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Home / Advice / Anxiety / The Importance of Gratitude

The Importance of Gratitude

By: Vincent Ryan

Updated: 19 January 2021

The Importance of Gratitude

The Importance of Gratitude

“As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong, no matter how ill or hopeless you may feel” - Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) 

I am writing this piece in January 2021 in the midst of another Covid 19 pandemic lockdown. The outlook for the short term is still rather grim. Vaccines have been developed and are being slowly rolled out. However, it will take time to turn the situation around. We need to find ways to remain resilient.


It seems to me that there has never been a better time to look at the importance of practising moments of gratitude in our lives.


What is gratitude? Gratitude is a positive appreciation of what is good in your life. It is recognising what you have that supports you and gives your life meaning. Good things that could be otherwise. And feeling simply thankful for having them.


Gratitude is not about denying what is difficult or pushing it away. Instead, it says, yes there are difficult things in my life, but I choose to consciously put some time and attention into what I love and appreciate, as deliberate practice.


Of course, gratitude can be spontaneous. Examples of spontaneous gratitude can be moments shared with someone special, thinking: “I’m so glad this person is in my life”. It can be savouring a special piece of music. Or a walk in a beautiful place in nature.


Gratitude can also be deliberately cultivated, by asking oneself, “what am I grateful for today?” It can also be a practice that can be called upon at will when dark moments crowd in. At such times it can be actively used to leverage one’s attention towards the concrete good things in one’s life, as a means to shift one’s state of mind and body in a more fruitful direction.


What is the opposite of gratitude? Perhaps a feeling of lack, absence, loss, deficiency, scarcity, “not enough”. Perhaps an unfavourable comparison we make with somebody else who seems to have more. Who among us doesn’t know those feelings from time to time?


So, why is gratitude hard to cultivate?


Psychologists have discovered that we humans tend to have a “negativity bias”. In other words, we tend to be on the lookout for threats as a way to avoid them and as a way to plan and problem solves in order to feel safe in the future. This habit is adaptive overall when done in moderation. However, the downside can be that this bias can tend to leave us stuck in “negative” moods and anxious states a lot of the time.


Having gratitude as a practice in one’s “mental health toolkit” is one useful technique to use to counteract the negativity bias. And it is easy to do. It doesn’t take a lot of time or even practice to get the hang of it. It’s free, it doesn’t need any props. It can be done anywhere. A blank notebook can be useful, though not necessary. There are now books and articles and YouTube videos available that can support your exploration of gratitude practice. These are worth checking out. There is a link to one such item at the end of this piece.


Deliberately choosing to do some gratitude practice can help us to overcome the black and white thinking that difficult and worrisome times bring. It can break up the kind of tunnel vision thinking that we can sometimes be prone to. Anxiety and depression can make us feel very overwhelmed and deskilled. Fostering a simple skill like gratitude that we can draw on can help pull us in a more constructive direction. It can reignite our sense of personal empowerment, assist us in feeling like we have some control over where the mind wanders. When intrusive thoughts and painful feelings show up gratitude can offer a practical tool to counteract the intensity of these.


We now know from the science of neuroplasticity that our brains change across our lifespan. The habits we form influence this process. Moments of gratitude can help positively shape this process over time.


One final reason to consider including gratitude as a regular habit in 2021 is that time spent cultivating more positive feelings of gratitude can help to calm down our nervous system. We can gradually climb down more out of a fight and flight response. This increase in quality time spent in a relaxed parasympathetic state is good for all the systems of our body, including our immune system. Bringing our body into a relaxed state that allows our immune system to function more efficiently has never been more important, for resisting infections and for keeping one’s mind and body strong and healthy.


Traditionally the start of the year is a time to cultivate good intentions for the times ahead. Perhaps setting aside a little time each week spent in gratitude might be one to consider this year?

REFERENCES

Kabat-Zinn J: Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York, Delta, 1990.


“How to Start a Gratitude Journal You’ll Actually Keep”

Written by Shutterfly Community Last Updated: Apr 2, 2019

https://www.shutterfly.com/ideas/how-to-start-a-gratitude-journal/


Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin, 2007


McCraty, R. and Childre, D., 2004. 12 The Grateful Heart The Psychophysiology of Appreciation. The psychology of gratitude, Oxford University Press




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