The Thanksgiving season is usually when we more intentionally think about gratitude — but it often ends with the holiday. While it’s good to remember what we’re thankful for during this this time of year, it’s actually something that that has the potential to change our lives if made into a daily practice, and benefits us both spiritually and psychologically.
So what is gratitude and how can we make it a daily habit?
According to Father Daniel Cardó, pastor at Holy Name Parish, gratitude is much more than just saying thanks — it’s an attitude of the heart.
“Gratitude is an essential disposition because it’s about how we understand life, ourselves, everything,” Father Cardó said. “We can all think of things we didn’t expect that were a gift to us. That surprise is a very profound experience of letting love move our hearts, of truly receiving what is happening. And that is the first step of responding.”
“A good way to be grateful is to be simple, [to remember] that there is a good in what we’re receiving and in the fact that we’re receiving,” he continued. “We can go beyond the gift and think about why we’re given gifts.”
As we practice gratitude, it changes the way we see God, ourselves and others and makes us more aware of how everything in our life is a gift, Father Cardó said.
“Gratitude comes from the way we see God, ourselves and others. If we’re too self-centered, we think everything’s our right,” he explained. “The more we grow in gratitude, the more we see God as a Father and others as our brothers and sisters who, as ourselves, have received everything as a gift. We have to see ourselves as a gift, that’s important.”
Another benefit of gratitude is a shift in perspective when suffering comes our way — instead of despairing, we see that somehow, good still comes during and after difficult times.
“If we’re grateful, we’ll not complain or be scandalized when we suffer. It was good for Job to go through suffering because it made him more grateful,” Father Cardó said. “In Christ, we know he doesn’t send evil, but we know he allows good to come from it when we’re suffering.
“One of the reasons St. Augustine says we don’t have our prayers answered is to expand our desire and grow more,” he continued. “Why are we so scandalized when we suffer? Something amazing happens at one point in Job’s story, and I’m paraphrasing, but he complains at first, but then he said, ‘I knew you only through hearsay but now I see you with my eyes.’”
Changing mental habits
Gratitude doesn’t just benefit us spiritually — it also has huge benefits on our mental health and shifts our attitude toward life psychologically.
“We know spiritually we should be grateful to God, but one of the main benefits psychologically is that being grateful helps us put ourselves in the shoes of another person, that something has been given to us. It makes us realize it’s not all up to us,” said Dr. Jim Langley, psychologist at St. Raphael’s Counseling in Littleton. “Research shows a lot of psychological benefits: People feel less anxiety, less selfish, show less aggression and are more empathetic. When we recognize a gift has been given to us, it makes us more likely to give back to others.”
Dr. Langley pointed out that the human brain is wired to notice more negativity, so the daily practice of noticing good helps us wire ourselves toward positivity.
“Research shows taking a moment to notice the goods in our lives that are small…and being grateful for little things calls us to be more aware of all of the good,” he said.
But starting a gratitude practice from scratch can feel “fake” or “forced” — until the new habit is formed, according to Dr. Langley.
“A new habit always feels forced and fake. The way our brains work is like [having paved] roads. Starting a new habit is like paving a new road and it’s hard and uncomfortable, and then after 30 days it feels normal and natural,” he said. “So you have to fight through that unnaturalness. Once you get over that, it’s part of who you are.”
How to practice it
So how does one practice gratitude daily? Dr. Langley and Father Cardó offered a few simple, helpful tips.
“At the start or end of the day, taking note of the good that’s been done, big things and little things,” Dr. Langley said. “The Examen [a prayer method developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola] is a great one.”
The Examen is a simple prayer with five steps: Asking God for light of understanding, giving thanks, reviewing the day as guided by the Holy Spirit, facing our shortcomings and looking forward to the day to come.
He also recommended intentionally being aware of ways that loved ones are a gift to us, to tell them and thank them for it.
“It’s very easy to take people for granted, especially in family life. Pointing that out to others can be powerful because we all want someone to notice us, so voicing gratitude to another person is saying, ‘I notice you,’” he added. “Part of our job to fellow Christians is to be Christ to one another — when we point it out for other people, we are being Christ to them.”
Father Cardó recommended simple prayers, including the Examen, to grow in a daily practice of gratitude.
“One practical thing is to say a prayer when we wake up and say thank you to God. Or doing the Examen prayer at night for a few minutes reflecting about our day. You can even do it as a family a few minutes before dinner. Those are two simple things,” he said. “Another thing is during Thanksgiving, find time to think about the greatest gifts of our lives and even to write them down. And to give thanks to God for those gifts and to say thank you to those who are gifts to us, to make a call and say thank you.”
Gratitude isn’t something that’s complicated, Father Cardó said. It’s simple, and when we’re simple, we’re more joyful.
“If we’re grateful, we’re going to be more simple. When we get too complicated or expect too much from people, we eliminate the capacity to be surprised,” he concluded. “The more grateful we are, the more simple, the more joyful we will be. If we’re simple, we know God will give us what we need. He promises to give us what we need. Gratitude makes us receive what we need with joy.”
For an Examen prayer card, visit ignatianspirituality.com/19076/examen-prayer-card.