In a recent study from the University of California, participants were divided into three groups. Each wrote daily journal entries. The first group was asked to write down expressions of gratitude, the second to write sources of discontent, and the third to write general thoughts on daily events. At the end of ten weeks, guess which group showed an increase in optimism, had exercised more and had visited the doctor less? The gratitude group, of course.
Western science is beginning to confirm what the ancient path of yoga has known for millennia: body, mind and spirit are inextricably linked. Each thought is a seed: grateful thoughts lead to more grateful thoughts. Negative thoughts breed negativity.
As Thanksgiving Day passes, here are some ways that you can begin to develop a practice of gratitude, not only on Thanksgiving, but every day of the year:
1. Celebrate Days, Not Dates
We lead busy lives. Many of us live at a distance from some of our dearest family and friends. If you've noticed that your holidays breed more stress than gratitude, think outside of the box. Holidays are not just a date on a calendar but an opportunity to create a shared day to spend with your loved ones. Perhaps this year that means you’ll celebrate Thanksgiving in December. Releasing the need to let the calendar dictate when you gather together can increase gratitude and decrease stress.
2. Put First Things First
Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, identifies “Putting First Things First” as one of his recommended habits. How do you start each day? For many people, their phone screen, and the negativity that sometimes comes with it, is the first thing they see each morning. But as Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, in fact, how we spend our lives.” Set an intention to start each day by giving thanks. Before your feet hit the floor, take a few deep breaths and reflect on one thing you are thankful for. Commit to this practice for a few weeks and before you know it, giving thanks will be a regular part of your morning routine.
3. Create a Gratitude Trigger
One of my friends recently shared with me that as she drinks her morning tea, she focuses on gratitude until the very last drop. By connecting gratitude to another part of our routine, we can help to strengthen this positive habit. Give thanks while you brush your teeth, take a shower, rest in savansana, or walk into the office in the morning. Better yet, give thanks during all of these moments.
In his recent book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Dan Lieberman concludes that we are highly social animals who thrive by connecting with others. We are built to bond. Being with other people gives us the opportunity to see that we aren’t alone in our struggles, creating space for us to shift our focus away from what we don’t have, to what we do.
5. Write a Letter
Real letters aren’t dead yet. At a recent writing retreat at Kripalu, my workshop leader, Joan Borysenko, led us in a practice of writing a gratitude letter to one of our ancestors. I wrote mine to my great-grandmother, who immigrated here from Poland at the turn of the 20th century. She worked as a maid for most of her life, all while raising five children, including my grandmother. Write a letter today, to someone who’s still here or to someone who’s passed, to someone you love or someone who challenges you, to someone who you know or someone you’ve never met. Putting words of thanks on paper is a powerful gratitude practice.
6. Watch the Weather
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali identifies several sources of suffering. One is raga, or the attachment to pleasure. Another is dvesha, or the avoidance of suffering. Both can blind us to the truth of life. Spending time in nature reminds us of the natural flow of energy, the give and the take. We need the rain just as much as we need the sun. Noticing the weather without trying to change it or wish it away (certainly one of the greatest exercises in futility) can shift our focus toward acceptance of what is. Acceptance sets the stage for gratitude.
I’m a homebody at heart. My favorite thing in the world is when I’m home with my family and a good book on a rainy afternoon. But sometimes we can begin to take our lives and gifts for granted. Have you ever noticed how amazing you feel after you’ve recovered from an illness? How feeling sick eventually leads you to feel more grateful for your good health once you recover? Sometimes when we leave home, we find we are more thankful for it when we return.
8. Notice the Story
Our minds are often easily caught up in our thoughts. In one moment, someone has cut us off in traffic, and in the next moment we’ve decided that all people are bad. A therapist friend of mine advises the following: ask yourself, “What story am I telling?” By reframing our thoughts as a story, we create a space to change that story. Perhaps the person who cut us off just unintentionally saved us from getting in a terrible accident. There are all sorts of stories we can tell ourselves, why not make today’s story one of gratitude?
9. Focus on Your Feet
One of my go-to yoga postures in my teaching and practice is a foot massage. Give it a try. Lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, bring the outside of your right ankle toward the top of your left knee. This is often called Figure Four Pose. Reach up and grab hold of your right foot. Massage across the toes, ball of the foot, arch, ankle and your Achilles tendon. Repeat on the opposite side. Take a moment to imagine how many steps your feet have carried you through in your lifetime, and thank your feet for every step.
10. Do Good
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” There are few things in life more gratifying than service. You might want to engage in a formal volunteer program or just help your neighbor with her trash cans. Offering help to those in need is a great way to give thanks.
11. Move More
Yoga is one of the many ways that we can use our bodies as expressions of gratitude. Go for a walk. Do some jumping jacks. Put on your favorite song and dance like no one is watching. As you move, notice everything in your body that’s supporting you. Notice the places of flow, of lightness, and of release. Take a moment to recognize the profound gift of your body.
There are countless ways to give thanks both on Thanksgiving, and every other day of the year. Just as with yoga, building a practice of gratitude will help us to create positive change in our lives, and the lives of others, on a daily basis. Use these suggestions as a starting point as you create your own daily gratitude practice.
Image credit: Alyona Lezhava