With the year winding down, it’s a great time to take stock of our lives. Usually this takes the form of beginning to contemplate New Year’s Resolutions to be/do/have more. Focusing on what we’ve already got is neglected. But feeling grateful, rather than wanting, is much better for your mental health. Plus, rather than sapping motivation, focussing on what you already have actually provides the confidence to continue to chase your goals.
Harnessing the power of appreciation has been shown to lessen depression and anxiety symptoms and even if you’re feeling pretty good, appreciating what you’ve got will make you feel even better. But sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how to get grateful. Gratitude is a feeling, and like all feelings is fickle in its appearances. We can’t ‘make’ ourselves feel anything. But we can undertake activities which are designed to invoke a specific feeling. It’s like going to watch a comedy movie: there’s no guarantees, but it’s likely you’ll leave the theatre feeling happier than when you went in.
If you’d like to feel grateful to improve your mood, improve your chances of reaching your goals or just because you think you ‘should’, here are some activities to try.
Keep a gratitude journal
At the end of each day, write down five things you are grateful for. Do not repeat the same things, but find five new things each day. The power in this idea comes from repetition. The exercise gets harder each day and you’ll find yourself starting to be on the lookout during the day for reasons to be grateful to write down each evening! As you do so, you start to view the world differently. You begin to appreciate not just the big things, like friends and family, but other things we like but forget to enjoy, like the feeling of sunshine on bare skin. Added bonus: when you’re feeling unhappy, you can review your journal and remind yourself of all the good things in your world. If you stick to this exercise for one month, you’ll have 150 reasons to get out of bed in the morning.
When feeling low, it’s all too easy to look at other people’s lives and feel that yours is lacking (Facebook has a lot to answer for here). Everyone you know seems to be happier, taking more holidays, being a better parent, advancing faster in their careers, fitter and wearing better clothes than you are. But if you shift your focus, you’ll notice there’s plenty of people whose lives are in more disarray than yours too. Pick up a newspaper, and start comparing your life to those whose lives are being reported. Your own life will start to seem less chaotic. This isn’t about saying you’re better than them, it’s just providing a different perspective on your life, allowing you to see what’s good by contemplating what it could be like.
Change One Word
I’m shamelessly stealing a great idea from James Clear here. In his Thanksgiving blog post, he talks about becoming thankful by changing just one word (read his post: How to be Thankful for Life). A great idea for the lazy among us! Often we get disgruntled when we think of all the things we have to do that day – I have to go to work, I have to bathe my kids, I have to go pick up the shopping. Change the word ‘have’ to ‘get’. I get to go to work. I get to bathe my kids. I get to go pick up the shopping.
The word ‘get’ acknowledges that you are lucky to be where you are. Lucky to have a job. To have kids. To be able to afford groceries, and live in a country where getting food is as easy as going to a store – no need to grow it yourself. It’s too easy to get frustrated with our lives without considering there are plenty of worse alternatives.
Lower your Expectations
To follow on from the easiest strategy, here’s the most difficult. Lower your expectations. Expectations involve wanting something to go a particular way, and wanting is a state of lack - the opposite of gratitude.
You can recognise an expectation by the word ‘should’. For example, you should have put out the garbage. Shoulds are expectations, not laws of physics and the more shoulds you have, the more chances for unhappiness when your expectations aren’t met. It’s easiest to feel grateful for what another does for us if we’re not expecting anything from them. This is not about being pessimistic or squashing your needs, it’s about recognising that other people have their own problems and concerns and are not obliged to meet your needs – if they do, what a bonus and a reason to feel grateful.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.