Write down three good things at the end of each day. This exercise helps you to tune in to the positive events already happening throughout your day.
All you need to do is, at the end of each day, write down three things that went well. During the process reflect carefully on what happened: Where were you? Who else was involved? What made it happen?
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post bCOVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness ” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hanna Milton.
Hanna is a mindfulness & wellbeing instructor with a background in psychology. Through alittlemindful.com, she helps people live happier and more meaningful lives. Every technique Hanna advocates is scientifically proven, rooted in mindfulness, and hand-selected based on her personal experience. In 2020, Hanna launched a 15-day mindfulness and meditation course that helps people overcome anxiety — for life.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
Absolutely. So, after finishing my psychology degree and spending three years “finding my feet” in the world of work, I eventually started a career in consumer insight. Like so many people in their early 20s, I really threw myself into it. I worked hard but always felt like it wasn’t enough. There were long days in the office followed by focus groups well into the evening, which could be anywhere in the country. The next morning you were back in the office starting the whole process again. And on it went. As you can imagine, I was close to burnout all the time. It was miserable.
Then I discovered mindfulness — and was soon hooked. There were supposed to be all sorts of benefits. So I thought, What can I really lose? It was through mindfulness that I started working on my own happiness.
Long story short, through a lot of trial and error, I found a set of simple practices that re-trained my mind and my response to everyday stresses. That sounds fantastical — but they’re all scientifically proven. Over time, my struggle through life really just… stopped. Cheesy as it sounds, I became happy.
Mindfulness had such a profound impact on my life that I re-qualified as a mindfulness and wellbeing instructor and launched a wellbeing business teaching others the tools and techniques that changed my life. I know there are millions out there struggling through life like I was. And now I know they don’t have to, I really believe the tools are too valuable not to share.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Well when the pandemic first hit last year, face-to-face teaching ended pretty quickly! I had to migrate things digitally. And with so much free time thanks to sudden lockdowns, I decided the best way to do so was to develop an online course. The only thing was, I didn’t know how!
Needless to say I encountered endless hurdles and unforeseen complications as I scaled a steep learning curve. One of the more jovial stories: I ended up filming the course in a house that was freezing. And I couldn’t put the heating on because it added a weird hum to the audio. So what my course participants don’t know (until now) is that between takes I was running around the room and doing star jumps trying to warm-up! It turns out creating online courses isn’t as glamorous as it might appear…
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“You are not your thoughts.”
The quote was written in big letters on a whiteboard as I walked into a mindfulness class one day.
Before I started working on my wellbeing, I believed every random thought that popped into my head. So that’s things like, “I’m not confident enough”. Or “I’ll never be as good as them.” “I haven’t got what it takes” — you get the gist. It’s no wonder I was miserable for such a long time!
The quote — “You are not your thoughts” — summarizes a life lesson that took me a long time to learn: thoughts aren’t facts. Thoughts are often random, can be entirely fabricated and most importantly don’t define us.
When you start to see thoughts in this way (and I can’t help but advocate mindfulness as a tool to enable this) you gain a sense of freedom from them.
As Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher I find particularly inspiring, puts it: “Mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what is happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening, stories that get in the way of direct experience. Often such stories treat a fleeting state of mind as if it were our entire and permanent self.”
When I work with people one-to-one, grasping this single concept is often the turning point towards a happier and healthier mindset. It might sound simple but un-doing lifelong habits of believing — and even feeding — the stories takes a bit of leg-work.
I find the quote “You are not your thoughts” to be a helpful daily reminder.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
To be honest, there are so many I could name here. But the most pivotal is probably Dr Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap. An ex-colleague recommended the book at just the right time. She’d just handed in her notice at the fast-paced, high-pressure research agency we both worked for to follow a more meaningful career. Interestingly, shortly after reading the book, I handed in my notice too.
The book is based on a type of mindfulness intervention called Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) which focuses on re-training your mind towards accepting life’s predicaments and committing to respond to them — and live your life — in healthier ways.
The book really opened my eyes to the fact that I was searching for happiness in all the wrong places. I mean, it seems obvious to me now that money, success and possessions aren’t what make us happy. But for such a long time, I thought they did. We live in a society that constantly reinforces that fictitious message. It’s hard to escape. For me at least, this book is an antidote. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve recommended it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
What I didn’t realise all those years ago, when I was struggling through work-life and believing every word of my negative thoughts, is that I was suffering from anxiety.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was anxiety that led me to mindfulness and other wellbeing practices. So, when the pandemic forced me to pivot to digital, I started to think about an online course designed to alleviate anxiety. One freezing cold film set later and the course is now running — the 15 day journey of meditation for anxiety. The course is a carefully compiled collection of simple and accessible practices for those wishing to ease anxiety.
It’s designed to deliver the “Aha” insights it took me years to pick up, and it gives people life-changing tools. It also seems to have come at just the right time, with so many experiencing heightened stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. People who have taken part say it’s helped them accept their feelings, enabled them to turn down the volume on negative self-chatter and changed their relationship with stress and anxiety.
That, to me, feels very exciting!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I couldn’t have launched my business without my fiancé, Chris.
The interesting thing about Chris is, until recently, he’s had little interest in mindfulness and mental wellbeing. In fact, I’d go as far as saying he was actively anti-mindfulness, labelling it “not my thing”.
Despite this, he’s had my back throughout the process. He’s seen the positive impact this stuff has had on my (and our) life over the years and he truly believes I have what it takes to enable others to experience the same.
And not only has he had my back metaphorically, but being a marketing copywriter with web development skills and SEO expertise he created my business in all its digital presence.
I’m incredibly grateful for everything he’s done. And funnily enough, I think he got something out of the process too… he now has a daily meditation practice. But shhh, it’s not his thing, remember!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
When I talk about gratitude I’m actually referring to a whole set of feelings.
Scanning through my gratitude journal, the feelings I describe are: thankful, appreciative, lucky, pleased, relieved, blessed, privileged, valued and glad. Whilst these aren’t necessarily synonyms for “grateful” they all have gratitude at the core.
When you start focusing on gratitude — and I know we’ll talk about how to do that in a moment — you start to notice its many disguises and how many opportunities you have to embrace it.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
This does seem perplexing doesn’t it? What gratitude is up against, though, is a bias that our brains have been using for thousands of years: the negativity bias.
The negativity bias is something we all experience innately. It evolved to keep us safe from danger; it’s better to pay attention to the life-threatening characteristics of a predator than to admire its fur coat.
What this bias means for us today is, we’re far more likely to notice what’s not in our favour than what is. We’re literally programmed to be anti-grateful!
That’s why intentionally practicing gratitude can be so impactful. We reprogramme our radar so we pick up on the positives. All of a sudden, we notice there are so many things in our lives that, actually, we can feel really good about.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
As I mentioned, gratitude can help life feel good. So it’s one of those keystone habits: a habit that, once formed, has a wonderful knock-on effect in multiple areas of life.
We’re grateful for others… so we strengthen our relationships.
We take in what’s good at work… so we enjoy it more.
And when we focus on what’s going well during tough times — rather than feeling beaten — we raise our motivation and help alleviate feelings of helplessness.
Research shows gratitude also impacts the way we behave. Grateful people exercise more, have fewer unhealthy habits (such as smoking or drinking excessive alcohol) and they tend to adhere better to medication when they’re unwell.
You can think of gratitude as having a high return on investment. Who wouldn’t be interested in a high return on investment when it comes to our wellbeing?!
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
The benefits for our mental wellbeing are vast. Dr Robert Emmons is the leading expert in the field, and his research shows gratitude: reduces lifetime risk of depression and anxiety, lowers stress levels, increases mood, increases positive emotions and creates resilience (a key factor in suicide prevention).
Gratitude also blocks toxic emotions like envy, resentment and regret. As humans, we simply don’t have the bandwidth to be envious and grateful at the same time. So we experience fewer emotions that drag us down.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
This is actually my favourite topic at the moment. I believe gratitude has such great potential, I’ve dedicated the start of 2021 to explore its full power. Here are some of the ways we can all leverage that power:
1.) Write down three good things at the end of each day. This exercise helps you to tune in to the positive events already happening throughout your day.
All you need to do is, at the end of each day, write down three things that went well. During the process reflect carefully on what happened: Where were you? Who else was involved? What made it happen?
And when you write down your three things include how they made you feel at the time, or how they make you feel now (focusing on the positive feelings rather than any negative feelings).
Your three good things don’t have to be big or life-changing. Here’s an idea of what I mean, from my own gratitude journal:
1) Glimpses of sunshine amongst the rain today. The rain made me appreciate the rays of sun even more!
2) Chris cooked us a delicious meal this evening. It always feels like a luxury being cooked for.
3) Watching The Queen’s Gambit tonight. I’m so glad to have something exciting to look forward to with each episode.
Research shows the exercise boosts happiness after just one week…. and reduces depressive symptoms both at the time and long after!
After doing this for a while I’ve noticed I feel more grateful in-the-moment throughout my day. So not only am I getting a feel-good boost when I reflect back on my day, but I’m finding more appreciation during the day too.
2.) Savour the good using all your senses
When you’re experiencing something good amplify your gratitude by savouring it.
Psychologist and leading voice in this space, Dr Rick Hanson, calls this “taking in the good”. He recommends staying with the positive experience for at least 20–30 seconds.
The easiest way I’ve found to savour like this is tapping into your senses: what can you see in that moment? What can you smell? What can you hear? Is there anything to taste? And what can you physically feel or touch?
After going through each of your senses, linger for a while on how that makes you feel inside, emotionally.
Try this when you’re next having breakfast. Notice all the colours and shapes in your bowl or on your plate. Notice the aromas coming from your coffee, tea or juice. Notice how the crockery feels in your hands. Notice how each mouthful feels on your tongue and how it tastes. Finally, notice how it feels to enjoy the moment.
Savouring forces you to fully notice what you’re experiencing, giving you the opportunity to appreciate it. Research shows it makes the experience itself even more enjoyable too!
3.) Spread out the joy. If there’s something in your life that you’re already really enjoying at the moment (like me watching The Queen’s Gambit!), resist from consuming it all at once. The reason is, when you go ahead and binge away, you’ll pretty quickly notice your gratitude evaporating. It’s known as hedonic adaptation; the tendency we all have to become accustomed to new stimuli (or start to take it for granted).
You can picture this happening if you imagine eating an entire tray of muffins. You really appreciate the first, enjoying every delicious mouthful. But these feelings don’t last as you eat the second, third or even fourth…
Having a break from your enjoyable activity presses reset, so you can feel grateful again and again.
4.) Stop to notice the three S’s: self, situation & someone else. This exercise gives you a gratitude boost in-the-moment and helps you see there’s always something to be grateful for… even in the mundane.
First, set a recurring alert on your phone to prompt you to go through the three S’s a few times throughout your day.
When you notice the alert, spend a moment reflecting on something about yourself you feel grateful for. This could be a skill or quality you possess, an emotion you’re feeling, something about your body or your health or the way you’re handling the current moment.
Next notice something about the situation. You could use your senses here to help — is there something pleasant you can sense? Or you might like to take a bigger picture view — what’s enabled this situation to happen?
Finally, notice someone else you’re grateful for. Perhaps you’re sharing the moment with someone you can appreciate, even if they’re a stranger. Or is there someone else who has contributed to this moment or the way you feel right now?
Again this exercise doesn’t require any big or life-changing event. Here’s an example based on doing the laundry:
Self: I’m feeling so satisfied to get this laundry done.
Situation: Thank goodness I have a washing machine that does all the hard work for me!
Someone else: I appreciate that someone has developed this laundry powder which washes so well.
5.) Meditate on how those around you have made your life richer. This practice was inspired by a letter I received from a friend. In the letter, my friend shared something she gets up to during quiet moments: she considers how someone important to her has made her life richer.
This, to me, screamed: “Meditation!”. So I’ve since turned it into a gratitude meditation that I practice regularly and often share with others.
Here’s how to do it:
- Sit in a comfortable position; one you can maintain for at least 10 minutes. Rest your hands and close your eyes.
- Spend a couple of minutes relaxing into the practice, slowing down and settling your mind. Take some deep, long, steady breaths. Follow your breath in and out, bringing your attention back to it each time it wanders away.
- Once you’re feeling settled, bring to mind someone who’s important to you. Spend a moment picturing them. Notice how it makes you feel to think about this person. Perhaps even let a smile form.
- Now start to reflect on all the ways this person has made your life richer. One way at a time: How have they inspired you? How have they supported or challenged you? Which of your shared memories do you cherish most? Why does this person make you smile? What would be missing if this person wasn’t in your life?
- For each way this person has made your life richer, spend a few moments exploring it in detail. What is it about them that makes you feel this? What exactly is it you feel as a result?
- When you’re ready, end your meditation by thanking this important person. If you can, summarise what you noticed, thanking them for each item.
- Finish with the words: “Thank you for making my life richer”.
I replied to my friend’s letter, naturally. In my reply, I explained I’d run the above meditation with her as my subject. I also shared one or two of the ways in which she’d made my life better — which I really recommend as a final step: doing so has been shown to strengthen relationships, a phenomenon I can personally verify!
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
When you’re having a really tough time — which may be quite frequent at the moment — it can be difficult to feel grateful at all. But bear in mind gratitude boosts your mood. So it’s a useful practise when you’re feeling down.
During a rough moment, day or period, I’d suggest zooming out. Rather than trying to find something to feel good about in your immediate surroundings or situation, zoom out to a wider view:
At least I am safe. I have a roof over my head. I have access to food and water.
In general, when we’re facing something challenging we tend to hone in on it. From an evolutionary perspective this allowed us to plough all our resources into the challenge in order to stay safe. The response is so entrenched it’s biological: when we’re confronted with something stressful, our pupils constrict — giving us tunnel vision. So if it’s difficult to think about the bigger picture try taking in a panoramic view from your window, allowing what you can see from your peripheral vision to come to your attention too.
See if you can notice the clean streets, the pavements there for you to walk safely on and any trees or greenery able to grow.
Intentionally expanding your vision to take in the bigger picture helps signal to your brain that all is ok.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
I’m a big fan of podcasts and always have a few on the go. One of my favourites at the moment is Ten Percent Happier by Dan Harris. The podcast explores happiness from all angles and often focuses on wellbeing practices like gratitude. I love Dan Harris’s frank and honest nature; he openly shares his own struggles with wellbeing and his struggles with practices like mindfulness and meditation. The podcast is down-to-earth, full of inspiration and brings the listener on board.
Another podcast I’d like to mention is Freakonomics. There’s a specific episode I would highly recommend around the topic of gratitude: Why Is My Life So Hard? (Ep. 280). The episode focuses on “headwinds” and “tailwinds”. Or, things that hold you back and things that boost you forward. As humans we tend to pay more attention to the headwinds than the often invisible tailwinds we receive. If you need some inspiration for your gratitude practice, you’ll find it in this episode!
Two books that come to mind are Resilient by Dr Rick Hanson and Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Resilient is packed-full of science-backed exercises to build mental resilience and live happier, healthier lives. It’s practical — but can get nerdy! Tuesdays with Morrie, on the-other-hand, is a light-hearted, heart-warming, humanising read. It’s a reminder of what’s most important in life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
One of the things gratitude does so well is pull us out of a self-focused mindset. It pushes us to appreciate the people, opportunities and circumstances that touch our lives.
If I could start a movement it would continue the sentiment: I’d love to help “dissolve the ego”, as we often say in the realm of meditation. All I really mean by “ego” is the front we adopt in order to feel a sense of identity.
We often try to be, look like or sound like something we’re not, and something we don’t need to be. This, I believe, causes inner turmoil… not to mention harm to others.
Maybe the movement would be called Drop the Front. It would draw from Bréné Brown’s research on showing vulnerability, and Eckhart Tolle’s discerning account of the ego, and the sense of freedom we hear about from those who have managed to shrink their ego. Buddhist monks, for example. You don’t often see a monk in angst!
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
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I’ve also started sharing nuggets of inspiration on Instagram, including simple ways we can incorporate learnings from the latest happiness-focused research into our lives. You can follow me here: @alittlemindful
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!