“When you get up in the morning, think about the precious privilege of being alive, breathe, think, enjoy and love” – Marco Aurelio
“You become that to which you pay attention. If you do not choose your thoughts others will do it for you ” – Epictet
Our brain is a machine specialized in identifying threats. Natural selection favors survival, not happiness . The individuals with the best capacity to identify what was wrong lived more, and the dissatisfaction motivated the action. We are the descendants of anxious and ungrateful primates.
Now we live in a much safer world, but our brain continues to focus its attention on all the problems around us ( detail ). And since our attention defines our reality , we are overwhelmed by our often imaginary problems.
To reduce anxiety we must counteract this natural inclination with a good dose of objectivity, using the power of gratitude .
Today you will learn how our brain distorts reality, and how a simple change of perspective can improve your life. Gratitude will help you to mitigate anxiety, to eat better, to exercise more and, ultimately, to be happier.
BLESSINGS AND BARRIERS
A review of different studies confirms that we tend to magnify the barriers we have had to overcome , but we easily forget the blessings received. The obstacles demand effort and concentration, while we enjoy the benefits without paying attention to them. Our mind interprets therefore that the former are much more numerous than the latter.
Paradoxically, the opposite occurs when we evaluate others : we assume they have had fewer problems and more privileges. This is the perfect recipe for a life of resentment and envy.
It is not about denying our problems, but about adopting a more balanced vision of reality . Let’s see how the virtue of gratitude can help us.
BENEFITS OF GRATITUDE
Of all known strengths and virtues, including love, perseverance and humility, gratitude is the best predictor of well-being ( detail ).
- Feelings of gratitude are associated with infinite benefits:
- Better health in general, both physical and mental ( study , study ).
- Less stress, anxiety and depression ( study , study , study , study ).
- Greater job satisfaction and life in general ( study , study ).
- Better rest ( study ).
- Better academic performance ( study ).
- Better personal relationships ( study , study ).
- Less materialism and envy ( detail , detail , study ).
Less aggressiveness ( studies ).
As we will see, gratitude achieves all these effects in different ways, both physiological and psychological . Like almost everything, gratitude is partly an innate trait linked to our personality ( detail ), but it is also a quality that we can cultivate ( detail ). In fact, thoughts of gratitude generate observable changes in different brain areas ( study , study ).
For example, this study divided its participants into two groups. One had to reflect on things he appreciated and the other on things that bothered him, with instructions such as the following:
Focus on gratitude (group 1): ” There are many good things in our lives that we feel grateful for. Thinking about last week, write five things that you feel grateful for . “
Focus on problems (group 2): ” There are many things that irritate or bother us. They occur in our relationships, at work, in our health, etc. Thinking about last week, write down five problems you’ve had
Despite performing the practice only once a week, the differences were clear: the group that reflected on good things reported better overall satisfaction and better health . And interestingly, they did more physical activity. Negativity seems to detract energy to train .
STRATEGIES TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE
Changing our thinking by default takes time, but many studies confirm that simple practices have an effect. Gratitude is like a muscle , and we must strengthen it.
You can select any of the following strategies or ideally use a combination of them.
1. GRATITUDE DIARY
Socrates said that an unexamined life was not worth living, and keeping a journal is a good way to perform this examination.
The benefits of writing frequently the things you thank are not only psychological, but also physiological . A study in patients with coronary risk showed that writing 3-5 things that they felt grateful for each day reduced markers of inflammation , such as C-reactive protein, TNF-α or IL-6. In addition, while they wrote in the newspaper, they improved their HRV (heart rate variability) .
Other studies find that transferring the things we appreciate to paper reduces the symptoms of depression ( study ), helps us sleep better ( study ), improves school motivation ( study ) and general well-being ( study ).
What went well today?
Who did something good for you during the day?
What things could have gone wrong but did not happen?
Try to be specific so as not to be repetitive.
Any agenda or notebook will allow you to develop this practice, but there are also gratitude journals that you can use as a guide. Although I prefer to write on paper, there are apps for lovers of digital, such as Five Minute Journal or Grateful .
2. LETTERS OF THANKS
Appreciating what others have done for you seems to be more effective than simply thanking things that have happened to you.
One study divided nearly 300 people who performed psychotherapy into three groups. One continued simply with psychotherapy (control group), another added expressive writing (describing thoughts and emotions) and the latter complemented his psychotherapy with the writing of letters of thanks to people who had helped him at some time.
After several weeks, people who had written gratitude letters improved their mental state more than the rest of the groups.
In another study , students who wrote thank-you letters improved their eating habits to a greater extent than the control group. Many use food to attenuate negative emotions, and it seems that by reducing these emotions they need less bingeing .
If you want to go a step further you can deliver the letter to the person, but the simple fact of writing it works.
3. NEGATIVE DISPLAY
Another impediment to enjoy what we have is the so-called hedonic adaptation . When something good comes to our life (new car, new house or new couple) our sense of well-being rises, but the improvement is only temporary . Over time, the emotion dims and we return to our initial level of satisfaction.
To combat this hedonic adaptation, the Stoics recommended frequent practice of negative visualization, or Premeditatio Malorum .
Seneca used in his letters macabre but effective examples, as imagine the death of a loved one. He reminded us that all we have is a loan from the universe, and can be claimed at any time. Imagining the loss of something valuable helps us to appreciate it instead of taking it for granted ( study , study ).
Since nothing is more valuable than life itself, the Stoics also recommended reflecting on death . This practice, known as Memento Mori (“remember you’re going to die”) gives us perspective and helps us put our problems in context.
As this study indicates , reflecting on our mortality makes us feel more grateful for the life we have.
4. TEMPORARY RESIGNATION
In addition to visualizing, you can practice temporary deprivation . Temporarily renounce things you enjoy will help you appreciate them more ( study ). Food tastes better after a period of fasting , and the warmth of the home is best enjoyed after exposure to the cold .
As they say, we do not know what we have until we lose it . Losing some things voluntarily and temporarily will help you to value them more.
5. TASTE THE LITTLE THINGS
We spend our days waiting for great events, but life is really made up of small moments. Unfortunately, we waste most of them by considering them mundane.
Attention can transform tedious experiences into pleasurable ones . Concentrate on how the hot water feels on your hands when doing the dishes. While walking to the office, feel the wind on your face and observe the shapes of trees and plants.
This process is called Savoring , and increases our well-being by turning the mundane into something new . We can apply this concept to our food, and several studies indicate that truly tasting food can help you lose weight and reduce stress ( study , study ).
Our brain is specialized in ignoring the good and highlighting the bad. This generates a biased view of reality, producing stress and anxiety. Practicing gratitude is the antidote to our negative bias.
Finally, remember that gratitude does not imply conformism , and in fact grateful people more often achieve their objectives ( detail ). It is simply to thank what you have while pursuing what you lack .