To say that 2020 has been a challenging year for most of us is a profoundly serious understatement. While it’s easy to fall into quiet despair, now might actually be the best time to cultivate positive mental health habits, one of them being gratitude.
Paradoxically, suffering can yield a grateful heart, if approached with care and mindfulness. As reported by CNN Health:
In his 1994 book, “A Whole New Life,” Duke University English professor Reynolds Price describes how his battle with a spinal cord tumour that left him partially paralysed also taught him a great deal about what it means to really live. After surgery, Price describes “a kind of stunned beatitude.” With time, though diminished in many ways by his tumour and its treatment, he learns to pay closer attention to the world around him and those who populate it.
A brush with death can open our eyes. Some of us emerge with a deepened appreciation for the preciousness of each day, a clearer sense of our real priorities and a renewed commitment to celebrating life. In short, we can become more grateful, and more alive, than ever.
Inspirational speaker and YouTube sensation Claire Wineland also embodied this truth. This lovely young woman died in 2018 at the age of 21 from a massive stroke following an otherwise successful lung transplant. Born with cystic fibrosis — a progressive and terminal genetic disease — she spent the bulk of her short life inspiring people to “love what is,”to love every breath; to not waste life and to make a life that matters.”
Start a Gratitude Journal
Enhancing your wellbeing can be as simple as taking some time each day to reflect on what you’re thankful for. A simple and proven way of doing this is to keep a gratitude journal.
Gratitude, or a generous attitude, is also neurally linked with happiness. Strengthen one and you automatically boost the other.
In one study, participants who kept a gratitude diary and reflected on what they were grateful for just four times a week for three weeks improved their depression, stress and happiness scores.
In another study, people who kept a gratitude journal reported exercising more and had fewer visits to the doctor.
Indeed, there’s an entire field of study looking at the health benefits of gratitude.
For example, studies have shown gratitude helps regulate stress by stimulating your hypothalamus and ventral tegmental area. It also improves your sleep, heart health and immune function, and boosts mental health by triggering the release of antidepressant and mood-regulating chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin.
Practical Strategies to Strengthen Your Gratitude
Aside from journaling, there are many other strategies that can help you flex your gratitude muscle. Following are a diverse array of practices, recommended by various experts and researchers that can boost your gratitude quotient. Pick one or more that appeal to you, and make a point to work it into your daily or weekly schedule.
If you like, conduct your own little experiment: Write down your current level of happiness and life satisfaction on a piece of paper or your annual calendar, using a rating system of zero to 10. Every three months or so (provided you’ve actually been doing your gratitude exercise), re-evaluate and re-rank yourself.
|Write Thank-You Notes
Make it a point to write thank-you notes or letters in response to each gift or kind act — or simply as a show of gratitude for someone being in your life. Verbalise your recognition of the effort or cost involved and be specific.
|Say Grace At Each Meal
Adopting the ritual of saying grace at each meal is a great way to practise gratitude on a daily basis, and it will also foster a deeper connection to your food. You don’t have to turn it into a religious speech if you don’t want too. You could simply say, “I am grateful for this food, and appreciate all the time and hard work that went into its production, transportation and preparation.”
|Let Go Of Negativity By Changing Your Perception
Disappointment — especially if you’re frequently struggling with things “not going your way” — can be a major source of stress. Since stress is virtually unavoidable, the key is to develop and strengthen your ability to manage your stress so that it doesn’t wear you down over time.
Rather than dwelling on negative events, learn to let things go. A foundational principle to let go of negativity is the realisation that the way you feel has little to do with the event itself, and everything to do with your perception of it. Wisdom of the ancients dictate that events are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It is your belief about the event that upsets you, not the fact that it happened.
As noted by Ryan Holiday, author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living; “This happened to me,” is not the same as, “This happened to me and that’s bad.” They’re saying if you stop at the first part, you will be much more resilient and much more able to make some good out of anything that happens.
|Be Mindful Of Non-Verbal Actions
Smiling and hugging are both ways of expressing gratitude, encouragement, excitement, empathy and support. These physical actions also help strengthen your inner experience of positive emotions.
Research shows that using “other-praising” phrases are far more effective than “self-beneficial” phrases. For example, praising a partner saying, “thank you for going out of your way to do this,” is more powerful than a compliment framed in terms of how you benefited. Also, be mindful of your delivery — say it like you mean it. Establishing eye contact is another tactic that helps you show your sincerity.
|Prayer And/Or Mindfulness Meditation
Expressing thanks during prayer or meditation is another way to cultivate gratitude. Practising ‘mindfulness’ means that you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. A mantra is sometimes used to help maintain focus, but you can also focus on something that you’re grateful for, such as a pleasant smell, a cool breeze or a lovely memory.
|Create A Nightly Gratitude Ritual
One suggestion is to create a gratitude jar, into which the entire family can add notes of gratitude on a daily basis. Simply write a quick note on a small slip of paper and put it into the jar. Some make an annual (or biannual or even monthly) event out of going through the whole jar, reading each slip out loud.
|Spend Money On Activities Instead Of Things
According to research, spending money on experiences generates more gratitude than material consumption.
|Embrace The Idea Of Having “Enough”
According to many who have embraced a more minimalist lifestyle, happiness is learning to appreciate and be grateful for having “enough.” When you buy less, you tend to appreciate each item more. The key here is deciding what “enough” is.
Consumption itself is not the problem; unchecked and unnecessary shopping is. Make an effort to identify your real, authentic emotional and spiritual needs, and then focus on fulfilling them in ways that do not involve material accumulation.