“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Think back to a day when nothing seemed to go your way. Maybe you were supposed to get a raise at work, and instead your boss just handed you another lousy assignment with a tight deadline. Maybe you had been fighting with your family. Maybe you just lost a close friend. Your mind spent a lot of time thinking about its trouble at first because it wanted to find a solution. It wanted to make things better.
Now imagine being able to stop your mind from thinking about the bad things, and just shift it to thinking about the good. When you are upset about something, shifting your focus is not easy at first. But by cultivating gratitude, it becomes easy not only to stop thinking about the negative, but also to see the positive.
“Occupy your minds with good thoughts, or the enemy will fill them with bad ones.”
– Saint Thomas More
A fig tree grows from just one tiny fig seed. If the seed is taken care of, it grows into a small tree. If the small tree is nurtured, it turns into a big tree. Eventually it produces fruit; delicious figs that can be eaten or planted and made into more fig trees. Things can really multiply fast after some time and care.
Virtues work the same way. They start with a tiny seed, an act of good. If that act is repeated enough times, it becomes a habit. When it is habitual, it has become like a mature fig tree. It produces more fruit with less nurturing. Some of the fruit comes in the form of the virtue being easier to practice. A fruit of having a strong sense of gratitude is that it is easier to be grateful. You can be grateful with less.
To cultivate gratitude, all you need is a small act. You repeat that act of gratitude every day, and it becomes a habit. Then it becomes fruitful. You reflect on things you are grateful for and give thanks. Maybe you spend five minutes doing that each day. It is hard at first but gets easier with practice. Now you’ve got that tree, and when you are feeling down or negative, you are better at shifting your mind from wanting more, to being thankful for what you have.
Eventually, you plant gratitude seeds all throughout your day, so that you are spending more time focusing on the things you are thankful for than the negative. There is less space in your mind for negativity. Then fruit falls from the tree, and you begin seeing the positive in the negative. The orchard just keeps growing from there.
Some virtues, like some plants, require more care than others. The virtue of gratitude is pretty simple. It’s a good seed to start with.
There are many ways to cultivate gratitude. I will share a simple one.
1. Grab a writing utensil and a notebook. Or the back of a napkin, or the margin of a newspaper, or an old envelope. Anything will work, but something you can save and read through at a later time is nice.
2. Make a cup of your favorite drink. I’ve been enjoying matcha green tea lattes lately, but you can have whatever you want; beer, juice, wine, coffee, a smoothie…
3. Find a comfortable place to sit or recline. When the weather is nice, I like to go out on my back deck. I can hear birds chirping all around me, and the breeze makes me feel fresh.
4. Write down three things you are grateful for. You can write more if you want but write at least three. It can be anything. Sometimes I will write, “banana.” Sometimes I will write, “bank teller was really nice.” Sometimes I will write, “YouTube.”
5. Repeat daily for one month. It doesn’t matter what time of day you do it, but I recommend setting a specific time because building a practice into your routine will make you less likely to forget or miss a day.
This might be difficult at first. If you are like me, you might find that you ruminate on negative things. Our brains often want to focus on the negative because it wants to solve problems. It wants to make them positive. But most of the time, the best solution is to simply change our own perspective. Through practicing gratitude, we can do exactly that.
If you are struggling to find anything you are grateful for, here are a few ideas:
1. The drink you are sipping while you write what you are grateful for.
2. The comfortable place you are sitting while you write.
3. Think about any positive social interactions you have been part of lately.
4. Think about any good food you may have enjoyed recently.
5. Reminisce about a time when the weather was perfect.
After years of cultivating a garden of gratitude, I truly feel blessed each day. Of course, I still have bad days. I still experience negative feelings and terrible events. I still fall out of the habit of gratitude from time to time, and then I catch myself ruminating on the negative. But from the times I have fallen, I have learned that putting in the hard work of focusing on what I am grateful for is really worth the change in attitude it produces.
There is always something to be thankful for. Start with the five simple steps I outlined above and stay vigilante! Focus on the things you are grateful for! With a little grace and a little time, you will have a gratitude garden in full bloom, ready for its delicious fruits to be harvested.