Positive psychology has raised our awareness about this concept of ‘gratitude’. There is so much research that can be read and worked through that it can be quite daunting. What most of this research boils down to is that more gratitude in our lives equals better quality of life, better relationships, better health and a higher level of well-being. This sounds fabulous. Most of us believe that we do have gratitude in our lives, after all we appreciate the good things, we thank people when they help us and we are grateful for what we have. So why isn’t our life that amazing?
The catch is our perspective. We are all living high paced and stressful lives where we are often required to juggle home life, relationships, work and more at the same time, so our perspective is often focused on many different things at the same time and looking forward to our next goal. This is where the phrase “Thank you but…” comes from.
“Thank you but I wish it happened sooner.”
“Thank you but could you do this for me as well.”
“Thank you but that doesn’t solve this other problem I have.”
We often qualify our gratitude with what we don’t have yet. This is not gratitude and will not give us the benefits we are hoping for. Before we go about the entire mission of changing our perspective towards feeling gratitude – because it is a process that requires diligent practising – what benefits will I really get?
Gratitude is a cathartic emotion which means that it helps release built up emotions and leaves a person feeling more positive. We cry when we are feeling sad and afterwards we feel less sad and have a small feeling of relaxation, this is a cathartic experience. Gratitude can do the same thing for us. When we focus on feeling gratitude specific neural pathways are triggered and we are left with a feeling of well-being. By practising gratitude often we can look forward to the following benefits:
Increased physical health
Increases problem solving abilities
Increases resiliency by increasing positive emotions
Changes our perspective to one of wonder and positivity
And much more
So why do we have to practise gratitude? Why is simply saying ‘thanks’ not enough? As humans we have something called ‘hedonic adaptation’. This means we get used to things that happen often in our lives so that they don’t affect us as much. This is a great adaptation for resilience in negative situations. However, it works for positive things as well. So we become used to our spouse doing things to help us or used to our child bringing us a drawing and it doesn’t elicit the same intensity of gratitude as it used to. When this happens we feel less positive and are more likely to find new negatives and focus on those. So we need to practise seeing all of the things we could be grateful for. When we do find these things we need to sit with them and think of them in detail. For example “I am grateful for my family” isn’t going to help us feel that special wave of gratitude every day; rather sit each day and think “I am grateful for my child today because he picked up his toys without me asking.”
When we think of detailed experiences that happened during the day we help our brain become used to focusing on the positive. Keeping a gratitude journal can help with this. But this might be daunting to begin with, so for an easy and quick way to get into the gratitude game try the following exercise:
Each evening before bed sit quietly and think of 5 things that happened that day that made you grateful. Think of each one in detail and feel the gratitude flow through you. This will help your brain recognise these moments as they happen and then fill you with this sense of well-being through-out the day!
By Amy Pieterse