So given the Thanksgiving holiday that is upon us once more, I wanted to pen a few thoughts on how we can cultivate greater gratitude in our lives. Not just in good times, but at all times.
My dad often says he feels like the richest man in the world. It always makes me smile because, having been a dairy farmer his entire life, I don’t think he ever earned above the minimum wage (and that would have been a good, drought-free year!) Needless to say, when he talks about feeling rich, he’s not referring to the size of his pension plan (he never had one), but to the love in his life and the gratitude in his heart.
Don’t get me wrong. Dad, like all people who’ve made it to his ripe age in life (he’s 83), has had his share of hardships and heartache. He lost his youngest son—my brother Peter—after a long battle with mental illness. He’s supported his oldest son—my brother Frank—to adapt to life in a wheelchair after a motorbike accident left him with paraplegia. And he’s endured long droughts that took all his ingenuity to find ways to feed his seven children.
Dad has taught me a lot about the power of gratitude; how it can be a tonic in difficult times and lift our spirits when we’re down. He taught me that gratitude isn’t about how much or little you have, but the story you tell yourself about it. Gratitude expands our capacity to feel joy and infuses a deeper dimension into our living. It’s not something to practice only when times are good—when we land the job, cure the illness, win the client or find our “soul mate”—but something to practice at all times. In fact, a little gratitude can help us stay far more buoyant when the storm waves are high and we’re struggling to stay afloat. Gratitude gives us to access humor amidst our hardship, strength amidst our struggles, and hope when despair looms large.
Of course, like any worthwhile endeavor, practicing gratitude demands ongoing effort. It’s so easy to let our innate negativity bias direct our focus and shape our lives, leaving us constantly dwelling on all that is not as we want it to be. It’s why so many spend the best years of their lives complaining, comparing and anxious!
Sure, life provides a constant stream of situations that don’t conform to hopes or fulfill expectations. But beneath that stream runs a deeper current of blessings that can easily be taken for granted. Gratitude takes nothing for granted. It shines a spotlight on all that is good, amplifying its presence, all while putting your “problems” into perspective and emboldening you with the courage you need to respond to them more constructively, less resentfully.
Intentionally taking a moment to be grateful for the present moment opens a deeper dimension to our living.
I’ve met people whose bodies have been crippled with arthritis, who are facing an early death because of an illness they didn’t deserve or cannot cure, who have lost children to wars, and homes to fires, yet who, amidst their misfortune, have radiated with gratitude and a special brand of joy. How could they be so happy when life has been so hard for them? Simple. They live in gratitude. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once wrote, “For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”
As you may also have experienced, I’ve met people who many might say landed the “jackpot” in life—some who’ve even flown around in private jets, mixed with the glitterati and enjoyed every luxury money can afford—yet who seem lost and forever looking for something more.
The truth is that gratitude has nothing to do with good fortune.
Unleashing its power in your daily life therefore takes no more than recognizing that life itself is a gift, that it has an expiration date, and that every day—from the most pleasurable to the most anguished—is shaped by the mindset you bring to it. So be grateful even for the littlest, most ordinary things, because one day you may look back and realize they were the actually the big things.
I am very grateful for many things: my kids, my health, my husband and friends, and freedom to pursue work I love. Yet I’m also grateful for the times when life has been hard, when my heart has ached, when I’ve wrestled with despair and longed for certainty. I know those dark days have sewn new depth into the tapestry of my life, and brought invaluable opportunities to learn and grow in my own humanity. And I know that, over the year ahead, more will surely follow. While I don’t look forward to them, I know practicing gratitude will help me emerge through them more whole, not less so.
As Tal Ben Shahar shared with me on my Live Brave podcast, “When you appreciate all that you have, what you have appreciates.” So wherever you are this Thanksgiving, pay extra attention to what you’re focusing on, and if you find yourself comparing, complaining and focusing on what’s wrong or what’s missing, don’t beat yourself up. Rather, forgive yourself for being the flawed and fallible “human becoming” that you are, take a deep grateful breath, and refocus on all that you have to be thankful for.
Emotions are contagious. When you step into your power to live from a place of gratitude, you inspire others to do the same. After all, feeling gratitude without spreading it is like preparing a magnificent Thanksgiving feast without sharing it… something my dad would never do!