I love this time of year. I love all that the holidays represent: family, connection, and giving thanks for all of the wonderful things in our lives. I talk a lot with my clients about gratitude because I believe it is a critical part of the foundation for creating a peaceful, joyful life.
Unfortunately, for many people this time of year can be especially painful. As some go on about their loving spouse, beautiful children, and exciting vacations, others are left with a painful reminder of what they are missing in their own life. It’s easy to get caught up in the mindset of deprivation, where we never feel like we have enough, and until we are able to truly appreciate and feel satisfied with what we already have, we will never be satisfied with what we get.
Research has shown us that regularly practicing gratitude is one of the best ways to create happiness. But how do you do that when it feels like you’re life is falling apart? Often times it is the people who could benefit most from practicing gratitude that have the hardest time accessing it.
The most common objection I hear to practicing gratitude is that people don’t want to “fool” themselves, or they know they won’t really believe it. It’s important to remember that just because you find something to be grateful for doesn’t mean that magically, overnight, your life is transformed and you’ve started drinking the Kool-Aid out of the half-full glass. But you are beginning to retrain your mind’s focus and creating different pathways in your brain.
This isn’t a black-and-white process. And it’s not about convincing yourself to believe something that isn’t true. Life is not all good or all bad. True health and wellness isn’t about being happy all the time, it is about finding flexibility and balance: learning how to hold space for all of your experiences. Yes, things may be rocky in your marriage AND you’re blessed with beautiful children, or have a roof over your head, or your physical health, or fill-in-the-blank of what you DO have in your life.
Again, some may be thinking, “But I have nothing in my life to be grateful for.” And this may very well feel true for you, but, if you’re willing to look, there is always something to be thankful for. Below is a list of ten things to be thankful for even when it seems like there’s nothing:
1. Your basic needs are met. Every time you have access to clean water when you’re thirsty, food when you’re hungry, a bed when you’re tired, or heat when you’re cold, you have something to be thankful for. People who lack consistent access to basic necessities know this all too well, but for the rest of us it can be easy to forget just how lucky we are.
2. Your senses and basic mobility. Our sense of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing are what allow us to experience the world and our ability to walk, carry, and move our bodies are what allow us to navigate these experiences. However, their critical importance is often lost on us. It’s often not until we lose something that we realize just how good things were. Imagine going even an hour in your current life without one of your senses, or limbs, or pinky finger for that matter, and you will realize how much there is to be thankful for: the smell of the turkey cooking, the ability to drive yourself to work, or interviews if you are unemployed, or the feel of hot running water on a cold day.
3. The kindness of strangers. We tend to pay more attention to negative information than to positive information, a likely result of evolution trying to keep us safe and guard against possible threats. Therefore, the rude driver cutting us off sticks with us, often times far longer than necessary, whereas a smile in passing may not even register. Making a conscious effort to notice the kindness that others show us, even the smallest gestures of someone holding a door open, can help to counter the negativity bias and give us more reasons to be thankful.
4. Your own capacity for kindness. It can be hard to feel gratitude for the people in your life who have hurt you, or for those that you resent for seemingly having more than you. People can be cruel, and some can hurt us without even realizing it, and there is little we can do about others. But we can control our own behavior. We can choose to treat others with kindness, to be the person who brightens someone else’s day or eases their struggle in some way. This capacity for kindness is a valuable gift for others, but also for ourselves: research shows that giving compassion and support to others can increase our own happiness too as it can give us a sense of purpose and feelings of having had an impact.
5. The ability to learn (and subsequently change). There is a whole world of fascinating information out there, most of which is available right at our fingertips as long as we have an internet connection or a library card. Thousands of websites, books, podcasts, lectures, webinars, many available to us 24 hours a day and free of charge, to help on whatever journey we may be on. The resources are endless and finding gratitude for this abundance will make it more likely that you utilize these resources.
6. Modern technology. While Facebook and other social media may sometimes feel like more of a curse, step back and consider how much of the technology that is available today was not available for most of human history: cell phones, computers, TVs, cars, airplanes, GPS, plumbing, electricity, life-saving medical treatments. These technologies enhance quality of life, make the planet more interconnected, and, of course, provide endless sources of entertainment (thank you Netflix for Orange is the New Black and binge-watching episodes of Breaking Bad).
7. The difficult times you’ve been through in the past. Have you ever been surprised to find that you were able to get through something really tough, even though you were convinced initially that it was more than you could bear? Cliche as it may sound, the truth is that we are often stronger than we think, and it’s not until we’re really challenged that our true strength becomes apparent. Looking back on your life and finding gratitude for the strength that pulled you through your past challenges can provide hope for your current situation.
8. Nature. In the hectic chaos of our daily lives it can be easy to lose sight of the natural world around us. But pausing for a moment to take in the magnificence of nature in all its forms can be a powerful way to connect with beauty, regardless of where you are in your life. Even in the busiest of cities wonderment and awe can be found in simple cloud formations or pink stripes across a sunset sky.
9. The good times. When we think about what we’re thankful for, we may forget about things we’ve experienced in the past, or loved ones we’ve lost, since we don’t really “have” them anymore. But we do still have them in the form of memories. Yes, it is important to live in the present moment, but research suggests that spending time (just not all of your time) reflecting back on happy memories can increase happiness and reduce loneliness.
10. Speaking of time: This moment. Even if the future is uncertain, the fact that you are alive at this moment, healthy enough to read this post, is something to be thankful for.
When you dedicate time everyday to intentionally focus on the things you do have in your life, eventually this way of thinking, of seeing yourself and the world around you, will become more familiar and even automatic. You may even find that one day it has become your dominant perception. We head down the path that we are looking. If we are looking for all of the things that are going wrong in our life, that is what we will continually find. However, if we are consciously seeking and looking to find what is good in our lives, we will find it.