It’s no coincidence that many successful CEOs keep gratitude journals. Gratitude is the most powerful correlate of happiness. When we’re feeling grateful, our body calms, and we feel at peace in all realms of our lives. It’s impossible to feel grateful and stressed at the same time. This is a basic principle in psychology called "Reciprocal Inhibition"; we can't feel two contradicting states at once. And the best part about gratitude is that it's easy to access in little time.
Try this brief mental experiment from Sam Harris’ mindfulness app Waking Up. Imagine what it would be like to lose everything and have died yesterday. I mean everything, from relationships to your identity to material possessions, your education, status, etc. Let that sink in for a few moments. How desperate would you be? What would you miss the most? After a few moments, then consider what it would be like to be fully restored everything you now have (after having lost it all), and to the precise moment you’re now in. What would that change about this present moment? How much more would you savor this moment? In gratitude research, this is called counterfactuals—purposely attending to what could have gone wrong, but didn’t, and how things could have been and can be worse. Intentionally attending to counterfactuals can make us significantly happier. On the other hand, when we focus on what could have been better (unfortunately what most of us tend to do), it usually triggers sadness, envy, resentment, and feelings related to low self-esteem. Luckily, you can rewire your mind toward gratitude.
If you’re reading this post right now, you are uniquely fortunate. As Sam Harris mentions on his gratitude lesson from his app, right now there are probably more than a billion people who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you, if they had your life. I refer to the millions of people who have been dislocated because of war, politics, poverty, and/or religious reasons. I also refer to people suffering from climate change (losing their homes or their communities burning down from fires), loss, accidents, acute bereavement, and violent crimes. To have people who care about you and that you care for, your health, even partially, interests and the ability to pursue them, even sporadically, is to be fortunate. Take a moment to take that in, really take that in.
What have you been taking for granted recently? Spend a few moments to jot them down and let them stink in. Seriously. This is the only life you have. What blessings have you been overlooking? Don't miss any more moments to tell the people you love how special and precious they are to you. Your clock is always ticking; you just can't see it. We can never really know when we'll die. We thus can't afford to not feel grateful for all we have; life is too short and precious. What better time is there to savor your life than now? Now is all we have. It's hard to exaggerate how this awareness can transform the quality of your life. Life won't wait; now is your chance. Mindfulness practices emphasizing gratitude can help us stay in touch with all we have to be grateful for. And I repeat, they're effective, even if you only have a few minutes to practice.
To immediately access a sense of gratitude: Gently close your eyes, or keep your gaze on the ground. Then, gradually bring to mind someone you love, your partner, child, good friend, at their absolute happiest, smiling, laughing. Imagine them getting exactly what they want. How does this affect your mind and body? Let it color your mind and body. Can you see your smile? Find yourself bursting with joy. Notice it. Stay with it for a few moments.
Didn't take too long to notice a positive effect, did it? Gratitude is always accessible, even in life's most difficult moments; you just need to reach for it.
This post was written for educational purposes and is not meant to substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified provider. Copyright Jason Linder, LMFT, 2019.