When was the last time you heard the question “What are you grateful for?” Probably recently, right? And how did you answer it? Gratitude is a topic you find everywhere…posters and prints…signs…journals…on social media with plenty of hashtags and one dedicated to day of the week: #thankfulthursday And, I admit you’ll hear it from me too. But as is my style, it won’t be in the usual way. I believe in the power of gratitude, but I also believe we need to understand it and approach it the right way. And I’m here to help you do just that.
Today’s topic is good for the heart and so much more: gratitude. And I wonder, is it misunderstood? I think it can be, so today we’ll talk about what it is AND what it isn’t. We’ll go over the myths and misinterpretations, talk about the gifts and the healing power of gratitude, and highlight a variety of ways you can welcome it into your life.
In my episode on the #1 Productivity Tool I told you a bit about my time as a caregiver for my mom, who had Alzheimer’s. I was a “sandwich caregiver” ensuring both my very young children and my mom were cared for physically, mentally, and emotionally. Plus I was a wife and business owner trying desperately to find the time and energy for those roles too. You can hear more about that time in Episode 01, but you can probably guess what survival mode did to my perspective on life.
With that backdrop, imagine a conversation with my dear husband…and I don’t mean that jokingly, even though he and I tease each other every chance we get. I meant that genuinely. Our nights were sleepless. He was juggling work and our photography business and showing incredible patience for the little attention he was receiving. And when we would talk, we would struggle to find words of encouragement because we both had, as we called it, “empty tanks”. We both felt like we had nothing left to give. But we’d dig deeper and do our best whenever we could. So one day, he was trying to dig deep and offer his wife, known for her incessant positivity but who had become wearily negative, some words of encouragement. He offered his own perspective with the best of intentions and spoke in a meaningful, genuine way reminding me that we were lucky to have our health…our beautiful children…each other. And my response was anything but kind. I was so angry at him. All I heard were cliches. And I felt like his words of gratitude and the phrase “at least we have” were a dismissal of my pain.
So…if you are listening to this episode and hurting so much right now that being thankful seems foreign, know that I get it. Know that everything we discuss today is anything but a dismissal of you and your hurt. Think of it as exploration and see what resonates. Take what you can from it and return to it. Keep healing. Listen again. And keep exploring. I promise you it’s worth it.
I told you in my trailer episode that I am willing to listen and learn and change my mind. And even through my anger, I took my husband’s words to heart and let them sit quietly as I focused on surviving. When I began to heal from this traumatic time in my life, I read inspirational books and listened to thought leaders and the one thing that kept coming up over and over again is that the happiest, most successful people have a gratitude practice.
The thing is, I didn’t know what it was…truly. I only knew what I thought it was. The thing that made me answer my husband angrily was what I thought it was. And now that I know, it has become so important to me I share it every chance I get and took it a step further by creating The Positively Grateful Series on Facebook — a free group dedicated to exploring and deepening our gratitude practice. I will provide more details later in this episode and link to the group in the show notes.
What is Gratitude
Harvard Medical School defines gratitude as “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”
Gratitude offers many gifts and opportunities, which I’ve summed up in three categories – healing, connection, and transformation.
Gifts of Gratitude
Healing – Gratitude creates an environment that allows us to forgive and to release pain. Studies show that people who are grateful feel fewer aches and pains. Being grateful even improves sleep.
Connection – Gratitude brings us together in common and mutual appreciation. Gratitude enhances empathy and creates opportunity for new relationships..
Transformation – Gratitude re-frames how we see the world, transforming who we are and how we live. Feeling grateful reduces toxic emotions, improves self-esteem, and increases mental strength.
The best part is science is backing this up! Happiness research. Positive Psychology Research These are real things…like Harvard research things. In positive psychology research, gratitude is associated with greater happiness. Specifically, gratitude elevates optimism and social connection, which is a strong indicator of future happiness.
Here are some real statistics I think you’ll appreciate With the practice and presence of gratitude:
- Productivity rises 31%
- Chance of promotion increases by 40%
- Reduction in body aches and pains drops 23%
And there’s so much more…I recommend checking out the works of Robert Emmons and Shawn Achor.
Emmons has been at the forefront of this research for years with books like:
- Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier and
- Gratitude Works, a 21-day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity,
- The Psychology of Gratitude
Shawn Achor left academia in 2010 to share the power of positive psychology with the world and has authored a number of books including The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness
I highly recommend the interview with Shawn on Dan Harris’s podcast 10% Happier. I will bring Dan up again in future episodes because I love his story of being a reformed overachiever who burns out and has a breakdown on air and then learns to slow down and meditate in a way that works for him.
Now that we know WHY gratitude matters and what it can offer, let’s dig into more of what it is and how we can practice it…
When I began researching gratitude for the Positively Grateful Series, I developed a list of 5 myths I believe perpetuates our misunderstanding of it:
I believe the challenge with practicing gratitude comes from that misunderstanding.
Myth 1: It’s a Feeling
It’s often assumed that gratitude is a “feeling”. What if life is a struggle? What if you are not feeling good? Thankfully, gratitude is not about that! It’s an intention. A choice. An awareness. One of the most beautiful things I read while researching gratitude is that you can be devastated and can still be grateful. There is good in everything, though it can be hard to see sometimes. The reality: If you are struggling, gratitude can help you heal and recover faster. When you hurt is when you need it the most.
Myth 2: Only Focused on Good
This isn’t realistic. Gratitude is about FINDING the good, but not solely focusing on it to the point where hardships are ignored. That would pull us into toxic positivity, which I will do an episode about as well. The reality: gratitude is much more effective within the context of difficult times and we can practice it while acknowledging the difficult.
Myth 3: Makes You Complacent
Feeling gratitude for what you have doesn’t mean you’ll lose your drive or stop having goals. Conversely, it’s an effective goal-setting companion. The reality: Gratitude helps you grow more of what you love and appreciate. That has a direct impact on your success.
Myth 4: Is Religious
Gratitude doesn’t need religion or spirituality. There are many who practice gratitude and who are religious, but its connection to a deity or greater power is a personal choice. The reality: Gratitude is a singular focus of appreciation from within. It brings you outside of yourself to something greater (which is linked to purpose) ]but it’s up to you to decide what that greater thing is.
Myth 5: Requires Humility
You don’t necessarily need to be self-effacing when grateful, though you may find it wonderfully humbling in some cases. The reality: Gratitude may lovingly remind you of the gifts you receive in your life and the help you have been given, but that doesn’t detract from your accomplishments.
You know the answer to the question “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. Ha! It’s the same with gratitude.
Gratitude is a practice that takes effort and focus, like building a muscle. The more you do it, the better it gets and the easier you can access it when you need it.
There are as many ways to practice gratitude as there are reasons to be grateful. For some, the concept can be overwhelming, especially when life is challenging. But, with a little guidance, it can be one of the easiest things to include in your life and it offers one of the greatest returns on investments. It is a cumulative process that builds so beautifully on itself. As Zig Ziglar put it: “The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.”
Some of my favorite ways to prompt the practice of gratitude include: taking a walk and observing the world or sitting in silence and using the body scan technique (observing during meditation or a quiet state). I also love to free-associate experiences and stories and to have conversations with others to inspire my gratitude, which is something we do in the Positively Grateful Series Community.
The medium can vary – thinking, writing, and speaking all work. It depends on what works for you. The fact is, you don’t need Pinterest to make this happen. You don’t need a special journal. The practice can be as simple as you need it to be, as long as it’s consistent. As with any habit, it is the consistency of the practice that makes it stay with you. And consistency comes from simplicity.
You can think of quiet thoughts to yourself or you can share ideas with a friend or loved one. Many enjoy gratitude journaling or adding gratitude notes within a daily journal. I actually add my gratitude notes into my daily planner. Gratitude jars are another favorite. It’s a satisfying practice to not only write down moments of gratitude on slips of paper but to keep them and read them later. You get to relive those moments, which increases your experience all the more because you get to double the gratitude. You can also use a Vision Board to include your gratitude, which helps you visualize it every time you look at it and will undoubtedly inspire more ideas.
Join the Positively Grateful Series
If you’d like to continue the gratitude conversation..I invite you to join the positively grateful series community. The free group is open year-round — because I believe gratitude is a year-round need — and I offer coaching and prompts every quarter.
In addition to being part of a like-minded group — what one member just called “an extremely kind space” on Facebook –, you’ll be inspired to practice gratitude with my guidance. Every quarter during the coaching and prompts segment I focus on four categories relating to gratitude: awareness, approach, action, and adversity. You’ll also receive a special workbook with much of the information from today and wonderful prompts to spark your practice as well as a place in the workbook to begin journaling or trying a gratitude jar. You can search for the Positively Grateful Series on Facebook.
Thank you for being here, for listening and opening your heart to gratitude, and for allowing me to share this beautiful journey of healing with you. I am grateful for you.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into friend.Melalnie Beattie