Gratitude doesn’t take away the negative that is arising, but it can offer a perspective that can help us to deal with the whatever is arising.
Years ago, I was teaching a mindfulness class, and during our week focusing on gratitude, there was an older gentleman, probably in his 60’s, that shared with the group that earlier that morning, he had gotten into a big argument with his wife. With tears in his eyes, he said, “but I’m so grateful that I have her to argue with.” Now, that’s a perfect example of how gratitude can shift our mindset out of negativity and give us a different perspective from which to see the situation at hand. It doesn’t make what we are angry or frustrated about disappear, but it does calm down our brains and our bodies, allowing us a greater ability to be present, and to respond and not react.
Building an attitude of gratitude is something that is easier said than done; it’s a habit to focus on the negative. And according to neuroscience, it’s actually not only a habit for us to have this negativity bias, but it evolved out of evolutionary purposes for self-protection.
Back in caveman days, if there was a bear in the cave or ten fish in the sea that you could catch and feed your family, which would you focus on the most? The bear or the fish? Obviously, the bear – it’s self-protective! Modern day analogy – if you are given one criticism or ten compliments, which are you likely to remember the most? The criticism! Why? It’s self-protective – by focusing on it is a way to help prevent yourself from feeling that feeling again.
So because of this natural tendency to focus on the bad, we have to fight an uphill battle not only to look for the good, but to focus on the good. Rick Hanson, author of the book Hardwiring Happiness refers to this process being ‘Velcro to the negative and Teflon to the positive.’ We easily get stuck on the bad and have a hard time even noticing the good.
Our brains are also designed in such a way that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the more you focus on a thought, and think about that thought, and ruminate on that thought, that neurons are going to fire off and connect with nearby neurons, strengthening that thought into your neural code and becoming part of your implicit way of being. So really, you are what you think! And because we are designed to focus on the negative, we are often left feeling not so great about ourselves and situations around us.
With mindfulness practice – through awareness – you can notice that you are focusing on the negative and choose to make a mental shift to focusing on the positive. That’s where the gratitude comes in!! The more you focus and ruminate on the positive – those neurons are going to fire and wire together, strengthening the positivity into your neural code and becoming part of your implicit way of being. What a great thing! We can actually rewire our brains towards becoming happier and healthier people!
Here are 5 simple steps to bringing in the gratitude:
- Notice where your mind’s attention is resting, without judgment.
- If it’s focused on the negative, make the conscious choice to look for something positive to focus on instead.
- Continue to breathe into the positive thought, noticing how your body feels when you ruminate on the good.
- When you mind shifts back to the negative (which it will, cause not only are you human, but habits take time to break!), practice being non-judgmental: take a deep breath to get yourself back into the present and your intentions.
- Be kind to yourself – offer yourself a message of self-compassion: “It’s hard to shift out of this thought, but I can do this!!” And then go back to the positive thought.