The invaluable importance of gratitude

person holding white and black i love you print card
Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash.

GRATITUDE. It’s that thing you do when something goes well. You backstroke in positivity for a few minutes and then that’s about it, right? Well, not entirely.

There are a few things we know to be integral to optimum health. Clean air, clean water, laughter, a sense of purpose, a sense of community, and so on. Well, guess what? Gratitude is right up there with the rest of them.

Why is it so important? Gratitude impacts on so many facets of our lives, from emotional health to social and physical health, right down to your very personality. When all of these components are ticking along nicely, we call that happiness.

Being in a state of happiness boosts your immunity by releasing endorphins. Good immunity means better physical health, less infections, illness, and visits to the doctor. Several more reasons to be grateful right there if you ask me.

As a rule, we tend to wait for something positive to happen in our lives and then we show gratitude. But what if you were to look at it the other way round, being grateful before your reality even seems to match what it is you’re showing gratitude for? Perhaps that feels like too much of a leap of faith. But we apply this approach in other aspects of life all the time.

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With the brighter days and warmer temperatures, you might be doing a spot of gardening. Supposing you plant courgette seeds. On the face of it, there is zero evidence that this tiny little seed is ever going to turn into anything substantial. Yet, give it a couple of months and you’ll have a robust plant with enough courgettes to set up your own market stall.

Now, would you say that is just down to faith or belief? Of course not, it’s down to absolute knowledge that, when well looked after, the seed will flourish and develop into an amazingly abundant plant. If you can apply the same certainty and knowledge to gratitude, you are well on the way to experiencing the benefits because our cells don’t differentiate between vividly imagining and really experiencing something. Once you focus your attention on consistently showing gratitude, key areas of your life open up and blossom. But it does take focus and consistency.

Back to the courgette seed. If you planted it and then forgot all about it, feeling indignant and hard done by when it decides not to grow wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. You know you have to water it regularly and maybe feed it from time to time. Certainly if you noticed any pests or weeds giving it a hard time, you would intervene. The same applies to gratitude. It’s a mind-set you have to consciously cultivate.

There are those who spend their whole life saying “I’ll be happy when”. The fact is, that type of happiness always remains elusive because it relies on too many external circumstances.

And, strangely enough, when we put our focus on acquiring material things to become happy, as soon as we acquire the much sought-after ‘thing’, our happiness wanes and we set our sights on the next thing. Hedonic adaptation, in other words.

There can be a measurable, albeit short-lived, increase in dopamine levels when we get our ‘new toy’ but before long, the novelty wears off and our focus is on the next distraction. And that’s the whole point. External props are often just a way of taking our focus off deep-set frustrations, inadequacies, and unfulfilled dreams. By putting the focus on gratitude, however tiny or seemingly insignificant the reason for that gratitude, you start to address those underlying emotions, like finally scratching an itch you couldn’t get at for years.

So rather than putting your focus on all the things you don’t have, and heaven knows there are probably quite a lot, make a deliberate decision to put your focus on things that really enhance your life and the lives of those around you. Given that we have about 60,000 thoughts a day, doesn’t it make sense to choose at least some of them yourself, rather than simply reacting to external factors?

Different parts of the brain light up depending on where you put your focus. So it makes sense to feed the connections which result in better pain management, elevated production of natural anti-depressants, a greater inclination to exercise, and a more creative approach to problem-solving. The people who live the longest and in the best health don’t always have the biggest bank balance, but they do tend to have resiliency, borne of being grateful for everything they do get to experience.

Now cultivating gratitude might mean making some choices that feel odd at first, like not reaching for your phone to check in with social media the second you wake up. Pick up a pen and paper instead and write down ten simple things that make you and those around you, happy. It could be hearing laughter, feeding birds, a particular song, or having a clear desk or a perfect cup of tea. It can even be having access to running water and electricity to make that tea.

Most likely, it will be a list of simple pleasures, which is good news, because they’re the type that are easy to replicate and generally cost little if any money but are great for your health.

Make this your new habit each day. Trade a few minutes of social media time to write your top ten reasons to be grateful that day. And be sure to show gratitude when, over the course of your day, most of those reasons come true.