Gratitude sits with you differently in November. Makes you feel toasty, like the hygge of fire-side reading. Slows your steps, your heart, your soul. You welcome her to your table with a carefully laid-out china and your best chair.
In November, gratitude is the easy-to-get-along-with friend. Her company is pleasant and light. She shares gentle wisdom. Notes the gift of long sleep, chilled air in the lungs, sun hanging steady. Pulls you to a crimson-red maple leaf. “God loves you like that,” she says, eyes dancing.
She’s a constant companion, but she’s not pesky. Doesn’t require much. Maybe a photo snapped once a day. A short caption written for Instagram or Facebook. Or a hand-penned journal line. She’s mostly invitation, though we write her name next to a 30-day challenge.
She doesn’t call us out. Gives grace when we miss a day. Waits patiently until we pick the pen or camera back up.
30-Day Gratitude Challenges
At least this has been my experience with November gratitude challenges, so pretty and alluring in your Pinterest feed. They make the pumpkin patches and pumpkin spice extra vivid because you’re present and drinking it all in. You’re more spontaneous, more relaxed, quicker to laugh. It’s glorious.
But it doesn’t last. Long before Thanksgiving, gratitude—the once-anticipated visitor—becomes someone you avoid. Not on purpose, of course, but because you’ve got to figure out travel plans, hosting plans, menu plans on top of managing the rest of your life.
You miss one day. Then another. And another. By the time Thanksgiving break comes around, you’ve almost forgotten about the challenge altogether. You count the days until the end of the month so you can stop feeling guilty about giving up on it.
Come the end of November, you’re shelving gratitude like she’s one of your color-organized books.
So let’s talk the good and bad of 30-day gratitude challenges. What do we need to know? What have we been missing?
Gratitude Is Not Just a November Thing
The biggest problem with a gratitude challenge is it intuits that gratitude is just a November thing. Welcome for a season but bothersome or too needy the rest of the year. Thus, the goal becomes finishing rather than beginning on a new trajectory.
Short-term goals have their place. You can make great headway on habit formation in 30 days, but that’s if we stuck to it the whole month. For most of us, that if is in bold.
Now, I’m not knocking gratitude challenges. I love them. For the past several years, I’ve contributed to the gratitude challenges in your Pinterest feed. But there’s a big difference between a launch pad and an end goal, and this is where we sell ourselves short.
If gratitude is just for November, it will only change my life in November. But I’ve been wrecked by enough stories of gratitude deepening faith, restoring marriages, health, hope, replacing lies with truth, setting minds and hearts free to buy that gratitude is just for one month of the year.
As host of Begin Within: A Gratitude Series, I get a front-row seat to real people learning to practice gratitude and discovering the difference it makes. My goal for the series is to inspire ripple-effect, year-round gratitude. The gratitude challenges I create cast the same vision. Because what we cultivate inside our hearts turns our thoughts, our eyes, our steps. It seeps into our words and our tone. Our reactions and expressions.
The wide-reaching, life-altering impact of gratitude needn’t be confined to a single month. Rather, it’s a rhythm we can cultivate year-round.
Grace-Gifts Are Tucked Into the Before, Not the After
Another limitation of many 30-day gratitude challenges is that they set us up to look in the rear-view mirror. Express thanks for what’s already happened. And it’s true, look behind you and see incalculable gifts from the good hand of God. We learn much of God’s character from remembering His faithfulness, love, provision in moments past.
But gratitude that can look only one direction is too shallow to weather the darkest storms. Instead, a pattern I learned from King David in the book of Psalms is to say thank you before God answers, redeems, heals.
In Psalm 89 we find David complaining about everything under the sun—for fourteen verses straight—seemingly without taking a breath. Ever been there?! But then, before anything changes, David declares, “Nevertheless, blessed be our God forever and ever. Amen. Faithful is our King!” (v. 52, TPT).
This is a pivotal moment, where David leans on the constancy of God he’d learned through spending a lot of time together. He could recall all the ways God showed up big for him in the past, and this helped him look at the right-now and the coming-next from a different angle. What’s wild yet not surprising is that the verses that follow take a radically different tone. Once David started to praise God, he could not stop.
A pattern I learned from King David in the book of Psalms is to say thank you before God answers, redeems, heals.
Tucked into the things that bring us to our knees are gifts we’d discover no other way—like the companionship of a with-us God, the kindness in His eyes when He looks at us, the way He doesn’t make it easy but instead joins us where it’s hard.
Like David, we can turn to God in thanks in the middle of the tensions of right-now, knowing He never changes. Praise Him nevertheless—in our gratitude journals, through gratitude challenges, and aloud so others can overhear.
Gratitude Challenges Shuffle Us Into Categories
Either you’re in the I’ve-failed category, which is most of us—say you’re bad at gratitude because you couldn’t keep it up for a month—or you pride yourself on crushing that goal (the I-did-it category). Either way, we tend to focus on what we did or didn’t do.
Self-focus always narrows our vision. But one benefit of gratitude is to expand our vision. Help us see God, the people, and the things in our lives with deeper appreciation. Oh, how quickly we forget!
What if, instead of approaching a gratitude challenge as a pass/fail test, we viewed it as a gym where we’re all learning, slowly and imperfectly, to practice gratitude? All in the same room. All heading the same direction.
Instead of competing, comparing, gloating, or self-criticizing, what if we celebrated and cheered each other on as we cultivate grateful hearts?
Instead of curating Instagrammable pictures and Tweetable captions for the gratitude challenge, what if we opened up our real lives to the actual people right in front of us, shared the thanks we’re whispering in the hard and holy places?
What I really want you to know about 30-day gratitude challenges is that they’re good, but they’re just the beginning—the beginning of gratitude that grows you and ripples out beyond you all year round. The launch pad, not the endpoint. The beginning of a deep knowing of the character of God that helps you say thank you in the messy middle. The beginning of growing, becoming, and sharing Jesus in everyday moments through all of it.
Sometimes it’s difficult to be grateful—especially when the world seems to be in chaos. If that’s you, here’s how to seek out the good: Finding Happiness In an Unhappy World – 210