By Natalie Emmerman
What does it mean to express gratitude? Typically, we look at gratefulness and gratitude through a lens of grandeur; we are grateful for people who have saved us, the people we love, good health, the sun for rising and setting each day, and so on. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be thankful for these large-scale phenomena or important relationships, but what if we thanked the little things each day? How would this improve our lives?
Gratitude’s definition varies. It is curiosity. It is appreciation. It is looking at the bright side of a fallback. It is fathoming abundance. It is thanking someone or something in your life. It is texts that read “this made me think of you.” It is the ease of friendship. It is recognition of support. It is song lyrics that read your mind. It is not taking things for granted. It is coping. It is in the now. Gratitude is a reversal to negative feelings, a neutralizer of jealousy, hostility, anxiety, insecurity, and intolerance.
Studies show that expressing gratitude at smaller scales and more frequently helps us orient our thinking towards a more optimistic direction. Not only this, but giving thanks and expressing gratitude out loud improves our general positive emotion. Rather than feeling we need to reserve our gratitude in order to give each thanks importance, we can alter the way in which we give thanks in order to help us recognize all the good in our lives. We don’t need to express gratitude for things that necessarily did anything spectacular, but things that never forgot what they could do.
Expressing gratitude helps us focus on the present moment. I re-fell in love with an old song in the car this morning. While this is not a revolutionary thought, it helps me orient my mindset to a positive outcome rather than focusing it on the traffic I sat through on the way to work. On a larger scale, expressing gratitude forces us to look for the good. I am an incredibly self-reliant person. This thought allows me to appreciate the resiliency and struggle I went through in achieving this.
So how can we practice gratefulness? Here are some practical tools that can help us build expressing gratefulness into our daily lives:
Say it out loud. By saying things out loud, we add weight to them. Often we are too hesitant to express the positives, to give compliments, to give and receive thanks. When we say things out loud, we build a habit of appreciating the things around us, and sharing those things with others. I was first introduced to expressing gratefulness on the phone with my mom. In a state of stress, she told me to slow down and tell her three positive things that happened to me that day. They didn’t have to be relevant to the stress I was experiencing, just three good things. She went first. She told she bought a new salt shaker that she loved. I had never understood gratefulness in the form of something so small. I responded by saying I was a good friend to someone who isn’t always a good friend back, and that I had great Korean fried chicken for dinner. When I said it out loud, I found myself smiling. Whether it was validation, pride, or simply just something enjoyable, I felt that my feelings, especially my positive feelings, were given weight. They were given a place.
Write it down. By writing our thoughts and thanks down we hold our feelings to a specific time and place; our positivity becomes proof. Journaling is also a proven skill to help slow down, unwind, and destress. When we write our thanks, we are able to retrace and remember it. I keep a regular journal. I was reading through an entry from January recently that read “I’ve smiled at grey skies and I’ve smiled wider at blue ones.” The irony in this is that I was going through a personal rough patch at the time I wrote this. I chose to write down what I was grateful for. How we remember things is our choice.
Turn your negatives into positives. This may sound cliché, but look for the silver lining. A change in our expectations leaves room for new beginnings. Our setbacks are not failures. Each struggle leaves us with a new lesson, a new insight, or a new skill. While things like heartbreak, loss, anxiety, stress, exhaustion and so much more have seemed like the end-all-be-all at times, they have shaped me into who I am today and they will continue to influence who I become in the future.
Slow down. Gratefulness is a present practice. Be aware that a common misconception is that we need to be appreciative for the major things in our life. This is not true. We can be grateful for a simple night in with friends or a great nap. Today I am grateful for a good square of chocolate after lunch. The point is that the little things count, sometimes for more.
It is ok to compliment yourself. Often, we are told to feel guilty for the good things we are given in life or for the good traits we possess. It is ok to get lucky, it is ok for your hard work to pay off. We are allowed to pat ourselves on the back from time to time. We live in a world that is constantly telling us to second guess, to feel guilty, to feel insecure. I felt really care-free today or I have a contagious laughter. We are allowed to express appreciation for things that didn’t necessarily happen to us, or for us, but by us.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Breathe. Smile. There is no right or wrong way to practice gratefulness, so give thanks if it feels good, don’t force thanks if it doesn’t.
Expressing gratitude is a metastrategy to regulating happiness. It is not a secret that it is easier to recognize and dwell on the bad. That is ok as long as we use gratefulness as an antidote for the negative. I found gratefulness at a time when I least expected to- at a time where it was easier to hate someone than to forgive them. I chose a path of forgiveness because it felt better to take the lessons I have learned and the memories I have and leave the way things ended in the past. It was hard; hard to accept, hard to move on, hard to stop blaming myself for something so completely out of my control. I am appreciative for the things in my life that did not go as planned. For the things and for the people who have hurt me. They built character, they made me stronger, they taught me what it looks like to choose myself. Every decision I have ever made, whether it was good or bad (or, at times I will admit, terrible), has led me to where I am now, which is exactly where I need to be in this moment. Similar to Madhappy, gratitude allows us to feel the bad so we can recognize the good; it lets us pucker at the sour so our mouths can water at the sweet. We would not be able to express gratitude for the sunshine if we never got caught in the rain.