I think my lessons in gratitude started early in life compliments of my Mum. In my angsty teenage years whenever I complained about the 'outrageous unfairness' of my life because I didn't have a certain label of clothing, or my hair didn't turn out like the girl on the cover of Dolly magazine or lamented at the comparably tardy rate at which my bosoms were growing (so not growing!), Mum's response was generally to just be 'thankful that you have arms and legs that work, and that you can see and hear' and get on with it. A perspective that no doubt grew out of her work assisting children with severe disabilities. But oh how I hated that response at the time.
And yet it stuck with me. Innumerable times in my life when things have felt tough and overwhelming, or I was consumed with how I'd meet the next mortgage payment, or I caught my inner critic as I walked past a shopfront and noted my reflection, Mum's words were the fall back perspective. At least I still had all this. I was lucky. Those words laid the foundational bricks of thankfulness upon which I built my life.
Aware of the stupendous good fortune that my children were born into, I started them early with a family gratitude journal every other day. My youngest was three at the date of her first entry. I still recall her angry little face, arms folded at her front declaring she was 'grateful for nuffin' '. Initially, the pages are filled with the glorious joys of life through the eyes of young children - grateful for their toys, their books, their pets, but in a relatively short space of time it started to click and they began to widen their lens of appreciation. They were grateful to live in Australia, to have access to computers, to have a Dad that created such a wonderful garden and a Mum that was kind and caring. A decade letter and we still pull out the gratitude journal, sometimes to add to it, sometimes to read through grateful times gone by.
Several years ago, I upped the ante on my gratitude practice by participating in an Instagram challenge to take a picture of something that I was grateful for and post it for an entire year. I didn't make it all the way (mostly because friends started unfollowing me!) but it was a great challenge, particularly as it couldn't be conceptual, and it was daily. Once I'd run out of the big ticket items at the start of the year, I had to look harder and more closely. It also instilled it as a daily practice.
Then in a time of personal hardship a few years ago, I was following the blog of a lady I knew who was dying of cancer. When she knew her time was nearly up, she wrote about how grateful and joyous she was every time she woke to a new day. A whole new day. She wrote that to wake and open her eyes and still be alive was just the most magical feeling. I remember bawling reading it - partly for the sadness of her imminent death but also because THAT IS HOW WE SHOULD GREET EACH DAY. Who know's if we'll get another? And what a miracle it is to wake, particularly with full health, and be given a whole new one where ANYTHING might happen. That flicked a switch in me, and every day since then, I have tried to wake and take in the gift that is a fresh day rather than wake full of burden and despondency. Too often we awake with an almost palpable contempt at the day that lies ahead of us. Yet there is never a guarantee that we'll be granted another day. Imagine if we knew this was our last day on this earth? Because the reality is, it might be. We rarely know in advance. How differently might we spend it if we knew this was it? As the sun rises each day, I take a moment to be grateful to be handed another one.
Being grateful has really become part of our everyday language in the last few years, due to its integral role in the positive psychology movement but appears to receive a disproportionate amount of eye rolling from some quarters. Perhaps, because it's confused as having a Pollyannaish approach to life where one skips through a deluded daffodil field not noticing the large boulder of poo chasing them down. Perhaps for some it conjures up people hand-in-hand around a campfire singing 'kumbaya' or it's just considered too hippie, too woo woo, too simple an approach for today's complex, hard-nosed world. The reality is that there is loads of evidence to support the practice of gratitude as a key ingredient in the recipe for happiness. It's actively looking for some good to rally a case against our reptilian brains preference for bad. It's choosing to find something positive to help us through challenging times. As Brendon Burchard says "Gratitude is the golden frame through which we see the meaning of life."
People who practice gratitude regularly have been shown to experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. It also works as powerfully as any known anti-depressant to increase happiness - and if you're struggling to find something to be grateful for, even just asking yourself 'what could I be grateful for right now?' shifts the chemistry of your brain. I've come to see practicing gratitude for the simple things in life as a powerful antidote to the pressures and busyness of modern times. To notice the softness in your child's hand, the blueness of the sky, the song of the morning birds, the softness of a pillow, the sturdiness of our legs, the smell of toast, the hug of a love one. Little moments throughout our day and weeks and years that could easily go unnoticed amongst the rushing, the pushing, the trying and the ruminating.
The depth with which I'm now woven together in gratitude occurred to me the other day when I was chatting to a friend about how I had such a 'lucky' life. She glanced at me, and muttered something about my definition of the word 'lucky'. Wow, yes, I thought as I quickly remembered the events of the last few years - a melanoma, an episode of severe depression, a child hospitalised with a very serious illness, a fractured spine, all while setting up a new business, assisting my husband with his and running a busy and demanding household. I suddenly realised with fully fledged urban-hippie-ness that gratitude had really become my attitude. Kumbaya!
I thought about those times - when the melanoma was found it was 'thank goodness they found it early'. When my child was hospitalised I thought 'we are so lucky to have access to such an amazing public hospital'. When I broke my back and spent 11 weeks on crutches, 6 of which were non-weight bearing, still having to run a business and be a parent, I thought 'at least it's only temporary' and vowed to never take walking for granted again. As my body slowly repaired, I marvelled at the awesomeness of my body. I also now reflect on my period of depression as such an incredible catalyst for me to make changes in my life that were very overdue. I have NEVER felt better than the last six months or so, and it is all due to what I learnt while recovering from depression. In fact, I would change none of what happened, because it all lead to where I am now. Some may say I am a fool. A great fool even. I say I am just grateful.
Here's an article on the neuroscience of gratitude - click here
How gratitude can change your life from Happify - click here
And my gratitude guru, Brendon Burchard shares six uncommon strategies for developing gratitude - click here.
Photo by Nicolas Postiglioni from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-standing-on-rooftop-putting-hands-in-the-air-under-clear-sky-816233/