Having a daily practice of recognising the good things that are around us and being grateful for them builds mental resilience, and is a powerful tool to mitigate anxious, scared, sad or angry thought patterns. The problem is that not many of us are very good at doing it. Often we pick the easy or obvious things to be grateful for, like our kids, a warm bed, a sunny day or the fact we live in a peaceful country. But these don’t work as well when you are battling negative thought patterns because they’re too obvious, they feel like you're simply trying to distract or suppress your thoughts. Where the real power comes from is when you can discover something new or novel that you're grateful for.
For instance, imagine you are stranded on a cold desert Island and you need to build shelter. Building the walls and roof might be easy enough, but what about windows. How can you keep the sunlight coming in and keep out the cold winds? How on earth do you make glass? Maybe the island has a sandy beach that you could place some lightning rods in to wait for a storm. Then, if you’re lucky and lightning strikes hard enough to do something magic, you need to build a fire hot enough to mould the glass into some sort of shape that is useable. Then what if it smashes? Could you survive a cold winter isolated on an island without glass?
Take a moment now to think about all the things that use glass – the screens on our devices and TVs, building materials, drinking glasses, bottles, vases, and light bulbs. Now think about how incredible and ingenious the act of creating all these things are. It’s obviously a somewhat abstract thought experiment, but simply by taking a minute to think of what life would be like to live without glass has made me grateful for many of the things I am taking for granted, and given my brain a hit of exactly what it needs to put things in perspective. The thing that I was anxious about truly seems less relevant. I am not distracting or suppressing it, it just seems irrelevant now. This is the power of genuinely finding things to be grateful for. Let your imagination and curiosity thought noodle down a new path and feel how good the new insight and perspective feels.
But don’t just take my word for it, there is loads of research to back this up as well. In positive psychology research, gratitude is consistently and strongly correlated with greater happiness. A good example of this research includes a study by psychologists Emmons and McCullough. They split students into two groups – one that wrote about events that happened during the week that they were grateful for, and the other wrote about daily annoyances and irritations. After 10 weeks the students in the gratitude group felt more optimistic and better about their life, more empowered and confident, and had significantly fewer trips to the doctor than those focussing on irritations.
Meta analysis of the literature shows that people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, have better health, are more resilient, and have more secure and peaceful relationships. Whether it is feeling grateful about the past (accessing positive memories and elements of childhood or past success), the present (counting your blessings), or the future (generally being hopeful and optimistic about specific things yet to pass), gratefulness has a dramatic and positive impact, and is a quality that can be developed.
To explore ways to build your gratefulness muscles check out the Thankfulness or Dear Diary Switch in the Switch4Schools app.