Around Thanksgiving, many people reflect upon what they’re grateful for. Many of us typically by rote the things we know we should be grateful for, such as a roof over our heads, and food on the table. Don’t get me wrong—I think most people should be grateful for those blessings, because not everyone has them. But I want to talk to you about being grateful far beyond the basics that we do once a year around a turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes (or whatever you eat to celebrate the fourth Thursday in November).
Our brains are wired to notice what is bad or dangerous. It makes sense, right? From a survival-based perspective, it’s much more important to remember which berries are poisonous, or how slippery the roads get when it rains or snows, or what sets off an already angry loved one, than to notice how delicious your coffee is, how great your last meeting went, or how nice your spouse’s smile is. We’re hard wired to be much better at noticing what’s wrong rather than what’s right, and it’s probably served us quite well. I’m not saying we shouldn’t notice dangerous or suboptimal situations, I’m just saying that we want to strengthen our capacity to notice the joys and pleasures too.
Science backs this up too. Gratitude improves physical and mental health. It improves sleep quality, self-esteem and relationships. It even changes the brain. It sends increased blood flow to the hypothalamus, which manages numerous bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping, and also influences metabolism and stress levels. It also is correlated with increased blood flow to areas which release dopamine, which can increase generally good feelings.
As a side note, many people find the term gratitude practice to be too mushy or touchy-feely, so I sometimes call it “noticing the good.” Call it whatever works for you, but it’s a very simple and easy way to adjust our mind’s tendency to see the world through gray colored glasses, and to shift us towards a more positive (and often more accurate) worldview.
If you’re up to give this practice a try, let me step you through how to start. I like to make it pretty simple. Pick a time of day when you will notice the good. It usually works best to pick a time that is linked to a behavior you do every day. For instance-some people do it before getting out of bed in the morning, others do it during the few minutes while waiting for their coffee or tea to brew, and others do it while drifting off to sleep. Whatever time you pick, make it a time that’s easy to protect. If you pick an arbitrary time, you might find that 4:15pm or 11:20am (or whatever you’ve chosen) lands in the middle of a meeting or appointment, or when you’re just not feeling like it, and you’ll skip it.
Then, select a number of gratitudes you plan to notice. Selecting one can be an easy place to start, and you can work your way up to more if you like. You might find that, at first, it’s not easy to find something to appreciate, but with time, you get quite good at noticing many, so you may adjust the number as time passes.
Then, decide how you want to notice the gratitudes—do you write it down in a journal? Share it via email/text/phone with a gratitude partner? Say it directly to a friend or family member? Just notice it in your mind? It’s best to know yourself and what sort of ritual will work best for you. Sharing it with another person can serve a dual purpose. It can both hold you accountable to do it every day, and also you get the double benefit of your own happiness and hearing about the happiness of someone you care about. If you’re the kind of person who prefers being internal and more private in your practice, think about whether writing it down in a journal or on slips of paper that go into a jar might be right for you. It can be quite affirming and uplifting to review a year’s worth of gratitude and happiness.
So now that we’ve laid the parameters, let’s discuss what you actually do when you sit down. First, here’s what not to do. Never pretend to be grateful for something you don’t authentically feel in that moment. Gratitude only works when it’s authentic. So if you don’t actually feel grateful for a roof over your head, don’t worry about it, but also, don’t claim it as a gratitude that day. Think about what you do feel grateful for. Maybe the light coming through the trees is particularly pretty, or you’re happy you didn’t get stuck in that traffic jam on the other side of the freeway during your commute, or you’re just grateful that this difficult day is almost over and you’ll get to go to bed soon. If something doesn’t rise to your awareness right away, that’s ok, just relax and see what wants to bubble up. Gently review the past 24 hours—where did you go, what did you do, with whom did you interact? There’s likely at least one thing you can find that was nice, or at least, better than the rest of the day. Even on a bad day, when it’s hard to find something to appreciate, you might find that it was nice that getting your kids to sleep, or finishing up your paperwork, or dealing with a difficulty person in your life, wasn’t quite as bad as you had anticipated.
You will likely find that, after doing this practice for a while, you will start noticing the good throughout your day and think “this will be a good one to mention tonight/tomorrow morning.” Noticing what is going well will start to become increasingly automatic, and your effortful observation of one item may start flowing into three or five.
You might not notice the changes right away—like any new habit, it may take a little time for its positive effects to show. I encourage you to make a commitment to one month of a gratitude practice. I think you’ll find that it becomes a lovely little sanctuary in your day that you’ll look forward to, and that you’ll start to notice the longer term benefits as well. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.