Seeking Greater Happiness? Part III: The Powerful Practice of Gratitude

Okay gang, get ready…this might be a lengthy Blog because this is no small topic! In this Blog I am offering you alot of info to help you understand how a daily Gratitude practice can help bring positive change. I am going to begin with this quote from Headspace:

“Happy contentment exists within us all, it’s just that sometimes we make so much noise looking for it, we drown out the silence which is what we really seek.”

This popped up on my iPad this morning (remember Headspace is the mindfulness APP I mentioned in a previous Blog). I think the timing was perfect, as things often are with synchronicity! What that statement represents for me is the way we tend to have an inner dialogue of worry, complaint, negativity or blame, and how we live our lives listening to that and believing that, and then acting accordingly, like our thoughts are the actual truth. But those thoughts get in the way of what we say we want. For example, if I think that my partner is responsible for my bad mood, and I believe that to be true, chances are I will think he is bad in some way, then tell him about it, likely hurt his feelings, and think that he should help me feel better! I.e. the idea that believing a thought and then acting according to it will bring a good result. It is pretty impossible if it starts from negativity, blame, anxiety, or sadness. In relationship it shows up as shame, blame, or criticism. It is not fun or pleasant to be on the receiving end of those things, yet we often feel justified leading a conversation from those.

My Childhood Gift

I suspect like many of you, I grew up with a parent who was a negative thinker. (If you had a parent who was more of a “worrier” you can overlay those messages or experiences on top instead). Growing up, I heard many complaints about others, there was a “poor me” attitude that I naturally internalised. This taught me to blame others for “my sad lot in life”. I became depressed as a teen and I had a number of things that I could pin that to: my parents divorced, my dad didn’t pay child support,  I was shy and didn’t feel a part of things in school, I had straight hair instead of curly, etc. It was any number of things that I would ruminate upon. While I dealt with all my inner turmoil in an unconscious manner, I did not have anyone around to help me see what I was doing or help me shift this.

As a young adult, I realised that my negativity and depression was the Blessing or Gift of my youth, because it provided me with great motivation to heal myself and later become a Psychotherapist. But before all that happened, I re-created the unhappiness of my childhood home for myself.

When I got married at 20, I thought that I was going to be loved and get all my needs met. (After-all, isn’t that what marriage is for? NOT!) I had found a man who loved me, and who was a wonderful provider. For the first time since age 13, I did not have to work. That freed me up to focus on my health and nutrition. I fed us vegetables and whole grains, I quit smoking, I went to aerobics classes, I was able to go to University and I discovered Psychology!

In University, I developed a passion for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). In my research of CBT for Depression, my research question focused on whether or not having the knowledge about negative thinking was enough to shift someone into being happier. My little research study showed there was no significant relationship. And clearly, I experienced that even for myself as researcher, simple knowledge was not enough. My negative thinking came back with a vengeance as I became unhappy in my new life as a young bride in my 20’s.

Of course I did my best to muddle through and be a good spouse, but I realised many years later that I was practising “Confirmation Bias”, where when we believe something to be true, we find evidence to support it. So for example, if I think my husband is “not doing enough”, I will find evidence to support that as a truth. Then, I get a self-fulfilling prophecy where I am unhappy, angry or blaming him for that.

(Of course we are never in this alone. If we complain to our spouse, in an effort to get a need met, our spouse naturally resists change. This is a topic for another day however.)

It was in my 30’s, when I became so tired of myself that I chose to work hard to change my brain, thus my “seeking” really amped up. What happened for me before I became a Psychotherapist, was I worked for 2 decades to heal my emotional wounds, and shift my perspective. I used several modalities, but Gratitude is one of my favourites because it is so powerful. I know it has been central for me to help bring relief, balance, increased peace and great happiness.

The Science of Changing the Brain

Scientists describe the brain as “plastic” and what that means is that we can change the way we think, and the way we see situations. But it is not enough to understand it is possible, we have to actually “practice” new thinking. If we do that, we set up new brain pathways. We can create a new brain pathway that supports a nicer feeling. The old paths will still be there, but as we practice Gratitude, we can spend less time using the old pathways of worry, sadness, and anger.

A Specific Goal

So what is your goal? Do you want to worry less? Do you want to feel less anxious, more confident? Do you want to be more content or peaceful? I suggest you write down your goal, and then notice any inner dialogue that attempts to argue it. That is the “inner critic” who means well, and tries to keep you from changes. “This is stupid!” or “What if I do all this work and I don’t feel any better…?” etc.

Calm Your Inner Critic

If you have been practising Mindfulness thus far, you will be well acquainted with your thoughts and reactions to things. So when you notice that inner critic, you can say, “Thanks for sharing, I know you care”, or “I know you are frightened” etc. Then reassure that voice and say, “It will be OK. I am here for you”, “Let’s give it a try” or something like that. Because the inner critic is a young aspect of you; your inner child, who learned how to cope with the world in a specific way. (This inner voice may sound like a punitive parent or a fearful teenager or any number of personalities.) This is a wonderful part of self who needs to be acknowledged, reassured and thanked for all that hard work of survival.

Let’s Begin Gratitude

I would like to suggest a daily practice where you take a few minutes each and every day to sit and get in touch with 3 or more things you can feel grateful for. You can write them down in a list, or in journal form. Pause on each item, and envision it, and feel it in your body. Get to know what gratitude feels like for you. Breathe with it…and allow the wonderful feeling to wash over you…and spread throughout your cells…and deeply into your DNA. Breathe…and sit…and smile an inner smile…

Do this each and every day. Add new things to you lists.

If you notice you feel bored with your items, that is a clue that you need to expand your perspective to notice even more things in the world to be grateful for. Sara Ban Breathnach lists “150 often overlooked Blessings” in her Simple Abundance Journal that you can refer to for ideas.

After 30 days you can look back and see how you have progressed and shifted.

For me, Gratitude became like a little mini-holiday that I could step into anytime, anywhere. It changed the way I see my life, and as a result my life has changed. I think it is so healthy for the body to experience this type of rest each day. I believe a Gratitude practice is part of physical health and well-being.

The practice is so simple, yet it is not always easy to begin. Be gentle with yourself, get support if you are struggling. Get help online, or from a therapist, or a meditation buddy. Put reminders around your home or car so you won’t forget to pause and practice. Do not give up!

I guarantee you will not regret the effort it takes…

Stacy Bremner, Citizen of the World