Most of us have vivid memories, and often personal stories, of recent tragedies that have affected us or our nearby communities: Tropical Storm Sandy, the Newtown shooting, the Boston Marathon Tragedy, a hurricane named Irene and now the typhoon in the Philippines.
In the aftermath of these very public disasters, we often hear “good news” clips: the community comes together; a lost dog is found; the little guy reaches out to help his neighbors who are grateful and in turn help someone else.
It’s hard to not be compelled to help when you see unending pictures of bleeding people, crying children and local businesses being swept away.
But what about everyday gratitude? Finding gratitude when life’s winds toss us about is a much harder nut to crack. Do we tend toward the attitude that we don’t have enough, or that we have a lot, for which to be grateful?
There is clear neuroscientific research that gratitude is a good attitude to cultivate. Researchers at the University of California at Davis conducted the following experiment: They assigned people to three different types of homework – one group had to write down three things they were grateful for during the week, the other wrote down three things that were problems with which they had to deal and the last group wrote down three random events.
At the end of just two weeks, this three-minute exercise produced positive results in the gratitude group. They rated themselves as 25 percent happier than the other groups. Additionally, other people saw the change in them, and rated them higher on measures of well-being.
Other similarly designed studies proved that people with chronic illnesses, such a post-polio syndrome and neurodegenerative conditions, started sleeping and feeling better when they expressed their gratitude.
So gratitude makes you happier and healthier. And gratitude also appreciates, like money in the bank. Once you start practicing gratitude, you will notice and attract more things for which to be grateful.
Caution: gratefulness does need to be genuine. I am not saying to be grateful when tragedy strikes, but is there something around the event that you can honestly be grateful for, like that your family is all right?
Many people I know lost their homes to fire or flooding that affected my local community. While there was a horrid transition period of living in a hotel, or couch surfing, many found that they ended up in a better place to live once they got back on their feet.
In this approaching advent season, the days are dark and bleak, the crops are harvested, the fields are dead and the trees are bare. It’s easy to get depressed and discouraged.
Despite these seasonal changes that most of us view as negative, most major religions have a holiday that celebrates light and gratitude. Our ancestors, who lived by candles, oil lamps and without central heating, may have been wiser than we.
It sometimes takes a little digging to find things for which to be grateful. I had a recent week where I received a notice from the IRS that there was a problem with my taxes, where my dog contracted Lyme disease and the back window of my car decided to explode.
This is just the normal, nuisance stuff of life, but it can put one in a really bad mood, especially when it all happens at once. My first thought was one of “more money and more money, literally out the window.” These thoughts of poverty could easily spiral into a “woe is me” mindset.
It took a little doing to start repeating my mantra as I was driving windowless over Hogback Mountain: “I’m so happy it’s not raining. I’m so grateful it’s not snowing today. I’m so grateful that nothing is blowing out of the car.”
When I said it enough, I began to believe it.
Try this simple practice:
- Every day write down three things for which you are grateful. On bad days, sometimes the best I can do are that I’m grateful I’m breathing, I’m grateful I have a flush toilet and I’m grateful I have teeth.
- Tell someone else that you appreciate them.
- While you’re driving or brushing your teeth, say what you have done well that day, or what you like about yourself.
This is a three-minute, painless reflection. Over time you will start to notice more and more things and people for which you are grateful. Notice if there are any changes in your attitude, or your relationships with others.
Be grateful for gratitude and practice it faithfully. It will change your life.
For a more formal gratitude practice, read “Simple Abundance” by Sarah Ban Breathnach or search online for “The Gratitude Project” – and let me know how it goes.
This article was printed in the Keene Sentinel on January 2, 2014.