Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. A Proverb
The Unexpected Benefits of Practising Gratitude
Have you heard the term “toxic positivity?”
On Google, I found the site Verywell Mind, which states that toxic positivity is the idea that no matter how challenging a situation is, a person should keep a positive attitude.
I am not a believer in always maintaining a positive attitude. Trained as both a coach and a psychotherapist, I know it is important to validate one’s feelings, no matter how painful.
However, while we are processing difficult feelings, we have a tool we can use to feel better: gratitude.
Practising gratitude should not be categorized as toxic positivity.
In this blog, I will explore what gratitude actually is, some tips on how to use it, and what practicing gratitude did for me and can do for you.
Along the way, I will use my own Gratitude Experiment to share with you how practicing gratitude in an intentional way led me to a place I never imagined I would go. All of it good.
What is Gratitude Really?
Simply put, gratitude is a state of thankfulness.
Likely, we’ve all felt gratitude when we’ve received something we really wanted. Remember how happy you were as a kid when you got something amazing for your birthday?
Even as adults, we feel thankfulness when someone we love arrives home safely, or we have enough money in our bank account to purchase food for dinner, or when we get a good result from a medical appointment.
When I started my Gratitude Experiment, I wasn’t really sure what I was after. The experiment began after I realized that I had complained pretty much the entire time I talked to my friend on the phone.
There were lots of good, healthy reasons for me to be complaining. And I managed to list every last one.
When I hung up, I didn’t like the feeling I had. I felt badly that I had laid all that on her. And so I sat back and wondered, “What is going on with me?
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I was really unhappy.
“What can I do about this,” I pondered?
“The Magic,” my friendly inner voice replied.
How the book The Magic helped me to feel better.
I knew what my inner voice was suggesting. Not that I needed to learn some magic tricks, but that I should pull out my copy of Rhonda Byrne’s The Magic.
It’s a wonderful book that takes the reader through a 28-day journey of applying the magic of gratitude in their life.
I have read The Magic a few times before. I had done the daily exercises. And I definitely felt better because of it.
But, like many activities that make us feel better, I dropped it.
And so this time, when the answer was so very clear from my inner voice, I decided to take it much more seriously.
Acknowledging the goodness already here in our lives
The first thing I learned as I began to list the things in my life I was grateful for daily, was how much goodness was already there for me to acknowledge.
My incessant worrying that my friend heard first hand on that phone call, had woven a black cloud of negativity over me. And like with every cloud, the light could not get through.
You know that saying, “to a hammer everything looks like a nail?”
That is what had happened to me. Everything looked like a problem. Everything was in a shadow. And I was living with a feeling of impending dread and doom, like cold rain could drown me at any time.
I know right? That was hard. Really hard.
By intentionally sitting down and writing out a list of ten things I could be grateful for every morning, I began to see a tiny ray of sunshine.
I was taking it all for granted.
Please understand, nothing in my life actually changed. I was still struggling to pivot my business due to Covid restraints. I was still feeling low energy and strange physical symptoms. I was still feeling isolated from my family with so many stay-in-place orders. Yes, life was pretty much the same.
But I wasn’t.
This tiny ray of sunshine was the awareness that all the goodness in my life had always been there, I was just taking it all for granted.
As I was intentionally making the effort to pick a new set of gratitudes each day, I began to see my ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
All of a sudden, the hot water in my shower, the food on my table, the gas in my car, my eyesight, my friendships, my work, my clients, the books on my bookshelf, the insights from my teachers, the clothes on my back, that I wasn’t living in a war zone, that my water was safe to drink…all of a sudden I was aware of all these gifts.
It wasn’t that I had been ignoring them, I just wasn’t looking for them.
I was caught up in looking at all the bad stuff. I was caught in a fear/worry loop.
Worrying is a way for us to try to gain control.
For those of you who worry, you might be interested to know that we do that because it gives us a sense of control, false sense of course, but it feels better than feeling powerless.
Worrying simply gives us something to do. And perhaps, like a superstition, all that worrying will actually change something, or at least, protect us from the worst.
In their remarkable book titled The Tools, the authors explain worry this way.
Worry is our attempt to control the uncontrollable. (p150)
But why do we need to control anything?
Because we have an assumption that the universe is not a friendly place. Science tells us that the universe is indifferent to us and our needs.
Worrying and in my case a lot of fear and complaining was some kind of protection for me.
Gratitude was making me feel better.
Why does gratitude feel so good?
Well, it turns out that all this magic is in fact science.
You see, thoughts of gratitude and appreciation enhance our dopamine and serotonin response in our limbic system. These neurotransmitters are considered responsible for feelings of happiness. Serotonin is what antidepressants aim to regulate.
My growing feelings of well being were backed by science. Here’s some more science.
Have you ever heard of the negativity bias?
It seems that by not intentionally focusing our attention on anything in particular, our minds will naturally gravitate to dwelling on the negative.
There are a few reasons why this might have evolved in humans. Partly, because seeking out danger likely kept us alive. And so we are highly alert to what’s not going well in our world.
In addition, it appears that negative thoughts and feelings have a much greater impact on our internal state than do positive thoughts. The researcher and writer John Gottman points out that to keep a relationship stable, you need a much higher ratio of positive interactions to negative ones. There’s no 50/50 here. Negative interactions simply weigh more and to find balance and to thrive, you have to generate a lot more positive experiences.
Generating positive experiences is indeed what gratitude can do for you. It did it for me. My feelings of doom were lifting and happiness was emerging. Every day got just a little bit better.
Making a list everyday isn’t enough.
As I continued my gratitude experiment, I learned it was not enough to simply say thank you a bunch of times, but to really live in gratitude.
That meant noticing things I could be grateful for all day long and not just when I sat to do my gratitude list. Each time I would walk into my husband’s office, I would say thank you and feel deeply grateful for his presence in my life.
When I sat at the computer, I made sure to be thankful for everything I could see around me.
Gratitude practise is an intentional practise. For me to keep my mood uplifted, I had to make sure I was acknowledging all I could around me, and be consciously grateful for it.
And so along with the dopamine and serotonin, there is a conscious shift to focus on the many positive things that are happening all around us. With a higher ratio of noticing the good stuff, we can trick that old negativity bias and maintain a much more joyful state.
Here is a list so far of how to practise gratitude:
- Get the book The Magic and do the daily exercises
- Start each day with a list of everything you are grateful for.
- Start to notice the things you used to take for granted and be thankful for them.
- Be intentional. Think Gratitude. Think Thankfulness. Use it everywhere and all the time.
- Purchase The Tools and read Chapter 5.
At some point I started to recognize that the source of my goodness was outside of myself.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had a lot of people, places and things to be grateful for. Sometimes I would stop to reflect on how grateful I was for the amazing walks I used to have with my sweet but deceased dog Rocky.
I started to realize that yes, there is a lot of goodness floating around here already in my life. And where did all this come from? How come I was so lucky?
Without a doubt, the most unexpected and appreciated aspect of my Gratitude experiment is the way it is helping me connect with a higher power in my life, the source of all good.
I am a spiritual person. I have been a spiritual seeker my whole life. I study, I meditate, I practise.
But I have never been very good at feeling a connection with the Universe that went beyond my meager understanding.
I have had moments. Fleeting.
My practice of gratitude has given me a new sense of connection I have only ever dreamed of.
Here’s what happened that took me to a place I hadn’t even imagined possible.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that the authors of the Tools suggested that the reason we feel the need to worry was to control the uncontrollable. And that we need to control it because it scares us, because we’ve been taught that the universe is indifferent to us and our needs.
Well, what if we’re wrong? What if I’ve been wrong all this time?
What if on a level we can’t see, the universe is interested in our welfare, supporting us in ways large and small? (Tools,p151)
To help us understand this concept of an interested and supportive universe, the authors list evidence to support that idea: our body, the way it extracts oxygen from air, that plants continue to make oxygen, all the ways the earth supplies us with all we need to breathe, eat and build things.
There are an infinite number of ways our existence is sustained by the universe.
I get this pure emotion of gratefulness welling up inside of me when I think about it, when I sense my connection to an”infinite, spiritual force that gives of itself without restraint.” (The Tools, p79)
As I learned from my own life, this feeling of the beneficence of the universe does not come naturally. It is through an intentional practise of gratefulness that we can experience the endless generosity of the universe.
What did I perceive exactly? A fundamental truth that the universe works, albeit mysteriously and we are the beneficiary of its generosity.
I guess that’s why I’ve always liked Gabby Bernstein’s title of her book: The Universe Has Your Back.
When I started my Gratitude Experiment, I just wanted to feel better. I had no idea it would lead me out of fear and into faith, into that feeling of connecting with Source and such a rich feeling of inner peace and comfort, and joy. I am so much happier, it’s tangible. No more complaining on the phone with my friend. I am all sunshine and roses.🙂
Well, to the best of my ability anyway. I hope gratitude brings you the same joy.
And with all sincerity, thank you for reading.