When asked for topics in a 12-step meeting the odds are good that someone will suggest gratitude as a discussion topic. Just by virtue of being in recovery we have plenty to be grateful for, and we know that having an attitude of gratitude makes everything we face so much easier. But how do we get that to stick?
The advice I have been told and that I tell others is to “practice gratitude.”
But did you ever stop to think about what that means. How –exactly—do we practice gratitude? I’ve been asking people how they actually practice gratitude, and I learned some great things.
First, and this seemed so obvious but gratitude is a habit. It’s a habit like exercising or smoking or not eating sugar or worrying. Habits are repeated patterns of behavior or thought and they can be for good or ill. And we can learn or unlearn habits. I never thought of gratitude in quite that way. I just thought that gratitude was something that came over me occasionally, but wasn’t in my control.
Not the case.
So how do you get a gratitude habit? It’s like the man in New York City who asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice. Practice. Practice”.
Psychologists tell us that new habits require 21 days to form or to “take”. So we can do some kind of gratitude practice for 21 days to make the mind learn gratitude. Twenty-one days is a kind of magic number for new habit formation.
When I teach new writers I use this “21 day rule” to help people become regular writers. They do a mini writing practice for 21 days, or write in their journals for 21 days. It’s the same with exercise or walking—commit to 21 days. One of my favorite stories comes from a fitness trainer who asks his clients to simply dress in their sneakers and exercise clothes every morning for 21 days. “Once they are dressed”, he says, “they mostly do some kind of exercise; we have created the habit of suiting up to exercise.” I think that’s brilliant.
So to give yourself a lasting attitude of gratitude you have to create a ritual—a habit and actually do a practice —for at 21 days. Here are some things you could try:
· A daily gratitude list—you know this one. But do it in writing so that the hand and eye are involved. This makes the brain imbed the new habit faster. Decide on a number: Three items each day? Or five? Or 10? And stick to that number—in writing.
· Set the timer on your watch to the same time each day. An odd number is good like 12:34 pm or 10:10 am. When the alarm rings you stop and quickly name three things you are grateful for.
· Expand that idea to your phone. Teach yourself to have one grateful thought on the first ring of your phone, later let that grow to the first ring of any phone you hear.
· At home: when you are shaving or removing make-up—begin by naming out loud one specific gratitude from this day.
· When you throw something in the trash tie that physical action to saying, “I am grateful for…” quietly to yourself.
· What other simple habitual gestures can you link to naming a grateful thought? Taking out your keys? Starting the car? Taking your coffee mug from the cabinet?
The more simple, repetitive actions you can attach to specific things you are grateful for the stronger your habit of grateful thinking will become.