The Gratitude Attitude
Gotta clean the house, buy the turkey, buy the Tofurkey for the vegetarians, get started on gift shopping before the real rush...you're all caught up in the big to-do countdown before -- what was the name of that holiday? Oh yeah, Thanksgiving. As in, giving thanks. Oops. At the time for gratitude, who has time for gratitude?
It's not about time, but rather about perspective, says M.J. Ryan, author of Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life (Conari, 1999). "Gratitude is what we feel when we look at what's right about our lives," she says. And why is that important? Especially when something's stressing you out or getting you down, she says, "When you shine the flashlight of awareness on what's right [in your life] you have an entirely different emotional experience. You activate your left pre-frontal cortex where your positive feelings reside." Not only do you intellectually "appreciate what you have," you also feel more grateful, positive, and happy.
Here are some ways to find and express your gratitude, for what you have and to others. Keep in mind that gratitude isn't expressed only an action or an overt "thank you." Sometimes all it takes is a quick, grounding conversation with yourself. And don't worry: you can do some of these things while you're running errands.
- Remind yourself. Put a sticky note in your car that says, "What do I have to be thankful for?" suggests Ryan. That way, when you're setting out on onerous errands, stuck in hellish traffic, or coming home to chaos, you have the chance to pause and reflect on that which you do consider a blessing: your health, the loved ones you're shopping for, your nice warm coat.
- Appreciate yourself -- and others. Keep a diary not just of what you did, but what you did well, and what you appreciate about yourself and others. "I sometimes write lists of how I was successful that day," says Karen, 37, of Westborough, Massachusetts, who writes in her journal when her family is asleep. "Really basic stuff, like 'turned TV off and played hide-and-seek with kids.' It forces me to acknowledge, when I can be so hard on myself or focus on what I should be doing, that I'm really doing all right."
- Think "Thanks." "I spend a few minutes each day sitting in my study -- my favorite room -- and gazing into the backyard, which is gorgeous in any season, but I especially love it when the snow makes the streets look like they're covered with meringue and sprinkled with sugar," says Amy, 38, of Lexington, Massachusetts. "It grounds me and gives me a chance to reflect each day, and it reminds me how lucky I am to have a home and a yard like this."
- Find the positive -- in any situation. Ask yourself, "What's right about this?" suggests Ryan. When the relatives are being impossible, notice your niece's adorable dress. When slaving over the stuffing, give yourself some credit for learning from last year's piecrust mistake and going with store-bought this year.
- Put it on paper. Here's an idea you'll thank us for: Instead of writing your long Christmas form letter, write specific notes to five special people and tell them why you're grateful that they're in your life. (Note: Your husband counts.)
- Remember the less fortunate. Even with car payments and college tuitions weighing you down, it's always easy to find gratitude for what you do have by thinking of -- and giving to -- those with much, much less. And it's always a great time to write a check, even a teeny one, to a favorite charity (or even encourage the kids to donate their pennies).
Why not make gratitude into a group thing? Nina, 30, and her Columbia, South Carolina-area girlfriends get together for "girls' dinner" every Christmastime; before dinner, they spend a collective $100 on gifts for children -- instead of for each other -- and drop them off at a charity on their way to the restaurant. "It makes all of us feel better about our own good fortune," she says. They're grateful not only for their material comforts, she says, but also for each other.