Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Simply Emmy Life Lesson #2- Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, it's natural to reflect on the blessings in our lives. Family, friends, our home, our jobs (or if we don't like our job, at least that we have a job), the freedoms that we enjoy in our country. We're grateful for our health and "wealth," especially when we think of those less fortunate than ourselves. We enjoy our turkey, eat way too much, and the day is done.

But what would happen if we practiced real gratitude every day? And not just every day but in the moments that count, the moments and experiences that are the most difficult for us? Let's think about one reality of life that almost everyone can relate to: traffic. When was the last time that you were trying to get somewhere, got caught in a massive traffic jam, and practiced gratitude? Seems crazy, right? Unless perhaps you think to yourself, "That person who just cut me off should be grateful that I didn't jump out my car and...(fill in the blank here)." What if in that moment, you realized that you were grateful for the song on the radio, for a blue sky and sunshine, or maybe for the person in the passenger seat beside you because you could have a real conversation with them before rushing onto the next thing?

In my experience, moving to a place where traffic can be bearable (and even bordering on enjoyable?) is a gradual process and starts with your awareness of the present moment. For me, meditation allows me to become more aware of the present moment. For you, it may be taking five deep breaths when you are in a difficult situation, being mindful of those breaths, and then asking yourself a simple question- "What am I grateful for in my life?" If you are in a place where you can write it down, write it down and create a gratitude journal. I do not advocate texting and driving so if you are driving when this occurs, you can always dictate your thoughts to Siri or the real life person sitting beside you. If you are a more tactile person, create a gratitude jar. There are a ton of crafty ideas online for creating these jars (and a great excuse to search Pinterest, as if you needed an excuse). If you have kids, this is great way to show them that you are mindful of blessings in life throughout the year and to encourage them to contribute to the jar themselves.

Once you start realizing the small things you are grateful for in life, the momentum builds. If you have a gratitude jar you can literally see it filling up! That is where the shift can happen from not only thinking about what you are grateful for in your life when difficulty strikes, but what you are grateful for specifically in that difficult situation or moment. I'll use an example from my own life. My husband and I are excited about starting a family but oftentimes I feel impatient or discouraged that we haven't arrived "there" yet. How can I be grateful about something that I don't have? As I sit here with my husband, enjoying a quiet evening at home, writing my blog post and enjoying a glass of wine, I realize that when we have kids we probably won't be able to do this as much. (Parents reading this think, "Umm...try at all!") The fact that I am experiencing this moment right now makes it even more precious to me and makes me feel extremely grateful.

Cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" allows for a shift in our mindset. We start thinking about situations differently because it quiets the "ego-self" that normally rules our thoughts and allows us to connect with our true selves. Instead of playing the victim in every difficult situation, such as our traffic example ("Why did this have to happen to me? I have important places to go today!") we see it as an opportunity to take a moment, breathe, and connect with the things that are important to us.

If I haven't convinced you yet that practicing gratitude is a good idea, what if I told you that it had emotional and physical health benefits as well? Psychologists Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough conducted research which found that those keeping a gratitude journal experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness and also exercised more frequently than those that did not keep a gratitude journal.   Those practicing gratitude on a daily basis reported that they felt more joyful, attentive, and enthusiastic, just to name a few positive emotions. The research can be found here. Fascinating stuff!

So this Thanksgiving, you have a choice. You can go around the table and say one thing you are thankful for before eating the bird, and then flip someone the bird when you are driving home and someone cuts you off. Or you can write down what you are thankful for right now and just keep going. I'll start: I am grateful that you read my blog post and I am grateful for any positive impact my words may have on your life. :) Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

"Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world."
- John Milton


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