As we move towards the end of the year, there is a natural tendency to look back and reflect. Being thankful can bring huge benefits to your life.
Breathe: Words for a Mindful Moment
“The medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart suggests that if the only prayer we say in our lifetime is “thank you,” that would suffice…. Gratitude paid to all around us becomes a spiritual exercise. Show your gratitude to the music that enchants, to the winter boots that stand up to the wear and tear of the elements, to the movie that brings tears to your eyes…. Feast on the moments that stand out in your mind as precious enough to replay again and again.”
Smile: Moments of Gratitude
Mindfulness and Gratitude go hand in hand. To practice gratitude, we must practice mindfulness. When we are truly present in the moment, we see the beauty all around us. And the more joy we cultivate, the more we can practice our purposeful awareness and acceptance of the present moment. Mindfulness begets gratitude, gratitude begets mindfulness.
Gratitude and the Brain
The research on gratitude challenges the idea of a “set point” for happiness, a belief that each of us has a genetically-determined level of happiness. Research on gratitude suggests that people can move their set point upward to some degree, enough to have a measurable effect on both their outlook and their health.
According to Robert Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, people who practice grateful thinking “reap emotional, physical and interpersonal benefits.” Studies have shown that people who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future.
Studies show that people who practice gratitude feel 25% happier, are more likely to be kind and helpful to others, are more enthusiastic, interested and determined, and even sleep better.
And grateful children and teens tend to thrive. Kids who practice gratitude get higher grades, are more satisfied with their lives, are more integrated socially and show fewer signs of depression.
Give a Power Boost to Your Gratitude Practice
The #1 bad habit that most people have can be surprising—our thinking. Before we fall into procrastination, stress eating, isolation, habitually engaging our phones or any other addictive behavior, there’s a thought. The thought is something like, I need to get away from something uncomfortable that’s here or at times, I want the good feeling that’s here to last.
One of the most powerful ways I have found to change the atmosphere of the mind is a very simple gratitude practice (but with a power boost).
Now, before your eyes roll you need to know this: Thoughts may be arising in your mind right now such as, “not this gratitude stuff again, I’ve read this in a thousand places.” If you notice this thought, ask yourself, what is the net effect of this thought here? Does it incline you to move toward this practice that you’ve heard about a thousand times or away from it?
The answer is most likely that it inclines you away from it.
If we all know it’s a supportive practice, why does the mind do this? Because the brain is wired to habituate to things. This is the classic top-down processing in effect. You read those words, your brain reaches back into it’s memory bank to find the reference for it, it sees many references and it spits out the computation, “Unimportant, move on.” Little do we often know, this computation is exactly what keeps us stuck in life.
We need to break free from this mind trap and engage bottom-up processing, seeing this gratitude practice with fresh eyes. Be thankful for the benefits a gratitude practice can bring to your life!
Your Gratitude Practice
I’m curious what would happen if you committed for just one week to a daily gratitude practice where each day you mindfully and actively thought of five to ten things you’re grateful for.
When you sit down to consider what you’re actually grateful for, you take a moment to picture each one in your mind and ask yourself, why are you grateful for this? Can you feel the experience of that gratitude in your body?
Remember, as Donald Hebb said, “neurons that fire together wire together,” so let all that somatic feeling of gratitude linger for a few more moments then move onto the next one.
This lights up more areas of your brain and gives a power boost to the impact of a gratitude practice.
If you have a few minutes right now before moving onto the next thing, try this out with even just one thing you’re grateful for. Bring a curious mind to it and see what you notice. You may just begin to uncover a little happiness right now.
Set a daily reminder for this week and report back what you’ve noticed. Your interaction inspires this in others, so imagine the ripple effects.
So how can families practice gratitude in meaningful ways so that our kids learn what it means to be thankful? Here are a few ideas:
Express your appreciation for each other.
In my house we started this as a birthday tradition. When it is someone’s birthday we go around the table and express what we all appreciate about that person. The first time we did this it was uncomfortable for me, it felt ‘cheesy’ for lack of a better term. But when I heard the amazing things my kids had to say it quickly became my favorite family ritual, and we remind each other of what has been said often.
Acknowledge the small stuff.
When we practice mindfulness it helps us to be present in our relationships and pay attention to our environment. Often it is easy to go through the day distracted, out of sync with our environment and the people around us. When you are with your kids, be intentional about noticing the beautiful flowers, bright blue sky, the helpful person at the coffee counter, and the nice man who held the door for you. Your appreciation for the the little things around you will rub off on your kids.
Make a gratitude jar.
This can be a fun project for kids. Find a container and let the kids decorate it. Cut out some pieces of scratch paper and put them in a convenient place so that family members can write down things they feel grateful for and place the paper in the jar. If kids can’t yet write then having them draw a picture of something works great also! Then, open the jar once a week or once a month and read what everyone has written.
Make it part of your bedtime routine.
Take a few minutes at the end of each day to show appreciation for the little things in your life for which you are thankful. It is important for parents to model gratitude for meaningful things like relationships, kindness, and the natural beauty in your environment (rather than your 60 inch plasma TV or your new ipad). This is a wonderful way to end each day!