Count your blessings
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.’
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.’
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.