Cultivating gratitude is in vogue and Alexia Santamaria was as cynical about it as the next freelance writer. But mid-life in the suburbs was getting her down, so she downloaded an app and began to take note of the little things.
I’ve always done this involuntary eye-roll thing whenever anyone mentions the concept of gratitude, or rounds their social media status off with the ubiquitous #blessed. It’s always just seemed a bit contrived. Smiling pics of mums with their happy kids all doing Pinterest-worthy craft together. Really?
Where are the photos of those angels taking a millennia to eat dinner while their parents slowly lose the will to live? Or having fisticuffs over a book one had forgotten about for two years until he saw the other one reading it? I can’t say I’m grateful for or enriched by many of these daily experiences.
Which is why it’s surprising I now find myself extolling the virtues of a gratitude journal to anyone who’ll listen. Quite in spite of everything I once believed, I find myself genuinely looking forward to five minutes at the end of the day to “count my blessings”.
I’m not sure how I became this annoying person – although my house still looks far from Pinterestworthy and my kids constantly scrap over non-existent injustices, so things haven’t changed that drastically.
It all started when things got tricky. Like many 40-somethings, I’ve got a bit going on and, without going into extensive detail, between managing parental illness, personal health woes and a challenging child with behavioural difficulties, there were some points when I found myself despairing. I saw it playing out all around me too – divorces, teen dramas, sick spouses, extended family problems, depression, financial difficulties. “It’s the age” apparently.
I’d read an article about gratitude and the effect it can have on reprogramming your brain and I’d got to the point where I was prepared to put my usual cynicism aside. It seemed a fairly easy commitment to make, compared to say, using that gym membership regularly.
I’d realised it was possible my negative thoughts had become habitual and I could see how making an effort to focus on positive daily occurrences could help sway things back in a brighter direction. I downloaded a gratitude app on my phone where I could diligently plug in my thankful thoughts every day. While I loved the vision of me lighting a candle and opening my pastel Kikki.K journal with the gold-embossed spine to write in cursive handwriting, I knew that fantasy would end in a lot of loud swearing about pens that don’t work and misplaced books.
And so it began. It was a bit laborious at first because, quite honestly, I wasn’t feeling grateful for my lot. In theory I knew I had much to be thankful for, but sometimes it’s hard to connect with the fact you are exceptionally lucky to be able to have kids, to have two parents who are alive, to own a home, to have enough money to go on holiday from time to time. I felt like a selfish cow to have so much – yet not feel remotely #blessed.
But then I realised the power of the process wasn’t about all those huge life elements. It was about noting down the tiny things that made me fleetingly joyful. Small moments that warmed my daily grind-worn heart unexpectedly. It was the vision of my 7-year-old dressed in full cricket whites, batting helmet and pads that come up to his thighs, with his hair specially styled, just to play backyard cricket for 15 minutes.
It was the luscious spoon of lemon curd eaten directly from the jar when no one was looking. It was the conversation I had with my friend about her disastrous Tinder date ending with the guy being taken to hospital, that had me crying with laughter (Don’t worry, he’s OK).
It was the fact that when the rain comes, so do the ducks and every time I look out, one of them is stalking my every move through my lounge window. It was finding a park right outside the hospital for Dad’s appointment when I was running late. It was a million different minute incidents on a million different days and while initially I struggled to find two pathetic things to record, in no time I was effortlessly flinging down 10. They’d always been there, I’d just been so busy thinking about how stressed I was over everyday life to notice.
And the further power was when a really bad day hit, I could go back through this digital diary and realise what was stressing me didn’t mean my whole life was difficult. It just meant this was a crappy time in a life with lots of great stuff.
So how does it work? How had jotting down a few thoughts every day changed my disposition and, dare I say it, even noticeably improved my physical health? It was impossible to ignore that I felt less overwhelmed by life and had a new lightness about me.
I asked Timothy Giles, who trains corporate clients in resilience and positive psychology as well as running a social media experiment called Positive Peers, and he explained it pretty simply.
“We kind of expect happiness to just happen but the truth is for many people it needs to be practised like anything else. You can’t play the guitar proficiently just by listening to music, you need to learn the chords. After a while it comes naturally and you can play without so much concentrated effort. Same applies to happiness.
“Scientifically, it’s all to do with neural pathways in our brain that can actually be thickened physically when we repeat an action enough times,” says Giles.
“And it’s about overriding our amygdala’s anxiety response by refocusing and stopping it from pumping out unnecessary adrenaline and cortisol, which can lead to a chemically negative state of mind.”
You know when you buy new shoes or a new car and suddenly you see the exact same ones everywhere? Giles says our brain’s reticular activating system has now prioritised those items as important to us, and we notice them more.
If you train your brain to prioritise happiness, you’ll start noticing it everywhere and maybe even tell others too. Hopefully you don’t become an annoying “gratitude evangelist” like me – #soblessed.