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Opinion | Five Ways to Exercise Your Thankfulness Muscles

“Even in these lowly lovelinesses,” says the title character Thomas Wingfield in George MacDonald’s novel, “there is a something that has its root deeper than your pain; that, all about us, in earth and air, wherever eye or ear can reach, there is a power ever breathing itself forth in signs, now in a daisy, now in a wind waft, a cloud, a sunset, a power that holds constant and sweetest relation with the dark and silent world within us.”

Thanksgiving Day softly asks us to practice thanks for the lowly lovelinesses that make up each of our lives, to take time to notice the constant and sweetest relation offered by the giver of every good gift.

Feeling grateful does not always happen naturally. Thankfulness is something like a muscle we can exercise. Just as we can cultivate ingratitude, entitlement, bitterness or cynicism, we can foster gratitude, appreciative humility, delight and joy. To that end, here are some practical ways to cultivate gratitude this Thanksgiving and throughout the year:

1. Keep lists. Look back over a day or a week, and write down as many things as you can think of that you receive as a gift — things that are as essential as breath or as frivolous as a good parking spot. On a terrible week, you can list moments of light amid the darkness. On a good week, you can take time to celebrate each grace.

My best friend in high school kept a list on her bedroom wall of things that gave her joy: curled tortilla chips, swimming, inside jokes. Nicole Roccas’s “Journal of Thanksgiving” is a resource that encourages writing a list of daily thanksgivings for three consecutive years.

2. Write notes of thanks. I will be honest here that I hate writing thank-you notes — those compulsory niceties of etiquette where you blaze through name after name trying to conjure up something new to say about the soup terrine on your wedding registry. As a pastor I’ve seen how this customary task crushes people right when they are most in need of a break, during major life transitions like having a child or in times of mourning after a loss.

That said, I love random, not required, notes of thanks. Gratitude reminds us that we are deeply dependent on one another and on God. Take time to say thank you in writing to the friends and family who surround you. One year, I wrote short daily notes of thanks to my husband for a month or so and found that the deliberate practice actually made me feel more grateful over time. Also, consider writing occasional thank-you notes to those who you may not know as well but on whom you rely every day: your mail carrier, bus driver or child’s teacher.

3. Compose your own Psalm. The Psalms are a poetic way of expressing thanks to God. You can read a Psalm of thanksgiving like Psalm 111 or Psalm 34 and alter the words to reflect the particular good things in your own life. For example, Psalm 34 says, “I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.” I could write, “I sought the Lord and he heard me and helped me with that difficult conversation with a friend.” Or healed my son from his stomach bug. Or delivered me from a fear of failure. Alternatively, you can write a poem or song of gratitude from scratch. Even if it’s terrible, you’ll probably be better for having written it.

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