Taking the time to smell the roses and the positive impact you’ll immediately feel
By CATHERINE ROBERTSON
Dr Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California and author of Thanks!
How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier has been researching gratitude for over eight years and states:
Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing and impoverished. Gratitude enriches human life. It elevates, energises, inspires and transforms, and those who practise it will experience significant improvements in several areas of life including relationships, academics, energy level and even dealing with tragedy and crisis.
What’s really interesting is that, despite all of the scientific evidence and research that demonstrates the ability of gratitude to impact positive change to mood, motivation and mindset, the daily practice of gratitude is not a widely adopted habit within our quick-fix, instant gratification society.
The benefits of gratitude
Gratitude, like Mindfulness, is a term and concept that’s become increasingly trendy over the last few years and the benefits of its practice are regularly written about in a variety of mainstream newspapers, magazines and blogs.
Forbes Magazine last year published an article, 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round and listed the following benefits:
- Gratitude opens the door to more relationships
- Gratitude improves physical health
- Gratitude improves psychological health
- Gratitude improves empathy and reduces aggression
- Grateful people sleep better
- Gratitude improves self-esteem
- Gratitude increases mental strength
Around three years ago I started my own gratitude practice. It’s had more of a positive impact on my life than any other decision I’ve ever made.
Prior to adopting gratitude, I was going through a difficult time in my life.
My relationship was in the process of breaking down, a family member was battling a terminal disease, and I wasn’t taking very good care of myself.
I was caught in the familiar trap of eating badly, not exercising much, working too hard and often feeling tired and overwhelmed.
Knowing that I needed to make some changes in my life but not really sure where to start, I noticed that I was seeing the word gratitude everywhere I went.
Seeing this word so often grabbed my attention and I was intrigued.
Despite my scepticism that something as simple as expressing appreciation could make a difference to my state of mind, I was curious enough to give it a try.
Over the course of three months I was humbled and amazed by the impact that focusing on gratitude had begun to have on my life.
Day by day, I felt calmer and more at peace and my overall energy levels and enthusiasm for life started to rise.
- Within a couple of months:
- I was sleeping better
- Exercising more
- My mood felt lighter and more joyful
- I had increased focus at work
- I felt less stressed and irritable
- I was happier and more content
What this experience proved to me is that incorporating a gratitude practice into your life is one of the best and easiest decisions you can make for your own well-being.
It can help you to make more positive choices, take better care of yourself, feel empowered and to develop a positive “can-do” attitude to life.
It’s now been three years since I started this journey of gratitude and the benefits continue to grow and flourish, making it a very important part of my daily routine.
Why practice gratitude?
As humans, we’re not hard-wired to be grateful – it doesn’t come naturally to us.
It’s often so much easier to grumble, complain, and think about all the areas in our lives in which we’re experiencing pain or hardship.
Sometimes it’s not having enough money in the bank, or feeling that our partner doesn’t understand us, or the crazy commute we have to endure in heavy traffic to get to work each day.
Whatever the reason, it seems to be human nature to focus on what’s going wrong in our lives or to dwell on what we don’t have, leading to a sense of powerlessness over how we feel.
The downside of this habit is that it’s incredibly seductive. The saying “misery loves company” has a great deal of truth in it and there’s generally no shortage of people around us to indulge in our complaining.
When I look back at the sort of person I was three years ago, the lens through which I viewed the world was decidedly negative.
I often felt like I had limited control over the events that happened to me and the impact they had on my life.
It felt normal to feel sad and to have low energy, because that’s what I told myself was to be expected when challenges hit you.
Phrases like “it’s not fair”, “why is this happening to me?” and “is this really all there is to life?” played frequently in my head, and I felt powerless to do anything about it.
“When you realise there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” – Lao Tzu
A commitment to living a life of gratitude has thankfully reversed that attitude, but it’s a skill that takes some practising and getting used to.
As our gratitude practice becomes more sensitive by focusing on what’s good in our lives along with all of the blessings surrounding us, a certain magic begins to take hold.
It’s as if we send a message out to the universe to say “more of this please”, which then causes the positive experiences in our lives to flourish and grow.
As you flex and work your gratitude muscle every day, it gets stronger.
And as it develops, so does the realisation and experience that it’s possible to have a choice about how we respond to the challenges and hurdles that life presents us, without getting sucked into a complaining mindset or feeling anxious about what we don’t have.
- As a result, gratitude will impact and transform your life in so many ways:
- Contentment becomes stronger than dissatisfaction
- Peace becomes stronger than frustration
- Appreciation becomes stronger than criticism and complaining
- And resilience to life’s challenges increases
Overall, life just becomes sweeter and more fun through practicing gratitude.
And the happier and more contented we are, the kinder we become to those around us – meaning all that come into contact with us begin to feel the benefits too.
What if I’m not grateful?
This is a common question that I’ve been asked by people who are new to gratitude practice and are feeling some uncertainty about whether it’s for them or not.
I think, when this question arises, it’s often evidence of some mind games and inner resistance at work, and a way that the ego behaves to try and talk us out of making some positive, empowered changes in our lives.
It’s true that there are some days and some circumstances in life when it can feel a little harder to tap into that reservoir of gratitude than others, especially when hardship, illness or even death may be present.
But as you’ll discover when you begin practicing gratitude, harder doesn’t necessarily mean impossible, and there will always be things that you’ll be able to identify and create a sense of appreciation for each day.
It can be as simple as “Today I’m grateful that I’m alive”, or “Today I’m grateful that I have a roof over my head and food in my fridge when so many in the world are going without”.
The intention with gratitude is not to put pressure on yourself to positive-think your way out of painful experiences, or to deny their existence. Nor is it to create long lists that don’t have any meaning for you and feel false or insincere.
The aim is simply to direct your focus away from dwelling on what’s not going well in life, whilst still acknowledging the existence of the pain.
Cultivating an attitude of appreciation for the blessings life has to offer, no matter how small they may be, brings you back to the present moment and allows more space to open up to all that there is to be grateful for.
What changes will I see?
If you’ve never adopted a gratitude practice before, it may initially feel a little bit strange and there may be moments when you wonder “Is this really making any difference?”
This is completely normal and happens to almost everyone at the start.
I initially felt very sceptical that gratitude could have any meaningful impact on my state of mind and mood but, as with anything new in life, it can take some time to see a benefit, so stick with it and be open to the fact that this is a skill and habit that takes time to cultivate.
Recent research led by a team at University College London has shown that contrary to the popular belief that it takes 21 days to form a habit, it actually takes on average 66 days for something to become habitual.
My practice was pretty basic at the beginning. I would think of three things that I was grateful for when I woke up in the morning and another three things before I went to sleep at night.
Nothing fancy, and nothing detailed, my observations were simple items of appreciation like my health, my family, and having a nice place to live.
Some days it was definitely harder to think of things than
others, but I made myself go through the process every day.
After about a month I noticed that I was becoming more aware of my surroundings and had a greater level of sensitivity to observe those moments that touched me and made me feel appreciative. Things like:
- The kindness and warmth of the barista that made my coffee
- The stranger that looked me in the eye and smiled at me in the street
- The joy I felt when I walked past a jasmine bush and inhaled its beautiful scent
As I was accumulating so many more items to choose from, I started to write the gratitude items down at the end of the day instead of just thinking them.
Science has proven that when you write about a happy event, your brain relives that experience, which then adds more power and weight to the gratitude exercise.
I now experience it as replaying a movie of the day in my head and capturing all of the beautiful and precious moments down on paper to keep in my gratitude jar, which is a hugely enjoyable way to end the day.
There are many other ways to practice gratitude though and everyone finds a style and method that best suits them.
One study where participants were asked to write down their gratitude items for 21 days reported feeling more optimistic, less anxious, and slept better both immediately, and for three to six months after the study.
Another study showed that participants who kept a gratitude journal for 10 weeks reported having fewer health problems and spent more time exercising.
One of the easiest ways to commit to any new habit is to connect with a group of like-minded people for support and encouragement until it becomes a natural part of life.
As I’ve described, the effect of gratitude is cumulative and the benefits ultimately change your perception of reality over time, so it’s important to have patience and persistence with your gratitude practice.