It’s Thanksgiving next week. Aside from an excuse to eat feasts of turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, holidays like this are a time to come together with family and friends, a time to celebrate, and, well, a time to give thanks.
But you don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving and the holiday season to be grateful. In fact, practicing gratitude on a daily basis can have a profound impact on the way you experience your life. Gratitude exercises are a great way to become more mindful of the positive, good things we have going for us, which unfortunately isn’t something we generally do in our day-to-day lives.
Our natural tendency is to let negative experiences steal the show
How easy is it to get to the end of the day and think:
This was sort of a crappy day.
When you look back at your day, what are the things you remember most? Unfortunately, for most of us, the things that are highlighted are usually the not-so-great things. The mishaps and the stressors. The frustrations and the let-downs. Things like:
I dropped a glass on the floor while making breakfast this morning and had to clean up a huge mess.
I got stuck in unusually annoying amounts of traffic on the way to work.
I was late to work, and my boss gave me a bad, disapproving look when I arrived.
I spilled coffee all over the freshly printed report I was about to hand in right before lunch.
I got in a fight with my partner when I got home from work.
I was excited to go out to dinner with a friend, but then they canceled and I had to throw together a boring meal with what I could find in the fridge.
I was tired and stressed all day.
If this sounds like you, you are not alone.
Our brains our actually wired to focus on the negative. I once heard it described as, “Our brain is like Velcro to negative experiences.” Something negative happens, and it sticks with us.
It’s called the negativity bias. Our brains and bodies react more intensely to negative stimuli than they do to positive ones. And way back when, this was helpful. Evolutionarily, we needed to learn fast from bad experiences in order to survive. But today? This emphasis on the negative can easily get out of hand.
How often do you look back at your day and think about all the things that went well? All the little things that were good? All the things that you are grateful for? A lot of the time, these things go unnoticed, flying under our radar.
Overcoming the negativity bias with gratitude
Whether they are taken for granted, are simply overlooked, or get overshadowed by the negative each day, we just don’t usually spend a whole lot of time reflecting on what’s good and positive in our lives. So how do we work against the negativity bias, and find a way to see more positivity, joy, and meaning in each day?
This is where practicing gratitude comes in. Gratitude is a great antidote to the negativity bias, and a great way to start becoming more aware and more mindful of the good things we have going for us.
Note that I didn’t say “This is where being grateful comes in.” I said, “This is where practicing gratitude comes in.”
Emphasis on practice.
In general, gratitude is something we think of in a big, vague way. If asked what we are grateful for, we will likely respond: Yeah, I’m grateful for a lot of things! Like my family, my job, a safe place to live…
But where does gratitude come into your life on a daily basis, on a practical level? If it’s not a regular habit for you, then you’re going to want to work on building it into one.
Cultivating your sense of gratitude in life can greatly increase your well being, and there is even a whole body of research out there looking at the mental and physical health benefits of practicing gratitude.
When we intentionally take time out of our day to appreciate the good, we put more focus on positive experiences. This actively combats our tendency to focus on the negative, allowing us to really experience and take in all the things we have to be grateful for - resulting in a happier, healthier self.
And just like with anything, if you want to experience more gratitude in your life, it’ll take some practice.
Strengthening your gratitude muscle with an easy, daily exercise
If you really want to cultivate gratitude in your daily life, then a focused exercise that you return to each day can really help shift your mindset. I am a huge fan of the 3 Gratitudes Exercise. In this exercise, you're asked to make a daily list of the things that you are grateful for. They can be big or they can be small. The important thing is, this exercise helps you to start noticing the many things around you, the many things that happen to you, and the many people that give to you, on a daily basis.
Before you know it, your whole mindset starts to shift, and the way you see your days starts to look very different. Not so much spilled coffee and traffic jams. More acts of kindness, smiling faces, and natural beauty around you. Less feeling like your day was a crappy mess. More feeling like your day was filled with a whole lot of good – even if in little bits at a time.
In gratitude for all of you,