Taking a Mindful Look at Gratitude
Written by Scott Van Camp, LMFT
Clinical Director, The Austin Center for Grief & Loss
Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines gratitude as: a feeling of appreciation or thanks. We have all experienced a feeling of gratitude at some point in our lives; yet is gratitude a situational experience or can it also be a mindful and purposeful practice?
First, some may be wondering, why practice gratitude, especially in the face of a year of unprecedented adversity for so many? Please consider the following:
1. Gratitude helps us adapt and evolve with change. This has been a year of grief for all with losses ranging from the loss of precious human life to the destabilizing loss of our normal lives. An important factor in making meaning is noticing the good that change may bring; practicing mindful and specific gratitude, we can become more flexible and accepting. Practices of gratitude pave the way for the recognition of ambivalence or the co-existence of multiple, often seemingly-contradictory thoughts and feelings. Ambivalence allows us to see more possibilities and move in our grief.
2. Gratitude reduces anxiety. Gratitude triggers the release of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine and can help ward off the cortisol reactions caused by cumulative stress. The reward centers of the brain that are activated during gratitude are heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotional regulation, such as heart rate, and are associated with stress relief and our bodies’ abilities to mitigate pain.
3. Gratitude improves mental wellness and health. Studies have supported that people who write letters of gratitude report significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. It is thought that ongoing practices of gratitude help train the brain to be more sensitive to sensory experiences that elicit joy; the long-term impact of this being positive neural pathways and cognitive constructs being reinforced and more likely to be accessed in our daily lives. Overall, people who practice gratitude report: less illness, more positive thinking, and decreased anxiety and depression.
So this may all sound valuable, yet many of us do not have an established daily or weekly gratitude practice. Don’t worry! Let’s provide ya’ll with some examples of elements that you may like to include in your gratitude practice:
1. A Gratitude Journal. Many people choose to begin their gratitude practice with a daily (or possibly one to three days a week) gratitude journal. It is helpful to be specific in describing ordinary events and don’t be afraid to reference the same people or experiences often (while practicing noticing different details), your personal attributes, or valued people in your life that cause you to experience appreciation, joy, and gratitude. As you contemplate your gratitude, consider what your life would be like without special people, experiences, or circumstances. Notice the negative outcomes you prevented or avoided and practice making meaning by noticing all you are grateful for. Notice and memorialize events that were unexpected or surprising, these often leave significant positive imprinting.
2. Socratic Questions: You can use the following questions as prompts when writing in your journal: “What have I received from __?”, “What have I given to __?”, and “What troubles and difficulty have I experienced and caused?”
3. Coming to Your Senses. Mindfulness means being in the present moment. Being present is necessary to notice what we are grateful for. Our senses of touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing can be trained to ground us using simple techniques such as “5,4,3,2,1.” This simple mindfulness technique invites the practitioner to notice and experience five items they can see, four items they can hear, three items they can touch, two items they can smell, and one item they can taste. This brief reflection brings us into the present by engaging our senses and can often provide relief from intrusive thoughts and difficult self-talk. Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is a treasure; taking time to connect with our senses and bodies is not only grounding, it is also joyful!
4. Practicing “Right” Speech. Please don’t be put-off by this term, there is no right or wrong way to speak. The term right is being used here to denote direction; specifically, navigating in the direction of less suffering (and more gratitude). People who practice gratitude seem to have a specific vernacular that includes words such as: opportunity, abundant, fortunate, blessed, gifts, and many others. What words do you commonly speak and write that represent your gratitude? What would it be like to purposefully choose and integrate more? Remember, gratitude is noticing traits of yourself, your experiences, and very importantly, those around you. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has been shown to have more impact than focusing on things.
5. Remembering that Right Speech Means Social Media Also, as we know, humans are narrative creatures. In these modern times, many of us are literally authoring our lives as chronicled in social media. Using it to share your gratitude can contribute positively toward yourself and others. What might it be like to dedicate a week or month (or year) to sharing uplifting experiences that you are grateful for?
Please note that this is a very short list of elements to consider in developing your practice. There are now many studies related to gratitude, and you may choose to do further research. If you have (or discover) practices that are not included in this article, I would love to know more about them! Please consider emailing these to firstname.lastname@example.org. Our community list would be a treasure, and we will find ways to make it available!