The way you view your reality, the value that you give to it, really does shape your experience. Cultivating a daily practice of being grateful for things that we normally take for granted in our day to day lives actually trains your brain to seek out the positive.
The habit of daily gratitude is one of the best things you can do for yourself, and there are a number of exercises I’ll be discussing in this short blog that you can put into practice NOW to get you into the gratitude headspace.
Of course, we all know that adopting a feeling of true gratitude towards existence is good for us. Just think of the last time you really did feel grateful for something unexpected in your life; it puts you on a mental high, and it can create a feeling of bonding and at-one-ment with the universe at large.
But adopting this attitude can be extraordinarily hard for those of us who were not happy as children, who may have chronic pain or feel trapped in hopeless situations. It’s a catch-22, because feeling grateful can actually help to alleviate many of those problems, but its difficult to really feel positive when you expect the worst. And dwelling in the negative contributes to depression and poor health.
The problem is a metaphysical one: is the universe for you, or against you? If you never developed a sense of positive self-esteem, it can seem as if the universe is constantly judging you to be inadequate.
But the science is conclusive: “consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely,” writes and author and researcher Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage.
And just before you say “well yeah, of course they’re grateful; they have more energy, aren’t depressed or anxious, and they’re not lonely,” Achor continues: “and it’s not that people are only grateful because they are happier, either: gratitude has proven to be a significant cause of positive outcomes.”
Achor describes an experiment in which “researchers pick random volunteers and train them to be grateful over a period of a few weeks,” and the result is that “they become happier and more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better quality sleep, and even experience fewer headaches than control groups.”
There are practices you can do daily that will, over a short period of time (most people see results in two weeks) begin to rewire your brain to see the positive. The theory behind it is fairly straightforward:
Research shows that thinking negatively–that is, always expecting the worst to happen–actually primes your brain to look out for negative events. Repeated negative thoughts actually make you see the world from a negative perspective. This makes sense, because if you’re out in the wild 10,000 years ago you need to be constantly on guard for life-threatening situations, like a wild animal or an aggressive band of rival humans. You’re brain goes into a fight or flight mode of operation, and so ignores most of what it sees to focus in on what could be a potential threat. In other words, studies have shown that negative thinking actually limits your vision.
And all of this makes sense for a pre-civilized world. But many of the threats we face in modern life, threats that still trigger the fight or flight response, are not only NOT life-threatening, but actually demand that we see the full picture so as to perceive and formulate possible solutions.
Financial problems, for example, demand ingenuity and openess to possibility. Career advancement and mastery of a skill likewise require this openess in our perception. Negativity holds us back, not just in our health and happiness, but in our actual perception.
Advertisers and politicians instinctively know this. They trigger our fear responses to manipulate our spending and voting habits; just read books on sales techniques and influence: big corporations spend big money to figure this stuff out, and the science is widely available.
And mainstream news outlets know that a negative image will hold your attention far longer and with more pliability than positive news; its just the way we’re wired.
To fix this problem, we need to rewire our brains to look for the positive. It’s tricky at first. When I first began daily gratitude practices, it was hard to actually allow myself to feel grateful for childhood experiences, or times in my life that I viewed as negative. The key, it turns out, is to really tap into a positive memory and allow yourself to feel gratitude. Writes scientist and author of Science and Spiritual Practices Rupert Sheldrake: “Most of us have been thankful for presents, or for the gifts of love, help and hospitality. We know what gratitude feels like.”
The practice that I have been using to rewire my brain is simple: every morning I write down three things that I am grateful for. If I’ve somehow not made time to get to my journal for the day, I’ll just take a minute before waking up or going to sleep and think them to myself. It’s that simple!
You can turn this into a prayer, if that’s congruent with your metaphysical beliefs. Practicing gratitude is something a person of any religious tradition, or lack of one, can harmoniously incorporate into life.
Another thing you can do, which I have made a goal to implement, is to commit yourself to expressing gratitude to five different people in your life each week, either spread out through all seven days, or all at once on a designated “gratitude day.”
They may sound like silly, ineffective practices, but the science is very clear: if you train your brain to look for the positive, over time it will begin to perceive it on its own. In Psychology this is known as The Tetris Effect: you tend to perceive what you focus on. And in the case of gratitude it becomes a positive feedback loop, because the more you see, the more you have to be grateful for!
Another practice that is useful, and which I have begun to implement, is to give thanks for your food–or anything else–each time you sit down to eat. Overtime it will become a habit, and you’ll have three times a day to silently reflect on gratitude. In our modern world, giving thanks for food may seem strange, but its a practice we’d do well to rediscover.
In my practice, I found myself feeling grateful for little things in my life, like the taste of my morning yerbe mate (a potent and delicious S. American tea), or for the kinds of music I listen to that really get me moving.
But I also felt a great sense of gratitude for existence, for the very ability to observe this mysterious universe I find myself in. And as I’ve slowly trained my brain to seek out the positive, I’m noticing myself becoming happier for the things I used to take for granted in my daily experience, like a hot shower, or the access to instant information a smartphone affords me.
We may not be able to ascribe any meaning or purpose to existence in an objective fashion , but we can reflect upon and feel grateful for, as Sheldrake points out, the fact that “everything comes from a common source, and everything is related. Without this primal creative event, there would be no universe, and we would not exist.”
For me, the very ability to appreciate and apprehend beauty is enough to want to live, and this makes me intensely grateful for the fact that existence exists; I am deeply grateful for the mystery of it all, and for the mystery of myself.
I hope you found value in this article! If you liked it, please hit the like button; if you want more content like this, subscribe to my email list and you’ll be notified when a new post comes out.
I’m grateful for my readership; the idea that I am being read keeps me writing. Also, I’d personally be grateful if you’d share this blog on social media, because I truly want to live in a better world, and my content is dedicated to doing this through individual self-transformation.
Below, I’ve included a few extra resources for practicing gratitude in your life. The importance of gratitude is making its way into our mainstream awareness right now, and it can transform our society for the better!