By Thomas Cornish
I’ve recently begun to practise gratitude. Most mornings, I wake, relieve my bowels (probably didn’t want to know that) and sit down with an A5 ‘Babe’ journal (never mind. . .) and explicitly write down something ‘awesome’ that happened the day before, as well as three things I’m grateful to have in my life. After, I sit comfortably and proceed to hit play on the day’s prescribed Waking Up mindfulness practise (hosted by Sam Harris – I strongly recommend).
It was not until I began writing down the things I’m grateful for, that I actually noticed I was grateful for them. There’s so many relationships, feelings and objects in my life that I genuinely am grateful exist – it’s just, until recently, I never took the moments to acknowledge them fully, in all their beauty. For the majority of my 27 years, these noblest of creatures have laid in the background, giving without receiving much of my attention. That has now changed.
Following the advice of Tim Ferris, author of the 4 Hour Work Week and host of the Tim Ferris Show podcast, and his morning routine, I adopted a subset of his ‘morning pages’; that is, writing something good that happened yesterday and three things to be grateful for. The first thing in my grateful list is often something more abstract, like a relationship I’m glad exists. To give an example of a recent first entry, I wrote ‘I’m grateful for having family that is always happy to hear from me’. The second and third entries are often more concrete, mundane and the less acknowledged. One of my second entry’s, for instance, saw me write ‘I’m grateful for a soft and comfortable bed to sleep in’. An example of a third entry of a day was, ‘I’m grateful for this glass of water’. Just take a moment to consider how grateful you actually are to most likely have a comfortable bed to slumber in and a glass of water within reaching distance. These things are often just ‘there’ to us, giving us a service that usually goes unnoticed. Notice them, it’ll make you that miniscule happier.
I’ve also begun to more globally apply this strategy of being grateful to live situations. Take this example: someone riskily pulls out at a junction just ahead, causing you to slam on the brakes; the usual reaction would be to denigrate the driver with a plethora of expletives, leaving you to ruminate in a stew of negativity and unfocused rage. This situation does, however, leave room for gratitude.
Attempt to reframe this situation. Instead of denigrating the driver for their stupidity, be grateful that their decision wasn’t made any later. Be grateful for being able to retain your life. When reframing a situation in this manner, the proceeding internal moments change dramatically from the alternative. Instead of unfocused rage, you get an appreciation and gratefulness of life. You actually feel joy.
Recent psychological and clinical studies have begun to empirically substantiate the utility of explicitly brining to awareness experiences of gratitude. McCullough and colleagues, in 2002, found that those who experience states of gratitude more often, usually rate higher in measures of life satisfaction, happiness and positive affect, as well as lower on measures relating to depression and anxiety. What came first though, the gratitude or the life satisfaction? In other words, did being grateful cause these benefits, or did a greater level of wellbeing predispose people to being more grateful? Following this previous study, Emmons and McCullough sought to partly illuminate the answer to this question. They randomly assigned participants to one of three groups. One group had to list the ‘hassles’ in their life, another had to list neutral life events (this is a control condition, to account for any placebo effects that may occur from simply recalling life events) and the last group was assigned the task of listing instances that participants could be grateful for (sought of like my morning pages). Each group was asked to proceed with their tasks for a 9-week period, whilst also keeping weekly records of various well-being measures. The study showed that those who practised gratitude listing over this period had a greater sense of life satisfaction, reported fewer instances of illness and demonstrated greater ratings of positive affect. In a more recent study, Rash and colleagues (2011), showed that those who were tasked with contemplating grateful thoughts – over those who were tasked with simply brining to mind memorable events – demonstrated greater sympathetic (stress inducing) and parasympathetic (conservation inducing states) balance post task, in comparison to their prior task levels. This coherence of both strands of the autonomic nervous system is thought to be a biological marker indicating states of positive affect and general feelings of wellness. Although replications of all these studies must be undertaken, the preliminary evidence suggests either listing or calling to mind instances one can be grateful for, appears to enhance all the things we want more of: wellness, a greater chance of experiencing positive emotions and happiness.
I’m still in the early stages of experimentation of this morning routine; the early stages are promising though. Whenever I’m actively brining to mind instances of which I can be genuinely grateful, I feel an instant sense of contentment. I’ve also begun to revisit these ‘morning pages’ each evening, as to again bring to mind those moments of gratefulness. It appears to ground my morning in satisfaction with the smaller things, often taken for granted. The returns, it could be said, for an activity that only takes an investment of a couple of minutes each morning, are enormous.