Steps for How to Be Truly Grateful
“…But you have so much! Why are you sad? You should just be grateful!”
Don’t you hate it when someone says something like that? I sure do.
If you read my last post, Why Gratitude; Why a Thankful Brain is a Better Brain, you learned that the brain goes into deficit mode whenever it perceives an attack on our safety, mental, physical, or emotional. It makes no difference to the brain whether you are being chased by a tiger or in danger of losing a lifelong dream. This is not a character issue or a personal flaw. A brain on autopilot will go into deficit mode when faced with trying circumstances.
Gratitude, then, reminds you of what you have to fight for and with. It is an important way to restore balance.
“But wait,” you say. “Are you not just saying the same thing? I have things, so I should be grateful. End of story?”
Great question! I’m so glad you asked! I’m delighted to tell you that is not what I am saying. In fact, knowing you have things does nothing at all for you, no matter how many things you have! If your brain believes you to be under threat and you are not mindful, you will fight or flight it!
Do you see the key there? Yes. Mindfulness.
It may be helpful to quickly review what mindfulness is. First let me tell you what it is not. Mindfulness is not sitting in a toga, cross-legged for hours, meditating on a flower.
Meditation, like so many other things, is a practice that can lead to mindfulness, but it is not mindfulness itself. Mindfulness is a way of being, a mindset, and an overall life engagement style. It is what we do with awareness that changes the ingredients of our brains so that when we are not thinking consciously about something, we still end up where we want to be. The state of mindfulness has many components, including being fully present to the moment you are in while using all your senses and not just your brain. When you do engage in mindful thinking, you do so non-judgmentally. In other words, rather than allowing your brain (thoughts) and body (emotions) to run the show, dragging you endlessly back to past mistakes or catapulting you repeatedly into a seemingly fearful future, mindfulness tethers you to what is real in the present moment, allowing you to make decisions based not only on experience and wishes, but on what truly is.
I know. No matter what way I say it, it all sounds so mystical, doesn’t it?
The truth is it is just that. Abstract, spiritual, and mystical. But never fear! The good news is you do not have to have a full understanding of what mindfulness is in order to get there. In fact, it may be detrimental to the process if you try too hard to understand at the outset. Just like when learning to drive a car and, “take your feet off the gas and place them on the brake forty feet before you reach the stop sign,” makes no real sense until you actually do it, so it usually goes with mindfulness. Sometimes, you just have to do it to get it.
On that note, let me jump right to sharing some ideas in the form of a set of sequential challenges to get you going.
Challenge One: I call this, “Collecting Happiness.” For two weeks in a row, make a list each night of at least three things that happened in the day that you are thankful for. The more the merrier, but at least three. If you skip a day, start over. The goal is two weeks in a row. It is important to start here because serotonin makes us feel good about what we’re doing. Read your list every morning (and maybe throughout the day).
Challenge Two: This step is about, “Creating Happiness.” Along with challenge one, if you should end a day without at least three things to write down, then your job becomes deciding what things to add to the next day that will likely result in ending the day with three things that make you grateful. Doing this makes our brain reward us with dopamine – autopilot learns we can accomplish things and that is self-motivating. You may want to put reminders on your phone to help you remember to do the things you planned.
Challenge Three: This is the most important step, “Collecting Lessons.” But it should not be attempted until you have achieved two weeks in a row of challenges one and two – you’ll need all the dopamine and serotonin you can get to tackle this one. This is where we break the myth that gratitude is about the things we have or when good things happen. Now, in addition to keeping up challenges one and two each day, add one thing each day that was a blessing because it was difficult, but you made it through or learned something from it. Keep it up. Adding more and more as time goes on and as you discover the absolutely amazing stuff you are made of!
Back in 2011, Ann Voscamp published a book entitled, “One Thousand Gifts’ A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are,” which, for me anyway, captured the missing piece about gratitude alluded to in the final challenge. I am not sure it is widely understood that gratitude is not just about counting your overt blessings. It is far more beneficial to develop the habit of looking deep below and seeing the message in the mess, the blessing in the struggle, and the fact that our truest assets come from what we overcome, not what is already there. Inner strength is not felt by floating downstream in a well-fortified ship. It comes from knowing our resiliency as we watch the boat sink from the shore we fought so hard to reach. Then, we are free to build castles in our new land!
Give these challenges a try, but If you’re struggling to do this – hang tight! The next post will help you with this.
Written by book author, blogger, & educational/motivational speaker, Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP. Founder of Potential Finders Network, Hannah provides motivational speaking, training, and personal development services. Hannah’s passion is to help others learn about and challenge themselves to reach their greatest potentials. She’s a neuroscience nerd who makes complicated material accessible by breaking it down into steps and tips, using analogies, and telling stories. If you have topics you want to suggest, please don’t hesitate to contact her at Hannah@PotentialFinders.com and check out www.PotentialFinders.com or Facebook to learn more.