As we enter into our Thanksgiving season, it is a perfect time to reassess our ability to live in gratitude. Thanksgiving time often calls for us to re-evaluate our lives and put the “gratitude spin” on it as we look at what we are grateful for this past year. But I wanted to take this approach a bit further and ask you to really assess if you live and walk in gratitude on a regular basis. Most of us have experienced some pains of living and therefore can compare the moments when life is actually going good for us or is at least better than some of our more painful moments. Perhaps this year, more than most years, you have encountered economic woes that have led to more moments of difficulties. So one might really have to wonder why go to a place of gratitude when life really has been such a struggle?
There are actually many reasons to focus on gratitude versus your problems and pain. Living in gratitude has health benefits. When you take anything, even some very small event, and you hold it in your heart while focusing on gratitude for 15-20 seconds, many subtle but important changes happen in your body. Stress hormones decrease, which creates changes such as an enhanced immune system. Blood supply to your heart is increased when the coronary arteries relax. Your heart rhythm becomes more harmonious, which positively affects your mood and body organs. Your breathing becomes deeper, increasing the oxygen in your system. (Ponder, 2007) Robert Emmons, a leading guru on the subject of gratitude, has done much research on the effects of gratitude and reports that gratitude makes you healthier, smarter and more energetic. He reports people practicing gratitude have higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy as compared to those who do not practice daily rituals of gratitude. And he has found that no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, you can be happier and healthier just by expressing gratitude. This gratitude has nothing to do with “things”. Emmons found that people who thought they were better off than others materially were actually less happy than those who focused on nonmaterial things. (Campbell, 2007)
So there is compelling evidence that if we shift our thoughts and feelings into gratitude, our moments, days, weeks, and years can be shifted as well. The real question may be how to do this when we are in the midst of a downward spiral. PRACTICE! That’s right, practice shifting into moments of gratitude. Practice noticing what gratitude feels like in your body. Watch yourself and notice when you are getting into a downward spiral with negative thoughts, feelings and outlooks to life. Make a commitment to persevere by calling yourself on it. Make the decision to focus on something that will make you feel better. Feeling bad is not going to change your circumstances. In fact, feeling bad and allowing yourself to spiral may paralyze you from getting out of the despairing situation. If you have to go through difficult times, then do it in a way that will help you most. Begin your daily walk in life focusing on what you are grateful for in this moment.
Here are some suggestions to help you with this. Create gratitude touchstones. You can do this by writing your favorite memories or peak experiences down. Write them in a gratitude journal, or write them on index cards or sticky notes to place strategically around your home in places to remind you that you are grateful. (Ponder, 2007)
Appreciate yourself for all that you are and all that you do. Take the time to look back and validate how far you have come in the last year. If you journaled this year, go back and look at it and acknowledge your growth. Often we spend our time looking at where we want to go and forget to look at where we were. Give yourself a bit of a lift by acknowledging your progress. (Ponder, 2007)
Take yourself right into your heart. Do this by imagining that you are now surrounded by everyone and everything you’ve ever loved and cared for. And each of them is telling you how much you have meant to them. Let them speak directly to your heart while you breathe fully, taking it all into your own heart. Belleruth Naparstek has a visualization where she instructs you to image, “Calling all good wishes home, all the love and sweetness that has ever been felt for you by anyone at any time, pulling in all the caring, all the loving kindness that has ever been sent your way, every prayer and good wish, every smile, every nod of respect, every thank you and gesture of gratitude, pulling it all in like a powerful magnet, calling every good wish home.” (Naparstek, 2004)
And lastly, really give consideration to starting a gratitude journal if you haven’t already done so. This can be a simple process of writing down five things you are grateful for today. Or maybe just focus on one thing that you felt grateful for. Take baby steps towards finding the moments that held some joy; eventually these small moments can fill more space in your day and wash away some of the more difficult feelings. What you focus on is what you are going to get so focusing on gratitude begets more gratitude. So as we approach the Thanksgiving season, let me extend a message of gratitude for you and from our heart to yours: may you have a gratitude-filled season.
Campbell, K. (2007, November 14). The Benefits of Gratitude and Being Thankful. Retrieved September 19, 2009, from www.associatedconted.com.
Naparstek, B. (2004). Invisible Heroes. New York: Bantam Dell.
Ponder, C. (2007, January 30). Gratitude. Retrieved September 21, 2009, from Christiane Northrup, M.D. Health Conditions and Advice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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