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Cultivating Gratitude

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

I know that our culture is kinda obsessed with gratitude, particularly this time of year. Everywhere you look “Be Thankful” word art seems to go hand in hand with images of multi-color leaves and plentiful gourds. It’s a lot.

Not to mention that the entire holiday of Thanksgiving, when we are all supposed to show our gratefulness at the dinner table with family and friends, is rooted in a very dishonest and problematic part of our country’s history (more on that later).


But for many, myself included, gratitude has become part of a more meaningful, year-round practice. So, in the spirit of generosity, I wanted to share a bit about my own experience with gratitude with you.


The Power of Gratitude


Thanks in part to Dr. Martin Seligman and the field of “positive psychology,” there are a LOT of articles out there (not to mention many, many TED talks) on the power of gratitude. Research shows that gratitude not only helps people feel more positive emotions, but also encourages savoring the moment, improves overall health, helps us deal with adversity, and strengthens our relationships.


The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley conducted a study on subjects experiencing gratitude and found greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex on an fMRI scanner than the subjects who were not practicing gratitude. What is also noteworthy about this study is that the effect was found three months after the study began, indicating that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.


Just to clarify, gratitude doesn’t mean pretending everything is fine or being in denial about things that may actually be going wrong. Practicing gratitude means choosing to pause and focus your attention on what you appreciate. According to Dr. Korb, author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time”:


“Your psychological well-being depends less on the things that happen to you and more on the things you pay attention to … Gratitude will shift your brain’s attention.”


This source and others suggest that gratitude can be particularly helpful for anyone struggling with depression or anxiety. For me, anxiety can manifest as a fear or need to control the future, a feeling all-too common during COVID19 (whew..). So if anxiety focuses on the future, then you can see how pausing to appreciate the things that are in my life right now can have a positive counterbalancing effect.

As it turns out, the word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia or gratus, which can also translate to pleasing, grace, or graciousness, depending on the context. For me, the simple yet still revolutionary idea of giving ourselves and others grace has been a game changer. In that way, expressing gratitude can help people connect to something larger than themselves — be that humans, nature, or a higher power.


Building a Gratitude Practice


You may be thinking right now, “I get it, Ally - gratitude is good for me! But I just don’t have any TIIIIME…” To which I say, I get it. It can be really hard to slow down. Introducing new habits or practices can feel like yet another thing to add to our never-ending to-do lists.


But because I am on a mission to encourage everyone in my life to slow the F down, I’m going to offer up a few simple options, just to get you started:


1) Write Thank You Notes. No, not like the Jimmy Fallon sketch, but actual hand-written notes to people in your life who you value and appreciate. Here’s the thing though, you don’t actually have to send it to them...The same study from Berkeley determined that the mental health benefits of writing gratitude letters were “not entirely dependent on actually communicating that gratitude to another person.” But if you feel like sharing it, by all means -- brighten someone’s day!


2) Keep a Gratitude Journal. The first time I tried this practice a few years ago I used prompts from Tim Ferriss’ 5 Morning Rituals. The popular podcaster recommends using the following categories to help you from going into autopilot and repeating the same things every day:

  • A relationship that you value

  • Something great that happened yesterday

  • An opportunity you have today

  • Something simple within sight or ear shot

Now, I like to enter my daily list of things I’m grateful for in the Calm app (right after my morning meditation). I just completed my 84th gratitude check-in (!) and love how it starts my day in a mindset of abundance, not scarcity. You could also write down things you appreciate in your monogrammed journal, type it into a Google doc in between meetings, jot it in the notes on your phone during your commute home...you get the point.


3) Put Up a Gratitude Board. I recently read about a couple who put up a whiteboard in their kitchen where they write things they are grateful for about one another. The practice became such a positive part of their daily lives that once they had kids, they invited their young children to participate. As a bonus, a study of couples (cited above) found that when people expressed gratitude for their partner, they not only felt more positive toward their partner, but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.


If you start practicing any gratitude activity, don’t be surprised if you don’t feel dramatically better right away. Be patient and remember that the benefits of gratitude might take time to kick in.


So... what are you most grateful for today? How might you cultivate more gratitude in your life?


I am grateful to YOU for making it to (nearly) the end of this post. :)


A Word on Thanksgiving


I am also grateful to have people in my life who are constantly supporting my learning, showing me grace, and helping me do better.


It feels important to acknowledge that for Native communities, Thanksgiving is not a celebrated holiday, but a reminder of stolen land and a day of mourning. I am working on learning more about the Indigenous Resistance and how to align my actions in solidarity. If you are interested in deepening your understanding, join me for SURJ’s upcoming webinar: Rethinking Thanksgiving: Solidarity with Indigenous Resistance.


Additionally, you may consider starting new rituals around this holiday or making a donation to support the return of U.S. land to indigenous ownership.



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