By Dr. Jo Wolthusen
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life, It turns what
we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance,
chaos into order, confusion to clarity… Gratitude makes
sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates
a vision for tomorrow” ~ Melody Beattie
The holidays are the perfect time to reflect on the year and acknowledge what we are thankful for. It’s wonderful to see traditions like families gathered around the Thanksgiving table, each taking turns saying what they are most thankful for. However, as Positive Psychology research indicates, gratitude is a gift we all benefit from when practiced daily throughout the year. Gratitude is the act of being appreciative and thankful for the things and people in your life.
Life is a school full of lessons to be learned. M.J. Ryan says we are all here to “grow our souls, to heal our wounds… and become more loving, kind, fearless and hopeful…cultivating an attitude of gratitude is the key to living from an open heart…living in a spirit of joyful expectation.” We are able to create our best lives from a foundation of gratitude. It empowers us, moving us from a victim stance (Why do bad things always happen to me all the time; I never have enough…)to instead focus on how we have been supported both in good times and in times of adversity. So gratitude, then, is the magical key.
We are on an amazing adventure called human life. Life is perfectly imperfect and often unpredictable. Make the decision to live your life from a place of gratitude. It’s a choice. Think of your life as a spectacular banquet filled with some tantalizing, delicious dishes along with those that are far from appetizing. Each day, you get to create your personal menu. Will you choose the dishes that are unappetizing or make you sick? Or would you choose the dishes that are delicious and satisfying? It sounds like a no-brainer, right? But all too often, people can get mired by the negativity and focus on the bad stuff in their lives that only serve to reinforce their negative mindset. They get into a bad habit of focusing on what’s wrong, instead of what’s right.
Creating a Momentum
Gratitude is a key factor for individual happiness. So choose to redirect your focus and celebrate the good stuff. Practicing being appreciative and thankful on a daily basis allows us to transform ourselves and our reality. Focusing on the good creates a momentum of positive energy, where more good comes into our lives. This is the notion of cultivating abundance. Martha Beck (one of my favorite authors) says that abundance comes from “pushing our limits, from helping others, and especially from expressing gratitude.” You know how when your friend says she has her heart set on buying a brand new blue SUV, then you suddenly begin to see all sorts of blue SUVs popping up all over? The same phenomenon happens when actively turn our attention toward being thankful. It’s as if a spotlight appears in our lives to highlight all the goodness that surrounds us. ” The longer we stay in gratitude, the more abundance we see, the more gratitude grows…we begin to notice small miracles, then larger ones. “ (M. Beck). When you look through the lens of gratitude, you no longer see as manly obstacles or hindrances. Instead, as Michael Beckwith notes, You begin to see the possibilities and potential, where you “become an open vehicle for more inspiration, more wisdom, more abundance.”
Gifts of Gratitude
Gratitude creates a sense of joy in our life; they go hand in hand. When you are in a state of joy, you don’t feel sadness or fear. Buddhism says that most of our suffering is the result of expectation. Tony Robbins encourages us to trade our expectation for appreciation. It is in that moment that our life is transformed, where our suffering ends. Our behavior is often motivated either from a place of love or fear. So much of our bad behavior and negativity arise from fear, which further creates suffering. Gratitude is a state born from a place of love. Living in a state of gratitude leaves no room for fear.
Gratitude is a powerful, transformative tool that can have a profound effect on your life. It is a celebration of the present moment. By valuing something we are able to appreciate more benefits and less likely to take that special gift for granted. Gratitude also blocks negativity so we are less likely to experience negative emotions like resentment, anger or regret that can diminish our happiness. Research has shown that a gratitude practice can even decrease the frequency and duration of depressive episodes. In essence, you can’t feel jealous and grateful at the same time. So a feeling of appreciation will cancel out the negative emotions. Grateful people are also more resilient. People who practice appreciation on a regular basis tend to bounce back quicker when faced with adversity.
The benefits of a gratitude practice are endless. Gratitude studies show that people report feeling better about themselves. Dr. Robert Emmons conducted a study where people kept a gratitude journal for just three weeks and the results where astonishing. In less than a month, participants consistently reported and array of benefits in several realms, including:
- Increased levels of positive emotions
- Increased alertness
- Increased joy and pleasure
- Increased optimism and happiness
- Stronger immune systems
- Decreased aches and pains
- Lower blood pressure
- Better sleep
- Increased helpfulness, generosity and compassion
- More forgiving
- More outgoing
- Feeling less lonely and isolated
Clearly, while living with a grateful attitude benefits people on a multitude of levels, it also positively affects the person receiving the gratitude. It’s a “two-way benefit”. People who are thanked tend to feel more appreciated and it tends to reinforce positive behaviors. Practicing gratitude creates a strong foundation for healthy, happier relationships.
Obstacles to Gratitude
Gratitude itself is a simple concept but at times can be challenging to practice. For most of us, it doesn’t come naturally. It requires work to intentionally focus on the good. It’s no surprise that if we are raised in a critical, negative environment that we can learn to view life from a skewed, negative lens. As children, we learn to focus on what is not right. We tend to get bogged down in the negativity of what we are lacking. Dr. Emmons says that our brains are “wired for negativity, for noticing gaps and omissions. Whatever emotion you express, you amplify it.” When you act on anger, you get angrier. When you demonstrate gratitude, you become more grateful. By consistently practicing an attitude of gratitude you are essentially rewiring your brain to be more positive. The result is you begin to notice more of what’s right, instead of what’s wrong.
Old habits die hard and can be another obstacle in our road to gratitude. It can be easy to lapse back into a negative or skeptical mode. We are often reinforced for complaining, where misery loves company. And let’s face it, life is full of it’s challenges. Like any new healthy habit, we have to be patient with ourselves as we actually work on creating a gratitude practice.
Now that you are ready and motivated to approach life with an energized, grateful heart, here is a list of suggestions to put it into practice:
- Gratitude Journal – This is my personal favorite. You can go old-school and get a journal or go high-tech and choose one of the many gratitude apps for your smart phone. Every day, write at least 3 things you are grateful for, appreciative of, or that was a positive for the day. It can be something big (I got the promotion at work!), or relatively small (a stranger held the door open for me today). You may have some repeats (I’m grateful for my dog, Murphy), but make an effort to include novel things too. Be specific. For example, I’m really glad that Tiffany brought me that Pumpkin Latte to work this morning because I was running late and unable to stop).
- Gratitude Jar– This is a fun variation of the gratitude journal. Here the entire family gets to participate in the gratitude game. Have family members write about a positive of the day and put it in the jar. Then at the end of each week, empty the jar and each family member takes turns reading each entry out loud.
- Write a Gratitude Letter– Detail the kindness of someone who made a difference but you neglected to truly thank. Then read the letter aloud to that person. Studies have shown that after this “gratitude visit”, people’s happiness quotient tended to go up, while negative feelings decreased for up to an entire month!
- Savoring– is a technique where you really appreciate and absorb all of life’s small and big enjoyable moments. By focusing on the moment, Dr. Fred Bryant says we can “extend and intensify a good experience, extracting every morsel from it”. As a result, we don’t just enjoy those moments more, we get an increase in our overall happiness quotients too. Start by adopting a “stop and smell the roses” mentality. For example, if you’re having a cup of coffee with your friend, pause to savor the flavor and enjoy the distinct aroma. Enjoy the company and the opportunity to take a nice break in your day. It’s really living in the moment, taking time to pause and soak in the goodness.
- Gratitude Moment– Remember a moment of true happiness in your life. It can be from your distant childhood or a recent event. Begin to reflect on that memory. Imagine you are there, as if you are experiencing it again, right now. What are you seeing? Are you with others or alone? What do you hear, smell? What is it about that moment that makes it so special? What are you grateful for regarding that memory?
- Prayer or meditation– Find a spiritual practice that speaks to you. Either a religious prayer or a mediation that focuses on gratitude. Check out YouTube where there are countless free options of mediations focused on gratitude, or try an App like “Calm” that has a week long gratitude challenge.
- No Complaint Challenge– Create a “no complaint zone” and challenge yourself to go an entire day with no complaining! After that, go for a week or more.
- Compliment More– Tell other people when you like something, be it a new scarf they or wearing or that they are always super helpful at the office. Just one brief comment can make someone’s day.
- Write Thank You Notes– Go old school again and actually hand write a thank you note that you mail to someone you appreciate. Personally, it’s refreshing to get a note letting me know that I’m appreciated (and it’s so much better than getting another bill!)
- Pay it Forward– Give someone else the gift of gratitude by performing a kind gesture. Next time you’re in the Starbuck’s drive-thru, .pay for the order of the car behind you. Or tape a dollar bill on a vending machine at work with a note saying, “Enjoy and pay it forward!”
When I started my gratitude journal many years ago, I found myself actually looking for things throughout my day that I could log in my journal that evening. I can honestly say that my journal has several references to chocolate brownies as a delicious treat and getting a prime parking space at the office. Have fun with your newfound gratitude practice and enjoy the process!
By the way, thank you for reading my blog! 😉