How to Practice Gratitude When You Don’t Feel Like It
I have recently been obsessed — well maybe obsessed is too strong a word — preoccupied with frustration and sadness about the physical effects of getting older.
It has really hit me that this aging thing is happening. The face and body I had in my youth are gone forever, and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. I find myself looking in the mirror and thinking mean things about myself, like it's my fault that I'm getting older. Maybe you can relate.
The other night, I listened to an interview with Oprah and Eckhart Tolle on appearance and the impermanence of physical beauty. Eckhart mentions, “It is the destiny of all form to dissolve,” and so we must learn to practice acceptance. With acceptance you create space around your suffering, find peace, and uncover a doorway to exploring the deeper dimensions of self without the attachment to the outward appearance.
As I listened to him speaking, I realized I could make a huge shift in my thinking. Rather than fear and resist aging, I could be grateful for it. I don't say this blithely just to boost myself up or try to “see the glass half full.” I just began to view the flip side of getting older. I am free to be less attached to my physical form and worried about appearance. I can explore the “deeper dimensions” of myself, enjoy more inner peace, and acknowledge how profoundly grateful I am for so many things that will in time pass away.
There are constantly situations in life that frustrate us, make us angry, sad, or anxious. Some estimates suggest we have around 45,000 negative thoughts a day, which is about 80 percent of our total daily thoughts. Most of our thoughts are far from grateful. In truth, we spend a lot of time pissed off at life. When we're steeped in negativity, it's nearly impossible to see all of the blessings and beauty around us.
Here's how to practice gratitude when you don't feel like it.
Know the benefits of gratitude.
So why even bother with gratitude? What's the point of going around expressing gratefulness when so many crappy things are happening? Well study after study reinforces how profoundly expressions of gratitude positively impact your health, your moods, and your relationships. Several studies have shown how depression is relieved by expressing gratitude. The more gratitude you express, the less depressed you feel. Says happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky in her groundbreaking book, The How of Happiness, gratitude bolsters self-esteem; helps people cope with stress; encourages moral behavior; strengthens social bonds; and makes you more adaptable.
Recognize that action trumps thought.
The big questions is — how can you feel grateful when you have all of these negative thoughts swirling around in your head? How are you supposed to make yourself feel thankful when you just don't feel it? The answer is by recognizing you can produce the feelings of gratitude by “acting” grateful. You don't have to feel it or believe it initially.
Just become aware of your negative thoughts and recognize they aren't the complete truth. Remember how I was able to flip my thinking about aging? Yes, there are parts of aging that stink, but there are many wonderful things about it as well. Once I could acknowledge that, I freed myself from the grip of negative thoughts.
Practice the flip.
Grab a pen and paper and write down everything that is bothering you about yourself and your life right now. You may really want to stay attached to your negative feelings about these things, but for this exercise, try to be an impartial investigator.
What is the flip side of these situations? What elements or outcomes of these scenarios are positive, enlightening, worthwhile, or motivating? There is always something good or beneficial to be extracted from every bad situation. Write these down.
Look beyond the negative.
When we're focused on negativity, it clouds everything else around us. We simply can't see the other wonderful things around us. You have so many people and circumstances to be grateful for. Make a list of them. Add even the smallest things that you are thankful for — your cup of coffee, the way the sun is shining on a tree, the nice smile of the grocery store clerk.
Write this list in longhand, as the connection between your brain and hand will reinforce feelings of gratitude because you focus more intently on what you're writing. Keep this list handy, and add to it as you think of more and more things to be grateful for.
Practice the “take-away.”
If you have trouble thinking of things to be grateful for, start by thinking about how you'd feel if certain things were taken away from you. If your eyesight were taken away, how would you feel? If your car were taken away, how would you feel? If your tastebuds disappeared, how would you feel? If the friend who has hurt your feelings were taken away, how would you feel? Eventually, all of these things will be taken away — remember, everything is impermanent. This puts things in a different perspective.
Pick a daily “savor.”
When you have a gratitude list developed, pick one item each day to reflect on more deeply and to savor fully. I recommend you keep a gratitude journal to write down your thoughts and feelings during this exercise. For example, perhaps your first gratitude item is one of your children. Write down everything you can think of about why you feel grateful for this child in your life.
Get really specific and detailed, and try to recapture positive memories you can write about. After you've written about your feelings and memories, read what you've written, close your eyes, and sit with your positive, grateful feelings about your child. Mentally see yourself embracing your child and feeling the way you would if you'd lost your child, and then he or she is returned to you.
Express your gratitude.
If possible, after you write about and savor your gratitude item, take some action to express your gratitude. If you are grateful for another person, call them or visit with them and tell them how grateful you are. Or write a letter of gratitude that they can keep as a long-lasting reminder.
If your gratitude item is an object, circumstance, or personal attribute, then engage with it in some way. For example, if you are grateful for your health, take a walk outside and notice how alive and healthy you feel. If you are grateful for your warm bed, wash your sheets and make your bed so it will be ready and waiting for you when it's time to sleep. If you are grateful for music, play your favorite music without distraction and truly appreciate it.
Focus on the present moment.
You will always find a reason for gratitude in the present moment. Right now is the only reality — the past and future aren't real. If you are grateful for this moment, you will live with gratitude always.
By focusing on what you are doing right now, there is no room for dwelling in the past or future. If your present moment is a moment of sadness or frustration, stop and breath, and observe your feelings with loving compassion — not resistance. Be grateful to yourself for loving compassion.
Gratitude is always available to us, even when we don't feel it. Recognize its presence and turn to it in your darkest moments. Return to it again and again, and you will see how it lightens your heart and rewards you with expansive, contented, and joyful feelings that expand your gratitude.
What do you feel grateful for? How do you return to gratitude when you just don't feel grateful? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
photo credit: Parker Knight