The holidays are in full swing and, honestly, I love it. It’s pretty difficult not to look forward to this time of year, to our opportunities to gather with the ones we love most, to celebrate, and to revel in the inherent magic that the holidays bring. Sagittarius is known as the month of miracles, and I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the holidays fall into this month. We are given the chance to witness the many blessings and miracles that exist in our lives and, since we’re on the subject, we can’t have a conversation about blessings without also talking about gratitude.
As those of us in the United States observe the Thanksgiving holiday, messages of gratitude are everywhere. I write about gratitude often and certainly every year when Thanksgiving rolls around. It may even have some of us asking, “how many new ways can we really talk about gratitude?”
My answer? Millions.
Gratitude is not a static idea. It is fluid and relative, as diverse and unique as each human being on earth. One person’s idea of gratitude will vary wildly from the next person’s, and everyone’s relationship with gratitude is different. For me, I set aside the first minutes of my day to pray. The kabbalists have a set of prayers that they say every morning, one of which is the 18 blessings, a tool for connecting to appreciation for the blessings in our lives from the sun rising to the ground under our feet. There is even a prayer that reminds us to be thankful for waking up and being given the gift of another day. It’s a powerful reminder to not take anything for granted, and as we all know, it’s human nature to take things for granted.
For you, it may be a gratitude journal, a morning meditation dedicated to identifying all the things you’re grateful for or even a simple intention to say thank you every chance you get.
This year, I’m going to try something different, and I invite you to join me. The idea comes from one of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, who creates a practice through the holidays that she calls a “gratitude advent calendar.” Every day her family opens up little, felt doors that contain specific messages about exactly why she is grateful for them. Specificity is key here; everything from being grateful to her husband for “always putting gas in her car” to praising her kids for “doing the dishes without having to be asked.”
I love this because so often our gratitude practice is private. It exists in a journal or meditation or during prayer. This is certainly an important and sacred aspect of cultivating gratitude, but this year we can take it to the next level and share it.
How different would your Thanksgiving day be if you made a point to give specific thanks to each of your family members? Maybe just slipping them note cards with a special message or making a point to get present with each of them, just for a few moments, and tell them how happy you are to see them.
If the idea of this makes you mildly cringe, let’s consider what is happening when we receive praise and when we choose to give praise.
One study found that when we receive a compliment or praise, it activates areas of our brain known as the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. These are the same reward centers that light up during physical pleasure and relaxation. It is also associated with the area of our brain that fires when we receive money or material gifts. (By offering praise, you’ll not only be offering your gratitude to the other person, but you’ll be giving them the “gift” of feeling good and relaxed.)
And it doesn’t stop there. When we choose to be grateful and express that gratitude, we are also rejuvenating ourselves. Several scientific studies on gratitude found that expressing gratitude can improve your sleep, help fight depression and anxiety, help you regulate stress, boost your metabolism, and activates the neurotransmitter dopamine; the reward chemical that keeps us coming back for more.
By cultivating deep gratitude and then sharing that gratitude with those around you, you are creating a circle of light for everyone involved. You are giving the gift of praise and receiving the gifts that come with feeling grateful. What better way to spend the holidays?
Time with family may be triggering, and you may find yourself frazzled as you juggle a 25lb. turkey and cranberry sauce in a kitchen filled with people, but gratitude is only one deep breath away. Openly sharing your gratitude with certain family members may not be an option, but you can still feel it and direct to them without having to say the words.
The best part about gratitude is that there is no right way to give it and every way you choose to give it is right.