By Jan Bidwell
Practicing gratitude every day gives us a gift of seeing the good around us. It entails simply shifting your focus to what is right in front of you, then saying “thank you” for that thing.
I assume you are reading this, so you can simply say, “Thank you for my vision”. Are you in your house or office, then your can say, “Thank you for the roof over my head”. Drinking coffee? “Thank you for the ability to drink.” “Thank you for my ability to hold a cup.” Sitting in a chair? “Thank you for my ability to sit.” “Thank you for the strength to get out of bed.” Breathing? “Thank you for my ability to breathe.” Look around you, pay attention to what you have, right here, right now. It should be simple and concrete.
Being thankful in a focused way has been shown to give us a fuller sense of well-being. Intentionally taking time to practice gratitude is pretty powerful. Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean you should gloss over the grief you may be feeling, the anger that was just provoked, or the depressed state you may be wading through. It means there are things in your life that are good, things that are reliable, things that sustain you. Simply recognizing those things is powerful.
As a therapist I am very aware that we shouldn’t push away emotions that we need to process. That has been shown, unequivocally, to be harmful to our health and sense of well-being. However, we can shift our focus to the present and give thanks for the gifts we have been given. This practice will make the hard times more tolerable. The hard times will still be there for us to process.
This is not “thinking positively”. Insisting on only being positive is also something that can cause problems if we refuse to tolerate discomfort. Life can be very hard, and we need to be real about that. We also need to be able to not sink under the difficulties we face.
Gratitude is a practice. It needs to be consistent, done with intention and structure. It will cause changes in your brain that will assist you in seeing the good more readily, more habitually. People report feeling happier after consistently practicing gratitude daily.
So, what is helpful is that we focus, for a moment, on something that is good. It doesn’t have to be something great, life changing, or profound. Just look for something that is not a guarantee for anyone. You have a home, some don’t. You have running water, some don’t. You have feet, some don’t.
The really cool part about this practice is that the gifts you find don’t cause the change in your brain. The LOOKING FOR something good is what has power. The seeking is the power. That is the habit you are building.
I do this in the morning as I get ready for the day. It is a habit I started to develop in the ‘80s. When I first started doing it seemed a little fake and a little wooden at first, but a sense of happiness and lightness quickly followed. It took about a month to remember to practice gratitude every morning. I now habitually see the good around me throughout the day and feel blessed to be graced with those gifts.
Some people write a gratitude journal. Some people have a gratitude bowl where they keep gratitude notes. Those have been found to be very effective. For me it needs to be simpler. I need to be able to do it as I wash dishes, vacu-um, and face the bills on my desk. But I worked on building the habit first.
Try to do 5 minutes every day for a month in a very structured way. Do more if you can. Write it out if that helps. As you develop the habit you will find yourself spontaneously looking for the good. This has a long lasting impact on depression, better immune responses, less inflammation, and lower cortisol levels, and a positive impact on blood sugar, blood pressure, and pulse.
There is so much turbulence in our lives, our cities, and our culture today. We are forced to deal with hard realities that demand our focus and attention. But, tucked in between all those difficulties are blessings. Letting ourselves be saturated, just for a moment, with thankfulness for the good around us makes a few moments a bit sweeter.
Jan Bidwell is a licensed clinical Social Worker, an author, social activist, front line crisis responder, community activist, psychother-apist, and mediation teacher. She is currently in private practice, offers training in resilience and mindfulness, and continues to volunteer in Ingham County. For more information log on to janbidwell.com.