Recently, I was watching television with my son when an ad came on for a cell phone company. The tagline for the ad said, “Get ready for Thanksgetting.”
“Wow.” My 17-year-old looked at me in disbelief. “It kind of seems like they are missing the point.”
I still am not entirely sure how we were supposed to take the message. It certainly can be fun to get stuff. And it is nice to be on the receiving end of appreciation. But the real power of gratitude comes from the internal experience of its expression.
The body of scientific research supporting the positive impact of gratitude on physical, psychological, and social health is quite large. Not only does it feel good, this simple practice protects and boosts your immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, buffers against depression, improves sleep, and supports healthy proactive behaviors such as exercise. On top of all that, it may even make you smarter.
People who regularly practice gratitude are less likely to procrastinate and more likely to remain focused on priorities, as well as find creative solutions to problems. Research also indicates that the benefits are reciprocal. The person who is giving, the person who is receiving, and—remarkably—the people who are witnessing, all benefit from expressions of gratitude.
And you don’t need to “get” anything to trigger these benefits. You can practice being grateful for an action or a gesture, for the presence of someone in your life, or just for your existence. It is as simple as stopping a few times a day, intentionally paying attention to what is happening internally and externally, and connecting with the sensations of gratitude. You could even experiment with a gentle smile if you are feeling really daring.
The biggest challenge of giving thanks is that your brain will give you lots of compelling reasons to resent, resist, and complain about circumstances and people you do not like. Being grateful is not a replacement for addressing injustice, asserting values, working toward important goals, or dealing with challenge. But practicing gratitude is a way to improve your quality of life and relationships while you are doing these things.
Despite what your brain may tell you, your capacity for being grateful is not dependent on either your circumstances or how you feel. Put simply, gratitude is available to you whenever you choose to practice it. This is why mindfulness and gratitude are powerfully complementary. Mindfulness is the skillful use of attention. When you are caught spinning in a pattern of worry, rumination, self-judgment or blame, it can be very helpful to notice how you are spending your time and energy.
Mindfulness and gratitude can literally replace these thoughts.
As afriend of mine once told me, “Gratitude is a bulky emotion. It doesn’t leave room for much else.”