• Resilient Practice

How to be Grateful

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery today is a gift. That is why it is called ‘The Present’.” Alice Morse Earle and later Eleanor Roosevelt.

When we receive a gift however small we all feel a rush of good feeling, a warm glow inside.

When we are fearful and anxious the opposite is true; we feel sick, breathless and empty.

Fear is necessary to warn us of danger, some level of anxiety is normal because it keeps us safe.

The fight/flight response is instant, as it needs to be when we need to run away, however, the stress hormones released have longer acting consequences.

Our cerebral cortex gets involved and we start thinking. Repetitive negative thinking rewires the brain to pay more attention to negative situations.

In life we are constantly bombarded with negative messages and that continual stimulus prompts our bodies to produce stress hormones.

Our brains tune into those negative thoughts generating negative feelings and behaviours.

We become used to that body chemistry and can even come to crave it.

This is particularly true with the current pandemic which is generating much fear. We fear the loss of our health, loved ones, purpose, freedom, finances and our way of life.

Positive thoughts are the key to break this negative spiral and gratitude is the best place to start. Gratitude gives us a focus to generate feelings of positivity.

Gratitude is recognised across cultures. In Shamanic practice it is seen as one of the gifts we are born with. Every time we are grateful we are open to receiving abundance from the universe.

Robert Emmons, a Professor of Psychology at UC Davis, has been studying gratitude for many years in thousands of test subjects.

He and his team have defined gratitude as ‘a positive emotional response that we feel on giving or receiving a benefit’ (Emmons & McCullough, 2004)[1].

MRI scans of the brain when people are feeling grateful shows activity in multiple areas, including the reward centre and the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus secretes dopamine, a “feel good” neurotransmitter. It plays a role in our feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.

Emmons’s research has demonstrated physical, psychological and social benefits to gratitude.

  • 28% reduction in stress and 16% reduction in depression

  • 23% lower level of cortisol (a stress hormone)

  • 25% reduction in dietary fat intake

  • 88% reduction in feelings of hopelessness in suicidal people

  • 10% improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain

Grateful people have a stronger immune system, they have a better tolerance to pain, they eat better, are more likely to exercise and they have a better quality of sleep.

Grateful people are more positive and more alert; they are more optimistic and more likely to experiences feelings of joy and pleasure.

Grateful people are more generous and compassionate, more forgiving and less likely to feel lonely.

It is hardly surprising that Emmons has not identified any negative side effects to gratitude.

Emmons’s early definition of gratitude suggests that gratitude is only felt when we are given something by someone else.

In fact this would be to place the responsibility for how we feel with everyone except for ourselves;

this leaves us powerless.

In his book ‘The Little Book of Gratitude’ Emmons expands this definition, recognising the need to develop gratitude skills; the ability to find things to be grateful for in any situation, even in adversity.

He advocates practising regular exercises to cultivate gratitude in our lives.

We need to learn how to “Live Gratefully”

Several psychological interventions have been developed to increase gratitude; these are known as gratitude exercises.

Seligman et al (2005)[2] randomly allocated participants to 5 exercises and one control group.

The biggest short term effect on happiness scores was seen from a ‘gratitude visit’ – writing and delivering a letter of gratitude.

The longest effect was seen with ‘gratitude journals’.

Happiness scores were still higher 6 months after the experiment took place.

A gratitude journal involves writing each day about the things we feel grateful for.

Not just unexpected gifts and kindnesses from others but the things in our everyday lives that we may be taking for granted.

This process encourages us to focus on the positives rather than the negatives, releasing dopamine and serotonin rather than cortisol and adrenaline

Take each day, be present and accept the gifts we are given.

Try this:

A Gratitude Journal

Make time in your routine for gratitude

Turn off devices

Find a comfortable place to sit surrounded by things you love. This may be outside; it may be in your bedroom. Wherever feels right for you

Make sure you have no distractions

Prepare yourself for you journaling by centring yourself

Close your eyes and take your awareness, as always, to your breathing

Feel the ground beneath your feet, the cushions behind you or the chair against your legs

Listen carefully to the sounds around you

Breathe deeply and slowly

Feel your connection to the universe

Now open your eyes and start to write:

Think about 3 things you are grateful for today

How do they make you feel

Sit with that feeling, relive it

Even on bad days there are positive elements. Focus on these

Now think about the things you have achieved today and write about them

Congratulate yourself

Give yourself permission to feel proud

Write down 3 things you have learned today

Feel grateful for those lessons

In the silence allow your intentions for tomorrow crystallise

Clear intentions lead to positive outcomes

If you enjoyed this article please share it with family, friends and colleagues.

[1] Emmons, R. A. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude: An Introduction. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), Series in affective science. The psychology of gratitude (p. 3–16). Oxford University Press. [2] Seligman, M. E. P.; Steen, T. A.; Park, N.; Peterson, C. (2005). "Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions". American Psychologist. 60: 410–421.

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