Ever had coffee with a friend and complained the whole time? As the gripe session takes a downward spiral, I often feel worse than I did beforehand. I’ve taken time off to see a friend … and we may be smiling, but we’re dumping negativity on each other.
True, we need to get those feelings out, but repeating bad thoughts without finding upbeat solutions doesn’t do us any good. The mind creates an “alternate reality” in which we only see the negatives. Plus, by doing this with someone else, we compound the bad experience. How do we change our inner narrative?
Recent neuroscience and psychology research indicates that consciously creating a daily gratitude list may help us feel better. This rewires the brain, helping us get rid of toxic feelings in order to embrace the good ones. If you’re Jewish and traditionally religious, this may not be news. The world’s major religions feature “gratitude lists” in daily prayers. If you already pray – and you pay attention to those thanksgiving prayers we do each day – you may provide yourself with a more positive outlook, even if those prayers aren’t necessarily personalized ones.
It’s great to have a gratitude list “built in,” but, if you don’t do formal prayer, for whatever reason, you can still create an informal gratitude list. Here are some tips to get started.
1) Food. Most Canadians are lucky, we have enough food. Choose things that taste good – and be grateful. Think about it. While you’re at it, consider what it’s like to be hungry. If you can afford to donate to the food bank or provide food for others, that’s a great way to show your gratitude.
Most of us know the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread, or the Kiddush, over wine or grape juice. You could push yourself just a bit farther and think about learning the blessings for other foods. Even if you aren’t saying a blessing each time you eat, even a moment of gratitude for food is worth it.
2) Sleep. There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. If you’ve gone without sleep for extended periods – parents, this means you! – you know that having uninterrupted, deep sleep is something to appreciate. I am grateful every day that I get more than six hours of resting horizontally. In that hazy space after waking up and before getting out of bed, relish that feeling of rest. Anyone with a small child knows you can’t be sure when you’ll next get enough sleep, so enjoy it whenever you can.
We’ve got prayers for this, too, of course. We say Modeh Ani when we get up, expressing thanks for “returning our soul” after waking up from sleep. Another prayer thanks G-d for giving the tired strength. I often look around at a service when this is said and think about how we all keep on keepin’ on, getting things done even when we feel exhausted.
3) Housing. Did you sleep in a safe place? Are you able to eat your meals indoors when it’s cold out? Not everyone has this opportunity. Stable access to affordable housing is a Canadian problem. There are days when we all worry that we cannot afford to keep up with housing maintenance. However, there is nothing better than a cozy, warm space indoors during a rainstorm. If you feel thankful to have a safe, comfortable home, consider those who don’t. Homelessness is a Canadian problem. Together, we can think of positive solutions beyond a gratitude list, but we work together better by taking care of ourselves first.
The prayer for this? Birkat Habayit. Different versions include verses from the Torah. The summary? Let this be a peaceful, joyful house, without discord, fear or conflict. Let there be knowledge, wisdom and learning in this home. Let it be filled with holiness, G-d’s presence and beauty.
4) The weather and our natural world. Canadians love to moan about weather. It’s a popular hobby. Yet, we have access to four amazing seasons. Jewish prayers include mention of rain, the growth of crops and animals, sunshine, and even the arrangement of the stars in the firmament. That’s pretty great stuff in there. I’m pretty inspired by nature, growing things and the earth when I read the liturgy carefully.
5) Our bodies. Did you know that many faith traditions have specific ways to appreciate how our bodies are made? It can be amazing to acknowledge how cleverly our bodies work. When you exercise next, even if it is walking to the corner, consider how well things function. Even moderate amounts of exercise keep us healthy and make us feel good. The next time you play a musical instrument, sing, talk, laugh, smell a scent or breathe? Remember to be grateful it’s all working mostly as it should.
Our liturgy includes Asher Yatzar, a prayer that acknowledges how amazing it is that our bodily functions (like going to the bathroom regularly) work so well. Without this functionality, we couldn’t use our bodies to their greatest potential.
6) Our clothing. Are you dry and comfortable? Warm or cool according to the season? Humans used to spin, weave, knit, crochet and sew everything they wore by hand. We’re lucky that our “modern” clothes are easy to come by, but disposable clothing doesn’t show gratitude towards the earth or those who made the clothes. Another aspect of thankfulness is to make things last – to take care of our clothes, mend them, wash them and pass them along when they’re no longer needed. If we value well-made, long-lasting clothes, we also help others stay warm and clothed by using less.
We recite the Malbish Arumim, thanking G-d for clothing the naked. It’s a chance to remember how lucky we are to have the right clothing for the season, occasion and our needs.
Focusing on gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring bad stuff. We can’t (and shouldn’t) screen out the world news, suffering, or upsetting things that happen every day. However, being thankful for small, everyday things can make us better able to cope. Research indicates that it can ease depression, make us more patient, better at taking care of ourselves and our relationships, and help keep us on an even keel, where we might do things in moderation: sleep well, eat less and maintain a sustainable feeling of contentment.
These are many reasons to figure out why we’re thankful – every day. If you voice your thanks to others, you’ll be using good manners. All could benefit from an increase in honest, well-intentioned civility! Pay it forward. Pass along these good feelings of gratitude about what we have. I’ll start. Thank you for reading this – and thinking about gratitude.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.