Two years ago when I was in the thick of chemotherapy around thanksgiving time, it was a challenge to feel thankful. What I had to look forward to, were 13 more cycles of harsh chemotherapy and a long course of radiation treatment. Being sick, tired and nauseated, I was in no way enjoying anticipating a holiday centered on binge eating while enumerating my blessings. I was lacking the inner feeling of being blessed.
Bald, afraid and uncertain, my gustatory capacity was limited to the taste analogous to sucking on a metal spoon. Thinking about my favorite cranberry sauce and turkey triggered undesirable retching. To make matters worse, my oncologist had discouraged me to attend any large gathering as I was vulnerable to infections. Medicated with high-dose steroids, I was gaining weight and felt unattractive. So the irony of fate was that the only slice of the thanksgiving tradition truly accessible to me was actually being thankful. But I didn't feel thankful.
I wasn't feeling thankful for getting diagnosed with cancer just four months ago at a young age.
I wasn't appreciative of having been robbed of my peace of mind.
I felt no gratitude for having to live with the diagnosis of breast cancer for my remaining life.
My mind was overwhelmed with dejection and sadness.
I experienced envy at others traveling merrily to meet their families, going through busy airports and others having the energy to cook elaborate meals and the ability to actually taste a variety of flavors. I felt left out, trapped in a time-out from life while everybody seemed to be having a blast. I was in no mood to celebrate gratitude.
I struggled with the idea of how to be thankful when not feeling it quite in my heart. I wondered if it was it okay to fake being grateful while inside you are not. It seemed blasphemous not to be thankful on thanksgiving.
I questioned if one could experience joy by faking "gratitude"? I tried and this is what I learned by pretending to be grateful.
1. When you pretend being grateful, you actually do become grateful:
As a psychiatrist, I often asked my depressed patients to follow the advice of "fake it till you make it". I would encourage them to still go through all their daily routines and activities. This would improve their mood by activation and engaging in life. I wondered if the same should apply to gratitude. If I kept telling myself I am thankful, maybe I would feel it from the inside.
As wrote in my "happiness journal" daily, I noted that the tone of my logs was getting more thankful and my list of thankful things was steadily growing. I kept reminding myself of all that was good in my life. The love and support of my husband and kids, the warm hugs of my friends and many thoughtful gifts and goodies I would receive from friends and my caring treatment team. I was surrounded by a lot of positive vibes and I decided to focus on all of it.
2. You can choose gratitude:
I stopped seeing Gratitude as black and white, i.e. either you are or aren't grateful. I learnt that it's a grey zone and it's a choice that requires conscious effort. It doesn't mean you think that your life is perfect or problems do not exist. Gratitude can co-exist with the imperfections of life.
Every day I would tell myself I chose to be thankful today despite whatever ailed me that particular day. Each morning, I would say to myself, "today is going to be a good day" and gradually I developed more faith in my resolution.
3. Gratitude is a habit acquired by practice:
I committed myself to be mindful of blessings that I had started to take for granted. The pain from my mastectomy surgery three months ago had started to lessen. There would be some days I would wake up pain free. I start to carefully acknowledge my being pain free on those days. On occasional days, when I was able to taste my morning coffee, I would celebrate my java cup and sip slowly to smell and taste it. Cliché 'alert: I was mindful and was smelling my coffee
4. The more you thank, the happier you become:
If you keep a check list of the things that didn't go wrong every day, it is very easy to realize that one has a blessed life. For starters waking up alive every day is a blessing. Having all senses to experience life is a tremendous blessing. I vowed never to take my taste for granted after being in chemotherapy for almost six months. I learned never to complain on a day that I am completely free of pain. I tried to enjoy fragrances more deeply when I felt down. I carried lemon grass and lavender oils with me to appreciate my sense of smell.
5. Being grateful deters from negative thoughts:
Being grateful requires reframing your thoughts. One can choose to focus on her misery or look at the blessing she has. I would look at my daughter giggle and hear her infectious laughter and that would put a jolt of life in my heart. I would look at my son's thoughtful eyes and tried to see the world with them. I would look for reasons to be happy about my life. I would worry about death and dying but try to focus on each day and living it to the fullest. When I felt happy, I didn't have room in my mind for envy , anger or other toxic feelings.
6. When you are thankful, you attract others that are thankful:
Just as misery loves company, it seemed that gratitude loved company too. Gratitude is considered a "social emotion" and therefore adds value to any relationship. As I practiced more gratitude and started to express it overtly, I noticed that more positive people were drawn to me, seeking me out and connecting with me through social media. I connected with other survivors and supported them as they cheered me on. This exchange of kindness was rewarding and self perpetuating.
7. Expressing gratitude overtly helps find gratitude within:
It seemed that the more I acknowledged the kindness of others, the better I felt inside. I became more mindful of the kindness of others and started to write them thank you notes and expressed my thankfulness. As I articulated on paper why I was feeling thankful, an internal peace occupied me from within.
8. When you can't find things to be thankful for, look at life with the wonder of a child:
When you do so, it will remind you how much you have started to take for granted. The first snow fall, fascination with stars, the softness of fur or the sheer happiness of spotting a bunny in the yard are experiences that we stop enjoying deeply. As we get older, we stop noticing things and lose our curiosity. We tend to exclude many experiences from our awareness and the magic they entail. I took pleasure in little things and stopped waiting for bigger events to feel gratitude.
Today I find myself having a much easier time feeling grateful, not because my difficult times are behind me but because I am skilled at being thankful.
This thanksgiving as I will sit down with my plate of turkey and the cranberry sauce, having tasted the sweet and savory of life, I will feel the thanksgiving spirit in a very authentic fashion, directly from my heart. This is indeed a great gift that I am blessed with and thankful for, today and every day.