How Gratitude can change your life
Many say you can “think” your way to success but did you know you can also “thank” your way - that’s right, being thankful can change your life. Researchers discovered that when the going gets tough, the mentally strong tend to exchange self-pity for gratitude. For example, the more grateful the survivors of September 11 terrorist attacks tested, the greater their resilience (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003).
Long ago in India a man called Patanjali wrote down a collection of beliefs early yogis discovered through meditation and pondering. These men chose to slow down and live very simply often withdrawing to natural places to think about life. Patanjali and his fellow yogis recognised the importance of being thankful:
“Joy is attained through the practice of gratitude.”
This is an interesting statement because it suggests that gratitude is a skill that can be practiced and improved. Modern research agrees. Neuroscience demonstrates that our brains have a negativity bias. We tend to constantly assess people, situations and environments for “threat.” Our minds are most easily preoccupied with fear and negative thoughts - with problems! Negative or critical thoughts are like Velcro in our brains - they stick. Positive or joyful thoughts are like Teflon - they slide away. The upshot is that we have to deliberately choose to think positively and hold onto these thoughts before they “imprint” (register with our brains and get stored as memory, building healthy, happy neural pathways). In practical terms this means that when a grateful thought comes our way we have to savor it for at least 15 seconds before it gets stored in our mind. The way we think activates different parts of the brain so that a negative thought makes us more likely to go on thinking negatively and vice versa. Science and the faith/wisdom traditions echo Patanjali’s observation that we need to slow down and actively contemplate all the good in our lives - find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything - even and most especially perhaps in the problematic. Mother Teresa said that one of the best ways she learned to show gratitude was to accept everything, even her problems, with joy.
Rumi, poet and follower of the Sufi, mystical arm of Islam puts it like this:
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness.
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house of its furniture
Still, treat each guest honorably
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The Bible says:
You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling and gracious - the best not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise; not things to curse. (The Message)
Personally I have got a lot out of practicing gratitude. I like to journal my gratitude 3 times a week and I do a gratitude meditation at least once a week. I have noticed that to tell someone why you are grateful for them, whether it be in person, by phone or writing a thoughtful card/letter not only brightens their day but it makes you feel happy and the feeling persists beyond the action. Some of the people I have expressed my thanks to died unexpectedly not long after and having told them what they meant to me helped me come to terms with their passing.
I do have some reservations about all this “positive-thinking” stuff though. One concern is that we can easily lose our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes, listen and bear witness to pain - that is we can lose our loving kindness and compassion. Life does involve a fair amount of suffering. I think it’s important to acknowledge it. I am not a trained counselor but I don’t think it is healthy to ignore or deny hardships and I think it cruel to treat others facing difficulties like this. In religious and yoga circles I have noticed this tendency. I think we need to learn to be comfortable taking a long loving look at what’s real not just plastering on a smile. I have noticed those most willing to dismiss other people’s problems with a quick, knee jerk “let’s look on the bright side” or similar pat responses are often the one’s most likely to perceive a lack of sympathy for their own troubles. They are generally those that have not had to deal with too much personal tragedy, and they are the most likely to imagine catastrophes when their own life hits the first road bump. My approach is to give some thought to problems, acknowledge and express suffering, rather than live in some fake, uber-positive, “Pollyanna” bubble. Finding the silver lining is a process, it takes time, and the first step is to face the difficulty. For some, dependent on the depth of suffering (eg. the death of a child), this first step could take years. Some will never be whole again. We need to let it hurt, let it bleed, let it heal, and then we can we let it go (to borrow the words of poet, Nikita Gill).
Research into gratitude is relatively new (beginning in 2000) but the results suggest cultivating a mindful, gratitude practice is well worth the effort. Gratitude:
1. Helps us make friends. If we take the time to thank new, helpful people that enter our life they are much more likely to seek an ongoing relationship.
2. Makes us healthier. It lowers blood pressure and inflammatory markers. More grateful people have significantly lower levels of HbA1c, a protein in blood associated with heart failure, heart attack, diabetes, kidney disease, and cancer.
3. Increases happiness and decreases depression: Gratitude reduces feelings of envy, resentment, frustration and regret.
4. Gives us social superpowers. We become less aggressive. We also become more sensitive and empathetic.
5. Helps us sleep. Try counting blessings instead of sheep.
6. Boosts self-esteem.
7. Decreases stress.
Here are some interesting ways to cultivate thankfulness:
1. Gratitude Jar: add notes during the year jotting down what you feel grateful for. Empty on New Year’s Eve and share with family and/or friends.
2. Gratitude Letter: find someone you are grateful for that you have never properly thanked and write them a thoughtful letter.
3. Gratitude Journal: write what you are grateful for - 3 days a week.
4. Nature Watch: be mindful of the beauty of trees, birds, flowers, and sky as you go about your normal everyday life.
5. Watch inspiring videos or read inspiring books that remind you of the good in the world.
6. When the people you live or work with do a good job let them know.
7. Thank the people who serve you in the community - shopkeepers, bus drivers, doctors, dentists, yoga teachers!
8. Call your grandparents and tell them you love them. My maternal grandmother has passed away but I was grateful to have the time to tell her how much she meant to me before she died.
9. See the growth opportunity in your mistakes.
10. Make gratitude a part of household mealtimes.
11. Focus on your strengths
12. Share gratitude on social media.
So let’s get our gratitude muscle pumping and we may find like Piglet in the classic children’s storybook, Winnie the Pooh, that though we have a very small heart, it can hold rather a large amount of gratitude.
I would like to thank my husband for his friendship, support and help in starting my own business. For his help around the house and for his wonderful company on our bush walks. And for overcoming a “dance phobia” to take up salsa just because he knows I love to dance. I am grateful for the many adventures we have shared. I would also like to thank my kids for being their wonderful, unique, talented selves and for their help with digital marketing and graphic design. I am thankful for my cat, Izzie, who teaches me about mindfulness every day.
What are you grateful for? Have you discovered any interesting ways to express your gratitude? What difference has it made in your life? Feel free to comment below. Next week I will be talking about the “Nature Fix.”