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practicing gratitude & cultivating gratefulness

 

Sound Familiar?

Whitney’s friend, Lisa, had the most infectiously gracious and content personality of anyone she’d ever met.  But it didn’t feel flimsy or cliché like something out of a Disney movie about “if you keep believing, the dreams that you’re dreaming will surely come true.”  In Whitney’s appraisal, Lisa genuinely seemed both to appreciate the gravity of things in her life that were out of whack, and also have a somewhat undaunted sense of optimism.  Finding that she spent a lot of her own time vacillating back and forth between thinking she was meant for something great and meant for nothing at all, Whitney wondered what the secret to Lisa’s authentically compelling posture was.   

Monroe’s family always had a quiet, aristocratic and somewhat stoic way about them.  This makes some sense when you consider the family’s Virginian heritage that dated all the way back to near-colonial-times.  They didn’t move much with the changing tides, were politically unflappable, and seemed as a family not to get rattled in the midst of crisis, but to settle in on supporting and protecting the family.  There was a lot of pride within the family about this, typically framed around “humility” and “being thankful,” and indeed, those elements were there.  But one reason Monroe kept his distance from the family as he got older was that their approach had a sinister side.  “Being thankful” for the good things that kept the family going seemed to always imply not talking about the bad things that had threatened to tear it apart.  Not acknowledging bad things didn’t seem the same as acknowledging good things.  

Clyde went through a good deal of struggle as a child and adult — this was indisputable.  His family had lots of secrets, some of them containing abuse, and generally seemed to think nothing was terribly worth talking about aloud.  When he became a teenager, Clyde responded to all of this by adopting an attitude that life wasn’t going to treat him fairly, so that he ought to harden and steel himself against the inevitable tide.  He has historically been so committed to this that his friends like to harass him about “Clyde’s Clouds,” the dark cloud of bound-to-be-bad-stuff that Clyde narrates as just being a part of his life.  Again, it isn’t that there isn’t a degree of truth to this or a logic to that vantage point, it’s just that it doesn’t work as well for a 30-something adult with a job to do and a family to support as it did for a rebellious  and wayward teenager with not a ton to lose.  Clyde’s Clouds seem to carry a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy to them.

 

Orienting to the way things are.

Ever catch yourself thinking things like this?

“My life sucks!!”

“Why do bad things always happen to me?”

“Today is the worst day ever!”

When things don’t go as we wanted them to, it can be easy to make these broad, negative statements about our lives. Our brains have evolved to favor a negativity bias – they look out for potentially dangerous situations and hyper-focus on the perceived negative events in our lives.  This is both a product of what was often an adaptive childhood method of coping — things felt overwhelming so we decided they were, and having that reduced expectation made it easier to cope with the general fear and anxiety, and because from a physiopsychological perspective, our brains are wired like this — we have creatively evolved to anticipate bad stuff with a level of intensity ranging from accurate to paranoid in order to survive as a species.  And here’s the hardest part:

Life is kinda like that.  A wise person once said that we all are generally going in to some difficult time of our lives, coming out of a difficult time, or in the middle of one.  This is surely true.

And still.

When we’re telling ourselves that, for example, our entire lives suck and we are losers because we overslept and were thus late for a meeting, it isn’t very accurate or helpful.  And yet, many of us make these sweeping, negative evaluations of ourselves and our lives daily.  Doing so affects our mood and our interactions with others in ways that aren’t useful.  

Is there a different, more helpful thought pattern?

Practicing gratitude.

Practicing gratitude means noticing and acknowledging everything in your life that you are thankful for. You can feel grateful for all kinds of things, big and small. Maybe you’re grateful for that delicious cup of coffee your roommate made for you this morning, maybe you’re grateful for your good health, maybe you’re grateful that our planet still sustains life after all we’ve done to it. Big or small, there are so many things to feel grateful for.

 

Choose your words carefully.

One word of caution here – try not to invalidate any difficult situations or hard feelings you may be feeling when you practice gratitude. Those things are still a part of reality and practicing gratitude doesn’t make them go away.  In fact, trying to make that be the case is where people often get tripped up, and it’s even evident in the ways we speak.  Here’s an exercise to try in that regard:

Try using and instead of but.

 

For example:

Productive, inclusive: I got a flat tire this morning, and I’m grateful that I own a car.

Not as productive, exclusive: I got a flat tire this morning, but I’m grateful.

 

Why?

  1. Words matter. And the way we use words matters.  And words matter and the way we use them matters especially when it comes to understanding the way we feel.  If we do not speak somewhat precisely about the way we feel, we are by definition limited to using constructs which do not reflect the full truth, hence binding us to some relatively ongoing disconnect and confusion between what we are actually feeling and how we talk about how we are feeling. 
  2. Both/and vs. either/or. The human and finite mind naturally thinks dualistically and tends to sets up false dichotomies.  In the example above, the term but between emotional postures seems to run the risk of negating the former for the latter, which seems to do a disservice to the entire effort to process.  In other words, it’s okay if it sucks to get a flat tire, AND there are so many things you can notice and feel grateful for!  We don’t have to only experience one side or the other, and being grateful is not a means to avoid facing those things about which we struggle – it is instead about contextualizing our struggle in light of other things.  Contextualizing is not the same as minimizing, which has the primary goal of seeing unpleasant realities as less true than they really are.  Contextualizing has the primary goal of seeing unpleasant and pleasant and neutral realities as they really are, which means considering their relationships to one another, among other things.

 

Even Better?  Cultivating a Grateful Heart

It’s important to note that there are some nuances here, especially around cultural realities such as implicit or explicit forms of social control.  For example, many women report being told by men in public to, “Just smile!”  While some women might argue that some portion of that behavior is a simply a cultural relic from an era when people had different social norms, it seems that just as many also experience this kind of phenomenon as a not-so-subtle expression of the social expectations seemingly disproportionately specific to women coming from men in real-time. 

 

For people who have been injured in this way, the term “practicing gratitude” could be interpreted as a mandate that you perform some culturally-derived emotional expectation.  For those of us who identify there, perhaps it’s more helpful to think of all of this as cultivating a grateful heart, which seems naturally to point to an impetus for me to manage and process internally with self-derived milestones, rather than a mandate for everyone else that puts me in charge of everyone else’s behavior or a mandate from everyone else that puts everyone else in charge of my behavior.  This may be an especially helpful way to think about gratitude for persons who have been the result of some. 

 

But no matter the terms we use, there are many direct and indirect benefits to cultivating a grateful heart including:

  • Enriching relationship quality
  • Increasing physiological health
  • Increasing psychological health
  • Developing a more robust and compassionate sense of empathy for others
  • Decreasing tendencies to be reactive or aggressive
  • More restful sleep
  • Increased sense of competence
  • Boost in overarching sense of wellness

 

What can I do to practice gratitude or cultivate a grateful heart now?

There are many different ways to practice gratitude, and what works best will be unique to you. Practicing gratitude can be seen as a form of self-care, and one person’s self-care routine will look different than another’s, because we all need different things to care for ourselves. Here are a few ideas:

Journal Concrete/Tangible Things You’re Grateful For.  If you’re already in the habit of journaling, or you’d like to start, try keeping a gratitude journal. Write for 10 minutes in the morning or at night about the things you’re grateful for that day. 

Try a list instead.  If you like to write things down, but don’t enjoy journaling, try keeping a gratitude list. Put it on your fridge or somewhere you might see it, and continually add things you are grateful for as you notice them.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  And if words aren’t the way you best process information, try pictures. Create a gratitude collage with images of people, places, and things that you are grateful for. Save room to add photos as your gratitude grows.

Seize the moment.  Right when you think of it, let the important people in your life know that you’re thankful for them. Call someone on the phone, send them a text message, or simply spend time with them and let them know what you’re grateful for about this relationship.  Don’t wait!  The urge and opportunity passes if we stall for too long.

Look to become a resource.  Giving back can look many different ways. From volunteering your time in the community, to buying an extra cup of coffee for the person in line behind you, giving back is one great way to express gratitude.

Mindful or Mind-full?  Try adding gratitude to your regular mindfulness meditation practice. Sit and bring up something you’re grateful for into your mind’s eye. Focus on this person, or thing, and what you are grateful for. Notice the sensations of gratitude in your body and soak them up. Bringing attention to what you’re grateful for and sitting with it can actually change your brain – according to one study, 8 weeks of this practice led to altered brain patterns and increased empathy and happiness.

Thankful…for your body?  Similar to the gratitude mindfulness meditation, try a body scan where you name something you’re grateful for with each body part. For example, start with your feet and thank them for all the journeys they’ve taken you on. Thank your lungs for the breath they give you, which you need to survive. And on and on.  You will remember how much your body does for you and how little direct care we tend to give it.

Natural reset button.  Take a walk outside and notice all the things in nature that you’re grateful for – the sun that give you energy, the trees that give you oxygen, the flowers that are beautiful to look at.

Send a card.  Next time someone does something for you, write a thank you note or card to express your gratitude. Or simply write a thank you note to express gratitude, whenever you feel like it!

Food as life.  Next time you prepare or eat a meal, practice gratitude for everything that went into that meal which sustains you. Thank the farmers who grew the vegetables, the earth for sustaining the vegetables to grow, the grocery store worker who sold you the vegetables, and so forth.

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