Gratitude Practice: a Superhighway to Being Joyful

Gratitude Practice: a SuperHighway to Being Joyful
I feel excited and uplifted when I read about the powerful impact a gratitude practice has on our lives.  Perhaps you may raise an eyebrow and say, not one more thing! There’s yoga practice, meditation practice, mindfulness practice, and now gratitude practice?!  Just keeping up with all these practices is enough to stress me out!

I hear you, and this is what I love about gratitude – it is truly so simple and accessible, and yet the benefits are profound.  Everything from boosting the immune system, to feeling a higher level of positive emotions, to increasing your connection to the people around you.

What do I mean by a gratitude practice?  It can be as simple as saying thank you to the barista who hands over your yummy latte, or reflecting deeply on what you appreciate about yourself, to volunteering with a community organization.  It starts with the intention to pay attention to what is good in your life.

I think there are three main area for attention:

One, is to notice and acknowledge when you are positively impacted by people in your life: the sales clerk, gas station attendant, a friend who remembered your birthday, the impromptu hug from your spouse, sharing a good laugh with your child.

Two, is appreciating yourself for who you are: I stayed calm during the traffic today, I took a risk and told my partner how I felt, I am kind-hearted, I make people laugh. Again, notice those moments and acknowledge yourself.

Three, is feeling grateful for the gifts of the universe: my five senses, my heart that beats, the food that nourishes me, the brilliant blue sky.

Even more than this, it means turning your attention toward the good: realizing that there is good even when it seems like there isn’t – whether it’s with difficult people, a stressful job, or health troubles.  It’s also shifting the frame and shining a light on things that we don’t even notice – but if they weren’t there we would be in a world of hurt (our lungs breathing, the brakes on our car).  And gratitude can be just what we need when we are at our most dire moments.  Brene Brown views gratitude as an antidote to shame – that when she feels that moment of shame grab her, she immediately writes down 5 things that she is grateful for in her life.  And it stops that shame spiral right in its tracks.

This is not just an empty exercise – there is more and more research demonstrating the effects of gratitude for our well being.  There are also several books that go into more depth that could be of interest.

So that was the what, now what about the how? I love the idea from Amanda Owen who wrote, The Power of Receiving.  She invites people to look at that barista delivering your latte as a moment to celebrate – this person is here and has made this lovely drink for you – whether they smile or say hello doesn’t matter. What if instead of just grabbing it and running out the door, you looked at this like a moment to celebrate, “Yay! I now have this yummy drink that I love! and you made it and served it to me! Thank you!”  Not that you say all that to the barista, but you can hold that energy in your spirit & infuse that in your “thank you”.

We infuse gratitude into our lives when we celebrate each of these tiny moments like they were precious: to recognize the often ignored goodness in these experiences, and express to that person, thank you! i love this! you helped me so much! that answers my question!  And then there are times we are truly moved or helped in more profound ways by people in our lives and we can express that to them – verbally, in a written card or letter, or by bringing them a special little treat unexpectedly.  Telling people what you appreciate about them increases yours and their happiness, and boosts your relationship; I loved laughing with you this morning, that hug really gave me a boost, thanks for talking to me when I was so nervous, it calmed me down.

A second way is to log it inside yourself – to notice in your own mind and make it explicit inside of you. You might say to yourself, I love seeing the sparkling white lights on the trees at night (including the person who put those up, & the electricity & that the tree is here & that you can see it all). Or, I am so relieved I found a great parking spot when I was running late; I felt proud that I kept my cool when my boss chewed me out; I made everyone laugh and that broke the ice. The key here is to register something you might ordinarily bypass and then pause to celebrate that moment in your mind.

And lastly, a wonderful way to keep up a gratitude practice is to log a gratitude journal. Writing helps integrate it into your brain in powerful way.  Before bed, write down 5 moments from your day that inspired you to feel grateful.  I encourage people to absorb each entry – let it sink in and feel the impact of those moments inside you.  Choose one entry to write out the description of how it impacted you; and take 30-60 seconds to meditate on those feelings generated.  You actually can do this anytime that works for you – first thing in the morning or at the end of your lunch hour.  It does help though, to have a set time each day devoted to it – it only takes 5-10 minutes.

We face enough moments in life that we can’t control – that throw us off course, yet this is something we can control.  When we do choose to set an intention for gratitude, we start mining for bright spots in our lives, and that actually creates more and more – so that we significantly increase our capacity for joy and enhance our well-being on many different levels.


Being Joyful

Cup Full of Joy

Cup Full of Joy

In some ways very simple, yet also deeply profound.  I stumbled across the work of James Baraz who wrote the book, Awakening Joy and also leads a course of the same title:  One of the primary foundations of his work is mindfulness: by being present to ourselves & our surroundings, we can find joy in each moment.  The soft kitty purring on your lap, the smile of a delighted child, the lovely feel of a soft breeze.

While these things may not change the circumstances that can make life difficult, it does give us a respite from that – it can interrupt the drudgery, or the irritation, or stress we are feeling – and potentially put us on a different trajectory.

Directing our attention and setting an intention for joy helps us to notice it more – it almost has the effect of creating more joy in our lives. Baraz invites people to create a Joy List — to list anything and everything that puts a smile on our face or uplifts us — a favorite song, a yummy meal, a luscious nap, a good chat with a friend, a relaxing yoga session.  We can attune to what feeds us and deliberately seek this out.

Our mind is habitually inclined towards the negative or fear – it’s like a natural groove that pulls us in(and down).  So it takes effort and intention to be receptive to joyful moments: to notice that we are stuck in a negative mindset and then re-set ourselves.

Baraz has offered some very wise reframes to his clients. For example, he works with a woman who dreads social events; all these fears surface in her mind and she usually imagines the worst case scenario.  He invites her to imagine instead, “What is the best possible thing that could happen?”.  Whenever her mind drifts to the fears, she can re-focus on this question and begin to reset her mind as she visualizes these different images.

Another one that struck me was a person who feels stuck in the rut of constant internal complaining or dread, “I have to do x,y, or z”.  Baraz encouraged her to replace “I have to” with “I get to”.  I get to do the dishes right now, I get to put my child to sleep, I get to walk the dog.  Again, very simple – although, at first it may feel fake or mechanical.

Yet we can come back to our mindful intention to open ourselves to a genuine appreciation of our lives.  We can inspire ourselves to work with this: perhaps make it playful by approaching it like a game, or envision it as an experiment.  Can we be receptive? Can we re-orient ourselves to this frame? How does this lens promote a shift within me?

The premise being that if we can open ourselves to this lens in each moment, and if we find a way to stick with it, then a shift within us can occur.  By engaging our minds this way, we are rewiring the neural pathways in our brain.  Simply put, with mindfulness we can create our own pathway to Being Joyful.