Love art by Cronin & Hally kids
Have you ever seen the movie Saving Grace? Set in the UK, it tells the story of a middle aged widow called Grace whose irresponsible husband left her with huge debts, forcing her to grow cannabis in her greenhouse along with her gardener Matthew to avoid losing her house. It’s absolutely hilarious and has literally nothing to do with this week’s blog. I just thought I’d mention it.
The grace of being thankful
The grace I’m talking about this week has been saving many of us from going crazy during the recent lockdown and its proper name is gratitude. There has been a massive global outpouring of appreciation and respect for all the wonderful nurses, paramedics, doctors, medical support workers and other first responders who have literally been putting themselves on the line for us. It’s as though COVID-19 has become the catalyst that was needed for us to open our hearts and feel thankful for the amazing efforts made by the most decent and often under-valued members of our society.
How to thrive, not just survive
I mentioned last week that, on the suggestion of my husband, we have all been putting a weekly Powerpoint presentation together on the subject of our choice. It’s been a fun exercise for us all as we have been able to delve into our own areas of interest and present on them before our self-isolating audience that is supportive and non-judgemental. On Friday last, I decided to teach my kids about this thing called gratitude and demonstrate that it is one of the defining factors in whether we thrive, or simply survive.
Much has been written about gratitude, and as many studies have been carried out across the globe. It is clearly a topic that draws much interest from people of all backgrounds, medical, scientific or otherwise. Everyone appears to be in agreement that in order to thrive, we need the 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. Gratitude is something that can escalate to feelings of satisfaction with one’s life, a sense of peace, happiness, elation and connectedness.
The science of gratitude
Neuroscientists have studied the impact gratitude has on the brain and have discovered that the brain changes for the better as a result of a person feeling thankful for the things they have in their life, and for appreciating the people who enhance their life. Indiana University carried out a study of a group of students who were seeking treatment for depression. The study involved dividing the group into two: one group was given counselling alone and the other group was asked to write a letter of gratitude every day for three weeks while also receiving counselling. An MRI scanner was used to track brain activity. When the scientists compared the brain activity of both groups, the second group showed a greater neural sensitivity in the medial pre-frontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision-making. What was even more interesting was the effects persisted for three months afterwards. Researchers at the University of North Carolina and the University of California found that gratitude acts as a ‘booster shot’ for romantic relationships. I guess it makes sense. If I show my man that I really appreciate the efforts he goes to in order to make me happy, then he’s going to feel good about himself which can only be good for us both, right?
There are many other studies out there that prove the positive impact of gratitude on the human mind. It is now believed that we can rewire our brains for happiness by allowing that thought of gratitude to sit longer in our mind. The longer we hold on to it, the more it soaks in, thus improving our sense of wellbeing. Of course, we can’t always feel gratitude. It has to come from a genuine place and sometimes we are just too caught up in a negative moment to even think about it. But what we can always feel is kindness, no matter what is causing the negative moment. We can be kind to ourselves and know that the moment will pass. This act of self-kindness will also bring about positive changes to the brain.
The goodness of gratitude
Backed by scientific evidence, here are some of the benefits that gratitude has been shown to bring about in the human body:
- Strengthen immune system
- Improve sleep patterns
- Enable us to experience more joy and pleasure
- We become more helpful and generous
- It improves our relationships
- We feel less lonely and isolated
I love learning stuff like this. I never used to think much about science previously but the more I read about how our thoughts and feelings are linked, the more intrigued I become. It was the same with alcohol. When I learnt and accepted that alcohol directly affects brain chemistry by altering the levels of neurotransmitters, it was enough to convince me that it was a very stupid thing to be doing considering I was prone to feeling low.
Three steps in the right direction
So, just in case you’re wondering what steps you can take to ensure you are expressing gratitude regularly, you can apply these to your day-to-day life:
- Start by noticing the ‘thank you’ that you actually say. Is it said in haste, did the person even hear you say it? Or are you feeling it with your whole body? Does your heart expand in your chest with appreciation for the things that have been done for you, or given to you? Does your face show the warmth that you feel because of the things you are grateful for?
- Pick one interaction a day and become mindful of it. Be curious about how your instinct to say thank you comes about. Can you name what it is you are being thankful for beyond the gesture that has been extended? For example, if my son lays the table for dinner, I might just mutter thanks in passing. But if I stop for a moment and think about how grateful I am that he is in my life, sharing in our simple daily routine and being helpful then I have more to be grateful for. Instead of a passing thank you, I will find myself making eye contact with him and telling him that I love him and thank him then. It only takes an extra moment, but the impact is much bigger, don’t you think?
- Write down three things you are grateful for every day. This can be at any time during the day, although studies have shown that when people practice gratitude first thing in the morning, they are more likely to have a positive day. It’s as though practicing gratitude sets the tone for the day ahead
Sharing my appreciation
I was awarded the prize for the best presentation on Friday because my presentation ended with a gallery of photos of moments shared with my family over the years for which I told them I am deeply grateful. It brought back some lovely memories and they discussed amongst themselves how they too are grateful for all the wonderful experiences we have all had in our lives so far. There was a beautiful calm in our home for the rest of the weekend, and I am grateful that it is still there today.
I will end with this quote from the 19th century American philosopher and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you and give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.
Thanks for your attention, I appreciate it very much. Have a great week ahead.