I remember when I was little and I was complaining about something, probably very inconsequential, my Mum would always tell me that I should be grateful for what I have. That I was lucky to have a roof over my head and a family who loved me. But at the time the last thing I felt was gratitude and being told that I should feel that way did nothing to induce it. In fact, telling someone that they should feel grateful can sometimes have the unintended consequence of invalidating how they are truly feeling – so I’m definitely not going to tell you that you SHOULD feel anything (should is my least favourite word). But, I am here to tell you that the benefits of truly experiencing gratitude are numerous.
Do you roll your eyes every time you see a post with #blessed on social media? The idea of gratitude seems to be thrown around a lot lately in the personal development world, but as with almost anything, just intellectually understanding what gratitude is, can be vastly different than truly feeling the sensations that come with experiencing gratitude. And it’s in the actual feeling of it that you get the most benefit. So, how can we start to cultivate gratitude if you’re feeling low and there just doesn’t seem to be much to be thankful for?
The best way to start cultivating a feeling of gratitude is to start small. If you hate your job, the last thing you want to do is start by trying to feel grateful for it – it just ain’t going to happen. Instead, look around at the things that you like and start noticing them. One of the most important parts of gratitude is that it brings awareness and mindfulness to things that you may not have previously had. You might notice that you like the warmth of your morning cup of coffee, or that you like how your feet feel slipping into your UGG boots, or maybe you like the colour of the dress your colleague wore to work that day.
You can then move to feel gratitude for those things that bring small pleasures in your life. The idea is to then move up the “ladder” of gratitude and overtime you may find yourself truly feeling grateful for things you thought you never could be.
Make it a Habit
It’s not just our actions that can become a habit, even patterns of thinking can and do become habits. These habits form because repeatedly thinking of doing something creates neural pathways in our brains. They are kind of like little roads that make the transporting of information through our brains easier and more efficient (and the brain loves being efficient). Changing our habits, therefore, requires a lot more work to forge new neural pathways, but the more often you think or do something, the more established and deeply ingrained that neural pathway becomes.
If you can start a habit such as writing three things you’re grateful for in a journal every day (I use the Five Minute Journal), then thinking in this more positive way will soon become second nature, and you will have to consciously think about it less and less. A top tip I have for sticking to this habit is to link it with another habit and create a trigger. For example, writing your gratitude list as you get into bed at night and keeping your journal on your bedside table to remind you.
Cast a Wider Net
Once you have worked your way up the gratitude ladder and created a habit for yourself, the next step is to spread out what you are grateful for. This may involve recognising things from your past which you have historically viewed as negative, finding a positive outcome from that and being grateful for it happening. For example, did you have a particularly messy breakup, that then led you to go travelling, find a new job, or even taught you more about yourself or the person you want to be with? Finding the good in the bad has been one of the most wonderful gifts I have experienced from practicing gratitude, it has the power to transform the experience of this thing called life.
Stick with it
Don’t expect to have overwhelming results straight away. Retraining your mind to focus on things to be grateful for takes time and consistency, but it’s worth it. I’ve been pretty consistent with my gratitude practice for about a year and a half and the benefits of doing so have been cumulative. I think another important concept to remember is that what you focus on is your choice. We shouldn’t expect to feel grateful and happy 100% of the time, there are times when we don’t want to feel positive emotions and that is ok. Just be aware that you have a choice, and if a thought or feeling isn’t serving you, it is within your power to change it.
In a future blog post (keep in the loop by signing up for my newsletter) I will step this up a notch and talk about the idea of feeling grateful ahead of time -sounds weird, but I promise it’s amazing! Stay tuned for that one. But in the meantime, let me know, do you practice gratitude? If you do, what benefits have you experienced? If you don’t (yet), tell me what’s stopping you?