Gratitude is a word that has seeped into everyday language more and more in recent years. It seems that we are waking up to the realization that feeling grateful is a powerful ingredient to transforming our mental wellbeing and our positive experience of life.
Gratitude journaling and meditations are becoming common practice for some. I believe 2020 will be a big experience in gratitude for all of us. Even though ‘lockdown’ or a deadly virus are not things any of us would choose to experience, there is the potential for us to learn a lot through the process. Can you imagine how much we will appreciate things that we always took for granted after so long without: to walk, run or play outside, to hug our loved ones, to smile at each other face to face or to visit a favourite place again? Even in lockdown, I am feeling appreciative of certain things like the permission to slow down, the lack of rush, the time for good sleep, the sounds of nature and birdsong that seems louder than before, or just not drowned out by engines and the noise of busy-ness.
Feeling grateful is something that has helped me shift many times, from a state of stress, worry or general lack of ease, to a healthier, happier state.
My greatest personal journey with gratitude…
In 2018 I was the very fortunate winner of the BBC / Royal Geographical Society ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ award, where I cycled the length of The Murray River, a vulnerable Australian river eco-system. I had felt burned out after ten years of almost continuous high-level training for Paralympic handcycling. I had taken my seemingly endless energy for granted, until it was gone. I never sought a medical diagnosis for my feeling of exhaustion and lack lustre, but I felt to be dragging myself through life instead of dancing. I never used the label ‘depressed’, but I had definitely lost my energy and sparkle for life.
I first came across the story of the Murray River when a friend told me of an Australian woman who had swum its 2000 mile length! The more I learned about the river, the more I was attracted to explore its fascinating story. The river flows from the Snowy Mountains of Australia, into a dry, drought-stricken landscape. Hungry crops like cotton and vines are grown, which seems crazy given it is so dry. Water is diverted from other rivers, and communities and ecosystems are slowly drying up. Environmentalists fight for the balance and health of the river and its catchment area. Algal blooms replace pools once rich in fish. Dams and weirs have messed with the natural flow of water, causing un-seasonally dry riverbeds and intermittent floods. In the Murray River region, water is a commodity that costs more than the wine it is used to produce! The story is not unique, and there are many parts of the world where entire lakes and river systems are drying up due to the demands of population, irrigation and poor water management.
As a Paralympic athlete, I also mis-managed my resources. I took my energy for granted, and assumed my body would keep on giving because it always had. In the process I pushed through when sometimes I was exhausted and kept squeezing myself for more and more. Instead of listening to what my body needed, I over-rode it and forced it to respond to my demands. I wanted to learn from the river and it’s people about ways to manage limited resources more sustainably. Is it possible to maintain flow and still flourish whilst the ‘ecosystem’ – our body or the landscape – remains healthy? You can listen here to the programme ‘From Source to Sea via Me’ here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0000pdb
On the final day of my journey with the Murray River, I rode to the end of a narrow track that led toward the mouth of the river. It seemed the most beautiful day ever, perhaps because I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I felt alive again, I had energy, I was grateful for my shoulders and arms that had pedaled me the length of the river, for the incredible kindness we had received along the way, for the opportunity to be creative and make a radio programme, for friendship, for my experiences as an athlete, for my life, for just about everything! You get the idea – I experienced a power-shower of gratitude. Inside I felt very peaceful.
Gratitude helps you be your best
Feeling grateful is well established as one of the foundations of sustainable happiness. Neuroscience has shown that if we regularly pay attention to things we are grateful for, then levels of our ‘happiness’ hormones become elevated.
Gratitude is a great natural anti-depressant as it stimulates release of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for enhancing our mood.*
If we can consciously practice gratitude, we help strengthen these neural pathways in our brain and can create a more permanent state of gratefulness and positivity. I use the word SMILE as an acronym for ideal moments to feel gratitude and raise those levels of happy hormones.
I’ve engrained a habit so that every night when my head hits the pillow, I call to my mind at least three things I am feeling grateful for that day. No matter what happened in your day, there are always things to be grateful for. This pre-sleep stage is an ideal time to lock new connections into your subconscious mind. The extra bonus is that happy, appreciative, blissful thoughts just before sleep usually lead to good quality rest.
When you are doing some exercise, it is a great time to feel grateful for the incredible work that your body enables. I often say ‘thanks’ to my shoulders in appreciation of what I ask of them and what they enable me to do. When they grumble or don’t cooperate with my demands as much as I might like, I remember to listen, take care of them and feel thankful for all that they do. It’s surprising with even the smallest injury or pulled muscle how it can impact our ability to do things. Rather than feel frustrated at the part of me that isn’t ‘working’, I try to give it a bit of love, appreciate it, and marvel at what it normally does for me.
Do you ever get those good, spine-tingling feelings when you witness or experience something special like a performance, a piece of music, or a unique shared moment? It’s as if your body is being filled with inspiration. There are other less ‘tingly’ moments that inspire us too. Look out for them and turn up your grateful feelings. I think of inspiration as being essential to us, like fuel is for a car. Inspiration gives us energy to keep going through the terrain of life.
Nature is a powerful healer, and also a great provider of resources to feel grateful for. Whether it’s enjoying and appreciating a spectacular sunrise or sunset or listening to the bubble of a stream or the breaking of waves, there are many things to appreciate in the landscapes that surround us. Even in dense urban areas you can appreciate a cityscape or sky-scape. Look up and notice the clouds or the stars, and feel grateful for the rhythms and seasons of the landscapes around you. Take time to leave your desk or indoor space, step outside even if for five or ten minutes, connect with the landscape and appreciate it.
Using the word ‘exchange’ I refer to acts of kindness: that exchange of energy between two people. Although it sounds easy to appreciate someone’s kindness, we can take many things for granted especially when it is given by someone close to us that we can almost ‘expect’ it from. Try turning up the volume button on your appreciation when someone is kind, and seek a little harder than usual to be kind to others. Being kind helps us as much as those on the receiving end. Studies have proven that our ‘happy’ hormone levels elevate, and our immune response is up to 50% greater when we empathise more with others. If you’re interested, explore the work by Dr David Hamilton and try his TedX lecture** on the benefits of compassion and kindness.
Make gratitude a practice
As Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”. So if you want to feel more freedom and happiness, why not try starting, or turning up the volume on feeling grateful each day. In my own experience, the benefits to physiology and mental wellness come quickly.
* Positive Psychology, The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety and Grief, https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/
** Why Kindness is Good for You: Dr David Hamilton at TEDxHackney . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyX-kTTzM00