I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Thanksgiving is just a few days away. Yikes! If you have ever hosted a Thanksgiving dinner, you know that there are usually checklists involved: Buy a turkey (check), find extra chairs (check), accommodate different dietary needs (check), have an hourly plan working backwards from mealtime (check), wash a bazillion dishes (check), avoid potentially controversial topics (check) and don’t forget to be grateful (check).
Maybe it’s just me but sometimes, “be grateful” can feel like one more item on a checklist. Like a healthy diet and appropriate exercise, most of us know that gratitude is good for us and it’s likely on our to-do list somewhere. In late November, it probably rises to the top of the list where we then act on it (or not, and then beat ourselves up about it.)
Another — and arguably healthier — way to look at gratitude is not so much as an item on a checklist, but a lifestyle. So how do we create a grateful lifestyle without feeling like it’s just “one more thing” we “should” be doing?
One way is to start small. James Clear wrote a book called “Atomic Habits,” on how tiny changes lead to remarkable results. Applying that idea to a lifestyle of gratitude might look like spending one minute each day breathing deeply and thinking of one thing you have to be grateful for that day instead of deciding you need to buy a five-year daily gratitude journal and fill it right away and then giving up if you miss a day.
Make it easy. Add gratitude in to another habit you already do, like brushing your teeth, or set a calendar reminder for yourself on your phone. If it helps you, use one (or more) of the many tools available: paper gratitude journals, digital apps, books, 30-days-to-gratitude calendars (easily available on and offline) or just get a friend to be your gratitude accountability partner.
One option I use each fall is to sign up for coach and trainer Tiffany Peterson’s “Gratitude and Generosity” series. Each week she has a guest join her to share real stories of applying both important traits in their lives in a powerful reminder of the gift that gratitude can be. It gives me one hour a week to be a little more still and a little more focused on how many things I do have to be grateful for.
It might seem easy to be grateful when life is going well. But what about when you’re in one of life’s deep and dark valleys that befall all of us? Yep. Even then. Jeff Holland quipped that, “No misfortune is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.” I also believe that there is no misfortune (or trauma or tragedy) so bad that gratitude can’t make it better.
In times of deep grief, I know it can be hard to find anything to be grateful for. I know. But I also know that as we look for reasons to be grateful, we literally retrain our brains to “see” and experience life differently. What we appreciate, appreciates. What we focus on, grows, whether positive or negative. We can swim in regret and recriminations but it literally feels better to look for blessings.
Current research shows us why: When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters that make us feel good. It might take more effort to practice gratitude during hard times but it is worth it.
Finally, reaching outside yourself and serving others increases gratitude and your own well-being. The Utah Food Bank is looking for turkeys and other Thanksgiving meal items. Tabitha’s Way Food Pantry is running a “reverse Advent” countdown leading up to Christmas. The Utah Refugee Connection is looking for gifts for children and teens. Gobble, Gobble, Give, a local organization serving Thanksgiving dinner to those experiencing homelessness, is looking for volunteers to donate and serve food next Thursday, as well as donations of cold-weather supplies. There are so many other opportunities as well. Find one that speaks to your soul.
As the holiday season is now upon us, my wish for us all is a little fewer checklists, a little bit less chaos, a little more peace, a little more stillness and a lot more gratitude.
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.