“Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” - Kahlil Gibran
Sometimes it is easier to notice what’s going “wrong” in your life, rather than what’s going “right.” Events in life sometimes come in waves of ups and downs, hopefully with a great deal of calmness and stability in between. When stress threatens to take over your life, it is up to you to choose how to respond to your experience of stress. Notice your typical tactics for dealing with stressful events. Do you recall tendencies to react to stress with negativity, tension, or anxiety? Do you tend to respond to stress with calmness, stability, or mindfulness?
Whatever your typical ways of handling stressful events may be, consider the possibility of establishing a new and more effective relationship with stress through the expression of gratitude. Perhaps the notion of actively expressing gratitude in the face of adversity seems counterintuitive. Perhaps you find yourself thinking something along the lines of, “What on earth is there to be grateful for during this ‘terrible’ time of stress? I don’t want this to be happening!” Does your experience, reasoning, and intuition tell you that becoming fused with this type of thinking will be more or less likely to help you move through stressful times in life?
No matter what stressful events enter your life, it is always your choice to respond to the situation with an attitude of mindfulness, alertness, and intention… or not. The expression of gratitude in the face of adversity means much more than simply looking on the bright side or ignoring the reality of painful truths. The authentic expression of gratitude during times of stress includes appreciation for the abundance in your life – in whatever form(s) abundance may take. Perhaps that means gratitude for the opportunity to learn valuable lessons, find meaning in suffering, or experience the interconnectedness and impermanence of all things.
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor at the University of California – Riverside, has spent a great deal of her career researching happiness in humans. She has demonstrated particular interest in the observation that some people tend to maintain happiness during times of stress and adversity – a demonstration of resilience.
Lyubomirsky’s research suggests a meaningful relationship between the expression of gratitude and the experience of happiness. Benefits associated with expressing gratitude include greater levels of happiness, hopefulness, and energy. She also found that individuals who expressed gratitude were more likely than others to be spiritual/religious, empathetic/helpful, and less likely to be depressed, neurotic, or envious.
One of Lyubomirsky’s studies found that the simple act of writing down five things that cultivated gratitude once a week for ten weeks resulted in significant increases in overall life satisfaction and optimism. Not only did participants experience these benefits, they also reported improved physical health (e.g., fewer unpleasant physical symptoms and increased exercise).
In case these emotional and physical benefits of actively expressing gratitude are not motivating enough, consider the research finding that gratitude fosters happiness and makes it much easier to cope with trauma and stress. It is through the mindful development of this positive perspective that you may become more adept at handling suffering.
Lyubomirsky explains, “Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness, as hard as that might be, can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew.”
Express Gratitude & Increase Happiness
In Lyubomirsky’s book, “The How of Happiness,” discusses her research findings that suggest 40% of one’s happiness is determined solely by behavioral choices. Regarding gratitude, she states,”By definition, the practice of gratitude involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating your life as it is today and what has made it so.”
Strategies for Expressing Gratitude
Do you feel that you would benefit from learning to actively express gratitude, increase levels of happiness, and manage suffering more effectively? Consider implementing some of the following strategies to cultivate and express gratitude in your own life:
- Choose to express wonder, awe, and appreciation in the face of a setback.
- Savor the present moment – take nothing for granted.
- Actively notice and respond to opportunities to directly express thankfulness and appreciation to others.
- Mindfully reflect on positive aspects of your life; no matter how dire things may appear, they could always be “worse.”
- Appreciate your life today, noticing all of the events that have brought you to this current opportunity for growth.
- Begin to regularly write in a gratitude journal. Try keeping it by your bedside or in a place where you will see it each day.
- Identify at least one thing everyday for which you feel grateful. Try noticing something fresh each day in a mindful way.
How might your life begin to shift toward a more grateful, mindful, and appreciative outlook if you made the choice to actively express gratitude on a daily basis? While many factors in life are out of your direct control, it is crucial to maintain awareness of those things which are within your control: your attitude, thoughts, and behaviors. Take a moment to ask yourself how willing you are to get committed to a daily gratitude practice for the next week. Mindfully observe any ways – large or small – that the active expression of gratitude impacts your levels of happiness.
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Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York, NY: Penguin Press.
Suval, L. (2012). The Relationship Between Happiness and Gratitude. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 10, 2012, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/08/09/the-relationship-between-happiness-and-gratitude/
Featured image: Happy Baby Wearing Big Sunglasses by Pink Sherbet Photography / CC BY 2.0