Gratitude: Being thankful, appreciative for the good things in your life, for people who have helped you, for fortunate events that have occurred. By now, most of us have heard from various sources that it’s good for our mental health. Now the research evidence is starting to pile up.
The average person is vaguely aware of a few key, recurring things in their lives they are grateful for. However, if we only think about those, we habituate to them; they stop being interesting. By contrast, fresh doses of perceptive gratitude on a daily basis are like a vaccine against impulsiveness and enhance personal discipline and future-orientedness.
A new study shows that being grateful helps increase self-control and reduce impulsive behaviors, particularly when it comes to financial decisions. People who cultivate an appreciative attitude towards everyday events are more patient; they are better able to delay gratification.
It can be easier than you think to find things to be grateful about; it just takes a bit of extra focus. For example: “I’m grateful that when I left a bag on the train this morning, a stranger ran after me and handed it back to me.”
The new study suggests that the more you regularly experience gratitude, the more self-control you have in various areas of your life. It is an important finding because we tend to think of self-control as being linked to cognitive processes. The possibility that gratitude can help us increase self-control and reduce impulsiveness is very appealing.
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
– Lao Tzu
A simple reminder from Lindsey Block:
I remind myself of this on nights and weekends when my anxiety seems to dwell in the spaces of free time and endless lists of chores and desires…
I think about this quote when I’m driving and unfocused and fretting about an upcoming meeting (worry not, just prepare).
I think about it when I remind myself of the stupid things I’ve said or done (dwell not, learn from mistakes).
I think about it when I feel lost about what’s to come with my future (stress not, make a list and how to accomplish them).
Breathe into the present moment.
For the first time in a scientifically rigorous study, it has been shown that Mindfulness Meditation – as opposed to a more generic type of relaxation training – can change the brain biochemistry of ordinary people over the medium-term and potentially improve their health.
The researchers, from Carnegie Mellon University, recruited 35 men and women who were unemployed and experiencing considerable stress. Blood was drawn and brain scans were carried out. Half the subjects were then taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center; the other participants completed a similarly comprehensive training program but one devoid of mindfulness-oriented exercises.
‘‘We had everyone do stretching exercises, for instance,’’ lead researcher David Creswell explained. The mindfulness group paid close attention to bodily sensations, including unpleasant ones. The non-mindfulness-oriented relaxation group was encouraged to chatter and generally not pay attention to their bodies,
At the end of three days, all the participants told the researchers they felt refreshed and better able to withstand the stress of unemployment. Yet follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity in the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.
Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though very few in the mindfulness group had continued to do practice exercises on their own.
In the U.S. and the U.K., about one in five people reporting that they feel anxious a lot of the time or all of the time.
The most popular ways to cope include speaking to a friend, exercise and taking a walk. AsapTHOUGHT, a Youtube channel, has compiled a useful list of additional ways to cope with anxiety:
Don’t google your symptoms
When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, it’s easy to feel like your symptoms are a signal for something bigger. Often panic attacks come with physical symptoms such as chest pains or nausea. While it’s tempting to search online to see what’s going on – don’t.
HALT - Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?
These are all things that can contribute to a potential anxiety attack. If you can figure out what the trigger may be, you may help solve it.
It sounds obvious, but focusing on your breathing can help calm you down. Try a 4-4-8 method: Breathing in for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds, and breathing out for 8 seconds. By focusing on your breathing, it’s easier to ignore any bad thoughts trying to creep their way into your subconscious.
Find a distraction
Perhaps you have a favorite podcast that you enjoy listening to, or a favorite Youtuber.
The poet’s job is to make us reflect, challenge our assumptions, hold a mirror up to ourselves. Sometimes that’s not a pleasant feeling. It can be one of those “it has to get worse before it gets better” types of painful experiences.
The effect of “hormesis” in biology is that when a human being – and many other organisms – is exposed to small but significant toxins and stressors, the organism adapts and becomes stronger and more resilient.
Consider this poem from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904 to 1973) as a “hermetic stressor.” Like some vegetables that you don’t like at first. Maybe try a daily dose for a week or two.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
How much money do you need to be happy? Ben Casnocha has pondered perennial existential problem:
“…Just 100 years ago, the ultra wealthy enjoyed privileges average folk could never access: fresh food, medicine, safe childbirth, etc. Today, there are relatively small differences between the rich and the middle class in terms of quality of life. Today, no Americans will die in childbirth. Virtually all can buy good food, can fly anywhere in the world, access all the world’s knowledge and culture with a click of the mouse, and so on.
What “average” people in America share with the super rich like Bill Gates is far more significant than what we don’t share with him. Gates has a bigger house than you or me, but for what really matters, we’re quite similar.
It can be pleasant to be super rich, Ben admits. You fly in private jets or at least first class every time. You’re able to eat expensive food whenever you want, you have aides and servants who will save you time. The problem is, we quickly factor in these material comforts – what psychologists call the “hedonic adaptation.” The private jet doesn’t feel so special the 10th time you’re on it. Rather than marveling at the fact you’re on your own plane, you’re more likely to compare it (oftentimes unfavorably) to other private jets you’ve seen.
Mindfulness & Gratitude
It’s possible to convert every day into an occasion for giving thanks. Try it before every dinner, say it out loud, even if you’re alone. It’s more powerful that way. And this isn’t to make you into a more saintly person or somehow benevolently convert the world into a better place. It’s simply to make you happier.
Research study after research study has demonstrated that people who explicitly express gratitude on a regular basis are significantly more content with their lives than people who don’t.
A quick look at the psycho-social context of early Thanksgivings. Life was quite a bit more precarious in New England in the late 1600s than now. About 40% of children didn’t reach adulthood and even then, average life expectancy was 25 years. Wireless broadband internet coverage was patchy throughout most of the original 13 Colonies 😉
Even if times are toughs for you, what might you be thankful for on a typical November evening at dinnertime?
One of the more puzzling quirks of human psychology has a name: hedonic adaptation, Melissa Dahl writes. It’s a term psychologists use to describe the way you get used to the things that once made you happy.
Getting a long-sought-after promotion, for example, initially makes you makes you feel more satisfied with your life — but after a year or so, the feeling fades. You’re about as happy as you were before you got the new job.
This phenomenon is well-studied, and a classic of the genre is one particular study published in 1978, which found that, after some time had passed, lottery winners were not that much happier than they were before they’d won. Even more telling, they were not that much happier than another group included in that study: people who had recently suffered some terrible accident, and as a result had become paraplegic or quadriplegic.
So if this is truly a central part of human nature, wouldn’t it make sense to stop fighting it? After all, you get used to things because you are supposed to get used to things. It’s for your own good.
“These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving,” psychologist Frank T McAndrew says. “If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant — or at least, mundane — present.”
It’s a feature, not a bug, as they say. Happiness isn’t meant to last, a statement that sounds incredibly sad, but doesn’t have to be. As McAndrew phrases it, “Recognizing that happiness exists — and that it’s a delightful visitor that never overstays its welcome — may help us appreciate it more when it arrives.”
Are there any high schools that give out the award: “Most Likely to be Happy in Life?”
The majority bestow the title “Most Likely to Succeed” and that usually goes to someone who is quite bright, but also a bit of a “go-getter,” popular with the in-crowd and perhaps with a bit of entrepreneurial flair. Or in some cases, it’s someone demonstrating obvious acting or singing talent over and above the average for that age group. Taylor Swift is the best case in point, and Miley Cyrus before her.
But what characteristics would we be looking for in 17 year-olds to find the school’s winner of “Most Likely to be Happy?”
Here’s a quick and somewhat slapdash list:
1- Makes friends easily
2- Maintains and builds relationships
3- Helps others; volunteers
4- Enjoys spending time outdoors
5- Eats a healthy diet
6- Has a religious faith and/or a spiritual practice
7- Is academically intelligent, but not excessively
8- Keeps fit but is not fitness or body-image obsessed
So generally a well-balanced, calm person who probably doesn’t stand out much during his or her last year of high school. Certainly not somebody Hollywood usually makes movies with or about.
Stress management and happiness tips from Ruby Wax, comedienne and now Mindfulness-based therapist (M.A. Oxford), author of Sane New World: Taming the Mind:
Find your braking system
When you’re in high anxiety mode, feeling stressed out, your mind racing and your heart pounding, focus on something in the present: a sound, taste or smell. By becoming aware of what’s around you, you will calm down and can focus more. You’ll have to experiment to find what works for you: I send my attention to my feet and their contact with the floor. As soon as my focus goes from thoughts to a sensation, the red mist drains from my brain and I can think again. You might need to do this 100 times; it’s how to tame your mind.
Stave off the darkness
Only eat what tastes good and fill your life with things you like. Surround yourself with true friends, but if you find entertaining stressful, don’t invite them for dinner all the time. How can you talk to your friends properly when you’re busy panicking that you’re not a good enough cook? Go to a restaurant instead. And don’t force yourself to go to other people’s houses, it takes energy to adjust yourself to their way of living.