We all hear quite a bit about the concept of gratitude around the holidays. People ask each other at family gathering, “What are you grateful for?” and there are countless encouraging memes on social media nudging us to participate in this obligatory function of the season.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all about gratitude. In my profession as a Life Coach, I give clients “gratitude assignments” often as part of their coaching. The most common one being a daily gratitude journal in which a person will write down as many things as they can think of that they feel grateful for at the end of each day. The catch to this assignment is to not only write these things down and be done with them, but to really meditate on each one and invoke the feeling of specific gratitude for that specific things. Imagining it in your mind and really allowing the feelings to unfold and grow is a very experiential way to practice gratitude rather than an intellectual exercise.
What we take for granted is that we actually know how to be grateful. This may not be as easy as one would think because of something called a “negativity bias” that is genetic. Science can tell us so much about the brain now and we know that our brains are wired to constantly seek out potential threats and create scenarios for how we would deal with them. This comes from a genetic predisposition that was prevalent ages ago when we were running from tigers in the jungle. The humans who were the most hyper vigilant were the ones who survived and passed their genetics on to the next generation.
This is just dandy for surviving but unfortunately, the part of your brain that keeps us alive doesn’t care whether we are happy or not. If living in a state of constant fear keeps you from being the one who gets eaten, our brains would have us choose that instead of a life of peace, ease and joy.
The funny thing is that for most of us, our lives are relatively safe. We could in fact live lives filled with peace and joy but our primal brains tell us otherwise. Our nervous system is keyed to detect any kind of perceived or real threat to our physical, emotional and mental survival. We spend time in our minds exploring all kinds of “just in case” scenarios about most everything that could go wrong.
When a threat is perceived, the brain signals the body to release stress hormones such as cortisol and directs the flow of blood away from the torso and into the limbs. It “turns off” the part of the brain that is involved in creative thinking, problem solving and so forth. All resources are being directed to what we need to either fight, flight or freeze.
What does this have to do with gratitude? Here’s the short answer. It is impossible to be in a state of gratitude and also be in a state of high stress. The two feelings are not compatible in your nervous system. While you might be able to understand what you “should” be grateful for, it will not be possible to maintain a state of gratitude when you are in a chronic stress pattern (which many of us are).
So what can we do about it? Science can also show how the brain is elastic and can be re-patterned. Just as you can train yourself to always see potential threats and problems, you can train your brain to recognize good things in your life and in the world. When this becomes a repeated practice, the part of the brain that can see possibilities other then ones related to survival, life becomes more than a race to win or “make it”.
When we practice gratitude in a real way with the things that are currently working well in our life or the things that are good about the world, we create more opportunities for this to be the norm in our life and grow more gratitude.
This does not mean you won’t still experience stress in your life. What it means is that you will be able to turn off the stress response once the situation or problem causing it is resolved. You will have a more balanced approach to things that would normally cause you to panic and perhaps make hasty decisions. You might even be able to see the silver lining in the cloud and know that the clouds always pass to reveal the sun.
When practicing holiday gratitude, consider making it a regular tool you use to cultivate more peace, joy and happiness in your life and in the lives of those around you.
Isn’t that the spirit of the season?