A Gratitude Practice or A Gratitude Habit?

With Thanksgiving rolling in tomorrow, the idea of gratitude is at the forefront of all of our minds. Actually, it’s not just Thanksgiving…the idea of practicing gratitude seems to be everywhere lately. Everything from self-help books to morning shows have a headline about gratitude and how to practice it, generally all summed up with a bubbly little quip. And really, there’s good reason- a daily gratitude practice has been linked in study after study to everything from heightened social connectedness to increased happiness to a general feeling of abundance and possibility. (Interested? Try this article or this one or this one or this one...) But there is a catch- it must be truly genuine.

I am an avid journaler and have been ever since keeping a journal was assigned as summer homework for my ninth-grade honors english class. My journaling has ranged from daily pages of scrawled self-involved adolescent angst to sparse entries that give little insight. There are to-do lists and travel plans and more recently sketches and watercolors tucked in between reflections written longhand. A few years ago, I added a spread each month for a gratitude log. I've kept it rather simple, just space for a single line each day to note something I feel particularly grateful for. It’s a great idea and extremely effective at bringing real warmth and appreciation and richness to my life…when I do it meaningfully.

I noticed the other day that my November gratitude log is really line after line of just something that I did that day. It contains lines of “gratitude” that say things like, “met up with friends for lunch- great conversation.” This is fine, I suppose, but it doesn’t really reflect what it is that I’m actually grateful for, does it? It doesn’t reach past the superficial and connect me to the real blessings in my life. I might have come closer to the true purpose of the exercise had I written something like, “for having the space and flexibility in my schedule to be able to have lunch with friends,” or “that I have friends who are so insightful and informed and can engage in conversation that broadens and enriches my understanding of the world,” or “that I have such amazing humans as my friends and that there is so much love and laughter in my life.” And even better would be to truly pause long enough to really reflect on those facts and let them sink in as I wrote. That’s a gratitude practice. What I’ve been doing has been a superficial habit.

I’m using the term “habit” loosely here and I realize that part of the reason for developing a gratitude practice is to create a meaningful habit of recognizing the gifts and blessings large and small that are a part of our daily lives. But in this context, I’m using “habit” as the term to describe an automatic action done with minimal thought or attention. That is what my gratitude log has become, really. When I pull out my journal to write in the mornings, I flip to my gratitude spread and quickly fill in the blank before beginning my “real” writing. Ugh. No wonder it hasn’t really resonated with me lately. 

A key piece to an effective gratitude practice is the pausing, the stopping to truly and genuinely feel deeply appreciative for something. There are days in all of our lives where all we might be able to come up with is "that this day is only 24 hours and I can begin again tomorrow," but even that can elicit a warmth and hope that helps combat the feelings of fatigue and isolation and defeat that a really rotten day can leave us with. And really, let’s face it, most of us can come up with something far better if we actually stop long enough to think about it, even on our worst days.

I am in the midst of reading (again) the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and was struck by this passage:

“You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires…The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need… That’s good medicine for land and people alike.”

Gratitude as a revolutionary act. I just love that so much.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t also be acknowledging and dealing with the other emotions we might be feeling, especially during this time of year that can be so charged and raw for many of us. It is possible to be grateful without downplaying pain or grief or hardship. Gratitude doesn’t require that we see the world through rose-colored blindfolds- as a matter of fact, I would argue that false cheer is the antithesis of genuine gratitude. But allowing for real and sincere and thoughtful gratitude can allow us to feel less alone or overwhelmed in our pain, a gift unto itself.

So I resolve today to stop my gratitude habit and re-commit to a meaningful gratitude practice. I will pause and reflect before I scribble. I will let the gifts of my life truly sink in and connect. I will search out the light even on the very darkest days and allow that light to penetrate the places where I’ve allowed my heart to close. 

I’m so grateful for all of you- for the time you carve out to read my words, for the community you allow me to be a part of, for the beautiful ways large and small you’ve offered me support. Thank you so very, very much for being here. Truly.

A happy and safe Thanksgiving to each of you!


More from Grand Teton...we had some crazy weather and I just fell in love all over again with these mountains once I saw them shrouded in clouds...