What are you grateful for?
I’m sure a few things sprang to mind when you asked yourself this question. You likely thought of things you currently have in your life: family and friends, your nice house or car, your health.
If you practice gratitude for your present reality, you are only accessing one-third of this superpower.
This is a fabulous start. Research tells us that by practicing gratitude you will be happier, luckier and more fulfilled. Are you accessing the other two-thirds to bring more wealth, health and happiness into your life?
Gratitude heals the past.
We don’t get to where we are without our fair share of discomfort, pain and struggle. These past challenges are encoded into our brains to keep us safe, but they continue to induce fear, anxiety and panic at the thought of a similar incident.
You know what I mean, there’s a particular street you don’t like walking down because it reminds you of a particularly horrible fight you had with your controlling ex-boyfriend. If you need to head toward that part of town, or smell food similar to the street vendor near by on that day, you’re transported back to that horrible day.
Without choosing to, you’re suddenly reliving the memory. In your mind’s eye, you can see the scene in vivid detail, this triggers the release of brain chemicals and hormones as if you’re in that very same danger zone. The brain chemicals alert your stress response and your body is flooded with adrenaline, heart beating faster, muscles tensing.
It feels stressful and this chronic stress is unhealthy. We can’t maintain it and we can’t take the necessary risks to grow while we’re hanging onto this fear.
But how do we move from fear to safety? Gratitude.
In these moments, we can practice gratitude by first recognising that we’re in a safe place. We’re safe now and we don’t need this fear, not right now. As we pause and feel grateful, it jolt us back to the present, the peace, the safety. Our breath slows, our muscles relax and we create a temporary space to release this stress.
From a place of peace, we can further explore this deep pain etched in our memory to keep us safe and with gratitude, release it.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can zoom out and see that moment objectively as a plot on the greater path. Maybe, we can see how that pain made us stronger, helped us be more decisive or grow confidence. Maybe we stood up for our self-worth and developed the skills necessary for the next step in our life.
Maybe, through this horrid experience, we learned to recognise and appreciate kindness. Perhaps it gave us the gift of self-awareness and we learned how we push others away by taking offence or talking over them or demanding our own way.
There is almost always a lesson that we can be grateful for. In doing so, we reframe the painful past into an episode of learning and growth. We can choose to carry the lesson instead of the fear into our future.
Gratitude leads to making decisions by being informed by the past, not out of fear of the same situation. It creates space for us to objectively reflect, lowering our stress response and improving our inner health and self talk.
Gratitude motivates the future.
If we’re able to alter our experience of the past by seeing it through a lens of gratitude, is it possible we could also alter our future by looking at it through a lens of gratitude?
Imagine, for a moment, that you have a big meeting coming up. It’s critical for the development of the business and could mean the difference between getting the promotion you’re seeking or having your department consolidated. The stakes are high.
Typically, you would approach this situation from a position of anxiety, nervousness and stress. Your negativity bias has your focus solidly on what you stand to lose. As you try to fall asleep at night, your mind is whirring with what-if questions highlighting the risk: what if no one participates? what if they don’t get it? what if I fail and my whole team lose their jobs?
This approach, influenced by fear and worry and worst-case scenarios, triggers the release of brain chemicals and hormones that spark your stress response in anticipation of these events. Your heart beats faster, your muscles tense, your brain releases cortisol keeping you awake. Your anxiety winds up tighter and tighter until it is a knot in your stomach.
When you head to the meeting, you’re exhausted and on high alert. You pace up and down, tense your jaw and then, in a rush of adrenaline, you enter the room and deliver your presentation. Maybe you’ve done this so much that you’ve built a tolerance to stress hormones. You consider this the normal process and carry on. But is it your best work? Is it the only way?
A little bit of stress is good in these situations, it keeps you vigilant and motivates you to take action. But when the stress starts too early, when it becomes chronic, it burns you out and wears you down and you can’t do your best work from there.
What if we approached this scenario from a place of gratitude instead?
When we look at the future through the lens of gratitude, we are thankful for the outcome no matter what. Just like looking objectively at the past, we can imagine looking at this future situation as if it has already happened with that long-range perspective. If it goes horribly, we can be grateful for the opportunity, for the learning that will take place, for the future potential opportunities that await our staff. With gratitude, we can appreciate this worst-case scenario as only one possible outcome and move more quickly to being grateful for more positive outcomes.
We can share our gratitude with our future selves. “Thank you for showing up rested and willing to do your best work. Thank you for taking on this responsibility, for keeping your staff informed and at peace. Thank you for being objective, fair and approaching this situation with honesty and integrity instead of slipping into gossip and fear. Thank you for releasing control and trusting that it will work out exactly as it should.”
Gratitude about the future is driven by curiosity. It asks, “What outcome do I want to be grateful for? What can I learn from this experience? Who do I need to be, to think, feel and act, for a successful outcome? What does success look like anyway?”
The answers to these questions are clues to the thoughts, feelings and actions you need to take. They motivate forward momentum and imperfect action as opposed to paralysing fear.
How can you develop your gratitude practice to use more of this superpower?
- Gratitude can reframe the past releasing the fear and keeping the lesson and wisdom to help us make better decisions in the future.
- Gratitude pulls us into the present and helps us feel safe.
- Being grateful for the present makes us happier and more lucky.
- Practicing gratitude for future situations turns down the volume of fear and worry and opens the objective long-range perspective that helps us see potential successful outcomes.
- Gratitude drives curiosity which uncovers clues about thoughts, feelings and actions we need to move forward.
- Gratitude is healing, motivating and reflective because it reduces the stress response.