When we open our eyes to the blessings we enjoy on a daily basis — from nature unfolding with the sounds of leaves crunching beneath our feet, the smells of crisp air after a snowstorm, and the darkness of night that remind us to slow down and warm up, we can see immense opportunity to be steeped in mindful gratitude.
Around the holidays, many Americans are feeling overwhelmed, busy, and mentally exhausted from a plethora of professional, academic, and familial responsibilities. With our mindsets focused on what is challenging, stressful, and imperfect, we can miss the bounty in front of us.
When we open our eyes to the blessings we enjoy daily, we practice mindful gratitude. We can grow in this capacity and influence our loved ones by feeling gratitude in their presence and by expressing gratitude for them. This may encourage our loved ones to create their own gratitude practices so that they too can enjoy the myriad benefits that a thankful mindset has to offer. Graciousness, kindness, appreciation — all these qualities will benefit us, our friends, family, communities, and society at large.
Why do we focus on the negative?
Our brains are evolutionarily biased toward remembering the bad and the traumatic because our survival instinct is strong. However, most of us are beyond survival. We lead lives with more material wealth than any of our ancestors could have imagined. We work in jobs that cover our expenses and allow for the enjoyment of life, including delicious and nutritious food and personal enrichment. How can we move past frequent non-cathartic complaining, worrying, and comparing ourselves to others in exchange for something more nourishing?
Let’s explore thinking beyond the norm of negativity bias — our brain’s tendency to troubleshoot what can go wrong — to a gratitude bias, where we can look for all the richness that life has given us, so we can see how the cornucopia of abundance is fuller than we noticed at first glance.
Our mindset and the practices we keep regarding gratitude can and will transform our minds to be places of awe, wonderment, appreciation, and reverence. There are tips, tricks, and evidence-based best practices to adapt your mind to see the good and share the good with those you most cherish.
What are the benefits of gratitude?
Gratitude also benefits social bonding, with a link between feeling grateful and the chemical oxytocin. Regular gratitude practice can improve our demeanors, help us to be more effortlessly kind and compassionate, and reduce our tendencies to harp on the negative. And a regular mindfulness meditation practice including loving-kindness meditation has proven benefits of transforming our brain in relation to stress and improving our capacity to feel awe, reverence, compassion, and gratitude. Gratitude and mindfulness help support our mental and emotional states.
So how can we get started with gratitude practices today?
Thank you, mind.
One such way we can transform worry into compassionate gratitude is by being empathetic toward ourselves for the worry we have.
Picture this: You find yourself in bed worrying about a stressor in your life. First, you think of all the things that can go wrong. Next, you remember every mistake you’ve ever made. Then you move on to comparing your situation to other people’s, beginning to feel less than, inferior, or worse, imposter syndrome. Next, you notice your chest and jaw feel tight.
Finally, you remember that your brain is only trying to protect you. Work on relaxing your physical body with a few slow, deep breaths. Next, mentally say to your mind, “Thank you for trying to protect me. I am capable of handling the task in front of me. Remember in the past when ____ happened and I handled it?” Take a moment to feel proud of the growth you’ve experienced over your lifetime.
Redirect your mind to think of all the skills, support, and experience you have to help you keep going, remember how far you’ve come. Once you remind yourself that you can manage this challenge, give yourself permission to think about it another time in the future — one way to move beyond stressful thought loops is to schedule a more appropriate time to problem-solve the issue. Busy people that add mindfulness tasks to their calendars can get back to focusing on what currently matters most. In some cases, what matters most is sleep.
Gratitude skill sequence
- Notice you are worrying.
- Thank your mind for wanting to protect yourself.
- Recount times you have managed hard things.
- Consider your strengths, talents, experience, and support systems that help you in hard times. This can include people that support you, remember you are not in it alone.
- If there’s a challenge that needs your focus, schedule a future time to creatively problem-solve. Then, give yourself permission to let your worries go. Hint, pick a time of day that your creative energy tends to flow.
- Redirect your focus with intention.
Count your blessings
Does it ever feel like your mind keeps coming back to what is lacking? One practice to enable you to feel more thankful for the abundance in your life is the practice of naming, writing down, or mentally acknowledging your blessings. Having the ability to notice what you have rather than focusing on what you wish you had is a mindfulness skill set correlated with positive brain changes.
Actionable activities that produce positive benefits:
- Give thanks at mealtime. Whether you’re religious or secular, saying grace is a perfect way to speak your thanks for what you have, name those you love, and focus on the magical aspects of being — the very fact we’re alive on a planet that is able to provide us with the things we need to live.
- Listen to and tell stories of people facing adversity that were helped by others. Dr. Andrew Huberman out of Stanford School of Medicine recently distilled actionable information from research on gratitude and it turns out that hearing about people being helped to overcome extreme adversity produced a feeling of contentment, correlated with the neurotransmitter serotonin. Our bodies produce serotonin when we hear these kinds of stories.
- Make a habit of naming the things in your life that you are grateful for. Practice alone or with your loved ones. These kinds of routines help create family traditions in gratitude, training our minds to notice the good. For parents, you could use the drive home from a family trip or bedtime, a moment of reflection as activities are coming to a close is ideal. For example, every night when I tuck in my kids, I have them reflect on what they’re thankful for and what they’re hopeful for. Both are important practices because I’m helping them practice gratitude for the blessings they have and speak into existence the possibilities they desire.
- Write a letter of gratitude. It turns out, grandma insisting you write those thank you notes wasn’t just about being polite. In studies, participants that wrote letters expressing gratitude had improved happiness scores, regardless of whether or not they sent the letters.
The good news is, the more you practice gratitude, the easier it is to be thankful, regardless of the immediate circumstance.
Gratitude in mental health
For some, taking the time to read an article like this, along with the addition of practicing gratitude, will be a healthy reminder. For others, like those who struggle with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or those who have experienced personal trauma, practicing gratitude may be challenging…but it’s a good start towards healing. Mental health is a journey, not a destination.
In addition to helping shape your mindset with gratitude practices, our team at ViveWell wants to partner with you for the goal of your long-term, holistic well-being. Get started today by booking an appointment.
- Lindberg, E. (2019, November 25). Practicing gratitude can have profound health benefits, USC experts say. USC News. https://news.usc.edu/163123/gratitude-health-research-thanksgiving-usc-experts/
- Huberman, A. (2021, November 22). The Science of Gratitude & How to Build a Gratitude Practice. Huberman Lab. https://hubermanlab.com/the-science-of-gratitude-and-how-to-build-a-gratitude-practice/