In this month of Thanksgiving—with December just around the corner—it’s an ideal time to consider the benefits of practicing gratitude. I say “practice” because living in gratitude takes some daily work for most of us. It’s certainly not a way of being that is very supported by the consumer-oriented society we live in, that constantly pushes more, newer, better stuff. It takes some attention and action to tune out the commercials and tune our personal dials to the gratitude station. Fortunately, in our Jewish tradition, we have a bounty of rituals that can help us focus us on being thankful—from saying the “Modeh Ani” prayer in the morning to pausing before eating and offering a blessing for our food.
As I’ve gotten older and maybe a little bit wiser, I realize that while I do like and appreciate stuff, what I want most is to live a life full of joy and to share my love and feeling of blessing with my family, friends and community. For me, joy and gratitude are intimately connected—joy increases when I spend less time bitching. Joy increases when I accept and appreciate my imperfections and everything that is messy and sometimes hard in my life. Joy increases when I take time every day to focus on my fortune.
Here are a few of my observations about practicing gratitude…I would love to read your comments on the role of gratitude in your life:
Gratitude increases joy—it’s science: From the field of positive psychology, we have some data about how practicing gratitude can increase happiness—leading to better sleep and more energy. I don’t know about you, but good sleep and increased energy are essential to my work and parenting!
Gratitude counters materialism: My daughter is nine and man, does she get excited by the stuff they’re advertising on the Disney channel and teen Nick. Sure, I could just turn off the TV…but we like TV in my house. So what I do instead is engage her in conversation about the stuff she desires. We make lists of what she’d really like to ask for for birthdays and Hanukkah. We talk about saving money. And we spend time, regularly, to look at all the stuff she has already and consider what she’s ready to give away to children who may really appreciate it. As the holiday season approaches, join one of our jkidphilly Little Hands Make a Big Difference programs that help even our youngest kids feel how good it feels to give to others.
Gratitude helps us see the gifts in the hard stuff: I don’t mean to make it sound like practicing gratitude has turned me into Mizzi Gaynor, spending my days singing “I’m A Cockeyed Optimist.” Rather, practicing gratitude has helped me to notice blessings even during the hard, dark times in my life. In the last decade, I’ve survived cancer and gone through my son being diagnosed with autism. As I practice gratitude, I notice and appreciate little and big things that I’ve learned because I’ve had those experiences…and I am grateful—not for cancer or autism per se, but for all of the people and support that have helped me go through those experiences and in my own abilities to grow into stronger, deeper person.
Gratitude makes us appreciate the mundane: My son is now 11 and has learned and accomplished more than I ever could have imagined when he was diagnosed at age 3. Parenting him from a grateful place means that with each gain he makes—no matter how long it has taken him to learn some very basic developmental skills, I am thankful. I don’t take it for granted when he comes home and remembers where to hang up his backpack and coat. I watch in awe as he learns to read and communicate with pictures via a special app on his ipad. I can feel how my appreciation for his growth supports him and I can see the pride in his eager smile when he shows me something new that he can do. These moments are sometimes few and far between, but during the challenging times, I recall them and they keep me going.
Keeping a gratitude journal has helped me to notice the mundane moments that fill my days with joy: a conversation with my husband, laughing at a silly joke with my daughter, walking my dog on a beautiful autumn afternoon, sipping a cup of coffee in a quiet house with no one else awake.
Gratitude pays it forward: My mom is one of those unusually friendly and outgoing people. In the small town where I grew up and where my parents still live, people know my mom wherever I go. But it’s not only because she is so socially engaging, it’s also because of the way that she thanks people for whatever they do—whether the job comes with prestige or not. I remember watching her as a child take the time to acknowledge everyone who helped us in any way–a doctor, a clerk at the grocery store, a custodian —and how by doing so, she passed positive energy forward. We never know what the people around us are coping with in any given moment—just a little expression of gratitude can lift someone’s spirit in a way that we may never know.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion and serves as jkidphilly Center City director. Visit her cooking blog at www.kitchenclassroom4kids.com.