Advertising
Advertising

Thanks for being… thankful!

Thanks for being… thankful!

“The more we express gratitude, the better we feel”: okay, but what does this sentence really mean to us?

What Is “Gratitude”?

The word “gratitude” has a number of different meanings, depending on the context. A practical clinical definition is the following:

Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.

In other words, gratitude can be for virtually anything we (as subjective entities) realize has (or potentially has) a positive impact on ourselves. Gratitude has effects on our mood and our general well-being; it is a precursor of what is commonly called “happiness.”

3 Steps to Gratitude

Mr. Robert A. Emmons,[1] perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has 2 main key components, which I am here splitting into 3 steps. The 3 steps are Affirmation, Recognition, and Acknowledgement. We do need to consider that the 3 steps, as identified above, are often not separate in time: they evolve naturally, all together in a synergic approach.

Advertising

“First,” Emmons writes, “gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received.”

The above comprises the appreciation of something affecting us positively in many ways.

The second step is called the “recognition” stage. Immediately after (or together with) affirming goodness, we recognize that the sources of the goodness, the causes of our increased sense of inner happiness, are external to us. This coincides with a sense of inner awareness.

The last step is “acknowledgement”: giving credit where credit is due. The source of our well-being and enjoyment is external to us, and so we finally thank this entity.

Effects of Gratitude

Practicing a daily habit of gratitude has enormous advantages and apparently no contraindications at all.

Advertising

Numerous studies have demonstrated the powerful impact of practicing gratitude on both body and mind.[2]

It turns out that everyday experiences–and very simple exercises like keeping a gratitude journal–can change the wiring in your brain (neuroplasticity, anyone?) and change your life for the better.

Scientific evidence has proven that kindness changes the brain and impacts the heart and the immune and nervous systems.[3] Gratitude improves sleep quality as well.[4]

Gratitude and Kindness, expression of love and connecting with others: those ingredients are needed by the body to produce more Oxytocin, the “love hormone”. More Oxytocin equals to a general better feeling and wellbeing.[5]

According to Jane McGonigal, a scientific study concluded that “I wish I had let myself be happier” is one of the top 5 regrets of the dying.[6]

Advertising

Easy habits to cultivate Gratitude

Practical tip No. 1: Have you said “thanks” today?

Practicing saying “thank you” in a sincere and meaningful way. It’s one of the easiest psychological strategies for enhancing the feeling of gratitude. Looking for a challenge? Smile and thank the most grouchy, surly and unfriendly person you meet during the day. Perhaps you will not receive some kindness back, but remember that gratitude is a gift.

I’ve found tons of useful resources and studies all over the Internet, but if you are looking for a comprehensive starting point, a visit to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California is a must. The key concepts summarized in this article are covered in depth on their website.

Also, at the Emmons Lab website, you can find lots of resources, including a questionnaire about gratitude.[7]

TIP: if you have just 3 minutes or so to start, take this quiz at the Greater Good website.

Advertising

Practical tip No. 2: adding gratitude to your daily journal

Simply writing down 3 sentences before going to bed and adding 3 new ones after waking up will make a substantial change. Looking for a shortcut? Then just think (and say, if not disturbing anyone) the three statements while laying down on your bed, eyes closed, before falling asleep. First, say: “Today I’m grateful for…” Then, wait a few seconds to acknowledge the sense of gratitude. It might feel like a sense of inner lightness gently warming up your chest. Then, move on and say the next one, for a total of 3. A light smile on your face is optional.

Putting feelings into words is believed to produce therapeutic effects in the brain,[8] and writing down stuff helps us become more aware of our thoughts, relieving the brain from its usual chatter. So, limit the use of the shortcut above to 2 or 3 times per week. Use some ink on the other days.

Another good resource is the article on Lifehacker.com about journaling and its effects.

Other Strategies

Everybody can easily incorporate simple and cheap habits to enhance their feelings of gratitude; consequently, we can all take advantage of the benefits associated with the experience of thankfulness. Among other psychological strategies, you can try:

Conclusion

There is nothing to lose and so much to gain by expressing and practicing gratitude. Let’s share our experiences in the comments section below!

Featured photo credit: Manlio Lo Giudice via theholisticexperiment.com

Reference

[1] Emmons Lab Website http://emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/
[2] Growing new neurons by weaving gratitude circuitry in your brain https://thegratefullifebook.com/2015/03/24/growing-new-neurons-by-weaving-gratitude-circuitry-in-your-brain/
[3] Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12585811
[4] Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x/abstract
[5] Why Kindness is good for you http://drdavidhamilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Prediction-Aug-10.pdf
[6] TED talk: Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life http://bit.ly/1EKyPMQ
[7] The Gratitude Questionnaire-Six Item Form (GQ-6), By Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D., Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/psych/seligman/gratitudequestionnaire6.pdf
[8] Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects in the Brain; UCLA Neuroimaging Study Supports Ancient Buddhist Teachings http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Putting-Feelings-Into-Words-Produces-8047

More by this author

Thanks for being… thankful! The good, the bad and…the Cortisol

Trending in Brain

1 How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly 2 11 Essential Philosophy Books That Will Open Your Mind 3 25 Memory Exercises That Actually Help You Remember More 4 How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership 5 How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

Advertising

After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

Advertising

Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

Advertising

Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

Advertising

Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

Read Next