Gratitude is a virtue that can change our lives but that is slightly used and far too little understood. When we think about gratitude we need to have in mind the three components that make it so powerful. The first one is feeling grateful for the things you have in your life. The second one is expressing your gratitude to the people, situations, places, animals who have made your life better. The third and final element is adopting new behaviours that enrich your life due to interacting with those who have taught you.
Brain scans of people assigned a task that stimulates the expression of gratitude show lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex that enhance sensitivity to future experiences of gratitude.
We all encounter gratitude at least once in our lives. So it is not a strange concept that needs to be understood. Instead, it is something to be remembered and practised daily. Gratitude is a state of awareness that can be cultivated.
Before I started practising gratitude
I grew up in a contradictory environment in many aspects where gratitude and feeling sorry for myself was one of them. So even though I knew that I had things to be grateful for, I also felt a lack inside me. A constant feeling of not being enough and not having enough.
Our parents always taught my sister and me to be grateful for what we have. But on the other hand, all our childhood, we heard our father complain about everything: money, government, society, etc. So I grew up thinking and feeling that life is unfair and cruel to those who are not wealthy and that you have to work hard all your life to “make it”. To have a secure job, to be obedient and be like the rest of the world.
For the major part of my life, I felt sorry for myself for not having enough money, not being smart enough, or living in the wrong country. These thoughts and ideas made me restless, insecure of myself and upset at how unfair the world is. Even though all my life, I enjoyed the little things like riding a bike under the moonlight or the gentleness of a ladybug, I never saw them as blessings or reasons to be grateful for.
Why did I start practising gratitude?
I started practising gratitude because I could no longer bear to feel like a victim in my own life. I was tired of waiting for something to happen — to be understood, to be saved, to meet someone who would see me as the beautiful, intelligent and unique human that I am.
As we all know, everyone has their bottoms. When you feel like you hit one, you can only start rebuilding yourself. One of the tools I used to reconstruct myself was through practising gratitude, which wasn’t as easy as I imagined.
For example, I had many moments in which I was telling myself that I was grateful for the bed I slept in but didn’t really feel any gratitude. I felt like a liar, and I thought I was fake. There was usually a conflict inside me between what I was thinking and what I was feeling. Consciously, I knew gratitude would free me, but my emotions were not on the same page.
How and when I introduced gratitude into my daily life
The changes we want to see in the world starts with the changes we do in our perceptions. Many studies have shown that if you train your mind to look for the good in humans and in the world, you will be more inclined to act with kindness. Even when a difficult situation occurs.
I know that life is not full of rainbows and honey bees but let’s think logically. When we have a mindset of luck and misfortune, we live in fear. In such stages of awareness, it is too unlikely for humans to help and care for each other. We incline to focus more on our misfortune.
I have also been leaning toward this mindset but since I started practising gratitude on a daily basis I see everything through another spectrum. Below are three situations in which I worked with gratitude and managed to make it a lens through that I now view life.
Whenever I noticed myself complaining about something, I stopped and searched for something to be grateful for. Let’s take an example. All my life I was concerned about money and not having enough until the end of the month. My head was full of drops and additions but mainly drops. “So if I buy this thing, I will remain with that amount, minus the bills, extra costs, minus food etc.”
So I changed the drops and additions with being grateful that I had enough money to buy some food, to pay a decent rent, to buy clothes to wear, money to charge my phone, pay for the subway ticket and even afford to buy myself a coffee from time to time, and so on.
Little by little, I started to lose grip of the old pattern and it became easier to shift my mind from a mindset of lack to a perspective of abundance and gratitude.
Whenever I was facing challenging situations, I began focusing more on the good things that could result from it. I focused on accepting the situation and gave more time to thoughts like – ‘what did I have to learn from the situation?’ rather than ‘why did this happen to me?’.
In 91% of the cases, I got to the point of being so grateful for what had happened, even though it seemed like it was the end of the world at the beginning. The other 9% are situations I have forgotten or I need more time to understand them.
For example, many years ago, I was fired from a job where I constantly felt pressured and judged for my actions. But, throughout this job, I never had a clear direction from my superiors on the tasks I had to do. The feeling of being fired can be devastating for some. You feel like you failed. You feel unworthy, like you have a mark of NOT GOOD ENOUGH on your forehead. It’s horrible.
Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Peery wrote a book explaining how what happened to us in childhood contributes to the distorted perception we have about ourselves and life and how this affects us.
Still, it was after this event, that I started meditating and working more consciously with myself. Finally, after three and a half months of mental and emotional struggle, I found a wonderful workplace. I met beautiful people, which helped me grow in so many ways I can’t possibly explain. Now I can only feel gratitude for being fired because I would not have dared to resign.
When you disagree, break up or fight with someone.
These are the moments when your patterns can be changed or reinforced if they serve you.
I believe we all have had moments where we wished we had more control over our words, reactions and emotions. Only recently I have learned that things like this take time to be understood and by many repetitions. If you didn’t grow up in an environment where these values were taught and also practised.
I’m still learning not to be hard on myself whenever I don’t manage to keep cool and stay calm. I exercise to change the judging part with being grateful for the situation because it shows me where I need to focus my attention. All it needs it’s a bit of awareness.
After each tense situation, I spend my time visualising myself being calmer next time and expressing myself more clearly. Finally, I end up feeling grateful for the opportunity of expanding my wisdom and self-understanding.
If you break up with someone, be grateful that life has forced you to take the next step. Unfortunately, most of us keep trying to resurrect long-dead relationships that only drain us of self-love. I have done this in almost all my past relationships until I understood that I was much better off without them.
When I look back on all of these situations and moments in life, waves of gratitude run through my whole body. I couldn’t be more grateful to life and to the people who contributed to these events because they all helped me become the person I am today.
Other ways you can practice gratitude
Write a letter, send a message, or an audio message to someone you appreciate. Tell them what you learned from them and that you are grateful for the lessons and teachings you received from them.
Write on a piece of paper the basic things you are grateful for. Things like eyes, ears, hands, hair, feet, the clothes you have on you. Write that you are grateful for the water you drink, the food you ate, the plate in which you had your food. Keep writing and expanding until you run out of things to be grateful for, or field out two pages. Then, look at the pages and draw your own conclusions.
Insert gratitude into your daily rituals. Link it to something you’re doing every day, like brushing your teeth for example. Next time you brush your teeth, say this. I am grateful for my teeth, toothbrush, toothpaste, the water I use to brush my teeth, for the sink, for your bathroom etc.
Play a game with your partner or yourself before sleep. Both of you should say three things you are grateful for. Learn how to play this game.
Start a gratitude diary. Each day, write three things you are grateful for in your journal; one thing that made you smile and one thing you like or appreciate about yourself.
Benefits of daily gratitude
Practising gratitude has been shown to create structural and functional changes in the brain, benefiting physical and mental health. Among the benefits are – grounding in the present moment, strengthening the connection to others, increasing feelings of self-worth, blocking negative emotions and improving sleep quality. A study made by a team of experts explains how gratitude can also be seen in the brain’s activity.
“Our ﬁndings show that greater gratitude expression generally correlated more with activity in the parietal and lateral prefrontal cortex rather than activity in the limbic regions. We found activity correlating with gratitude speciﬁcally extending across the intraparietal sulcus and inferior frontal gyrus, both of which have previously been implicated in mental arithmetic.”
An earlier study also showed that “individuals who identify gratitude in a social narrative more often showed greater hypothalamic activity while reading sentences that describe a social interaction. This may reﬂect signiﬁcant physiological effects of recognising gratitude.” In other words, when we practise gratitude, we incline to see the social events more compassionately.
Personally, what I feel has changed the most in my life since I started practising gratitude daily is the pressure and judgment I put on myself and others. I feel more relaxed and have a clearer picture of things when unexpected events occur. This practice created a space where I can see my thoughts and actions before doing them. Not always, but significantly more often than in the past.
Gratitude has more power to make our lives happier and healthier than we have ever imagined. Now that we have so much research backing up this information, we have no excuse not to practice gratitude daily. We can all change the old patterns that no longer serve us and start living more consciously and healthily.
Feeling and expressing gratitude changed my life. I have more confidence in myself and I see people and situations in my life more compassionately. I have more peace of mind than ever before and I’m more certain that I can design the life I want for myself.
As I said before, I believe God (or how you choose to name this force that it is sustaining everything) lies in paradoxes. The paradox here is that most of us live in fear and lack while we also have instant access to gratitude. It is free, always at a thought distance and with long-term benefits on every aspect of our lives and still, we don’t use it.
Isn’t that what we’re all looking for with such zeal when we are searching for something to help us live fulfilling lives? Free, now and have the capacity to transform our lives forever for the better?
Remember to love yourself,