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Gratitude as a Practice

Most people understand gratitude as an emotion. We feel gratitude on the heels of something good happening to us – when we get a surprising bonus at work or the sun shines on our birthday. Better yet, we feel grateful when we’ve dodged a bullet – narrowly missed being hit by a speeding car or when our doctor rules out a frightening disease.

Some people understand gratitude as a perspective or a change in perspective. We experience gratitude when we’re watching the news and realize how fortunate we are to live in relative safety while so many others live in daily mortal danger in war-torn lands. Or when we’re walking through the city to meet friends for dinner and, along the way, witness people navigating their lives without homes or food.

Choosing Gratitude

Fewer people have grasped that gratitude can be a practice. We practice gratitude when we wake up in the morning – no matter what is happening in our lives – and make the deliberate, mindful choice to say some version of “Thank you.”

This is possible during even your greatest struggles. In fact, it may be most powerful on days when you’re navigating the illness of a loved one, or the morning after the loss of a pet, or when your job is in jeopardy, or when you’ve just learned that you have to move away. Yes, even on a day when it seems that life is battering you, it is possible to make the choice to be grateful.

On a day like that, choosing to look around your life with an eye to something (anything!) for which you feel grateful can provide an instant shift in perspective and an immediate lift in spirits. I promise. The old saying, “It is not happy people who are grateful, but grateful people who are happy.” is 100% true.

How can you start such a practice? Maya Angelou penned the most brilliant version of such a “thank you” that I have ever read:

“This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen it before.” – Maya Angelou

Life as a beautiful trip

I love how she seems to be approaching her day as a traveler in a foreign land. My family and I have noticed that when we are “somewhere else,” everything we see looks exotic and beautiful. For instance, we took dozens of pictures of street signs in Bangkok. And we barely made it to our destination on our first excursion from Reykjavik because we stopped so often on the side of the road to take pictures of the countryside that commuting Icelanders whiz past without a second glance.

You don’t have to leave home to slip into “tourist mode.” I think I first realized this when a dear friend came to visit from southern California. Seeing the natural beauty – rolling hills, lush foliage, winding country roads – that surrounds my home through her eyes as we took drives I take all the time made me feel profoundly grateful that I live where I live. In fact, pretending I’m a tourist has become one of my “tricks” to practicing gratitude as I move around my daily life.

But the reality is that Maya Angelou is making a more important point. We don’t have to be somewhere else (or even pretend that we’re somewhere else) to be able to say with astonishment, “Look! I’ve never seen that before!” Because this is true every single day when we wake up.

Approaching Life with Curiosity and Gratitude

What blinds us to the new-ness and surprise of each day is our assumptions about how “just another” Tuesday is going to go. If we can set these expectations aside, it is possible to experience our day (even a typical Tuesday) with the same curiosity that my family felt walking to the bank to change money on our first day Thailand or on the drive to the sights in Iceland.

Saying a little “thank you” like this as we start our day is a quick and power way to begin to practice gratitude in your life. So, repeat after me: “Thank you for this wonderful day. I’ve never seen it before.”

Happy Thanksgiving! May you look around your life and be astonished at the abundance of blessings you see.

Looking for something to peak your curiosity about life? Consider joining Amy for a yoga class and begin your practice of gratitude through peaceful meditative practice.