, that adds up to a huge amount of blessings in this world. More fully acknowledged blessings in the world can’t help but be a better world. And that, without hesitation, is a world I would love to live in.
I urge all of you to try writing a gratitude list. Now is the perfect time of year. Perhaps you could do it verbally after you and yours say grace at Thanksgiving dinner. Or maybe you could try it for just one week, starting on Thanksgiving. Some people make their lists visible; writing them on large paper and hanging them up in the house. The possibilities are endless.
It truly is a wonderful practice that changed my perception about the circumstances in my life. In all fairness, my life could be better – my dog needs surgery that I can’t afford, I’m underemployed, I have a cold and I’m nervous about the holidays, gift-wise. But I realize, thanks to my gratitude list, that it could also be much, much worse.
As I type this, I’m thinking of all the things I’m so blessed to have, and I’m grateful for them:
- I just found a payment plan that will allow me to pay for my dog’s surgery in installments.
- I was invited out by a friend who wants to introduce me to a potential contact for more work.
- The sore throat and body aches forced me to rest – my first real down time since the summer – and it was a blissful, quiet, relaxing day.
- I emailed my sisters and explained my holiday-gift-trepidation. They proposed we give only handmade gifts this year.
So it’s all a matter of perception. The things I thought of as problems were lead-ins to incredible blessings. As my former co-worker said: When I count my blessings, honey, I got no problems!