Life lessons on gratitude
As an adolescent, I first learned about gratitude around the Thanksgiving holiday in both straightforward, and more profound ways.
I was fortunate to have many family members clustered around the St. Louis area. We would typically gather at my grandparents’ home in University City. My grandmother, despite her Japanese-American roots, would always prepare and serve a large turkey — a classic, Midwestern “American” Thanksgiving staple. My grandfather, a white Methodist minister’s son from New England, would finish carving the large bird and then shout, “Time for grace!” in his booming voice. Family members would gather around the table and join hands, and my grandfather would lead us in a prayer.
At some point, we started the practice of sharing a personal gratitude before the family prayer. While standing in that circle holding hands, each of us would take turns sharing something that we were grateful for during that year. This practice created space for personal reflection, and for me led to life lessons about gratitude.
Our family held fast to their rituals and traditions. After many Thanksgivings participating in this gratitude ritual, I learned that my grandmother, her parents and siblings had spent three years in a Japanese internment camp in California during World War II. I also discovered that my grandfather, a staunch pacifist, was allowed to become a “conscientious objector” and took on many non-violent roles during WWII. After the war ended, they met and fell in love.
Despite their obvious differences and individual hardships in their early years, they always lived and breathed gratitude. My grandmother became a special education teacher supporting students with emotional and cognitive challenges. She donated her “reparation money” from the post-WWII years to help develop the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. My grandfather always donated to the American Civil Liberties Union and opposed and protested racial discrimination in all its forms. Together they hosted many international students attending Washington University in their home rent-free over the years while also raising three hardworking, biracial boys in a post-WWII landscape.
My grandparents expressed gratitude in their words and in their actions for not just the joyful times, but also for the opportunity to make meaningful impacts in their community, and for creating a beautiful multi-generation family with their own rituals, traditions, and values.
Now as an adult reflecting back on these Thanksgivings and the seemingly simple ritual of asking “What are you grateful for?” I have learned that the practice of gratitude can start small, and eventually lead to growth, resilience, and a meaningful life.
Gratitude as a way of life
After becoming a therapist, I realized how beneficial it can be to incorporate gratitude into my work with clients as well as in my personal life. While my early experiences of gratitude were coupled with prayer, the practice of gratitude does not need to solely be a religious or spiritual practice. While our lives are often busy with work, household chores, caretaking, and to do lists, taking time to integrate these observations throughout each day.
Benefits of Gratitude
Integrating gratitude into our daily lives can:
- Release negative emotions by redirecting our focus from what is going wrong to what is going right
- Train our minds to notice abundance instead of noticing what we lack
- Offer a new perspective – a way of seeing the world with an awareness of the small moments of joy that surround us every day
- Save an ongoing list of gratitudes – Create a dedicated note in your phone or on a page in a notebook and jot down everything for which you are grateful. Start with the more obvious things like family, or a friend, your home, or your maybe your pet. Then list off the things we take for granted. List everything from a favorite meal to electricity or your child’s smile right down to your shoes. Reflect and add to the list at any time, and review it from time to time when you are having a tough day, and need a reminder.
- Write gratitude notes – Express your gratitude to people in your life for small kindnesses, big favors or for their overall presence in your life. You will both be lifted by the benefits of gratitude shared.
- Gratitude in the Moment – As you go about your day, give thanks for sights, sounds and feelings as they arise: the beautiful sky, a sweet smile, the infinite small gifts that we notice each day. Savor the moments. Make a habit of saying an internal, Thank You.
- Start a gratitude ritual – List three things, people, or experiences you are grateful for each day at the beginning or end of your day. Invite a friend to join you and text each other your list each day. Create a brief tradition with your family, and young children. Hearing other people’s gratitudes can help improve your mood as well.
Jen Durham Austin, LCSW is counselor/therapist that uses a strengths-based approach and specializes in trauma and resiliency work. You can contact her at 314-323-4775 or email@example.com.