Did you know that being grateful can also make you happy? I didn’t until I encountered an amazing documentary called “Happy”, which explores what makes people happy all around the world. They found that some of the happiest people in the world are Buddhist monks and that the country with the highest self-reported happiness in 2011, when the movie was made, was Denmark (in 2019, Finland topped the list). And they found that there are things we can do every day that can increase our happiness – we can pray/meditate more, we can give more to others and we can be more grateful.
For the past month, I decided to take part in the #DaysOfGratitude social media trend that popped up some years ago. The idea is to post about things that you are thankful for every day in the month of November on social media – to give thanks for people in your life, places that are important to you, things you like to do, big things, small things, all of the things. The point is to give thanks for everything you might take for granted if you weren’t paying attention to all the good things that actually fill up your life.
I don’t know that I started doing it with the intention of finding more happiness. I saw someone else post about it and the next day just so happened to be Election Day. And on Election Day, I couldn’t help but think of my high school government teacher, who impressed upon each one of us as students the importance of voting and being a good citizen. I gave thanks on Election Day for that gift he gave to me. Then from there, I just decided to keep trying it and see where it went.
Over the course of the month, I found myself paying more attention. I noticed little things in my day that reminded me of the people, places and experiences that have shaped me into the person I am today. I paid attention as I looked for photos to capture the spirit of what I was giving thanks for. I paid attention as I thought carefully about the words I used to give thanks in short Facebook posts for all of these things.
I gave thanks for all kinds of things and with each post, the gratitude began to snowball. I noticed more and more things that I have to be grateful for in my life. I gave thanks for my teachers and mentors – the ones who taught me in class and also taught me in life. I gave thanks for football games and friends. I gave thanks for the woman who taught me to play handbells in the church handbell choir. I gave thanks for my dog. I gave thanks for this gift of writing which helps me make sense of the world. I gave thanks for my best friends who have stayed friends with me, who have put up with me in my worst times and my best. I gave thanks for my brother who has seen me through everything and for my father who steadily raised me in all the ways he could. I gave thanks, most of all, for my mom who has always been right, has been kinder than I could ever understand, braver every day than I am on my best day and given me more than I could ever give thanks enough for.
Being grateful reminded me that I’m human. I make mistakes all the time and there are those who come alongside me and help me despite my flaws. Gratitude reminded me that I didn’t make myself. There are people who shaped me, taught me, loved me and moved me into a deeper sense of myself and my place in the world.
Gratefulness, I hope, helps other people see the impact they’ve had. Many of the people who shape me – youth pastors, teachers, coaches, mentors, friends, family – they don’t always get thanks for what they do. It can be so hard for us to see the little things that we do that have a big impact on others. Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual teachers, said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” Gratitude reminded me to look at the little rays of light the people around me are shining out all the time, even if they can’t see it.
Being grateful each day has helped me to remember to be grateful for the small things as well as the big things. I try my best to say thanks for the big things – when friends help me in a tough spot or console me when I’m hurting or do me a big favor. My month of gratitude helped me looked at all of the thousand little things that happen every day that make life better. Once I started looking for things to say thanks for I couldn’t stop looking until I saw my whole life as a gift – something I could only give thanks for and be content.
And yes, after a short time, being grateful did make me happier. But it wasn’t really about that. It was about learning how my life would be different if I remembered to give thanks for it. So, friends, remember to give thanks. Start with small things and let it grow. Most days it may seem harder than you can imagine and you may find yourself digging and digging for something good. But once you start looking, I’m sure you will find it.