Gratitude & Gratefulness: What is it, and how can I practice it?

BY PSYCHOLOGIST AKI SRESTHA

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is abundantly clear that the power of positive psychology on resilience, performance, relationships – and overall mental and physical wellbeing – is becoming better understood in many aspects of life.

The news feeds of many social media channels are filled with positive messages of gratefulness, gratitude, mindfulness and psychological words of wisdom designed to make you look up from your dinner, task, work or stress – and embrace the moment and context of what you are involved in.

However – what can be unclear is how to take these many tidbits of info and inspo, and put them to use practically and positively to initiate change.

And in the hype of being #mindful or #grateful in the age of Instagram and snapchat – how do we actually know if we are really benefiting from this, or just telling people we are?

What is gratitude?

Gratitude, by the official Cambridge Dictionary definition is “the feeling or quality of being grateful – a strong feeling of appreciation to someone or something that has helped you.”

This definition describes a somewhat-simplified description of a response to the recognition of “help” or the exact source of goodness – and could

perhaps be interpreted as needing to receive some form of act or object in order to then be grateful.

Robert Emmons is seen as the world’s leading scientific expert in all things gratitude, and suggests that gratitude has two key components:

“First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”

In the second part of gratitude, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…We acknowledge that other people…gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Gratitude & Wellbeing

For the specific purposes of positive psychology, gratitude is a powerful tool for increasing well-being in all sorts of settings. The benefits of practicing gratitude are also not tied to any sort of specific pathology, which is also in line with the values of positive psychology research.

Expressing your thanks can really improve your overall sense of well-being: studies show that grateful people are more agreeable, more open, and less neurotic. ₁

How to practice gratitude

There are all sorts of ways to practice gratitude, and the best way to start is by trying a range of practical options.

  1. Gratitude Journaling

Gratitude Journaling is a tried and true way to document your grateful thoughts, and also a way in which to return to those thoughts for some further “contagious” inspiration!

However, it can be used poorly from a practical perspective – and simply writing “ I am grateful for my family” on a daily basis can restrict the actual benefits to wellbeing, and diminish the overall motivation to practice gratitude.

Expert Tip: In a similar way to which goal-setting works – being as specific as possible, and opening up to new interpretations of your gratitude is important. For example, gratitude for family could be “I am grateful for the laughs that my daughter gave me this morning” etc.

  1. Gratitude Jar

One nice way to keep your gratitude fresh is to place gratitude “thank notes” in a jar – and release and reflect at a later stage.

Expert Tip: This can work well personally, and also can be used successfully to drive team engagement and show appreciation for each other.

  1. Show-off your gratitude!

Gratitude can be contagious, and sharing your gratitude and appreciation can really snowball into creating a positive mindset for you generally, and the people and relationships that you are involved with. Whether at home with family, with friends or teammates/work colleagues – by taking the time to demonstrate your gratitude you are effectively reinforcing these behaviours, and influencing others to reciprocate.

Expert Tip: Share your grateful message on a group email, social media post or keep it fun by leaving a note in a team common area.

Why Everyday is an R U OK Day

R U Ok day is more than just about suicide prevention. It is about taking the time out to find out how our family and friends are doing, taking the time to connect with one another and reflect on our well-being. Well-being of not just others, but also ourselves.

But how do we go about doing it? Is there a right way? Are we saying the right things?

  • You: The first thing to ask yourself is whether you are ready to hear “No” as an answer to that question. Are you willing and in the right mindset to be there unconditionally for that person? It is ok if you don’t think you are the right person or might not have the coping skills to manage it. Like we hear on airplanes, it is important to put on your own mask before helping someone else. Maybe we can find someone else in our network to check in or find a suitable time to be there for them. Sometimes, simply knowing you are there for them helps.
  • Asking the question: This is the easier part- being genuine in asking them how they are doing and what has been happening is enough. Mentioning any changes you might have noticed in them can prompt them to share more than a superficial “I’m good”.
  • Listen: Just be a non-judgemental ear. It is not about solving their problem or telling them “It’s normal” (unless they ask for it). Let them talk about their feelings, no matter how irrational it may sound to you. That is their truth and the validation that someone can listen without judging is sometimes all we need.
  • Help: We are more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Sometimes asking them the person if they have been through something similar and reminding them of how they got through it, reminds them of their strengths. Encourage them to seek help and reduce stigma of professional help through examples of personal experience.
  • Continued care: Continuing to help them through the recovery process and continuing to check up on them reminds people of their support network. It reminds them that they don’t have to do it alone.

As Ellen Degeneres says, Be kind to one another!

 

 

Is “feeling down” an emotion?

By Aki Shrestha

 

Emotional vocabulary. Finding the appropriate words to describe your emotions. Sound simple? How hard can it possibly be to communicate how you are feeling when you are well spoken, articulate and have an extensive vocabulary? Well… harder than you think. One of the most vital and primary steps to taking care of your emotional and mental health is being able to actually understand what and how you feel. When asked how they are feeling, most people can be heard saying “I feel good”, “feel down”, “ feel upset” or “feel angry”. These seem within reach for most. This is because emotions like anger are stronger emotions that are easy to feel. If you imagine an iceberg, anger is what can be seen above the water. What about the part of the iceberg underneath the water? Is it sadness, jealousy, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt or something else that is making you angry?

Not being able to put into words how we feel can be extremely overwhelming. It restricts our capacity to think and act clearly and can often manifest in physical symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. It can result in our reactions being excessive relative to the situation due to all our emotions coming at us like something explosive, which then results in more guilt and self-blame. Labelling emotions not only helps us manage these somatic symptoms and regulate our emotions, but also helps us communicate better in our relationships and go through life more smoothly.

Numerous neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that when individuals are shown pictures of faces with strong emotions without any labels, they display greater activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that has increased activation to ambiguous situations and activates our alarm system to protect against danger). However, by just attaching a label to that emotion, the brain images showed less activity in the amygdala and increases in their right Ventrolateral prefrontal cortex; a part of the brain that is involved in vigilance and categorisation of emotions. This reduces the impact of the emotion by inhibiting our behaviour and processing our emotions so that they are easier to manage.

 

So how do we learn to process our emotions? Instead of trying to stop feeling a certain negative emotion (which is what most of us try and do), it might be more helpful to get closer to it, identify it and put a label on it. If finding the right emotion is extremely difficult, it often helps to have a list of adjectives that describe numerous emotions. Once you have identified it, find a couple more that describe that emotion. Does feeling annoyed or resentful describe your feeling better than angry? Does it lessen or magnify the impact? Glancing at those emotions time and again and putting pen to paper regarding what the effect of that emotion has on your body is often a good start. Those of you who are action oriented are probably wondering, now that I have identified the emotions, now what? The problem with us is that we are always in a rush to “fix” these negative feelings. Are we in such a hurry to change our happier, more positive emotions?

The simple attention to your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations without judgement and a desire to rectify is the basic premise of Mindfulness, a technique borrowed from ancient Eastern Buddhist traditions by evidence based psychotherapy approaches like Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The goal is to observe and describe your thoughts and emotions without engaging with them. This allows us to be more present and more engaged in the moment. At the end of the day, those are only your thoughts, not facts. Using what psychologists call Diffusion, attempt to distance yourself from those thoughts that are generating those emotions. Visualise them as leaves on a stream, clouds passing the sky or even just adding “I’m having the thought that…” to your thought to help distance yourself from what you believe are facts. While these techniques require time and effort to learn, it will help get a better understanding of ourselves and enable us to regulate our emotions better.

 

Aki is available for Psychology appointments at our Docklands Location.