We hear a lot about gratitude and how it can help us feel happier and more content with life, but does it really work?
Robert A Emmons, social scientist and the author of ‘Gratitude Works’, has been studying the science of gratitude for many years. Called the ‘world expert’ on Gratitude by Berkeley University in California, Emmons has completed countless studies involving thousands of people aged between 8-80 around the benefits of gratitude and how it works to definitely increase our feelings of contentment with life, when it comes to the past, present or the future.
His Clinical Trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, promote happiness and well-being and incite acts of helpfulness, generosity and cooperation.
Gratitude is defined as ‘A felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life’. It ‘Helps us savour our positive experiences’.
According to Emmons, ‘Gratitude is important not only because it helps us to feel good, it also inspires us to DO good. Gratitude heals, energizes and transforms lives……. It takes us outside our scope so we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships that are mutually reciprocal.’
Let’s face it, as we get older and we are reflecting back on past experiences or what we might consider to be lost opportunities, it can be challenging to feel thankful, especially with the world seeming to be in more turmoil than ever before, and families facing crisis and heartbreak.
As human beings we have evolved to be ‘hard-wired’ for hard times, so we naturally find it easier to focus on what we don’t appreciate or want in our lives, or what we aren’t satisfied with, then what we do have.
That’s where gratitude practices can help. And these are not all about positive thinking either. Gratitude has been called a neutraliser of negative emotions, and at Positive Living skills, we see it as a major key to more feelings of joy and peace and contentment.
Contrary to what you might have thought, gratitude is not all about smiling and positive thinking either.
Life has disappointments, frustrations, losses hurts and setbacks all built in. It’s a package deal, and we are meant to experience a range of emotions. It’s essential to our life experience.
So how do we build our gratitude practice to feel more content, here and now?
Here are some tips for fostering more gratitude in your life, and funnily enough, many of these relate to considering the negative side to a situation, or how it could be ‘worse’:
Consider the little things. A hot cup of strong tea, a warm blanket, the sun streaming in the window, the sound of the rain. When we place our focus on the simple gifts that are around us on any given day, and really savour them, we can feel thankful and grateful that we have the opportunity to experience them.
Recalling our past successes or achievements AND our challenges allows us to appreciate the contrast - called 'bad to good contrast thinking'. When you remember your past troubles then you can also remember that you have survived. These recollections can be used as a catalyst for self-acknowledgement as we connect that the most important learning experiences in our lives are usually negative ones. Through real challenges we get to find out what we’re made of. We see things of value that we might not have noticed before, we find an unexpected personal capacity, and relationships become more precious. Tony Robbins calls it post-traumatic growth. No one ‘feels’ grateful for painful experiences but they can ‘be’ grateful.
Awareness that a pleasant experience will soon end can foster gratitude. For example, your family have all come to visit – you can sit there disappointed that it is coming to an end or you can savour the experience and appreciate it even more.
Thinking of the good things you DO have in your life promotes appreciation, and then consider if these things were absent. Consider the comparison of how much worse things could be if you didn’t have those things. Like the old Jimmy Stewart movie ‘It’s a wonderful life’, he imagines certain events as never happening or happening differently, and like that we can consider how our life could have been if events had played out differently.
So to sum all that up, maybe all experiences in life, positive or negative can encourage appreciation and gratitude in us, and these feelings of gratitude can help us feel more content with the present, past and the future. And that’s got to be a good thing.
"Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude." A.A. Milne