Finding gratitude in hard times
Research shows us that experiencing and expressing gratitude increases happiness.
In his book, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Robert A. Emmons tells us about his experiences interviewing survivors and those affected by the events of September 11th 2001. Emmons reports that those who experience gratitude in the darkest of times consistently express greater happiness than those who do not. In addition, they are less susceptible to negative emotions and outcomes.
Experiments show that not experiencing gratitude leads to a shrinking sense of self, with anger, bitterness, resentment and envy becoming the dominant emotions. Contrasting to people that express feelings of appreciation who also feel loving, joyful, forgiving and enthusiastic. Those that keep regular gratitude journals exercise more frequently, have fewer symptoms of illness, feel more optimistic about the future and better about their lives. Gratitude helps you to cope better with everyday stress, increases resilience and betters physical health.
What does gratitude look like?
To feel and express gratitude, you first must acknowledge the good in your life, you then must recognise where this good comes from. Gratitude is more than a feeling and requires thought, possibly effort.
When you choose to appreciate the good in your life, you make a commitment to action this effort. If you perceive yourself as a victim, feel a sense of entitlement or struggle to be self-sufficient, noticing and expressing gratitude is harder. Gratitude is easier to experience when you let go of the feeling that you deserve something.
Learning to be grateful
I regularly find myself saying to others; “What do you want?” It is very easy to say what we do not want in life. Whether that be what we do not want in a partner or a new home, outfit, dinner choice, job, etc. So often, we forget to talk about what we do want. But focusing on the negative is not ideal and I recommend writing lists of what you do want.
The same can be said for gratitude and a requirement to stop comparison. As a culprit myself, I continually look at my house and notice the paint that needs touching up, the DIY that we haven’t done, the size of the neighbour’s garden compared to mine. When I compare, it is always noticing the negative.
However, I will get greater benefit by remembering to notice the way the colour on the walls changes as the planet turns and the sun reflects on different points. The picture of my children, ice creams in hand, big smiles on a camping trip with friends - rather than a millimetre wide bit of chipped paint.
I like to remember to be grateful as I relax outside, listening to the birds sing, watching the incredible teamwork of an ant colony. I can choose to smell the flowers and express appreciation for what I do have rather than feel sullen because the neighbour has a slightly longer garden.
The more I practise noticing the positive, what I do have and expressing gratitude for it the more quickly it will become my default state. As creatures of habit, the human brain will always move towards the familiar. To change the familiar takes conscious cultivation.
Grateful list ideas
Some people like to write a gratitude diary each day. This is something I do with my children every evening before we go to bed. I feel there is greater purpose when we focus on quality rather than quantity. So, we aim to find just three different things to express gratitude for each day.
To improve self-awareness, I believe it is important to focus on the reason why. Doing so helps with expressing gratitude to others. Rather than giving simple thanks, you will practise meaningful expressions of appreciation.
When I feel grateful for a day of sunshine I might express it as:
“Recently, I have felt cold. When I woke this morning to a shining sun and blue sky, I felt a wave of relief knowing that today I will feel more comfortable. I felt immensely grateful as I relaxed outside with a cool drink, listening to the birds sing and smelling the freshly cut grass as the sun beat down onto me. I wish to express appreciation for the sun as it helped me to feel happy all day.”
This is an easier process if you use mindfulness techniques to remain in the present moment all the time. Using the senses is a particularly good way to do this and makes it easier to cement experiences into your memory. When you choose to express gratitude, you flood your mind and body with positivity from the things you write about.