A Spirit of Gratitude
by Laura Poladian, MS, LMFT
We live in a world where frustration, sorrow, stress, and high expectations run our everyday lives. We are bombarded by media that sends us the message that we need to be more and to have more. At what point do we reach the promise land? When do we finally believe we have enough?
While no life is perfect, there is truth in the belief that we can find good and blessings should we choose to look hard enough. We spend extensive amounts of time on a daily basis in our heads, assessing our situations, and allowing those thoughts or concerns to impact the way that we present, and how we than engage with those around us.
A study published by The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, addressed the issue of gratitude and its potential effect on mental health. They found that the act of writing a letter of gratitude, whether or not it was ever delivered to the one it was written for, improved their participant’s state of mental health and increased activity in their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning. While they believe there is still much more research to be done in the area of gratitude, and its impact on the human brain, their belief is that the act of writing a letter of gratitude decreased their participant’s use of “negative emotion words,” which is what they believe most heavily impacted their study’s results. (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain)
Gratitude is a balance of accepting the present for what it is, and choosing to respond to our circumstances with an open mind and a willing spirit. Taking time each day to be present in the moment, can impact the way we see our world and our problems, as well as than how we choose to respond to them. While gratitude in and of itself has a positive impact on those practicing it, first we must place ourselves in the mindset to best practice and sit in gratitude. This mindset can be attained by intentional awareness of ourselves and our environment, a practice we call mindfulness. Here are a few ways to practice mindfulness in your daily life.
1. Deep Breathing:
Noticing your breath, where it moves from within your body and the physiological experience of the breath (the sensation of cold air running through your nose or the warm breath you exude as you breathe out), takes us away from our racing thoughts and places us in our body. Deep breathing can be challenging for some as this is not often something we pay much attention to in our daily routine, nor do we often breathe from our abdomen. If this is something you may have interest in, be sure to start by practicing for a short period of time, focusing on refining the skill. As you practice this skill more regularly, you will be able to increase the duration of time practiced in a given sitting.
2. Grounding Exercise:
All too often we lack awareness of our environment or our experience of being present within a given environment. Here is an activity that helps take you out of your thoughts and places you within a given space. It’s called the 5-4-3-2-1 Game:
· Name 5 things you see.
· Name 4 things you feel (ex: your arm on the chair, or the feel of your feet on the ground).
· Name 3 things you can hear.
· Name 2 things you can smell.
· Name 1 thing you can taste.
Take a minute to assess how you are feeling. How often during this exercise did you find yourself focused on your thoughts? By grounding your body in the environment around you, you are truly placing yourselves in the here and now rather than thinking about the future or ruminating over the past.
3. Mindful Walking:
If you struggle to sit quietly in a space, take it outside. A third option is mindful walking, where you continually redirect yourself away from your thoughts and focus yourself on the sensations that you experience. Some of these sensations may be the feeling of your feet pressing into the ground, the feeling of the sun on your face, or the feeling of the wind blowing across your body. Not only does this activity ground you in your environment, but it also gets you outside and engaged in physical activity which carries its own physical and mental health benefits.
Once you have created an intentional moment where you are present in our body and your environment, you can more clearly see your thoughts and the many facets of those thoughts. It is also from this calm base that you will be more able to effectively practice gratitude.
Gratitude can come in many forms. It can be done by letter writing, as was the case in the study described earlier. Gratitude can also be something that simply becomes a way that you process presenting situations, taking a difficult or challenging situation and finding opportunity within it. Gratitude can be a practice you choose to engage in every morning when you wake-up, or right before you go to bed, by making a list of things, people or situations that you are grateful for. Gratitude can also be displayed in how you give to others. Giving can be done in many forms, whether that be the giving of gifts, or the giving of your own time or energy. You may find that as you focus your attention on giving to, and uplifting others, that you are positively impacted as well.