What are you grateful for right now? Perhaps something comes to mind that’s especially positive in your life. Maybe you’re going through a challenge that makes it hard for you to think about gratitude. No matter what your current circumstances, you can discover all sorts of reasons to give thanks by tapping into a powerful well-being practice: mindfulness. Members of the Mindful Living LLC at George Mason University study how mindfulness can improve people’s lives. They say that practicing mindfulness helps them notice a lot to appreciate from day to day.
“Practicing mindfulness has allowed me to shift my mindset from being overly concerned with my past decisions or anticipation of the future to a mindset that is present and appreciative of the present moment and what I have going for me now,” said Joan Kohorst, a sophomore majoring in Computer Science. “This change from worry and anxiousness has let me focus on the relationships I have and the experiences and memories I’m making. I am able to focus on each day as a unique and meaningful experience.”
“When I’m mindful, I accept something that comes into my life and am then able to learn from it, which leads to gratitude,” said Ashley Whimpey, a junior majoring in Communication. Practicing mindfulness helps her appreciate even her difficulties, she said, because it empowers her to reframe negative thoughts to positive thoughts. “When things are going wrong, mindfulness helps me figure out what to do to solve the problem, and if I can’t do anything about it, it helps me learn more about how my human experience is making my story and how I can be more compassionate with other people who are going through something similar.”
While it’s easier for people to be grateful for positive circumstances than for negative situations, mindfulness can make it possible to build inner strength that helps them be grateful in any circumstances, said Mary Elizabeth Lynch, who teaches the “Explorations in Mindful Living” course. “The key to building an inner capacity for joy and gratitude is to be aware of two kinds of stress and adversity. First we can notice how we sometimes create these negative situations for ourselves. Mindful awareness helps us see how we occasionally undermine our own happiness. Second, sometimes the difficult situations are out of our control. We may be inclined to jump to the conclusion that most (if not all) of our stresses and adversities are in the second category. But honest and mindful self-awareness will help us discern one category from the other. And when the challenge really is outside of our own control, then the questions becomes ‘How do I choose to respond? How can I meet the challenge mindfully, thoughtfully, and from the strength of my values and ideals?’”
Claire Bork, a senior majoring in Computer Game Design, is using mindfulness to respond positively to a stressful situation in her life. She said she’s grateful that a peer mentor in the community is helping her work through a difficult decision about whether or not to change her major as she rethinks her career plans: “Mindfulness helps me reflect on that process with a positive attitude and opens up my mind to see new possibilities.”
Mindfulness has helped Criminology, Law and Society major Lorena Neal, a freshman, “to see things in a clearer way and appreciate the small things about other people. Since I was little, I have always had self-deprecating thoughts running through my mind on a daily basis. It got to the point that I didn’t want to leave my room because I was so cautious about people judging me. But when I meditated, I didn’t have those thoughts, instead I had images running through my mind of things that I loved. … Mindfulness has helped me single out the positives, and also take note and hold optimistic views of the negative.”
Participating in the community has helped a lot to develop a habit of giving thanks, said Neal, because she the people there are so caring. “…being in this mindful community, where people always ask how I am doing, and check in on me, and invite me to group events, I am honestly so grateful.”
Living in a dorm with others who value mindfulness is an encouraging experience, Whimpey said. “It’s an awesome cross-section of people who are all committed to mindfulness and are rallying together. We talk together about our breathing during meditation, setting intentions for each day, and anything else that helps us practice mindfulness well.” She especially enjoys meditating with others in the dorm’s mediation room, she said.
The community “has been the most integral component to my college experience,” said Kohorst. … “Mindfulness and the concepts that we explore as a community allow myself and other members to identify meaning and purpose in the things that we do and as individuals and I believe this translates to being grateful for one’s opportunities, experiences, relationships, etc. as well as showing gratitude towards others in daily life.”
Sabrina Huffman, a sophomore studying Fine Arts, said she is “extremely grateful for the moral and social support I have in this community. I am even grateful for the small things, such as the short, friendly conversations I have with my floor-mates when I pass them in the hall or the constant feeling that I have people around me, which has really helped me combat the loneliness that I have felt throughout my life before coming to Mason.”
By “working actively to engage” questions about mindfulness in their lives, Lynch said, students can incorporate their values — like gratitude — into every day.
That’s exactly what often happens, the students said. “Practicing mindfulness,” said Huffman, “has opened my eyes to the greatness in everything.”
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.