Signs of gratitude are littered all over this month. In fact, as I was driving my daughter to school this morning her school sign read, “Give thanks for what you have.” The theme of gratitude isn’t new to most of us and isn’t the exclusive property of November. Gratitude is never out of season and delivers powerful benefits to those who make it a regular practice. Since it is the topic of the month, let’s underscore it and delve into its riches. What is gratitude, what are its benefits, and how do we practice it?
What Is Gratitude?
The dictionary says that gratitude is thankful appreciation for what someone receives. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, says gratitude is a, “promise (that) I will enjoy every minute of the day that is given to me to live.” He teaches in the Seventh Mindfulness Training, that, “Real happiness depends primarily on our mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that we can live happily in the present moments simply by remembering that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy.” In Hebrew gratitude is: hakarat hatov, which means recognizing the good. What all these sources agree on is that gratitude is seeing and giving thanks for exactly what we have.
There is a story about a famous violinist Itzhak Perlman that demonstrates gratitude in action. Perlman was set to give a concert one night. Perlman had polio as a child and, as a result, wore braces on both legs and walked with two crutches. The evening he was to give a concert, he crossed the stage slowly and set himself in a chair to play. As he started to play the first measures of the song, his violin string popped. He could have stopped, focused on the missing string, and worked to replace what was missing. Instead, he took a beat and began to play where he had left off. He only had three strings to play his part with. He was able to adjust to three strings by moving notes to other strings and rearranging some of the music on the spot to hold the piece together. When he was finished, the audience cheered wildly. “They knew they had been witness to an extraordinary display of human skill and ingenuity.” Perlman lifted his bow and spoke, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left” (Morinis).
Making beautiful music with what you have left is the crux of gratitude. In all times we have choices to see the good that is present and use it to create joy. Life isn’t easy. Balancing all the ups and downs and demands that life brings can be so overwhelming. We lose loved ones. We lose jobs. We don’t have what we want. We aren’t where we want to be. In all of these circumstances, good does exist we just have to choose to see it.
What are the Benefits of Gratitude?
1. Increased optimism.
Research says that those people who focus on what they have instead of what they lack, feel better about their lives and experience an increase in optimism. By paying attention to things going well, we can accentuate feelings of happiness and shift our attention from toxic emotions like resentment and envy.
2. Improves social relationships.
Gratitude is the “social glue” that builds and nurtures strong relationships. Practicing gratitude helps us to find positive relationships by noticing people who are kind, remind us of the kind thoughtful people in our lives already, and bind us to these people.
3. Improved physical health.
Not only does gratitude affect our mental health and social relationships, but it also affects our physical health as well. Some studies have shown that continued practice of gratitude, for as short as three weeks, can lower blood pressure and calm our nervous system. People who practice gratitude regularly also tend to exercise more, eat healthier food, and visit the doctor less.
All in all, a regular practice of gratitude reaps a wealth of rewards.
How Do We Practice Gratitude?
1. Keep a gratitude journal.
Spend 5 minutes a day writing down what you were grateful for in your day.
2. Write mental thank you notes
While waiting at a traffic light, or in line at a store, take time to think of a person you feel thankful for in your life. Maybe it is as simple as being grateful that the store clerk came to work today so you could buy your item.
3. Count your blessings
In the Jewish faith there is a practice of reciting 100 blessings a day. The term for blessing in Hebrew is b’racha. It comes from the same root as the word for knee. When you say a blessing, it is as if you have bent your knee in an act of gratitude. Basically, you give thanks throughout your day for all the little things. I am thankful that I had a bed to sleep in, I am thankful for heat, I am grateful that I have clothes to wear, I am grateful the bus picked up my kids today, etc.
Meditation can be as simple as sitting still and breathing or more directed. Follow this QR code for a short meditation on gratitude.
12- Minute Meditation to Rest Your Body In Gratitude
5. Practice as a Family.
Take time each day as a family to share one thing you were grateful for in your day. We started doing this at dinner and found, as time went on, the items of gratitude grew.
This list of 5 ways to practice gratitude is not exhaustive. Get creative. During this month of November, where thankfulness is at the center of our tables, take a minute to renew or create a new gratitude practice. Make November a New Year of sorts, filled with the resolution to practice gratitude regularly and experience a lift in joy.
Brown, Joshua and Wong, Joel. How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain June 6, 2017, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain
Harvard Health Publishing. Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier, August 14, 2021.
Morinis, Dr. Alan. Path of the Soul #3: Gratitude
May 9, 2009.
Hughes, Rashid. 12- Minute Meditation to Rest Your Body in Gratitude
Pratt, Misty. The Science of Gratitude. February 17, 2022. https://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-gratitude/
Plum Village. Thanksgiving Practices: Cultivating our Gratitude and Renewing Ourselves November 25,2019.