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Hard-won Thanks

Some of life's greatest gifts turn out to be things we would have never asked for in the first place.

Thanksgiving is a powerful time – not because of the tryptophan or turkey. In the United States, it's a holiday where we pause with intention and draw attention to what we have. We explicitly articulate our gratitude. People take time to step outside of themselves and consider how they can share their good fortune in ways that can better the life of someone else.

Holidays can be crazy-making, but there is something therapeutic about Thanksgiving—particularly when we adopt it as a discipline in our everyday lives. As a psychologist, I don't prescribe quick fixes or surface-level solutions for complex issues, but there's a simple but powerful exercise that I often speak with clients about—implementing a gratitude practice. Ritualistic gratitude is born out of the field of positive psychology. It's grounded in research and science. Everyday thanksgiving has the potential to make a significant impact on wellbeing. Gratitude fires and helps wire new neural connections in our brain. It reduces anxiety by regulating stress hormones, and it enhances dopamine and serotonin. I often encourage clients to write down or mentally note three things they appreciate as they start and end their day. It’s fast. It’s free. There is no prescription required. And it works.

Sometimes the things people reflect on with thanks are big but equally important and impactful is learning to savor tiny, simple everyday pleasures too. For most people, it is not a tall order to come up with a list of some remarkable gifts when they look around their lives. Health. Family. Freedom. Clean water. Food to eat. Eyesight. The ability to hear. Education. Having the skills to read or write. Owning a pair of shoes. As citizens of the free Western world, when we zoom out and consider where we fall compared to peers around the planet, we exist in lavish abundance. Our blessings in no way nullify our first world hard, nor should they serve as a case for self invalidation of suffering. Still, the reality that most of us lead lives of endless plenty is something we need to be reminded of periodically. We take far too much for granted in our self-absorbed bubbles.

The practice of gratitude works because there is power in where we put our attention. We aren't in charge of where our mind wanders, but we control where we walk it back to. That focal point place drives our feelings, attitudes, and choices in significant ways. There will always be things in life that are hard. Always. And, no matter what your circumstance, there will always be things to celebrate. To live a healthy life, we need to acknowledge experiences that span the continuum of our reality.

Everyone can benefit from starting a simple gratitude practice, but we can go further. Being grateful for the good requires little effort. But what happens in our hearts when there is pain in the offering. What say we then? We give thanks for our difficulties far less often. We view our struggles as something to be endured, not cherished. Yet, it is in the crucible of challenge that resilience is formed.

Looking back on my life, the things that have had the most significant impact on who I have become were not the most fun or easy --- especially as I walked through them. When I consider who I am and where I desire to go, I know I want to grow. I won't get there without struggle and being stretched. We can welcome challenge without having to like every part of it.

What if we started giving more thanks for the transformative? Amid the strain of adversity, the experience of something difficult can shift if we can tilt our outlook. I'm not suggesting taking masochistic pleasure in hardship or mistreatment, but something often changes when we can remember the potential growth that can result from pain. It's easier to give thanks for the transformative when you don't lose sight of the big picture. Often, flourishing is a long game.

Push yourself to practice Thanksgiving 365 days a year. As you consider what to put on your gratitude list, think beyond the obvious and easy. Remember, some of life's greatest gifts turn out to be things we would have never asked for in the first place.


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