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How to Make Gratitude an Everyday Practice
Counting your blessings during the holidays is a no brainer, but did you know taking time to be grateful every day can actually rewire your brain to make positive thoughts its “go-to” even when times are tough? Gratitude can also boost dopamine, the brain’s “feel-good” chemical, which wards off depression and lifts your spirits. If that’s not enough to make you want to turn thankfulness into an everyday tradition, some research shows that gratitude can improve health and decrease feelings of loneliness in older adults as well as increase happiness and life satisfaction. Better sleep, healthier eating habits, lower blood pressure, and less inflammation are also all potential benefits of thankfulness.
To reap the rewards of gratitude, all you need to do is put a little effort into changing some of the ways you think. It takes a little practice and persistence, but some research has found people start feeling the benefits of gratitude in as little as four weeks. Check out these tips on training your brain to default towards gratitude:
#1 Put a Positive Spin on the Negative
Johnny Mercer was onto something when he crooned, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative.” Denise Krouse, MC, LMHC, MDFT has been counseling people through life transitions, grief, terminal illnesses and mental health concerns for over 30 years. She integrates positive psychology and
mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
(MBCT) into her work, which among other things, helps her clients develop more positive ways of thinking, regulate their emotions better, and cultivate empathy and compassion -- all things gratitude can play a role in.
The idea behind MBCT is that when you have a dilemma, conflict, or problem, you acknowledge it, and identify the feelings associated with it -- fear, anger, sadness, or other emotions. Then, while staying present in that feeling, you ask yourself if there's anything you can do to resolve the issue. If there isn’t anything to be done, and you’re really stuck, purposefully shift your thinking to something positive about it, no matter how small it might seem. For instance, Krouse says as we age, at times thoughts about aches and pains may dominate our minds. “Making that shift away from the rabbit hole of being in pain and into, ‘Well at least I can get together and play cards with my friends,’ or ‘That medicine helped my arthritis’ -- looking at any kind of positive can help,” said Krouse. Another example: the holidays. This year might look a little different, which can make it harder to count our blessings. You may need to really get creative to find a silver lining, like “Maybe we can’t all be together for the holidays this year, but at least we're all healthy and have this technology that lets us connect even when we’re physically apart.”
#2 Be Specific About What You’re Grateful For
It turns out the devil is in the details, even when it comes to being thankful. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude says he’s found it’s important to be specific when you’re listing what you’re grateful for. So, instead of just rattling off three things a day to get in your “gratitude work” -- “my home, my family, my friends” -- hone in on the where, what, and why behind those aspects. This will help you be more intentional about gratitude and really get into those positive feelings that come with appreciating the good stuff.
Krouse uses this approach to gratitude in her practice with clients as well as in her own gratitude work. “What I find is the more I do gratitude, I go for more of a deeper dive into what I am grateful for,” said Krouse. “For example, instead of just saying, ‘I am grateful for food,’ I might say something like, ‘I am so grateful that these mashed potatoes are so creamy and taste so good.’ It tends to build on itself, and you just become more grateful overall,” she said.
#3 Recognize You’re Part of Something Bigger
Whether it’s praying, meditating, or being in nature, doing something that focuses your attention outward instead of inward fosters a more positive mindset, making it easier to recognize the blessings in your life. One 2020 study found that seniors who took 15-minute “awe walks” every week felt less distress and more positive emotions.
“[Scientists] have studied the 12 keys to well-being, and one of the keys is gratitude,” says Krouse. “Another is cultivating a sense of awe by looking at nature, listening to nature, whatever makes us feel a sense of something bigger than ourselves. It triggers the part of the brain with the pleasure center, and activates it, which to me is so profound.” Try it. After you pray, meditate, or take a walk outside, write down three things you’re grateful for. You’ll likely find it much easier to do so than after watching television.
#4 Turn Down Your Critical Voice
Another practice that opens up more mindspace to appreciate the good is turning down the negative voice in your head. You know, that internal voice that says you or something you’re doing isn’t good enough. Krouse says when you find yourself in a negative rant, simply recognize that critical voice in your head: “There she is gabbing at my ear again. Thank you very much for your input. I have it under control.’ [You can do this] instead of creating this black-and-white dynamic in your head,” she said. “Take a deep, mindful breath and tell yourself you will be fine.” Having some compassion for yourself and recognizing the power of that hijacked feeling of criticism and negativity can help you respond to it from a place of self-acceptance.
#5 Make Gratitude Tangible
Training your brain to favor a place of gratitude takes diligence to reverse negative thoughts, but it’s also important to put gratitude practices to work in tangible ways. “I encourage [my clients] to keep a gratitude journal where they write down everything they’re grateful for at some point during the day,” says Krouse. “I also encourage them not to write the same thing over and over.”
One of the many things Holiday Retirement residents and staff do well is having an attitude of gratitude, and in addition to gratitude journals, we have lots of examples of ways to express it. November was “gratitude month,” featuring gratitude stories and tips in our daily newsletter as well as gratitude-themed activities in the community, but the truth is, we count our blessings every day in a number of ways.
Gratitude Trees - A favorite among residents and staff, we write what we’re thankful for on paper leaves and hang them on crafted gratitude trees inside the community.
Appreciation Stations - People are encouraged to drop notes of gratitude into a box, and we read them at community gatherings throughout the week.
Gratitude Walls - Many of our senior living communities have gratitude walls that invite people to write and post what they’re grateful for on post-it notes whenever the urge hits them.
Thank You Notes - Letters of appreciation from residents to staff and vice versa is a daily occurrence, and during the pandemic, hundreds of thank you notes have been exchanged.
Signs and Symbols - You’re likely to find signs of appreciation hanging from our balconies, perched on our lawns, or written in chalk on the sidewalks, especially during this unprecedented time when staff are going above and beyond, and residents’ attitudes and resilience is more remarkable than ever.
Acts of Gratitude - We’ve been known to throw gratitude car parades, make gratitude goodie bags for each other, include notes of appreciation with delivered meals, and take part in other fun ways to let each other know how much we care.
Ready...Set...Go Be Grateful!
If you’re ready to start practicing gratitude more intentionally, Krouse recommends taking time each day to integrate it into your life and working hard on making those positive shifts in your thinking. “It will take a little strength and courage, and you have to train your brain,” she said. “It's really having to teach your brain to do different things. We have these neuron pathways that certainly do [change]. I find myself going into gratitude spontaneously now after 16 years. Automatically I go into it. The more you do it, the easier it gets."