Practicing Gratitude for Mental Wellness
The founding father himself, George Washington, wanted to commemorate a day when the nation gave thanks together, but it took President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. What the early presidents couldn’t have known is that giving thanks, or practicing gratitude in current parlance, helps reduce stress, increase optimism, strengthen social bonds, and even lead to better sleep and physical health.
Integrating gratitude in our daily life is simple and free but it is also something we need to practice. It takes two months to create a new habit, so the first step is to acknowledge our desire for an updated perspective and prioritize gratitude by making time for it. Practicing gratitude includes both internal actions, something we do for ourselves as well as an external actions, something we can do for others that also supports our mental well-being.
Obstacles to Expressing Gratitude
We might already know that practicing gratitude is good for our mental wellness, but there are undoubtedly many obstacles on our path to happiness and feeling of satisfaction. The top of the list must be general, everyday stress. While the pandemic seems to have subsided, the war in Ukraine and threat of recession has heightened the sense of danger around us. We may feel that expressing gratitude at a time when so many are suffering may be insensitive. However, gratitude is the appreciation of small actions and everyday deeds and is essential for our mental well-being so we do not become overwhelmed with negative emotions.
Social media spawned its own phenomena with FOMO, fear of missing out. It is easy to feel envy and materialistic when looking at social posts of celebrities or influencers who seem to have lives that are easier or filled with more things. By expressing gratitude daily, we make room for ourselves, prioritize what is important and validate our thoughts and feelings. Every life has value and it’s not determined by the number of views or likes on social media, but rather the relationships we have with each other and how we can make our communities a better place.
How to Cultivate Gratitude
You don’t need much to start practicing gratitude. The first step is to hone your sense of observation. Be present during the day and acknowledge what makes you feel happy. It might be completing a project at work or watching a stranger help someone at the grocery store. The second step is setting aside time to acknowledge the event or feeling and open your heart.
If you are a night owl, it might make sense to practice gratitude at night, when the house is quiet, or maybe like me, the quietest time of day is when you are alone in your car. Perhaps start your day, in the car, with a gratitude affirmation and the intention of expressing appreciation.
Maintaining a gratitude journal is one of the best ways help our mental and physical wellness. In one recent study, teens who kept a gratitude journal experienced less materialism and expressed more generosity. There are many gratitude journals out there, but gratitude is free. It is amazing that doing good creates positive pathways in our brains and that humans seem to be hardwired for compassion and helping others. Journaling has also shown to help , improve eating habits, reduce heart disease and depression.
A self-care plan is like a promise to yourself and expressing gratitude should be a big component of the plan. A self-care plan aims to bolster your mental and physical wellness with concrete steps. By prioritizing yourself with a self-care plan, you are also assessing what kind of resources to you have to help and this alleviates undue stress.
Do you have the support you need at work? Do you know who you can turn to for emotional or intellectual support? Do you need to prioritize your health needs?
At its core, a self-care plan includes activities that you enjoy and make you feel good and also the people who can help you support your self-care plan. In addition to expressing gratitude, social connections are essential to our mental wellness.
Build in Compassion
To help cultivate gratitude, you might need to schedule in compassion. Studies have shown that building in more anticipation of positive experiences leads to better mental health. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to mentor a teenager in your community or become a volunteer docent at a museum.
Creating opportunities and events where you can anticipate doing something you like helps improve your mood. The anticipation can also be as simple as a taking a long walk with your dog after work or making plans to meet up with a friend. All of these future events and the anticipation of these events release dopamine in our brain, creating the pleasure sensation.
Pass It On
In our busy lives when there doesn’t seem like there’s time to do everything, it can be overwhelming to imagine how we might emotionally support others. Our thoughts are inward directed towards ourselves and our immediate family.
While this is no doubt important, we miss out on the benefits, both emotionally and psychologically, of sharing our gratitude with others. Begin slowly by showing appreciation to those around you with a simple thanks or acknowledgment.
Once the habit of expressing gratitude feels more comfortable and authentic, consider sending a note of appreciation or gratitude to someone in your life. Let them know how they made your day a little easier or just check in on them to let them know you are thinking about them. These small acts of kindness go a long way toward strengthening our bonds with each other.