Keeping Gratitude in Your Back Pocket

It is holiday season in America. For the majority of Americans, a different kind of joy, excitement, stress, and challenge will fill the coming weeks. I am going to guess that when the stressors and challenges show up, many of us will have a hard time welcoming them.

Last month I wrote about how we can make this time of year easier on ourselves as it relates to food and holiday gatherings. This month, let’s look at another way to ease our self-inflicted tensions. This month, let’s talk about gratitude.

Gratitude is defined a few different ways:

1) a feeling of thankfulness and appreciation (

2) a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals–whether to other people, nature, or a higher power” (Harvard Medical School)

3) the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation (Sansone & Sansone, 2010).

Regardless of your definition, showing gratitude for even the smallest things can make a real difference. According to Positive Psychology, gratitude  can help us keep our problems and upsets in perspective, putting a platinum lining on dark clouds. I look at gratitude as having an extra $200 in my pocket. It gives me a whole different point of view when I am out and about running life’s errands.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that our friend Joe lost his job. As a result, he couldn’t afford his mortgage and had to move into a small studio apartment. Let’s say Joe’s new apartment has no cable TV or internet access. On top of that, Joe lost his phone and his car because he couldn’t afford to pay for them either. Now he has to walk or take a bus to get from place to place. Joe has started getting government assistance from food stamps and Medicaid to cover his medical bills. Joe also goes to the local food pantry or soup kitchen daily.  Joe feels like he is going through pretty tough times. If I found myself in Joe’s position, I would have a significant adjustment to make. Some people might even feel like their world was ending if they were in this situation.

Ok. Ready for a different perspective?

Well, a couple of months ago, I went to Kenya, Africa. Kenya is a beautiful country with amazing landscapes. It is home to big animals like elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, zebras, and wildebeests. Kenya is also trying to shed its third world shackles. One of its challenges is a lack of adequate transportation, housing, and clean water.

Notice “Hotel” written on the building in the foreground. Residents in these tin shacks try to be as resourceful as possible to improve their lot.

These are pictures of a tin shack slum located adjacent to the capital city, Nairobi. It is called an “urban unofficial settlement.” Adults move into settlements like this when they are looking for work or a better opportunity. In Kenya, about 2 million people of all ages live in unofficial settlements like this. This one holds about 1.1 million people of all ages. Official estimates say that only 5% of the residents here have access to running water, toilets, or electricity. Oh, and these are rental properties. Yes, rental properties, meaning the inhabitant is there by choice.

The modern high-rise buildings in the background stand in sharp contrast to the tin slums, when many of the workers in those high rises, for economic reasons, must live. Stark inequality!

They are also subject to rent increases and evictions. The average length of stay for a person in one of these units is 11.5 years. Let that sink in. The residents are choosing to rent a corrugated tin shack with a dirt floor, without plumbing or electricity for 11.5 years. One more thing. There is NO government assistance for anyone.

Even on a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day in America, no one lives like this. Well, not legally anyway. Especially not while paying a landlord. Not even for two years, never mind 11. From this new perspective, suddenly, the thought of living in a small studio apartment with running water and a bathroom and taking a bus seems doable. Our friend, Joe, could actually be grateful for the roof over his head, the water that he uses to bathe, and the food he gets from the soup kitchen. With an attitude of gratitude, Joe could choose to work to improve his situation and see gains every day. The bottom line is that Joe’s point of view is the only difference between him being devastated by or appreciative of his current circumstances. His perspective will have a corresponding effect on what he does in his situation. His point of view is what makes the situation unbearably bad or unbelievably good.

In America, the same is true of our access to food, public education, basic health care, and the right to vote. In America, and just about every other 1st world country, we have rights to some of our basic necessities and access to most. This is not the case in many countries in the world.

Being appreciative of what we usually take for granted is one way of decreasing our stress, increasing our joy quotient, and opening our eyes to the opportunities that surround us.

We can have fun with this, so let’s play a game! I am going to challenge you. For the next 30 days, find something for which you can be grateful and find a way to show your gratitude for it.

Every day for the next 30 days, look at the gratitude practice suggestions below to help sharpen our skills for appreciating the people, animals, and things in our lives that we may not usually value. If you start with the first practice today, it will carry you into the new year. Simply “hover” over the day to see the practice.

Part 1 – Notes to Self

Before you get out of bed, take a few deep breaths. Then, for 5 seconds, gently stretch your arms and legs out as long as possible. Be quietly grateful for the ability to move and breathe. You opened your eyes this morning!

Think back over your life and recall one success from your childhood. Something as mundane as learning to tie your shoes, or to ride a bike, or to read are big victories to a little person. Quietly thank yourself for practicing long enough to become an expert at these things.

Watch the sunrise or sunset from start to finish. Quietly appreciate the way the sky and landscape change. Take a couple of pictures. Tell someone else about it, if you like. If you are a facebookie, share it on the PBNM facebook page.

Go to a park or other natural setting. Use all your senses to experience it. Without judgment, smell, look, listen. Touch some leaves of tree bark or grass. Smell them. Look at the colors. Think about how often these things go unnoticed. Be thankful for whatever you experience.

Go into your kitchen or bedroom. Use all your senses to experience it. Look around without judgment. Open a closet or cabinet. Smell, look, listen. Be thankful for whatever you notice.

Take five deep breaths. The setting and time of day don’t matter. Wherever you are, be grateful for your breath, and current mental state.

What talent do you have for which you are grateful?

Today give up complaining. Instead, take on being grateful and showing it.

Part 2 – Notes to Others You May Not Know

Leave a thank you note to your letter carrier in your mailbox.

Leave a thank you note for a co-worker that you do not know very well, but whose work you appreciate.

Perform one random act of kindness, such as paying for the person in line behind you at a coffee shop or juice bar.

Take a bouquet of flowers to the local elementary school office staff to say thanks for all they do for the children in your community.

Leave a treat with a thank you note for the letter carrier or delivery person.

Take some dog or cat food to an animal shelter as a way to thank them for caring for homeless animals.

Send a note of appreciation to the labor and delivery nurses at your community hospital. Thank them for all they do.

Next time you go to the grocery store, go to the customer service desk. Leave a note of appreciation for the cashier or bagger.

Send an anonymous note to someone who needs it. Think about the people in your life. Who is lonely, or sad, or in pain? Send an anonymous note to let them know WHY they are important.

If you are in a place with street performers or musicians, put some money in their tip jar. Make it a big enough tip so that it feels a little like a stretch for yourself.

Part 3 – Notes to People You Care About

Who makes you smile today? Let them know. Show them a sign of appreciation.

Spend time with someone you care about. Maybe you could bring them a healthy meal, or flowers or a game to play. Visit them just for the sake of being with them. Cancel any other reasons for visiting. Be open to what happens.

Get a pad of 3″ x 3″ sticky notes. Peel off ten sheets. Write one thing you are grateful for on each page. Use more if you like. Stick the notes on a mirror, window, or wall where you can see them. Add another note each day. If a person comes to mind, let them know you are grateful to them and why.

Take a quick inventory of all you have to be thankful for. Is there someone you could thank for any of it? If so, let them know that you appreciate what they have done.

Be grateful for every little thing today. Let three people know the game you are playing to focus on gratitude for 30 days. Ask them if they want to play along.

Help someone you love to complete a chore that you don’t usually help with. Follow their direction. Do it their way. Appreciate how they have managed it without your assistance in the past.

Part 4 – Notes to People Who Challenge You

If you encounter a difficult situation, try looking at it from the perspective of gratitude. What could you learn from it? Could you be thankful for any part of it? Write the positives down, so you don’t forget them.

When in a situation where you think you know best, resist the urge to tell others when they are wrong.

Let the person know when they challenge you, they help you grow as a person.

In the next conversation you have with them, take a deep breath, and thoroughly listen to what they have to say. When they are finished speaking, take another deep breath and thank them for letting you know.

Part 5 – One More Note to Self

Appreciate all you have accomplished in life so far. Today give up complaining, judging, and wishing your life was different than it is. Today, just be the embodiment of gratitude.

Use the comment form to let us know how practicing gratitude affects you and the people around you. Tells us about your breakthroughs, aha moments, and surprises! We would love to hear from you.

Happy Holidays!

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