Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Thankfulness Experiment

It's that time of year again, when we are asked to comment around the table, or on Facebook, or in school, about all the things we're thankful for. Little kids will list toys, pets, favorite foods. Adults will offer the usual - good health, family and friends, a safe place to live. And then, of course, everyone bemoans the fact that we aren't this mindfully grateful the rest of the year.

Well, I'm here to tell you, thankfulness (at least the way it's seasonally marketed) ain't all it's cracked up to be. And I think that's because we're going about it all wrong.

Before you decide I'm a spoiled, ungrateful brat and quit reading, let me tell you that I've spent the past year working on constant, mindful thankfulness. Yeah, I do stuff like that. I began The Thankfulness Experiment last year at Thanksgiving and it's coming to a close now. The experience was not at all what I expected.

First of all, I have to admit that my life is pretty good. I have a happy marriage, a lovely daughter, good health, great friends. I figured it would be easy to spend a year focusing on all the things I'm thankful for, thereby increasing all the positive energy in my life and improving my overall level of joy. Sounds like it would work, right? Well, the human psyche is a strange thing.

The more I actively, consciously worked to focus on things I'm honestly grateful for - everything from the smell of a spring breeze to a collection of wonderful friends to a hug from my daughter - the more I also noticed all the things I don't like about my life, things that are annoying, stressful, even downright dangerous. It's like, once I started paying closer attention to a few things, I could no longer choose what I paid attention to. Everything stood out in greater relief, both good and bad.

I began assessing this year-long experiment in the a few weeks ago, as Halloween passed and we began to prepare for another Thanksgiving. The more I thought about my experiences, the more I was reminded of the Kahlil Gibran quote: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

I really think that's what I experienced, sort of the opposite of the 'flattening effect' that anti-depressants have on the emotions. I chose to focus on just one aspect of my life but in the process the whole world became much more alive, more three-dimensional, more real. Including the ugly bits.

And you know what? As I reflected on the experience, without intending to, I found myself honestly being thankful even for the unpleasant stuff. No, I don't enjoy the darknesses in life. But somehow, in paying attention to them, I've discovered a kind of appreciation for them. Sure, I always understood (at least cerebrally) the idea that the brightest light casts the darkest shadow. But now, on a gut level, I really get it.

After reflection I also realized that, for me at least, the best way to do what I originally intended to do - be truly thankful on a regular basis outside the holiday season - is to just relax. The harder I work at being thankful, the more difficult it gets. So I've quit working at it, and the change is astounding.

I think most of us are naturally appreciative of the world around us and the many wonders it contains. Children certainly are; the good stuff stands out in their minds, in their hearts. If we just quit worrying so much about 'doing it right' - being appropriately, socially-acceptably thankful for the appropriate, socially-acceptable things - the world flows gently around us and we naturally respond to all the good things, the things we instinctively feel gratitude for. The good stuff.

So I've ended my experiment. I'm no longer working at being thankful, just allowing myself to be. And you know what? The bad stuff recedes into the background while the good stuff floats up into view. Even when I was standing in line this morning at the DMV to renew my driver's license. Now, if that's not true positive power, I don't know what is.

So this Thanksgiving I'm thankful for the opportunity to allow myself simply to be, and not require myself to be thankful for any particular tangible or intangible thing that people might expect me to express gratitude for.

Breathe in. Breathe out. So it is, and so we let it be.