The idea of practicing gratitude is becoming more widespread these days. Positive Psychology research has linked gratitude with happiness. And even though research cannot necessarily prove cause and effect, not leveraging gratitude for our wellbeing seems like a missed opportunity.
As 2019 comes to a close, it feels natural for us to look back, reflect, acknowledge and be grateful for events, experiences, relationships that have made our lives richer.
Research suggests that practicing gratitude has a range of benefits; it is believed to positively impact on our physical health and improve sleep. Its benefits for our mental health have also been highlighted: gratitude can support a more optimistic outlook on life and hopefulness, it can foster resilience and empathy. Importantly, gratitude also strengthens relationships. For us humans, hard-wired for connection, this is a crucial benefit we should leverage. If gratitude becomes an everyday ingredient in our relationships it creates a positive ‘give and take’ spiral. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude and a professor of psychology at the University of California says, ‘gratitude is the antidote to entitlement’. When we practice gratitude, we’re more likely to appreciate our relationships, not just for the big favours and outstanding acts of support, but the everyday presence people have in our lives, and the small gestures of love and support. It’s also encouraging to read Emmons’s research that gratitude works at work. It’s easy to think of gratitude practice as a somewhat spiritual idea, and often we think spirituality doesn’t belong into the world of business. But as gratitude strengthens relationships and helps to restrict behaviours that are prevalent in toxic workplaces (gossiping, entitlement, negativity, any kind of bullying or aggressive behaviour) it is definitely a concept more and more companies are keen to integrate in their workplace culture.
Gratitude also helps us grasp the narratives of our lives. I love this quote from Melody Beattie: “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” With a focus on the past, gratitude shows up in our memories, reminding us to celebrate moments we are grateful for. When it comes to the present, gratitude is a form of mindfulness. To notice the small moments, we need to be mindful and connected to the present moment. And as gratitude brings hope it becomes a way of maintaining an optimistic and hopeful mindset to support us through tough times and set a vision for the future.
So far so good. Reaping the benefits of gratitude requires practice, and this means some work on our part. Merely thinking about it or having a grateful attitude isn’t enough. To cultivate gratitude and turn it into a practice we need to find a way of practicing that works for us. You can easily find suggestions for gratitude practices; a daily gratitude journal, a gratitude meditation or mindfulness exercise, prayer, counting one’s blessings, writing thank-you notes. Emmons has some practical suggestions here. To make any practice ‘stick’ you need to consider how much time you can realistically spend on it, your personality and preferences. We all know – if it isn’t easy and doesn’t come (fairly) naturally, we probably won’t do it. If you’ve been part of my community for some time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of tailoring and creating what truly works for you. We can steal with pride from other people’s practices or ancient rituals and make them work for us and our life circumstances.
And finally, gratitude needs to be felt. It has to be practiced with the mind-body connection in mind! Writing a gratitude journal is a good start. But if you simply jot down some bullet points without connecting with your body and feeling your gratitude it won’t have the desired effect. So whatever practice you choose, take the time to silence the noise around you and connect with your gratitude through your body and senses.
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