“Every day, think as you wake up, 'I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.'” - So said the Dalai Lama, in the wonderfully uplifting The Book of Joy.
Giving thanks is a big theme at this time of year, and gratitude is an important pillar of many religious and spiritual traditions. The Book of Joy shares that gratitude “allows us to shift our perspective...towards all we have been given and all that we have. It moves us away from the narrow-minded focus on fault and lack, to the wider perspective of benefit and abundance.”
You might be surprised to learn that there’s scientific evidence pointing to the benefits of practicing gratitude. For example, the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley asserts that “people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.”
What's more, the writers of the GGSC study found a snowball effect in the benefits of gratitude: that positive benefits increased rather than decreased over time. One of the reasons for this could be that, according to the study, gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. Some early studies suggest that “practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.”
Harvard Health Publishing also mentions this snowball effect: “Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.” This means that making gratitude a part of your daily self-care practice will provide increasing rewards, the longer you do it.
As human beings, we are built for negative bias, and some people find the idea of gratitude practice a bit earnest. However, in The Book of Joy, the study by UC Davis Professor Robert Emmons and his colleagues found that "grateful people do not seem to ignore or deny the negative aspects of life; they simply choose to appreciate what is positive as well."
The effects are impressive. "People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathetic and to take the perspective of others. They are rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks...Grateful people report more positive emotions, more vitality and optimism, and greater life satisfaction as well as lower levels of stress and depression."
Even without understanding the science behind it, it's easy to see that regularly expressing gratitude for what we have helps stop us from falling down the rabbit hole of what we lack. Always striving for something, can leave us feeling unfulfilled, or as if we're falling short. The opposite mindset can cultivate a sense of contentment with life.
While the Holidays are a time of joy for many, for others they can be very stressful, lonely or overwhelming. It’s important to have tools that help lift your mood, and expressing gratitude can be a great place to start.
Here are three of our favorite ways for cultivating gratitude.
A gratitude journal
Writing things down is more powerful than thinking them. Practice writing down 3 things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. Not just big things, like family and children. The small stuff matters, too! We tend to give more attention to negative thoughts and experiences than positive ones. For example, we're more likely to point out that we were stuck in traffic than to say that our journey was actually quite clear. Think about all of the small things in the day that went right. Maybe there was no line at the grocery store checkout, which helped you get home with more time to cook. Maybe you had a good night's sleep, or bedtime with the kids was free of drama! Write down every little win. The more you do, the more you'll notice them and realize that a lot of good things can happen in one day. It just takes a slight shift in order to recognize and appreciate them.
Tell someone you appreciate them
This one is a double win: not only will they feel loved and appreciated, but you'll also benefit from the practice of showing your gratitude. This can be as simple as sending someone a text message, or as elaborate as sending a letter. It's such a lovely gift to tell someone unexpectedly that you are grateful for their friendship. And according to Harvard Health Publishing, gratitude can even improve relationships. Leaving gratitude notes around for your partner to find is also a special way to surprise them.
A guided gratitude meditation is a great way to cultivate this mindset. Download a meditation app and pick a length that suits you. We'd recommend trying this in the morning to set you up for the day.
Let us know your favorite gratitude practices. How do you show gratitude in your life and with loved ones?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel is a qualified yoga instructor with a passion for helping people to discover the benefits of yoga and meditations for their own needs - be they sleep, relaxation or energy. She is a lifelong learner with an interest in holistic health, and understanding how we can best support both body and mind to be strong, healthy and happy.