Here are 5 ways to increase your access to gratitude – and then reap the benefits.
What would you say if someone offered you a prescription for a medication that has been scientifically demonstrated to improve your sleep and your mood, as well as boost your immune system. Not only that, this prescription can decrease your experience of chronic pain, depression, and anxiety, as well as your risk of disease (remember the immune system boost?). It has no negative side effects or contraindications with any other medications or supplements you’re currently taking or will take in the future. One more thing: you don’t have to worry about whether it’s covered under your drug plan, because it is free. Sound interesting?
Gratitude, or thankfulness, is that powerful. Living more from a place of thankfulness requires some effort, because our nervous system’s default position is to notice things that are wrong before it notices things that are right. But the effort to cultivate gratitude is well worth it.
The experience of gratitude is connected to our experience of having received something we didn’t earn. Knowing we have received a gift (or gifts) is one thing. Experiencing what we have been given with multiple senses can transform a vague sense of feeling thankful or appreciative into something more intense and fulfilling. There is something about seeing, hearing, touching or otherwise experiencing a sign of the generosity of life firsthand that produces deep gratitude.
Neuroscience has demonstrated that, since the human brain cannot process every piece of information available to it, it selects based on where attention is being paid. In other words, we notice what we look for and filter out the rest. Or, as was first noted in the Babylonian Talmud and has been quoted by others since, “we don’t see things they are; we see things as we are.”
Here are 5 simple ways to increase your access to gratitude’s physical and emotional benefits:
1. Stay present
Stay present to what is happening “right now.” Think about this. Right now, in this moment, you have everything you need. (If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this.) Maybe you think you don’t have everything you need for tomorrow, or next week, or next year. But right now, right here – wherever now and here are – you have enough.
2. Recall (with gratitude) your past
There’s also a role for the past in building your capacity to feel thankful. No matter how poorly a day, week, or year appears to have gone, there were things that happened that you can be thankful for. By choosing to focus on experiences we’re grateful for, we increase our brain’s ability to spot more sources of gratitude. Like a muscle; we build it by using it.
3. Don’t borrow tomorrow’s trouble
Planning for the future is important. Setting goals, anticipating roadblocks, thinking as best we can about the medium and long-term implications of our decisions … all these can be useful practices. But there is a line between productively thinking about the future, and ruminating and worrying over what might go wrong. While gratitude flourishes in the present moment and can be recalled from past “presents,” the future is a difficult place for gratitude to survive.
In the same way that muscles need the resistance provided by the weight of gravity to develop, so gratitude needs the resistance provided by the weight of actual experience, past or present. In the vacuum of the future, gratitude atrophies. Because the future is a concept, it is not substantial enough to ground us. Our minds, when left to float free, will naturally default to the possibilities of what might go wrong. That’s helpful to a point, but after that, it is too easy to get caught up in fear, superstition, speculation, and the like.
4. Once you’re moving, take advantage of the momentum
Gratitude is not a completely closed system; external effort is required to energize the process, particularly until the gratitude feedback loop is more established. Which means that momentum counts for a lot. Use the law of inertia to your advantage. Once we’re in the flow of gratitude, it becomes easier to see what has gone well, and, importantly, to act in ways that stir gratitude in others. Gratitude produces gratitude – not only for us, but for those around us.
5. Just begin
There are myriad ways to jumpstart your gratitude mindset if it needs a boost. If you need some help, consider meditating on one or both of the following:
1. The unlikelihood of you. The fact that you exist at all and have survived this long has very little to do with your own effort.
2. The unlikelihood of you reading this blog post. You woke up this morning; on average, more than 100,000 people who went to sleep last night did not.
That should get you going.
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