Is it part of your Thanksgiving tradition to go around the dinner table and have everyone share one thing they are thankful for? The exercise reminds us that the day is about more than just turkey and pie. And, for those who take it seriously, it forces us to stop for a moment, perform a mini self-examination and point to something good in our lives, the positive, something we can be thankful for right now. Of course there's always going to be someone at the table who can't tolerate that much honesty, who says something silly, like he or she is thankful that Uncle Harry didn't eat all the mashed potatoes, but for the rest of us, it's a welcome opportunity to acknowledge a person, kindnesses, generosity, beauty, employment — a car that starts every time you turn the key in the ignition — things it's easy to take for granted on most other days of the year.
But why wait for Thanksgiving to be thankful?
Pinellas psychologist Valeria Moore thinks it's something that should be routine, something we should teach children to do, too. "We need to make expressing gratitude a daily practice," said the BayCare Behavioral Health therapist who sees patients primarily at Mease Countryside and Mease Dunedin hospitals. "It would make us and our interactions, not just our holidays, much more positive." Moore tries to incorporate gratitude in her counseling sessions with patients and makes it a point to teach her 7-year-old daughter about gratitude every day.
Moore talked with the Times recently about how we can all be more grateful year-round, even when it seems there's nothing to be grateful for; the benefits of living a life filled with gratitude; and different ways children and adults can express gratitude during the holiday season and beyond.
Saying "thanks" has almost become a toss-away phrase. You'd like to see us put more meaning behind it. Explain that.
Yes, I'd like it to be a continued state of thankfulness and appreciation. Adopt it as a lifestyle and you can change the course of interaction with the world and with the people who are in it. When you approach life with a general state of thanks or appreciation, you acknowledge what you have versus what you wish you had or what you want.
Why do that?
Lots of research has been done to show that people who regularly practice gratitude are more relaxed, more resilient, have a more positive outlook on life. That impacts their personality and self-esteem so they are able to cultivate more and deeper relationships — people want to be around them, even their marriages tend to be stronger. Gratitude improves your physical health, you sleep better, have fewer days that you are ill, it gives you more energy. As a result, you're more motivated, more proactive, have improved decisionmaking, increased productivity, and that impacts your performance at work, in your career. Being grateful can impact every aspect of your life.
It seems easy to forget to offer thanks, but difficult to always be thankful. Why is that?
We're busy. We're distracted. Life becomes about where I want to be, need to be and what I want to do or need to do. Being grateful doesn't just happen. You have to make a conscious decision to do it. You have to cultivate it. Make it a part of your personality. You have to take the time to make it a priority.
Is that the correct expression: "learn to practice gratitude"?
Absolutely. You first have to make the decision that this is how I want to approach life. It requires you to have a degree of self-reflection, to take the time to look at how you approach life. And then you make a conscious choice. You choose to be grateful for what I have in that moment. But first recognize that it's a choice.
What are some simple ways to practice gratitude?
Write a thank-you note. Let someone know you appreciate them. Do something kind for someone without a desire for anything in return. Be thankful when just walking around, for what's around you. Teach responsibility and learn to be grateful when you have a bill to pay. You may not like paying that bill, but tell yourself and your children, "At least we have the money in the bank to pay this bill," and be grateful for that.
How do you incorporate gratitude in therapy with patients?
When it's appropriate, and only if they are ready to discuss it, I try to tell them that their life isn't only about failure, loss, mistakes, illness. I try to help them shift their thinking and be grateful for some positive memory or experience or person in their lives right now. Being grateful in any circumstance gives you room to breathe and allows you to deal with negative things or whatever makes you sad. I tell them, if you give a brief moment to reflect on things that did go well, a positive memory, something that went right, it's like removing a blindfold and letting light in.
How can we talk to young children about gratitude?
Kids need some maturity to learn to be grateful. But we can still encourage them to be thankful. Ask them to say three kind things to someone today. Or, tell me three things that happened today that were great. Develop a conversation to help them become more aware of gratitude. Ask if there was anything that made you smile or laugh today. Help them think beyond the bad event of the day.
And for older children and adults?
Remind them to be grateful for the roof over their heads, that they are safe, that they can walk. To be thankful for the minute, as well as for the large, for things as well as for people, and for the intangible. And if they can't find something to be grateful for, tell them to do something nice for someone else. It forces you to think outside yourself for the moment. It takes emotional maturity to do this. You have to be honest and somewhat critical. You have to essentially stop complaining and be thankful.
Should we have to work at being grateful?
It does take commitment and practice. There will be days when it doesn't seem to be working. That's okay, too. We're making a choice to try and be more grateful. To try to make it part of our lifestyle.
Should we be surprised if it isn't easy at first?
It's going to be difficult and at times painful, and we're going to have to remind ourselves about it daily, at first. But the holidays are an ideal time to start. You won't be thinking about what you have to do, what I want, about things and expectations. You'll be thinking about what I have to be grateful for right now. When you do that, the whole tone of the season changes.
Contact Irene Maher at imaher@ earthlink.net.
Gratitude exercises for the family and for you
These are some exercises and activities commonly used by experts to help individuals and families practice gratitude:
Journal: Once a day or once a week, write down a few things you are grateful for. It helps you focus on the positive, good things in your life.
Gratitude pictures: Take a picture of something you're grateful for every day. Look back over the pictures at the end of the week. Create gratitude collections or collages. They'll make you smile.
Gratitude jar: Put a large, clear jar on your desk or kitchen counter, anywhere you'll see it often. Each day, write down at least three things you're grateful for and drop them in the jar. Every time you see the jar, especially if you're feeling down, you'll be reminded that there are things to be thankful for.
Gratitude rock: Carry a small stone or other object in your pocket or place it in the open. When you see it or touch it, think of at least one thing you are grateful for. Let it trigger positive thoughts, emotions, memories.
Gratitude tree: Try this for Thanksgiving. Place a small tree branch in a vase and attach paper leaves on which you and family members have written things for which you are grateful.
Gratitude prompts: These help start gratitude conversations. Have participants complete these phrases:
I'm grateful for three things I see:
I'm grateful for three things I smell: hear: feel: taste:
I'm grateful for these three animals: friends: co-workers:
I'm grateful for three things in my home:
I'm grateful for ... (come up with your own prompts):
A gratitude letter: Write a gratitude letter to someone. Be specific about how they helped you or improved your life. It doesn't have to be long. It's one of the most powerful expressions of gratitude there is, especially when followed up by a visit.
The can of beans: Attributed to Dutch positive psychology coach Seph Fontane Pennock, this can be an exercise just for you or for the family. Place a can of beans on the table with a can opener and spoons. Open the can and share dinner. The idea is to help you realize just how well off you really are with access to a wide variety of delicious foods, the means to cook them, dishes and utensils, a table and chairs, probably a dishwasher, too. What else does this exercise remind you to be grateful for?