Ever since early man discovered fire and cheered an end to raw meat, celebrations have united human communities in honoring momentous events, rites of passage, religious observances and more. Celebrating as a group bestows a sense of belonging, something crucial to human fulfillment. From birthdays to funerals, there is no end to the celebrations of who we are, where we came from, what we’ve done, what we worship and even who or what we’ve lost. Bizarre celebrations like Take it in the Ear Day (December 8) or Humiliation Day (January 6) are but a tiny sample of the thousands of opportunities Americans can seize to celebrate…well…anything.
Which begs the question: Do we need a holiday or an observance in order to don our party hats? The overwhelming response from the scientific, religious, medical and spiritual communities is no! Celebrating our own lives on a daily basis is a way to develop an “attitude of gratitude” that can literally transform our outlook on life and our ability to more deeply enjoy what we already have. In fact, Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California (Davis) and the founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology conducted experiments to gauge how gratitude impacts human well-being. Along with Dr. Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, Emmons’ study split several hundred people into three different groups and all were instructed to keep daily journals. Group one wrote about each days’ events without assigning qualities of good or bad to their observations. Group two was told to write about only their unpleasant experiences. Group three was instructed to make a daily list of things for which they were grateful. The results?
Daily gratitude writings resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Even better, those in the “gratitude” group experienced less depression and stress, were more likely to help others, exercised more consistently and made greater progress toward achieving personal goals. Dr. Emmons’ research also shows that those who celebrate their lives by practicing gratitude tend to be more creative, bounce back more quickly from adversity, have a stronger immune system and have stronger social relationships than those who don’t practice gratitude. “To say we feel grateful is not to say that everything in our lives is necessarily great,” he says, “It just means we are aware of our blessings.”
Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits website offers some practical advice on cultivating the habit of being grateful. Many days, Babauta holds a two-to-three-minute “gratitude session” with himself. “I don’t do it every day, but let me tell you, on the days I do it, it makes me very happy.” Why should the simple act of thinking about and celebrating who and what he’s grateful for make such a big difference in his life? “Because,” he says, “it reminds you of the positive things in your life. It turns bad things into good things.” As an example, he cites problems at work. “Be grateful you have work. Be grateful you have challenges and that life isn’t boring. Be grateful that you can learn from these challenges. Be thankful they make you a stronger person.” Babauta, Emmons and others who practice the daily celebration of life offer these tips to develop a lasting habit of gratitude:
Celebrate your day…before it begins. While your head is still on the pillow, take just a few minutes to scan your inner landscape and identify all the things for which you are grateful, even if it’s just the fact that you are in a warm bed with a roof over your head.
Give thanks sincerely and often. Pay attention to the gestures of consideration shown to you throughout the day. Be sure to thank, with meaning, everyone who pays you a kindness. Write letters to people thanking them for what they’ve done for you. Telephone someone and tell them how much you appreciate their influence on your life.
Appreciate the “negatives” in your life. Obstacles and challenges teach us resilience, humility and they allow us to become more capable of overcoming bigger problems. Instead of going ballistic over your neighbor’s barking dog, be grateful for the opportunity to practice patience.
Find a gratitude prayer you like and say it often. It does not have to be religious, but it should be recited religiously. Committing your prayer to memory, posting it in places where you will see it often, will remind you to celebrate what you’ve got instead pining for what you don’t.
Keep a journal. Don’t like to write? Do something called the “rampage of appreciation.” Think about all the things for which you’re grateful, open your journal, set a timer for one minute and spray the page with anything and everything that comes to mind. Don’t stop until the timer rings. When it’s over, you’ll be amazed at how many blessings belong to you.
Count your blessings before you count sheep. Just as you begin your day as a celebration, end it the same way. By focusing on the good things in your life, you reduce mental stress which contributes to insomnia. Gladys Bronwyn Stern said: “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.” Celebrating your life and all that’s in it opens the way for more. At the very least you’ll sleep better and at the most you’ll lift your own spirits to a new level. You can still celebrate Lumpy Rug Day (May 3) and If Pets Had Thumbs Day (March 3) but you don’t have to wait for an excuse to party. Go ahead, make some noise! It’s your life we’re celebrating! Photos: Woman with dog Credit: Brigitte Smith/Getty Images Group celebrating Credit: Shelby Ross/Getty Images