THE HEART KNOWS
Practicing Gratitude Pays Dividends
People who are aware of the good things in life, and express gratitude for them, reap benefits from better sleep to better relationships.
Count your blessings. The adage is easier said than done, especially in 2021. But people who are aware of the good things in life, and express gratitude for them, reap benefits from better sleep to better relationships.
“Research shows that people who counted their blessings were happier,” says Jordan Thomas, registered social worker and psychotherapist at the London Centre for Trauma Therapy. “In a study in 2017 (Joshua Brown and Joel Wong, Indiana University), they created three groups for three weeks.
Group one was asked to write a weekly letter about things they were grateful for. Group two was asked to write about the problems in their life and Group three wasn’t asked to write anything. The results were clear.
Group one showed significantly better outcomes on health scores.” The benefits accrued over time and extended for weeks after the study. “We have gratitude when we value every moment we have,” says Dr. Amjed Abojedi, researcher and registered psychotherapist, Resilience Counselling.
“Gratitude is important because it plays into motivation and how we value things, especially today.”
THE SCIENCE BEHIND GIVING THANKS
Thomas says gratitude is an important practice. “Make it a habit to wire your mind. Enjoy the moment, have more connection with the present not the future.”
MRI scans show “gratitude helped grey matter function and release serotonin, the feel-good chemical,” says Thomas. “The reasons are what we focus on, the mind sees more of. The premise behind gratitude is when you consciously look for good things, the brain gravitates towards and finds more. As humans, we have a negativity bias, a worst-case scenario, as part of our survival mechanism. If we focus on the positive, our beliefs and attitudes change.”
Abojedi agrees. “When we wire our brains to value things, we feel good things happen to us, we’re moving forward. There is a wide range of things we miss when we focus on the missing things in life and do not express gratitude. We’re under high pressure and expectations. It takes time, effort and energy to blame ourselves for the missing part. Be fair to yourself. Express gratitude for what you achieved.”
The Indiana University study supports this concept. It showed gratitude separated people from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy.
THE FEEL-GOOD BENEFITS
“When people face trouble in life, they go into one of two groups,” says Judy Mackechnie, registered marriage and family therapist and psychotherapist. She compared the two group reactions to Tigger and Eeyore from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. “It’s the same with gratitude. If you get down too much, it’s hard to get back up.”
She also says it is important to acknowledge negative feelings. The difference is in not always looking at what’s missing. This is a challenge in a world dominated by curated social media feeds where perfection, or the illusion of it, appear to dominate. “Social media pressure is a big part of our perception today,” says Abojedi. “We’re looking for what we cannot achieve.
It’s important to review our belief system, how we see things and appreciate them. When we try to be perfect, we’re looking for a guarantee of security in our society. But that’s not right – gratitude can give us this.”
“When we focus on what we’re grateful for, we alleviate feelings of guilt,” says Thomas. “We release more serotonin and dopamine. The brain gets little hits of dopamine and over time that helps sleep, regulate mood and our metabolism.”
PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
Like anything worth doing, establishing a gratitude habit takes time and effort. It may be as simple as setting aside a few minutes to consciously think about your blessings that day. Like Nike’s slogan – just do it, just start.
“Create a habit,” says Abojedi. “Be more aware. After a while of practicing awareness, look for gratitude. Start a routine, such as three things you’re grateful for today, what you achieved, who you met, what you shared. Do this on a regular basis.”
He says if your to-do list had 10 items and you accomplished nine, feel gratitude for the nine completed, don’t think about the one you didn’t do. “Find one thing you’re grateful for,” says Mackechnie. “One thing can help change us. Go out for a walk, let someone go by, say thank you to someone.” She recommends a daily walk especially on a trail that accesses woods or water.
“Walking is one of the things that really helps. The body takes some of the stress out. You can be grateful for being in that calm.”
“The most important thing isto look around you – and yes,some things are tough – butremember a moment that madeyou laugh or feel good."
Most recommend a regular activity, such as making a daily list of three things you’re grateful for. Research shows the more senses you employ, the more parts of the brain are engaged. So, writing down a list is stronger if you use pen and paper. Reading, watching children play, listening to birds sing, feeling the breeze on your face are all simple things for which you can be grateful says Mackechnie.
“It takes time for the brain to change,” says Thomas. “If you build the practice, there will be big shifts in neurotransmitters.” She also suggests paying it forward. “When you do something kind for someone else, you get a hit of feel-good and the brain wants more. Practice by doing something nice for you. Have a cup of tea, light a candle, soften the edges of a bad day.
Write a thank you note.”It may seem impossible when a pandemic has wrought immeasurable changes. “People are doing wonderful things for others during the pandem-ic,” says Mackechnie. “The most important thing is to look around you – and yes, some things are tough – but remember a moment that made you laugh or feel good. It doesn’t put the dark side away, but if you hold that with you, you miss an awful lot.
You have to have a sense of humour.” “The pandemic is extraordinarily isolating,” says Thomas. “It’s detri-mental to our mental health. Look for silver linings. Any social con-nection is important – always, but especially now.” Abojedi says the pandemic is a good example of looking at what you gain rather than what’s missing.
Before it, many people complained they lacked time to do things. “Now they have time to enjoy being with other people, their family. He advises not to focus on what’s missing, such as the freedom to hang out with your friends. “Value the relationships and connections. Be open to little things that you value and have meaning. Be kind to yourself.”