Starting a Gratitude Practice

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As compared with most of the world, U.S. citizens are rich, but to what extent are we happy? We're taught less to express gratitude, than to strive, perpetually seeking the next thing. Surely that will “make us happy”, except that then we’ll be preoccupied the next goal. Meanwhile we’re anxious that bad people will steal, ruin, or misappropriate our possessions, or that we haven't bought the right thing.

Our founding document speaks of happiness as something to be pursued. We chase after “it.” So the idea of gratitude is an unclaimed orphan in U.S. culture. Why would be risk halting the “pursuit” in order to celebrate what we have? (If you click this link, then scroll down to “gratitude.”)

It is minority voices that suggest we should live not only in the endless future but in the present, that we notice what is good in the only time we can ever live in, the now. Without reference to striving, these voices tell us that if we neglect the present, we throw away a treasure.

I thought of this when friends told my wife and me about their daily practice of gratitude. Every evening in notebooks they describe things they are grateful for, then read each other what they’ve written. Getting ready for a possible move, they’re giving up various things, but they don’t want to discard these notebooks. Why do they read them aloud? Because being witnessed deepens their commitment.

Among other prompts, they ask What surprised me? What moved me? What was I inspired by? What beauty did I notice? What delighted me?

My wife and I have followed their example. On some evenings I start the practice feeling that I have little or nothing to be grateful for, that it’s been a hard day. My work has been frustrating. A friend is too busy to have coffee. Another is suffering a health problem. Politically, the news is so bad it’s hard to believe. (If I were a magazine editor, I'd start a feature, “You Can't Make This Up”).

But it turn out that I’ve noticed a tree turning color, a video about one person unaccountably helping another, a tasty dinner, a loving word from my partner. By the time the exercise is over, my mood has changed. `It’s not that the “good” things necessarily outweigh the “bad,” but rather that I’ve chosen to notice the former, to live in them. . Normality offers so many opportunities for enjoyment, but they can easily disappear behind thee screen of familiarity.

Gratitude may sound like a goody-goody way of fooling ourselves. It actually takes a little courage to venture behind that screen and welcome the good that is actually happening. One sees the evil even more sharply when held not against some imagined alternative but against the neglected things of the present. This is one of the paradoxes that you discover in a gratitude practice. You gain strength to oppose evil the mote you appreciate your actual life.

So, here is the practice, so simple it's almost irresistable. Get a notebook, set aside ten or twelve minutes in the evening with your partner or a friend, notice and describe some things you’re grateful for, read them to each other. That’s it. Nothing is too small or familiar to notice, or too weird or seemingly trivial; nothing is too private or seemingly senseless. Just be authentic.

A secret: you can’t do this for long before it touches your whole day. As you start inadvertently gathering material, the tenor of your day alters.

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