“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realise they were the big things” Robert Brault.
Edith Eger, who survived Auschwitz, describes in her stunning book ‘The Choice’ how she and her sister had arrived at the concentration camp, after their parents had been taken off to be killed, and were standing naked with their heads just shaved.
Holding her beautiful hair in her hands and crying, her sister Magda turned to Edith and asked “How do I look?”. Edith knows she looks like a mangy dog, and wanting to be truthful but not wanting to wound her anymore than she had already been, looks up at her and tells her she has beautiful eyes and that she’d never noticed how beautiful they were before with all her hair.
In that moment, Edith saw that we have a choice – to pay attention to what we’ve lost, or to pay attention to what we still have.
This is the essence of gratitude.
It’s a choice. To choose to focus on all that is good. To what we have. Small things. The big things. Anything. Irrespective of our circumstances.
And this choice is incredibly powerful.
The practice of gratitude
Of course we all know it’s important to appreciate what we have. But the power of gratitude is not in knowing this or understanding it. It’s not in our head – an intellectual understanding that we ‘should’ be grateful for what we have. Its power lies in the PRACTICE of gratitude. The doing it.
The remembering to practice it when we’re finding things challenging.
Choosing it in the moment when somebody or something is frustrating us.
Choosing it when things are hard.
And of course also noticing and appreciating when things are good and going well.
The science of gratitude
Of course there’s nothing new about gratitude. People have always known how important it is. You only need think of phrases like “Count your blessings”, “It’s the little things that count” or “Be grateful for what you have” to realise that this wisdom has been passed on for generations.
But what is newer is the science and research around it that we have now. Proving its benefits.
There’s a significant body of research these days linking gratitude with wellbeing and happiness. It’s also been shown to decrease stress, help depression and anxiety, improve mood and increase optimism.
In one study, for example, participants were asked to write a few sentences each week in a diary.
One group wrote about things they were grateful for during their week. A second group wrote about irritations or things that had hadn’t gone so well. And the third wrote about things that had affected them (with no focus on them being positive or negative).
After 10 weeks, the gratitude group were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to their doctor than those who focused on the negatives (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
But how do we go from knowing it’s a good thing, to doing it? To actually being more grateful in our day-to-day life?
3 Good Things Exercise
One of the easiest (yet powerful) ways is a technique I taught in resilience programmes for almost 20 years and is what I call the ‘3 Good Things’ exercise.
And it does what it says on the tin. At the end of every day you take a journal or notebook (or these days a gratitude app) and record a minimum of three good things about your day (feel free to do more than this – three is a minimum bar for those really tough days).
And these are usually the small things. That nice chat you had with the lady in the cafe where you picked up your takeaway coffee this morning. Seeing the beautiful autumnal colour of the leaves as you walked your dog.
Writing things down is also incredibly powerful – it’s what I call the ‘Power of the Pen’’. But the plethora of new apps these days is a wonderful addition to this. I use a free one called the Gratitude App (image below) which has the lovely benefit that you can add photos to it.
I remember working in London for a few days a number of years ago and being on the Tube pretty exhausted and a bit emotionally depleted afterwards. I took out my gratitude app – not even having the energy to read what I’d written – but simply looking back through my gratitude photos. And seeing all those lovely memories brought a smile to my face and instantly lifted my mood and energy.
The Gratitude Jar
For those with children, another lovely option is the Gratitude Jar – something I first heard about while teaching a resilience programme for a group of senior executives.
A woman in the group shared that she had been through a very tough time as a single mom (tearing up as she alluded to some serious difficulties she’d faced). She explained that one day, when she was at a very low ebb, she got a glass jar, put it in the middle of the kitchen table and said to her two boys “Right boys – anytime anything good happens to any of us in this family – no matter how small – we’re going to write it on a piece of paper and put it in this jar”.
One year later she opened it with her boys and said she was blown away by the reminder of just how many blessings they did in fact have.
But it’s not just about the opening of the jar. The psychology of this is that in the looking for things to add to the Gratitude Jar, we are training our brains to seek out and notice the good, the positive.
Your own form of gratitude
And feel free to adapt or find your own way of practising gratitude. While it is generally more powerful to write your gratitudes down or capture them in an app, you can still shift your mood instantly just by thinking about what you’re grateful for in your head.
It’s also a wonderful thing to do with others. I regularly ask my husband and two boys over dinner to “Tell me something you’re grateful for today”. Despite the eye rolling from the teenagers as they reluctantly do it, when I was particularly upset about something recently, my 15 year old turned and asked me what was the positive I could find in it. So something must be going in!
A lady I worked with at one stage also told me that she adapted the ‘3 Good Things’ exercise so that every night over dinner with her husband they would tell each other as many things as they could think of that were positive about their day – but nothing to do with work. They were both high achieving, hard working professionals and found this helped them to talk about things other than work which had been their default.
The power of gratitude in relationships
Gratitude is also wonderfully helpful for relationships. While there are so many things we love about our nearest and dearest, with the daily pressures of day-to-day life we can end up taking for granted all the special things about them and focusing more on the small irritations or disappointments that exist in any relationship.
Consciously focusing on what we appreciate about those close to us – whether that’s our significant other, our teenage children, our tantruming two year old or a difficult person we work with – gratitude and appreciation are incredibly powerful relationship builders and healers, not to mention helping us feel much better when we see what’s good.
The idea of “Appreciations not expectations” can remind us that so often when we’re frustrated or disappointed in other people, it’s because of our own (conscious or unconscious) expectations of them. When we actively focus on what is good about them instead and we let go of, or at least lessen our expectations, our relationships typically improve significantly.
Building the gratitude muscle
So I’d encourage you to try it – in whatever way works best for you. Thinking about the blessings in your life, or talking to others about them, or writing them down, or recording them in an app, or simply taking time to notice or appreciate things.
And observe for yourself the almost instantaneous shift in mood or reduction of stress that comes as a result.
And the great news is, not only can it have an almost instant effect, it also builds our muscle for noticing, savouring and appreciating the good things.
This training is so important because our brains are hard-wired for survival reasons to notice the danger, the negatives – what’s called the Negativity Bias.
Or as Rick Hanson describes it in his excellent book ‘Hardwiring Happiness‘ – our brains are like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones.
However, we also know from neuroscience that our brain structure can actually change (what’s called ‘neuroplasticity’) i.e. “Neurons that fire together, wire together”.
In other words, things that we do repeatedly gradually become easier and more automatic to do.
Actively practising gratitude therefore starts to rewire the brain over time so it becomes trained to notice the positives more often.
Turbo charging your gratitude
To dial up the impact of this and get the most from keeping a gratitude list, consciously focus on how the good things make you feel and imagine absorbing this good feeling into your body as you list them.
Just a few moments of actively absorbing the good allows it to become a lasting part of our brain structure, and helps overcome the brain’s natural negativity bias.
So whether you need a little boost of positivity in the moment, or whether you want to build your capacity to be more grateful and appreciative over the long term, actively practising gratitude as often as you can will most definitely have an impact on you, your life and even those around you.
“Wear gratitude like a cloak, and it will feed every corner of your life.” – Rumi