Thanksgiving is here, and it’s literally my job to sing praises about the benefits of a regular gratitude practice and encourage you to start one if you haven’t already. However, I think it might be more helpful to look back to the time when there was no room in my life for gratitude so I can share my favorite hacks for sneaking it into your day-to-day life with ease.
This was a time when I thought being perfect, productive and hardworking was the key to happiness. When I heard about rare individuals who had a regular yoga, meditation or gratitude practice, I wondered how they found the time to waste on these activities. When teachers or friends encouraged me to invest time and energy in self-care pursuits like this I frankly couldn’t imagine where to begin. It hurt my head to try to pack one more thing into my checklist.
A turning point for me happened when I went to live in a tent on a beach for a few weeks in Mexico so I could check “Yoga Teacher Training” off my list. Don’t get any ideas: This was no vacation. We were up at dawn meditating (officially the loooongest 30 minutes of my life) before breakfast and then attending classes or discussions until dark.
One of our discussions was about slowing down and becoming more mindful of our own tension, unhelpful thoughts and actions. To start, we were given a survey and one question really stood out for me: “Do you repeatedly push the floor number on the elevator in hopes that it will get you there faster?” Yes. Of course I do. Doesn’t everyone? Even if it doesn’t actually get me there faster (which I struggled to believe at this point, because my life was all about pushing more buttons faster to get to the end result even more quickly so I could check the next box and then the next), then at least pushing the button gave me something to do while I waited. Right?
Wrong. This habit was a sign that I was white-knuckling loads of baggage that didn’t serve me. I harbored unhelpful thoughts that exacerbated my worries. My choices and actions created tension and insomnia. In fact, I’m laughing now as I look back at all the elevators — real and metaphorical — I’ve stood in where I really thought that the best thing I could do was rapidly press the button a few more times.
Here’s what I know many years after that telling survey, my friends: Hitting the button repeatedly does not help in any way. Today, I feel a whole lot better because I’m not even looking twice at the button; instead I’m focusing my thoughts on ease, appreciation and connection. Intentionally turning to gratitude has been the quickest and easiest way to enjoy the elevator ride of life. In honor of giving more thanks, and not just on Thanksgiving, I’ve got three simple cues to hopefully make it a regular practice that creates more light for you this holiday season.
1. Morning is the easiest time for me to practice gratitude because I have linked it to our routine of walking to the bus stop. Every day I ask the kids, “Look around: What can you find to appreciate?” Having a cue of some kind is key for making this easy to remember, but the feelings you evoke when you think grateful thoughts are so wonderful that you keep doing it. It may be easier to link this question to a part of your morning routine you do every day, such as eating breakfast, making coffee or taking a shower.
2. I also highly recommend finding an afternoon time to focus on gratitude as an alternative to losing your ever-loving patience and screaming at something or someone. I’m a happy little morning person, but in the afternoon I suck down coffee and seek quiet and calm. Coincidentally, calm and quiet cannot be found during these hours when kids arrive home, competing to tell me their stories, and I’m destroying the kitchen in an effort to get dinner on the table. You know what helps? Taking a deep breath and asking myself: “What do you want to remember about this moment?,” looking out for cherished anecdotes of silliness and excitement anchor me to what’s important.
3. Evening may be the hardest time to stick to a formal gratitude practice. I used to feel that I should always make time to journal, but many days I’m just too tired (physically or emotionally) to pick up paper and pen and list the things I’m grateful for. This is where it helps to add an informal gratitude practice to something you already do every night, like stretching, teeth brushing or washing your face. Create a reminder on your mirror, “Who and what are you grateful for?” Soon your gratitude habit will naturally connect to some part of your evening routine.
Before we shift into the rest of our Thanksgiving Day, can we just re-imagine what it would be like to get an elevator do-over? What if every one of us could take a few seconds every day to step in, take a deep breath and ask ourselves, as the doors close, “What am I appreciating right now?” In the space between floors, your mind will wander to the people you love, the places you take comfort in, the things that make you laugh (smooth elevator instrumentals are on that list of course) and the beauty of our natural world. You could pause, suspended in a moment of joy between past and present, before the doors open and you continue on your way.
Petterson lives in Moscow with her husband and their two children. She left public education to become a yoga instructor, sleep specialist and mindful parenting educator. She can be contacted via her website at www.kristinepetterson.com.