10 non-traditional ways to cultivate gratitude that feel authentic, sincere, and meaningful, without turning into a game of show-and-tell.
Around this time of year, there are lots of gratitude challenges going on, where people post about something they are thankful for each day. For some, this is a great way to re-focus on the things that matter most to them. For others, it becomes overwhelming, invites comparison, and causes guilt because there is so much heartache in the world and it feels insensitive, or just impossible to focus on gratitude. It can feel like humblebragging. It can look like toxic positivity. Ew, that’s the opposite of what we want, correct?!
Don’t get me wrong; I am deeply committed to gratitude as a practice. It truly can be life- changing, in the right circumstances. A couple years ago, I wanted to come up with a mindful gratitude challenge for myself that went a little deeper, and didn’t feel like playing show-and-tell. You’re welcome to use it like a personal daily challenge, as a conversational springboard for your family, or any way that feels inspiring to you.
- Simple Pleasures: Learning to identify and relish the simple pleasures in life is a key step in overcoming ennui, emotional pain, and even trauma, and also in increasing happiness. Cultivating this habit helps to shed the numbness we sometimes embrace to deal with the pain we feel (either physical or emotional). Do something intentionally, and relish the moment.
- Peel and eat an orange -section by section
- Immerse yourself in nature
- Read a book next to the fireplace
- Do some stargazing
- Make (or listen to) lovely music
- soak in the tub with yummy oils or salts
- Put on a pair of fuzzy socks
- Savor a cup of tea or hot chocolate
- Watch a sunrise or sunset
- Light candles at dinner time
- Mindfully eat Cheetos. I’m not going to judge you.
Check in: Journal about your simple pleasure, including how you experienced it with each of your senses.
- First thought of the day: What is the first thing you do when you wake up? Do you grab your phone and start scrolling? Roll out of bed and go brush your teeth? Whatever you do, I’m sure the thought of adding another ‘thing’ to your morning routine doesn’t thrill you…But what if you knew that just 10 seconds (or less) a day had the potential to significantly change your outlook over time? This is one of those habits that is a very small shift in your radius, but those few degrees over time have the power to put you in a very different frame of mind. This is all it is: Encourage your first waking thought of the day be one of gratitude. To help you remember to do this, try putting a sticky note that says “Thank You” on your phone, or the light switch. Some people even tape a picture of a smiley face up on the ceiling above where they sleep. Put up some kind of reminder that you’re sure to see tomorrow, first thing, and then think of something you’re thankful for.Check in: Take a picture of your “reminder”, or what the first thing you see when you wake up is. Is there anything you would change about what you see first thing, to help cultivate a gratitude mindset?
- What is not wrong? If you cannot see what is going right in your life, or in the world, start with what is NOT wrong.Thich Nhat Hanh (poet, monk, and peace activist) said, “When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is happiness. But later, when we don’t have a toothache, we don’t treasure our non-toothache.” I can totally relate to this, can you?!So, be as ridiculous or as serious as you like for this challenge. List everything you can think of that is not wrong. A few things on my list: Not thirsty. Not in danger. No hiccups. No broken fingernails. No power outage. Not injured. Not late. Not cold. No migraine. No illness. No broken bones. No hunger. No nausea. No asteroid headed towards me. Not lost. In a social media age where it’s so tempting to compare my gratitude list with the Joneses (aka influencers) and come up short, start with what is not wrong. Build on that. It will help you gain perspective and feel more gratitude for what already IS, in this moment.Check in: In your journal, answer the question: “What is not wrong in my life?”
- Take a mindful drink of water: This is a simple exercise in which an everyday practice becomes a restorative anchor of mindfulness and gratitude. You can keep it super simple or fancy it up to become a personal ritual.*Fill a glass with clean water. Watch the water as it trickles into your cup. Note the movement and flow of the water. Feel the weight and heft of the full glass of water held in your hand. Appreciate the clarity and stillness of the water.
*Drink the water, slowly. Sip it. Savor it. Pause, and take a breath between sips. Note the temperature of the water. Notice how it feels in your mouth and in your throat.
*Do you notice how drinking water is a sensory experience even though it has no taste or smell? It is a reset. It is the universal palate cleanser. Drinking water reminds us of how mindfulness is like a palate cleanser for our minds. We let thoughts flow past, we savor the stillness.
*Drinking water reminds us that we are all connected. We are made primarily of water. When we drink water, we become part of the water cycle, and the ocean, the clouds, the trees, and the sun are all in us. (This concept is called inter-being, or non- duality). Cool, right?!Check in: What other lessons does water teach you?
- Body appreciation: Think of something about your body (that has nothing to do with how other people visually experience you) that you are grateful for. This could include your physical strength, your ability to use one of your senses, or the joy you feel when you engage in a favorite activity. When I was in nursing school, we got really nerdy and specific about this. (I.e. thankful for my parathyroid gland, my metacarpals, my internal anal sphincter, my digestive enzymes etc.) There are so many things that have to work properly in order to be alive, so many things going right that are too easy to take for granted. You probably already know how easy it is to be critical about your appearance. Those with chronic illness know how easy it is to become frustrated at the functions our bodies can’t reliably perform. (Check out this post on handling body shaming comments from others.) But there is SOMETHING that your body is doing just right. Think about it, and let yourself be thankful for that thing!Check in: Journal or post about something your body can do that you are grateful for.
- Put a pencil in your mouth: Ok, I’m kidding, kind of. This challenge is about the power of humor (it is the best medicine, after all). Let me explain: A study from 1988 had participants hold a pencil between their teeth (which forced the individuals to smile) and rate the degree of humor in various cartoons. Other participants were led to frown while watching the same clips. The hypothesis was that participants who smiled would judge the cartoons funnier than the frowning participants, and that’s exactly what happened. A more recent study from 2012 had the participants hold chopsticks between their teeth in a similar manner, and found similar results. They also found that induced smiling may reduce the risk of heart disease. The researchers went on to say that “findings suggest smiling during brief periods of stress may help reduce the body’s stress response, regardless of whether the person actually feels happy or not.” It’s worth mentioning that they also found that the more genuine the smile (i.e. “smiling with your eyes”), the more dramatic the mood change. So what does this have to do with gratitude? Laughter and gratitude go hand in hand when it comes to reducing stress, boosting the immune system, and changing your brain chemistry in ways that increase happiness. While gratitude must be learned and practiced, laughter is innate. Even babies can laugh. Find something that made you genuinely laugh. This can be a story, a photo, a meme, whatever tickles your funny bone or delights you, as long as it is feel- good material.Check in: Now share your funny stuff with a friend who could use a laugh. Enjoy it together. Preferably with a pencil between your teeth.
- Recognize your privilege: This one may be uncomfortable, but it is well worth it. Before I go further, I want to say that recognizing your own privilege (that is, the unearned advantages you enjoy, or rather, the oppression you do NOT face) does not equate with saying you are somehow a bad person. Avoid the urge to deny that you have privilege. Pretty much everyone has SOME form of privilege. This really requires some deep reflection. The thing about privilege is it is often invisible to those who have it.Again, acknowledging your privilege is not meant to cause guilt. It is meant to be a catalyst so that you can see more clearly what you can do to level the playing field, to enact social change. Privilege can be present in areas of race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, body size and appearance, religion, age, education, physical and mental health, language spoken, and more.When we practice gratitude, we first have to notice what we have. Then, the question “So, what?” arises.Now that we know what we have in our lives, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to improve the world? So this challenge has 2 parts. 1. Try to identify at least 2 ways you are privileged. 2. Think of ways you can equalize privilege (could include sharing your time, money, energy, connections, mobility, etc.). You could donate to a local food pantry or shelter. Or raise awareness for causes that you think are really great. Use your privilege to amplify the voices of marginalized people who are already using their voice. Follow diverse people on social media.
Check in: If you have read an impactful book, or you follow someone on social media that has helped you in this area, how about sharing some of their content with a friend, or on social media?
- Feel- Good Playlist: Music has the power to evoke memories, shift emotions, and change our whole vibration.Think of a song that makes you happy when you listen to it. It could be a song that changed your life, one that gives you warm fuzzies, or one that gets you pumped up for the day. Listen to it and do what your heart wants you to do– dance to it, sing along, put earbuds in, turn it up, close your eyes and sway, or whatever makes your heart light. If you don’t already have a playlist of music that makes you feel hopeful, joyful, or excited, consider making one to listen to whenever you need a pick-me-up.*Here’s a link to the collaborative playlist I made with people’s suggestions on Spotify when I posed this challenge on social media a while back.Check in: Find out what the go-to songs are in your loved ones’ lives are and ask them what they appreciate about them.
- Identify a flower/compost/flower cycle in your life: There is a parable about a wise farmer and a foolish farmer. The foolish farmer wants their farm to be “clean” and look pristine. This farmer works hard to remove all the piles of rotten, stinky compost. Then, at planting time, the farmer goes out and buys someone else’s compost and lays it down in the fields. On the other hand, the wise farmer takes in their piles of stinky compost and works with it, raking it into piles and letting it sit in the sun. This farmer recognizes the seed of creation inside the pungent smell, and doesn’t feel shame about the decomposition happening all around their farm. When the time is right, the farmer will spread it in the fields, and grow beautiful plants with it. This farmer also knows that once the crops are spent, they will be added back into the compost piles and contribute to the cycle of decomposition, creating rich soil for the next generation of crops to grow.*The creation of beautiful crops was in the “disgusting” compost… and those beautiful plants will return to being compost. Creation and destruction are part of one whole. If we can have the courage to recognize this cycle in ourselves, it allows us to be curious and non-judgemental with ourselves and eventually grow into exactly who we are.*When we dislike something in ourselves, and we bury, hide, or displace it, we begin to judge ourselves harshly. Eventually that judgement extends to others. We go to extreme measures to keep from seeing our own “messy”, and we get super uncomfortable with vulnerability in ourselves and those around us.*When we have the commitment and compassion to sit with the difficult things in ourselves, we may find that what is “disgusting” in us holds the fertile soil to allow what is beautiful to grow.Consider how the metaphor of this field, with its crops and compost, show up in your life.
Check in: Answer these questions for yourself- Are there any changes you would like to make? How can you show yourself more compassion? Are there any “compost” things in your life that you can look back and feel grateful for?
- Reflect Back: Sometimes we view gratitude as being almost self- serving. As in an attitude of “it doesn’t matter what sad things are happening in the world, I’m just going to focus on my blessings and what’s good for me”. But that attitude clearly lacks real thankfulness and empathy.Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons of UC Davis said, “True gratefulness rejoices in the other. Its ultimate goal is to reflect back the goodness that one has received by creatively seeking opportunities for giving.”Reflect back the goodness in your life. How can you share it, and rejoice in goodness in other’s lives?Check in: If you are food secure, can you donate some food or money to a food bank or shelter? If you enjoy good health, can you donate to cancer research, a children’s hospital, or mental health non-profits? You could leave an anonymous gift for someone in need, or participate in an art abandonment group. Maybe your “reflecting” looks like spending time in person or on the phone with someone who might need some extra love during this time of year.
I hope this list gives you some ideas of different ways to cultivate gratitude that feel authentic, sincere, and meaningful. I encourage you to come up with other creative ways to find joy in the good things that already exist in your life.