Pressing Pause Podcast Episode 3 The life-changing power of feeling grateful
Welcome to Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers.
I’m Gabrielle Treanor and I’m a writer and teacher specialising in overthinking and overworrying. Here I share with you ideas, inspiration and actions to empower you to spend less time overthinking and worrying and more time enjoying your life.
Welcome to episode 3. This time I’m talking about how savouring the good stuff, and making a point every day to appreciate the little things in life, can have a real and powerful positive impact on your life.
That’s a pretty big claim, isn’t it? Well, yes, it is and I can back it up with positive psychology research and my own experience.
Let’s start with looking at what being grateful is. First of all it’s not about religion or God or being indebted to anyone. Gratitude simply means expressing thanks and appreciation. It’s stopping for a moment to recognise the good in that moment, in others, in the world. It could be someone holding the door open for you, the doctor giving you the all clear, the sun shining on your face, getting a new job or five minutes peace with a cup of tea.
What’s important is having the awareness, recognising a moment of goodness, acknowledging it and feeling thankful. Muttering “thanks” absent-mindedly to the person who held open the door you’re rushing through isn’t really being truly thankful. Being aware that the other person didn’t need to hold the door open for you but chose to and feeling appreciative for that, is expressing gratitude. That moment of kindness, thoughtfulness in a brief gesture that’s over in seconds, can be given a more powerful, and positive, meaning simply by you being aware of it.
Robert Emmons has been studying gratitude for nearly 20 years and he’s one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. Through his research he’s found that practising gratitude consistently produces significant benefits, such as:
• Lowering blood pressure
• Building your resilience
• A stronger immune system
• Experiencing higher levels of positive emotion such as optimism and happiness
• Feeling more generous and compassionate and less lonely and isolated
And it’s a virtuous circle – the more gratitude you feel the more you find to be thankful for. And the more thankful you are the more positive you feel. What’s not to like? It’s a win-win for the overthinker.
Research shows that positive emotions can wear off quickly, it’s called hedonic adaptation. You get used to the new thing you bought, the place you live in, the car you drive, even the people you love and you can take them for granted. By expressing gratitude you’re appreciating their value, savouring your enjoyment of what’s in your life in this very moment.
And gratitude builds your resilience, it gives you perspective, helps you see the big picture, which is so important when you’re prone to living in your head, overthinking and worrying. Studies show that when grateful people undergo a serious challenge or something upsetting happens in their lives they recover more quickly. Expressing thanks on a regular basis trains you to look outside of yourself, to be able to see a more colourful picture of a stressful event, rather than just black and white, negative or positive.
Plus, you can’t feel a positive emotion at the same time as a negative one. So if you’re grateful for something you have you can’t feel envious of what someone else has. The more time you spend feeling thankful, the less time and energy you give over to feeling dissatisfied and resentful.
So, how do we get the benefits of practising gratitude?
Well, we can try to say thanks to people more, or aim to be more aware of the good things in life, but without a regular practice these good intentions can fall by the wayside.
This is where positive psychology research comes in. Robert Emmons and his colleague, Mike McCullough, conducted a controlled experiment where they asked three groups of people to keep a daily diary. One group were asked to write down hassles in their life, another group just to record what happened in their day, and the third group were asked to write down what they were grateful for. This third gratitude group showed a considerable rise in happiness and life satisfaction. In just three weeks of writing down three things a day they were thankful for the study participants felt noticeably more positive, they reported feeling more joyful, energetic, compassionate, enthusiastic and generous. Plus, these feelings stayed with them for weeks afterwards too.
I can back up these findings with my own study of one, my own experience of gratitude practice. Every night, for several years, I’ve written in a journal three things that I’m thankful for, that were good about my day. They’ve varied wildly from the tiniest, simple, little things to big, life-impacting stuff. This daily practice has trained my brain to look for the good in my life each day. When I first started I would consciously think of what I was going to write in my diary that night, it made me more aware because I didn’t want to get to the end of the day and not know what to write down. And then, over time, I didn’t have to try so hard. I started to notice the good stuff more naturally, and I appreciated it there and then, benefiting from the happy feelings that being thankful produces at that time. It’s really made a difference to me, helping me to spend less time in my head, overthinking stuff, and more time appreciating what’s going on around me and simply enjoying my life more.
And I do feel that developing this gratitude attitude helps me to deal with challenges and when things go wrong. A while ago I made a discovery that meant my husband and I had to spend a weekend working as fast and as long as we could to work things out and fix the problem. At first I felt overwhelmed by the issue and like I wouldn’t be able to cope with all that we had to do. And then my grateful thinking kicked in. I realised I was thankful that we’d found the problem sooner rather than later, that I wasn’t alone in sorting it out and had my husband to help me. I was grateful that our dog was happy to sleep all day on the couch after the quickest of walks, and that we’d done a grocery shop earlier in the week so we had plenty of food and drink to keep us going. I appreciated that we had nothing planned that weekend so we didn’t need to cancel anything or let anyone down. And I was thankful that I had learned about mindfulness and been practising gratitude so the feelings of overwhelm quickly subsided and I could get on with the task in hand. I don’t think I would have managed the situation, and my emotions, in the same way if it had happened a few years earlier.
So, how do you practice gratitude?
Well, how the studies I mentioned were conducted, and what I do, is to keep a gratitude journal or diary, and write in it three things you’re thankful for every day. You can choose what time of day to write in it to suit you, I’ve made it a habit to fill in my journal at bedtime so I have the day to reflect on and coming out of the bathroom is the trigger for me to pick up the pen and notebook. There’s extra benefit to writing down your gratitudes, rather than saying them or thinking them. It’s thought that because it takes longer to write than to speak or think the act of writing imprints the gratitudes more firmly into your long-term memory. Plus, when you’re having a really difficult time you can flick back through the pages and see the written evidence of all the good that has happened in your life in recent days.
What you write down is personal to you so you can write anything you like. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you think is tiny and barely worth noting, if you appreciate it, if it felt good to you, it counts, write it down. What matters is that you’re as specific as you can be, write down details rather than generalities. So, for example, rather than being grateful for it being sunny, be specific about how you’re thankful the sun shone while you walked home from work, you could feel the warmth on your face and the light falling on the buildings turned up a pretty golden shade.
Further studies by Robert Emmons show that even more effective than keeping a daily gratitude journal is writing a letter of thanks and reading it aloud to the recipient. The positive benefits were felt by both the person who wrote and read out the letter, and the person to whom the gratitude letter was addressed. It may feel a bit uncomfortable or embarrassing to read out a letter of thanks to someone but it could be worth a go to see how good it makes you both feel.
There are other ways you can practise gratitude daily – take a photo a day, share what was good about your day with your family at the dinner table, talk to your children about what they’re thankful for at bedtime, set an alarm to go off during the day as a prompt to think about what you’re grateful for at that moment, or start the day thinking about what you’re looking forward to.
Whether you already think about what you’re thankful for, or this is a new idea to you, creating a regular, daily, gratitude practice will help you to spend less time in your head overthinking and more time noticing all the good stuff that’s going on in your life right now and enjoying it. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
Thank you for joining me for Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers. You can find the show notes and other episodes at gabrielletreanor.com/podcast.
If you’d like to build your resilience, feel more optimistic, spend less time overthinking and more time enjoying what’s already in your life, by creating your own daily gratitude practice, take a look at A Thankful Heart, my three-week e-course that’s available to start whenever you are. Go to gabrielletreanor.com/courses to find all the information and join.
You can also share photos of the joyful moments in your day with me on Instagram with hashtag savouringhappiness and I’m @gabrielletreanor.
Thanks again for listening, until next time, lovely people.