As we start the new year, often full of resolutions which we may or may not keep, can we take a moment to consider the power of gratitude?
How often do you reflect on gratitude in your life? Today I am feeling grateful for my health, my family, my work, my home. But also the small things that make our lives unique, I am grateful for the warm, comfy hoodie I’m wearing as I write, the radio that is keeping me company and the warm glow from my salt lamp.
Every day, however difficult, there are small gratitudes to be found.
Research has found that gratitude has many positive impacts on both physical and mental health.
Calms nervous system
“Physiological changes associated with gratitude are typically a reduction in blood pressure and increase in vagal tone, which is taken as an index of increased parasympathetic influence on the peripheral nervous system,” says Dr. Emiliana Simon- Thomas, Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center. The parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that allows our body to “rest and digest” can help you conserve energy by slowing the heart rate, stimulating digestion, and contributing to overall relaxation, reducing stress and all conditions associated with the stress response.
Calming the nervous system is key to helping with many conditions. Many of us live in a heightened fight-or-flight state that has a negative influence on how our whole body interacts. Just by using something as small as daily gratitude, we can learn to soothe the nervous system and improve many physical and mental health conditions. Including headaches, viruses, digestion issues, heart problems, respiratory issues, depression and anxiety.
Impact on Mindset
Gratitude appears to have a domino effect, people who experience gratitude are more likely to notice positive experiences, and offer kindness, and help to others, which in turn means others reciprocate this back, continuing the ripples of gratitude.
We know our mindset has an evolutionary negativity bias, we notice the negative in any situation rather than the positive- you remember when there was a traffic jam but not the days when it was clear. We can build new neuro pathways to counter balance that negativity by training our attention to notice the positives.
I am not suggesting toxic positivity, pretending everything is always good and not acknowledging challenges and difficulty. I am suggesting we can find some balance, even in the most difficult times there is some good. When my husband died, one of my darkest times, I still kept a gratitude journal. I noticed the kindness of strangers, the food others cooked for me, and the fact the pain showed the love.
This all strengthened my resilience and ability to manage stressful situations. If we can still find a positive, and be more present, it is easier not to feel overwhelmed or stuck when challenges hit.
Gratitude as with any new skill needs to be practised regularly to have the biggest impact, around 12 weeks to build a solid foundation, although you will notice some changes in your perspective and awareness quicker than that.
Ways to Practice Gratitude
The simplest ways to practice gratitude are:
Keep a gratitude journal for example, I write down 3 things I am grateful for every day- I try and find the small things which may usually go unnoticed – blue sky, tasty lunch, walk after work.
Share Your Gratitude with Others. Research has found that expressing gratitude can strengthen relationships. So the next time your partner, friend, colleague or family member does something you appreciate, be sure to let them know. Make it specific, rather than a quick thanks.
Gratitude Jar note down a gratitude on a piece of paper and drop it in your gratitude jar- this could be a family or workplace jar so you all add to it. Open the jar together and read through the gratitudes, a lovely way to build connection and positivity.
Be present we can all go through life on auto pilot and miss those small moments, notice your surroundings, the people, and places. What makes you feel grateful in this moment?
Positive psychology has a range of different gratitude exercises for both adults and children. If you have children installing gratitude practices is a great way to help their self esteem and build resiliance. The exercises are also a fun way to spend time as a family.
I love the poem by Mary Oliver The summer day, the last lines:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
For me, the whole poem is about gratitude, about where we focus our attention and how we want to live our lives. Gratitude allows me to focus on what is uniquely important to me, on the small meaningful moments. I hope if you practice it will allow you to find the same.