November is Thanksgiving month in the U.S. And this week is the week of Thanksgiving. In just a couple of days, most of us will gather with family and friends to enjoy a feast -- turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, green beans, veggies of all sorts and pies. Oh, the pies – pumpkin, apple, mincemeat, pecan. Makes my mouth water just thinking about the pies.
Some folks will watch football after the meal. Some will sit around and talk about the year so far. Some will visit about past Thanksgivings.
And some people will be miserable, their holidays clouded by memories of pain and disappointment.
Yet, the message from those psychologists, sociologists and psychiatrists who study happiness is that gratitude adds to our happiness.
"Grateful people are happy people," they say.
Of course, we sometimes wonder if we should be happy in the midst of so much suffering. The Occupy Movement reminds us daily of the inequities in our economy. Friends and neighbors have lost homes to foreclosure. There are the unending wars that continue destroying the youth of the world. And there is disease and death and despicable deeds…
And at the same time we live in a world where there is kindness and beauty and courage and love. Where people risk all for justice and goodness. Where others spend their lives feeding the hungry, healing the sick, taking in the homeless, working for peace.
Ours is a world of both darkness and light, pain and pleasure, good and evil and our experience of that world often depends on what we notice, what we focus on, where our attention rests most of the time. If we emphasize only the pain and loss, we most likely will be overwhelmed by pain and loss.
Yet, once a year, we set aside a day for nothing but giving thanks. For acknowledging our blessings and expressing our appreciation for them.
So I guess the question is, how does one cultivate gratitude?
I’m not an expert on this topic. In fact, I have only one idea about cultivating a grateful heart. Here it is: to feel grateful (and, thus, happy) you have to recognize something to be grateful for.
Recognition comes from awareness, and awareness comes from paying attention.
If you’re constantly distracted by your cell phone, your email, your to-do list, if your day is crammed with tasks and obligations and you drop into bed exhausted yet frustrated because you didn’t do everything you thought you needed to….you’re unlikely to notice the gifts that filled your day and you’re certainly not going to feel grateful for them.
However, you can change this experience of yours. You can cultivate awareness, build in moments of gratitude into your daily routine.
For example: When pausing at a red light, instead of feeling irritated, take a deep breath, feel your body relax, and count a blessing or two – you have a car (something most people in the world do not own). You have somewhere to go and things to do (a sense of purpose). Perhaps you have a job and a paycheck from that job (something that millions of Americans do not have).
If it’s a really long red light, you can think about the blessing of running water in your home or apartment (something most people in the world do not have).
The ritual of praying thanks before a meal is a built-in break that can create awareness and gratitude. It is one way of slowing down for a moment and recognizing the gift of food and its blessing of nourishment.
Praying thanks is a way to pause for a moment and think about the many hands that created your meal -–from the farmers who plant and harvest the ingredients to the cooks who blended them into a meal, to the potters who made your plate and the metal workers who made your silverware and so on….for a brief moment, the prayer of thanks brings to mind how all over the world there are those who serving you in this meal.
And such awareness is likely to elicit a sense of gratitude.
When you are with your children you can pause to really notice them, their delightful laughter, their intelligence, their hopes and in your awareness of them you may feel gratitude for their presence in your life.
There are gifts we take so for granted – good health, good eyesight, good hearing, good friends, good books, good food, a good night’s sleep, a good walk, a good song, the fragrance of the air after a rainstorm, the delight of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn…the list is endless.
But you can make your own gratitude list. I know people who at the end of each day take a few minutes to write down all the things they noticed that day for which they are grateful.
Each day of life is itself a gift for which we can be grateful.
This is, after all the season of Thanksgiving.
May you enjoy all the blessings that a sense of gratitude brings. And may you have a very happy Thanksgiving.
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