Our brain is a creature of habit. We actually create pathways for information to travel along in our brain. So, what we feed it and what we focus on matters. That is what our brain spits back out to us in the form of memories, emotions and reactions.The more that we eat a certain type of food, engage in a certain type of behavior (sex, shopping, gossip…) or even think a certain type of thought the quicker our brain goes to them. This cycle of reinforcement happens until it is just automatic.
How lovely it would be to start building in gratitude detectors in our children!
Have you ever known someone who can find the negative in everything? You could give them a million dollars and they would complain that it was $100s instead of $50s or that the bills were dirty. They have trained their brains to be this way through years (possibly a lifetime) of negativity. And they are most likely miserable. They are stuck in a cycle of negative input and output. All they see, and therefore take in, is negative. In turn all they put out is negative. On and on.
On the flipside is the person who radiates joy. People want to be around them and they enjoy being around people. They step in gum and say “at least I can walk”. A joyful person gets caught in a downpour. They focus on the good by saying, “Thank goodness for the rain. I know my begonias are thrilled.” They have trained their brain to look for the good. And, like with any habit, it now occurs automatically.
A grateful person doesn’t have to look hard to find gratitude. It comes to them. Some days are harder than others. By strengthening their gratitude muscles though, they are prepared to shield themselves from negativity and breathe in joy.
From the Young to the Old
Research shows that people who focus on the positive actually report being happier. There is no age limit for gratitude practices. But the younger you start, the better. We’ve all heard our own voice spilling out of our children’s mouths. Sometimes we shudder at the thought. Their sponge-like brains are picking up everything we say, complete with tone and body language.
How lovely it would be to start building in gratitude detectors in our children! To be stuck in traffic and hear a tiny voice pipe up from the back seat and say, “Mama, I’m glad we were stopped so I could watch that bird.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, seniors have a great deal to be thankful for as well. If anything, gratitude can be more beneficial in those years than any other time. Depression is common in people 55+, as are health problems. As people age, they tend to isolate more also. Gratitude can help inoculate against these aging related issues. It has been found to help people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. Grab your ma, grab your pa- we’re thanking everybody up in here!
Gratitude is a practice. An imperfect practice by an imperfect being.
Ok great, gratitude will make me happy. But how do I do it? I’ve had a shitty year, Donald Trump is still president, my dog died, my health insurance doubled I just don’t feel like being Polly-Anna. It feels fake. I’m right there with you. And the last thing I would ever do, or recommend someone else do, is something that feels fake.
What exactly is gratitude? First, let’s talk about what gratitude isn’t. It’s not a big plastic smile. Gratitude isn’t not explaining away really terrible things that have happened like death, hurricanes, mass shootings, or Donald Trump. It’s not always being happy. Gratitude isn’t those people that tell you that everything happens for a reason when your boyfriend breaks up with you, you struggle with infertility or your dad dies (although bless ’em, they mean well). Because it is okay to grieve stuff. It’s okay to be sad and angry. And it’s even okay if you can’t find the good in something sometimes.
What gratitude IS: Gratitude is a practice. An imperfect practice by an imperfect being. And learning to be okay with your imperfectness and the imperfectness of the world. Practice means you haven’t mastered it. And you never will. Your whole life you will be practicing, and that’s all that matters- that you keep coming back to it. You get back up, brush off your skinned knees, look up at the sky and whisper “I am grateful for that really red tree over there.” Sound doable? Cool. Now let’s get into some specifics.
So you want to be a raving grateful lunatic but don’t know where to start…
- Keep a gratitude journal. This is as simple as devoting 5 minutes of your day to writing down things that you are grateful for. It can be done any time but doing it first thing in the morning is a nice way to start your day. You can also use it as a way to process your worries and bolster confidence- “I am nervous about that big presentation today, but I am grateful that my boss has enough faith in me to ask me to do it. I am grateful for this job and an opportunity to make a difference. I am grateful for this chance to try something I am scared of. (And my personal favorite) No matter how this goes, I am grateful for the fact that by 5:00 it will be over, and I will come home to my family and dogs who love me.”
When you notice that you are becoming negative or complaining about something, try to find three things to be grateful for in the situation.
- Write thank you notes. Remember those? Your mom used to make you write them after your birthday or Christmas. Well they’re not just for your birthday and Christmas anymore! Buy yourself some beautiful stationary or a funny card and send a thank you to your best friend who listened to you whine about your job for the 400th time. Maybe send one to your mom just for being your mom. You could even try sending one to that bank teller who’s always so cheerful. You will make someone’s day, and fill your own cup in the process.
- Count your blessings instead of sheep. When your head starts to tell you all of the embarrassing things you did that day as you try to fall asleep say “no thank you” and instead practice gratitude. This is also a great time to list all of your strengths, which in and of itself can be a practice of gratitude. “I’m grateful that my mother taught me to be such a great listener.” “I’m grateful for my artistic ability.”
- Pray. If you are so inclined- pray thank you prayers. Take time out to offer up prayers that don’t include a single request, just thanks.
- Practice mindfulness meditation. If you have never meditated, don’t let this scare you off. It’s as simple as closing your eyes and breathing. Sit in a relaxed position and close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breath. Breathe deeply and feel your belly expand. Breathe slowly out through your nose. Do this 3-5 times. Now begin to focus on the moment as it is, without judgment. Feel the chair underneath you. Hear the hum of the refrigerator. You may even note some discomfort in your body. Try to feel it without judgement. You may focus on a word or phrase such as “peace” or “I am.” Continue to breathe deeply and slowly. If your mind wanders, gently steer it back to focusing on the present moment. You only need to do this for 5-10 minutes. You can even use YouTube to find wonderful guided meditations that can help you in your practice.
- Play gratitude games with yourself or your children. When you notice that you are becoming negative or complaining about something, try to find three things to be grateful for in the situation. It’s taking longer to have your oil changed than you thought and your kids are getting whiny? Enlist your kiddos as “gratitude detectors.” Help them list the good: you have a car (many people don’t), you have the money to keep it in tip top condition, and you get this unexpected time to be together and enjoy each other’s company.
Well there you go. Be prepared to become a happier, healthier person! This holiday season, don’t let gratitude stop at Thanksgiving. The ultimate irony of our modern celebration is that we often go from a day of being grateful directly into a day (and increasingly, that same evening) of need and greed. You have what you need. Breathe and be still. Holidays can be hard but gratitude will find you, if you let it.