Gratitude – “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”.
Some days gratitude is given for simply waking up without (too much) pain or discomfort, or watching the birds flit in the birdbath as I wash the dishes (yes, I am the dishwasher in my house as opposed to some machine).
When we acknowledge and practice the art of gratitude, this practice shifts our perspective on what is happening in our lives and rewires the brain to see the great things in our world instead of focusing on the negative.
As gratitude is a discipline, some people can find it to be rather challenging to instill. This is because there seems to be an evolutionary reason to focus on what is not right, and a good one at that, according to Derek Beres and that is because one false move can end in our demise. This anxiety of our ancestors was much greater than ours today, yet today we still seem to be unable to control those nasty spikes in cortisol.
There is a proven solution to rectify this ancestral programming – and that is through practicing the art of gratitude.
Neuropsychological studies have found that when people meditate on gratitude, neural pathways are rewired, thus strengthening their connection to this emotion. Through developing such a practice on a regular basis, synaptic plasticity changes a person’s reactions to certain situations, ie making them grateful instead of recoiling or lashing out when confronted with challenging emotional content.
Through his research, Dr Robert Emmons found having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ improves emotional and physical health, as well as strengthens relationships and communities. People who kept a gratitude journal reported to have fewer physical symptoms of pain, exercised more regularly and were more optimistic about the upcoming week, than those who kept journals that were either neutral or that allowed them to complain. He also found that those who kept gratitude lists made greater strides in progressing towards personal goals over a two-month period.
Emmons also discovered in a separate study that when young adults practiced daily gratitude exercises, higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy were reported compared to the control group, who were either told to focus on downward social comparisons or that they were better off than others.
Focusing on gratitude during meditation (and subsequently in our lives) changes our outlook on life, not life itself. This is what helps making it through the day more pleasant, what makes even daunting tasks seem accomplishable. This is not to deny problems we may have in our lives; it is simply disciplining ourselves to not devote mental energy towards them when unnecessary.
Techniques like gratitude meditations and journaling help us reorient the way we move about the world — more appreciative, less bogged in misery. This form of meditation has also been shown to weaken the ‘me’ system in our brains, giving us more time to react to situations.
Practicing the art of gratitude does not need to be complicated or time consuming. Start by simply acknowledging good or pleasant things when they happen and say a silent “thank you”. As I mentioned at the beginning, acknowledge gratitude for simply waking up, for having a roof over your head and food in the fridge; for the sunshine on your face, or the rain on your garden. Maybe you are grateful for receiving a hug from a child, or being able to share a glass of wine or cup of tea with a friend.
Try listing three things you are grateful for each morning and each evening before you go to bed for even just a week – and then allow yourself to notice the change that practicing the art of gratitude is making to your life and well being.