Did you know that we, as humans, are wired to look for the negatives?
This isn’t the universe’s cruel attempt to keep us miserable. It is actually to keep us safe.
When our bodies detect a threat, it does what it needs to for survival - fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
This dates back to our origin as a species. Detect a Saber Tooth Tiger, your brain tells your body to react. Jump to present day, the threats have changed but our innate responses haven’t.
Unfortunately, most of us get stuck - we sit in the shit, so to speak.
We see the undesirable behaviors in our children, partner, and co-workers more than the desired.
We see what we don’t have more than what we do.
We see our own perceived flaws more than our enoughness.
And all of this blinds us.
It becomes important to distinguish between true threats where we need our nervous system to take charge and perceived threats where our body can pause and reset. The way to do this, to pull our lives back into focus, is through gratitude.
While November tends to be the Hallmark month for gratitude, it is really something that can be practiced every day. In fact, studies have shown that the frequency, rather than the intensity, of our thankful moments, are the best predictor of our overall well-being. This means that gratitude doesn’t have to be a Red Carpet moment to be valuable and effective. It’s in stopping to smell the roses (literally) that counts.
Each of us has everyday goodness in our lives that already exists. According to Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP, licensed speech and language pathologist, author of Make Social Learning Stick, and co-founder of the Make It Stick Program, “A positive frame of mind can be cultivated and one of the best ways to do that is to have a gratitude practice.”
If you don’t know where to start, focus on your five basic senses. In doing so, you can find gratitude everywhere and anywhere. Focus on one sense each day or take a few minutes each day to notice all five.
Let’s give it a try. Start by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths to get into your body.
- Smell: With your eyes closed, take a deep breath in through your nose. What pleasurable smells are you experiencing? Our emotions are strongly connected to our sense of smell, so ask yourself, “What pleasant feelings does this smell bring up within me?” When we practice, these desirable smells may become triggers of happiness.
- Hearing: Keeping your eyes closed, listen for sounds. What sounds can you hear outside of your body and which can you hear from within? Which sounds are most enjoyable for you - is it the sound of the wind, birds singing, your own breath, or just the peace of silence? Pick a sound and listen for 15-30 seconds, and then say aloud or to yourself why you appreciate it.
- Taste: Keeping your eyes closed, connect with the taste in your mouth. Is it the aftertaste of toothpaste or coffee or dinner? Is it the gum you are chewing? Take a few moments to experience this as you recall what led that taste to be in your mouth.
- Touch: Once more, with your eyes shut, reach out and touch something around you. Maybe it is the clothes you are wearing or the chair you are sitting on or the bracelet on your wrist or your feet in the grass. Feel the sense of appreciation for whatever you are physically connected with and smile at the thought of it.
- Sight: Now, open your eyes. What do you see in this present moment? Say thank you for its existence and see if you can appreciate its beauty or function throughout the rest of your day.
Gratitude Changes The Brain
According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, “Just as people practice daily dental hygiene by brushing their teeth, gratitude and mindfulness is a form of brain hygiene.”
The feeling of gratitude activates several parts of the brain associated with emotional intelligence. Studies indicate that this is because gratitude requires two things:
1) Us to be emotionally aware (How am I feeling? Do I feel grateful or ungrateful?)
2) Us to practice emotional regulation (How can I become more grateful in my daily life?)
Both aspects - awareness and regulation - boosts our emotional resilience, which allows us to adapt to and overcome stressful events, whether that be a power struggle with your child, an argument with your partner, or an unexpected life event.
When we feel and express thanks, we light up our reward and motivation centers, which shift the way we see the world, ourselves, and others. “Such a huge part of emotional regulation is being able to focus on the things we are grateful for,” says Sautter. As we practice gratitude, we strengthen these neural pathways to create a positive nature within, allowing us to notice the many gifts in our lives.
Gratitude For The Whole Family
Just as our children watch and model the things we say and do, they also mirror our level of gratitude. In her book, Make Social and Emotional Learning Stick, Sautter shares that gratitude rituals are a great way to thread appreciation into the fabric of your family.
Here are some ideas to sprinkle into your home rhythm:
1. Shout it out
One way to do this is to share feelings each night in a Time-In space, taking turns to answer, “When did I feel happy, sad, calm, and, mad today? And what is one thing I feel grateful for today?”
You may also include the ritual of sharing appreciation for each other at the dinner table, again taking turns to express, “What I love about you is …” to each family member, and then ending with, “What I love about me is ...”
2. Create a Gratitude Jar
Each day, everyone writes one thing they feel grateful for and puts it in the Gratitude Jar. At the end of the week, sit together as a family and read aloud everyone’s thankful thoughts.
3. Play a game
The game is called “What would you feel without it?”
Make a list of items and ask your child what they would feel like without each. They may be surprised at how different their life would be without some of the things they consider normal. This is a great way to help shift from “taking for granted” to “grateful to have.”
As we model gratitude ourselves, we set the blueprint for our children to do the same. While we will certainly be imperfect at it (which is actually quite perfect), our ability to pause and notice shifts us to the greatest gift … the present moment.
And that is ultimate gratitude. Because right now is all we really have.