You might ask having read the title – what’s the big deal with gratitude? Great question. As it turns out gratitude happens to be one of the most researched positive emotion in all of psychology. Gratitude is scientifically one of the few things that can measurably change people’s lives. The evidence of studies on gratitude contradicts the widely held scientific view that everybody has a happiness “set point” that cannot be reset.
What this means is that the practice of gratitude can radically change a person’s personality in the long term. There is a good deal of similarity between the positive effects of the practice of gratitude and the practice of meditation. You’ll find certain traditions of meditation (like the Buddhist practice of metta for example) are in fact practices that involve cultivating a feeling of gratitude.
So if you’re interested in starting a practice of meditation, getting grateful is a great first step. They’re synergistic and fuel each other. And there’s no such thing as too much of either.
First I’m going to share 5 Principles about gratitude that clarify misconceptions and help you get into the right mindset to being a practice of gratitude. Next, I’ll be sharing 5 specific actions you can take to incorporate this into your life.
Gratitude builds new connections in the brain – When you practice gratitude, it consists of two steps. Recognizing something outside of you as a benefit and acknowledging it as providing value. In practical terms, gratitude is a feeling that you create through thinking about things that bring value to your life.
When you practice gratitude, you are re-cogizing an event. You are literally changing how your brain views the event. You are making new connections in your brain about how you think and feeling. When you make this a practice, it becomes the bedrock of strength in times of crisis and a hotbed of creativity when you’re in need of ideas.
Gratitude makes you resilient – How do you quantity resilience? Well here’s basically a two minute primer of how the brain is organized. It goes from primitive organization to sophisticated organization: from the back to the front. At the very back you have the spinal chord and cerebellum that take care of deeply unconscious life sustaining activities like circulation and digestion and as you move forward all the way to the part of the brain right behind the forehead, the neo-cortex is responsible for functions we’ve come to regard as human. Thinking, planning, controlling actions and behaviour, etc is the seat of the neo-cortex.
When you choose to practice gratitude, you route the emotion away from emotional-hot centres like the amygdala (which is the seat of aggression and the fight/flight emotion) to the neocortex (this allows the reasonable thinking mind to assess the situation without reacting prematurely). It allows you to look at things in a more positive light and act accordingly.
This is huge. For example, let’s say you’re late for an appointment and you’re stuck in traffic. When you’ve cultivated a practice of gratitude you naturally start to look at the positive situation – practice integrity by calling the person and apologizing and appreciating some good music while you’re waiting.
Gratitude as a practice – Most people think of gratitude as a feeling or emotion. In other words, a noun. I want you to look upon gratitude as a verb. As something you do, ideally everyday. Something that you embody and that follows you everywhere you go. Something that affects the first thought that comes into your mind when you come across a new situation. Something that weaves it’s way into the fabric of your life. Something that fuels your growth when you need it the most.
Gratitude is an antidote to stress and anxiety – In positive psychology literature, the first prescription for depression and anxiety is keeping a gratitude journal. This is because people who are depressed are stuck in negative thought patterns which stop them from looking at things on the bright side. My suggestion – don’t wait till you’re depressed till you start. Just like you don’t want to wait till you get into an accident to take care of your body.
If you’re interested, the second prescription in positive psychology literature for depression is light physical activity – walking or cycling, for example. It releases endorphins (or as I like to call it, the body’s version of morphine) and sweat both of which do good things for the emotional state of the person.
Gratitude is multiplied when shared – Sometime ago, I came across a quote. “If you don’t share love, you don’t have it.” I believe that to be true of gratitude. It naturally brings people together and closer and points our attention to the positive qualities of the people in our lives. Some of the best times in life are shared experiences with people we care about. This is why as often as possible, the practice encourage you to share your experiences and gratitude with other people. Don’t worry, most of the time it happens naturally and easily. Starting practicing, and you’ll see what I mean.
Relationships (romantic and otherwise) are a good part of our lives. Gratitude is a great tool to enrich and enhance our relations as well as our happiness.
Now we’ve covered some concepts about gratitude let’s move to the meat of the class. The actual down-and-dirty ways to implement these concepts into your life.
Embracing The Gap – Are you an entrepreneur? Have you obsessively kept goals and lists for longer than you can remember? Are audacious goals and burnout familiar to you? Then you’re going to love the concept of the Gap. It’s been quite beneficial for me. This is a concept I picked up from Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach who’s got some great material for entrepreneurs.
Here’s the situation. When you’re focused on the future and creating a great vision, you’re focusing on something that is ‘out there’ and not ‘here and now’. The difference between who you are now and where you want to be in the future is The Gap. The problem with many driven folks is that they sacrifice happiness in the present moment and are chasing an ever-elusive ‘happy ending’. This is because happiness can only exist in the now.
What do you think is the solution? Minding the reverse gap. The Reverse Gap is when you proactively practice gratitude in light of the great things that have come to pass in the past. It is when you begin to take inventory of the progress you have made that you can finally feel fulfilled and appreciate what you have, here and now. That is where all of life happens.
Here’s a simple way to do this. At the end of every day – list 3 wins you’ve accomplished that day. Really. Dwell on it. Appreciate it. Feel that good feeling in your body. And repeat.
Gratitude Journaling – You knew this was coming. With good reason. At the risk of repetition, this is the single best thing you can do for yourself to be happy. It takes next to no effort. We’ve made it simple by creating the Five Minute Journal. It’s all there – the science, the practice and the format. And even better, we’ve shared the format with you for free on the website. So I’m not going to write more on this here.
Really. We’ve taken away your excuses for not practicing gratitude journaling. Now you just have to do it. If this is the sign you need to start, BIG SIGN. Right here.
Gratitude Walk – How often do you walk? Drive? Commute? I’m willing to bet you’ve got a regular experience of doing one if not all three in a week.
How would life be if for a 30 minute walk everyday, you consciously chose to cultivate gratitude and good feelings and kept negative thoughts away? That’s exactly what I’m proposing. Here’s what this looks like in practice: As you choose to take a walk (or drive/commute) soak in the environment and start to think and feel gratitude for things in your life. Begin to become aware of your thoughts and stay conscious to weed out any negative thought loops.
You’ll find as you get into the practice of this, you’ll be in an unusually good mood when you reach your destination. Not bad for a side effect!
Gratitude Object - This concept was popularized as the ‘gratitude rock’ in the movie The Secret. And far as concepts go, it’s a pretty solid one. Here’s how it works.
You pick an object (like a rock or a memorabilia) which is small enough to keep in your pocket. Every time you happen to touch it, think of something you are grateful for. The interesting thing about this experience is that at unexpected moments in the day, you’ll have to use some creative thinking to experience feeling gratitude.
This is a great exercise in learning to change your state at a moments notice.
Gratitude Letter – Let’s end on a significant idea. If you choose to go ahead and do this exercise, research has shown that you’ll be permanently altering your happiness baseline. Nice, huh?
In this exercise conducted by Martin Seligman (the “father” of positive psychology), participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them or who made an enormous positive difference, who was still alive, but who had never been properly thanked.
If you were going to make a gratitude visit, you did the following:
First you’d write a three-hundred-word testimonial to that person – concrete, well-written, telling the story of what he did, how it made a difference, and where you are in life now as a result.
Next – you would call him up and say, “I want to come visit you.” But you don’t say why – it is supposed to be a surprise. About three hundred people have gone through the gratitude visit. This has turned out to be an extraordinarily moving experience for both the letter writer and the person to whom the letter was written.
This experience has been universally described as “moving” and “emotionally profound”. It invariably brings people closer and is one of the most powerful exercises you can do to improve your happiness.
So, do you have your one action you can start doing right away to practice gratitude? Good. Let me know in the comments.