“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorns have roses.” ― Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden
Gratitude. Traditionally, it’s a word we’ve come to associate with the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. Yet, the practice of gratitude has long been demonstrated as a powerful tool to cultivate happiness in both our personal and professional lives. Why, then, do we tend to focus on expressing gratitude primarily in the month of November and fall away from it the rest of the year? Imagine, if there was a medicine that promised greater effectiveness at work, enhanced well-being, less stress, and better overall health, we’d be lining up for a prescription! While that doesn’t exist, we can, with no potential negative side effects, learn to sustainably reap the benefits of gratitude in our lives without spending a dime.
So, what makes it difficult to instill a year-round habit of expressing gratitude? Evolution has caused our brains to focus on the negative. In prehistoric times, those who were alert to threats were more likely to avoid danger, live longer, and pass their genes along. Today, that leads us to more frequently focus on what isn’t working or what is missing from our lives. Consequently, we need to notice this negative slant and develop a new habit to reframe our way of looking at things.
How do we instill a habit of gratitude? With concerted practice. For example, notice when negative thoughts start to stream through your brain. Then, stop and practice looking for something to be thankful for in the moment. What is the opportunity in the situation at hand? What is one good thing that happened to you today? Who are the special people in your life? What is something that brings you joy? How else could you look at what happened that would support you better?
This is not to say that there aren’t difficult and challenging parts of life. Nor is it about ignoring those aspects when they arise. In fact, it’s during times when we are down that gratitude becomes even more important. No matter what is happening in our lives, we get to choose where we place our focus and attention. Remembering what we have in our lives to be grateful for positively impacts our sense of well-being and peace.
Let’s not wait to start being grateful. Proactively focusing on the positive things in our lives builds the habit of gratitude. This powerful approach strengthens our gratitude muscle so that it’s more readily available to us. What are you grateful for? Some of the things that come to mind for me are the beautiful autumn leaves, the scent of a wood stove, sharing a laugh with friends and family, my health, music, reading books, the ability to play the piano, tulips in the springtime, freshly fallen snow, a brisk walk… I encourage you to make a list of your own.
A Few Ideas for Practicing Gratitude
- If you enjoy writing, then keeping a gratitude journal might be a good place to start. Consider spending 5 minutes per day jotting down the things you are grateful for. As you build the habit, you might move to once a week. Greater frequency in the beginning will be most helpful to instill the new habit.
- Take a moment at work to appreciate and thank a customer, co-worker, or direct report. Be specific about what they have done that you are thankful for.
- When you feel the urge to complain arise, stop, and make a gratitude list.
- As you prepare to go to sleep, take a moment to reflect on what you are grateful for that day. Even if it’s been a bad day, find at least one thing to be grateful for.
- Make a game out of looking for things to be grateful for throughout the day. If you know that you’re going to jot items down 2 or 3 times per day, then you’ll train your brain to be on the lookout for things to add to the list.
- Pay attention to how you feel when you’re being grateful. Notice how it is impacting your life in positive ways.
Over time, as you practice, you will notice a subtle shift and you may find that your new focus has led to enhanced contentment and an enriched life. What ideas would you add for practicing gratitude?