by Catherine Krame
The Transformational Power of Gratitude
Research has shown that savoring our experience and having heartfelt gratitude for the good in our life can dramatically improve our wellbeing and increase our resilience.
Why not let the seasonal offerings of autumn inspire heartfelt gratitude and moments to savor? Brisk mornings, the golden hues of falling leaves, and an abundant harvest of ripe apples remind us that we are being nudged into the depths of autumn. Thanksgiving is around the corner and winter looms not far behind, so it is a wonderful time to enjoy the outdoors before the winter freeze sets in. Whether it’s a hayride to the pumpkin patch with friends, a family trip to the apple orchard, or a solitary walk in the woods, simple pleasures in nature call to us this time of year.
Nature has a way of coaxing us to pay attention, to be mindful of small moments to savor. Lingering with the pleasant sensations when we are savoring can promote feelings of gratitude, which in turn lead us to search for more moments in our day to savor and be grateful for. Studies indicate that this feedback loop for positive emotions is in fact a powerful practice that can be cultivated to improve wellbeing and build resilience. It has been shown that we cannot be in a state of gratitude and experience negative emotions at the same time.
These profound findings alone may be enough to motivate us to adopt a regular gratitude practice, whether it’s keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing a gratitude letter to someone significant, exchanges at the family dinner table, a gratitude jar, showering the people in your life with notes, texts, and phone calls, or engaging in activities that promote positive emotions. These activities might include listening to music, dancing, watching movies, reading books, finding a hobby, exercising, playing games, taking up a sport, or spending time with loved ones. But the real reason to purposely look for things to appreciate each day should be because it just feels good! Our gratitude often involves others so it also strengthens our relationships and naturally connects us to something greater than ourselves. An added benefit, that isn’t necessarily obvious, is that it contributes to greater meaning and purpose in our lives.
At this point you might be asking – HOW? How do we go about eliciting these positive feelings in a meaningful way? The key is for our gratitude to be heartfelt — if we don’t experience the positive emotions while listening to the music or dancing, it does not have the same effect. There is a very clear distinction between positive activities and positive emotions. When we stop, savor, breathe in, and enjoy the experience — in other words when we are mindful — we invite heartfelt gratitude, and ultimately, transformation. It is also important to note that if we pay attention to the tiny details of an ordinary experience or even a mundane task, we may be surprised to find contentment, pleasure, and joy in the micro-moments of our lives. When you think about it, these moments take on an even greater importance with the recognition that, when strung together, they create the beautiful tapestry that makes up our life in totality.
“The mind is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for the positive ones.” ~ Rick Hanson
We were evolutionarily wired with a negativity bias. It is our natural inclination to focus on what is not working in our lives whether it’s in our relationships, at work, or our own failures and disappointments. When we only focus on the one thing that is not working — what we perceive as “wrong” – we fail to see the bigger picture of our life in its entirety and all that is working. The next time something goes “wrong” in a relationship or you experience a personal “failure” or disappointment, rather than getting caught in a negative downward spiral of rumination or descending into self-criticism — instead, pause and take a step back to look at the overall picture of your life as a whole. And then — think about something that is good in your life, and take some time to savor the feelings that arise when you focus on the positive. Perhaps warm feelings of gratitude will emerge. While you are at it, offer yourself some self-compassion if you realize that your automatic response is almost always a self-critical one. Linger with gratitude, make it part of your daily routine, and just see what happens.
What becomes clear is that gratitude is more than a practice — it is actually a valuable tool to cultivate resilience. We can use it to rewire our brains in a way that creates a positive feedback loop that prompts us to look for the good in our experience, instead of the bad…and this is the transformational power of gratitude.