Why should we care about gratitude?
We live in a busy world full of distractions and activities. We have jobs, families, obligations, hobbies, feelings, emotions, relationships, and the list goes on. These are the things that make life so beautiful, but they can also make life tough as well. Finding gratitude is a strategy for finding happiness and joy in life’s activities.
It’s so easy to habituate to a daily routine. We do the same thing day in and day out and stop paying attention to the little things in between. This can create a lot of unhappiness for us. We start to wonder what the point is for all those activities. There is a detachment between the doer and the receiver or the objective and the goal. We do things out of sheer habit or routine, rather than having an active reason or decision behind it. You could say that living this way takes the living out of life! Humans were not designed to live this way, so naturally, it can make us unhappy and depressed.
This is where gratitude comes in! Gratitude helps reconnect us to our lives. It allows us to notice the small details in between the big picture. It breaks up the monotony of routine and autopilot, allowing us to have a brand new perspective. It’s a breath of fresh air, helping us notice that we might have habituated to a routine that makes us unhappy.
The beauty of gratitude is that it only enhances our everyday life, without ever creating disruptions. It’s a spiritual practice and life improver that can be done anywhere or anytime. You don’t need to buy any books, listen to any talks, or spend any money. it can be done right here, right now.
Here are five tips for cultivating gratitude:
Set aside a moment or two throughout the day to experience present-moment awareness.
In many ways gratitude and present-moment awareness are linked states. When you are fully present, you’re capable of experiencing gratitude. If you are distracted, you’re much less likely to feel thankful or good about something. Think of present-awareness as a window or bridge into gratitude and other positive states. We hold the power to create as many windows throughout the day as we wish.
If you’re road raging in traffic and caught up in thoughts of anger and anxiety, you’re not going to experience much else, other than those unpleasant emotions. Unpleasant emotions though are only just that - unpleasant emotions. They are not harmful. They’re just energy being expressed in a particular way. The key is to become aware of what is being expressed and not to feel bad about it, even if it is a negative emotion. The more aware you become of those feelings, the less likely you will be overtaken by them. Over time, you will be less affected by negative feelings, and instead, have greater ability to tap into gratitude and other pleasant emotions.
Start with a small goal of becoming aware for 30-60 seconds once or twice a day. It’s actually such a simple thing, you will wonder whether you have accomplished it. Don’t worry about whether you were “fully aware” for the time period, just do it.
Maybe while the garage door is closing in the morning before work, just sit and watch the garage door slowly closing. Take a deep breath. Are there any sounds? Is it dark outside? What does the sky look like? Do you feel any particular way?
Before you go to bed at night, just lie in bed with your eyes open or closed for a minute. Take a deep breath. Do you hear any sounds? What emotions are you feeling? Study the wall or ceiling and see if you notice anything. Do any thoughts pop up?
When I’m stuck at a traffic light or in a long line of traffic, my go-to practice is to look up at the sky or see if I can find any trees or nature around me. Rather than getting frustrated, watching the car in front of me hesitate to turn, i distract myself with much more interesting things around me. Sometimes you will be surprised at what you see!
There are also tons of present moment apps now with built-in timers to alert you throughout the day, so if you can’t remember to be present through the day, technology can help!
Keep a gratitude journal.
Don’t make this a monumental undertaking, preventing you from ever accomplishing it. Just grab a simple notebook or even a few sheets of paper and make a list of things for which you are thankful. Alternatively, you could make this a nightly habit and come up with a a few things you felt grateful for during the day.
If you enjoy arts and crafts and want to go beyond a simple notebook, you could make this into a fun project, using stickers, artwork, or collage-work, to showcase your feelings of gratitude.
I also love the idea of a gratitude jar. Whenever you feel compelled, write your moment of gratitude on a piece of paper and put in into the jar.
Smile at a stranger.
This might sound weird, but think of when you’ve encountered a complete stranger and they gave you genuine smile. It feels pretty good, doesn’t it? This is usually my personal exercise when I go into crowded, uncomfortable places, especially grocery stores. The usual behavior for people (including myself) in these types of situations is to rush and avoid eye contact. Do the reverse! Slow down, take your time, and find someone to make eye contact with and smile! You are almost guaranteed to get a smile in return, but don’t expect it. Do it just to spread joy. You will feel good regardless of the response you get.
Volunteer your time or do something nice for someone.
There are tons of places these days to volunteer from animal shelters and soup kitchens to hospitals and children’s outreach programs. If you feel inclined, pick an area that resonates with you. Don’t ever force yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right. If you love animals, find a pet shelter. If you enjoy interacting with older people, volunteer at a nursing home.
Alternatively, you could do something nice for someone. Random acts of kindness have the advantage of not requiring any prior commitment. You can do them any time!
Pick up the coffee tab for someone behind you in line. If you see a parking meter about to expire, add a quarter. Hold the door open for someone. Let someone merge in front of you in traffic. Rake the leaves from your neighbor’s lawn. You get the idea. I will have to create a separate post dedicated to just this topic!
Release your current expectations.
It might not seem related to experiencing gratitude, but part of the reason we don’t feel grateful is because we are too busy caught up in negative emotions and experiences. The only thing making an emotion or situation negative is our perception of it. It seems like a crazy idea, but we are completely free to perceive an experience however we like. That isn’t to say you should find a way to accept being miserable. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, rather than getting caught in negative emotions, be curious about the experience. Perhaps the negative situation was meant to happen and there is a positive outcome on the other side. Maybe there is a lesson in it. Maybe you were hoping for something different and the result was not what you expected?
When we release our expectations, we open ourselves up to more possibilities, some of which may lead to better circumstances. For example: when you’re on vacation, you assume you’ll have a fun, easy, relaxing time, but sometimes flights are delayed, hotels are not as nice as expected, or plans fall through. If you approach your vacation with an open mind and room for both positive and negative experiences, you will not be as disappointed if something unexpected happens.
Maybe on a beach trip, it rains the whole time. Instead of focusing on how you won’t be able to swim and hang out at the beach, you could instead say, “well, I’m just not meant to be at the beach for this trip. Let’s go explore some museums and restaurants instead!” Instantly, the energy shifts from a negative to a positive experience.
If you approach life without as many expectations, you will begin to find gratitude in places you might not have noticed before. As a bonus, your life will begin to shift, including more positive experiences and less negative experiences. When your mindset and internal world changes, your outside, external world will follow suit.
I hope that this post on gratitude was helpful. Even if just one person is helped, my job is complete!