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Gratitude

I recently saw a quote on Facebook that stopped me in my tracks.  It said, “Remember when you wanted what you have now.”  In a society always trying to sell us something to improve our lives, rarely do we stop to appreciate what we have.  We are trained with an eye toward progress.  There must always be something better than what we have now.  We spend all our lives living for the future and forget to notice the benefits of the journey toward that golden future.

But, always wanting something more takes a tremendous amount of energy.  We stress about not performing well enough to get what we want.  We never seem to make enough money to buy the things we want to buy.  We never seem to have the time to do the things we want to do.  But we don’t appreciate the things we do buy or the things we spend our time doing.  Instead, we strive for some elusive goal, but never take the time to consider the value in the process of getting there.  In truth, we are always in that process and maybe we need to change our focus from the goal itself, to enjoying the time spent on the journey.

Living for the future does not help us achieve happiness, either.  Happiness becomes something that exists when we achieve what we want… sometime in the future.  In the meantime, we just make do with what we have.  It’s not the best-case scenario, but it is where we are right now, and we have to live with it until we finally get what we want.  The problem is, once we get what we want, we develop something new to want and so the cycle goes.  We are never satisfied.     

Practicing gratitude can slow down the pace of life and help us appreciate the process of living.  Notice I said, “practicing gratitude.”  Studies show that gratitude is a practice with effects that accumulate over time.  Just as the benefits of practicing meditation or exercising our muscles grow over time, practicing gratitude slowly increases our happiness over time.  One study, described in Psychology Today, showed that people who consistently think about what they are grateful for on a daily basis use more positive words to describe themselves.

Another study assigned groups of depressed college students three different courses of action.  The first group was assigned to write a letter of gratitude to someone every week.  The second group wrote about the negative feelings they had every week, while the third did not write anything.  The study found that the students who wrote gratitude letters demonstrated improved mental health after just four weeks and, even better results after twelve weeks.

They also gave the students MRI scans and found that the students who felt more grateful showed greater neural activity in the part of the brain associated with learning and decision making.  This indicates that people who feel gratitude might be more inclined to act on that emotion through an expression of compassion for others.  In other words, they may pay their gratitude forward.

So, how do we start a daily practice of gratitude?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Write Gratitude Letters

First, you can do what the students did and write a letter of gratitude every week, which, by the way, helps even if you do not give the letter to anyone.  Just thinking about what you are grateful for has results.

  • Keep a Gratitude Journal

Writing about what you are grateful for on a regular basis can help you think positively in the long term and you can go back and see how you have changed over time.

  • Keep a Gratitude Jar

Not a big writer?  Simply jot down a few notes of gratitude every day or every week on a scrap of paper and deposit it into a jar.  Pretty soon your jar will runneth over with the things you truly appreciate in life.  Take everything out once a year and examine the contents. 

Taking a little time out every day to remind yourself how lucky you truly are will have a significant impact on your emotional well-being.  If you start a gratitude practice now, I guarantee your outlook on life will change dramatically in just a few months, but keep in mind, the results are cumulative.  It will not happen immediately, but it will happen if you keep it up.  So, why not give it a try? What do you have to lose?

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