There is a Chinese saying that goes that “in life, things do not go our way eight or nine times out of ten.” That certainly gives us a lot of things to complain and be unhappy about. And the haze these few days certainly does not help.
We have been conditioned by millennia of evolution to react much faster and more intensely to negative experiences than from positive ones. That said, there are ways for us to train ourselves to not dwell on the negatives, see the positives and be happier. One such way is to train ourselves to be more grateful
Research has found that being more grateful and expressing gratitude more often is a good way to increase overall happiness. Feeling grateful activates the brain stem and produces dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is crucial in the reward-motivated system. In short, with more dopamine in your brain, you feel happier. So feeling grateful increases dopamine levels in your brain and thus makes you happier. What’s more, gratitude towards others increases social dopamine. This makes social interactions more enjoyable.
Also, feeling grateful boosts serotonin. Like dopamine, serotonin is a crucial neurotransmitter that is key to making us feel happy (Prozac works by boosting serotonin). The effort spent on thinking about things that we are grateful for forces us to focus on the positive aspects of our lives. This increases the production of serotonin in our brains.
So. What are some ways that we can train ourselves to be more grateful and express gratitude more often? Here are some that we can all try.
Write down the thing(s) that someone has done for you that you are grateful for
If we really stop to think about it, it is likely that everyday, someone has helped us in one way or another. It could be that someone helped you get a cup of coffee. Or someone held the lift for you. Or someone helped you carry your groceries. Whatever it is, it would be very possible for us to at least think of one thing everyday that someone has done for us for which we are thankful.
Write it down. Explain the circumstances around the incident and describe what the person did for you. Also explain why that act is something that you are thankful for. Perhaps you were really in need of a cup of coffee but just too busy to get yourself a cup. So that cup of coffee that your colleague got it was really godsend. Or your groceries were really heavy and your arms were already aching terribly. So you were really relieved when someone helped you to carry your groceries.
Writing all these down serves to remind us of the act of kindness that we experience and makes us conscious of it.
Bring to mind the positive emotions again
In addition to writing down the descriptions of the experience, also write down how you felt when that person helped you. Were you relieved? A flush of comfort as that load was lifted? Were you happy? How happy? Did you smile? Did you enjoy that cup of coffee? Did that cup of coffee give you more than just a physical pick-me-up? Did the fact that someone bothered to help you get a cup of coffee make you feel that there are reasons to be more hopeful for the future? Did it make you feel that you are actually quite fortunate to have friends who care?
As you write down how you felt, try to also feel those emotions again. If you need to, close your eyes. Let the emotions bring a smile to your face again.
Write a “thank-you” note
From what you have written about the experience, write a thank-you note for the person who helped you. It can be a simple one. If it is possible, you can actually give the note to the person who helped you. Even if it is not possible (for example, you do not actually know that person who helped you), it is still worthwhile writing that thank-you note because it helps to cultivate an internal reflex for us to be more grateful.
Couple with Mindfulness Practice
This practice can be coupled with mindfulness practice too. After writing in your journal, you can engage in mindfulness practice. Start off with normal breath meditation. Then as your mind settles down, turn your focus from your breath to the experience and person that you are grateful for. Focus and feel the different emotions – happiness, relief, feelings of being fortunate, being grateful. Be mindful of how you feel and how your body is reacting to the emotions. Keep the focus for as long as is comfortable (need not be long… whatever you are comfortable with). Then return your focus to your breath to end off.
Each entry need not be long. What is more important is to be consistent. Write in the journal every day. Write at least one entry (i.e. one experience) every day. Of course, if you can think of more experiences, then write more. And also take some time each day to read through previous entries.
But what if you are really having a bad day? What if the day seems so bad that there really does not seem to be anything for you to be grateful for?
Still try. The ability to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that the density of neurons in the brain areas that are related to emotional intelligence become denser when people take the effort to be grateful. As the density of these neurons increases, it becomes easier to actually be grateful.
So even if the day seems like it is really terrible, at least try to find things to be grateful for. With consistent practice, it will become easier to be grateful, setting up a positive upward spiral.
I think this is a simple and tangible way of counting our blessings and would help us realize that we are actually quite fortunate! With consistent practice, this will help us be happier! Let’s start now!
Thanks for reading!