My first real exposure to making gratitude part of my daily routine came many years ago when my group therapist suggested that I keep a gratitude journal. I did this faithfully for years, writing down at least three things every day that I was grateful for (I went through a lot of journals). Then, a few years later I took a professional development graduate course on positive psychology. Unlike "regular" psychology, which focuses on mental illnesses and how to get people back to a baseline of functionality, positive psychology studies how an average individual can actually rise above the baseline and live a happier, more fulfilling life. It was a fascinating class, and one thing that stood out to me is how prominent a feature gratitude is in the lives of people who self-identify as happy. There is a lot of evidence that actively practicing gratitude can lead to increased levels of optimism, self-esteem, and motivation to take care of oneself. Personally, although I have stopped writing in gratitude journals, I still take time every night before saying Shema to think of things from the day for which I'm grateful. This gratitude practice is one of my favorite daily rituals and it plays a big role in my health and happiness in recovery.
It should come as no surprise, then, that one of my favorite features of Judaism is that it has a lot of built-in gratitude. Every morning, the very first words we say are, Modeh/modah ani, thanking G-d for returning our souls to us and waking us up. We then move through Birkat HaShachar, in which we give thanks to G-d for, among other things, the ability to see, clothes to wear, being able to walk, and strength when we are tired. What I love about this is that it is a chance every morning to go back to basics and appreciate all the things that I otherwise would take for granted. For example, since I have always been able to see, I don't usually take time to think about what a miracle it is that my eyes create images and my brain processes them correctly. But in the morning, as I look out my bedroom window at the sun rising over the city skyline, I am reminded that the simple act of seeing is something to be grateful for--every day.
Gratitude also plays a prominent role in the Amidah, which we say three times a day. The Modim is the eighteenth out of nineteen brachot in the Amidah, and its entire focus is thanksgiving. I will admit that at the crack of dawn when I daven Shacharit, it is very, very hard for me to stay focused on all the brachot. But I always make a big effort to focus on the Modim, because to me it feels like the most important part of the entire prayer. In the Modim, we acknowledge that our lives are in G-d's care and that He works miracles in our world every day--not "burning bush" miracles, but "everyday" miracles: sunrise and sunset, forces of nature, our physical well-being, etc.
I recently read an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that explains a feature of the Modim prayer that I previously had not understood. When the prayer leader repeats the Amidah, all the congregation has to do to signal their agreement with the leader's words is to say, "Amen," after every blessing--then, it is as if the congregants had said all the words themselves. The exceptions are Kedushah, in which the congregation responds out loud, and the Modim. When the prayer leader repeats the Modim out loud, instead of just sitting quietly and saying, "Amen," at the end, each person in the congregation has to say a parallel blessing, called "Modim of the Rabbis." Why? Rabbi Sacks cites the work of Rabbi Elijah Spira (1660-1712), who teaches that we cannot give the responsibility of saying, "Thank you," to someone else to do on our behalf. Every person has to say it for him- or herself. I like to think that this is for two reasons: 1) Hashem deserves to hear, "Thank you," directly from each of us; 2) saying, "Thank you" (and meaning it!) will actually make us happier, healthier people.
In a way, Puritan origins notwithstanding, celebrating Thanksgiving is a Jewish thing to do--it's just something that we usually do every day. But why not take one day a year to do it with friends and family? Personally, I think it's a great idea. Believe me, I know that Thanksgiving can be a tough holiday for people with eating disorders. But remember: even if you aren't yet in a place where you can enjoy all the food and company, you can do gratitude. All you need is a sense of awareness. Try finding three specific things you're grateful for, and maybe say them out loud to someone special in your life. It just might make the day a little brighter and a lot more meaningful.