“Yesterday is ashes. Tomorrow is green wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly.” –Eskimo Saying
How do you deal with adverse circumstances in your life—an unexpected bill, a tax audit, or a friend cancelling plans at the last minute? Do you treat yourself to a dark chocolate mocha, a new gadget, or clothing? Do you talk to a co-worker or a good friend? Or do you find yourself cursing your luck, feeling it never rains it pours? There is a better way to deal with negative events, one that helps you think differently, feel better, and can change things for the better—cultivating gratitude.
Gratitude is not just thinking happy thoughts, a pop-psychology mistake of projecting desired outcomes into the future. Positive thinking falls short when there is nothing to sink your teeth into; when outcomes do not match projections you must spend even more energy generating more positive projections. Focusing exclusively on positive fantasies leads to worse performance in life (2). This is, of course, different from setting goals and working towards them, which can be effective. Gratitude, however, is a focus what you are and have right now—the positive aspects of other people or situations. The real magic of gratitude is the deep shift of mood and thought which accompanies it.
Your ability to maintain awareness is like a flashlight in the dark, it can only illuminate one small area at a time. By shifting awareness from stress to gratitude, you also shift your emotions, mood, and physical response; and increase your ability to cope. Gratitude is a here-and-now focus on the people, experiences, or things present in your life which you are grateful for. Gratitude must be meaningful in order to work, however. You may not be grateful for a tax audit, but you can be grateful for having a business, learning to keep more accurate records, and having trustworthy employees.
Benefits of Gratitude:
- Gratitude Helps Relationships Thrive: It moves you out of negative sentiment override, a focus on the negative to the exclusion of all else (4). Negative sentiment override is particularly damaging to relationships. Criticism does not create positive change, only defensiveness, counter attack, or withdrawal. The negative effects of criticism decrease in direct proportionate to the attention you put on being grateful for your partner’s qualities.
- Gratitude Makes You Responsible: Instead of feeling the victim of circumstance, which is correlated with poorer physical and mental health (“Why am I being audited!”), you take responsibility for your situation: “I am being audited; this is a tough experience but I value what I am learning about keeping accurate and detailed records.” The increase in self-responsibility is tied to greater self-efficacy, a belief that you can influence your career and relationships. Self-responsibility is ultimately tied to greater mental and physical health, and a sense of meaning in life.
- Gratitude helps you be Present: Anxiety, worry over things that might happen, and depression, rumination over the past, both diminish your ability to get things done and to enjoy your life. So does desire for things you don’t have or qualities you wish your partner had. Gratitude is a present-centered state of being, synonymous with mindfulness; it brings you into the here-and-now and connects you to the intrinsic value of what you have or are. By being fully present in your life, you do not miss any of its riches. Gratitude is also self-training in what to look for in life and what to think about, which ultimately affects how you feel (1).
- Gratitude is Healthy: Tangible benefits of gratitude include less physical illness, less coronary heart disease (1), better mood. Stress generates the hormones cortisol and norepinephrine, which cause physical and emotional damage, including high blood pressure and strokes. Gratitude lowers these hormones significantly (by at least a third). Gratitude helps coronary arteries relax, increasing blood supply to your heart. As heart rhythms calm, a positive cascade is created, affecting other organs. Breathing also deepens, increasing oxygen to tissues (4). In short, you feel better and are better able to deal with your solvable problems.
Like exercising a muscle, gratitude requires constant use—you might even not be aware of many things you can be grateful for. The following suggestions can help you get started:
7 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude in your Life:
- In the morning before your day gets going, make a list of 5 things in your life you are grateful for. Voice that list when possible: A warm bed, breakfast, a job, sunshine, a ride.
- Express Gratitude: Take time during your day to think of how you value your partner. If you the first thing you say on returning home is critical, practice using gratitude on your drive back so that you can greet the people in your life differently: “Thanks for the cute smile” or whatever words feel natural to you. Keep 5 things you appreciate about your partner or loved ones in your mental back pocket and use when tempted to criticize.
- When you hit a bad spot in your day, find some small part of the event you can be grateful for. A speeding ticket it could be: “I guess I need to slow down, I could get in an accident; it’s good to see this.”
- Breathe: When something negative happens, slow down and take some deep breaths. Deep breathing creates space for gratitude.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal: Keeping a weekly gratitude journal is a healthy habit, bringing positive results, including fewer physical illnesses, aches, and pains, and feeling better about life in general (1). Writing down what you are grateful for helps you direct your awareness and makes boons explicit. A child’s smile, the antics of a pet, a call from a friend—keep note of these things and, when having a rough day, look through the pages of your journal.
- Focus on the Small: Gratitude can be as simple as enjoying the cup of coffee you are drinking, the reflection of the evening sun on the clouds, or hearing your partner’s voice.
- Hold That Thought: Try to hold the grateful thought for 15 to 20 seconds; this actualizes corresponding thought patterns and emotions.
Practiced often enough, gratitude becomes a habit, part of your daily ritual. This changes how you view negative situations and will help you find meaning and connection. It will also bring about the results you really want in relationships.
Gratitude creates positive sentiment override, the ability to see the positive and exclude the less than desirable from your current focus. This is not sugar-coating but awareness management, giving you a choice. This positive sentiment is what makes relationships, careers, and life thrive. In short, gratitude lets things matter. It is a recipe for contentment, turning what you have into enough.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” –Meister Eckhart
1. http://www.umassd.edu/counseling/forparents/reccomendedreadings/ theimportanceofgratitude/
2. Alter, A. (February 19, 2014). The Powerlessness of positive Thinking. The New Yorker [online].
3. Gottman, J. Assesment Intervention and co-Morbities (level 2).