Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on what we are grateful for—family, friends, food, or health. Although we may have the intention to give thanks for things in our life, it can be difficult to know how to act on our intentions. How can we find gratitude even when we are not feeling so grateful?
Well, it could start with a thank you, according to A.J. Jacobs, author of Thanks a Thousand. One night sitting around the dinner table with his three boys as they gave thanks for all the people who made their food possible, his youngest son said, "If you really want to have an effect, you should go thank them in person." From that moment, Jacobs decided he would travel around the world for six months to say "thank you" to the people who made his morning cup of coffee possible: farmers, biologists, truckers, and baristas (to name a few). Through his journey of sharing his appreciation, he became more certain about the power and benefits of gratitude.
Gratitude could be more important than ever this Thanksgiving; as Jacobs found, a "thank you" does more than lift the spirit of the person being appreciated—it benefits both parties, increasing compassion and pro-social behavior. Being grateful could also lower depression, improve overall happiness, and reduce stress.
Sure, we all want these benefits in our lives, but it can be difficult to know where to begin, mainly because "gratitude doesn't come naturally to us; it's a discipline," Jacobs told me. At times we may even need to force gratitude into existence. "I'm all for acting as if you're grateful and you will be grateful," he said.
For Jacobs, gratitude is not always the first place his mind goes, and the practice is ongoing. Throughout the six months and since then, he organically recognized practices that seemed to help his brain focus on the positives rather than the negatives, ultimately hoping to train his mind to choose gratitude. Here are three of his favorites:
Count your gratitudes before bed.
Instead of counting sheep to fall asleep, try counting the things you are grateful for. Start with A, for example, air, and work your way to Z. "I actually have never made it to Z; I usually go to sleep around G," said Jacobs. The practice is a two-for-one and practical because it puts you to sleep and ensures you are in a good mood before bed, which could lead to a better day when you open your eyes.
It doesn’t take more than a minute.
A simple thing you can do every day is pause for just one minute and list all the things that are going right at that exact moment. It can be easy to focus on all the things that have gone wrong in your day, but this practice, he said, forces you to "notice the hundreds of things that go right every day as opposed to the few that go wrong." Incorporating this quick exercise into your day could help you retrain your brain to focus on the positives.
Look someone in the eye and say, "Thank you."
While you don't need to take off six months to increase gratitude, you can start by looking someone in the eye and saying "thank you," a practice Jacobs says can be done anywhere at any time—the grocery store or at Starbucks. "It takes such a small amount of energy to look someone in the eye and say 'thank you,'" said Jacobs, but it could make their day and yours. He calls it "a little shot of dopamine" midday for both the thanker and the person being thanked; why not give it a try?
There is a reason they call these gratitude practices. Practice takes time. "It's almost like going to the gym; you have to force yourself to do it, or you'll be distracted by life," said Jacobs. It can be easy to get discouraged if you find your mind focusing on the negatives this Thanksgiving, but all that matters is that you keep coming back to one of these simple practices.
Give it a try today: Maybe you can't head around the world to thank every person who helped make that pumpkin pie—but a sincere "thank you" to your relatives for bringing it could change the tone of the day.
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