There are a handful of memorable ‘a-ha!’ moments that change your life. The kinds of moments you’ll remember for years to come because they so clearly separate life into ‘before’ and ‘after.’
The moment my boss said in a team building meeting ‘look into practising gratitude, it will change your life’ was one for me.
It happened over a decade ago, in what feels like a previous life, when I was working in a corporate role. My very bright and enlightened boss had our team together for the day to encourage us to find ways to work better as a team and somehow the conversation lead us to discussing the gratitude mindset. One of our team was working on a psychology PhD at the time and she told us about the permanent changes practising gratitude creates in the brain. I was hooked on the idea.
Although the world has evolved since then and gratitude is talked about a lot more now in terms of mental well-being, it is a practice that has been around for much longer. ‘Counting our blessings,’ as the saying goes, is good for us. But how so?
Shifting the focus
When we consciously look for the positives in our lives, we turn our attention away from the negatives. It sounds obvious but this is a huge step towards feeling happier.
Our brains are wired to look for threats and danger, and for good evolutionary reasons. Scanning the horizon in this way has helped to keep us alive and safe. But always looking for danger is exhausting and emotionally draining. It is easy and tempting to get stuck in this mode. When we are behaving in this way, we operate in what is referred to as a ‘lack’ mindset (think glass half empty). We see danger where really there isn’t any – and we invest time and energy instead of enjoying life.
By choosing to divert energy away from the imaginary bad towards the actual, real life good, we shift our focus to thoughts and feelings that lift us up and boost our sense of safety and well-being. This makes us feel appreciative of all we are lucky enough to have and suddenly, the ‘glass’ becomes half full.
Changing the framing
What we are perceiving stays the same but how we perceive it changes drastically for the better. It’s all about how we frame. Have you ever noticed how two people can look at the same thing but see completely different things? Well, one person can do exactly the same, too.
It’s down to us how we choose to see what is in front of us. The stories we tell ourselves have the power to change our lives. We can look at something as a threat and feel powerless to relate to it in a meaningful way, as our instinct is to hide from it, or fight it. This requires us to close ourselves off in defence. Alternatively, we can look at the same thing and choose to engage with it as something we can relate to, learn from and maybe make something of.
There is a world of difference between the two and we have the power of choice to frame our perspective. By choosing to focus on the positives and the potential, we empower ourselves by taking on an active role in the shaping of our reality.
Rewiring the brain
Consciously choosing to think differently about things creates new connections in our brain. You have probably come across the word neuroplasticity. It means that our brains have the ability to undergo structural or physiological changes. When we learn to think and behave in different ways, we create new neural pathways (connections) in our brains. The strength and durability of these connections increases with repetition. In basic terms, we can teach ourselves new ways of thinking and behaving. Like a muscle, the more we use these new connections, the stronger and more embedded they become. With frequent practice, they become part of what we do and how we are. Immensely powerful stuff.
Having an awareness in the moment that we have a choice is something that we develop over time – and you won’t be surprised to hear me say that yoga is your fast train to this point. Yoga teaches us about presence and awareness, and this is a hugely important part of forming better habits.
Once we have increased awareness, we have to commit to choosing gratitude. With every day, with every missed train, every food stain on your new shirt, every minor annoyance, we have to want to choose gratitude. Choose enough times to make it our second nature. Over time, it just becomes what we do.
And you know what? We will be SO much happier for it.
Having awareness of the moment is also a powerful tool in anchoring ourselves to the present, which is very helpful for those of us who struggle with feelings of anxiety and depression. Anxiety, by nature, is often quite generalised and unfocused, usually involving some expectation of a future threat.
A super useful exercise is to create a moment of awareness when we are getting carried away by negative, anxious thoughts. To then choose to consider that in that present moment, just as our minds would carry us away into an unknown, unsafe future, we are in fact safe. Simple observations, such as, ‘right now, I am safe,’ ‘right now, I am warm,’ ‘right now, I am sheltered,’ ‘right now, I am loved,’ and so on, can make a big difference in bringing us back into our bodies and affirming the positives.
Trusting the process
It is tempting to look at life like it is a simple zero-sum game. Our minds naturally want to make sense of life events and as such we tend to put them on a scale and watch the balance tip in and out of our favour. Who hasn’t at one point said, ‘Why do these things keep happening to me?!’ like there is a set natural balance that has been upset by a run of bad luck?
How about ‘blessings in disguise?’ Most of us have at some point seen the good in a past negative event, with the benefit of hindsight. In learning to welcome the bad with the good, we choose to ‘trust the process’ – giving up the attachment to feeling bad and putting our faith into a positive longer-term outcome. We open the possibility of a different future perspective, accepting that maybe in this moment, we can’t yet see the full picture. We let go of our need to control and in doing that, we keep our eye on the ultimate prize: feeling content and grateful in the moment.
A gratitude practice can start right now, in this moment. All we need is the desire to do it and maybe a few reminders in our day, just to help us get into a routine.
Morning shower? Rain those blessings down.
Grabbing some lunch? Things are great. Let’s list them.
Going for a run? Bedtime? Brushing teeth? Think gratitude. Say it. Write it. Feel it. Live it.
So set those reminders and enjoy feeling great being you. We each have a lot to be grateful for.