Photo Credit: Debby Hudson, Unsplash.com

Written by Luke Iorio, President of One Idea Away and iPEC
November 15, 2019

There have been a lot of stories and research supporting how gratitude contributes to your overall happiness and wellbeing. For instance, separate research by both Robert Emmons and Sonya Lyubomirsky shows that practicing gratitude is actually one of the most reliable methods for increasing happiness, while also boosting feelings of joy, optimism, enthusiasm, and pleasure.

At the same time, other studies show that gratitude practices tend to support reducing anxiety and depression, make us more resilient, strengthens relationships, and might even lead to a better night’s sleep. Research also suggests that gratitude even contributes to positive changes within your brain, reducing our experiences of negative emotions.

Sounds almost too good to be true.

But there’s an important piece, that can be all too often missed, in making gratitude truly work for you. 

An Essential Element You Don’t Want to Miss

Let me step back for a moment.

I’m a bit of a personal experience researcher—meaning that while I read a lot of books, articles, and research as well as interview some wonderful guests and experts on the One Idea Away Podcast—when I find something that I believe can benefit my wellbeing, professional development, happiness, relationships, etc., I tend to then experiment within my own life, create personal experience, and see what fits and works for me personally. 

So along those lines, I’ve had a gratitude practice and have experienced mixed results. I’ve tracked the best three things in which you write down the good things that you’re experiencing throughout the day and then consider which were the best three. I’ve gone on from that to start a gratitude journal, writing in more detail what I was grateful for at the end of my days (typically about three to four times per week, not daily). I’ve also intentionally expressed more gratitude in many of my relationships and shared gratitude around the dinner table with my family.

There were days that these practices absolutely warmed my heart and filled me with more appreciation, and as a result, a greater sense of fulfillment. There were also days where these practices helped me to be more open and accepting of challenging experiences. 

There were also days where I didn’t feel any of that (regardless of whether life was going my way or not). On these days, gratitude felt forced and even false and expressing gratitude left me with a sense of misalignment and even judging myself for not feeling gratitude (especially when my life is really blessed).

So, what gives?

The part that was working stemmed from my brain being more tuned in to seek out experiences I could be grateful for. Consider this, when you decide to get a new car, why do you all of a sudden start seeing that car everywhere? Were they not there before? Did tons of people just go out and buy that specific car? Or was your mind just not seeking them out? Obviously it’s the latter and that’s part of what occurs with a gratitude practice. It helps you become more open and aware of experiences that you can be grateful for. 

The part that didn’t work was when it felt disingenuous. But why was that? Why, when I was becoming more aware and focused on seeing the good, was I not feeling grateful?

And within that last question lies the keyword and essential piece that led to the practice falling short: feeling

In my experience, it’s not enough to track and journal what you’re grateful for. It’s definitely a good start, but we need to go a step further and give ourselves time to actually feel the gratitude within our bodies and hearts. 

I found that I didn’t need to track a list of experiences. Instead, two things really helped and these made the other practices much richer and more effective. 

Two Essential Additions to Being More Grateful

First, I started paying attention to when gratitude would naturally arise and I’d heighten my awareness at those moments. I’d pause. I’d notice what I was feeling—where was the feeling of gratitude arising from in my body, what did it physically feel like, what was the sensation like. I’d notice details within my environment and experience. I’d notice where my attention was and what was unfolding when I first felt the gratitude building. And then I’d let that gratitude flood throughout my body and mind, and connect to as much of the feelings and sensations as I could—sort of letting it wash over and throughout me. 

This practice lets me focus on and be much more mindful of naturally arising gratitude and, being more fully present with those moments, enabled me to anchor that feeling and experience more deeply. This, in turn, supported me in being able to tap back into that feeling because I had a stronger frame of reference that I could recall—mentally and physically—which would help trigger the emotions. In being able to re-experience that gratitude, I could then more easily let it through, letting that feeling of appreciation express itself in my words, actions, and energy, which now felt much more congruent. 

The second essential practice (or step within other practices) was that for the more typical gratitude practices (journaling, best three things, sharing at the dinner table, etc.), I would pause, connect to those previous experiences of gratitude and then look through those eyes and with that feeling at the experiences 

that I’d tracked and journaled on. This would allow me to truly feel gratitude and not just write them down (instead of just “going through the motions,” as it were). I’d then notice when and how those feelings of 

gratitude would build further or light up even more, and I’d pause and really feel into those moments, anchoring and connecting to gratitude even more fully.

When I added these two elements, I started to notice that the feelings of gratitude were consistently more present and my overall awareness of how I could be grateful for whatever was unfolding was heightened. 

This isn’t to say I don’t (or you won’t) have days that are really tough and you don’t feel grateful. It’s life—with all its twists and turns and unexpected situations. However what I found and what I believe you’ll find (as clients of mine have) is that you’ll rebound and reconnect to gratitude much more quickly, boosting your resilience, making your overall stress response healthier, and contributing to your overall sense of happiness and wellbeing.

Photo Credit: Debby Hudson, Unsplash.com