How Good Are You at Gratitude?
GRATITUDE and its sibling APPRECIATION are the mental tools we use to remind ourselves of the good stuff. It’s a lens that helps us see things that don’t make it onto our lists of problems to be solved. It’s a spotlight we might shine on the people who give us the good things in life. It’s a bright red paintbrush we apply onto invisible blessings, like clean streets, bathrooms, outdoor parks, having enough food to eat, or our health.
Gratitude does not make threats or problems disappear. Grateful folks still lose their jobs, witness crimes, become ill, and lose people they love. I have experienced all of those things. I remember some very harrowing times where my heart raced, my palms were sweaty, my throat constricted and my stomach ached. My body wanted to crawl into a hole and shrivel up. I wanted to hit someone when there was no one to hit. The threats were real and at the moment of memory they exist only in my memory or my imagination. I am the threat; it is me who is worrying me out with worry!
That’s when I turn to gratitude. We know that it takes approximately 90 days to change a habit. Gratitude just might become a habit. What that means for you and me is we increase our chances of psychologically surviving the hard times, and we stand a chance of being happier during the good times. So though we cannot ignore, deny or minimize the tough times, we CAN increase, with the daily practice of gratitude, the resources and people that might help us face those threats.
1. Once in a while, they think about life and death
Contemplating endings really does make you more grateful for the life you have, according to several studies. For example, when folks were asked to visualize their own deaths according to Araceli Friasa and colleagues, their gratitude measurably increased. Likewise when Minkyung Koo et al. asked people to envision the sudden disappearance of a romantic partner from their lives, they became more grateful to their partners.
As a woman who has experienced several sudden deaths (father, mother, son, and first husband) I can tell you first-hand that family and friends become more important and hence I’ve become more grateful for them.
Researchers have also found that when you take something for granted you value it less. When you give that something up for a while and reintegrate the activity back into your life, research suggests you value it more.
2. THEY TAKE TIME TO SMELL THE ROSES
And they also smell the coffee, the bread baking in the oven, the crisp fresh air – whatever gives them pleasure.
Fred Bryant, Loyola University professor, finds that savoring positive experiences makes them stickier in your brain, and increases their benefits to your psyche and the key, he argues, is expressing gratitude for the experience.
For example, I just had the opportunity, thanks to A Sober Way, to travel to Palm Beach Florida and speak at the Moment of Change Conference at the historic Breakers Hotel. I took some time out to swim laps in their wonderful salt-water lap pool. I savored the experience of rejuvenation and pleasure from that act, along with the graciousness and talent of the folks I met and mingled with. I can in a nanosecond recall the week.
What experiences can you call up? What experiences do you savor?
Also, look around you. What are you taking for granted? Food… Sunlight… Soul Cycle…? Try stopping something for a few days and then really savor it as you bring it back into your life.
For example I enjoy indoor cycling at Soul Cycle immensely. As I have written, for me it’s a cross between a 12-step meeting, a Baptist church, motivational inspiration, an Endorphin kick-start, and a sweat lodge. When I go away my heart grows fonder for the experience and I take time to let it back into my life.
That goes for people too. If you are taking someone for granted step back and imagine your life without him or her. Then try savoring their presence just like you would a rose, a fine meal, a new car, etc. The point is, absence just may make the heart more grateful.
3. They take good things as gifts, not birthrights
What is the Opposite of GRATITUDE? ENTITLEMENT – the attitude that people owe you something just because you believe you are so “special”.
“In all of its manifestations, a preoccupation with self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to be thankful,” writes Robert Emmons, co-director of GGSC’s Gratitude project. “Counting blessings will be ineffective because grievances always outnumber gifts.”
In the substance abuse/mental health field we all have had clients who enter treatment angry with loved ones and even us. We all have had the client who wants someone else to wait on them. For those folks, in the beginning of treatment, counting blessings will be ineffective because their grievances far outnumber. The gifts they have been given, a safe place to sleep, healthy nutritious food, a safe place to talk and practice new behaviors.
According to Emmons, the antidote to entitlement is to see our inter connectedness with nature and with other human beings and to understand we are never truly self-sufficient. We need other people to grow our food and heal our injuries. We need love, and for that we need family, partners, friends and pets.
“Seeing with grateful eyes requires that we see the web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers,” writes Emmons. So for folks that are experiencing substance abuse and other disorders that means being of service to others and doing simple life tasks, like working, managing finances, cleaning their houses, volunteering and honoring themselves and their loved ones.
What have you done today to take care of yourself and your affairs?
4. They are GRATEFUL to PEOPLE, not just things
Experiences that heighten meaningful connections with others – like noticing how another person has helped you, acknowledging the effort it took, and savoring how you benefitted from it – engage biological systems for trust and affection, alongside circuits for pleasure and reward. This provides a synergistic and enduring boost to the positive experience. Saying ‘thank you’ to a person, your brain registers that something good has happened and you are more richly enmeshed in a more meaningful social community.
Make a list of people you are grateful for. Tell them ‘thank you’ and why you are grateful for them.
5. They mention PANCAKES- Specificity Is Paramount
Grateful people are habitually specific. They don’t say, “I love you because you’re just so wonderfully wonderful, you!” Instead, a grateful person will say, “I loved the way you were quiet, focused and direct in the way you moved that person to change.” Or they will say, “I love you for the blueberry pancakes you make me when I am hungry and the way you massage my feet after work even when you are tired and how you give me hugs when I’m sad so that I’ll feel better!”
The more specific one is with another, the more authentic gratitude feels, for it reveals the thinker was actually paying attention and isn’t going through the motions. The richest thank you’s will acknowledge intentions, and costs, and they’ll describe the value of benefits received.
For example, I am blessed by some wonderful colleagues who recently came to hear me speak, some old and some new. I owe a lot of gratitude to McKenzie who danced with me and went outside to the foyer to recruit folks in, to Tondra who captures me on film and gives me a hug, to David who shared that, because of me he carries two wallets, to Phil whose steadfast presence and participation uplifts me, to Josh and Melissa who allowed me to be a visionary architect, to Lyndon who is a new Howard University graduate who make sure the computer worked right and who helped me make a Buddha slide, to my team mate Jeffrey who sent a message before my talk and to John, my husband who always sits in the back, helps me get ready, packs up my stuff and is my biggest advocate.
Thank 3 – 5 people today for a specific thing they are doing or have done that enriches your life.
6. They THANK outside the box
So far we have thanked the obvious. The really tough minded thankful person thinks outside the box. They thank the boss that laid them off or fired them, the boyfriend or girlfriend that dumped them, and the homeless person who asked for change. As Dr. Emmons suggests, “It’s easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one feels grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or who has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio.
In such instances, he says, gratitude becomes a critical life process- away that can turn disaster into a stepping-stone. If one is willing and able to look, we can find a way even to be grateful to people who have harmed us. This premise has been eloquently written about in Rabbi Xbook, When Bad things happen to Good People. We can thank the boyfriend or girlfriend for being brave enough to end our relationships, the homeless person for reminding us of our advantage and vulnerability, and the boss for forcing us to face new challenges.
“Life is suffering,” writes Emmons, “No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.” So telling people to simply buck up, count their blessings, and remember how much they still have to be grateful for can certainly do harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. Instead it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, and recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.
What have you recast today?
Adapted from the March, 2014 edition of The Daily Good, Jeremey Adam Smith.