We become good at things by practicing. We all know this. It’s a message that is drummed in from a very young age, “Practice makes perfect!”, or “You won’t become good at it if you don’t practice!”.
Most people have skills and habits that they’ve become good at by practice, but at the same time, we all have things that we would regard as bad habits, or negative patterns. When you really think about this, the negative patterns are established and maintained out of repetition (or practice) also. We become good at the things we practice, but sometimes we unwittingly practice and maintain habits and patterns that we don’t want to be ‘good’ at.
At their essence, our habits and patterns are embedded in neurological pathways. When we practice something over and over, we build and strengthen these neural pathways. In turn, we build and strengthen our default patterns.
What can we do when things have gone astray? Sometimes an elite sports person will enlist a specialist coach to correct or ‘retrain’ a technique error. Perhaps this might be how they serve in tennis, or their technique for shooting at goal, or their golf swing. When an elite sportsperson has a glitch in their technique, you might say that they’re really, really good at serving the ball the wrong way.
Retraining these patterns involves a process of re-building the pattern, starting from the basics, step by step. At first, the new way feels uncomfortable and unnatural, but in time the pathways build and things start to feel more fluid and natural.
For every instance that we practice a new pattern, the neural pathways strengthen. Interestingly, for every instance that we don’t follow the old pattern, those neural pathways atrophy and erode (“use it or lose it”). We can steer change by directing what we practice, until we build the new and desired patterns.
It feels like common sense to apply these principles to improve something like a sporting technique. Interestingly, the same principals apply to our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Often people don’t intuitively recognize this, but it’s true. The truth is that the patterns of our thoughts, feelings and our behaviours all reside in neural pathways too. The more we follow certain patterns in our psychological and behavioural processes, the more they are reinforced and embedded at the neurological level, and these too become our default settings.
How practicing gratitude can help you
Gratitude meditation reveals fascinating evidence about all of this. In really simple terms, gratitude meditation involves a practice of regularly and deliberately taking the time to think of things that you can feel grateful for, and then, taking a moment to actually feel the feeling. These can be big things and little things. Ideally, they should sometimes be new ideas that your brain has searched for.
People who practice gratitude meditation become happier. We know this is true from psychological studies, but even more interestingly, we know why it’s true. It’s true because we become good at the things we practice. If you were to spend five minutes per day practicing juggling, in a few weeks you would be noticeably better at juggling. With gratitude meditation, you are practicing scanning life for positive things, and, feeling the associated positive feelings. Through doing this, you grow and strengthen the neurological pathways associated with each of those two discreet processes. Like the saying goes, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. The more these processes strengthen, the more these processes become our default setting.
Remember, we become good at the things we practice, but sometimes, we unwittingly practice things that are not helpful for us. We can apply these principles to psychological change. We can change the ways that we think, feel and behave. If you want to enhance your change efforts, remember that you can do this by intentionally choosing to practice the change, and to deliberately build and sculpt your preferred patterns.