The Gratitude Thing

Photo credit: Limevelyn

It’s not exactly breaking news that gratitude is a good thing. Psychologists, medical scientists, spiritual leaders, friendly fitness magazines, talk show hosts, your grandmother...everyone seems to be in agreement that you need a whole hell of a lot more of it.

In fact, happiness research studies reveal a bunch of cool benefits you get from feeling grateful. People who consciously cultivate gratitude have better health, achieve more of their goals, exercise more, sleep better, improve their relationships, become more generous, experience more positive feelings, and are way less of a pain in the ass for other people to deal with.

And unlike other reliable sources of mood elevation (i.e. chocolate, music, massages, champagne, sex, naps, double cappuccinos etc) gratitude can be enjoyed any time of day, in almost any situation.  Plus, gratitude is free!

So now that we've got our year-end griping out of the way, some of us are getting ready to embark on New Years Resolutions That Will Magically Turn Us Into Extraordinary Super-Humans.  If getting in touch with gratitude can super-charge our optimism, goal achievement, sleep, relationships, health, motivation, and happiness, that's gotta be handy, right?

Cultivating Gratitude

Some people are naturally more grateful.  It doesn't matter what crappy circumstances they find themselves in, these folks always find plenty of things to be thankful about. (What? Susie got sent home from second grade with head lice? Well that's excellent! Let's both stay home from work, borrow a microscope and make a biology lesson out it while we boil our bedding!) Others of us, sadly, have to wrestle a little harder with our Inner Crabs in order to turn our natural-born grumbling into gratitude.

Some Obvious Reminders about How to Be More Grateful:

1. Make an Effort to Stop and Appreciate Stuff That Makes You Happy

Sure, we all know this is smart, but do you actually make a conscious effort to do it?  If not, don't feel bad: apparently,  due to a neurological negativity bias, we humans naturally suck at this.  Our brains are wired so that all the shitty stuff that happens during the day stands out much more in our minds than the good stuff.  (The evolutionary theory being that if our prehistoric ancestors failed to remember how lovely a sunrise looked or how pretty a flower smelled, it wasn't a big deal.  However, if they forgot which berries poisoned Uncle Throg or what happens if you step on a nest of cobras, those spacey genes had a much smaller chance of getting passed down.)

So tell your hyper-vigilant cavewoman or caveman brain to chill out.  Remind yourself that you haven't noticed any cobras on the subway lately, and it's perfectly ok to be happy and appreciative.  Take half a minute to to savor that excellent cup of coffee, that unexpected compliment, that quiet evening at home, or that $178 million lotto jackpot you just won. (Ok, you probably don't need instructions on that last one, but if it happens and you have any questions, just invite me over and I'll be happy to help).

2. Set Up Some Structure

Hopelessly hokey, right? And I have to confess: just looking at the photo of the "Gratitude Rocks" journal at the top of the post makes me feel a bit barfy.  The only reason I deleted a sarcastic caption was my fear that the woman who took it might google her image and come here and see the caption and get her feelings hurt.  Wait, but what if she came here and actually stuck around to read this far down the post? Yikes!! (I'm so sorry, nice gratitude journal lady!  It's just a little cranky here sometimes, which is all the more reason Crabby needs your fine photo even if its perky sincerity does make her head throb).

Anyway, if you are like me, you may have discovered that a vague intention to embark on a self-improvement scheme rarely results in anything actually happening unless accompanied by a plan and some method of accountability.

So if you want to start feeling more grateful, study after study shows that keeping a list or a journal helps. Other ideas: a bedtime routine of thinking of 5 things to feel grateful for before you close your eyes or a commitment to trade weekly gratitude emails with a friend. (An idea stolen from Jenn and Tish of the Fabulous FBG's). Or how about periodic reminders in your calendar program to take a deep breath and appreciate something? A visit to Leah's or Jody's blogs that have weekly gratitude posts you can connect with and comment? Any system you can come up with that helps you step back and recognize some of the awesome things in life you have to be grateful for is worth a try.

3. Play "It Could Be Worse"

This one rarely works for me, but I'll pass it on because so many people use it successfully. "Oh you got talked into rollerblading against your better judgment, and broke your leg in three places? Well, be grateful they didn't have to amputate!"

It's true that things could always be worse, and keeping this in mind makes many people feel grateful for their relative health and happiness. It's just that for me, reminders that Even More Horrible Things Could Happen tend to make me anxious that they're on the way instead of grateful that they haven't arrived yet.

4. Find the Silver Lining.

OK, so back to the example of breaking your leg in three places.  What if this most unwelcome event results in you fearing weight gain from not doing your normal routine?  And so you finally feel motivated enough to institute a new healthy eating program that you've been meaning to do for years. And then let's say during the recovery period you're introduced to all kinds of physical therapy tricks, cross training methods, stress reduction techniques, and positive-thinking habits that you would have blown off if you weren't feeling all frustrated and desperate.  It could be that by the time you're healed from your broken leg, you find yourself in a healthier, happier, more balanced place than had you not had the Stupid Crappy Event happen to you in the first place.

The older I get, the more I've become convinced that Silver Linings are not just for the naturally optimistic. Because these happy accidents are reality, not just positive thinking! Depending on how they're handled, even "obviously" awful things can result in more positive consequences than negative ones.

Have you ever witnessed a heartbreaking divorce that led to much happier marriages for both parties? Or a totally unfair layoff that instigated a depressing job search... that landed a much more exciting job elsewhere?  Or a health scare that led to major positive lifestyle changes?  Smaller, boring, everyday examples abound: you miss your usual bus and end up sitting next to someone who tells you about a one-day sale at your favorite clothing store, and you stop there after work and get a winter coat you absolutely love for 85% off!  Noticing and appreciating the good things that come from bad things gives you more to feel grateful about. And as a bonus, this mindset makes "bad" things seem far less depressing--because you realize there could actually be sneaky positive outcomes down the road even if they're not immediately apparent.

5. Create More Things to be Grateful For

What if you're going around trying your hardest to find things to be grateful for, but they're mighty few and far between in your current situation?  You hate your job, your apartment is noisy and depressing, you're constantly bickering with your significant other, you're a City Girl living in a sleepy suburban bedroom community or you're a tree-huggin' mountain-climbing outdoorsy type penned up in a tiny studio in a ugly concrete neighborhood...

Well, in addition to the "attitude adjustment" piece, it's possible that you might want to look at some long-range planning to get more good stuff in your life so that you naturally feel more grateful and don't have to work so hard to appreciate those little golden nuggets of unsuckiness.

Start with looking at where you want to be a few years from now.  How might you make that happen?  What are your options?  What steps will you take to get there?  What will you do TODAY to propel yourself in the right direction? The more specific you get, the less chance you'll still be complaining about the same crappy situation decades from now.

(And, um, that brings us to a tacky reminder that if you need some help in this process, we know of a Life and Wellness Coach who has special Half Off life coaching rates! But sadly, the Big-Ass discount is due to expire in a few days.  Folks who email to set up an intake before January 1st 2011 can get in on the old rates, though if you're not quite ready--fear not! There will still be some sort of Cranky Fitness reader discount going forward, just perhaps not as large).

6. Start Appreciating Things... Right Now!

Heck, it'll only take you a few seconds to think of something.

I'll go first!

Because while I'm a notoriously cranky, whiny human, I would have to be a total moron not to realize how lucky I am. For me not to be grateful on a daily basis would be a ridiculous squandering of good fortune. (I also harbor a suspicion that if I fail to be properly grateful for things, the universe might up and take 'em away to teach me a lesson).

So my list could easily be a hundred items long and we ain't got all day. I'll just grab a few off the top:

1. The Lobster (wife of 21 years and IMHO the finest human on the planet);
2. A weird and wonderful bicoastal lifestyle (San Diego and Provincetown, two amazing places to live);
3. A happy career transition to Life Coaching, complete with Totally Inappropriate Marketing Platform and awesome, inspiring, amazing clients;
4. A supportive and kind family;
5. Clever, fun and generous friends, both near and far;
6. An amazing online community of bloggers and readers who inspire me and crack me up, as well as big funny successful sites like College Candy that kindly include me sometimes in their link roundups;
7. Mostly Excellent health;
8. Access to nutritious and delicious food as well as Inexcusable but Delightful Junk On Occasion;
9. Time and resources to exercise a lot and feel all energetic and strong; and finally,
10. Coffee, without which nothing else would be possible because I'd remain curled up in the fetal position all day.

Anything you feel especially grateful for today? Do you have a regular gratitude practice or any plans to start one? Ideas for feeling more appreciation? Or heck, be a week late and be completely disgruntled instead, it's all good!

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