Each year, our friends in north America celebrate Thanksgiving, a day when family and friends come together to give thanks. So, this month we decided to investigate what gratitude is and look at the health benefits of bringing gratitude into your daily life.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is an emotion, expressed through words and actions, that focuses on what we have, rather than what we want or perceive to lack. It is a feeling we can cultivate within ourselves to shift our mood, mindset and outlook.
Gratitude comes hand-in-hand with appreciation. Through gratitude, we express our appreciation for people, things and experiences. On the surface, some experiences may not appear as “positive”, but by practicing gratitude we are able to confront and overcome obstacles and garner newly found strengths gained through adversity.
The perspective of gratitude
When faced with the same event, why is that some people only see negativity, but others may find something of value? It seems that some people naturally have a sunny disposition, those who lean towards an attitude of looking on the bright side. True, some of this may be in their nature, but it can also be created through nurture.
The way we think is habitual, and the angle from which we see things is overlaid by filters and blinkers from our past experiences and beliefs we have created about ourselves. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. Our brains are wired to seek out confirmation of a pre-existing view that we have about a situation and filter the information we see to fit with our beliefs and prejudices. The good news is, this can be applied when practising gratitude daily. We can build up new neural pathways in our brain that can change our default, and develop a more balanced outlook on life.
The health benefits of gratitude
In recent decades there have been many studies on the benefits of gratitude by including it into daily life. Better sleep, higher self-esteem, ability to overcome trauma, and the reduction in anxiety and depression to name a few.
Robert Emmons (founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology), has conducted studies on over 1000 people ranging from eight to 80 years old. He has found that not only do people see social and psychological benefits from instilling an attitude of gratitude, but also physical side effects. These include lower blood pressure, increase in motivation and exercise, and stronger immune systems.
Tools of gratitude
The following tools can help foster a feeling of gratitude, even in the moments where it may feel futile, whilst also helping to keep things in proportion.
Keep a gratitude journal
If you like to write lists, you will probably find this easy! Write a list of things you are grateful for in life right in this moment. It can be far reaching or it can be small and simple. Try to write at least three things daily. If this feels like a big task, start with a weekly journal and build it up. Once you start, you might find that you have a very full list! You can write either first thing in the morning to set you up for the day ahead, or last thing at night to feel more complete. It´s also okay to repeat things that you are grateful for.
Say “Thank you”
We all know it´s polite to say, “thank you”, but how often are we really present when we give thanks, even for the seemingly smallest of things? Rather than throwing a casual “thanks” over your shoulder, try to really engage with whoever you are giving thanks to. You may just make someone´s day a little bit brighter.
Find a gratitude rock
In the movie The Secret, Lee Brower talks about how he used a rock he found as a tool for gratitude. Every time he touched the rock he would think of something he was grateful for. He would put it in his pocket in the morning and give thanks, and then when he emptied his pockets at night it would remind him again to run through things in his life he was grateful for. Next time you go for a stroll along the beach, pick up a pebble that appeals to you and slip it into your pocket. Here at La Crisalida we have a supply of gratitude rocks – if you would like to leave a donation, we give this to one of our local children´s charities.
Negative or positive – who can tell?
“Every cloud has a silver lining” so the saying goes. The challenge for most of us is to appreciate both equally – having faith that life is supporting us for our highest good. We all have a running commentary in our minds and a view of how we see ourselves. Ultimately if we can see the hidden order, we can release the perception of being a victim to circumstance.
If this feels difficult, you could start by applying this habit towards external things. Perhaps, when you open the curtains in the morning to look at the weather, if it´s sunny give thanks for a beautiful day, and if it´s cold and rainy give thanks for the rain watering your plants, and for opportunity to stay inside to read, relax or get things done. Rather than simply groan or focus on the down side, reframe it to see the other side.
Exercise with gratitude
The human body is an amazingly intricate form, and yet we often find ourselves becoming frustrated when our bodies are not performing how we would like.
Take yoga for example. We have been bombarded with Instagram yogis and contortionists on social media, we see toned bodies on the front of magazines, and so we set ourselves high expectations of what we think we ‘should’ be able to do. Avoid comparisons with others, as no two bodies are the same. We are all unique. Tune in to how you feel in your body. Perhaps you feel different to when you started your workout. Be curious, and marvel at what your body has been able to do for you. We share some tips on how to do this in this month´s article “cultivate an attitude of gratitude in your yoga practice”.
Pay it forward
Have you read the book “Pay it Forward”? It´s a great example of how you can share your gratitude, with no agenda or expectations. It doesn´t have to be a grand gesture, but can be as simple as holding the door open for someone, saying hello to a stranger, or picking up litter.
Gratitude as a daily practice
Gratitude can be a practice to bring into your life. Whilst we may not give thanks every time we turn on the tap to receive clean, running water, it takes practice and attention to start to notice the little things, and not get carried away into a torrent of frustration with minor inconveniences. By bringing at least one of the tools of gratitude into your routine you can really make waves towards a more fulfilling and balanced existence.