The word "gratitude" comes up a lot around the holidays, especially as we come into the season of Thanksgiving. But what is gratitude, exactly? "The obvious answer is that gratitude is being thankful, being grateful," YMCA of Middle Tennessee Chaplain Dori Gorman says. "But taking that one step further is also thinking about why it's so hard for us to be grateful."
Dori believes the challenge of gratitude is connected to the chaos of our everyday lives. "It's super easy in our world to be negative and focus on everything that's wrong," she says. "We start our day just looking at our phone and getting overwhelmed with what we need to do. But if we can combat that with being grateful, I think it changes our perspective. And then it also changes how people respond to us and see us. It really makes the world a better place."
Most people are searching for happiness, Dori says. We just want to figure out how to be joyful. It's a common theme the chaplain sees when she gets prayer requests from our members. "Happiness seems so fleeting. We get it for a second and then it goes away. But if we pursue gratitude, joy tends to come. And gratitude is a bit more tangible," she says. The difference between pursuing happiness and gratitude lies in our ability to act. "We can actively choose to be thankful for people, to be thankful for the air that we breathe. There's always something you can find to be grateful for. And when you repeat that practice of intentionally choosing gratitude, 9 times out of 10, you become happier."
Joy Catches Up
When we begin to practice gratitude—taking the time to actively give thanks for the things around us—our feelings eventually "catch up" with us, Dori says. "We act joyfully and then we feel joyful. We act grateful and then we feel more grateful. We get to choose how we act, and then our feelings catch up to us and all of a sudden we feel happier. We feel more positive."
While gratitude is a practice that should be extending through our lives, Dori says, it helps to have a specific day that we center ourselves to think about it. But, the hope is that it moves beyond Thanksgiving. "Stop to think—I have 168 hours each week. How will I be grateful? I've got seven days this week and 30 or 31 days this month. What can I do to practice gratitude? How can I wake up in the morning and before I touch my phone, before my feet hit the floor, I take a deep breath and I say 'thank you' or 'I'm grateful' today? That can really be a game-changer for your life."
If gratitude feels like a challenge for you, there are several things that Dori suggests to get you in the habit of giving thanks. There are gratitude journals—this is what she's using right now—that prompt you every day to write down something for which you're thankful. Dori recalls another season in her life where she had to come up with 50 things each day for a month that she was grateful for—a challenge that, as she mentioned about the practice of gratitude, made her recognize how many things in her life she had to celebrate.
"Another practice I've heard of recently is writing down the names of 52 people in your life that you're grateful for and reaching out to one person each week over the next year. It could be a text or an email or a phone call to say 'I'm thankful for you.' Affirm them with no strings attached and without expecting anything in return. I imagine that if you did that for a whole year, you'd actually start to receive thanks as well. Even if receiving isn't the goal, it's the icing on the cake."
Gratitude isn't about the big things, Dori says. It's about being thankful for the little things. "Mother Teresa said that it's not about doing great things. It's about doing small things with great love. We have an opportunity to practice gratitude every day we walk into the Y. All we need to do is keep our eyes open and look."