Some Simple Gratitude Exercises

The expression of gratitude does not have to be confined to extended gratitude meditations.  In fact, the more often you can find simple ways to express gratitude, the more readily will you achieve a brain makeover from negative thoughts to a positive outlook and impact positively on those you interact with.  It is a two-way street though – an extended gratitude meditation can deepen your overall sense of gratitude while regular expressions of gratitude can keep this positive emotion top of mind and impact your behaviour on an ongoing basis.

Simple gratitude exercises

If you have a suite of simple gratitude exercises, you are more likely to practise them and extend your expression of gratitude throughout the day as different gratitude prompts occur.  Here are some gratitude exercises to get you started:

Making your “thank you” a conscious act

Stephanie Domet suggests that we can improve the quality of our daily expression of gratitude to others by being really present when we say “thank you”.  We can often be distracted, mouth the words as a matter of course without real feeling behind them or become focused on our next action without being really present to the person we are “communicating” with.  The person receiving the communication can sense whether you mean what you say or are just going through the motions.  If you are not present when you say the words, your positive intent is lost as are the benefits for yourself and the other person.

Savour the moment through your senses

Elaine Smookler provides a comprehensive explanation of a 5-minute exercise that involves progressively engaging each of your senses in-the-moment.  She maintains that this practice builds personal resilience when the waves of life wash over you – when things don’t turn out as you expected.  Elaine also provides a guided meditation podcast within her article.  This approach helps to switch your brain from a deficit mentality to one of appreciating life’s small blessings.

Reflecting on your day with gratitude

Towards the end of each day, it pays to look back on the day and reflect on what you have appreciated about your day – the people you have interacted with and the friendships involved, the opportunities that have come your way, the ease of conversation, the chance to achieve something worthwhile, acquiring new skills or knowledge (or enhancing existing knowledge/skills), gaining insights, growing in awareness (both internal and external).  The list of things to be grateful for goes on endlessly once you set your mind to it.  This simple exercise of appreciating the small things in life on a daily basis helps us to break free of self-doubt or negative thoughts and builds our confidence and potentiality.

Building gratitude into your daily life – choosing a simple or extended gratitude exercise

You can build your appreciation and sense of gratitude very quickly through these exercises and deepen your gratitude with more extended meditation practice.  The secret is to head down this path of appreciation and its attendant benefits by choosing something, a simple or extended practice, that you can build into your daily life.  It needs to be something that suits your lifestyle so that you can sustain it over time and make it an integral part of your life.  One gratitude practice will then lead to another and change your outlook on life as well as your interactions.

As you grow in mindfulness through simple gratitude exercises and/or extended gratitude meditation, you will build your awareness of the positive aspects of your life, develop greater resilience and strengthen your relationships.  Time spent reflecting on the things you appreciate each day will bring a rich reward.

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The Benefits of Gratitude

Increasingly research into gratitude has highlighted the benefits of being grateful and expressing that feeling through thought, writing or action.

Neuroscientist, Glenn Fox, in his article, “What the brain reveals about gratitude“, argues that scientific studies have established that expressing gratitude can improve your health, your relationships and your overall happiness.  He also asserts that recent research demonstrates that gratitude alleviates depression.

In support of this view, Joel Wong and Joshua Brown established through their research that gratitude practice helps people who experience mental health issues as well as people who are mentally healthy.  They postulate that practising gratitude displaces “toxic emotions” such as anger and resentment through the cultivation of positive emotions such as appreciation.

Wong & Brown, drawing on their research, demonstrate that just the act of expressing gratitude has substantial personal benefits and that sharing the expression of gratitude is not essential to realise these benefits.  Their research entailed a control group of participants writing “gratitude letters”.  They established that the benefits of being grateful grow over time and that there are sustained, positive effects on the brain, including “greater neural sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex” which leads to improved mental health over time.

They comment insightfully:

Much of our time and energy is spent pursuing things that we currently don’t have.  Gratitude reverses our priorities to help us appreciate the people and things that we do have.

Robert Emmons in his ground-breaking article, “Why gratitude is good“, shares the results of research undertaken with his colleagues and lists the demonstrated physical, psychological and social benefits of gratitude.  He asserts that gratitude entails more than appreciating what is good in our life – it also involves acknowledging the people who have enabled that “goodness”.  This entails recognising that the source of what we experience as good is often someone outside of ourselves.

The researchers designing these research studies often had participants produce a gratitude journal – recording on a regular basis the things that they are grateful for.  We can generate the positive energy of gratitude by reflecting on what is good in our past life or in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditation, we train our brain to recognise what is good in our life, to appreciate the contribution of others to our happiness and mental health and to express that gratitude often and spontaneously. Through this state of positivity, we are better able to handle the challenges and stresses in our life.

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The Positive Energy of Gratitude

Karen Newell contends from her research and experience that gratitude generates positive energy within us and around us, helping others we interact with.  Daily gratitude meditation can still your mind, open your heart and increase your connection to the world around you.  There are so many things that we can be grateful for – whether in the past or the present.

Reflection on our past – gratitude for all we have learned and experienced

Reflection on our past can open up appreciation for our parents, our upbringing, the mentors we have experienced, our friends at school and at work, our education and the opportunities that were provided to us – whether at home, at work or within our community.  A life review can give us access to these endless catalysts for gratitude.

Reflecting on our parents could open up appreciation for the opportunities they created, the sacrifices they made for us, the support they provided in difficult times and the lessons they taught us in how to live our lives.  We may have learned the enriching gift of gratitude and kindness from one or other of our parents who modelled this stance in their daily life.

Reviewing your past with openness and curiosity will increase your awareness of what you had that you can be grateful for.  When you look at the opportunities that you had in your life to date, you can see so much that opened new paths for you or consolidated existing paths.  You could even draw a snake-like image with different bends in its body to illustrate the positive turning points in your life that led to a greater source of accomplishment, contribution or personal enrichment.

Gaining positive energy from gratitude for the present 

The present offers so much to be grateful for – even the very air that we breathe so many times each day.  We can think of the knowledge, skills and understanding that we have that open opportunities on so many fronts – in our work, relationships, family and communities.

Our knowledge of technology and the internet open new ways of connecting, building relationships and creating new things – such as blogs, videos, podcasts, websites, social groups and online resources.  We can express appreciation for these opportunities and resolve to use them to better ourselves and the world around us.

There is so much to savour in our daily lives – we could savour the space of being alone, the development of our children, our achievements and rewards, nature and its beauty, the stillness and calm that comes with regular meditation practice.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become increasingly aware of what we have to be grateful for and tap into the positive energy that will surround us and others as we express our gratitude for our past and our present.  Regular gratitude meditation will enrich our lives and those we come in contact with.

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Being Mindful of the Past and the Future

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and doing so in a way that is open to, and accepting of, whatever is the reality of our lives.  It means not resisting our lives but approaching our lives with curiosity and a willingness to be with the present moment.

We often hear in the context of mindfulness that it is important not to be lost in the past (which leads to depression) or in the future (which leads to anxiety).  However, the past and the future have a positive role to play in our lives.

Mindful of the past

The opposite to being mindful of the past is to be always living in the past – obsessing about what might have been, what we could have done.  It is replaying in our head the negative things we have done or experienced – going over and over them so that the past controls us.  We can become obsessed about the past and stuck on what happened, unable to let go.  This inevitably leads to disappointment, frustration, sadness, resentment and depression.

Being mindful of the past can involve a positive approach to life.  If we reflect on our actions and the outcomes, intended and unintended, we can learn from this process, if it is done in a non-judgmental way.   Through reflection, we can really grow in self-awareness and self-management, because we can recognise the negative triggers, our responses and alternative ways of acting and being-in-the-world.

When we engage in gratitude meditation we can revisit in a positive way what has happened for us in the past.  We can appreciate the skills we have developed, the opportunities to acquire qualifications, the support of our parents/siblings/friends, the synchronicity that flowed from our focus, and the opportunities that opened up for us because of our life circumstances.

Mindful of the future

Approaching the future mindlessly can involve obsessing about the negative things that can potentially happen in our lives.  The word “potentially” is used consciously here- much of what we imagine will never happen.  We can easily get into a spiral of negative thoughts that leads to catastrophising- envisaging the worst possible outcome.  Unfortunately, our minds have a negative bias but we can train our minds to be positive in outlook and open to opportunities that may come our way.  A morbid fixation on the future can only lead to fear, worry and anxiety and destroy our potential for happiness in the present.

We need to attend to the future and this can be healthy and positive.  We have to plan ahead for many things such as getting to work, what to wear, what to focus on for the day, what we will have for dinner, what social events we will engage in on the weekend and our upcoming holiday.   Such planning and thoughts about the future are natural.   However, if we become overly concerned about what might happen or how our life will turn out in the future, we can enter a negative anxiety spiral.

Being mindful of the future requires a healthy approach to planning (not planning obsessively) and a willingness to accept what arises in our lives despite our very best plans.  It also means not being controlled by the expectations of others or our own expectations of how things might work out.

A meditation on the past and the future

Tara Brach provides a meditation podcast on exploring the past and the future. In the meditation she encourages you to notice any tension in your body arising from thoughts about the past or the future.  She suggests that you do not entertain these thoughts but let them pass by like the train as you wait at the station.  Her advice is to continuously come back to the focus of your meditation, such as your breathing or sounds that surround you, whenever your mind wanders into the past or the present.

Tara suggests too that if you are focusing on sounds, you could try to tune into the furthest sound you can hear and to rest in the sense of expansiveness that results.  The primary goal, however, is to rest fully in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection and meditation, we can become mindful of the past and the future and avoid being captured by either.  We can extract from the past and the future positive thoughts and avoid dwelling on the negative which can lead to sadness and unhappiness.  We can learn to happily appreciate the present moment – the summation of our past and the positive potentiality of our future.

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Meditation and Mental Health

Jonathan Kryiger and Andrew H. Kemp, researchers at the University oF Sydney, discussed meditation and mental health in a blog post titled, Beyond Spirituality: the role of meditation in mental health.

in their article, they identify a number of benefits for mental health reported in research on meditation.  They indicate how meditation, both by expert practitioners and people who meditate for short periods of time, can result in positive changes in their body, brain, emotional regulation ability and rate of ageing.

Of particular note, is the ability of meditation to assist in the treatment and management of acute and chronic pain.  Particular forms of mindfulness meditation such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) demonstrate positive results in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety.

Meditation and regulating emotions to achieve mental health

While the generic benefits noted above can be realised through different forms of meditation, the focus of mindfulness meditations can vary considerably.  Throughout this blog, we have mentioned some meditations that target specific negative emotional responses that are injurious to mental health:

  • Forgiveness meditation, in which we focus on forgiving another person who has caused us harm or hurt, aims to reduce resentment which can undermine our self-esteem, self-confidence and effectiveness
  • Self-forgiveness meditation targets the never-ending cycle of self-criticism and negative self-evaluation which brings with it debilitating shame and guilt
  • Gratitude meditation can help to reduce depression which can disable us from taking constructive action in the various arenas of our daily life
  • Equanimity meditation helps us to replace mental agitation and disappointment with calmness and self-assurance
  • R.A.I.N. meditation helps us to face the “fear within” and frees us from the disabling effects of fear and anxiety that hinder our capacity to live fully and creatively
  • Somatic meditation enables us to get in touch with our bodies and progressively remove the emotional imprint of adverse events or trauma manifested in muscle tightness or pain
  • Loving kindness meditation focused on others can take us beyond damaging self-absorption and self-preoccupation and free us to access peace and happiness through the appreciation of others and their contributions to the quality of our lives.

The weekly meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA can extend the range of meditations we employ to target unhelpful and unhealthy emotions that impact the quality of our mental health.

As we grow in mindfulness through focusing our meditations on replacing negative emotions with positive ones, we can experience real growth in our mental health and our capacity to live life fully and creatively, develop loving and fulfilling relationships and avoid the downward spiral of mental illness.

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Building Resilience

Resilience in a work context does not mean being able to endure a toxic work environment or unfair situation – it is not the equivalent of endurance.  Resilience is about our capacity to rebound or “bounce back” from a negative or personally challenging experience.

In a work situation, the negative experience could be the loss of a job, failure to gain a promotion, a conflict with a colleague or supervisor or an adverse experience with a customer or client.

Our life experiences, both positive and negative, shape who we are as does our responses to these experiences.  We can see negative experiences as learning opportunities or wallow in resentment that things did not turn out as we expected them to.

Building resilience

Through reflection and developing acceptance and self-compassion, we can change our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and undesirable events. I have often found that not achieving the promotion I really wanted at the time, created the opportunity to move onto much more engaging and challenging work elsewhere – new work that took me out of my comfort zone but provided rich rewards.

We can learn to accept the things we cannot change but grow in insight about the things that we can change – including our own learned behaviour and fixed beliefs.  Matthew Johnstone in his short, illustrated book, The Big Little Book of Resilience, argues that we are capable of improving, evolving and developing after the “scar of life-altering events”.

Matthew also reinforces the fact that positive life experiences that we undertake voluntarily (e.g. studying a degree or engaging in a long “fun run” for charity) often involve challenges and setbacks and can serve to build resilience as we overcome the difficulties along the way.

Two mindfulness researchers in India maintain from their research that “mindfulness breeds resilience“:

Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation (such as forgiveness meditation and gratitude meditation), we can  build resilience because mindfulness increases our “response ability” – our ability to extend the gap between stimulus and response and to develop a response that is constructive rather than destructive.  It also helps us to gain insight into our own biases, false assumptions and distorted perceptions that could otherwise lead to lingering discontent.

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The Last Lecture – Mindful Living

Randy Pausch, the author of The Last Lecture, was a Professor  of Computer Science at the Carnegie Mellon University specialising in the design of Virtual Reality.  He died from pancreatic cancer on 25 July 2008 after being diagnosed with the disease in the summer of 2006.

Randy’s book traces his life, his medical experience, giving his last lecture and his life’s lessons and achievements.  His Last Lecture, given on the 18th September 2007, was videotaped and is available here.   The lecture has been viewed by millions of people who admire Randy’s inspiration, insight, humour, intelligence and wisdom.

Randy, even though he was obviously dying from cancer at the time, wanted to leave a legacy for his three young children in terms of the lessons he had learned in life – often the hard way by making mistakes.  Some of his insights into the way to live your life are pertinent to developing mindfulness.

Lessons on mindfulness from Randy Pausch

I can’t recall Randy talking about mindfulness in his book or his lecture, but he did have some insights and values that I think are particularly relevant to mindfulness:

Show Gratitude

Being grateful for what you have and what people have done for you is important, because it is part of growing in self-awareness and understanding how you came to achieve what you have achieved.  Randy also talks about the “lost art of the thank-you note” as a timely way to express appreciation.

He went even further and decided to take his 15-member research team (working on virtual reality) to a week-long visit to Disney World in Florida.  Besides enjoying the entertainment, they were also able to take in some educational activities relevant to their studies and research.  He provided this expensive trip as a way to “pay it forward” his gratitude for the mentoring he received from Any van Dam.

Gratitude requires being present to notice what people have done for you and developing an appreciation mindset through gratitude meditation. Often, we are grateful, but fail to express it.   Through this form of meditation, we become more aware of the opportunities to show gratitude and ways to express it.

Seeking forgiveness genuinely

There are many times when we are hurt by the words and actions of others – it is part of being human on both sides of the hurt dyad.  We hurt others and they hurt us.  We can’t avoid this, although as we grow in mindfulness we become more aware of their feelings and what effect our words and actions have on them.

Randy stresses the importance of seeking forgiveness genuinely – in his own words, “A bad apology is worse than no apology”.  He argues that we should not apologise in such a way that we are not genuineor in a way that is designed only to obtain an apology from the other person.   While hurt can be a two-way street, it does not rectify the situation to actively seek an apology from the other party – they may apologise in their own due time.  If you want someone to change their behaviour, you are more likely to achieve this if you change your own behaviour first.

Forgiveness meditation helps us to develop the readiness and willingness to apologise for the hurt we cause others.  In the process of this meditation, we can ask for forgiveness from others – which makes us acutely aware of the reality that we are not the only one hurting.  Associated with this, is the need to also practise self-forgiveness meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and learning from the inspiration of others such as Randy Pausch, we can develop the awareness and mindset that makes us willing and able to show gratitude and to genuinely seek forgiveness.

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Slow Down for Gratitude

In the previous post, I discussed being mindful at work.  Among, the suggested ways to be mindful in this environment were slowing down and being grateful.  If we slow the pace of our life wherever we are, we can focus on gratitude and develop not only a positive outlook on life but also the resilience to bounce back from setbacks, challenges and difficulties.

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), maintains that mindfulness is very much about living more in the present moment.  In line with this view, she explains the nature of mindfulness in the following way:

Mindfulness is about paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is.

Diana provided this explanation when introducing a gratitude meditation as part of the UCLA’s free, weekly Mindful Awareness Podcasts.   In this podcast she highlights the value of being grateful for the small things that make up our daily lives, from moment to moment.

Gratitude for the small things in life

It is not a big deal to be grateful for the small things in our life that we take so much for granted.  We can overcome this lack of appreciation through overfamiliarity by slowing down what we are doing and expressing appreciation for the small things in our lives.  This can be done as part of a meditation process or “on-the-go-slow”.

Firstly, we can focus on our senses and the wondrous world that is open to us through sight, sound, touch, taste and hearing.   With sight alone, we have access to colours, shapes, lightness and darkness and the never-ending variety of the sky, the flowers and trees, the birds and the animals we encounter in nature.

With hearing, we can access a very wide variety of sounds, the nuances in people’s voices, the chorus of birds and the buzz of life around us.  Recently, I was playing a game of tennis against a young man who was deaf and his sister, and it prompted me in the moment to be grateful for my hearing.  He communicated with his sister by sign language but was unable to communicate with myself and my partner except by hand movements and limited facial expressions.  His hearing impediment clearly affected his game.  On reflection, I am now conscious that he could not hear the sound of the ball leaving the racquet and be able to judge the speed and distance of the ball that comes with hearing this sound.  So, there is a lot to be grateful for with the sense of hearing.

On another occasion, I was playing tennis with a male partner who was becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated with losing points because of his lack of timing and coordination.  The temptation was to join in with him and express my own frustration at my own lack of timing – negativity is contagious.  However, for once, I just expressed gratitude that I could be playing tennis after a long layoff, that I could run and still play some good shots.  I sensed, too, that my partner gained better self-control by the end of the game through the influence of my calmness and focus – positivity is contagious. If we slow down, and savour the moment and what we have, we can achieve better self-management through control over our emotions and our responses.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can more often be-in-the-moment, and develop our positive outlook on life and build our resilience in the face of setbacks, whether at work or play.

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Gratitude in Times of Difficulty

Having gratitude in times of difficulty can increase resilience and overcome depression, anxiety and despair.  Gratitude changes the quality of life that we are living as we gain better control over our thoughts and feelings and learn to accept what is.

As you develop this practice, you start to see things that you had not noticed before, the taken-for-granted things in your life.  Diana Winston recalls noticing the way sunlight reflects on a plant and the assorted colours that were in a painting on her wall.  She attributes this increased awareness and associated thankfulness to taking the time to slow down and meditate on the place where she was – very much a form of open awareness meditation.

So, mindfulness and gratitude go hand-in-hand, in a two-way reinforcement.  As you meditate, you become more aware of what you are grateful for and your growing gratitude, in turn, helps you to be more aware of positive experiences and people in your life.

Gratitude in times of difficulty

We so often miss the simple things of life that are before us and can act as a stimulus for gratitude.  In times of difficulty, it can be very hard to look beyond what we are experiencing and suffering from and, yet, the simple things in our life can be easily noticed and employed to pull us out of our self-absorption.   When we are experiencing difficulties, we often can’t see beyond what is challenging our equanimity.

Somatic meditation can be very helpful in times of challenge, whether the challenge relates to health of our body, our mental state or an external negative stimulus.  Adopting a meditative position, in the first instance, enables us to get in touch with our breathing and provides the stillness to observe our own body as we undertake a body scan and progressively release the tension within.

This physical grounding and release provides the foundation to turn our minds to what we are grateful for.  A recent experience may become the focus of your appreciation.  For example, in a recent meditation, the focus of my gratitude was a conversation I had the day before with a long-standing colleague and close friend.  I recalled the ease of the conversation as we were “shooting the breeze”, the deep connection through shared experiences and convictions, the exploration of new terrain, the supportive challenge to perspectives, the mutual respect and admiration and the challenge to identify what gives me a “buzz” at a time of semi-retirement.

Reflecting on this recent experience made me realize the warmth of the interaction and the things that I value about the friendship which lie below my consciousness because I have never attempted to express my gratitude for this profound connection.  Our meeting was not only a face-to-face conversation, but also a meeting of minds – a source of mutual enrichment.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditations, we start to see things that we have taken for granted, appreciate more deeply and explicitly what we value in our experiences and friendships and  strengthen our inner resources to deal with the challenges that confront us.

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Being Grateful

In the previous post, I discussed how savoring the moment and the experience of pleasantness nurtures the seeds of happiness.  This savoring of the many things in our life that generate positive feelings, leads naturally to a sense of gratitude.

Being grateful

Rachel Naomi Remen who suffered unbelievably from Crohn’s disease learned how her inner strength grew with appreciating the many things in her life that she took for granted.  Rachel writes in her best-selling book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, that appreciating the small things in life can make us strong enough to deal with the big things, such as cancer and chronic illness.  She encourages us to be grateful for “the grace of a hot cup of coffee, the presence of a friend, the blessing of having a new cake or soap or an hour without pain”.

These small things are so much a part of our daily life that we overlook them until we lose them.  The same applies to our health which we so often take for granted.  Tara Brach urges us to go beyond the “to-do list”, focused on doing things, to creating a “to-be list” that focuses on being.  Whether we call it “soul” or “life force” or “consciousness”, our inner resources develop as we nourish the sense of gratitude for what is a normal part of our daily life.

Cultivating gratitude

Tara suggests a number of ways to cultivate gratitude including engaging a “gratitude buddy” (who you email every day with your gratitude list), savoring moments of pleasantness, developing a gratitude journal and/or regularly undertaking a gratitude meditation.   As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “we become what we pay attention to” – we become grateful by paying attention to the things that we are grateful for.

Gratitude enables us to deal with the challenges of daily life that would otherwise disturb our tranquility and calmness.  It opens us up  to appreciating and serving others through empathy and compassion.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become much more aware of what we value in our life, develop gratitude and build our inner resources and resilience.

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