I’m guessing you’ve probably heard the word “gratitude” floating around, particularly in the world of wellbeing and self care.  But how much are you using it, and how useful do you think it can be?

I know for many it can feel like a superficial spread.  Feeling sad, stressed, overwhelmed? No, you’re not allowed to feel any of that – instead you’ve got to appreciate what you’ve got!  Yeah, I get where many people say “gratitude” through gritted teeth.

And I’ll admit I was one of them, but I’ve been working with it much more in recent years and now understand its power, both for me and my clients.  As with all of these things, I reckon it’s about finding a way that works for you, even though it might feel a little bit odd, even uncomfortable at first – remember the “tolerable steps” I keep banging on about!

The Theory

So what’s it all about? Essentially, a gratitude practice is about making the effort to tune into the things you are thankful for each day.  To gently bring focus onto the good.  In evolutionary terms, we are programmed to focus on the negative as a way of staying safe (“remember, not to eat those red berries again as they made us so ill” or “don’t go back there, that’s where we encountered the bear” kind of vibe).  And our modern, stress-filled, doom-news life exacerbates this, with our nervous systems feeling like they are under pretty constant attack.

Research has shown that moving focus onto the good can help rewire our brains to bring more balance between the good and bad.  It’s not about reducing negative feelings (you don’t have to pretend the bad stuff’s not happening), but instead it magnifies positive ones (Robert A. Emmons “The Gratitude Project”)

It calms the nervous system (my flagship for ALL you want to do), strengthens the immune system, improves sleep, increases optimism and happiness, reduces isolation and loneliness, and creates a more generous and helpful mindset (amongst other things). Oh and as an added bonus, this can engender a positive cycle as our help gives others a positive encounter, for which they feel grateful and go to their next encounter with all the benefits too.  A pay-it-forward vibe.

A tolerable step is one which moves you towards something you’re trying to do, but is a small step towards it (think bite-sized chunks).  It won’t feel easy – it has to be more than that.  It’s just beyond the edge of your comfort zone, so can feel difficult, a little anxiety-inducing, challenging.  But it’s achievable; it’s tolerable. It isn’t so great a step that it causes you to avoid it or have such a strong stress response that you never go near it again.  Instead, after you’ve taken your tolerable step, you might feel tired, a little shaken, and pleased that it’s over.  But you’ll also have a sense of achievement, some pride, and flushes of dopamine and feel-good endorphins.  And next time you do it, it’ll be a little easier, and soon you’ll be ready to take the next tolerable step to go further.

The Practice

So how to do it? There’s lots of advice out there, but I’ll share a few of the approaches I like:

Make a Happy List

This is one from Mo Gawdat.  He suggests documenting all the things that make you happy. No need to overthink it – just jot anything down that comes. There are no wrong answers and only you will see your list.  They can be big, or super simple, frequent, irregular, whatever.  And feel free to keep refining your list over time.  Highlight your top choices too – the ones that are at the top of your Happy List.

This exercise in its own right will flood your system with “happy” hormones and give you a pick-me-up.  Plus you end up with a happiness blueprint for those times you need it.

Gratitude Journalling

Get into a regular habit of capturing things you are grateful a few times each week.  Write them down – it’s more powerful than just thinking them.  They can be tiny or huge; something ongoing or random; an event, an interaction, a thought, an experience.  And be on the look out each and every day for these moments.  Some tips include:

  • Be specific
  • Include people and interactions with others, not just things
  • Look at the flipside – imagine life without certain things or people, see what you’ve avoided, prevented, turned into a positive
  • Relish surprises and the unexpected and what they provide
  • Move focus – if you repeat what you’re grateful for, capture a different angle each time

Spread the Word

If you’re grateful for someone or something they’ve done, let them know.  It’s been shown to strengthen relationships, and sets up a cycle of positivity as you all get a feelgood boost.  No need to make this stuff up – just bring more awareness to what’s actually happening.  Look for the times you say thank you or feel fondly about someone or something – and make the effort to capture that in something that isn’t just an automatic response.  You can tell them to their face, or even write a letter, or if it’s just a passing stranger, a nod, a smile, a prayer hand can be powerful gestures.

What are you feeling gratitude for today?  Perhaps tune in to the moment and try and notice.

And remember to look at what others are doing around you.  So often, the world feels scary and we’re led to think we should only trust our inner circle. But you know what – the world is full of good people doing good things.  We just don’t hear about them in quite the same way as the bad stuff.  And the more good stuff we put out there, the more we get back (and more that spreads further and further).

Next week, I’m going to be looking at how we can harness the vibe of gratitude to feel a bit better about ourselves (and shh that inner voice that keeps saying you’re not good enough or don’t belong).