Why gratitude isn't just for Thanksgiving

Around Thanksgiving, many people reflect upon what they’re grateful for.  Many of us typically by rote the things we know we should be grateful for, such as a roof over our heads, and food on the table. Don’t get me wrong—I think most people should be grateful for those blessings, because not everyone has them. But I want to talk to you about being grateful far beyond the basics that we do once a year around a turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes (or whatever you eat to celebrate the fourth Thursday in November).

Our brains are wired to notice what is bad or dangerous. It makes sense, right? From a survival-based perspective, it’s much more important to remember which berries are poisonous, or how slippery the roads get when it rains or snows, or what sets off an already angry loved one, than to notice how delicious your coffee is, how great your last meeting went, or how nice your spouse’s smile is.  We’re hard wired to be much better at noticing what’s wrong rather than what’s right, and it’s probably served us quite well.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t notice dangerous or suboptimal situations, I’m just saying that we want to strengthen our capacity to notice the joys and pleasures too.   

Science backs this up too.  Gratitude improves physical and mental health.  It improves sleep quality, self-esteem and relationships. It even changes the brain. It sends increased blood flow to the hypothalamus, which manages numerous bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping, and also influences metabolism and stress levels. It also is correlated with increased blood flow to areas which release dopamine, which can increase generally good feelings.

 As a side note, many people find the term gratitude practice to be too mushy or touchy-feely, so I sometimes call it “noticing the good.” Call it whatever works for you, but it’s a very simple and easy way to adjust our mind’s tendency to see the world through gray colored glasses, and to shift us towards a more positive (and often more accurate) worldview.

If you’re up to give this practice a try, let me step you through how to start. I like to make it pretty simple. Pick a time of day when you will notice the good.  It usually works best to pick a time that is linked to a behavior you do every day. For instance-some people do it before getting out of bed in the morning, others do it during the few minutes while waiting for their coffee or tea to brew, and others do it while drifting off to sleep.  Whatever time you pick, make it a time that’s easy to protect.  If you pick an arbitrary time, you might find that 4:15pm or 11:20am (or whatever you’ve chosen) lands in the middle of a meeting or appointment, or when you’re just not feeling like it, and you’ll skip it.

Then, select a number of gratitudes you plan to notice.  Selecting one can be an easy place to start, and you can work your way up to more if you like.  You might find that, at first, it’s not easy to find something to appreciate, but with time, you get quite good at noticing many, so you may adjust the number as time passes. 

Then, decide how you want to notice the gratitudes—do you write it down in a journal? Share it via email/text/phone with a gratitude partner? Say it directly to a friend or family member? Just notice it in your mind?  It’s best to know yourself and what sort of ritual will work best for you.  Sharing it with another person can serve a dual purpose. It can both hold you accountable to do it every day, and also you get the double benefit of your own happiness and hearing about the happiness of someone you care about. If you’re the kind of person who prefers being internal and more private in your practice, think about whether writing it down in a journal or on slips of paper that go into a jar might be right for you.  It can be quite affirming and uplifting to review a year’s worth of gratitude and happiness.

So now that we’ve laid the parameters, let’s discuss what you actually do when you sit down.  First, here’s what not  to do.  Never pretend to be grateful for something you don’t authentically feel in that moment.  Gratitude only works when it’s authentic.  So if you don’t actually feel grateful for a roof over your head, don’t worry about it, but also, don’t claim it as a gratitude that day.  Think about what you do feel grateful for. Maybe the light coming through the trees is particularly pretty, or you’re happy you didn’t get stuck in that traffic jam on the other side of the freeway during your commute, or you’re just grateful that this difficult day is almost over and you’ll get to go to bed soon.  If something doesn’t rise to your awareness right away, that’s ok, just relax and see what wants to bubble up.  Gently review the past 24 hours—where did you go, what did you do, with whom did you interact?  There’s likely at least one thing you can find that was nice, or at least, better than the rest of the day.  Even on a bad day, when it’s hard to find something to appreciate, you might find that it was nice that getting your kids to sleep, or finishing up your paperwork, or dealing with a difficulty person in your life, wasn’t quite as bad as you had anticipated. 


You will likely find that, after doing this practice for a while, you will start noticing the good throughout your day and think “this will be a good one to mention tonight/tomorrow morning.”  Noticing what is going well will start to become increasingly automatic, and your effortful observation of one item may start flowing into three or five.


You might not notice the changes right away—like any new habit, it may take a little time for its positive effects to show.  I encourage you to make a commitment to one month of a gratitude practice.  I think you’ll find that it becomes a lovely little sanctuary in your day that you’ll look forward to, and that you’ll start to notice the longer term benefits as well.  Give it a try and let me know how it goes.




Around here, it seems like the most common answer to the question of “how are you?” is “Busy!” followed by a laundry list of the many, many things the person is doing. It can involve professional responsibilities, social engagements, volunteer commitments, athletic involvement and hobbies, but it seems like most of us have schedules that are really, really full to the brim.

Often, these commitments sound fulfilling, interesting, and even fun, and yet it doesn’t seem to make people happy.  All this activity seems to make people feel tired, overstressed, and like they are in constant danger of falling off the back of the treadmill of life.

In addition, it makes it really hard for people to make room for positive changes they’d like to add to their lives. Maybe they’d like to have more time for friendships, or make time to meditate, or exercise more. In addition, it can often get in the way of deepening relationships, like working through conflictual issues with a partner, or spending more time (not just quality time, but quantity too) with their children. 

Those are all very real concerns, but I would even add one more issue that happens when we are very busy. It is very difficult to spend time getting to know ourselves.  Being busy can distract us from our feelings and reactions to how our life is developing.

My sister, who is one of the smartest and busiest people I know, tells me that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day, and we all choose how we want to spend it.” That’s true, and while it sounds simple, it’s actually a very complex and rich concept.  We each have 24 hours in a day, and the way we choose to spend it should reflect our priorities.

Unfortunately, if we really sit down and take a hard look at how we spend our days, we might find out that it doesn’t really reflect current priorities. Often, our time is spent doing things that other people want us to do, or what we think a good person would do, or what feels most urgent, but not necessarily what we would actually choose, if we were trying to build a life from scratch.

I’m not advocating that you should turn your life upside down in order to create your own personal pleasure party, far from it. I understand that there are real life commitments that are serious and real–if you need to work a job you hate in order to pay necessary bills, then that would likely reflect your priorities (making sure necessities are covered).

But many people, if they really stopped and looked at how they spend each day, would be disappointed to see how different it is from what their priorities are.  How much time is spent doing things you don’t like? How much time is frittered away doing things to distract yourself or recover from the hardship of feeling stressed or burdened?

I often use the tool of asking someone “if you knew you had five years left to live, would you change anything?” With five years left, you will likely continue to want to live a productive life (such as employment, creative expression, and/or volunteerism), but also will understand that personal meaning and relationships cannot be postponed.  

In my work, I often work with people who received an unexpected and devastating medical change. When their health status changes (such as dementia, cancer, spinal cord injuries), one of the most challenging and important tasks is to reassess priorities.  Most people find that they had been spending time on things that didn’t matter to them (people they didn’t care for, unrewarding jobs, commitments that were not meaningful), and readjusted their time to reflect it.

But for those people who do not have a big moment force a shift in priorities, it’s easy to let time pass without examining how you spend your time. I am inviting you to take an opportunity to reflect. You can do this in a focused way, by spending a week documenting the usage of your time, or you can do this in a more qualitative way, just noticing how much time you’re spending doing things, and wondering to yourself if you wish you could make changes.  What’s missing? What is there too much of?

You don’t have to make any changes at all. Just noticing is really important.  But you will probably want to change something, and if you do, I advise to make just one small change.  See how it feels to carve out ten minutes a day to meditate, or to not check email after dinner. Do you like it? Does it make you anxious? Was there a priority or meaning that you hadn’t seen before? You might be surprised by how attached we can be to familiar patterns and habits. So be gentle, and try just one small change.  Get used to it, modify it as needed, and once that feels like a stable part of your life, consider making another small change.

It may seem slow, and you may feel impatient–after all you’ve just noticed that your life doesn’t reflect your priorities!  You might want to change everything all at once. Try to take your time with this–you’re actually hypothesizing about who you are and what you want, and then checking out whether your ideas were correct or if they need modifications.

As you keep shifting and adjusting your prioritization, you will keep shifting how you spend your time. Hopefully, if you’re paying attention to how you feel in response to these shifts, you will begin to experience your life as more and more fulfilling.  You may still answer the question of “how are you?” with “busy,” if being busy feels meaningful to you, but it is my hope that you will also say “happy” or “fulfilled” too.

Let me know if you begin to experiment with exploring your priorities and how you spend your time and energy. I’d love to hear what you find out about yourself.


Make an emergency kit for your well-being

When people are going through difficult times, they often seek out psychotherapy or other emotional support.  But when times get better, they tend to stop therapy, and they often lose interest or momentum for self-exploration. 

I totally understand how people are most highly motivated for seeking help and internal awareness when they are suffering, but want to leave their pain behind and move forward into happier times.

I invite you to consider this alternate idea–when you have gone through the hard work to bring yourself out of the difficult times, you have probably learned some valuable lessons about what helps you heal, what makes life work better, and what causes pain.  I want you to be able to benefit from that hard won wisdom, and have it available for the next time things get hard.

It’s not pleasant to think about the fact that, just as bad times leave us, they will also return.  But life is like that-good times and bad times come and go. There are two good things about taking the time to pause and reflect on your emergence from the pain-1) There is often good learning that only comes from the hard times. Don’t miss out on that opportunity. 2) You can prepare for the next time with the experience of the past.

So don’t skip that next therapy appointment or put away your journal because you are feeling better.  Take this opportunity to learn the best practices for healing and handling a crisis, and also to celebrate all the good work you did to pull yourself through.  

Make yourself a letter, and treat it as your emergency kit.  Write down all the things you learned about yourself–did you take particularly good care of yourself? Did your internal voice get kinder? Did you reach out to supportive people in your life? Did you ask for help? Did you eat better? Prioritize sleep? What was it that helped you? Even if you changed nothing, and have no idea what you did, maybe the answer is that time was what helped. Whatever it is that helped you during your challenging time–write it down. 

You might even write it as a letter.  Here’s an example: 

“Dear self: If you’re reading this, it means that times are tough right now.  I want to let you know that these times pass, even though it probably doesn’t feel like it now. I want you to remember the things that worked for you in the past when you felt like this.  Even if you can’t believe that anything could help, maybe just give one or two of these a try. More importantly, remember-these times pass.  

(then list some of the best practices. Here are some examples)

1. Go to sleep every night at ten pm, no matter what.

2. Move your body for at least five minutes every day-more is better, but even a little bit is good.

3. Avoid sugar and alcohol-they seem like they’ll help, but they make you feel worse.

4. Bubble baths are good.

5. Get fresh air at least once a day, even if you’re just sitting on the front doorstep. 

6. Spend time with your favorite people only (maybe include a list of people who were particularly supportive to you in the past). Avoid the people who sap your energy or make you feel bad.

7. Play your favorite music all the time. Turn on the playlist I made for you of all your favorite songs.

8. Get back in touch with your therapist if you’re not seeing her right now. Don’t pretend it’s not a big deal-tell her you’re in a rocky time now and need help as soon as possible.

9.Watch stand-up comedy. You don’t think you’ll be able to laugh, but you will.

10. Meditate. It always helps.

And then, sign your letter with love. It’s a beautiful gift from your present day self to your future self.  

Even the act of making this emergency kit will help decrease your stress when these hard days come again. When we’ve been through hard times, we often get quite anxious about the idea that bad times might come again. If we already have a plan in place, it becomes a fact of life, rather than a monster under the bed.  Bad things happen, and we prepare for them, with the goal of providing comfort to ourself as we ride out the storm.