Imagine you are on a dream tropical vacation that you have been planning for months to escape all your chores and daily stressors. It is winter, cold and snowy in your hometown, and you look forward to lounging on the beach in the warmth of the sun and playing in the turquoise seawater. Once you arrive to your resort town, it starts pouring rain, and the deep blue calm water turns into a sea of grey waves pounding the beach you were supposed to lay on. The weekly forecast is not going to change and you are stuck for a week in a setting that is far from what you have envisioned.
We are often confronted with such scenarios that leave us feeling powerless and unable to exercise any form of control over external circumstances. Our tendency is often to try to fix the issue, but sometimes engaging in finding solutions might result in even more frustration. Therefore, we are left with only a few options: fight the uncontrollable and experience emotional distress, or accept the situation which eventually may lead to appreciation for what is in front of us. Gratitude is just that, appreciating what we have, instead of focusing on what’s missing.
People have a tendency to focus on negative experiences rather than the positive ones. We are socialized to constantly achieve new goals, and we don’t spend much time appreciating what we have accomplished. We obsess that our partners, families, friends, homes and jobs need tweaking or have to be replaced. Evolutionary theories state that there might have been benefits to this type of thinking, as it might have prepared us for dangers in our environment. However, in modern society, these negative patterns of thinking are often the source of ruminating cycles, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and general lack of wellbeing.
In the recent years, Positive Psychology founded by Martin Seligman, has been focusing on personal growth through the study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The practice of gratitude or thankfulness has a central place in this theory as it is related to a variety of positive outcomes – increased happiness, improved relationships, elevated health, and enhanced performance levels.
Gratefulness consists of re-directing our thoughts on purpose towards positive events. That way, we recondition the ruminating streams of thoughts into positive cognitive cycles. By rewiring our minds to focus on positive things, we increase our sense of happiness. In “Attitudes of Gratitude”, M. J. Ryan states that “gratitude creates a powerful state of happiness because it returns us to the natural place where we notice what’s right instead of what’s wrong.”
Here are a few ways to bring more gratefulness into our lives:
The Gratitude Visit. This is one of the best-known interventions of Positive Psychology. It consists of having a person deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who was kind to them and never had a chance to properly thank. The idea is to write as many details as possible and the impact that the person had on you. Sending the letter to the person is optional, but could create an increased sense of happiness.
The Three Good Things Exercise. This method was also created by Seligman and is intended to increase a sense of wellbeing. This exercise is to be done each night before going to sleep and consists of thinking about three good things that happened in the day. Write them down, and reflect on why they happened. Determining the “why” of the event is the most important part of the exercise because you get to decide reasons for each event that make sense to you and how that made you happy.
Have a gratitude rock. In “Attitudes for Gratitude,” Ryan suggests that you carry a little pebble in your pocket, and every time you feel it, think of something you are thankful for. This can help reinforce your positive thoughts and feelings of wellbeing.
Compare well. When you find yourself envying someone, focus on what you do have that other people don’t. Comparisons allow us to refocus our attention from ourselves to other people. When there is temptation to have a “pity party,” remind yourself that other people might not be doing as well as you.
Contribution: Refocus your attention from yourself to what you can do for others. That way you can increase your sense of purpose and meaning in life, improve the moment and enhance your self-respect.
Say “thank you” to others as often as possible. Ryan insists on making sure you include yourself when offering your thanks. What are you thankful to yourself for? The more we appreciate ourselves, the more our good qualities grow.
Create a meaning by making lemonade out of lemons. It is a way of re-framing negative experiences so they become positive ones. You do this to make yourself more comfortable by turning a bad situation around. You can think yourself into seeing something good in any experience. Focus on what’s right in your life, instead of what’s wrong.
Even though this dream vacation did not end up being what you expected, and you did not have control over the elements, you still have control over the meaning you attach to your circumstances. Maybe you did not have a chance to tan on the beach, but you may have developed significant relationships with people who shared the same experience. Maybe you took advantage of facilities at the resort you wouldn’t have known about if you spent all your time outdoors. And maybe the time spent at the spa ended up being more relaxing than the time you would have spent lounging on the sand.
By showing gratitude for what is offered to you, you can increase a sense of peace and happiness that you would have missed if you obsessed and ruminated on the perceived negative.