The Power of Gratitude
Gratitude holds a surprising amount of power in its ability to shift our internal wellbeing and our relationships with others, including those we lead.
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, gratitude exists in two stages: acknowledging the goodness in one's life and recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside of ourselves.
It is both a trait that can be developed as a character strength and a state of being in which we experience rich emotion.
When we're in a state of gratitude we say yes to life and affirm those around us.
I remember having a strong sense of gratitude going about my days before the pandemic hit.
I had developed a routine of attending sunrise yoga classes at my gym before heading into work early where I'd make my tea, read the news, catch up on emails, enjoy the company of my coworkers as they filtered in for the day, and relish having social plans almost every night.
Stay-at-home orders confining me to my studio apartment and the pandemic hitting DX hard financially shifted my life significantly.
I went from flourishing to survival mode, as I'm sure we all did.
The uncertainty and stress I experienced overtook my consistent attitude of gratitude.
Some days it was (and still can be) hard to get out of bed in the morning, find motivation for the day ahead, and not get frustrated over the small things with my friends, family, and coworkers.
It's not easy, but the more I remind myself of what I am grateful for the easier it is to find hope in the day.
Recently I've been wondering, putting the pandemic aside, why is it so hard to be grateful on a consistent basis?
Why is gratitude a skill we must build in order to frequently experience the state of it in our lives?
Gratitude Is A Challenge
It's difficult to notice and acknowledge what we have to be grateful for as our days become more mundane and we speed through every moment, every hour.
It's like driving the same route over and over again. You miss noticing the sun shining through the trees or hearing children laughing on the playground.
The more we slow down to live in a present state the more we become aware of what makes us happy and gives our lives meaning.
This enhances the joy we experience, but it also opens us up to our feelings of sadness.
We must have the dark in order to see the light and the same goes for experiencing joy and pain.
The more we become in touch with what matters to us the more in touch we become with our feelings of joy and sadness.
Fortunately, feeling sad centers us in ourselves and awakens us to the deep joy that exists in our daily life.
However, we may face challenges in accepting joy, love, generosity, or gratitude.
When we experience something that is so different from what we have been used to, especially in our childhood, this can subconsciously awaken old sadness toward what was lacking in our past.
We begin to feel uncomfortable or unworthy in receiving the good in life.
Not only is it difficult to notice the good within the mundane, without realizing it, we may be avoiding engaging with gratitude so as not to feel our present or historic sadness.
With that in mind, is building the skill of gratitude worth the risk? Neuroscience says, YES!
Gratitude Changes The Brain
Not only does research show that gratitude improves our overall health through better sleep, motivation to exercise, and stress relief, it also has lasting effects on the brain.
The state of gratitude activates the prefrontal cortex, an area in the frontal lobes of the brain where we experience empathy, feelings of relief, understanding different perspectives, and regulate emotion.
We can train our brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude through reshaping the neural pathways in the brain, also known as neuroplasticity; the ability of our brain to elaborate new connections through learning.
By training our brain to engage in gratitude we activate brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter of dopamine.
Dopamine is generally considered the "reward" neurotransmitter and is important in initiating action because when we receive dopamine we're more likely to do the thing we just did to trigger it.
This trigger engages our mind to fall for the Confirmation Bias where we look for things that prove what we already believe to be true. Some refer to this as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The dopamine trigger helps us make the Confirmation Bias work in our favor toward having an attitude of gratitude.
Once we start to notice things to be grateful for, our brain begins to look for more things to be grateful for so it can confirm our established beliefs and get another dopamine hit.
The only question is, how do we engage our brain in gratitude in the first place?
Gratitude Requires Mindful Engagement
Here are a few ways to build the muscle of cultivating a consistent sense of gratitude and living a gracious life.
Keep a gratitude journal.
In 2003 Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Michael McCullough conducted a study where one group of young adults were asked to keep a gratitude journal and the other two groups were asked to journal about annoyances or reasons why they were better off than others.
After 10 weeks, the first group who focused on gratitude were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more, and showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other groups.
At the end of every day or each morning write down 3 things you're grateful for. Research shows that if you do this for only two consecutive weeks the positive effects will last for up to six months.
Write down what you appreciate about the world around you. Take notice of an object of beauty in your home, a calming aspect in nature, an empowering conversation with a coworker, or the warmth from your morning cup of coffee.
Write down what you appreciate about yourself, like when you practiced self-care in saying "no" to a task at work that would have overwhelmed your to-do list.
Write it down and reap the rewards.
Incorporate gratitude into your morning & evening routine.
This could create a routine around keeping a gratitude journal or engaging in a gratitude meditation.
Feel free to try this mediation on for size:
- Get into a comfortable seated position, relax, and close your eyes.
- Feel the floor beneath your feet and ground down into the chair supporting you.
- Take 3 deep breaths in and out. Notice the rise and fall of your chest.
- On the next inhale ask yourself, "What am I grateful for today?" and ponder this inquiry for a few rounds of breath.
- Once you have 3 (or more) chosen, return to focusing on your inhale and exhale.
- With every inhale think to yourself "I receive" and with every exhale think "I give thanks".
- After doing this for a few rounds of breath, begin to imagine a golden light washing over you and radiating out of you.
- Open your eyes when you're ready. Stretch your arms up high, enjoy the smile that is now on your lips, and prepare to soak in the day or snuggle in for a good night's rest.
Speak graciously to others.
It's surprising to discover the amount of influence we have when we express gratitude to others.
Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study where they divided university fund-raisers into two groups.
One group called alumni to solicit donations per usual. The second group, who were assigned to work on a different day, received a pep-talk from the director of annual giving on how grateful they were for their efforts.
The following week, the second group make 50% more fund-raising calls than the first group who did not receive a pep-talk.
Managers who remember to say "thank you" to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder.
This is the power of gratitude toward the people you lead.
Challenge yourself at work, home, and in the world by keeping a daily tally of how many times a day you say "thank you" or express appreciation for something.
The next day, try to outdo the tally from the day before.
Notice how people's responses to you and the world around you shift in response.
Speak graciously to yourself.
We all have an inner critic that is quite mean and uses shame, guilt, and fear of rejection to take us out of the present moment and keep us in our heads, thus distorting how we perceive the world around us.
Challenge your inner critical voice by speaking kindly to yourself at least 5 times a day.
Use your body to presence yourself by rubbing your chest, putting your hand on your cheek, squeezing your arms, or scratching your head.
Say things like, "You got this, sweetie. You're doing a really good job. I appreciate all the effort you're putting in. Way to go. I'm proud of you."
This isn't an easy task for most. Imagine you're talking to a child or your younger self.
If a child came up to you with a painting they made, you wouldn't criticize them for not painting a Picasso. You would compliment their art and encourage them to keep going.
Why not give yourself the same level of care?
Awaken your inner child-like sense of wonder.
Tackle the mundane, groundhog day way of living by adopting a sense of wonder.
Awaken yourself to the many things you may overlook in a day. Engage with your senses and open your heart to feel connected to and appreciative for the many miracles of our daily existence.
According to Jack Kornfield, "We have the privilege of the lavender color at sunset, the taste of a tangerine in our mouth, and the almost unbearable beauty of life around us, along with its troubles … We can either be lost in a smaller state of consciousness… or we can bring the quality of love and appreciation, which I would call gratitude, to life.”
When I began writing this blog I was not in a good state of mind. I felt sad and sluggish. I lacked motivation and curiosity toward the world around me.
In retrospect, I needed to write this blog to awaken myself to myself.
Now, I smile at the warmth from the cup of tea in my hands and breathe in the tasty aroma of a candle I've lit just because.
As I read through this blog post, checking for any errors, I touch my hand to my chest to say, "Way to go, sweetie. You care a lot and did a great job."
Thank you for reading till the end. I appreciate and am grateful for your curiosity.
What are you grateful for today?
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