With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I am reminded of how when I was young I was taught to count my blessings each night before going to sleep. I would list at least five things that I knew that I “should” be grateful for. It was done out of obligation and with a sense of duty. I never really understood why I was doing it and I never really thought about what I was truly grateful for. In time I stopped doing it. Later in life I learned that this was actually a brilliant tool or practice. Instead of doing it at night, I began doing it in the morning and I truly listed what I was grateful for. What I noticed was remarkable. On the days that I started by thinking about and feeling what I was grateful for my day flowed more easily and not much would aggravate me. On the days that I forgot or was too rushed to do it… well, let’s just say that I was irritated.
Will practicing gratitude work for you? There is a growing body of scientific evidence that says that it will. According to several studies when you feel gratitude it changes your heart and brain waves. The institution HeartMath has been studying how feeling and thinking with gratitude makes us feel happy. Their experiments demonstrate that when you recall a situation that you felt thankful for it changes your heart and brain waves, making them more coherent. When the heart and brain waves are coherent the result is less stress, anxiety and more happiness.
Soul Pancake has an interesting video titled The Science of Happiness-An Exercise in Gratitude. They show an experiment where the participants write a letter to someone that they are grateful for in their life. They then have them call the person and share the letter. Prior to writing the letter each participant took a test that measured their level of happiness and after the exercise they retook the test. Every participant had an increase in their level of happiness. The best part is that the people who were the least happy had the greatest boost in their level of happiness.
How can you do it?
- Think about what you are grateful for.
Look for what you are grateful for everyday. This shifts your awareness away from what you are unhappy with and brings your focus onto what you are happy about. Having a daily practice is more powerful and effective than sporadically doing it. I like to start my day with thinking about what I am grateful for and talking myself into a good mood before I even get out of bed. I have a friend that will go through the alphabet thinking or listing something that she is grateful for that begins with each letter when she has reached the end of her patience.
- Pay attention to your self talk.
If you are like most people you have a running dialog in your head. Pay attention to what you are saying to yourself. Are you repeating the same negative story over and over? Are you adding details that are not actually there? Are you stuck in the past or worrying about the future? Give yourself a break and purposefully choose to think about what is going well.
- Do a gratitude exercise.
Write a letter to someone expressing how much you appreciate him/her and share it. Years ago for a college essay, I had to write about someone that I admired. I wrote about my grandmother and I remember how as I was writing it my mood really changed. I was stressed out, but by the time I finished it I felt great. I wrote about how loved and supported I was by her and thinking about it melted the stress away. I shared the essay in a card to her and remembering her reaction still puts a smile in my heart.
What is great about using gratitude as a tool is that you can do it anywhere and at anytime. There is no right or wrong way to do this, just do what works for you and find fun ways to do it every day.
If you are like me and get busy or forget when you are starting something new, it is okay. Once you notice that you are feeling down, stressed or just plain pissed off, you can put this tool to use and feel the immediate results. It does not mean that you have to find something to be grateful for in every situation, but you can use this to help you “act” instead of “react”. By thinking of another situation that you are grateful for you can benefit from the calmed emotions and clear head to problem solve or let go of (if appropriate) the difficult situation at hand. Plus you will be less stressed and happier!
Everyone everywhere has something or someone in their life that they are grateful for. Some days or in some circumstances it may seem challenging to come up with something that you are grateful for, but if you take a moment you will find it. Gratitude is one of the closest emotions to love and is one of the best tools to boost your mood and make you feel happy. When you think of what you are truly grateful for it shifts your energy and brings you into the feeling of love and happiness. Give it a try!
Kerri Burnside is the Co-Publisher of the Bellingham Muse. She has been teaching stress management for over 15 years and offers a weekly guided meditation for stress reduction that is open to the public. See the schedule and location here.