Living a Life of Gratitude

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“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow” ~Melody Beattie

So you can see how gratitude contributes to peace. When we have enough, we are at peace. And gratitude is dependent on our interconnectedness, what we receive from one another. Think of the things that you are grateful for: The food we eat was brought to our table through the work of many people. Our homes, our cars, any material possessions, likewise. Even being grateful for a sunny day, or a beautiful sunset connects us to others through shared experience. All of it moves us out of individualism that we so tightly cling to here in the U.S. to a recognition of our absolute dependence on others.

The benefits of gratitude are both psychological and physiological. We enjoy better mental health as gratitude boosts our serotonin and dopamine levels – the same as an antidepressant does. It lowers our cortisol levels, our stress hormone that’s responsible for raising our blood pressure and heart rate, our fight or flight response. We’re better able to cope, we’re more optimistic and more resilient. A UC San Diego study even shows that just 5 minutes a day of grateful practices like a gratitude journal reduces the risk of heart failure in at-risk individuals.

Gratitude has the power to change the way we experience any situation. And the good news is, it’s a habit anyone can cultivate through conscious, deliberate practice.

So how can we make gratitude a part of our daily lives?

It might help to first define what exactly gratitude is. Gratitude is a way of living in which you open yourself up with willingness and receptiveness to receive good things, to receive abundance. And then you recognize those good things on a continual and habitual basis. You also recognize that there is good in all things, even those that challenge you.

Let’s talk about habits a little more. We are actually born with the natural tendency towards negativity and dissatisfaction. It’s hardwired in to us, part of our survival mechanism. If we expected the worst, we weren’t surprised by the saber tooth tiger on the trail, we were prepared. But of course that stopped being a threat over 10,000 years ago, and today we have very little reason to be that prepared.

The good news is, our brain plasticity allows us to rewire our neural pathways. I like to compare it to a well-worn path. If we walk the same path over and over again, the path become smooth and easier to walk. Then one day we decide we’re bored with the same old path and we want to see something new. We set out to create a new path and at first it’s hard and there are obstacles in our way, but if we keep going, using the same path over and over again, it’s becomes easier and easier. The path becomes smooth again and we’ve found ways around the obstacles. Our thoughts are the same. When we want to change them, we create a habit and over time, it becomes our natural state.

So, the biggest step in creating a more grateful life is making that choice to be grateful and then practicing it on a regular and consistent basis. Now let’s look at the barriers to gratitude.

Negativity bias
Can you see any patterns of negative thoughts or emotions that might block you from tapping into gratitude? Has negativity become a habit for you in a particular way, like complaining, or ruminating on the same regret over and over?

Cultural influences
We’re inundated with messages and images that can condition us to be dissatisfied with our lives, through advertising, entertainment, and social media. What effect do these influences have on you? Do you have any fixations on things that will one day “fix” your life, or any judgments about what’s wrong with your life today?

Lack and wanting
We all desire things in life, but do you have ambitions or aspirations that might be unhealthy or ineffective? Do any of your desires cause you to feel unhappy with your life as it is today? Are you convinced that a future accomplishment will fill a void you see in your life?

Comparison and envy
Do you fall into this pattern? Are there specific people who trigger this tendency, or does it stimulate dissatisfaction with a particular part of your life? Does your use of social media fuel these emotional patterns?

Expectations
Are there ways you could challenge your expectations? Could this help you find satisfaction in your life as it is today, irrespective of how you once thought it was supposed to unfold?

Automaticity
Are you sometimes so busy and rushed that you aren’t mindful of the everyday blessings of life? Are there particular routines or times of day when you slip into this pattern?

Knowing these barriers will help you to live in a more grateful way. I’m going to give you a couple tools to help you moving forward, and just know that it’s not always easy to rewire the brain. You have almost 200,000 years of evolution working against you, so you need to be patient with yourself and consistent in your practice. The purpose of these practices is just to get you to consistently and consciously notice those good things in your life.

The first one is very simple. Just post a gratitude reminder in a conspicuous place in your home. On a mirror, on the fridge, anyplace you’ll see it early in the day. Something simple, maybe like this: “Begin Each Day with a Grateful Heart”

The second it a popular practice that just requires a little perseverance to become a habit and that is Gratitude Journaling. It’s just the practice of writing down the things you are grateful for each day, and I recommend starting with just three. Putting pen to paper helps organize your thoughts and so I also recommend the old-fashioned hand written journal. Here are some hints to make the practice stick:

  • Journal at the same time each day and after a few weeks it will become a habit.
  • Keep things fresh, don’t use the same thing over and over again. It helps to be as specific as possible. In other words, you can say you are grateful for a sunny day, or you can say you are grateful for the sun warming your face on a cold winter day.
  • Let the thoughts flow naturally. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. This is for you and no one else need see it.
  • Expect it to take some time to become a habit. Be patient with yourself. It does get easier and soon you will miss it if you don’t do it.

Living in gratitude also works in painful situations – chronic illness, great loss, painful memories. Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, endured inconceivable hardship, yet his optimism never waivered. Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So to wrap it up, here is my challenge to you today: For the next 30 days, intentionally practice gratitude by posting a gratitude reminder in your home and keeping a gratitude journal. You will soon notice subtle differences in how you respond to those around you and your life will become more grateful, joyful, abundant and peaceful. And remember to start each day with a grateful heart.

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