Optimize Your Life

Episode #29: What Are You Grateful For?

Show Notes:

Hi friends. Welcome back to another episode of Optimize Your Life and today we’re going to talk about something that is so powerful that I don’t want you to dismiss it even though it sounds simple and that is the practice of gratitude.

Now you’ve probably heard this term before but let’s just start by really defining it so we’re all on the same page. Gratitude is when you are feeling thankful and that feeling comes from a thought about what is going right in your world which leads to a sense of appreciation internally or an expression of that appreciation and some kind of desire to reciprocate kindness to others. Now I know that that is kind of a loaded definition but as you know, I always talk about how your thoughts are the things that fuel your feelings which then fuel your behaviors. And gratitude can be where you feel grateful for things that are happening and then you’re just happy about them. It could be that you are grateful to other people for doing certain things and that’s where the reciprocation may come in. And it could just be that you are grateful to yourself in which case you don’t really need to do anything to reciprocate, you just need to appreciate your efforts or whatever it is that has brought up the thing that you’re appreciative of.

The thing about gratitude as a practice is that it is really powerful because it focuses your mind on what’s going right rather than everything that is going wrong. You might have heard me say this before, but the truth of the matter is that our brain can really only focus on one thing at a time and so if you are somebody who is having a lot of negative thoughts, who experiences a ton of anxiety, it’s because you’re focusing on the future and on everything that could go wrong. We tend to catastrophize. We tend to look at our environment and try to predict what might happen so that we can keep ourselves safe. And that is all totally understandable and absolutely part of the human experience. And with that, if you don’t want your mind to control you, if you are tired of all of this anxiety and worry, there is something that you can do about that and, like I said, if focusing on that is going to create more anxiety and worry and negativity in you, then refocusing your mind is the trick. And one way to do that is to focus instead on what you are grateful for.

I’ve already mentioned that anxiety is when you are focusing on bad things happening in the future. To contrast that, imagine that you instead are focused on everything that’s going well right now. So moving from the bad to the good and moving from future tense to the present. That’s how this whole thing works. So instead of saying to yourself — I’m just using example — “Maybe I’m going to miss my flight and then I won’t make it to my destination,” (let’s say you’re going on vacation to Hawaii), you might say, “I am so grateful that I am going on vacation to Hawaii! This is so amazing. I can’t wait!” 

Do you notice the difference between having gratitude and worrying about something that might go wrong? I know this may sound really simple. I’m not saying it’s easy to do because it is a practice and it’s a practice for a reason. It’s because your mind is used to thinking a certain way. So if you are a worrier then you’re going to worry really automatically without much thought behind it. This is where you need to have a practice in place that really shifts the way that you think from that automatic pilot kind of mode of worrying to something that is more effective. And the truth of the matter is when you look at what the benefits are of this practice, it’s hard to say no because here’s what we know: People who have a gratitude practice experience more positive emotions, improved health, a greater ability to deal with adversity. In essence, it’s the opposite of stress and anxiety.

Let’s talk about one of the ways in which you can practice this. The idea is that you want to notice the little things that make a big difference, like the person who cooked your meal at a restaurant. And when you use a public toilet and it stocked and clean, you can appreciate that. With a person you pass on the street smiles or says good morning — these are all little moments throughout the day that we sometimes take for granted. 

Only when we lose the things we are most accustomed to do we notice them. And a perfect example of this is what happened during covid. I was just reflecting on how much of a nuisence it felt like to shuttle my kids to and from school every single weekday. That was until school became virtual and then the kids were home all the time. Then school opened only two days a week and on those days, believe me when I tell you, I was more than happy to drive them to school.

Or what about the toilet paper? Have you ever been more grateful to find a package of toilet paper rolls in the grocery store? I remember going to the store after store and not being able to find any packages and when I did, I did a little happy dance. 

Just hugging other people has been big in the past several months. After being socially distanced for over a year, it felt so good to hug friends and family members, many of whom I hadn’t seen in a long while outside of Zoom. These are the little things that when we remind ourselves of them, will bring our life back into balance. 

A great way to practice this is to write these things down. If you get into a practice of writing them daily ,you’ll start scanning your environment for things to put down on paper later that day. Alternatively if you write down what you’re grateful for upon waking, you can set your mood right for the rest of the day. It makes a big difference mentally, physically, and socially. I’ll share the benefits cited in the research which I wrote about in my book, The 7E Solution to Burnout. Here’s what I found with regards to mental benefits.

“In 2016, researchers conducted a study to examine the benefits of gratitude journaling on university students seeking mental health counseling. They divided participants into three groups, each of which received psychotherapy services. What differentiated these groups is the following: The first group had to write one gratitude letter weekly for three weeks to someone they know. The second group had to write about their thoughts and feelings related to negative past experiences. The third group did not receive instructions to write at all.

Researchers discovered that the group who wrote the gratitude letters showed significant improvements in mental health issues related to depression and anxiety, showing positive signs even four and 12 weeks after the experiment had ended.

What contributed to this significance of gratitude writing was the main finding that people who engaged in journaling about gratitude used fewer negative emotion-based words. The shift in focus from toxic emotions like resentment, frustration, and regret occurred because these participants had focused on how other people contributed to their flourishing. This shift took them away from what otherwise might have been ruminative thinking.

Gratitude not only improves your mindset, but it can also boost your self-esteem. This result was found in athletes who practiced gratitude. Researchers believe that focusing on gratitude steers our mind away from social comparisons where we feel inferior to others who are more accomplished and allows us to appreciate them instead.”

And here are some of the Physical Benefits:

“A study conducted in 2012 found that more grateful participants experienced fewer physical aches and pains. These individuals were more likely to engage in healthy activities such as a routine exercise regimen and regular medical check-ups. We might conclude that those who practice gratitude feel more positively about themselves and, thus, take better care of their bodies. Their self-care practices, therefore, result in better health.

Another study looked at the relationship between gratitude and sleep. The findings pointed to higher sleep quality and duration for grateful individuals. Due to the more positive mindset of practicing gratitude, they tended to engage in more positive thoughts before bed, which helped them attain improved sleep.”

And lastly, here are the Social Benefits of a gratitude practice:

“The authors of one of the measures of gratitude used in scientific studies, the Gratitude Resentment and Appreciation Test (or GRAT for short), conceptualized gratitude with the following: (1) Abundance mentality: Rather than feel deprived when someone else has attained their goal, grateful individuals would see others’ success as a joyous occasion and not harbor feelings of envy; (2) Acknowledge others: When they encounter success, grateful individuals take the time to acknowledge others’ contributions to their accomplishments; (3) Appreciate small details: While it is easy for us to feel a surge of happiness when we accomplish great feats, grateful people can appreciate the simple aspects of day to day life.

We can hypothesize that if you can rejoice in your success, acknowledge others for their contributions, and appreciate the small things in life, you will benefit from stronger social bonds. This is exactly what the research supports.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky found that gratitude correlated with decreased aggression toward others. That is, individuals who scored higher on gratitude scales were found to have more empathy toward others and were less likely to seek revenge when something went wrong. This finding demonstrates both a social and emotional benefit in that grateful individuals are more likely to reduce interpersonal conflict and experience more social closeness with others because they are harboring less anger.

When we express our gratitude to others, it deepens our interpersonal connections. And as the saying goes, “You reap what you sow.” When you build close relationships, you have greater access to social support when you need it. Because having these relationships decreases your stress and improves your mood, you are also less likely to need support.”

So as you can see, there are so many benefits to practicing gratitude. Not only does it decrease your negative mental state, it actually helps to improve your mood. It increases your social bonds. It improves your physical health. So I really encourage you to give this a shot and if you’re interested in working on this and having some sort of accountability, I encourage you to have some sort of a system where you are checking in on yourself and maybe you find a gratitude partner, somebody that you guys can share the experience together with each other. 

I had a client ones who did this with two friends and everyday their deal was they would text each other one thing that they’re grateful for. And so consider doing something like that where you are keeping each other accountable to stay with the practice that is going to reap you these amazing benefits. So hope you guys pick me up on this offer and in the meantime have a wonderful week and I’ll talk to you next time.

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