“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity… It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events.” ~ Melody Beattie
So much of happiness is ‘all in the mind’, or at least it is a product of what we focus on. We all make comparisons in life but quite often they are downward comparisons. We compare what we have to what we want (or think we want), and even though it’s not always conscious thinking, we conclude that what we have isn’t good enough.
It might be a job, a lifestyle, a house, car, or it might even be a husband or wife. But downward comparisons are sure to leave us feeling unhappy.
I think that part of the reason we do this is because on some level we are trying to create leverage to get us to act. ‘If it gets real bad – if I can see all the faults – then I’ll be motivated to change it,’ we think to ourselves. There are or course merits to this kind of thinking and there is definitely a call to use it sometimes. I certainly have at times in my life to create change.
But thinking in this way can also be a habit for many people, so much so that they look at the majority of things like this. The overall effect then is unhappiness, frustration, stress, and even depression as we become overwhelmed with the seeming multiple problems in life.
It’s a symptom of ‘the grass is always greener’ syndrome, as I call it. We’re always looking at other people’s grass and fail to notice the uniqueness of beauty of our own. It’s only when we do lie on our own grass that we realise that it actually feels really nice and that the sun shines on it just as it shines on other lawns.
My experience is that when we take the time to count our blessings, magic can happen in our lives. We start to notice stuff that was always there but we just hadn’t given it any attention. We have more energy and dwell less on our problems and worries.
Here are 3 reasons why gratitude is good for us. They’re based on published scientific studies as well as my own experiences.
1) Gratitude makes us happier
One study compared people making a short list of their blessings each week with another group making a list of their hassles (or burdens). It was called a Blessings vs Burdens study. After 10 weeks of doing this, the blessings group were 25% happier than the burdens group. Isn’t that incredible? What a change we can make to our happiness, especially if we have gotten into the habit living life as if we’re in the burdens group.
2) Gratitude is good for the heart
Gratitude counteracts stress so ultimately it’s beneficial to the cardiovascular system. Mental and emotional stress can take a long-term toll on the heart, increasing stress hormone levels but also free radicals and inflammation – precursors to cardiovascular disease. So a side-effect of gratitude is improved cardiovascular health.
3) Gratitude helps us achieve
Focusing on things we’re grateful for helps us to notice even more things that we’re grateful for – it’s an upward cycle, like we surf a wave. We become more attuned to the blessings instead of the burdens of life. This simple shift of focus increases our positive feelings, increases creativity, makes us feel more energetic, and we notice more opportunities in life. In these ways we are more able to shape our lives in the ways that we want.
I would also add another to the list. It’s perhaps not a benefit and therefore I haven’t included it as one of the 3. It’s that gratitude is a simple way of saying, ‘Thanks’ to the world, even when you don’t verbalise it. It’s a way of celebrating the validity of all life, and acknowledging its interrelatedness and the efforts that it takes to provide us with all that we need.
As a consequence, I have learned to resist less in life and give whatever I’m doing or being asked to do my complete attention. When we resist what is happening, or what we’re being asked to do, we only prolong it and create stress for ourselves.
I have discovered that happiness can be found in the simplest things, just by saying ‘Yes – thanks’ to much of what life presents to me. And it is from this space that I feel more contentment and personal energy and have been able to move towards other stuff that I have wanted in my life.
I think Martin Luther King had it right when he said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well’.”
Here are two of my favourite gratitude exercises. You can focus on one or the other, or if you really want to go for it big style then you could do them both.
1) Every day for the next 21 days, make a list of 5-10 things that you’re grateful for. It can be people, things, how you’re feeling, events, circumstances, God, the Universe, your dog….whatever you can feel grateful for. Try to alter your list as much as you can so that you’re not writing the same things every day. This exercise works really well if you do it first thing in the morning or just before going to bed.
2) Think of a person in your life and think of all the reasons why you’re grateful for that person – what they have contributed to your life (or are contributing), how they make you feel, what they do, who they are, what they do for others, etc.
Try to do it for a different person every day until you have gone through all of your loved ones. Then you could extend it to friends and co-workers. Then, if you feel really brave, you might even try the exercise on people who cause you stress or who have hurt or offended you in the past. As you do this, watch the way your relationships with some of these people change.
Copyright 2020 David R. Hamilton PhD.