More joy. More peace. More hope. More connection.
Safe to say we all want them. How do we get them?
Building joy and peace in life, comfort in our own skin, being able to live according to our values is largely dependent on our habits of responding to ourselves, others, and situations. Like putting pennies in a bank, the choices we make moment to moment add up. Our habits set the tone for our lives. We can build habits that infuse our lives with peace and a deeper sense of connection with ourselves and others. We can also build habits that get us farther from these things. Just like a pattern of spending more pennies than we have leads to debt and heaps of other problems, so does a pattern of responding ineffectively to life’s challenges. Lots of things happen in life that are outside of our control; overwhelming, painful, unfair things. Things we did not choose and do not like. Even in excruciating moments, we have a choice in how we respond. Our responses can either increase and prolong the misery, or help us get on the road towards feeling better.
So what does gratitude have to do with this?
Gratitude is essential to becoming increasingly able to respond well; responding in ways that make things better instead of worse.
In a brief survey of the literature, science seems overwhelmingly to support gratitude’s potential for improving every area of our lives – like water filling in the holes in a sponge, or like a rising tide lifting all boats, or like how going to kickboxing classes improves your energy, your fitness, AND your confidence. Research indicates gratitude has an immense ability to increase positive emotions, which is key in building emotional heartiness and resilience. Emotional heartiness and resilience are also needed for decreasing overall misery and increasing the ability to live in line with our values – even in the face of severe disappointment and pain. Emotional heartiness and resilience are absolutely required for responding effectively, in ways that make things better, whatever the situation. Regular, intentional practice of gratitude has the potential to make us able to do this. By practicing gratitude, we’re likely to feel more confident in our ability to handle life’s challenges well, and to feel better generally because of this.
Gratitude also increases one’s ability to be mindful, or more aware, in the present moment. Practicing gratitude requires mindfulness, which is basically the ability to control what we pay attention to and for how long. As we are focusing on what we are grateful for in the moment, new things come to our attention to be grateful for. These discoveries turn up the volume on our sense of wellbeing and happiness, which increases gratitude, and so on.
One article sums up an amazing amount of gratitude info, benefits, and the science behind it: The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life” by Amit Amin
Check it out his findings:
Practicing/focusing on gratitude improves:
- Happiness – we’re more focused on the positive stuff and what we do have.
- Health – we sleep better; have more energy; live longer; have healthier habits – (we tend to go for the junk food and binge watching Netflix when our reserves are down); have less negative physical symptoms; exercise more.
- Career/Job – we are more effective managers, better at networking and more likely to do network; better at making decisions; and have increased productivity.
- Emotional heartiness/Resilience – we build up positive emotions; are better able to weather the storms of emotional pain; have increased contentment/diminished envy; and tend to be more relaxed.
- Developing our personality in happiness-increasing ways – we gain increased optimism; tend to be less materialistic; have more self-esteem; are less self-centered – we’re focused outward rather than on feeling we are not enough, or otherwise consumed by our own lack; and tend to be more spiritual, which connects with finding meaning and purpose in life.
- Socially – we have increased ability to be present to others; people like us more when we’re focused less on ourselves and more on others, so we tend to have more friends; we tend to be friendlier; have better relationships/marriages; have and show more respect for others; have more friends and deeper relationships/connection.
Inspiring, right? By increasing our practice of gratitude, we can potentially improve every area of our lives.
How do we start? Building new habits and establishing new patterns is hard work. It’s clear we have to build habits when things are going relatively well to be able to utilize them when things are not going relatively well. It’s a lot tougher to think clearly and make wise choices when we’re experiencing anxiety, stress, anger and depression. Think about someone training for a marathon – if they wait until race day to start running, will they make it?
Nope. We’ve got to start with small steps way before race day comes and add distance as we get stronger and build endurance. Same thing with building new patterns into our lives – we’ve got to start small and gradually build up as we have the skills and endurance to handle the bigger things. We’ve got to want it, and figure out ways to re-motivate ourselves on days we don’t feel like it, which will surely come.
Here are some ideas for infusing more gratitude into our lives.
A few ideas for increasing your gratitude practice:
- Gratitude Journal – write down 3 new things every day you’re grateful for.
- A take on St. Ignatius’ practice of The Examen: At the end of the day, give thanks for the ways you had what you needed or were taken care of today.
- Download the free “Mindfulness Bell” app; set it to ring intermittently throughout your day, and when it does, pause and notice something you’re grateful for in the moment.
- Sincerely thank one person a day for something you appreciate about them or they’ve done for you. Pick up the phone; write a note; tell them in person.
YOUR CHALLENGE: Pick one of these (or something else that you like) and commit to it for one week.
HOW TO MAKE GRATITUDE STICK:
- Track it. Research overwhelmingly shows that tracking something alone will move our behavior in the desired direction. Accountability is powerful. Use a journal, make a chart, create a list on your phone, etc.
- Actually, do the thing. You have to actually do the practice to get the benefits.
- Reinforce yourself IMMEDIATELY for doing the thing you’ve chosen. Even if it’s saying, “Way to go, Me!”; giving yourself a Swedish fish (these are powerful motivators for my 2 year old); or doing something else that is meaningful to you, positive reinforcement is the most effective way to change behavior in ourselves and others.
- Rate yourself at the beginning and end of each day and of the week:
Using a scale of 0-10 (0 = “not grateful or happy at all,” & 10 = “off the charts happy & grateful”), check in with yourself – “How grateful am I? How happy am I?”
- Check whether your gratitude and happiness levels changed while doing this activity.
See whether you get a higher rating by the end of the week. If it’s working, sign up for another week. If not, try a different exercise! Keep in mind, it typically takes 40 days of practicing a new habit for it to become a pattern.
To sum up, practicing gratitude daily in small, tangible ways has the power to improve our overall quality of living and relationships. Go get ‘em out there and let me know how it goes!