“When you get up in the morning, think about the precious privilege of being alive, breathing, thinking, enjoying and loving” – Marcus Aurelius
“You become what you pay attention to. If you don’t choose your thoughts, others will do it for you “ – Epictetus
Our brain is a machine specialized in identifying threats. Natural selection favors survival, not happiness. Individuals with the best ability to identify what was wrong lived longer, and dissatisfaction motivated action. We are the descendants of anxious and ungrateful primates.
Now we live in a much safer world, but our brain continues to focus its attention on all the problems around us (detail). And since our attention defines our reality, we live overwhelmed by our problems, often imaginary.
To reduce anxiety we must counteract this natural inclination with a good dose of objectivity, using the power of gratitude.
Today you will learn how our brain distorts reality, and how a simple change of perspective it can improve your life. Gratitude will help you reduce anxiety, eat better, exercise more, and ultimately be happier.
Blessings and Barriers
A review of different studies confirms that we tend to magnify the barriers that we have had to overcome, but we easily forget the blessings we have received. Obstacles demand effort and concentration, while we enjoy the benefits without paying attention to them. Our mind therefore interprets that the former are much more numerous than the latter.
Paradoxically, the opposite happens to us when we evaluate others: we assume they have had fewer problems and more privileges. This is the perfect recipe for a life of resentment and envy.
It is not about denying our problems, but about adopt a more balanced view of reality. Let’s see how the virtue of gratitude can help us.
Benefits of gratitude
Of all the known strengths and virtues, including love, perseverance, and humility, gratitude is the best predictor of well-being (detail).
Feelings of gratitude are associated with countless benefits:
- Better overall health, both physical and mental (study, study).
- Less stress, anxiety and depression (study, study, study, study).
- Greater job and life satisfaction in general (study, study).
- Better rest (study).
- Better academic performance (study).
- Better personal relationships (study, study).
- Less materialism and envy (detail, detail, study).
- Less aggressiveness (studies).
As we will see, gratitude achieves all these effects in different ways, both physiological and psychological.
Like almost everything, gratitude is partly an innate trait linked to our personality (detail), but it is also a quality that we can cultivate (detail). In fact, thoughts of gratitude generate observable changes in different areas of the brain (study, study).
For example, this study divided its participants into two groups. One should reflect on things he was grateful for and the other on things that annoyed him, with instructions such as the following:
- Focus on gratitude (group 1): «There are many good things in our lives to be thankful for. Thinking back to the past week, write down five things you are grateful for«.
- Focus on problems (group 2): «There are many things that irritate or annoy us. They occur in our relationships, at work, in our health, etc. Thinking about the past week, write down five problems you have had«.
Despite doing the practice only once a week, the differences were clear: the group that reflected on the good things reported better overall satisfaction and better health. And interestingly, they did more physical activity. Negativity seems to sap energy for training.
Strategies for practicing Gratitude
Changing our default thinking takes time, but many studies confirm that simple practices work. Gratitude is like a muscle, and we must strengthen it.
You can select any of the following strategies or ideally use a combination of them.
1. Gratitude journal
Socrates said that an unexamined life was not worth living, and journaling is a good way to do this.
The benefits of frequently writing down the things you are grateful for they are not only psychological, but also physiological. A study in coronary risk patients showed that writing 3-5 things they were thankful for each day reduced markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein, TNF-α, or IL-6. In addition, while they wrote in the diary their HRV (heart rate variability) improved.
Other studies find that putting the things we are grateful for on paper reduces symptoms of depression (study), helps to sleep better (study), improves school motivation (study) and general well-being (study).
Some ideas to reflect on in your journal:
- What went well today?
- Who did something nice for you during the day?
- What things could have gone wrong but didn’t happen?
Try to be specific so as not to be repetitive.
Any agenda or notebook will allow you to develop this practice, but there are also gratitude diaries that you can use as a guide. Although I prefer to write on paper, there are apps for digital lovers, such as Five Minute Journal or Grateful.
2. Thank you letters
Being grateful for what others have done for you seems to be more effective than simply being grateful for things that have happened to you.
One study divided nearly 300 people undergoing psychotherapy into three groups. One simply continued with psychotherapy (control group), another added expressive writing (describing thoughts and emotions), and the last supplemented his psychotherapy with writing thank you letters to people who had helped him at some point.
After several weeks, people who had written gratitude letters improved their mental state the most than the rest of the groups.
In another study, students who wrote thank you letters improved their eating habits to a greater extent than the control group. Many use food to attenuate negative emotions, and it seems that by reducing these emotions they need less Binge.
If you want to go one step further, you can deliver the letter to the person, but the simple act of writing it works.
3. Negative visualization
Another impediment to enjoy what we have is the call hedonic adaptation. When something good comes into our life (new car, new house or new partner) our sense of well-being rises, but the improvement is only temporary. Over time, the excitement fades and we return to our initial level of satisfaction.
To combat this hedonic adaptation the Stoics recommended frequently practicing negative visualization, or Premeditatio Malorum.
Seneca used in his letters macabre but effective examples, such as imagining the death of a loved one. It reminded us that all we have is a loan from the universe, and it can be claimed at any time. Imagining the loss of something valuable helps us appreciate it instead of taking it for granted (study, study).
Since nothing is more valuable than life itself, the Stoics further recommended reflect on death. This practice, known as Memento Mori (“Remember you’re going to die”) gives us perspective and helps us put our problems in context.
As this study indicates, reflecting on our mortality makes us feel more grateful for the life we have.
4. Temporary resignation
In addition to visualizing, you can practice temporary deprivation. Temporarily giving up things you enjoy will help you appreciate them more (study). Food tastes better after a period of fasting, and the warmth of the home is most enjoyed after being exposed to the cold.
As they say, We do not know what we have until we lose it. To lose Some things voluntarily and temporarily will help you value them more.
5. Savor the little things
We spend our days waiting for great events, but life is really made up of little moments. Unfortunately, we waste most of them as mundane.
Attention can transform tedious experiences into pleasant ones. When doing the dishes, focus on how the hot water feels on your hands. As you walk to the office feel the wind on your face and observe the shapes of trees and plants.
This process is called Savoring, and it increases our well-being by turn mundane into novelty. We can apply this concept to our food, and several studies indicate that really savoring food can help you lose weight and reduce stress (study, study).
Practice meditation It helps us precisely to control our attention, improving the quality of our daily experiences (detail).
6. Watch the news less
By the negative bias of our brain, the bad generates more interest than the good, making the news focus on the first. All this news competes for your attention and distorts your perception, making you believe that the world is a dark and dangerous place.
It’s hard to feel grateful when they only show you the negative, and it’s no coincidence that watching the news causes stress and anxiety (study, study, study).
You do not need more than ten minutes a day to be aware of what is happening in the world, and the media are not the best source of information.
Our brain is specialized in ignoring the good and highlighting the bad. This generates a biased view of reality, producing stress and anxiety. Practicing gratitude is the antidote to our negative bias.
Lastly, remember that gratitude does not imply conformity, and in fact grateful people achieve their goals more often (detail). It is simply about be grateful for what you have while you pursue what you lack.