It’s that time of year where every other blog post is about gratitude. ‘Tis the season, right? According to David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk, scholar, and author, who has inspired generations with his inspirational messages about finding gratitude in every moment of life, "The root of joy is gratefulness." Well, who doesn't want joy? But how does one do about becoming more grateful?
Most people have heard of a gratitude journal. Oprah kept one daily for a decade and recommended that we all follow suit. But if you can barely remember or find time to brush your teeth before bedtime, you may find it hard to consistently keep a gratitude journal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great idea with many benefits. I have a collection of lovely journals including several attractive ones with motivational quotes on the cover that I just had to have. Unfortunately, none of those quotes were motivating enough to keep me journaling beyond a couple of weeks.
I don’t like mornings. Well, I didn’t. This is relevant…stick with me. I would begrudgingly drag myself out-of-bed after being startled awake by sounds similar to that of a fire alarm because waking up to Enya just isn’t effective for me. After completing my basic hygiene routine, I’d leash up the dog and head out for his first walk of the day. During this walk, I found myself complaining (possibly out loud at times) about anything. “It’s so early.” “It’s so hot.” “Geez! It’s too cold.” “The dog is taking so long to poop. Hurry up pup!” “Why did I schedule my first patient so early?” “Why did I schedule myself to work today? Lots of people are off on Mondays.” You get the idea.
Needless to say, mornings were miserable. Or, more accurately, I made mornings miserable for myself (and possibly for those around me for the first few hours of my day as well). I made a decision, and I wasn’t sure what would come of it, that starting on January 1, 2016, I would create a mental gratitude list while walking Fido each morning. The premise was to shift my mental focus from all that was wrong to that which is good.
Let me be candid. I did not spring out of bed on the first morning (ok, I still don’t spring out of bed and I’ve been doing this for years). I completed my usual hygiene routine, headed out with my fur-kid, and assuredly started my mental gratitude list while walking. “I’m grateful for my life, my health and my house. I’m grateful for my family and friends. I’m grateful for my dog, my job, the food in my fridge.” I blew through about 20 things that I am grateful for. Piece of cake, I thought. I then realized that I was only about 6 feet from my front door and, you guessed it, the dog hadn’t pooped yet. The negative thoughts quickly popped to the surface of my consciousness. “This crap doesn’t work.” “It’s cold. Why is it cold in Florida?” But I redirected myself back to my plan – create a mental gratitude list. Keep going. And I did. The longer the walk, the more frequently I became distracted and the more difficult it was to find things to be grateful for. I later learned that it was at that very point…the point where I really had to think about the good in my life…where the magic happened. I started to reframe negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Instead of thinking, “Ugh, I am so busy today,” I thought, “Wow! That’s great. Lots of people see the benefit of therapy and I am grateful and humbled that they are working with me.” Instead of, “I feel like crap today. My throat is so sore,” I thought, “I don’t feel great, but I’m grateful that I feel well enough to take this walk and have lunch with my friend.” While my new-found attitude of gratitude didn’t change the fact that my throat hurt, it did change the way that I feel about the situation.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but it happened. My complaints and negative thoughts became more easily reframed into positive thoughts. My mood improved as my thoughts improved. I was doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on myself. By changing my thoughts, I changed my feelings. And by changing my feelings in the morning, my tone for the day was more positive and more calm.
So, if the gratitude journal and walking gratitude walk aren’t for you, there are other options. When your alarm clock goes off, hit snooze. Yep, you read right. But don’t go back to sleep. Spend those minutes creating a mental gratitude list. It’s a version of my exercise but without the dog and the outdoors. Another option – create a gratitude photo album. If you’re thinking circa 2005 scrap books, don’t panic. Consider creating an album on your smart phone with photos that you take daily of things that you are grateful for. Set a minimum number and snap away. Review the album when you’re feeling down or irritable. Another option – digital gratitude! Tweet or post or text someone with a positive message daily. Get creative and find what works for you.
From a psychologist perspective, the efficacy of gratitude practices lie in the ability to retrain the brain. By intentionally thinking grateful thoughts, even and especially when you aren’t feeling particularly positive, you have the power the change your emotions. So, you shift from identifying good things to be grateful for to realizing that the act of being grateful makes things good. I practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and the (very simplified) premise behind CBT, a scientifically validated for of psychotherapy, is that by changing thoughts, you change feelings. Gratitude exercises, over time, have the ability to do just that. We can become increasingly aware of the positive in our life and, furthermore, we learn to reframe (a technique taught in CBT) our negative and unhelpful thoughts into optimistic and productive thoughts.
If you found this blog post helpful, stay tuned for these upcoming blog posts by yours truly: The Dark Side of Therapy and I Don't Have Time for Therapy...And Other Reasons to Consider Online Therapy.
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