The power of gratitude

“Oh no,” I whispered. “Oh please no.” It wasn’t a great day to be driving. Snow was falling and the roads were glazed with ice. I had slowed from my usual 115 to less than 80 km/h. Even still, I could feel the tires on my SUV occasionally lose traction. On my left a car edged past travelling only barely faster, raising a column of snow that all but obscured my view. I took a deep breath and relaxed my grip slightly on the steering wheel. It would be OK. I would be OK. Just breathe.

“Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.”

— Henry Ward Beecher, American Congregationalist, clergyman and social reformer

“Oh no,” I whispered. “Oh please no.”

It wasn’t a great day to be driving. Snow was falling and the roads were glazed with ice. I had slowed from my usual 115 to less than 80 km/h. Even still, I could feel the tires on my SUV occasionally lose traction. On my left a car edged past travelling only barely faster, raising a column of snow that all but obscured my view. I took a deep breath and relaxed my grip slightly on the steering wheel. It would be OK. I would be OK. Just breathe.

I’m not sure what I saw first. The cloud of snow or the approaching vehicle. A truck travelling much too fast for the road conditions — in the opposing lane — was now careening out of control in the median. I knew it would soon crest the ditch and emerge onto our lane of the highway.

I have often written about the importance of gratitude and the value of expressing appreciation for positive experiences. And I have long believed that counting our blessings can enhance our psychological, emotional and physical well-being.

In the same way that feeling angry, bitter or resentful sends a rush of damaging chemicals through our bodies, feeling grateful sends a cascade of uplifting and healing chemicals that promote wellbeing, peace and contentment.

More than a novel idea, the power of gratitude has been put to the test in a number of studies conducted by experts in the fields of psychology, sociology and neuroscience. Over 30 years ago, American psychologist, educator, and author Martin Seligman and his colleagues launched a new field of study called “positive psychology.” Whereas much of data at the time was focused on negative psychology — mental illness, trauma and addiction — Seligman’s study focused on gratitude, optimism, forgiveness, happiness, compassion and altruism.

The study found that cultivating gratitude helps “fortify us during times of adversity and emotional turmoil” with the result being a greater level of happiness and resiliency. Seligman and his team concluded that “of all the attributes one can develop, gratitude is most strongly associated with mental health.”

It was also suggested that being grateful impacts the overall experience of happiness with effects that tend to be long lasting. It was noted that more grateful we are, the more self-aware we become — a necessary component to healthy self-esteem.

A most ambitious study into gratitude was recently announced by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley. This $3.1 million research study hopes to determine if cultivating gratitude will foster a more thriving, resilient and compassionate society.

So, how do we sustain an attitude of gratitude? An impromptu survey among friends and colleagues produced an interesting list of gratitude exercises.

Suggestions included a gratitude meditation, where we deeply ponder our blessings for two to five minutes with eyes closed; saying thank you often, especially to people who serve us; sitting down and taking note of what we most appreciate about ourselves; expressing gratitude at mealtime; expressing gratitude toward our partner; and even writing a letter to someone who has had a positive influence on our life and handing it directly to him or her, if possible.

One of the most common methods for cultivating gratitude is keeping a gratitude journal. I’ve used this method for years and highly recommend it. Studies have concluded that tracking one’s gratitude in a journal daily — even for as little as two weeks — had a positive effect on study participants for up to six months to follow.

I start each day with the sentence stem, “Today I am grateful for …” and then try to write one page in my journal about all the experiences for which I am grateful. Items vary, but common examples might include a beautiful day, a pleasant lunch and conversation with a good friend, time spent with family, an enjoyable stroll through the neighbourhood, or the opportunity to help someone with a problem. For me, recording the experiences starts my day off on a positive note, and reviewing the daily installments occasionally lifts my spirts on days when I’m feeling down or especially burdened.

Research in the field of neuroplasticity has shown that thoughts have the power to change our brains. Rick Hanson, psychologist, author and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom in San Rafael, California, explains that negative experiences are “like Velcro and tend to stick in our minds, whereas positive experiences are like Teflon and more readily slip away. Therefore, we must actively work to integrate positive experiences into the brain in order for the positive to ‘stick’ and the beneficial effects to endure.”

In my experience, the better our self-esteem, the more willing we are to do the work and the greater focus we place on feeling and expressing gratitude for all that life brings us.

Through skill or sheer blind luck, the driver of the pickup truck managed to bring his vehicle to a halt with front wheels resting on the shoulder of road. Inching by, I could see the fear and sense of relief in his eyes and in those of the driver next to me.

When I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw the same look in my own eyes. I was most grateful to be alive. As I continued on my way — shaken but unharmed — I began to think about all the blessings in my life and the need to be grateful. And I realized that I could be grateful for a negative experience when it prompted me to appreciate the positive. I had much to write in my gratitude journal.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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