"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom." -- Marcel Proust
Spring is here, the season symbolic of renewal and growth. One of the best ways to usher in the spirit of spring is through the practice of gratitude – of being thankful. It is the state of appreciation for what is right here, ready to be appreciated now. And practicing gratitude, by placing awareness of everything you are grateful for, has powerful benefits.
Numerous studies have shown how helpful practicing gratitude is, both to ourselves and to the recipients of our gratitude. Harvard Medical School commentaries on health (Miller, M.C., 2014) summarize the benefits of gratitude to include: increased positive emotions, improved physical and emotional health, more effective coping skills, heightened enjoyment, and improved personal relationships.
Here's another reason why I practice gratitude, one that I have only recently discovered: It is a powerful form of resistance.
But how? In dark times, it can be painful and discouraging to stay informed. Taking media breaks helps me, but that doesn't take away from the ever-present reality of the sources of my concern. Being grateful is a powerful antidote because, unlike stepping away, it offers a proactive way to engage positively, even during bleak times.
Practice gratitude by committing, in small and daily ways, to thoughts and actions that focus on thankfulness. When I feel irritable or uneasy, I pause to take a step back. Almost inevitably I find that I am not aware at these time of all that I am grateful for. Practicing gratitude allows my internal experience to change without my having to tune out the world around me. And the beauty of gratitude is that it not only positively impacts us when we practice it – it also benefits those around us.
Here are a few examples of practices that can help gratitude become part of our daily lives. What matters more than the particular actions themselves is that we sent our intention to make these practices a healthy habit rather than simply waiting for them to happen spontaneously.
1. Every day, think of someone or something that you are grateful for, creating a visual image and saying the words, "Thank you". Beginning our day in this way can fundamentally change our perceptions by focusing our energy on what is right in our lives, and the world. This shift creates space and energy an makes us better able to build on positive changes.
2. When you think of what you are grateful for, then wish these good things for others, including those people whom you have never met. Extending gratitude to wishing all good things to others deepens the practice and lays the groundwork for multiplying its benefits.
3. Say "Thank You" to others more often – say it like you mean it. Look someone in the eye when thanking them, and tell them why you are thankful.
4. Take time regularly for short walks, during which you simply notice what is here for you right now. Physical exercise keeps us aware of our feet on the ground and the bounty all around us.
5. Reflect upon people who have made an indelible print on your life. For example, I recently wrote a short letter to a professor who guided me when I was in college. I no longer know where she is and even whether she is still alive. In the letter I told her the ways in which she helped me be the person I am today. Practicing gratitude in different modalities, like writing, helps deepen the practice and make it a more automatic part of your life.
6. Reflect on challenging circumstances in your life that have led to growth. Reflecting on how painful moments in life have made us better versions of ourselves helps turn difficult experiences into valuable lessons. This, in turn, helps us approach new challenges with greater openness and skill.
Which of these practices are familiar to you? Try some of these or generate your own list. Can you commit to a daily practice for a couple of weeks? At the end of two weeks, take note of any changes you have witnessed in yourself and maybe in others around you.
By practicing gratitude, especially in difficult times, you can experience greater possibility and sense of volition. Gratitude makes us feel more connected to others, which is a powerful antidote to negative feelings that sometimes arise. In this way, gratitude is an effective tool for staying engaged while, at the same time, keeping your heart open.
In this springtime of renewal, imagine yourself creating a gratitude garden, seeding the conditions that will bear fruit now and in the future.