Thanksgiving will be different this year. We know it, but we still want to celebrate it — maybe more than ever.
When a global pandemic is upending life as we know it, established holidays are one of the few things that can still give us a sense of stability. Although travelling to meet friends and family may not be feasible, the last Thursday of November is still a special day for many people.
It carries a ritual with it. Something familiar, a point of reference, and a moment to stop.
In the past few decades, Thanksgiving became a commercialized holiday that lost its spiritual, soul-felt aspect. But because we need it now more than ever, maybe it’s a good moment to revive the original intention behind it: giving thanks.
To help you do that, I want to share seven gratitude exercises that work. They may not be as sexy as Instagrammed gratitude journals or esoteric meditation techniques. Instead, they are straightforward and have a real psychological impact. You can use them to celebrate this year’s Thanksgiving in your own way.
As humans, we all need rituals — especially in times like these. If the ritual as we know it is falling apart, that can be a good chance to deliberately redesign it. Make it your own.
Why We Need Rituals To Thrive
Even in the modern world fuelled by technology and rational thinking, rituals still didn’t lose their importance. They may look different now than they did to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, sure. But at the core, they are inherently human behavior which we need to make sense of the world.
In this sense, rituals aren’t magic. Behavioral psychology now discovers that they work the human brain in a very particular way.
Nick Hobson, PhD who’s been studying psychological mechanisms behind ritual for over a decade frames it as an evolutionary response to deal with uncertainty. This means that one of the most important functions of a ritual is emotional regulation. In his article on Psychology Today, Hobson writes:
“Scholars have long known about the anxiolytic properties of rituals. They bring order and structure to a world that is inherently disordered and chaotic. Rituals are an effective shield that protects us from the onslaught of uncertain events. But how exactly does this work? (…)
We have argued that rituals’ anxiety-busting features reside in their basic physical structure. The defining features of rituals, repetitive and rigid movements, buffer against uncertainty by evoking a sense of personal control and orderliness. The very act of engaging in a scripted sequence of ritualistic movements tricks the brain into thinking that it’s experiencing the pleasant state of predictability and stability.”
Rituals can help us soothe stress and anxiety when we need it the most. They don’t do so through some kind of magic powers. Rather, it’s their predictability and our intention behind them that tame negative feelings and induce a sense of stability.
In the early 20th century, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski was one of the first to observe this. While he lived among the native inhabitants of the South Pacific islands, he noted that fishermen were resorting to protective rituals when they went fishing to the turbulent waters beyond the coral reef. However, they didn’t perform those rituals while hunting in the calmer waters of the lagoon.
They needed the ritual only when there was a sense of uncertainty and threat involved.
Those tribes may have been doing it intuitively. Their rituals emerged organically over time. In 2020, as we’re living through the pandemic, we have a lot more understanding of how the human brain works. Consequently, we can use rituals more deliberately, to help ourselves through these uncertain times.
One way to soothe yourself is to take a traditional holiday such as Thanksgiving, and, maybe for the first time, consciously feel and express gratitude. You can do that through deliberate gratitude exercises and rituals.
If you can’t spend this Thanksgiving the way you used to anyway, why don’t you try something new?
7 Gratitude Exercises For an Unprecedented Thanksgiving
With all the hardship in the world right now, gratitude may feel like a foreign concept. It’s easy to focus primarily on the challenges of life these days.
But that’s exactly why we need to nurture gratitude more than ever before. Whatever you focus your attention on, grows. Even if you only manage to feel grateful for a few moments in a day, with time, it can transform your mind.
The trick with practicing gratitude is that it can’t be forced. There are many gratitude exercises that people perform mechanically, without really feeling into them. It’s easy to start treating a gratitude journal or meditation as yet another thing to check from your to-do list. But this rarely produces the benefits of gratitude that we’re all after.
That’s why it’s important to make your gratitude exercise or ritual meaningful to you. Treat the list below as inspiration, a starting point to your own gratitude practice.
You don’t have to use them all. It’s enough to pick one, make it yours, and… enjoy it!
1. Ask yourself how gratitude feels to you
At the core, practising gratitude is about creating a certain type of feeling. This is a very subtle art — tapping into the resonance of appreciation, giving and receiving, and seeing beauty in each moment of life.
Sometimes, you may have to start by discovering how gratitude feels to you. A lot of people talk about gratitude without really connecting to the direct experience of it. So start by asking yourself:
How does it feel to be grateful for no reason at all and simply appreciating the gift of being alive?
Once you consciously notice the texture and flavour of this feeling, it’ll become clearer what gratitude is. You can use the below quote by Abraham-Hicks to inspire your gratitude search:
“Begin by looking around your immediate environment and gently noticing something that pleases you. Try to hold your attention on this pleasing object as you consider how wonderful, beautiful, or useful it is. And as you focus upon it longer, your positive feelings about it will increase.
Now, notice your improved feeling, and be appreciative of the way you feel. Then, once your good feeling is noticeably stronger than when you began, look around your environment and choose another pleasing object for your positive attention.”
2. Bathe in the beauty of things
Once you know how gratitude feels, you may discover that, often, it’s up to you to be grateful for something. You can experience it by consciously looking for beauty in the ordinary things around you. And you could start even now.
David Hume once wrote that “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” This means you can use your mind to actively create the experience of beauty.
In his book Stillness Is the Key, Ryan Holiday calls this “bathing in beauty.” All it takes is to consciously look at your surroundings as if they were a work of art. Maybe you notice a flash of light on the wall, a bird strolling on a roof outside the window, or a half-eaten pie sitting on a plate in your kitchen.
Whatever you see, acknowledge that these are all unique expressions of your life. This is your reality now. Why not choose to see it as beautiful — and feel grateful for it?
3. Share something with others
Almost every day, we feel like we should share things with others. We share snacks, our time, our experiences, our bed.
A lot of this sharing happens as a default rule. We don’t even think about it because we believe this is how things are supposed to be. Or, we share something out of a sense of obligation, fearing that if we wouldn’t, other people would stop liking us.
But that’s very different from deliberate, willful sharing. If you decide to share something because you want to and not because you feel like you have to, you open the doors for gratitude to come in. Willful sharing puts you in a position of someone who has more than enough. Therefore, you feel like you can give to others generously.
For example, you may want to share a book that could benefit one of your friends, and go out of your way to lend it to them. Call someone just to see how they’re doing. Decide to bake a double portion of the pie so you can give half of it to your neighbor.
Make sure that sharing feels natural and pleasant. Remember, gratitude can’t be forced. But you can always do something to encourage it — and sharing willfully is a great way of doing that.
4. Say a sincere “thank you” as many times as you can in a day
I don’t know about you but I often catch myself noticing other people’s shortcomings before their virtues. I know this doesn’t help me feel grateful for them in my life.
Especially with those closest to you — your partner, your family, your kids — it’s easy to wish they were different. Whenever they do something that upsets you, you start telling a story in your head about what they’re doing “wrong.” That story often starts with “If only she/they/he could…”
This kind of thinking often blinds us to the good in other people. It highlights their shortcomings before their virtues. But what if, at least for one day, you tried to deliberately highlight the virtues?
You can do that by saying a sincere “thank you” whenever you have even the slightest opportunity. Look for things, big or small, that wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the people in your life.
By doing that, you train your mind to look for the good in others. Even in one day, you may see how big of a change this makes! Saying “thank you” out loud will reinforce the experience of gratitude and make you appreciate your close ones even more.
Just remember for your thanks to be genuine!
5. Use counterfactual thinking
Counterfactual thinking is taking events from your life and imagining how different everything would be if they didn’t happen.
For example, you may remember how you met your partner and imagine a parallel universe where that didn’t take place. Or, think of an accomplishment you’re proud of and try to picture who you’d be without it.
The idea is to become aware that all the good things in your life might not have happened. If they didn’t, you would be a very different person living a very different life. This is a great way to encourage gratitude for what you have and stop taking the blessings in your life for granted.
Many people use counterfactual thinking in the opposite way. We ruminate on all the things we could have done better or dwell on regrets about missed opportunities. But this doesn’t help us appreciate life at all.
Instead, take that skill of your mind — imagining a parallel universe of your life events — and use it to your advantage. Remind yourself of how many things went well in your life. This will make you stop taking them for granted and appreciate your fortune with a beginner’s mind.
6. Have a mindful meal or beverage
Appreciating food or drink is a very straightforward way to find gratitude. It doesn’t require you to do anything beyond what you already do. The trick here is to simply bring more attention to the experience of preparing, eating and drinking.
I like to practice this with my morning coffee. It already starts when I fill the Moka pot with water, put coffee in and then turn the stove on. When the coffee is ready, I slowly pour it into the mug, noticing the steam and the color of the beverage. As I drink my coffee, I indulge in all the sensations, from the aroma and taste to the comforting warmth of the mug.
I become more mindful of the experience and this way, gratitude naturally follows. The more aspects I notice in a simple pleasure, the richer it becomes and the more I see how fortunate I am to have it. In this way, mindfulness and gratitude go hand in hand.
Next time you’re eating or drinking something, take a few moments to become aware of the experience. You don’t have to think about being grateful. The only point is to notice as many details about what you’re doing as you can.
Chances are that the more you notice, the more naturally you’ll appreciate it.
7. Make a gratitude symbol and give it to someone you love
Have you ever heard about “friendship bracelets”? The idea is to make or buy two identical bracelets and then give one to your best friend while keeping the other to yourself. When I was at school, this was a popular way for girls to solidify their friendship and express how much they meant to one another.
Simple objects can be powerful when we give them meaning. Like with rituals, this isn’t about some kind of “magic.” Rather, it’s the power of symbols that’s inherent to humans. This power can help us reinforce ideas and experiences that we want to see more of.
To reinforce gratitude, you can make a physical symbol of it and share it with others. A lot of people recommend “gratitude rocks” which turn an ordinary stone into a meaningful symbol of gratitude. Other ideas include pieces of jewellery, candles, little house plants — or whatever else will spark gratitude for you.
You can make a gratitude symbol for yourself, but also give it to your loved ones. It doesn’t have to be a big or expensive gift. The important part is to remind you and them how much you mean for each other.
Gratitude For What You Have Is More Important Than Striving for More
“Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there.” — Marcus Aurelius
We’re often inclined to strive for more in our lives. We tell ourselves that setting the right goals and working on ourselves will bring us happiness in the future. But this way, we make it harder for ourselves to be grateful for what we already have!
It’s easy to get so invested in improving our lives that we forget one simple truth:
Happiness can only be felt in the present. If you don’t know how to feel good about what you already have, it’s unlikely that achieving future goals will change that.
That’s why gratitude practice is so important. We all need to find a way to appreciate our lives for what they are. For some, deliberate gratitude exercises such as those above will be helpful. Others prefer to find gratitude more spontaneously.
Whatever your gratitude practice looks like isn’t that important. What’s important is to remember that Thanksgiving isn’t the only day to feel grateful. It’s merely a reminder that giving thanks and appreciating ourselves and others is a foundation of a happy, meaningful and satisfying life.
The beauty of gratitude is that you can choose it any time you want. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow, or until Thanksgiving. You can decide to see the beauty in what’s right in front of you — now.
Even if it seems small now, your experience of gratitude will grow over time if you nurture it.
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