“I would maintain,” said G. K. Chesterton, “that thanks are the highest form of thought.” It is easy to let our thoughts be consumed by concerns about reduced economic security, rising health care, energy or food costs, and other worries about the future. It takes more effort to focus, instead, on being grateful for what we have.
We all know the old adage: count your blessings not your sorrows. Science has now proven that heeding the wisdom in this worn-out saying produces tangible physical and emotional benefits. In his book, THANKS! How The New Science Of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert Emmons, who is considered the world’s leading expert on the psychology of gratitude, reports that experiencing anger, frustration, anxiety and insecurity causes our heart rhythms to become incoherent or jagged, interfering with the communication between the heart and the brain. It causes our hearts to function in a less efficient manner. This is a hefty price to pay for worrying about the future.
On the other hand, heartfelt emotions such as appreciation produce “harmonious heart rhythms that are considered to be indicators of cardiovascular efficiency and nervous system balance. When people consciously experience appreciation and gratitude, they can restore the natural rhythms of their heart.”
Here are some tips for cultivating gratitude, not only on Thanksgiving Day, but all year-round.
1. Allow gratitude its moment
As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains in his video How To Take In The Good, it is not enough to feel grateful for a few seconds when something good happens. For your brain to get the full benefit of the positive event, you need to consciously focus your attention on the event. Let yourself feel good, even when it is small things such as putting the kids to bed or handing in a report on time. You do this by intentionally acknowledging the moment, feeling it for 10 to 30 seconds and letting it register deeply in your emotional memory. As Rick Hanson aptly puts it: “Don’t leave money on the table.” Savor all good moments! Life is a long series of moments.
2. Practice introspection
The Japanese have a beautiful concept known as “naikan,” which means self-reflection, or looking inside. This is a powerful practice for enhancing our self-awareness and increasing our capacity for gratitude. It involves asking yourself three questions, at the end of each day:
- What have I received from (person x)?
- What have I given to (person x)?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?
3. Write a thank-you note every day
This idea comes from businessman John Kralik, who decided to practice gratitude amidst worries about his troubled business. As he explains in his video interview with ABC, writing one thank you note a day changed his life. We can derive a great deal of inspiration from this man’s initiative. More than likely, if we set out to make a list, we would find dozens of people who could be the recipients of our gratitude, whether it is a friend, a family member, a teacher, a neighbor, a physician, a handy-man or the server at the local coffee shop who remembers how we like our coffee.
4. Watch the Gratitude Dance
It is almost impossible to watch this video of the original Gratitude Dance, without breaking into a smile. Better still, watch it with your family and friends. Watch, as well, the video of this young man who practiced the gratitude dance and inspired people in 42 countries.
5. Take a hiatus from negative news
Go on a crash mental diet by skipping all negative news and focusing instead on uplifting intellectual pursuits. Part of the diet includes re-evaluating the time you spend on social media sites. Consider hanging around sites such as Berkley University’s Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life or watch uplifting videos on TED.com such as Neil Pasricha: The 3 A’s of awesome.
6. Take the Gratitude Questionnaire
Self-awareness precedes self-management. If you want to measure your Gratitude Disposition, take Dr. Robert Emmons’s Gratitude Questionnaire. If your score is low, consider making the practice of gratitude a part of your behavioral habits. If you score high, congratulate yourself on your ability to regulate your emotions and maintain a state of grace. It is a sign of emotional intelligence.
Acknowledge the presence of good in your life. Louie Schwartzberg, award-winning cinematographer and director, talks about the years when he didn’t have much money but he had time and a sense of wonder and spent years photographing breathtaking time lapse photography of flowers. In Gratitude, one of the most inspiring videos, he says that to see the flowers move is a dance, that he will never tire of. Their beauty envelopes us and they also provide a third of the food we eat. “Beauty and seduction is nature’s tool for survival because we protect what we fall in love with.” Take time every day to think of all the things in your life that you could be grateful for. Celebrate your life.