You don’t need me to tell you that the holidays have officially kicked off.
If you’re alive, you may have seen an email or two, some social media posts, and a few thousand news stories, encouraging us all to be grateful.
I really, sincerely value practicing gratitude. I’ve seen the practice expand my own heart and bring light to dark days. But, there is something about the call for gratitude around Thanksgiving that really ruffles my feathers.
The constant reminder that I need to be grateful - that I really should be grateful - feels like a nag. “Being grateful” starts to seem like one more thing that I need to be better at, if I want to be a “good” person - which, obviously, I do. It may be immature, but I resented it this year.
Thanksgiving - and the holidays that loom right after - feel fraught with enough tension, without the added pressure of being grateful, gosh darnit.
Without knowing exactly who is reading this, I feel safe assuming that you, like me, want the holidays to be happy and joyous. We all want to feel love and connection, hear laughter and old stories, smell candles burning and maybe the scent of pine. The holidays are laden with expectations. Whether it is from past holidays or scenes from the media, we can all conjure images of what a “happy holiday” looks like.
The problem is that when we have a specific idea of what would make a “happy holiday,” (or a happy life in general) we are setting ourselves up to be unhappy.
Life is constantly changing. We can’t control much. When we wait to be happy until our life looks like our imagined “happy holiday” (or happy life), we’re kicking our happiness down the road.
To illustrate: when one of my daughters was younger, she would plan out her playdates before her guests arrived. She’d plan what they were going to play, what costumes they’d use for dress up, what snack they would eat. As you might imagine, her 4-year-old guests never had the same ideas as her about what would be fun or tasty. My daughter was inevitably disappointed and tears would flow.
It may seem childish when I describe my daughter’s playdates, and maybe you’re thinking “pshaw, I would never do that.” But…and maybe it is just me…but, I’m not sure it’s so far off from what happens, albeit more subtly, for many of us, grownups.
We know what a “happy holiday” or a happy life should look like - and we want it. We really do. We want that laughter and joyous festivity that we see glowing on TV screens, billboards, and social media. We want the happy family and happy friends, satisfying job, etc etc.
However, rarely does our reality match the image we hold. Maybe there is a person missing from our life - they can’t travel, they’ve passed on, they broke up with us. Or, maybe everyone is there, but not all of the relationships are what we wish they were. Maybe we envisioned ourselves in a thinner body, wearing better jewelry, with more interesting things to talk about…
Whatever the case may be, it is easy to feel disappointed about the ways in which the holidays (and our life) don’t stack up to our expectations. It can be easy to feel what we don’t have. And to feel like if we just worked harder we could get that and then be happy. We hold on to the idea of how things should be, at the expense of recognizing what is already around us.
Leonard Cohen wrote a koan (a pithy Zen saying, intended to focus the mind) that says:
“Only one thing made him happy. And now that it was gone, everything made him happy.”
Oh man. “Only one thing made him happy. And now that it was gone, everything made him happy.”
This part of the blog post is not going to surprise you and, for that I apologize. But: people have found that a good way to make space for more happiness is to practice meditation. The practice in meditation - of noticing our thoughts, but not getting lost in them, and then returning to our body breathing in the present moment - over and over again - is practice for when we’re no longer meditating. When we’re going about our day-to-day life, we can notice when our mind has become drawn into an idea about exactly how the holidays, or our life, should be. We can notice the story that we’re telling ourselves and then let it go. We can start to let go of a fixation on exactly how things should be. We can let go of the notion that we need that “one thing” to make us happy.
And then, we can become open to everything else. Without the “one thing” tying us down, we can become aware of, present to, and appreciative of, so much more. When we’re not fixated on going after the thing(s) we don’t have, we can notice all the other little and big things around us that we already have and that already make us happy.
With some chagrin, I realize that without meaning to, I’m back to practicing gratitude. The act of being present to life as it is - to the sights, sounds, smells…all the feels - around me, allows me to notice and appreciate so many things that do bring me joy. That noticing and appreciating is…well, that’s gratitude.
So, I will begrudgingly acknowledge that all of the talk about gratitude around Thanksgiving is maybe...okay. Being present to what I do have - recognizing it and appreciating it - does lighten my heart and my mood. Gratitude helps shift perspective to what I do have, not what is missing.
After begrudgingly admitting that I was grateful for gratitude (?), I did a little poking around on the internet. I found this interesting biological research study from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University showing that gratitude is linked to better mental and physical health outcomes: lower anxiety, less depression, better sleep quality, lower blood pressure, better cholesterol, and better cell function. Not too shabby. A good "academic" motivation to practice that gratitude. Although, I have to say for me, feeling the effects of gratitude - witnessing and appreciating what I do have in the moment - hits home much harder than any of the academic research.
I also want to say, importantly, please don’t let “practicing gratitude” become one more thing you take on as a task that you need to get done. If you do, I feel you! Please don’t worry that it is something you need to be good at in order to be the kind of person you want to be. It’s not. It’s only there if it is helpful for you.
And, for that matter, don’t let meditation be an exercise in “leveling up” either. Practicing gratitude and meditation are both things that you can’t help but do - as long as you are doing them with sincerity - in exactly the way you are supposed to be doing them. If, for example, you’re noticing that your mind wanders a lot (or at least what feels like a lot to you) while you meditate, then you are doing it right. It is actually when we notice that our mind has wandered and bring it back to our breath that we are strengthening our mindfulness and doing the meditation. So keep moving on your path. Keep doing you.
There is no perfect. But, we do get to keep coming back to our most authentic selves, over and over again. And, that is a beautiful thing.