Most of us will experience something in our life that turns our focus inwards. An unforeseen event or stressful life experience can lead us to question the very nature of the world and second guess our purpose in it. It is easy in these circumstances to be overwhelmed with feelings of injustice, anger or sadness. This, as I see it, is a normal part of life, and although different people react differently, most will feel this way at one point or another.
It may be comforting to know that in times when you are feeling lost, purposeless or as though everything is out of control there is a free, empirically proven and effective strategy you can use. It is the powerful practice of gratitude.
Gratitude, by definition, is a quality of being thankful, to show appreciation for and willingness to return kindness.
It is a powerful feeling and it’s not difficult to understand why we would want to be grateful but it isn’t necessarily obvious, and certainly isn’t easy, to feel grateful when we are in pain. But the crazy thing is, gratitude not only helps reduce the impact of these moments, it can actually help us to heal from them. So how can being grateful help when you feel like life is out of control?
Gratitude turns our attention from ourselves and focuses it on connection to others.
This is due to the quality of thankfulness. To be thankful there must be someone to thank, something to be happy for. If we focus on this happiness regularly and in an intentional way the sum of this happiness can protect us from acute moments of anger, stress, anxiety and sadness that we all encounter. If we add to this thankful quality a willingness to be kind and return that kindness, we create connections with others that surround us with an increased likelihood of experiencing happiness and having our happiness cared for and nourished.
I am a busy person. And like most busy people I have good intentions but struggle to commit to things that take extra time out of my day or require much effort or energy. I have personally used this approach, not always as consistently as I might like, but I can attest to the fact that when I do, it works.
Here is my simple structure for practicing gratitude:
Once a day have a non-negotiable moment of reflection on one thing you are grateful for. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does have to be every day. Some people like to write it down, I think this is a good idea. If you write down just one sentence every day that’s plenty. Over time you will find that “one thing” has become a great source of reflection.
Once a week be intentionally kind to someone else. This doesn’t mean you have to volunteer at the food bank (although that would be nice) but it does mean you have to help others. This requires planning an act of unconditional and non-reciprocal kindness to others, being open to having it returned but not requiring it to be. It can be a small action such as holding a door open or saying thank you but it can’t be automatic, you must act with the intention of being kind and be fully present and aware of why you are doing it in the moment.
Many studies have shown that gratitude does not only help elevate the mood of the person expressing it, but also that of the person receiving it. It is easiest to practice when everything is going well, and just like any activity such as running, weightlifting, championship pie eating, it requires time, effort and repetition to get good at it. Gratitude is free and it is life changing. I recommend you give this simple structure a try; you may be surprised by the results.