The Next Level of Gratitude

by Laurie Wertich

When faced with challenges and disappointments, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to throw yourself a pity party—but what if you could be grateful instead? This doesn’t mean you have to embrace the Pollyanna principle or engage in denial; it’s simply a reminder to choose gratitude often—not just when it’s easy.

Gratitude

Gratitude is a deep sense of appreciation that leaves us feeling warm and blessed. You don’t need to receive a gift or a favor to feel grateful; gratitude is a feeling you can cultivate. In fact, gratitude can become a habit.

Most of us reserve gratitude for the perceived blessings in our life. It’s easy to be grateful at the banquet table, the award ceremony, or on vacation. But gratitude is a practice and it doesn’t have to be reserved only for use on easy street. In fact, disappointments often bring the so-called blessing in disguise—and that’s where gratitude comes in.

Finding the Pearl

When an irritating grain of sand finds its way into an oyster’s shell, the oyster transforms it into a beautiful pearl. We can do the same with the irritants and difficulties that find their way into our lives. This is really the next level of gratitude—the ability to appreciate difficulties and challenges because of what you’ve learned or gained.

It’s actually easier than it sounds once you learn how to build your gratitude muscle. You may not be able to find gratitude in the midst of crisis or immediately afterward, but with time and practice you can learn to boost yourself to the next level of gratitude—and when you do, watch how your life changes. You’ll boost what psychologists refer to as your “psychological immune system”—and you may even retrain your brain so that gratitude becomes a guide for how you approach life.

Build Your Gratitude Muscles

Become a gratitude pro by working your way up the gratitude ladder. Here’s how:

1. Create a gratitude habit. The first step in becoming a gratitude expert is to establish a habit of being grateful for the gifts in your life. If you practice identifying the obvious blessings, you’ll build this “muscle” so that you can spot the not-so-obvious blessings. In other words, get good at appreciating the good stuff so you can get good at appreciating the challenging stuff.

Some people choose to keep a daily gratitude journal. Others keep a happiness jar on the counter and drop notes into it to keep track of the good stuff. Find a practice that works for you—and then practice.

2. Retrain your brain. You’ve probably heard the buzz phrase: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Brain research is starting to show that you can actually change your neural pathways—with practice. In fact, one study showed that practicing loving kindness meditation changed the tone in the vagus nerve (a nerve that extends from the brain stem to the gut) and led to improved health, positive emotion, and deeper connection.[i]

So, how do you rewire your brain? It takes conscious effort and practice. Train yourself to flex your gratitude muscle during stressful moments. The idea is to fire your stress neurons and your gratitude neurons at the same time—so that eventually the two will be “wired” together and you’ll find it easier to find something to be grateful for during stressful and challenging times.

This is no walk in the park—it takes commitment, but it can be done. The next time stress hits, catch yourself—and then pause and shift your thoughts to gratitude by thinking of things that bring you pleasure. If you want to make it stick, add some intensity to the feelings—because emotions help us build up neural encoding. In other words, if you want to up-level your gratitude, start by savoring happy moments. People who take time to savor their happiness experience more pleasure.[ii] This intensity of emotion helps the gratitude to sink into your brain.

3. Reflect on the hard times. To really make the leap to the expert level of gratitude, you have to make the connection between the challenges and the blessings in your life. Make a list of your greatest challenges and sorrows—and then make a corresponding list of where those challenges led you. By creating the contrast—between challenge and blessing—we plant seeds for gratitude to sprout. What’s more, looking back to see what we gained from the challenges in our lives helps us to better cope with future challenges. In a sense, it makes us more resilient.

Challenges are a part of life—it’s what you do with them that matters.

References:

[i] Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, et al. How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Sciences. 2013; 24(7): 1123-32.

[ii] Jose PE, Lim BT, Bryant FB. Does savoring increase happiness? A daily diary study. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2012; 7(3): 176-187.