One of Lee Nagel’s favorite suggestions at workshops he led as director of the National Conference (now Community) of Catechetical Leaders (NCCL) was to begin a daily practice of gratefulness.
Lee, a dear friend of mine, said it takes about two months to create a habit, so “Do this every morning and pretty soon you will feel something is missing in your life when you don’t.” All you need is a notebook and the desire. Each day, on a new page, write the date on top and the numbers from one to 10 down the side. Then, without thinking too much, write 10 things for which you are thankful. If you spend too much time on these or try to make them profound or lengthy, you will likely give up. This should take five minutes, tops.
Lee was a step ahead of the objections he knew were coming. “Sure, you don’t have the time,” he would say. “Yes, I know, you can’t think of 10 things to write.” Or, “Of course, you don’t see how this is going to help your life.” Then he would come back with, “We all have five minutes somewhere in our day. Put the notebook in the bathroom, on the kitchen table or on your bed stand. If you can’t think of anything, let me get you started,” he would say smiling, getting his audience to follow his suggestion.
Keep it simple and real. You are grateful for waking up this morning, for having a pen, a notebook, for the ability to think, for being able to write, for having a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear, food to eat, a roof over your head, a job, and an income. That’s 10 things right there. Done.
Do this daily at the same time in the same place for two months to create the habit of gratitude. Don’t worry if you write the same things every day. For now, the practice is more about creating the habit of being grateful than about the specifics.
So, what is the purpose or benefit in this exercise in gratitude? Lee would say that when you consciously spend time (even if it’s just five minutes) each day making a list of the things you are thankful for, you begin to live a life of gratitude, which is a virtue that brings us abundant life. This spiritual practice draws us closer to God and God closer to us.
Catholic Digest published an essay titled, “A guide to growing in gratitude: a thankful disposition of mind and heart” in which the author details a series of steps to achieve that growth. These steps include taking our lives to prayer, surrounding ourselves with grateful people, assessing our needs and learning the value of forgiveness.
Besides the spiritual benefits, gratitude is good for your physical health. The Mayo Clinic published an online article, “Can expressing gratitude improve your mental, physical health?” (mayoclinichealthsystem.org/wellness/gratitude) The answer is yes, because “behavior changes biology. Positive gestures benefit you by releasing oxytocin, a hormone that helps connect people. Some people call it the love hormone.” You can join the Mayo Clinic Health System’s free “Discover Gratitude program” through its website. It offers a practice that encourages participants to keep a gratitude journal going.
If you search online, you will find dozens of books and journals on gratitude for every person with every taste. If you appreciate science, you might like “The Neuroscience of Gratitude,” by Andrew Humington (independently published, July 29, 2023).
Whatever means we use, the more we include gratitude in our spiritual practices, the more graces we receive and, in turn, share with others.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)