Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on what we are grateful for in our lives.
Many families have a tradition of going around the table at the Thanksgiving meal to name something they are grateful for that year, while others may incorporate gratitude in a more structured way as part of their morning or evening routines.
Regardless of when we give thanks, the research is clear: expressing gratitude can make you healthier and happier. Yet, like many things that we know will make us healthier and happier, incorporating gratitude into a regular practice is difficult.
I call it a “practice” because if you’re anything like me, you start keeping a gratitude journal for a while and then you get off track. But like exercise, meditation, or any of the other unglamorous things that improve our health and well-being, it’s the decision to forgive yourself and begin again that’s the hardest but most important.
So how can we cultivate a gratitude practice that’s meaningful and sustainable? I believe that the key is present moment awareness.
For the last four years, I’ve been simplifying my life and embracing the lifestyle of minimalism, which I define as removing the excess and that which no longer serves you to make room for what is most important. At this point in my journey, I let go of physical items easily and am better at saying no to commitments that don’t serve me or my family. But I still struggle with attachment to memories of the past, worries about the future, and expectations about how my life is “supposed” to be. Gratitude is an excellent tool that I can use throughout the day to help me refocus on what the present moment is, instead of wishing it would be.
Here are five ways that you can focus on gratitude in the present moment:
1. Be specific about something that you are grateful for in that moment, rather than something general.
It is wonderful to be grateful for our family, our friends, and our homes. But present moment gratitude means that we are using the full scope of our awareness to realize what we are grateful for now. Perhaps it is the taste of hot coffee, the sound of laughter from someone you love, the contrast of bare branches against a blue sky. If your senses can’t give you something to be grateful for, close your eyes and turn inward. Feel where the breath is most prominent (your nose, your chest, or your belly) and hold your attention on that one breath in and out. Then allow yourself to feel truly grateful for it.
2. Use habit stacking to incorporate gratitude into your daily habits and rhythms.
As we are incorporating gratitude into our daily lives, it is important to make it as effortless as possible. Habit stacking is an excellent way to do this because we are stacking the new habit of expressing gratitude on top of an existing habit. Here are a few ideas:
- After you wake up
- After brushing your teeth
- While your morning beverage of choice is being prepared
- Closing your car door
- Opening your front door
- Before meals
- Before going to bed
3. Express gratitude in your head, write it down, or share it with someone.
Perhaps you think of something you’re grateful for while eating breakfast and then later in the day you say thank you to a co-worker or loved one. At the end of the day, you can write down a few of the things you expressed if you want to look back on them later. It doesn’t matter how gratitude is being expressed, as long as it’s focused on the present moment.
4. Express gratitude when it’s the hardest.
The times when I need gratitude the most is during the challenging times of my day, the times when my expectations are far from the present reality. Ask yourself what the moment is trying to teach you. Patience? Self-control? Kindness? Then give thanks for the opportunity to learn.
5. When you want to escape, use the Notes app instead.
Are there times when you want to escape the difficulties and pressures of your day-to-day life? When I feel this way, it’s tempting to numb myself through social media or Netflix. When you reach for your smartphone, pull up the Notes app rather than Instagram or your e-mail. Write down something you are grateful for in that moment, and allow the emotions of frustration, boredom, or stress subside. When you are grateful for what you have in your life right now, you are less likely to want to escape from it.
Gratitude supports an intentional and simpler life because when you express gratitude in the present moment, you are silencing (albeit temporarily) the desire for more and comparison to others. You understand the abundance around you and approach your life from a place of enough rather than lack. Over time, incorporating gratitude throughout your day can rewire your brain (thanks to neuroplasticity) so when a difficult circumstance presents itself, you’re better able to approach it with a sense of curiosity and resilience.
Whether you regularly practice gratitude or will “begin again” around a table filled with food and family, there is so much to be thankful for in this moment.
About the Author: Emily McDermott is a wife, mother, and simplicity seeker, chronicling her journey at Simple by Emmy. She loves to dance, write poetry, and spend time with her husband and two young sons.