What Works: The Gratitude List

A helpful tool to encourage a more grateful attitude towards life

leaf image © 2009 Phil Fox Rose
leaf photo: ©2009 Phil Fox Rose

This is the last What Works column to run before Thanksgiving, so I want to talk to you about gratitude. I could write a dozen columns about gratitude in various forms; for this column, I’m going to focus on one simple tool: the gratitude list.

When you find yourself feeling particularly ungrateful about your life — or your spiritual director or friend points out to you that you are — stop and remind yourself of all the things for which you can be grateful.

There are some obvious things. You often hear people say, “at least I’ve got my health.” That might sound trite, but if you have experienced a serious loss of your own good health and then gotten it back, or if someone close to you is deprived permanently of good health, you will know that good health is a great blessing. Another common item is family — partners, parents, children, whoever loves you unconditionally and gives you sustenance and support.

Not half full or half empty — just half full

Gratitude list items can also be seemingly trivial things — or at least things that might seem trivial to someone else. Sometimes, an item can be seen as a blessing or a negative. For example, I do not live with anyone else. I could focus on and feed feelings of loneliness. But I can also be grateful for the control I have over my environment and how easy it is to meditate and have silence whenever I want it. (Ask anyone with a big family about how precious that is!)

It’s important, even though this is a list, to not fall into thinking of it as a two-sided ledger. It’s not “I’m alone but at least I have peace and quiet”; it’s “I can have peace and quiet whenever I want in my home.”

And it’s not about seeing our cup as half full versus half empty. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has things they can be grateful for and things they wish were different. It’s about paying attention to the part that’s full.

Who cares about what you don’t have? Seriously. Think about that for a moment.

Focusing on what we don’t have, on expectations of things that have not materialized for us, only leads to anxiety and self-pity. It’s fine to want a more abundant life, but paradoxically — and great spiritual principles often are paradoxical — it is by being content with what we have that we can be open to seeing clearly what is around us, and seeing new opportunities.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

If you’ve ever been really close to someone who has a lot in the material realm, or if you are such a person, you already know that those with a lot of possessions experience as much trouble with gratitude as materially poor people.

I’d even go so far as to say that, often, people with fewer material things are more grateful. First of all, they are more aware of how close they are to losing those things. And secondly, those with a lot of things probably are that way because they have been driven by more attachment to things in the past. And even if that’s not the case, the pull of those things is powerful.

The beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), because those who are poor are more easily focused on the spiritual, more naturally unattached, by the simple fact that they have fewer things to be attached to, fewer things pulling their attention away from God. This is why Jesus said it was nearly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I’m not saying that if you are poor you should put that on the list. But, you know… you could. At least be grateful that you’ve been given the opportunity to see the true value of things more clearly.

Being truly thankful this Thanksgiving

This tool and others that encourage gratitude can be particularly helpful as we head into the holiday season. Because for those of us who feel short-changed on family love or God’s bounty, the very focus on thankfulness can quickly slip into feeling sorry for ourselves.

What can you be grateful for? Well, anything. There are absolutely no rules with a gratitude list. This is something you are doing for yourself. A gift to yourself. You can write down people, like family and loved ones, and facts, like good health. But also places, things, ideas, qualities, feelings — you name it, literally.

Doing a gratitude list can shift your perspective in an instant. So use this holiday not to reflect on how your Thanksgiving isn’t perfect, but rather as an opportunity to celebrate all that you have to be thankful for. If you need a little help with that, try doing a gratitude list. (And if you have a tradition at Thanksgiving dinner of going around and saying something you’re grateful for, think of this as prep work.)

Here’s a very partial list for myself. I am grateful for:

  • God, and the fact that I have been given some awareness
  • my health
  • my friends and loved ones
  • my sobriety
  • the opportunity I have to share God’s love with others one-on-one, and the exquisite gift of occasionally seeing the light go on in another’s eyes
  • whatever talent I have as a writer that perhaps lets me help a few people glimpse the love of God in their own life more clearly through my words
  • the opportunity to write this column
  • the insane overabundant beauty of nature, especially birds
  • a place to get away to nature regularly
  • a roof over my head and food on my table
  • an inquisitive mind that is easily amused and delighted by the glory of creation
  • my surrogate family, with whom I spend many holidays, including this upcoming Thanksgiving
  • my love of music of almost all types, which entertains me and, often, brings me closer to God

Is the gratitude list a spiritual tool you already use? If not, give it a try. Share your experiences and thoughts about the gratitude list tool, gratitude in general and feeling grateful in the holiday season. You can comment below.