You might imagine that a fully lived life must be packed with adventures and accomplishments. Advertisements keep telling you “buy this product, purchase this experience, and your life will be rich, satisfying and meaningful.” But you can’t find joy or meaning by grasping at more and more things and experiences, or by frantically accumulating good deeds. Begin by slowing down, recognizing and enjoying what you already have; by practicing gratitude.
South African bishop and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu writes, “The practices of goodness–noticing, savoring, thinking, enjoying and being thankful–are not hard disciplines to learn. But they are disciplines, and they take practice.”
Here are a few ways in which you can practice gratitude:
Slow down and notice what’s around you. When you’re walking from place to place, don’t rush to call or text someone. Keep your eyes and ears open. Notice the play of light and shadow around you. Listen to the sounds–whether you’re out in the country hearing birdsong and wind in the grass, or in the city hearing people talking, laughing, singing. Notice your breath and the beating of your heart.
Take time for gratitude at the end of the day. Before you fall asleep, remember all the things that brought you joy, helped you in your work or taught you something over the course of the day. If on some days you can’t think of much, don’t berate yourself, and don’t jump to the conclusion that you have a wretched life. Just think about the good things you do remember. Over time this practice will shift your focus; you’ll get in the habit of looking for and appreciating goodness wherever it appears.
Be honest. Trying to pretend that you feel nothing but gratitude is likely to exhaust you and make it harder for you to notice and be grateful for what really is good. Acknowledge your frustration, resentment, anger, disappointment and grief. Don’t hide them, Don’t let them take you over. Recognize that they’re there, and remember that they don’t negate the good things in your life.
Share your gratitude with someone. Choose a gratitude partner and call or write them regularly. Pick someone with whom this will feel like mutual support, not a competition. Or have your family gather to talk about the things for which you’re grateful and the things that discourage you. If the discouragements arise from something you can change, talk about how to do that. If they’re just the inevitable difficulties of living, write them down on cheap paper and burn them. Write your gratitudes down in a book you can look back at when you’re celebrating or when you need encouragement.
Thank people–and accept thanks. It’s easy to get caught up in an endless stream of tasks and fail to notice and acknowledge others’ kindnesses. Take time to thank the people who serve you–bus drivers, waiters, store clerks, janitors. Let your family and friends know what you appreciate about them. And when you are thanked, enjoy it. Don’t brush it aside and get embarrassed. Savor the fact that you have been able to make someone else’s life a little better. Be grateful that you’ve had that opportunity.
At first these practices may feel artificial and tiresome. Stick with them for a while. In time they make help you to see and savor the goodness within you and around you.