The Discipline of Gratitude
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” – Willie Nelson, American musician
Our home is surrounded by a vast, beautiful but flammable Eucalypt forest that shelters unique Australian wildlife. Every day I feel grateful for its enchantment, and today I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the incredible bravery of our volunteer firefighters who support communities all over our huge continent. The generosity of people from all over the world to help Aussies navigate this horrendous challenge is also deeply gratifying. And I am so proud to be involved in a project that trains YPO members and spouses to provide mentoring support for people impacted by the fires.
Are you grateful for your privileged, blessed life?
Of course, you are. This is the definite, affirmative answer I would have given six months ago. I had just published my first book; my family members were all well, and I was full of energy and optimism. And then my tranquillity imploded. In quick succession, beloved people in my circle were unexpectedly impacted by serious life challenges. No need to detail them, but I felt side-swiped by a series of speeding trucks. Getting out of bed was a challenge, let alone exercising.
My rekindled relationship with gratitude emerged from a need to both counteract the assault on my mental health and access my resilience reserves. I had been interested in gratitude as a self-care tool for many years, as I was aware of the research that links gratitude practices to happiness. Intellectually, I understood that gratitude is an appreciation for what an individual receives, and that people who practice gratitude regularly acknowledge the positives in their lives. In the process, people become more attuned to a range of external factors that contribute to their happiness.
As people start replacing internal negative ruminations with a focus on the positives, they start to feel more connected with other people, nature, or spirituality.
Gratitude = greater happiness
In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Regularly practicing gratitude activates the reward center of our brain, live mindfully in the moment, improves our self-esteem as well as improves our physical and mental health. The natural outcome of these benefits is an improved ability to navigate challenges and to build stronger relationships.
Practicing gratitude is not about discounting challenges and suppressing negative emotions. It is important to notice and acknowledge when we are feeling anxious, fearful, angry, frustrated, etc. But then, we must mindfully turn our attention to our blessings. We literally build a gratitude muscle through constant practice.
People feel and express gratitude in three distinct ways. They can focus on the past, retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of family, childhood experiences and opportunities. They can focus on the present, highlight what is positive right now. Or, they look toward the future, resolved to stay hopeful, encouraged and optimistic.
As a facilitator and coach, I encourage all my clients to practice gratitude daily for just five minutes. I ask them to be patient, disciplined and optimistic as the research highlights that the benefits take time and that the ROI increases over time. The key benefit is the building of true, deep internal resilience. No matter how low my spirits might be on waking, I know I can actively shift my mood to a much more positive one and that every day will include positive elements. This is a comforting thought at 2 a.m. when sleep is elusive and serotonin levels are low!
Easy ways to bring gratitude into your life
- As soon as you wake, suspend any negative thoughts and feelings and focus on what you are grateful for. It could be as simple as listening to the rain on the roof.
- Write down three things you are grateful for in your past, present or future
- List three positive things you are going to do today to make you feel happy
- Write a simple affirmation that reflects one of your strengths, e.g.: I am good at seeing the worth in others.
- Write down three things that impacted you positively today.
- Preferably in nature, take a mindful walk, appreciating what you are seeing.
- Focus on your heart, where our positive emotions reside, as you breathe in and out evenly and rhythmically
- Show appreciation to everyone, including strangers. It can be a simple thank you or a smile.
Making gratitude a habit
These practices must be done daily to rewire the brain. The biggest change I noticed in myself was that I shifted from doing gratitude to actually feeling grateful. For the first couple of months, I would think about what I was grateful for and write down my three items, pleased to successfully complete a task. After a little time, I would not allow myself to write down a gratitude item until I actually felt the emotion. The KPI became that my heart had to be touched. I was creating a gratitude database in my heart, not my mind. For example, if I am noting in my head that I am grateful for the privilege of having a role where I can positively impact others, I reflect on specific clients and their progress.
I practiced breathing in and out smoothly, with a fixed ratio between the inhale and exhale and opening my heart to allow the emotion of gratitude to flow. The difference was immense. I immediately feel a lift in my spirits and am ready to take on the day.
It is proven that we can all benefit from daily gratitude practices, but imagine the positive shift we could create in the world, if our leaders, parents and teachers became consistent role models and embodied and expressed gratitude?