It’s easy to focus on what we want rather than what we have. But when we shift our awareness to the present moment, we begin finding moments of gratitude in everyday life.
We tend to talk about gratitude as a way of expressing thanks—thanks for a meal, an event, or an act of kindness. Following the lead of researchers in the field of positive psychology, the definition of gratitude is a little more broad. We define gratitude as the conscious appreciation of any aspect of our life experience. Sonja Lyubomirsky, on the other hand, offers a more poetic description:
“It is wonder; it is appreciation; it is looking at the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance; it is thanking someone in your life…it is “counting blessings.” It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is coping; it is present-oriented.”
Gratitude is one of the easiest ways to shift our set-point-driven state of mind. Fifteen seconds of savoring something you are grateful for can be transformative. It can broaden your perspective on life, turn problems into possibilities and irritation into curiosity. The challenge and real benefit comes from training the skill to become second nature so that you naturally savor gratitude throughout the day.
Jack, a former family business owner and executive coach describes a lifelong negative pattern of behaviour that changed when he developed a daily habit of gratitude:
“I used to focus on the “specks on the wall” of my life. Things that I didn’t have (cooler job, bigger house) or wanted more of (money, power). I was keeping score in a game that didn’t add up to what I really valued in life—my family, close connections with friends, and a job that was aligned with my purpose. I began to notice how often I focused on mostly the negative stuff. I developed a daily habit of gratitude and started keeping a gratitude journal. Now, when I begin to think about the specks, I shift to gratitude, and it completely changes my day. My best move, though, is to extend the feeling of gratitude and savor these moments by closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. It has transformed my life.”
We all have our own version of Jack’s “specks on the wall.” Without gratitude, we focus on life’s imperfections; in fact they often become all that we can see. Gratitude gives us a wider perspective. We may still see the imperfections but we also recognize the blessings that surround them.
Ram Dass, a former Harvard psychologist and an acclaimed spiritual teacher, uses the analogy of a picture of the sky to illustrate this shift in perspective. According to Dass, if you have a photograph of the sky that is zoomed in on a small gray cloud, that’s all you can see. Everything looks dark and colorless. But if you zoom out and see the sky from a larger perspective, you begin to see that the cloud is surrounded by blue sky. That’s the kind of shift in perspective that you can access through gratitude.
Thanks to advances in neuroscience and positive psychology, we now have the scientific evidence to show that practicing gratitude holds a wide range of benefits in regards to your emotional and physical well-being. Gratitude diminishes anxiety, depression, and other signs of psychological unease while simultaneously cultivating appreciation and contentment.
How does gratitude work? Well, according to Rick Hanson, an expert on positive neuroplasticity, the brain is “like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Traumatic experiences—car accidents, heartbreak, or intense fear—carve deep grooves in the neural structures of the brain.
The brain’s Velcro-like attachment to bad experiences reinforces the negativity bias of the brain. It ensures that we spend the bulk of our mental energy ruminating on regrets, resentments, and fears, rather than contemplating moments of bliss and elation. Recent research, however, has echoed the fact that gratitude can serve as an antidote to this negative spiral. Even though our brains are naturally attracted to negative memories, gratitudeallows us to amplify the positive—to create more powerful and vivid memories and, in turn, a lasting change to the brain.
If you feel frustration while sitting in traffic, gratitude can help broaden your experience. You can begin to notice the changing leaves on the trees, relax into your breath, or use the delay as an opportunity to really listen to your favorite music or audiobook.
In fact, research conducted by Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has shown that gratitude “broadens and builds” the brain’s capacity to overcome negative emotional states. In the absence of gratitude, the mind closes in on a small handful of possibilities. Gratitude expands the field by “widening the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind.” For example, if you feel frustration while sitting in traffic, gratitude can help broaden your experience. You can begin to notice the changing leaves on the trees, relax into your breath, or use the delay as an opportunity to really listen to your favorite music or audiobook.
This shift isn’t merely psychological. Evidence from neuroscience suggests that the effects of this practice extends deep into the neural pathways of the brain. Dr. Richie Davidson, neuroscience researcher, notes, “From everything we know about the brain circuitry underlying these components it’s a good bet that well-being therapy [the expression of gratitude for self and others] strengthens the prefrontal cortex.”
As psychologists continue to explore the casual mechanisms behind gratitude, one thing is clear. Gratitude offers extensive benefits of well-being, including:
The key to making gratitude a habit is simply taking the time—once a day—to focus on the experience of gratitude. You might do this by writing down three things that you are grateful for, or by expressing gratitude at the beginning of a meal.
Whichever technique you use, here are a few tips to help you make the most of this practice:
Adapted from Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing by Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp, PhD.