Once a year in November, we celebrate Thanksgiving. However, as many articles summarizing neuroscience research demonstrate*, practicing gratitude on a daily basis can help improve our moods and attitudes.
Several years ago, when I was experiencing a break-up, I couldn’t focus on anything but what was wrong in my life. A good friend of mine recommended I try a daily gratitude practice. “Every morning when you wake up, just think of three things that make you feel grateful,” she said. At the time, I could think of a million things I’d rather do than be appreciative, given that I was wallowing in the doldrums of my failed relationship. I wrote off her advice as pop-psychology.
But I was wrong. Think of your brain as you would your muscular system. The muscles you use get strong, and the ones you ignore shrink. Similarly, when you set your mind to do something, with repetition, the capacity for that task grows. So, if focusing on the negative aspects of our lives makes us miserable, why not grow the capacity to be more aware of and pay greater focus to the things that make us happy?
For me, when my friend made the suggestion, I couldn’t fathom focusing on the positive aspects of my life, partly because I felt that I would be merely trying to avoid or overlook the aspects that made me sad and brought me pain. What I didn’t understand then is that by focusing on the positive would not cause me to ignore the part of me that was in pain and needed to feel sad. Rather, it would simply give me greater resources for taking care of that part of me in a way that would be truly healing, rather than perpetuating the difficult feelings.
Still, when so many painful things hold our attention, it can be hard to focus on the positive. Like any exercise routine, it takes commitment and practice, and, after a little while, we start to feel strong. Here are some tips to get started:
Each morning, before getting out of bed, think of 3-5 things for which you’re thankful. These can be very simple and basic. For example, “I’m grateful I have a roof over my head,” or “I’m grateful to have a job to go to,” or "I'm grateful for my pet."
Find someone to share your appreciations with. Sometimes we need someone to go to the gym with us regularly to keep us accountable. Find someone who is willing to do a gratitude practice with you. Every day, make some time to tell this person not only what you’re grateful for, but also for whom you are grateful. Express appreciations for the people in your life and the things they do to make your life better. (If you can do this with a partner, it can even help create more good will and less conflict in your relationship.)
Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, before going to bed, write down at least one thing that you appreciated about your day as well as one thing you appreciated or liked about yourself. By focusing gratitude on yourself, you can support a positive self-esteem. Also, by writing down what you appreciate, you can review past entries occasionally, which will help increase your brain’s focus on positive aspects of your life.
When expressing gratitude, notice the desire to counter with “but…” or “even though…” and see what happens when you choose to stop your negative thought before completing the sentence. Instead of saying, “I am grateful I have a job to go to, even though I wish I made more money,” see how things shift if you can stop yourself at “I’m grateful I have a job.”
After speaking or writing down something you are thankful for, take a moment and notice your body. What sensations do you feel? Often thoughts are connected to feelings in our bodies. What feelings in your body arise when you focus on what you’re grateful for? In doing this, you can also grow your ability to feel positive states and emotions.
What are you grateful for? How do you express your thanks and train your brain to see the good in your life? Join the conversation on Facebook.
If you would like to talk about specific ways you can feel better about yourself, your life, and to stop feeling stuck in negative feelings, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Illustrations by Samanth Land. For inquiries regarding her work, please complete the On Solid Ground Counseling Service's contact form.