The Power of Being Thankful
Gratitude. A kind of buzz word these days with all the talk of mindfulness, meditation, alternative healing, and Eastern perspectives of health. But what’s not buzz-wordy is that gratitude is one of the most beautiful parts of being human and a supremely powerful tool to change mental perspectives.
The definition of gratitude, according to Google, is, “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Wait, does that mean we need to first experience the kindness ourselves to then be grateful? No! A million times no. What we need to do is take the first step in being grateful for the people, events, experiences, and interactions in our daily lives. Be the person that smiles first sometimes, not the person that smiles back.
The thing is that being thankful doesn’t just manifest effects outside of you. It changes you from the inside. An article from Forbes.com describes the ways that the practice of gratitude benefits quality of life and cites study after study. According to this article, and the corresponding research, gratitude can be a way of creating new relationships, improves your physical and psychological health, boosts empathy while decreasing aggression, helps you sleep better, improves confidence and self-esteem, and can play a huge role in mentally overcoming traumatic events or situations.
Studies have shown that by listing things they’re grateful for, rather than things they’re annoyed about, for a couple of weeks, people find significantly higher levels of general life satisfaction. Another study showed that when people are asked to smile (forcibly) for 20 seconds, this muscle tension stimulated the brain activity associated with our happy emotions. In a third study, acts or thoughts of gratitude were found to stimulate a part of our brains that regulates stress called the hypothalamus and another part of the brain that produces the feeling of pleasure called the ventral tegmental area. Even pretending to be happy causes happy brain stimulation. We can do that.
Other, possibly more obvious, research shows that powerful (but incompetent) people tend to lash out in aggression or anger when their abilities are questioned (have we all had a boss like this?) However, when confronted with gratitude (thank you, sir, for setting aside this time to talk to me…) they reduced their aggressive behavior. So, you can both help yourself, and diffuse the bomb of anger from your boss, simply by practicing gratitude.
This is all well and good when we are considering practicing gratitude from the comfort of our living rooms, but there’s a big, frustrating, and hauntingly unjust world out there. This is precisely the place where practicing gratitude counts. However, it’s probably best to start in your living room for now.
Before you get out in the world and expect yourself to start practicing gratitude while someone is flipping you the bird on the highway, start by mindfully going over the things you are grateful for a couple times a week. This can be in a gratitude journal, with your significant other, with your kids, or just in your head during the day. Just taking a moment out of your hectic life to remember what’s going right can be a huge perspective change, and can lay the foundation of your growing power of gratitude.
Attitude of Gratitude
As I mentioned, there will be many, many moments for you to practice gratitude rather than allowing your knee-jerk reactions of frustration, anger, and anxiety overtake you. The hard part is just giving yourself a moment to choose how to respond rather than letting the first emotion that comes have its way. As you learn to give yourself a moment to pause and consider the other person, the situation, and most especially how this interaction will affect you, you’ll find it’s easier and easier to react with graciousness and gratitude.
In the end, if you’ve decided not to roll down your window and flip the bird back at the car that cut you off, saving yourself steaming moments in the car and a heatedly recounted story that haunts you into the night, but instead opted to assume the other person had a bad day or was in a hurry to get somewhere important, and maybe even decided to mindfully be grateful that there wasn’t an accident and that you will safely arrive at your destination, sleeping better will just be the first of the many benefits of practicing gratitude.