As the great stoic philosopher Epictetus said:
Epictetus spent his youth as a slave in Rome. He was crippled on the journey to Rome and lay below deck on the ship for days, controlling his reaction to the pain. He lived alone for much of his life with few possessions. It’s not exactly the life you might think would give rise to an appreciation of the power of gratitude. However, Epictetus practiced a philosophy that held that all you could really control in life was your rational mind and what it focused on.
Gratitude has been demonstrated to improve the frequency of positive emotions (even amongst people with chronic illness), reduce physical health symptoms like headaches, improve sleep and even enhance interpersonal relationships (Lyubomirsky 2007). It is a practice closely related to mindfulness, in the brilliant Mindfulness Finding Peace in a Frantic world they talk about having the quality of ‘appreciative attention’. Mindfulness helps us to have the attentional skills to apply and focus on gratitude, especially when we are in difficult circumstances.
A practice for cultivating gratitude which I enjoy regularly when I walk my dog is ‘The Gratitude Walk’ (of course the walking can be replaced with any appropriate movement or it can be done sitting if movement is an issue):
- Begin with 2-5minutes of mindful walking. You can bring your awareness to the sensations of walking, or your breath or you can open your awareness to your sensory experience of sight, sound, feeling, smell, taste etc
- Start to reflect on different things in your life which you feel grateful for and (using any language that works for you) say silently in your mind ‘I’m grateful for x’
- Categories for gratitude could be relationships, resources, opportunities, abilities, hobbies, work, a (relatively) healthy body and mind etc. You can also express gratitude for the things you see around you like nature or the people you are with
- Expand this out so that you reflect on something you are grateful for and then deepen this by expressing why you are grateful for it. For example, ‘I am grateful for my dog, because he is always pleased to see me and keeps me regularly walking in nature’
- Let your awareness ‘dance’ between the thoughts of gratitude and any pleasant feelings in your body like the feeling of gratitude, warmth, openness, relaxation, joy etc in the heart, face and whole body
- If your mind drifts away notice and return. If your mind resists the practice with judgement, doubt, self-attack, inner critic etc then see if you can notice this in a kind and accepting way and gently keep bringing your attention back to expressing gratitude. Let the doubt be in the background. We have the capacity to experience different emotions at the same time, we can have gratitude whilst feeling anxious, depressed, obsessing etc. Let the other thoughts and feelings be in the background of your awareness and gratitude takes centre stage
- Continue for 10-20 minutes or as long as feels right
- Try to find different things to be grateful for each time you practice, including different things that have happened through your day. This trains our attention to be searching for positive occurrences throughout the day
Our brains have evolved a negativity bias that prepares us to search for threats in our environment. It made more sense for our ancestors to spot the dangers of their environment (like Lions, Tigers and Hyena’s) than it did to continuously savour the beauty of their world. So, our baseline state can often be one when the brain defaults to searching for danger. Gratitude is a wonderful practice to offset this and to prime our minds to take in the good. People often struggle with gratitude, especially if they are experiencing low mood. When this happens, a person suffering from depression can end up denigrating themselves for ‘failing’ at another thing. This is where we gently use our mindful acceptance skills to allow these thoughts to be there whilst we place our attention on the gratitude practice. We can experience gratitude even in the midst of emotional or physical pain. So, start gently, maybe just writing down three things for which you feel grateful for or spending two minutes through the day to reflect on gratitude.
The other thing people struggle with is what gratitude means in a world full of social injustice. But it’s important to reflect that gratitude can be a complementary practice to support us in working to create a better world. We can resource ourselves to help others with gratitude and reduce the chance of burn out. Even people in very difficult situations have found benefits with gratitude. For example, Shawn Achor did research with cancer patients, African farmers that had lost their land and homeless people and found they all benefited from the practice of gratitude for their well-being.
So why not try Epictetus’s approach and experience the ‘freedom of being the master of yourself’ by cultivating an attitude of gratitude. Take a walk on the grateful side.