Hope for Humility & The Good Life
As we gear up for a season with seemingly endless opportunities to receive gifts, I contend that one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is developing a more robust practice of gratitude. Even though we like to believe that we do things altruistically for others most of the time, there tends to be a subtle “But what’s in it for me?” attached. For most people, “I should be grateful…” sounds right, culturally. It took my oldest child three years to say thank you without being prompted. I had the biggest smile when he did it spontaneously for the first time, and I’m pretty sure I literally leaped for joy. I felt like my wife and I provided a subtle but important service to the world by sending him out to preschool as someone who actively recognizes and appreciates the gifts of others, and hopefully feels less entitled and more humble.
Those are certainly goals for myself too. Less entitled, more humble, actively appreciating gifts. Yale’s most popular class in its history is “The Psychology and the Good Life”, and one of the 7 key practices from this class is gratitude. The experts and my intuition seem to agree that gratitude is important, but why is it so hard? I find that if I don’t actively practice gratitude, I get distracted by my default tendency toward ingratitude. The things I feel I’m owed, the things I don’t have and I want, and the ways I’m not doing what I should be doing (like practicing gratitude).
Grace for Negativity
Humans are tilted toward negative emotion. The Gottman’s Love Lab research recommends that we should have 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction if we want to increase your chances of staying together happily in a healthy relationship. This is because we hang onto the negative and we cyclically review all the things going wrong with ourselves and the world around us, often ignoring the positive. Negative interactions are weighted roughly 5 times more than positive ones. Part of that natural attraction to the negative is adaptive, because if we didn’t notice the negative in our past, then we could get into a lot of trouble by repeating mistakes we forgot about. If we didn’t have the anticipatory anxiety for potential impending catastrophes coming toward us in the future, then we might not prepare adequately to avert disaster.. But I believe we could get into as much if not more trouble by not remembering the past successes and gifts we’ve experienced and future ones we can look forward to.
You don’t have to work that hard to focus on the negative, and there are benefits to it, but attending to gratitude can mean the difference between living with resentment, shame, guilt, fear, and anger in contrast with patience, love, hope, joy, and peace. Focusing on the negative is our autopilot correlated with self-defeating, demotivated states. However, you can turn off autopilot and redirect your attention by focusing on the positive through gratitude, and experience the benefits. Learn to have grace for yourself in the process, because negativity is normal and adaptive, but if it’s on overdrive (which it is for most of us), then we need to place it in the background more often than we currently do (e.g. 5x more).
Benefits of Gratitude
A decade ago I found gratitude research from Psychologist Robert Emmons from UC Davis, showing that people who practice gratitude strongly tend to experience numerous benefits. Some benefits are increased emotional wellbeing (by an average of 25%), relationship satisfaction, generous and “paying it forward” actions, resilience to trauma and chronic stress, as well as effective goal achievement. Emmons’ studies also found grateful people reporting decreased depressive symptoms in severity and frequency, and less frequently taking the good in their lives for granted. In addition to those psychological effects, gratitude correlates with more exercise, better sleep, less substance abuse, 10-15% lower blood pressure, and better kidney function.
Over the last 10 years gratitude research has grown exponentially, and psychologists, clinicians, and neuroscientists have only more confidently confirmed and expanded these findings. As I’ve personally helped hundreds of people develop a practice of gratitude over the last 10 years, I’ve come to believe that regular gratitude should be seen as a baseline practice that helps with whatever someone is wrestling with, like healthy regular eating, sleeping, and exercising. Gratitude works! Below are some ways to practice:
Practice of Gratitude
- Gratitude Journaling: Write down what you’re grateful for in a journal 15 minutes a day, 3 times a week, for two weeks. Studies have found even in this short experiment you are likely to experience some of the benefits. Click here for 9 tips for gratitude journaling effectively and more on the research behind this method.
- Joy Journaling: Write down the top 10 best experiences of your life and every morning spend five minutes thinking about one of them. Joy is a super emotion that can drown out all the other emotions, and is worth reflecting gratefully on.
- Breathe Prayer: Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and meditate on two words. Breathe in the word “grace” 4 counts, and breathe out the word “gratitude” 5 counts. Invite images into your mind where you’ve experienced grace and gifts on the inhale, and direct your gratitude toward the givers of those gifts on the exhales.
- Let Others Inspire: Ask someone to join you in the practice. Ask for help from someone who’s developed their own. We are communal creatures, and they’ll motivate you to continue when you falter. Also, research your philosophical and/or faith traditions, because these leaders hold up humility and gratitude as some of if not the most important virtues in their belief system– and they may inspire you by their example and exhortation! As a Christian, I often return to Philippians 4:6-9 where Paul inspires my prayer life to be filled with gratitude to God and the peace that comes from it.
Receive the Gift
We seem to be wired to thrive pursuing a posture of gratitude, and my clients and I have benefited immensely from a mix of all these practices and more. May God bless you as you cultivate the motivation and means for regular gratitude! And may you experience this developing practice as one of the greatest gifts you could receive this season, and hopefully it becomes the gift that keeps on giving in every season to come.