As a child, do you remember being told to “count your blessings?” Maybe, back then, it wasn’t quite clear ‘why’ doing this was a good idea. Over the past decade, a large body of research has helped us to better understand the wide ranging positive effects of ‘counting our blessings’ – for being grateful.
Practicing gratitude has been linked to improvements in:
- physical and psychological health
- life satisfaction
- resilience (the ability to bounce back when times are tough)
- the quality of our relationships.
So, what is gratitude?
Gratitude is the appreciation and thankfulness of what is valuable and meaningful to us. It can also help us to connect with something larger than ourselves, such as other people, animals, nature, or a higher power.
Put simply, the practice of gratitude provides the opportunity to re-focus on what we have, rather than what we don’t. It is a way of re-training the brain to move away from “if only” thinking, and striving for the long-list of things we want, need and ‘must have’.
You may be familiar with some of these thoughts:
“If only I made more money”.
“If only I had a partner”.
“If only I were fitter / thinner / more muscular”.
“If only I was smarter”.
“If only I had more time”.
No matter what your version of “what if thinking is”, it generally ends in, “then I’d be happy”.
How many times have you found your mind re-cycling the seemingly convincing, “If only …fill in the blanks………, I’d be happy” thought? Maybe often.
These thoughts are rarely helpful. Why? Because our happiness becomes conditional on striving for something we currently don’t have. So, in the meantime, we’re generally left feeling frustrated, angry, stressed, anxious or depressed.
In contrast to “what if” thinking, gratitude focuses solely on the appreciation of what is. Gratitude produces feelings of happiness and pleasure which, in turn, impacts our health and well-being in positive ways. It allows us to drop the constant reaching and striving, and to experience contentment in the here and now.
How does gratitude impact on the brain?
When we give or receive gratitude, our brain releases ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters called dopamine and serotonin, and we feel happy.
Through consistent gratitude practice, we develop and strengthen neural pathways in the brain. By doing this, being grateful becomes a more automatic response to life’s challenges, and overrides the old ‘if only’ response, which often leaves us feeling unhappy and unfulfilled.
Ways to Practice Gratitude
There are a number of ways to practice gratitude:
Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day write down 3 or more things you are thankful for. When you write, for 15 or more seconds, using all of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight) bring to mind what you are grateful for. Allow yourself to feel the pleasure of this experience. You may be grateful for past blessings (for example, a very loving relationship with a grandparent) or present circumstances (for example, having a house to live in).
Use a gratitude jar. This practice is great for sharing what you are grateful for with others. At the end of the day (similar to the above), on three separate pieces of paper write down three things that you are grateful for and place them in the gratitude jar. Ask your partner, flat-mate, siblings, children or friends to do the same. Arrange a time to get together to take turns reaching into the jar and pulling out a piece of paper and reading out what it says. Read out what is on the paper and ask the person who wrote the note to share their feelings of gratitude.
Write a thank-you note. Often, in our busy world, we don’t take the opportunity to thank others for their impact on our lives. Maybe that person for you is your mother or perhaps a grandparent. Writing a thank you note is a way of acknowledging the importance of that person to you. You could send the letter or you could read the letter to the person you are grateful for.
Thank someone mentally. If writing a letter or a note isn’t your thing, mentally thank the individual you are grateful for.
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves re-orientating focus to the present.
More specifically, gratitude meditation is a technique that focuses on the things about ourselves, others, and other things (for example, nature, pets etc.) we are truly grateful for.
“Enjoy the little things. For one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault