I am lying in bed early Saturday morning, feeling so grateful I’m overflowing with joy. This morning’s gratitude experience is courtesy of the previous night’s family supper. Family suppers are always events, as there are few things I enjoy more than food and fellowship with family, but since I have been bestowed 3 grandchildren in under 3 years, they are especially momentous. Why momentous? Well, as any host knows, group suppers require significant preparation. Menus are planned with food allergies, preferences and dietary restrictions accounted for. Trips to a variety of stores are made. Layouts are visualized and furniture is moved to accommodate second tables, high chairs, and kiddie tables. Toys are appealingly organized. Beverages and napkins are stocked. And this doesn’t even take into account recipe hunting, cooking, or timing all of the dish’s readiness. What ups the ante now is that as soon as the grandchildren arrive, I don’t want to be at the stove. I want to be greeting, holding and playing with each one of them. So now I try and time the meal in a way that it is low-to-no maintenance once the little guests of honour arrive.
The coordination of all of these factors requires a level of strategic planning equivalent to the command and mobilization of a small army, and this morning’s reason for my post-meal gratefulness. You see, last night went extremely well, if I do say so myself. Everyone enjoyed each other’s company, evidenced by happy faces, story-telling and laughter; and personally, I found the grandma-to-grandchild fun ratio extremely rewarding. Additionally, because I am seeking to optimize the frequency, intensity and duration of gratitude that I experience, I know that it is important to savour and hold onto last night’s experience before my pleasure is overtaken by concerns about today’s to do lists. You might wonder why, when there are so many virtues worthy of our attention, I focus specifically on cultivating and optimizing gratitude?
Well, given the research I’ve looked at, there are many compelling reasons why gratitude should play a starring role in our lives, and my next 3 blogs are going to cover what I believe the most important ones are, beginning with how gratitude helps us to be happier.
Gratitude Is A Powerful Predictor of Well-Being
Gratitude Is A Powerful Predictor of Well-Being
After decades of research, positive psychology gurus Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. This book identifies 24 positive character traits including things like kindness, hope, fairness, curiosity, self-regulation and gratitude. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman analyzed data from 517 people for Scientific American comparing all of these character strengths and their connection to well-being. Kaufman’s analysis revealed that the strongest independent positive predictor of well-being is gratitude. Now, I know that all of these virtues, like kindness and hope are big deals, for sure, but what Kaufman’s findings mean is that generating feelings of gratitude can significantly elevate your mood. Those other virtues, while extremely important, when enacted by themselves are less likely to have a significant impact on how you're feeling. So, if you’re looking to increase the amount of joy and happiness you feel in an authentic and natural way, expressing gratitude is the one strategy that has the biggest impact.
The Antithesis of Gratitude
Spiritual Teacher and author of Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness, David Steindl-Rast teaches us that taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude. And, if gratitude generates more well-being and happiness, I wonder what emotions its opposite generates? I also wonder whether entitlement, the belief that we are inherently deserving of special treatment, isn’t also gratitude’s antithesis? I say this because I observe that when others approach a situation with an entitled attitude there are really only two possible results - they either get what they expect, or they are disappointed. Either way, the emotional response attached to the outcome ranges from neutral at best, to anger at its worst. Approaching the same situation with gratitude will bring feelings ranging from neutral if they don’t get what they’ve hoped for, to joy.
Let’s look at a simple example. Let’s say that I’m about to sit down and eat a meal. If I approach the table feeling I’m entitled to my food, I will likely treat the meal as if it is a confirmed expectation. It might even be particularly delicious and I don’t notice. If I take the food for granted, the exact same thing is likely to happen. But, if I approach the meal with an attitude of gratefulness for any one of the realities connected to it – food is a pleasure to eat, people work hard to grow and harvest this food, people prepared this meal, I have an opportunity to eat when others are hungry, my job provides the ability to purchase this food, nature provides me with a space where food can grow, then I am more likely to feel gratitude and joy. instead
So, if we are wanting to experience more moments of happiness, it really pays to observe when we are feeling entitled or are taking things for granted and instead attach reasons to feel grateful to those situations.
How can you apply more gratitude into your daily life?
The gratitude audio recording
My #1 personal favourite gratitude-generating strategy is the audio recording I create. This strategy was so immediately effective for me it boosted my overall level of gratitude by 20% (yes, I give myself an overall gratitude rating) the first month I began using it, even though I thought that I was already a pretty grateful person.
How it works
Like most phones, my phone has an audio recording feature, and I take some time to speak into it and share what I am grateful for several times a week. When possible, I make my recording right when I’m still feeling grateful for something because my description is quite vivid and because when I play it back I can actually hear the gratitude in my voice. At the beginning of each month I’ll start a new recording and continue to add to it throughout the month using the recorder’s editing feature. That way, by the end of the month I’ve compiled several minutes worth of grateful events. Then, I listen to my recordings whenever I wish.
When I playback my recording I’m often surprised by all of the good stuff I’ve already forgotten about; but that’s not the biggest benefit I’ve noticed. The biggest way my life has profited from this practice is the shift in the way I view my life. I felt I was a generally positive person to begin with, but since beginning this exercise I’ve noticed a change in what my brain is orienting to both pay attention to, and make note of remembering. By committing to this practice I am training my brain to continuously look for and hold onto things I’m grateful for, just like this morning’s determination to hold onto the gratitude I felt for last night’s supper. I am learning that shifting my focus is a powerful, even revolutionary lens through which I can view my life. And, because I have my recordings, I’ve even learned can use them to upgrade my mood whenever I choose to do so, because I usually have my phone close by. I’ve used the gratitude recordings to upgrade my emotional state from feeling discontent to content, content to grateful, and grateful to downright joyful.
If you are going through a rough patch you may be thinking a gratitude blog is not for you right now, and it’s totally understandable to feel disconnected to this emotion during these times, but I would suggest that you reconsider. All of us go through periods in our lives where tough things happen, when it can feel like a stretch to generate gratitude. I will talk about this in more depth in the future, but for now I will echo David Steindl-Rast in saying that we may not be able to be grateful for specific bad events as we are struggling to cope with them, but there is always, in every moment, things within our lives that we can be grateful for. In fact, the ability to look beyond a bad event in the moment and turn our focus towards other beautiful aspects of our lives is very empowering, and may actually create the pathway within our brain that will eventually lead us out of suffering.
Give it a Try
Of course, only you can figure out whether my favourite strategy will work for you. So, if you’re wondering how gratitude can be implemented in a real way, try this for a couple of months and see what happens. I would love to hear from you once you’ve tried this for a month or two. Also, if you already have your own ways you cultivate gratitude, I would love to hear about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My next blog will share another major reason why gratitude is great. Until then, wishing that you are all living your very best life.