I currently spend four hours a day inside a Midwestern elementary school. In addition to memories of book fairs and cafeteria cookies, the experience is triggering vivid recollections of holiday craft time. In these schools, the hallways are lined with sequined-spotted paper turkeys, each one sporting the phrase, “I am grateful for ______.” The last part varies from turkey to turkey; some children are grateful for their parents, while others are grateful for food and shelter. Regardless of their answer, the kids are on to something.
As yogis, we are taught to embrace gratitude. It’s a safe place that we can return to in moments of stress and anxiety. But for some people, finding gratitude is a challenge. Which is not alarming. To quote a recent article from the New York Times, “gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult.”
But can we become more grateful even if our circumstances contradict the feeling? This article says yes. By actively choosing to practice gratitude, we increase our overall happiness.
From The New York Times:
This is not just self-improvement hokum. For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion.
So even if you don’t necessarily have something to be grateful for, find something. And write it down.
There have been countless studies on the effect of creating your own happiness, whether it’s through positive thinking, meditation, or laughing. The journal Cerebal Cortex illustrates the direct effect of gratitude on the hypothalamus, and how it is capable of stimulating the ventral tegmental area, which leads to pleasurable sensations. In other words, “choosing to be happy” is not as ridiculous as it sounds.
There are several things you can do in order to introduce a grateful mindset back into your life, starting with three different types of gratitude. The first, interior gratitude, is the practice of giving thanks privately. This means making a mental note to find the good in your situation. For example, thinking “I may not want to go to this work function, but I’m glad that I’m employed and grateful for those who took the time to plan this event.”
Another form is exterior gratitude, which encourages individuals to express thanks in a public forum. The New York Times describes it as follows:
The psychologist Martin Seligman, father of the field known as “positive psychology,” gives some practical suggestions on how to do this. In his bestseller “Authentic Happiness,” he recommends that readers systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.
Not only does this increase your own happiness, but you’re making someone else feel a bit better as well. After all, how often does someone randomly thank you? Unexpected kindness is always a treat.
The last one is to be grateful for the useless things. These can also be categorized as simple; the smell of coffee, the smooth exterior of an apple, and the textured bark of a tree all fall within this group.
This Christmas, whether you feel like it or not, find some time to search for the things that inspire gratitude. It might be as grand as your family, or as a simple as a jar of honey. Whatever you choose, take a moment to focus on the quiet blessings of this thing. You could even make a turkey for it.
Photo by Maria Gotay
Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com.