How to practice gratitude

I have wanted to write about gratitude for quite a while now, but I think I have been putting it off. It is so easy (although scary) to write about your own life and what you have done, but when it comes to writing about ‘big ideas’, that horrible old imposter syndrome sets in, and I worry I won’t be able to write about it in a way that you will understand or that will make a difference to you. And this topic is so important that I really want you to give it a go and see how much happier your life can be.

On that note, have a read and if you think I’m talking nonsense then please don’t give up on the idea.  There is a lot of writing out there on gratitude, read a bit, read the books I’ve linked and just give gratitude a go for yourself – I promise you, with a little time and practice it will make all the difference in the world! 

What is gratitude

Gratitude has lots of different definitions, all of them focus on the idea of giving thanks for something.

For me, it is a feeling. I know that I am grateful when I get a warm glowing feeling in my stomach and the centre of my chest – my heart if you will. I know when I feel that, that there is something I feel grateful for.  

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What gratitude does

There was a big study carried out in 2003 which is always referenced when discussing gratitude. The study was called Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, by two guys in America called Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough.

What they found was that practicing gratitude has overwhelming physical and psychological effects.

People who practice gratitude have

  • Better sleep
  • Less anxiety and depression
  • Stronger immune systems
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better ability to cope with stress, illness and adversity
  • More desire to exercise and take care of their health
  • Stronger relationships
  • More joy and pleasure

They are also

  • More optimistic
  • More resilient
  • Better able to cope with pain
  • less lonely and isolated
  • more forgiving
  • more helpful, generous and compassionate
  • happier (2,3)

They have written extensively since on the subject and I’ll put the links to their books at the bottom.

Why does gratitude work

So how is something as simple as gratitude a seeming panacea for so many ills?

Studies have shown that gratitude encourages us to focus on what is good in our lives. By doing so, it becomes very hard to focus on negative emotions. They almost cancel each other out. When something bad happens or when stress hits, if you are used to focusing on the positive, you will be less likely to be swallowed up by overwhelming life events. Gratitude forces us to see passed ourselves; it forces us to acknowledge that there is a world of goodness outside ourselves which allows us to feel a part of something bigger. Connection to something bigger has been shown time and time again to increase feelings of happiness and wellbeing, whereas isolation has been shown to increase feelings of depression. Feeling connected, gives you more feelings of self-worth.

When you feel grateful, you are truly in the moment, because you are feeling that moment.  Celebrating the present, prevents us from spending too much time focusing on the past or worrying about the future. If you are enjoying, and therefore grateful for, the present, you are not going to want to lose that feeling so you will focus more energy on being grateful for the present rather than taking it for granted. Seeing the things in your life to be grateful for in the present, will lessen your desire to escape from the present.  Focusing on the present also forces you to let go of control and just accept what is.

Finally, it has been shown that people who are grateful have better relationships, personally and with their community.  They don’t take relationships for granted, are willing to express gratitude for their partner and are more willing to ‘pay it forward’, bringing the blessings and enjoyment to other people. (2)

How does gratitude work

For me it makes total sense. When looking at gratitude, what the studies show fits with all the things I have learned over the years through spiritual teachings and philosophy.

Louise Hay, author of You can heal your life, says that the universe supports us in everything we think. She says that what we give out we get back. Therefore, if we nurture our feelings of gratitude and give thanks for the good in our lives, then the universe will support our feelings and give us more good in our lives to be grateful for.

Deepak Chopra, author of the Seven Laws of Spiritual Success, says that the universe operates a dynamic exchange. This exchange means that we get more of what we give out, positive or negative. So, if you focus on what you are grateful for you will have more to be grateful for. He also teaches that focusing on the present, rather than worrying about your past (which you cannot change) or trying to control your future (which you cannot do), allows the energy of the universe to continue its flow. As previously said, this flow will take with it what you are focusing on in the present, positive or negative.

Zen philosophy teaches us to cultivate gratitude for everything you have and everything you have been given by nature and by your ancestors. It teaches that the most happiness is found in gratitude for the smallest, most ordinary things. For more on this read Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life

Spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, writes that there is nothing but the Now. You have everything you need right now, worrying about the past and future does nothing but block your ability to live in and enjoy the present. Not living in the moment increases feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, depression and anxiety. Gratitude allows you to be more in the present, thereby countering these feelings. 

The science of gratitude

However, recently it is not just spiritual teachers and philosophers who are amazed by the profound positive effects of gratitude. The University of California, Los Angeles has stated that gratitude changes the ‘molecular structure of the brain’ and people who are grateful are ‘more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant’. The University of California, Berkeley analysed people’s brains using an MRI scanner while they were undertaking activities which induced gratitude – such as writing gratitude letters and giving money when they felt grateful. The scanner showed that gratitude activated areas of the brain related to social understanding, empathy, stress relief and pleasure. The Institute of HeartMath, also in California, examined heart rhythms and signals in people experiencing gratitude  and found that this positive emotional state induced a more ordered and stable heart rhythm which reflected the signals travelling from the heart to the brain, supporting higher cognitive function (4,5).

How does gratitude will help your sobriety

So much of the time we are drinking to escape the past or escape worry about the future. Often, we are stuck in a situation that we don’t want to be in and therefore use alcohol to escape. We use alcohol to escape from pain, depression and anxiety. We can feel overwhelmed by negative emotions. I often drank to escape, but I also drank to give myself a moments respite from the overwhelming responsibility I felt to control and be in control of everything. 

Feeling gratitude can help us to find the good in the now, enjoy the now, and therefore lose the need to escape. It can also help us to let go of the past, let go of worry about the future and let go of the need to control everything.

In early sobriety, we can sometimes feel lots of negative emotions, and looking for the good in our lives will allow us to direct some positive energy into our sober journey. Focusing only on the negative will often lead to a relapse as you convince yourself that there is no good in your life, so you need alcohol to manage.

Feeling gratitude for our new sobriety will help us to not take it for granted. From hearing many experiences, it is usually when we start taking our sobriety for granted, that we can more easily slip back into old drinking ways.

How to practice gratitude

Gratitude, like anything, is a practice to be cultivated. Like sobriety, exercise, yoga, music, art, meditation, it isn’t something that you will suddenly be able to do with no practice. You brain has old habitual pathways that it likes to follow (see Am I an alcoholic? for more on this). We can retrain these pathways or make new pathways, but it takes practice to convince our brain to follow the new route, rather than the older easier one.  If you have spent a lot of your life worrying, anxious and focusing on the negatives, it will take a little time to get used to focusing on gratitude. My point is, don’t give up if it doesn’t come naturally straight away.

Here are some ideas for how to practice gratitude.

Most often people talk about writing a gratitude journal. This can be carving out a small part of your day to think about and write down what you have felt grateful for, or it can be carrying a small notebook with you and writing down times that you feel grateful. Personally, I use my phone. I have a note section in my phone and when I feel grateful, I write down what’s happening at the time that I feel grateful.

Other people will take time at the start or the end of the day to do a short meditation and give thanks for the blessings in their lives. Some people do it through prayer.

Some people keep a gratitude jar. They write down things they are grateful for on a small piece of paper and add it to the jar.

Couples, or people in close relationships, can write gratitude letters to each other as a way of saying thank you and showing their appreciation for the other person. This has been shown to have a hugely positive effect on relationships. Or you can just take time to say to the person what you are grateful for.

The important thing is to feel the gratitude. It is easy to say I grateful for this or that, especially the things that you feel you ‘should’ be grateful for, but it won’t have those positive lasting effects if you don’t actually feel the gratitude. Next time you feel grateful try to be aware of how your body feels, so that you know what gratitude feels like for you. As I said, for me it is a warm glowing feeling in my stomach and the centre of my chest.

I’ll just give you an example of some of the things I have felt grateful for.

Walking across the field near my house to the bus stop at 5.45am on my way to work. The field is a big, open green expanse and surrounded by trees that rustle in the wind. The sun is rising and the streaks of pinky purple are lining the sky. I am grateful for the beautiful natural spaces so close to home.

The beauty of my children when they are asleep. Their breathing and the relaxed peace on their faces. I am so grateful for their lives and their health.

Getting out of my car after a night shift, the sun is rising and I can see all the different colours of sunrise reflected in the windows of the houses nestled in the trees on the hill opposite. I feel grateful to come back to a warm home, a sense of fulfilment at finishing a shift in a job I love and the knowledge that I can kiss my family and get into a cosy bed for a well-earned sleep.

I feel grateful for the rain splashing onto a dark road reflecting the streetlights when I’m sheltering in a bus stop. I feel grateful for the first bite of the warm mince pies at Christmas. I feel grateful for my warm coffee as I sit in the town market square waiting for my bus. I feel grateful for the glitter of frost on the road, grass and cars that makes everything look precious.  I feel grateful for any delicious food.

Last, and definitely not least, I feel grateful for the unconditional love I receive from my husband and my mother, even when I am at my grumpiest and most objectionable. My glowing feeling swells when my mother tells me she is proud of me and even a little bit when she is disapproving of my latest hairbrained scheme, because I know she is proud of those too (if also totally terrified by most of them!).

It is so easy to take your closest relationships for granted, but even when we are a little bit like ships that pass in the night, there are moments when the love I feel for and from my husband, ignites the glowing feelings and I grab onto them because they are the most special.

How to practice gratitude when things suck 

Whilst I stand by my comment that it is important to feel the gratitude, it can also be good to “fake it until you make it” at times.

As I said, gratitude is a practice. The more you practice it, the easier it is to be grateful. Initially, you may only find one thing to be grateful about, but make sure you feel grateful about that, and then keep looking for any other good things. The more you look, the more you will eventually find; and the more you understand how you feel gratitude, the easier it will become to feel.

Make sure you look for things to be grateful about in yourself. This is a great practice in self-love, learning to appreciate the good things about you. Sign up for my course below to find out more about the importance of loving yourself.

If you have been practicing gratitude and you start to hit a bleak spot again – like any new practice or habit, you are going to have ups and downs on your journey – then go back to your journal or phone or gratitude jar, and read what your felt grateful for. If you truly felt the gratitude at the time, the memories stirred will reignite the warm glowing feeling and make it easier for you to get back on track.

Everyone struggles to maintain good practices sometimes, but it does get easier with practice. Remember that just because you have slipped back into old habits, it does not mean that all the work that has gone in before is wasted. Use the bank of gratitude memories to help you on those darker days.

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