“The Little Things”, they
say, are what garnish your way–
are what make it up.
As the end of the semester approaches, (and as our neighbours down south celebrate Thanksgiving!), I think it’s high time we talk about gratitude.
Gratitude is, according to a study done by Emmons, McCullough, and Tsang (2003), an attitude, emotion, disposition, and personality trait. Of course, it is natural to feel gratitude when we receive gifts and presents, or when someone does a favour for us—or when anything happens that directly benefits us.
But what about when you walk up Mont Royal and catch the sunset over Montreal? Or when you see those tiny tots from the McGill nursery all holding hands and swathed in coats and warm hats? Or even, when you look over to your friend laughing beside you and think “what a great taste in humans I have”? Gratitude is also the moment when “the mindful person is pleasantly surprised” (Emmons, McCullough, and Tsang, 2003). It’s this element of surprise and awe that I think can be captured in appreciating everyday things, too.
We saw these guys on a roadtrip to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
According to Watkins, Woodward, Stone, & Kolts (2003), there are three dimensions of gratitude:
- Appreciation of others, expressed as gratitude toward other people.
- Simple appreciation, expressed as gratitude toward non-social sources.
- Sense of abundance, expressed as the absence of general resentment.
So how can one actually practice, through mindfulness, a concept that comes in so many forms, and is made up of so many dimensions?
As a student in her last semester, I have a lot to think about. With only two weeks or so left of undergrad, it’s hard to think of anything besides finals and assignments, post-grad plans, and going home. In addition to that, I’ve lost my voice completely, have three final projects due this week, was woken up by the electrician at 7AM this morning, and looked out the window to one of my least favorite things ever: snow. It’s days like this when it’s difficult to find the gentleness and patience and peace it takes to experience gratitude—in any form.
But tonight, as I look toward a week during which I know will be one of the most physically and mentally taxing of my time at McGill, I know I have more than enough to be grateful for. Here are some things I do to make sure I never lose sight of the bigger picture. I:
- Don’t get out of bed in the morning until I can think of at least three things to be grateful for in my life. I literally won’t get out of bed unless I can recognize that genuine feeling of gratitude (it borders awe).
- Think of at least one small thing I can be grateful for that I usually take for granted—like my voice, which has graciously dipped out of my life for the past few days and rendered me a terrific listener.
- Remind myself every day that no matter what is happening in my life, the trees will stand and the sky will turn pink in the evening and the wind will still blow and that everywhere around the world, there are people gazing at something in nature and thinking to themselves “how beautiful.”
In my previous post in this series, I talked about the dangers and pitfalls of pushing positivity and neglecting to respect sadness or anger or other negative emotions that we need in order to make sense of the full human experience. What I find so great about gratitude is that it doesn’t involve “positive thinking” or “negative thinking”. It’s not a black and white way of thinking at all—it’s just the truth. All gratitude really involves, when you think about it, is the reminding. Everything else—your family, friends, nature, and even voice—is already there. The “reminding ourselves” part sometimes requires practical and actionable tips. Here are some that have worked well for me:
1. Try at least once a day, to really mean, from the bottom of your heart, a ‘thank you.’ You say it to the cashier that you pay for your coffee. You say it to the bus driver. You even say it to the person who holds the door for you on your way into McLennan. But when was the last time you meant it as more that just a socially expected utterance? Next time you say it, think about saying it with true depth.
2. Compliment someone. And I don’t mean a trivial compliment, like “I like your scarf!”, followed by “Where’d you get it?”. I mean a real insightful compliment, like when that really organized friend who, every time you two meet, blows you away with her attention to detail. Tell her!
3. Make a point to tell a friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/family member that you love them, and how much you appreciate them. Warm fuzzies often bring about a sense of peace, reinforces that relationship, and reminds yourself that no one should be taken for granted.
4. Eat mindfully. That is, schedule a meal in your week that you can have by yourself, with no distractions. No phone in hand, no Netflix playing, no article to read. Just you and your meal. This has always helped me to slow down and make some time and space in my head to think about, as strange as this sounds, the wonders of taste and food and nutrition. I’ve written a piece on my experience with mindful eating which you can find here (trigger warning: eating disorders).
5. And finally, meditate. One app I’ve been using that helps to me actively keep my mind focused on gratitude (and a lot of other emotions like joy and equanimity) is called Breathe. I highly recommend it, or any other meditation apps you can download on your phone. The short 10-minute or so meditations are perfect for light reflection and rest, especially during the upcoming finals season!
Gratitude can be practiced in any way that suits you best, but at the end of the day, it’s a ‘gratitude attitude’ that will buffer you from the worst, in the worst of times. Have a wonderful week!
Images are author’s own.
Information obtained from: