Thanksgiving’s always been my favorite holiday.
Of course, you have the 3Fs: family, food, and football – which just so happen to be three of my favorite things.
But even more than the celebration and indulgence that go hand in hand with Thanksgiving, what I really love is the holiday’s emphasis on gratitude. Unlike, say, birthdays, or Christmas, where we look forward to the gifts we will receive, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to express gratitude for what we already have.
Yet, one need only look to how we celebrate Thanksgiving today to understand why practicing gratitude is becoming harder and harder.
Think about it – what comes right after Thanksgiving?
Yep – Black Friday.
Every Thanksgiving, while watching football, I marvel at the billions that are spent on Black Friday ads during the Thanksgiving football games, encouraging people to want things they don’t have in a manner that is in direct contradiction to the spirit of the holiday.
And it’s not just Black Friday. As we spend more and more time watching TV, or glued to our laptops or smartphones, we’re bombarded with more and more ads, each designed to create a craving or desire for something new.
The more that modern advertising drives us to focus on what we don’t have, the less we can reflect on what we do have.
This has put gratitude under siege.
Why gratitude is worth defending
Gratitude is a value that has been universally acclaimed across thousands of years of intellectual and philosophical tradition.
Over 1500 years ago, the famed Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus famously asked his students, “Without gratitude, what is the point of seeing?”
On the other side of the globe, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu remarked that “When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
Modern scientific research shows that in addition to improving the quality of life on a more ethereal level, gratitude provides a number of profound, practical benefits. For example, scientists have found that gratitude can:
- Help accelerate your career
- Make you feel happier day-to-day
- Improve your health and help you live longer can even help you live longer
And these are just the selfish reasons to be grateful. By becoming more grateful, we also benefit the lives of those around us, either by sharing our gratitude directly with those we appreciate, or by just being a more pleasant person to be around.
So, knowing how important gratitude is, how can we actually become more grateful for what we have, especially amidst the bombardment of advertising that’s designed to convince us that we don’t have enough, that we need more?
By starting a gratitude practice, extending the types of behaviors we may already practice on Thanksgiving year round.
How to start a gratitude practice
Scientific research backs the idea that, by carving out just a couple of minutes a day to proactively practice gratitude, you’ll experience gratitude more frequently throughout your day, and reap the benefits we highlighted earlier. Below, I’ve detailed three gratitude practices – adapted from research published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, that can help you do so.
1. Start your day with a gratitude reflection
At the beginning of each day, before you head into work, get out a piece of paper (or open up a google doc) and jot down at least 3 things that you’re grateful for.
As you adopt this practice, try stretching your gratitude muscles by coming up with new things to be grateful for every day. While it’s easy (and important) to revert back to the same things over and over again – our family, our friends, a roof over our head – by expanding the scope of your practice, you’ll enhance your ability to experience gratitude in unexpected places throughout the day. Like any other type of exercise – the harder you work at it, the more benefits you’ll realize.
2. Express gratitude towards colleagues or friends
Gratitude doesn’t just have to be something we personally reflect on. By expressing gratitude for others’ contributions to our well-being, we not only benefit ourselves, but we provide a positive experience for that person as well.
If you don’t already, try getting into the habit of thanking one person each day – either a colleague, a friend, or a loved one – for something they’ve done that you appreciate.
It’s not only good for you – it just might make that person’s day.
3. End each day by writing down your “3 good things”
In addition to writing down the “big things” we’re grateful for – things like, our friends, or family, or the food on our plate – another way to flex your gratitude muscles is to reflect on more commonplace positive experiences. You know, the little things that happen which add up to a great life, things like that compliment you received earlier in the day, or how nice the weather was, or that there wasn’t as much traffic on your commute home.
Recalling these seemingly minor experiences so has been proven to have a major impact on happiness and gratitude. As Shawn Achor, happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage wrote, simply writing down three good things each day, over an extended period of time, can have a profound impact on how we perceive the world around us. This not only increases our sense of gratitude, but also makes us more adept at noticing and capitalizing on opportunities that could help us at work or in life.
According to Shawn,
This trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them. At the same time, because we can only focus on so much at once, our brains push out those small annoyances and frustrations that used to loom large into the background, even out of our visual field entirely.
So it’s not just that expressing gratitude and appreciation, in and of itself, provides a positive benefit. It also crowds out pessimistic and counterproductive thoughts, since the brain can only focus on a finite amount at each moment.
Living every day like it’s Thanksgiving
As we’re exposed to an ever-increasing amount of advertising designed to convince us to want what we don’t have, gratitude for what we do have has become more important than ever.
Thankfully, in spite of the billions of dollars spent to make us feel like we don’t have enough, we are ultimately the ones in control of how we choose to perceive the experiences, things, and people we encounter.
You don’t have to wait for next Thanksgiving to find another opportunity to practice gratitude. All you need to do is carve out less than 5 minutes each day to:
- Start your day by reflecting on 3 things you’re grateful for
- Express gratitude to somebody in your life
- Write down 3 good things that happened to you at the end of the day
The science on the benefits of gratitude is unambiguously clear, and because of that, you’d be hard pressed to find a better ROI on time spent. These simple practices can help you get more out of your career. They can help you live longer. And they can provide a transformative impact on your day-to-day experience, increasing your quality of life.