Last Thanksgiving, I wrote about Radical Gratitude, and this Thanksgiving I feel it calling me again. Usually, when we talk about gratitude, we express gratitude for our blessings. I’m grateful for my beautiful daughter Siena. I’m grateful that I live by the ocean among the redwoods in the most beautiful place on earth. I’m grateful to feel like I am smack dab in the center of living and fulfilling my calling to be of sacred service in my own unique ways. Gratitude for our blessings opens the heart and raises our vibration, calling in more blessings. Being grateful for our blessings feels good and reminds us to appreciate what is with us already. This kind of thanksgiving is easy, when we remember to pay attention to it.
But can we also practice Radical Gratitude? Can we feel just as grateful for our struggles—our painful experiences, our crises, and the Dark Nights of the Soul that we experience both individually and as a collective? Can I access the state of consciousness that allows me to feel grateful that I lost five people I love this fall—most of them way too young and tragically? Can I be grateful for the breakup I just experienced from someone I adore? Can I be grateful that my spiritual retreat center Harbin Hot Springs—the place I would go to heal from this kind of grief—burned to the ground in a wildfire?
More radically, can we as a culture feel grateful for what is happening with ISIS, as innocent people are murdered around the world in the name of a jihad? Can we find it in our hearts to not only accept but even thank those suffering souls who think they must become suicide bombers in order to stand for what they think is right?
Can we be grateful for climate change? For extinction of animal and plant species? For genocide? For sexual trafficking of women and children? Can we be grateful for starving babies and suffering refugees and mega storms that threaten to flatten whole cities?
On this day of Thanksgiving, I find myself reflecting on gratitude and our relationship to it. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It feels like the only big holiday that doesn’t buy into the commercialism of our materialistic Western culture. It’s not about candy or presents or more, more, MORE. It’s about giving thanks, being with those we love, coming into the heart, and remembering to be grateful for the abundance of blessings in our lives.
The typical Thanksgiving gratitudes are easy. I’m grateful for family—both the family I was born into and the one I’ve chosen. I count my blessings every day for the opportunity to be the mother of my little girl Siena, who is the most extraordinary child, and I would say that even if I weren’t her mother. I’m grateful for the beautiful home where I live, where the redwoods meet the mountains and the ocean and the bounty of nature surrounds me. I’m grateful for the mountain of delicious food I will be offering my loved ones today. I’m grateful for meaningful work, excellent health, and my Tempurpedic mattress, which I rest upon as I write this (yes, it’s one of my deepest gratitudes and no, they’re not paying me to say this!) I’m grateful for my deepening relationship with the Divine and all the fulfillment and meaning that accompanies my spiritual development.
For those of us in the United States, today is a day of giving thanks, of counting our blessings, of expressing gratitude, of remembering how far we’ve come. But even if you live elsewhere, I invite you to give thanks not just today, but every day.
It’s no accident that I put Gratitude in the healing bubble of the wellness model I introduced in my first TEDx talk and will be teaching further in my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine. Along with Love, Pleasure, and Service, Gratitude is essential to living a whole, balanced, optimally healthy life.
The Science of Gratitude
In her book The How Of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares that the happiest people were not the richest, most beautiful, or most successful. Instead, as it turns out, the golden ticket to happiness lies not so much in changing our natural tendencies or even our life circumstances, but in adopting certain behaviors that have been scientifically proven to increase happiness. In her study, happy people shared similar traits.
They devoted a lot of time to nurturing their relationships with family and friends, they were first to lend a helping hand, practiced optimism when imagining their futures, savored life’s pleasures and made efforts to try to live in the moment, exercised frequently, were deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions, and showed poise and strength when facing life’s inevitable challenges. She also found that you can be happier by avoiding over-thinking, cutting yourself loose from ruminating thoughts, eliminating social comparisons, taking action to solve problems right when they arise, seeking meaning amidst stress, loss or trauma, practicing forgiveness, engaging in activities that get you “in the flow,” smiling more, and making efforts to take care of your body.
But perhaps the single most potent factor affecting how happy you are - and the one most easy to change - is how much you make gratitude a practice.
As described in his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman conducted a study and taught a single happiness-inducing strategy to a group of severely depressed individuals. Although these people were so abysmally depressed they could barely climb out of bed, they were instructed to do one simple task every day: go to a website and write down three good things that happened to them that day. Within 15 days, their depression improved from “severely depressed” to “mildly to moderately depressed.” 94% of them reported feeling better!