Waking this am I was reminded that relationships truly do define us. It’s the company we keep that often dictates our thoughts and thus our path. Our relationship with gratitude, although not a person, is equally important. How we embrace gratitude can impact and change our life enormously.
When you’re intimate with someone – you tend to think about that person frequently. You’ve opened up your heart and exposed your deepest thoughts. Look at the word intimacy: In.To.Me.U.See. Gratitude is similar to intimacy in getting to know yourself and appreciating the world around you. The closer we are to people, the more our heart opens up. The more we surround ourselves with gratitude, the more we have to be grateful for.
The choice to get intimate with gratitude presents itself to us daily. We can embrace the feeling of gratitude, or choose to ignore.I’m not talking about Thanksgiving, where once a year we reflect and take stock of all the positive things in life. As it turns out, there is scientific proof that being grateful daily is just plain good for you.
People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. Gratitude doesn’t need to be reserved only for momentous occasions. Sure, you might express gratitude after receiving a promotion at work, finding an umbrella in your car, catching the bus in time or locating a gas station as you rolled along on fumes. Maybe we are grateful we found a babysitter for Saturday night, or the medical tests came back negative. That’s easy gratitude.
But I’m never about easy. Easy doesn’t teach us anything. The hard part is finding gratitude in the darkest of times, when the medical report is not good, when someone betrays you, or your business suffers a tremendous loss. Reaching far and wide to feel grateful for the challenges we are going through is rare. But it is in that moment of pain we need to feel most grateful. Seriously. Allowing the gratitude to carry us while the blessings we can’t see become clearer. And they will.
It took me a while to find blessings in my own life’s pain. Too many years, actually. So now I constantly remind myself to be grateful for the good AND the bad that comes my way. In the moment of the news, this is hard to do. But if you can, stop, and tell yourself there is a blessing somewhere. With this reminder, you will find the reason to be grateful faster. I see this at the retreats I run at Angel Faces, a nonprofit that provides support for adolescent girls and young women disfigured from trauma or burn injuries.
While in group sessions, I tell the girls that their injury was a gift and to look at their trauma with gratitude. They always look at me with dropped jaws. Over the next few days, we identify the blessings in their lives that are a result of their accidents, such as inspirational people, medical teams, their newly built resilience, the opportunity to share their strength. For some of our girls, the first item on their list is being grateful that they are alive.
The other hard part of gratitude is bringing it into your daily life constantly. It’s finding gratefulness in the simplest of moments – all the time.
Research by UC Davis psychologist Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal—regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful—can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.
You’d think that just one of these findings would be compelling enough to motivate us to take action. Yet the reality is this motivation lasts about three days until writing in a gratitude journal every evening loses out to watching a series on Netflix, checking your email or answering texts. That’s what’s hard. Keeping it real. Real. In front of you. Daily.
Find what a method to remind yourself of gratitude. I focus on keeping gratitude real close in my world by looking for hearts. The most mundane the better; such as baked potato, a stain on the pavement, or a cloud in the sky. This morning it was a strawberry I had for breakfast.
The hearts I find are my messengers of gratitude. They are reminders that nudge me to stop, look around and see things more deeply. The peculiar thing is, when I’m trucking along and my heart is open and I’m feeling grateful for something simple as my breath or the weather, I see hearts everywhere! When I am worried about something, allowing negative thoughts to steal my joy, there are no hearts to be seen. As long as I’m “closed” my sight for gratitude is greatly hindered. For this reason, when I get harsh news, I immediately search for hearts – for with them comes gratitude that it will all be ok.
Here are a few keys I’ve discovered—and research supports—that help not only to start a gratitude practice, but to maintain it for the long haul.
Get Real About Your Gratitude Practice
Being excited about the benefits of gratitude can be a great thing because it gives us the kick we need to start making changes. Yet with today’s distractions and busy lives, we fumble and lose momentum. Recognize and plan for the obstacles that may get in the way of recognizing gratitude. For instance, if you are more of a morning person, as I, schedule your gratitude list for the mornings.
Make Thankfulness Fun by Mixing It Up
If journaling is feeling stale, try out new and creative ways to track your grateful moments. One idea is to create a gratitude jar. Any time you experience a poignant moment of gratitude, write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. On New Year’s Eve, empty the jar and review everything you reflected upon. When something good happens – now you can pop it in the jar! It immediately makes the moment more meaningful and will keep you on the lookout for more.
Freshen Up Your Thanks
The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude is to notice new things you’re grateful for every day. Gratitude journaling works because it slowly changes the way we look at things. “Today my dog came over to me and laid his head on my lap. He must’ve known I was having as stressful day.” Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you. Opening your eyes to more of the world around you can deeply enhance your gratitude practice. Make a game out of noticing new things each day.
Taking it one step forward, when I am down or feeling sad, I force myself to sit and write a thank you card to someone for the simplest thing.
Be Social About Your Gratitude Practice
Our relationships with others are the greatest determinant of our happiness. So it makes sense to think of other people as we build our gratitude. For my sister’s 50th birthday, she asked friends and family to write down a favorite memory they had about her. How can you not feel grateful for reflective memories from your friends and siblings?
Dr. Robert Emmons suggests that focusing our gratitude on people for whom we’re thankful rather than circumstances or material items will enhance the benefits we experience. And while you’re at it, why not include others directly into your expression of gratitude? Similar to my sister wanting memorable reflections – why not write a gratitude letter to someone who had an impact on you whom you’ve never really thanked. Before I hang up the phone or say goodbye to someone I try to remember to ask, what are you grateful for?
Several years ago I ran into an old friend while getting a pedicure. She looked at me and smiled and said, “Awe, it’s a gift to see you today.” That made my own heart smile. Sure beats the standard “nice to see you.”