Count your bless­ings

Spirit and Destiny - - Gratitude Masterclass -

Ini­tially, David sug­gests set­ting aside a set time each day for your grat­i­tude prac­tise.

‘A lot of peo­ple do it be­fore they go to bed, when they’re re­flect­ing on the day,’ he says. ‘Oth­ers pre­fer first thing in the morn­ing, as a pos­i­tive start to the day.’

Be­gin by think­ing of five or 10 things you’re grate­ful for. Al­though you don’t have to write a phys­i­cal list, David sug­gests keep­ing a jour­nal or notepad by your bed be­cause there’s added value in putting pen to pa­per.

‘Partly what writ­ing does is slow your brain down,’ he ex­plains. ‘Our minds move at such a quick pace. The act of writ­ing slows your brain and means you’re a bit more present. You’re feel­ing the feel­ing for that lit­tle bit longer.

‘Some­times the act of writ­ing it down acts as a trig­ger and you re­alise there’s more to the thing you’re grate­ful about than you ini­tially re­alised.’

You could also start a grat­i­tude jar. Ev­ery time you think of some­thing you’re grate­ful for, write it down and pop it in the jar. Not only will the rapidly fill­ing jar serve as a vis­ual re­minder of the many things you have to be thank­ful for, but you can have an emp­ty­ing cer­e­mony, too.

Prac­tise makes per­fect

Learn­ing any new skill takes time. And, at first, when you try to think of things to be thank­ful for, you may draw a blank.

David ex­plains, ‘Just like some peo­ple say they can’t draw or paint, some say, “I can’t do it, I just can’t think of any­thing I’m grate­ful for”.

‘It’s not that they don’t have any­thing to be grate­ful for. They’ve just never re­ally thought about it for­mally for any length of time. They’ve never sat down with a piece of pa­per and an­swered the ques­tion, “What am I grate­ful for?”

‘If that’s you, I say, look around you. Are you pleased the sun’s shin­ing? That you can walk or stand? Are you pleased your body’s healthy?’

Whether it’s the blue of the sky to­day or the food on your plate, you’ve got more to be thank­ful for than you might think.

David speaks of a mum at one of his work­shops who told him that in her fam­ily they empty their grat­i­tude jar and read through it to­gether as a fam­ily on De­cem­ber 31st be­fore start­ing afresh with an empty jar on Jan­uary 1st.

Say it out loud

If it’s a per­son you’re grate­ful for (or to), is there an ex­tra ben­e­fit to telling them how you feel?

‘At times you’ll find it feels ap­pro­pri­ate, other times it’s out of your com­fort zone,’ says David.

‘I’ve per­son­ally done it, be­cause I found a sim­i­lar ex­er­cise in a book called Au­then­tic Hap­pi­ness by Dr Martin E P Selig­man,who started the pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy move­ment.

‘Dr Selig­man got peo­ple to do an ex­er­cise where they had to think of some­one who’d im­pacted their life, write them a let­ter and then take that let­ter to the per­son and read it in front of them. For some it was life chang­ing.

‘A cou­ple of years ago I heard that my pri­mary school teacher, Mr Hooks, was still teach­ing.

So, hav­ing read about the ex­er­cise, I de­cided to take a signed copy of one of my new books into school for him.

‘I stood in front of him and ex­plained that I’d been a sci­en­tist and was now a writer. I told him I owed him a huge debt for be­ing such a great teacher and for giv­ing me the free­dom to ex­plore

maths and science at my own pace and tak­ing the time to an­swer my ques­tions.

‘At the time I wasn’t sure how he’d taken it, but about a month later he sent me an email and said, “I lit­er­ally felt like the king of the cas­tle”.

‘He was close to re­tir­ing. And one of the last things he heard was a for­mer pupil say­ing, “You changed my life”.

‘That re­ally showed me the value of do­ing that ex­er­cise. But it’s def­i­nitely not for ev­ery­one.’

The grat­i­tude para­dox

We of­ten have a ten­dency to ‘put off’ be­ing happy, as­sum­ing we’ll find con­tent­ment when we earn more money or meet the right part­ner.

The trou­ble with that kind of think­ing, says David, is that psy­cho­log­i­cally, you’re say­ing what you have now isn’t good enough and that, by ex­ten­sion, you’re not good enough. That you’ll only be good enough when you reach an­other des­ti­na­tion.

‘Grat­i­tude can help to bring you back to the present,’ he ex­plains. ‘You’re feel­ing some­thing right now be­cause of some­thing that you’re do­ing right now. Even if you might be re­mem­ber­ing a time that hap­pened in the past, you’re still do­ing that with your con­scious mind now.

‘And you start to re­alise that hap­pi­ness isn’t a des­ti­na­tion that you reach once you’ve earned a cer­tain amount of money or a cer­tain point in your ca­reer.

‘With the ex­cep­tion of very dif­fi­cult life cir­cum­stances, how you feel is for the most part con­nected with where you place your mind.

‘I call it the grat­i­tude para­dox, that if you want to get to some­where else then you have to first love where you are.

‘Some­how our minds have de­vel­oped the idea that the only way that we can get what we want is to cre­ate some sort of lever­age, to hate what we have at the mo­ment so much that it will mo­ti­vate us to do some­thing about it.

‘What’s counter-in­tu­itive is that, ac­tu­ally, when you ap­pre­ci­ate what you have, you feel bet­ter and more re­laxed.

‘And then, just by the fact peo­ple nat­u­rally grow and ex­pand, you’ll prob­a­bly end up get­ting the thing you wanted. Not be­cause you hated what you had but sim­ply be­cause you felt more ex­panded and a bit more at peace and less con­flicted in your life.’

Stud­ies have also shown that grat­i­tude re­duces our ten­dency to com­pare our­selves with oth­ers. Rather than feel­ing re­sent­ful to­ward peo­ple who have more money or bet­ter jobs, grate­ful peo­ple have learned to>

ap­pre­ci­ate other peo­ple’s ac­com­plish­ments.

‘You start to fo­cus on pos­i­tive things,’ says David. ‘A reg­u­lar grat­i­tude prac­tise causes you to see and dwell more on the things that are good.’

Break­ing bar­ri­ers

Life can be hard, and if you’re fac­ing ill health, money wor­ries or car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, it can be tough to feel thank­ful.

But re­search has shown that grat­i­tude not only re­duces stress, but may also play a ma­jor role in over­com­ing trauma. Grat­i­tude was found to be a ma­jor contributor to re­silience fol­low­ing the ter­ror­ist at­tacks on Septem­ber 11, 2001.

David also cites an ex­er­cise done with peo­ple who were car­ing for loved ones who had de­men­tia, who were asked to do grat­i­tude ex­er­cises.

The par­tic­i­pants in the study were asked to look for small vic­to­ries like their loved one re­mem­ber­ing their name or eat­ing their food bet­ter that day.

Those who took part had an im­prove­ment in their men­tal health and stress lev­els and, amazingly, their telom­eres (the tiny struc­tures at the end of chro­mo­somes in our DNA, which are as­so­ci­ated with ag­ing) had de­graded at a lesser rate.

‘Es­sen­tially, their bod­ies were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing less bi­o­log­i­cal stress as a con­se­quence of find­ing these vic­to­ries,’ ex­plains David.

Grat­i­tude doesn’t have to be about your over­all life sit­u­a­tion and, in dif­fi­cult times, small things can be­come all im­por­tant.

‘If you start to fo­cus on the small things, it gives you a sense of vic­tory,’ David goes on. ‘A tiny light where you feel a pos­i­tive emo­tion, even for a short space of time. Some­times that lit­tle bit can help peo­ple to get through.’

Stronger re­la­tion­ships

David sug­gests you can use grat­i­tude to make con­nec­tions with strangers. And ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study pub­lished in the jour­nal Emo­tion, thank­ing a new ac­quain­tance makes them more likely to pur­sue an on­go­ing re­la­tion­ship.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing other peo­ple’s con­tri­bu­tions, whether they’re friends, col­leagues or fam­ily, will likely re­sult in ben­e­fits for both sides.

‘Men­tally, of course, there’s an ob­vi­ous ben­e­fit to an im­proved qual­ity of re­la­tion­ship,’ says David. ‘But the sec­ond thing that hap­pens with im­proved re­la­tion­ships is that the connection gen­er­ates oxy­tocin.

‘One of the body’s most im­por­tant car­dio­vas­cu­lar hor­mones, oxy­tocin is re­spon­si­ble for a whole host of pos­i­tive car­dio­vas­cu­lar ben­e­fits. So, peo­ple in high qual­ity re­la­tion­ships have health­ier hearts!

‘One of the best ways to im­prove re­la­tion­ship qual­ity is to get out of the habit of tak­ing peo­ple for granted and to start say­ing, “Thanks. I value you. I ap­pre­ci­ate you”.’

Learn­ing to let go

So, what about when some­one cuts you up while you’re driv­ing, nips in and steals the park­ing space you were wait­ing for or shoves past you in the street. How do you stop your­self car­ry­ing ill-feel­ing away from the ex­pe­ri­ence – in other words, the very op­po­site of grat­i­tude?

‘We all do it,’ ad­mits David. ‘I still do it! Even though I teach these things, I for­get what I teach from time to time.

‘But the more you prac­tise grat­i­tude, the more you no­tice when you’re not do­ing it.

‘Some­times you can im­merse your­self in a neg­a­tive spi­ral and it can last any­thing from five min­utes to two hours or more.

‘That du­ra­tion of im­mers­ing your­self in these neg­a­tive emo­tions short­ens with a grat­i­tude prac­tise.

‘It doesn’t mean you’ll never have a neg­a­tive thought or noth­ing bad will ever hap­pen, it just short­ens the du­ra­tion that you im­merse your­self in those things when you be­come present and you no­tice what you’re do­ing and make a con­scious choice to stop.’

David says it’s some­times about be­ing the big­ger per­son and mak­ing a con­scious de­ci­sion to move on.

‘I do a sim­ple an­a­lyt­i­cal ex­er­cise,’ he ex­plains. ‘I ask my­self, if I per­se­vere with this line of think­ing or be­hav­ing, what might this cost me in terms of my hap­pi­ness, my health, my state of mind for the rest of my day. Could it be less costly if I just let it go?

‘If I find my­self get­ting caught in the cy­cle of com­plain­ing about things, I very quickly no­tice I’m do­ing that and it al­most feels like a light has switched on. All of a sud­den, seem­ingly by it­self, my mind moves to­wards look­ing for the good in a sit­u­a­tion, work­ing out how I can see things in a dif­fer­ent way, what I can do to turn things around. That’s just a side ef­fect of the grat­i­tude habit.’

A new out­look

You may find that af­ter a while you no longer need to for­mally sit and write down your bless­ings be­cause notic­ing and fo­cus­ing on the good in your life has be­come such a habit.

‘The mind in­ter­prets your life and the sit­u­a­tions you find your­self in,’ says David. ‘And I think when you get into the habit of grat­i­tude, your mind just settles more on the things that are good than the things that are not so good. It be­comes in­grained.’

Greater life sat­is­fac­tion, a health­ier heart and stronger con­nec­tions with all of those around us... Turns out ‘thank you’ is a pretty pow­er­ful phrase.

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