Five Ways to Make the Most of the 30 Days of Thankfulness

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It’s November, the month of Thanksgiving, which means that folks on Facebook are celebrating the 30 Days of Thankfulness. Last week a friend me asked if I knew the origins of this practice. I don’t know where it started, but I’m touched that she would associate it with me. The 30 days is a burst of positive energy in an often snarky and cranky social media universe…

…Generally.

However.

My friend Marci has decided not to participate because of the potential for bragbooking. I’m sympathetic to her concerns. My next book looks at technology and digital culture from a spiritual perspective.  As I research, I’m finding various studies suggesting that Facebook has the potential to decrease people’s happiness. One person’s gratitude is another person’s braggadocio. We end up comparing other people’s outsides to our insides, or as I saw it expressed somewhere, everyone else’s sizzle reel to our blooper reel.

But I’m not sure the answer, for me, anyway, is to sit out the practice altogether. After all—and Marci points this out herself—gratitude is a spiritual practice.

Where’s the challenge in being thankful when you’re on top of the world?  It’s considerably harder to see gratitude in ordinary life as it chugs along. And when things are downright crappy, gratitude can be transforming, the tiny candle you wrap your fingers around to keep the darkness at bay.

Social media is here to stay. People are welcome to dip in and out of it, or take long breaks, or hide the gratitude posts that make them crazy, or whatever they need to do for their own mental and spiritual health. As someone who takes tech sabbaths every week, I believe you’re under no obligation to consume social media the way other people do. But it is a part of our lives. So it seems worthwhile to practice engaging with it in ways that are hospitable to others and gracious to yourself.

So here’s how the 30-day gratitude challenge can be helpful and not an exercise in bragbooking. I offer these as someone who studies social media and digital culture, and as a pastor who has taught and practiced the Ignatian examen (a practice of gratitude and discernment) for many years.

1. Go beyond the obvious. At the women’s retreat I led this weekend, I gave them an icebreaker question to answer in small groups: “It’s just not Thanksgiving without…”  But I specifically told them, “You can’t say ‘family’ or ‘my grandkids.'” I hope this caveat invited them to share something more specific and personal.

My friend Kristen posted a great moment of thankfulness this weekend: “Hair – as a fresh ‘do can literally change you. [My hairdresser] has been a steady presence in my life since 2004 when I wandered into the salon where she worked. 9 years, 2 salons, 4 jobs (me), 5 kids (hers plus mine) and countless haircuts, highlights and hairstyles later – I’m proud to call her friend and stylist extraordinaire.”

No bragbooking there. Just a touching tribute by a fabulous, sassy gal. Kristen’s update invites me into gratitude for the folks who provide services for me and the friendships that can develop.

It also makes me consider getting highlights. Again.

2. Think small. The examen is meant to be a daily practice. And often our most grateful moment is not the biggest headline of the day, but the moment that took our breath away. Maybe you got a huge raise at work (I know, in this economy? hey, it could happen), but the breathtaking moment was the act of kindness you saw in the line at Starbucks. Gratitude can be a trickster.

3. Be specific. “I’m thankful for my health” may be true. And for someone who’s battled cancer, or recovered from an injury, that’s huge. But consider how your update sounds to a friend whose health is a source of stress, or who’s in a chronic struggle with an illness. Instead, how about a specific thing your health allowed you to enjoy today? I’m thankful that I could pick up my big kindergartner today without my back going out.

4. Violate the Zaxxon rule. At the end of every Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, the host and guests share “what’s making us happy this week.” The idea is to recommend interesting movies, TV or books to the audience. During an early episode Stephen Thompson gushed about the Zaxxon video game he’d recently purchased. Later the group realized that it wasn’t the best “what’s making me happy,” since it’s not like everyone can go out and buy a Zaxxon machine. They instituted the Zaxxon rule to keep them accountable to share stuff that other people could reasonably partake of.

When it comes to gratitude, we should violate, rather than follow, the Zaxxon rule. That cuts down on comparisons. I am grateful for the flame of color from the Japanese maple in my front yard. That’s very particular to my situation. You don’t feel bad for not having a Japanese maple in your yard, do you?

5. Confront the bragbooker. Do it publicly only if you can do it lightheartedly, otherwise in private. Is it crazy to think we could do this, in the spirit of authenticity and friendship? Maybe. I realize this is hard. But if my posts are providing a stumbling block to someone, I want to know it. We’re all works in progress, folks. We can help one another along.

Are you participating in the 30 days of gratefulness? Why or why not?

~

photo credit: MTSOfan via photopin cc

16 thoughts on “Five Ways to Make the Most of the 30 Days of Thankfulness

  1. Robin

    I am, and maybe I’ll write my own post about it later. But for most of the past five years the concept of gratitude has been an almost entirely foreign one to me, and most of all I am grateful that I can now see my way to thankfulness and hope.

    Maybe it does sound like social bragging; I don’t know. Sound bites, or FB bites, have a way of truncating reality. But anyone who knows me knows that when I am expressing gratitude for the women and men being sworn into the state bar today and the professors and mentors who helped them get this far, I am expressing gratitude for the fact that my son, whose adolescent was troubled and whose twin brother died, has triumphed over disaster and has a future to which to look forward.

    If others are able to be grateful for unsullied lives, then good for them for noticing. But many of the friends I see expressing gratitude on FB this month are people who in the past few years have lost parents and spouses and children and jobs and health. If you can read between the lines, you see miracles.

    Reply
  2. anne

    one year as a lenten practice i wrote hand-written thank you notes each day. at the beginning of lent, it was difficult to select from the many people i wanted to thank. who will i write to today? by the end of lent it was difficult for another reason, because i’d already written all the easy notes. who will i write to today?
    none of this exercise involved social media. it was pre fb, though email was a part of my life.
    it did focus my thinking that year, which is part of what the month of thankfulness is all about, i guess.

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  3. Chad

    Appreciate your reflections on this. I’m more with Marci, personally, on my own practice of this. I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to cultivate gratitude and to do so publicly, though there is a thin line sometimes and its often in the eye of the beholder and reveals both something about the poster and something about the reader. (Confession: Maybe my tackling of the parable of the pharisee and the publican a few weeks ago weighs more on my thinking this morning, don’t know). So I try not to worry too much about a complex set of motives, but try on my own part to err towards simplicity and warmth in receiving remarks whenever I post something for which I am thankful. And I try to celebrate others in the gifts God is working through them when Social Media brings news of them to me.

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  4. Pingback: 30 Days of Thankfulness? | Glass Overflowing

  5. Jeanny House

    I lack the follow-through to do 30 Days of Anything. I start well, for a day or three, then I forget. “Get more disciplined,” the voices say. Alas, I’m really good at letting them talk without having any impact on my actions whatsoever.

    I don’t notice bragbooking much. I hear and read about it, but either my friends don’t do it or I’m oblivious to it. Maybe it’s because, following The Four Agreements, I’m learning not to take anything personally. What others post is not about me. Even if they try to make it about me. It’s about them. So, I can choose to celebrate with them that their kid made the honor roll and the varsity whatever team and the Kiwanis Kid of the Month and got accepted to Fancypants University — all on the SAME day. Or I can be upset with them because I don’t even have a kid, so how dare they rub their pride in my face? I choose the former because it’s just so much more fun to live that way.

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  6. Keith

    I’m tempted to participate in the same way I’m tempted to do the Coffeeneuring Challenge, and know it would end the same way: Three stabs at it, a missed thing, guilt, another missed thing, too many pressures already anyway, and you all have fun.

    But I am grateful for Pickett’s Ginger Beer Syrup.

    Reply
  7. Deborah

    I DO feel bad about not having a Japanese maple in my yard — but not because of your gratitude. Thanks for this and I very much look forward to reading your next book around these issues. I have been feeling vaguely annoyed with the gratitude pop ups on Facebook (LOVE the term “bragbooking”) and haven’t taken time yet to figure out why. This post gives me a head start in that direction. Thanks again. (BTW, one friend has been engaging in a month of sarcasm instead and I have been very thankful for those posts.)

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  8. Kara Stewart

    Marci, thank you for raising up a difficult issue: how our posts on Facebook are received. Communication has become truncated online, and we spend far more time looking at FB posts than we do praying in church, where we give time and space to the full human experience. I won’t be participating, either, just because I’m not a joiner. But if it’s going to help someone reorient their perspective on life, more power to them.
    I just hope we don’t lose the ability to fully express our hopes and dreams in more than a Facebook soundbite.

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  9. Deborah

    Mary Elizabeth Williams has another good one on Salon that made me think of your conversation here:

    “Watching Upworthy videos makes you feel like you’re good. But even that’s not enough. Somehow, we’ve now created a world in which after proving to yourself that you’re not made of stone, you’re then encouraged to brag about it on Facebook, announcing that “This made me bawl my eyes out because I am still a person who cares about things and I am not yet dead inside and if you care about things you’ll cry too!””

    http://www.salon.com/2013/11/06/down_with_online_crybait/

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