Why didn't anyone tell me?! Well, they did.
Gratitude and various practices of gratitude have been widely used across cultures and history, even in America. There are hundreds of articles, how-to's, journals, planners and notepads, and guided meditations at our fingertips.
I remember when I first tried a gratitude practice when I was a teenager. I would write down 5 things I was grateful for at the end of each day. I gave it a week, then gave up. There were a few other half-hearted and failed attempts here and there, but the gratitude 'thing' never stuck. I didn't get it!
Like any other self-sabotaging ego-led being, I wrote it off as nonsense and parked it in the realm of all the other practices that only certain kinds of happy people could endure. I protected my pride, hid my disappointment, reinstated my left-brain ruler and went back to trying harder to get things to go my way. No help needed. No gratitude necessary. Just plain old hard work, effort, and ceaseless pushing.
Why? Because to be honest, I was practicing gratitude to get something. I wanted results. I wanted more -- usually prestige, money, career, job title, or for other people to validate me. Gratitude was a short-cut to getting something, or somewhere. I thought it was a tool to help me achieve, and accumulate.
Trying gratitude the way I did it was never going to work. There were a number of factors at play:
1. The other thoughts and voices in my head
2. Belief -- or the lack of it
3. Thinking versus feeling
HOW THE MIND HIJACKS GRATITUDE
Here's how I was blocking myself from allowing gratitude to work:
First of all, I went into it a skeptic. And I overthought it. Even if I wrote down the three to five things I was grateful for and thought about those things as succinct sentences, there was a whole barrage of other, usually conflicting, thoughts going through my head. For example, 'I'm grateful for my parents'. I'd write that one down because I thought I should, but of course, in my head, I was thinking about examples of how I was still holding a grudge or holding onto a story usually anchored in anger.
For some reason, my mind would come up with multiple contrarian statements or proof points as to why this wasn't right or absolutely true. It was like I was lawyering myself and sentencing myself as a liar and a hypocrite. My mind was utterly confused and in discord with itself.
As the mental discord was happening I knew on a subconscious level that the 'gratitude thing' wasn't working. I couldn't believe it. The clanging of thoughts against each other like a small envoy assaulted by an army meant that even the tiniest hope quickly turned to despair, then disappointment, then anger. Then, it all got locked away.
Even if I kept writing my list, and I did my best to come up with what I thought would be good, it was a loss because the narrative in my mind was now being run by skepticism, doubt, and an inner critic voice of saying things like, "I told you so, this is so stupid, why are you even doing this?"
Then impatience would pile on if I didn't get results within ... oh ... one or two days!
It's no wonder my attempts didn't last long.
The most critical factor - thinking - is a function of our patriarchal society and our culture's emphasis on linear, logical, rational thought.
Gratitude, as I had read about and understood it, was described in a linear, logical way. Even the research studies ensure that gratitude is validated by data and logic. Gratitude, as a practice, is broken down into a how-to or a list of steps:
Sit, breathe, think, visualize, say thank you.
The instructions could get more elaborate but the instructions were always that - instructions.
And I get it. To bring gratitude into the mainstream, it had to be dressed up at first as reputable and accepted by the scientific or business community to pass the academic validity tests and make it past the skeptics. Then, it was watered down into a tool or exercise like so many other '10 steps to' listicles and sub 500-word "articles" that are more easily be indexed by Google and surface in online search.
It lost its meaning.
THE SECRET to 'getting' GRATITUDE
It took me a very long time to fully grasp gratitude and its importance. Ego and immaturity aside, the issue holding me back from understanding it wasn't mental; it isn't that I didn't understand it, it's that I didn't practice it. I didn't embody it. I didn't feel it.
I thought about gratitude and what I was grateful for. And it stopped there, at the doorway of my mind.
It turns out that the key is to add feeling to gratitude. It is that simple.
And it changes everything.
I didn't understand that there is more than just putting pen to paper. Gratitude isn't just a list. It's a physical state. You can feel it. Those feelings are what gives the gratitude the power to change your life.
The practice of gratitude, when done with intentional and focused feeling, supercharges the thought. When you imbue the practice with the feeling of gratitude, straight from focusing your mind's eye on your heart, you immediately feel better. Lighter. Warmer. More trusting. More abundant. More of everything you want to feel and experience.
And you can create those feelings by feeling grateful when you are thinking about being grateful and what you're grateful for.
THE BENEFITS OF GRATITUDE ARE IRREFUTABLE
There's so much research about gratitude, and even more coming out as it relates to happiness, wellness, and even mental health. It's understanding, acceptance, and implementation as a daily, consistent practice, is changing lives. From Rick Hanson to Brene Brown, Deepak Chopra, and Oprah, we are spoiled for information, ideas and well laid out instructions on gratitude and it's transformative benefits such as:
- Improved physical, emotional, and social well-being
- Greater optimism and happiness,
- Improved feelings of connection in times of loss or crises
- Increased self-esteem
- Heightened energy levels
- Strengthened heart, immune system, and decreased blood pressure
- Improved emotional and academic intelligence
- Expanded capacity for forgiveness
- Decreased stress, anxiety, depression, and headaches
- Improved self-care and greater likelihood to exercise
- Heightened spirituality — ability to see something bigger than ourselves
I'm especially encouraged by the increased attention that mental health is receiving in the area of emotional and qualitative forms of healing. A gratitude practice can help to shift someone out of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and so many more conditions that are being treated with medication rather than awareness! The impact that a gratitude practice can have on the physical body is also astounding.
FEELING GRATITUDE IS LIFE SHIFTING
I don't say this lightly. When I understood the mechanics of gratitude and started to practice it -- by really putting my heart and feelings into it, so much changed in my life. It's challenging to even know where to begin to describe the impact. The best way I can say it is that, until I began truly practicing gratitude and 'getting it', the changes I was seeking in myself and in my life were incremental and slow. Then, they became exponential and accelerated.
Now, I often spontaneously feel grateful for people, things, situations, outcomes, etc. Sometimes the feeling simply overtakes me and I say the words, 'thank you'. I say it for everything or for nothing in particular. Often the feeling precedes the thought, rather than the other way around.
I'm still working on it. I can forget to be grateful when I achieve something. I'm still caught in my ego's claws on this one. Still coming from the perspective of 'my' hard work or 'my' accomplishment. However, I know better. I know that it isn't all about me. Where gratitude is so important for this kind of outcome is because the gratitude belongs to a higher force; the inner force of the soul, Spirit, and the connection to the sense of a power much stronger than my mind.
Practicing gratitude on a daily, consistent basis, has helped me feel better about everything in my life. I was already resilient, but my resilience is so much deeper now, and I know that comes from feeling gratitude. And when I feel gratitude I'm also naturally feeling joyful, prosperous, abundant, balanced, and whole.
WHAT IT MEANS TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE
This may be an excuse, but I had rarely seen gratitude explained differently than a set of easy steps that mostly involved writing down a list or adding some visualization. Was I not paying attention? Possibly. I was probably too caught up in wanting to achieve something as quickly as possible. And with accolades.
So I find myself reeeally wanting to yell, "Why didn't anyone tell me about the feeling part?!"
And it doesn't matter because the past is history but most importantly I recognize that my sources of information, inspiration, and enlightenment changed.
As I went on my deeper personal and spiritual journey into inner meaning, I began to learn from spiritual teachers rather than from business articles. As my mind and body opened up through yoga I started to understand, accept, and then actively seek information from sources that I had once intently avoided. I began experiencing knowing rather than seeking knowledge.
This is when my inner journey really began to accelerate. And that journey requires consistent action, tools, and mental stamina. This is where gratitude, as a practice, comes in.
I have added gratitude as a prayer to my morning practices and rituals. I say it in prayer, I naturally write about it when I journal, include guided gratitude meditations as well. I've become more naturally aware of daily moments when I could be grateful, and I express the gratitude.
I've come to understand through both research and my own experience that gratitude is the cornerstone of living a more fulfilling life. It's the anchor of all practices and the foundation of happiness.
The practice of gratitude will be different for everyone but the most important thing is to do it. Trust me. And feel it. Feel into it. If I can make this kind of turnaround, I know that anyone can. And I'm grateful every, single day, that I can feel and express gratitude as freely and openly as I can now.