We are in a new era. Science is now catching up to what spirituality has long known. Gratitude works. Why? Because it is both an emotion we feel and a practice we can choose. In short, we become what we practice. Further, gratitude is social so we don’t have to practice alone. Human beings are social creatures, and we are healthier in community. When we feel lonely, it can have the same negative health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Fortunately, we are wired with gratitude so we can connect and strengthen our wellbeing together.
Personally, gratitude transformed my life. I am really good at being impatient. By practicing gratitude, I started to just pause and give thanks. Over time, it has given me space to become more kind, and less quick to frustration and anger. Now, feeling grateful is a choice I make everyday to be the father, husband, and human being I want to be in the world.
Since social media has driven the attention economy for the last decade, choosing what we notice is an act of courage. As a social emotion, gratitude is at the intersection of our own self-care and social connections. When we exercise this emotion, we can improve our health, our social bonds, and our ability to look at the world with more appreciation and optimism. Gratitude makes visible what we value. Conversely, we make invisible what we take for granted.
Research has now shown that giving thanks and generosity rewires your brain. I like to think about this as changing your thoughts by changing your feelings. If you want to feel happier, start by noticing when you feel grateful. Emotions are mental shortcuts. The practice of gratitude boosts your positive emotions like joy. Choosing gratitude creates emotional muscle memory for joy.
I had always thought that emotions were like wild beasts that I had little control over. With practice, I have learned that I can trigger my positive emotions instead of being triggered by my negative ones. I had to first get out of my own way. Healthy living is not necessarily about more self-control or self-discipline. These strategies often rely on willpower. Willpower works for short-term goals, but quickly gets exhausted and overwhelmed.
As we all have, I’ve often experienced breaking points trying to accomplish a goal at work, dieting, exercising, or whatever was the next achievement. The research on the diminishing power of willpower is also called ego depletion. Ego in Latin means “I”. Ego is limited. Only using willpower is self-depleting. The more you use willpower, the less of it you have.
Gratitude is a regenerative resource. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. When I first started to practice gratitude, a friend gave me prayer beads. Prayer beads were the original wearable technology. People across faiths and cultures literally counted their blessings with each bead.
This old school technology facilitated three habits – reminder, routine and reward. Firstly, the beads were physical reminders of our intentions to pause and appreciate life. The beads made tangible what people sought to exercise. Secondly, they provided the simple routine of counting each prayer, mantra, or meditation. The practice was easy and created emotional muscle memory. Thirdly, the act of giving thanks and acknowledging something bigger than you was rewarding. Research shows your prefrontal cortex rewards you for giving thanks. Whether you’re spiritual or not, as Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
Technology can help us if we use it as a tool for our health and wellbeing. If you want to create your own gratitude practice, follow the recipe of successful micro-habits. What is your reminder? If not beads, find something that can help you remember your intentions to be kind, healthy, or whatever inspires you. Imagine a daily activity, like brushing your teeth or putting on your shoes, that can remind you to pause and give thanks. That activity can be your alarm bell or trigger. Then, how will you give thanks? What’s the simple routine you can integrate into your life? Easy is okay because you want to feel the emotional success of completing the action. Small steps repeated frequently can cover long distances. Finally, enjoy the feeling of gratitude – reward the real you. Pause. Give thanks. Repeat.
As you create an intention of gratitude, you switch your brain from scarcity to enough. Fear feeds on scarcity. Giving thanks in a regular way, like you would go to the gym or meditate, is a way to tap into a sense of emotional abundance. More is possible when you can appreciate what you already have.
I remember in high school, I had an uncle who would tell me to think before I talked. It was meant with love (maybe, tough love), but it dampened my natural enthusiasm and made me feel less than worthy. Gratitude taught me to feel before I talked. The practice of gratitude helped me to widen my emotional bandwidth. I have become more resilient and able to adapt to change with less fear. Fear is just an emotion, and I have created new mental shortcuts that grow with the noticing of good and pausing to give thanks.
The poet Mary Oliver said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Attention is a choice. What you notice is where your devotion goes. Giving thanks is a fun, easy, and powerful choice to notice the good in your life. The most important step is the first one. Give thanks. And then watch your gratitude pay itself forward. It will spread further than you ever thought possible.