Saturday 26 January 2013

An Attitude of Gratitude

No matter what study or advice you read about living a happier and more meaningful life, gratitude will feature somewhere.

This isn't new news really.  Countless religions have incorporated giving thanks into their worship since time began. The US has a whole day of thanksgiving.  But a more secular type of gratitude is fast sweeping the nation, nay the world.

And that's because cultivating an attitude of gratitude has been shown time and time again to be one of the most powerful, lasting and universally effective ways of boosting happiness levels.

One reason why expressing gratitude has such a positive effect is because it goes some way to counteract our 'negativity bias'. 

When man roamed the earth amongst sabre-toothed tigers and the like, it was pretty useful for our brains to focus in on the impending feline attack rather than stop and savour a beautiful flower, for example.  Nowadays though, whilst we still need to be able to spot danger, this negativity bias can get a tad tiresome and if left unchecked, can lead to that all familiar routine of focusing on the bad stuff, dwelling on life's problems instead of picking up on the better bits.

By forcing our minds to pick out the things we are grateful for we override this negativity bias and allow ourselves a surge of positive emotions more frequently than if we didn't bother. Finding things to be grateful for even during times of trauma can help us to adjust and move on. And saying thanks to somebody else makes them feel lovely too.

I also think that being grateful also has a side effect of making you more present and mindful in the moment as's pretty difficult to be grateful for something if you're not really there experiencing it in the first place.  I've blogged before about the reticular activating system which is basically your brains clever internal search mechanism. It works like a key word search and whenever you plug something in (new job, new car, gratitude, redecorating, cake recipe), your unconscious will do its darndest to seek out and highlight for you things that fit that description. So, once you start to practice gratitude, you'll gradually start spotting things to be grateful for as you go about your day.

Sonja Lyubomirsky (an eminent psychologist who writes plentifully on the science of happiness) refers to gratitude as "a kind of meta strategy for achieving happiness".  So if you're only going to do one thing to try and boost your own happiness, then make gratitude the one you pick.

But what does it really mean to 'cultivate an attitude of gratitude'?  There are some really quick and easy things you can try:

1. Start a gratitude journal. Write down 3 things each day you are grateful can be anything, big or small and doesn't have to be grand sweeping stuff, just make sure you are grateful for it.

Some people do theirs at the beginning of the day to get themselves in a positive mindset for the day ahead, some do it at the end of the day to reflect on the day behind them and to end the day on a high.

Personally, I do mine last thing at night.

I started off this new habit about a year ago by writing my 'gratefuls' down in a little journal by the side of my bed. Having them written down like this has two benefits. Firstly committing them to paper somehow validates and reinforces the whole process, and secondly because whenever you read back over them you experience a little smiley boost of happiness all over again.

That said, about 6 weeks after starting my journal, I sort of drifted out of the habit and decided what would be even more powerful than writing them down would be to share them with somebody else so now, Alex and I share our 'grateful's with each other every night just before we go to sleep instead.

We've tried many variations. We've tried straight "what I'm grateful for" but sometimes this feels a bit sickly and forced so we've also tried "what went well today" which allows you to give yourself some credit as does "what I achieved today"; we've tried adding in a "if I had the chance to live today again I would do xxx differently" as a way of reflecting and learning from experience; we've tried "one thing I did differently today" as a way of accounting for making progress and adapting to change and we've tried "what I'm looking forward to is..." because looking ahead to future experience is, like being grateful for past experience, a good way to increase positive emotions.  Each version has had its pros and cons and we seem to just flex depending on what's going on at the time. The important thing is that what we're doing every time is looking back over our day together and finding the positives.

Whichever way you do it, just try it. Both of us have definitely noticed a real difference and now even find ourselves looking out for things during the day to share with each other later.

2. If writing's not really your thing, take a photograph of something you're grateful for every day.  I love photography and so I started a grateful 365 project (you will find it under the Snapping Happy tab) this year.  I have to say, So far I am struggling with this one.  Last year I set myself the challenge of taking a photography every day of the year and loved seeing what new images I could create every day.  Having my subject restricted to something I'm grateful for is turning out to be quite frustrating as it happens which wasn't quite the point so I need to have a think about what I can do with that one now. If anybody gives it a go themselves, let me know how you get on!

3. Write down a list of people you're really grateful to and why and just reflect on it. Maybe repeat it every month or so.

4. The 'build' on that one is to actually then pick one of these people and go and tell them how grateful you are.

I tried this one myself as well recently. It suddenly occurred to me that one of my best friends in particular had always been a real rock for me and I couldn't remember ever really having said thank you.  I wanted her to know how very much her support had meant to me so I wrote her a card.  It felt a bit weird to begin with, almost embarrassing in a way being so open about my feelings but I think it was important to just bash through that and do it anyway. It felt really good to have done it. 

5. And finally, I have seen recently a lovely idea which I'd really like to start doing.  It's called a gratitude jar. Every time you (and your partner/family) have something to be really grateful for, you write it down on a little bit of paper and post it into a jar, like a little gratitude piggy bank. Then on New Year's Eve 2013, you open the jar and go back through all the wonderful things you had to be grateful for in the year just gone, moving into 2014 on a upwards curve.

I'm so grateful somebody was clever enough to not only have that idea, but also to share it.

I'd be really interested to hear anybody else's experiences of practicing gratitude. Maybe you already follow one of the habits above? Or maybe you're going to start now and report back? Or maybe you do something entirely different...whatever it is I'd love to hear about it in the comments box below.

Whatever route you try, you can be sure that sprinkling a little gratitude on your day will help to shift that negativity out the way.

So, start right now, what are you grateful for today?

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