The Quality of Thankfulness
I wanted to spend some time with you this week to begin unpacking another foundational cornerstone in our quest for improved wellness and health.
Two weeks ago, we talked about the importance of understanding your life’s cadence. Remember “Fermato”? It is the “pause and hold” in the notes of your lifesong in order to live and savor your experiences each moment. The research by Dr. Fred Bryant, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, concludes that the practice of savoring the moments in your daily life can help you feel happier and more optimistic.
I believe that there are two modern lifestyle factors that impact our ability to fully savor our lives. One is that we are now so connected to technology. Our devices, for all their conveniences, often rob us of the direct human contact sitting right across the table. The other factor is that our society is being continually bombarded with marketing messages that focus on making consumers feel dissatisfied and lacking with what they have. It reminds me of the 1993 country hit by Kathy Mattea, Standing Knee Deep in Water Dying of Thirst:
"...Go through life parched and empty Standing knee deep in a river and dying of thirst"
Personally, I've been thirsty for some time now. How about you?
Everyone says they want to be happy. We listen to songs about it, advertisers entice us with products and services guaranteed to bring us to it; we drink to it; run away from our daily lives in search of it; and pay enormous sums of money on all manner of consumer goods, all in the pursuit of happiness. And yet, the state of happy remains elusive for many people. It certainly has been the topic of much study. Researchers believe that this may be because happiness, contrary to popular notion, is not related to the size of our bank account, the number of toys in our driveway, or even our mood. Let me say that again. Living in a state of happiness isn’t really about our mood.
So what is happiness, if it’s not about our mood? Perhaps what it is not may be a good place to start. Happiness is not about striving to feel good all the time. Research indicates that those people who constantly seek the wondrous emotional high associated with an extremely happy event can be at particular risk to be negatively affected, even to the point of feeling depressed, for the inevitable comparative lows that follow. The rich and famous do not hold the market share of the happiness quota; supermarket tabloids and cable TV’s Entertainment Tonight confirm this fact daily with one celebrity divorce after another celebrity scandal. Money in and of itself simply does not bring happiness, no matter what the lottery marketing campaigns want us to believe. Nor is happiness a final destination that requires you to careen madly through your days in hot pursuit.
That last point really resonated strongly with me throughout my 20s and 30s. I kept striving to achieve my goal of “happiness”, rushing through my days, only to find that the “happy” goal posts seemed to move backward on a pretty continual basis. I can honestly say that I did not feel very happy a lot of the time even though I had plenty of moments that were happy. Around that time I stumbled upon the saying, “happiness is not a destination, but a journey”. I must have been a little slow on the uptake because I struggled to understand that concept for a very long time. I often did not fully internalize that the everyday happy moments that I was experiencing with my children, my work, my friends and my hobbies, was the point of my journey. I now see many young women, and men too, doing what I once did; trying to sprint toward their happiness goal line and looking anything but happy doing so.
I think at least part of the reason why many of us tend to feel that we’re not achieving happiness may have to do with the goal-oriented conditioning we have learned and which we apply to our daily lives. We often predicate our happiness on the mile markers on our life’s highway and then floor the gas pedal to get there as quickly as we can. But doing so can leave us unsatisfied and deflated. If we are saving up to be happy when external circumstances are finally met and resolved, we risk missing out on a lot of happy time right now.
Recent research suggests that the state of happiness has dual origins: how satisfied you are with your life, and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis. And while happiness is also impacted by your genetic predisposition, if you come from a long line of glass-half-empty thinkers, you need not resign yourself to a life colored in shades of blue and gray. Scientists call the process of tuning our brain to meet our changing needs, neuroplasticity.
So can we train our brain to focus on the good stuff? Absolutely. I believe that with some focus and just a little practice and effort, we can become consistently happier and more satisfied with our lives. Which brings us to the next foundational cornerstone, joining Cadence.
Gratitude can be defined as “the quality of thankfulness”, and this is where I want to spend more time. I think this quality goes beyond simple manners of “please” and “thank you”, although as a society we would certainly benefit from more of that. I also believe that it’s very important to consciously seek out gratitude because our society often is shaped to remind us of what we “lack” or “don’t have”.
Most of us, even those of us who “know better,” squander a lot of time thinking that life will be happier when we: have a better job, get married, have children, move into a bigger house, buy that "status" vehicle, free ourselves from debt, have more free time, lose weight, start our own business, recuperate from a particular illness or whatever else it is we think needs to change. We are mortgaging our present day happiness for the illusion of something better just around the corner. We focus on our "lack" and we begin a downward spiral.
It is true for everyone that adversity will reach out and touch us all from time to time, sometimes with a hammer. Those situations in our lives—both positive and negative—do have significance on us. What matters is how we react to these circumstances. Happiness is a choice, and you can have it regardless whether your situation is “ideal” or not. In other words, to make a real sense of accomplishment in life, we need to teach ourselves how to love what we already have.
Finding peace and joy in the simple things in life is not dependent on our ability to acquire as many things as we can – it’s about learning to achieve and create serenity in life “as it is.” As in the here-and-now. It’s imperative for us to learn by heart that the enthusiasm, happiness, and achievement don’t really come from life itself, rather, it comes from us and our ability to acknowledge, appreciate and enjoy what we already have. Does this all sound familiar to you?
So, what if you made gratitude your focal point for one full year? Well, research indicates that those who practice gratitude have measurable happiness levels 25 percent higher than those who don't. People who strengthen their "gratitude muscle" tend to sleep better, enjoy life more, and may be more physically healthy. Gratitude is infectious; it is very difficult to remain grumpy and negative when someone tells you how much they appreciate you. The best part is that practicing gratitude strengthens your neurons, which sustain those positive vibes for weeks. And it's free! So where do we start?
There are some great ways to keep your brain sharply tuned into thankfulness and gratitude. Let’s look at some of them.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Many experts recommend keeping a gratitude journal and recording each day that for which we are grateful. If you have a tendency to think more pessimistically, or if you are going through a tough circumstance right now, then keeping a gratitude journal should be a high priority, must-do-everyday. Within a week or two of daily journaling, you will feel more optimistic, see your life as having greater abundance, be more fine-tuned to your life’s small daily pleasures as they occur, and strive for more kindness and compassion in yourself and in others.
I know one woman who, instead of writing in a journal, chooses to keep a gratitude mason jar. Each day she recounts the moments for which she is grateful, writes them on a slip of paper and fills her jar. On December 31st of each year she goes through 365 slips of paper and is able to relive the joy she felt when the event occurred. Whatever method you choose, take time to choose a journal that is pretty and speaks to your personal style, or decorate that jar. It's time to celebrate feeling grateful!
Use Mental Contrasting
When we get excited about the benefits of anything new we often overlook the energy and potential roadblocks in our way. This can leave us discouraged and less likely to continue a new habit. Instead of giving up, try using the technique of mental contrasting: being optimistic and excited about the benefits of a new habit while also being aware and realistic about how difficult it will be to build that new habit. Using mental contrasting will help you to recognize your own personal pitfalls and plan in advance on how you will overcome those obstacles. For example, if you want to begin a gratitude journal but know that your children’s needs or work schedule are going to make nightly journal writing difficult, then recognize and accept your circumstances and plan your journaling at another quieter time slot during the day.
Look for Silver Linings
It is easy to be thankful when things are going well and nothing is on the line. However, it is when things aren’t going well that we need to especially practice the art of gratitude, even when it is hard to think of anything for which to be grateful. Remember that in every adversity lie the seeds of a greater benefit and often, the core of a life lesson to be learned. One of my favorite sayings is, “If you don’t learn the lesson the first time, Life will provide it to you again and again until you do learn it”. We all know those trials will come in our lives, so when they do, ask yourself, “What can I learn from in this?” and “How can I benefit from this situation?” Embracing gratitude during those difficult times can help you get through them.
Do you ever notice that our routines often create complacency and a certain blindness to our everyday surroundings and even to the people closest to us? I certainly have been guilty of going through the motions. The good news for you and I is that we may not necessarily need to change our routine; we just need to become more aware. Savor the smell and taste of your morning cup of coffee or tea. Give thanks for the sunny morning. Give thanks for the rainy ones too, for both are necessary. Become purposeful about increasing your gratitude quantity and in sharing your gratitude with others. As you go about your daily routine, try to see your surroundings through a new lens. If you’re lucky enough to have a dog, try to see your surroundings through his eyes as you walk him.
A few years ago while Chris and I were planning a relatively minor home renovation project, we discovered some major, critical deficiencies with the electrical wiring and structure of our old farmhouse which required immediate and extensive repair. Our renovation project literally exploded in scope and three days into the project, my kitchen was completely torn out. I had no functional kitchen for the next sixteen months while my kitchen was completely rebuilt from the stud walls. At first, not having daily food prep duties and eating in front of the TV was kind of fun. We ate out very often in those first few months. But the novelty wore off really fast, especially when the frequent meals at restaurants and commercially processed entrees heated in the microwave began showing up on our waistlines. Worse than the extra pounds was the sense that something really important was missing. I missed the process of preparing and combining quality ingredients into a meal for my family. I missed being able to have our family gather around the farm table for a meal. I really missed being able to create a dining experience. When my kitchen came back online, I felt a rush of gratitude. And peace. The kitchen really is the heart of the home and mine had started beating again.
Do take time to notice the food you are preparing and savor the sight, smell, and taste of your meal. Take the time to set your table and use the “good” silverware, glasses, dishes, and real napkins. It all adds to the ambience, which will help you to slow down, savor the experience, and help you to feel grateful for what you have.
Count Your Blessings
Each day we have so much for which we can show gratitude. Start with the little things and keep things simple. A comfortable bed. A hot cup of coffee. Loving friends and family. A devoted pet. Good, safe, healthy food to eat. Your list may look a little different or perhaps it looks a lot different than mine, and that's okay. The point is to have a list and to keep looking for more to add. Even when we are going through a difficult time, there is always something positive in our life. Dig deep if you must, but find your blessings every day.
Being humble helps you to appreciate what you have as well as not place unreasonable or unrealistic demands on others. Humble people tend to not struggle with self-entitlement thoughts and they also tend to be more effective at self-soothing when they feel anxious. Humble people tend to listen well and put others first because they already understand their own self-worth and know that it is not up for debate. Because of these attributes, humble people tend to enjoy high quality relationships and retain them longer.
In a world that seems to be increasingly self-centered and narcisisstic, being humble and living its attributes of kindness and calm may seem counter-productive to success. However, it is often those very qualities that enable humble people to persevere in tough times and flourish in the good times. Choose to be humble.
Once you have developed the habit of gratitude, simple pleasures and things that you previously took for granted will become more obvious in your daily activities and your ability to recognize and appreciate them will become stronger and more consistent. I promise you that doing this will help you enjoy greater feelings of happiness and contentment, better sleep, higher optimism, and general well-being. Just keep in mind that gratitude should not be just a reaction to getting what you want, but rather, an all-the-time thankfulness, the kind where you notice the little things and where you constantly look for the good even in unpleasant situations. But more importantly, it is an opportunity to share your gratitude with others. Don't wait to tell someone how much you appreciate them. Do express your thanks to those in the service industry who respond to your requests and for the most part are doing their very best to meet your needs. Share your thankfulness with grace and kindness.
My personal challenge is to bring gratitude to all of my experiences, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. Will you join me?