Thanksgiving may well-be the healthiest holiday we celebrate. Those of you whose minds went straight to the artery-clogging double portions of deep-fried turkey, sausage stuffing, marshmallow sweet potatoes and pecan pie may think I’m crazy. Well, I’m clearly not talking about the food; I’m talking about the exercise. Now those of you who are plopped on the couch with a drumstick in each hand may think I’m crazy. Well, I’m not talking about the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot 5K kind of exercise either. I’m talking about spiritual exercise. On Thanksgiving, we dedicate a whole day to exercising gratitude, which is one of the healthiest spiritual exercises we can do.
Gratitude is an emotional and spiritual muscle that grows and strengthens with regular use. Studies show that gratitude is directly linked to happiness and well-being. You see, each person’s basic level of happiness rests at a natural set point. When something bad happens, our happiness level can drop. When something good happens, it can go up, but ultimately, our happiness level always returns to its natural set point. That’s where gratitude comes in: Practicing gratitude can raise our natural happiness set point as much as 25%, which allows us to remain at a higher level of overall happiness regardless of outside circumstances.
A 25% increase in overall happiness? That’s a pretty good return on investment for any exercise, especially since exercising gratitude is so easy. It’s easy because there’s always something to be grateful for. Of course, we all experience times when we aren’t feeling very grateful. But when we focus on something we’re grateful for in the midst of our most difficult times, our “gratitude shines a light on the darkness, the struggle, the difficulty and in the pockets of brightness, we notice the grace that seemed before to be hidden from view.” That ever-present grace lifts us from the depths of our troubles by allowing us to relive - to enjoy and linger on - the kind word, the companionship, the help, or the gift that we’re grateful for. In the end, exercising gratitude, like any exercise, is our choice. As you make that choice, think of the “glass half-full” and “glass half-empty” people in your life, and ask yourself, “Who’s happier?” Personally, I aspire to Alphonse Karr’s worldview: “Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”
While exercising gratitude is easy, it does take practice to attain its full benefits. So here are a few simple ways to exercise gratitude:
1. Identify your obstacles to gratitude – perhaps envy, greed, pride, narcissism, entitlement, fear, inattention, or ego - and deal with them;
2. Keep a gratitude journal – Each day write down one or two things that you’re grateful for and look back at past entries every once in a while;
3. Learn a gratitude prayer – I like the last stanza of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, We Thank Thee: “For this new morning with its light, Father we thank Thee. For rest and shelter of the night, Father we thank thee. For health and food, for love and friends, for everything Thy goodness sends, Father in heaven, we thank Thee.”
4. Write a thank you letter - You know how good it feels to get one. It feels even better to send one;
5. Hang out with people who are grateful – Gratitude, like misery, is infectious. It’s your choice;
6. Hang out with people who are less fortunate than you – ‘Nuff said.