Why develop a gratitude practice?
by Brigette Keeble*
The fields of yoga, mindfulness and psychology converge in that they all encourage the practice of positive intentional activities to improve one’s emotional health and wellbeing. Why is it so important that we spend time practicing mindfulness and cultivating attitudes like gratitude?
We now know that how we direct our lives – our intentional activity is responsible for 40% of our level of happiness. Just 10% of our happiness level comes from life circumstances such as our living conditions, careers and possessions. The remaining 50% is a natural set point we are born with.
This means we personally have the power to determine our own level of happiness day to day. What we think, our attitudes and subsequent behaviors all have a powerful impact on how we feel and how we perceive life.
The Yoga Sutras of Patajanli, yoga psychology and philosophy dating back thousands of years, express this point beautifully according to Edwin Bryant:
“true happiness comes from a deep contentment with whatever one has, not with thinking that one will be happy when one gets all that one desires.”
This raises the question for us ‘what attitudes lead to greater happiness?’
According to leading positive psychologists of our time (Martin Seligman, Sonya Lybomirsky and Robert Emmons), one of the most powerful actions we can initiate is opening up the doors to gratitude. Gratitude bolsters self worth and esteem, enhances one’s ability to cope with stress and trauma, and enables positive relationships and social bonds.
The mental action of gratitude is a profound self-care activity to refine oneself (the niyamas) and to cultivate our own sustainable inner happiness. It is the act of being grateful for who we are and what we have. This mental activity helps us to:
- Manage negative and stagnant thinking (a natural characteristic of the mind)
- Seek alternative perspectives that make us feel good and foster a sense of appreciation
- Increase our resilience to cope with day to day frustrations that arise
People who practice gratitude say they experience more positive emotions, relish good life experiences, enjoy improved health and build strong relationships.
We all face times when gratitude can be hard to cultivate – sad life experiences, negative emotions, periods of loss to name a few. These experiences are still important to acknowledge and gratitude can help provide some relief at these times. Emmons showed that consciously cultivating gratitude builds a ‘psychological immune system’ that cushions us and makes us more resilient in times of stress. At these times in can be helpful to cultivate gratitude in partnership with self-compassion, caring for how we are in the moment.
Practicing gratitude does not have to be arduous. It can be as simple as setting an intention (sankalpa) of gratitude for your yoga practice or reflecting on three things you were grateful for each day. What is important is practicing regularly and consistently. We then receive the greatest benefit for our emotional wellbeing.
Ways to practice gratitude
Some ideas for practicing gratitude from Sonya Lybomirsky:
- Caring for yourself physically and emotionally – gratitude for self
- Practice yoga and mindfulness that focuses on gratitude
- Gratitude journal, regularly write about those things for which you are most grateful
- Count your blessings before sleep – 3 things you were grateful for throughout the day
- Express gratitude and kindness to others verbally
- Write a thank you note to someone you love
- Practice living in the present and enjoying the positive qualities moment to moment rather than focusing on past or future events
- Avoid overthinking and social comparisons – focus on and be thankful for what you have
- Volunteer as a way of expressing gratitude for those within your community
* Brigette teaches the Embodied Mindfulness course at The Yoga Institute on Tuesdays 8pm-9:30 pm. Join her this month to explore how the yoga sutras guide us in cultivating a peaceful mind.