November 24, 2021
Image: Niklas Ohlrogge, Unsplash
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is “thank you,” it will be enough.
What are you grateful for? Take a moment right now to get a piece of paper and write down at least 10 things for which you’d like to give thanks. Now look at your list. (If you are trying to do this in your head or are promising yourself you’ll do it later, I strongly recommend that you make the 2-minute time investment to write a list now. I guarantee that it will be worth your while.)
What do you notice about your list? It may include people, pets, treasured possessions, experiences and abilities. You may recognize that your perspective shifted as you wrote, from bigger to smaller things or from material to immaterial. There is no right or wrong result. What’s important is to step back and ask yourself what you are grateful for and to give yourself time to answer.
How do you feel as you look at your list? Perhaps you are smiling or you feel lighter, as if a burden had been lifted from you. Maybe you are surprised? Or you feel more vibrant? In any case I’ll bet that you feel better than you did before writing the list.
There is tremendous power in giving thanks. Throughout history and around the world, religious leaders and philosophers have extolled the virtue of gratitude. In recent years, research in neuroscience and psychology has indicated that gratitude positively influences both physical and psychological health. Studies show that gratitude practices, such as keeping a gratefulness journal or writing letters of gratitude, can increase our happiness and resilience and inspire us to be more generous, strengthening relationships. With so much divisiveness tearing at the fabric of our societies, we need generosity more than ever, both for our individual well-being and for that of our communities and nations.
Many of us have integrated gratefulness practices into our personal lives, but with the decline in regular religious practice, there are fewer public or group rituals for giving thanks. Though the Thanksgiving holiday in the US is tainted by the way the colonialists regarded and treated the native American people, it is one of the most widely known holidays devoted to giving thanks. Yet I fear that many people have lost touch with the original purpose of Thanksgiving gatherings. Instead, feasting and football watching have often become the focal point. Many years ago, our family decided to institute the ritual of a gratitude round between the main course and dessert at our Thanksgiving celebration. Each person shares one thing they are grateful for. There are no rules for this and the contributions range from the mundane to the profound, accompanied by laughter and tears. We share our humanity and our vulnerability.
With our lives of luxury and plenty, we are in danger of forgetting how to be grateful. We tend to want more and more, and to discount what we have. Advertising and social media drives this scarcity mindset, urging us to compare ourselves with others who have more or are more successful, beautiful, famous, etc. Over the last several decades a sense of entitlement seems to have become more widespread. Sentiments like “I deserve to be happy”, or, “I shouldn’t have to suffer” set us up to feel resentment and pain. Envying others for what they have and feeling that life isn’t fair makes us miserable.
In contrast, gratitude engenders an abundant mindset. Counting our blessings focuses our attention on what is, rather than what is not, on what we have rather than what we lack. Especially for those of us who tend to see the glass as half empty or even think that we deserve a bigger glass, an attitude of abundance helps us not only to see that our glass is half full, but to become aware of the miracle of a glass vessel and the art of glassmaking and that we have access to water and hands to hold the glass and minds to reflect on it. When we step back to consider how many things, large and small, that we can be grateful for, we understand that we are part of and dependent on a much bigger whole and subject to forces beyond our control. This is humbling, but also expands our perspective and opens the path for awe at the miracle of life, of our planet, and of the vastness of the universe, along with an appreciation of our deep connectedness. Through giving thanks we can experience being blessed. What a gift!
Not only at Thanksgiving, but in your daily life, remember to take some time to give thanks.