Does Gratitude Really Change Our Attitude?
“Gratitude is the path to a positive outlook on life, but we can’t just “write out” gratitude. We must practice feeling gratitude.”
-Abigail Cole Hardin, CLC; PNLP
By Abigail Cole Hardin, CLC; PNLP
When we see our friends on social media on vacations and exotic trips, fine dining, and new purchases like designer handbags and cars, gratitude isn’t usually our first feeling. Instead, we start to feel like we are missing out or need to keep up with those in our generation. #FOMO.
We’re constantly made aware of what everyone else is doing, and in turn, we feel less satisfied with our own lives.
It might play out in our subconscious like a steady drone of anxiety —a white noise drowning out the clear ring of truth that reminds us of what we do have instead of what we are missing.
The truth is, we have everything that we need at this point in time.
In my training as a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Practitioner, I look through the lens that we have an infinite supply of internal resources—and even more as a Christian, I know that the God of the universe says that He supplies our every need. Yet while we have these resources at our fingertips, we still feel a deficit. Not because we don’t have the resources, but because we don’t know how to put them into practice—prime example - Gratitude.
Gratitude has become a buzzword to combat our constant dilemma of comparison.
Yet we often confuse defining gratitude with practicing gratitude.
Defining gratitude is like list-making:
I am grateful for my friends. . .
I am thankful for the roof over my head. . .
I am thankful for the sunshine. . . and the list goes on.
And while it steers you in a positive direction, it doesn’t seem to change your perspective. You might come away with somewhat of an internal shrug that says, “ Yeah, I guess my life is not so bad.” But a shrug-like list is not experiencing gratitude.
The experience of gratitude comes only in the practice.
I started to understand the significance of practicing gratitude when I read Dr. Rick Hanson’s book, “Hardwiring Happiness” to learn how the brain is wired. The main principle is, what you set your mind on determines your bias. It’s like a habit. If your brain is more negatively wired, the negative will always stand out more to you; if you’re wired toward the positive, you’ll notice the positive.
If you’re like me, I have a stronger tendency to notice the negative—not because I want to, but because I believe if I see the problems, I can find solutions or find motivations to improve. But this outlook is draining. His research of the brain encouraged me because with practice, I can change my outlook.
Dr. Rick Hanson says to think of a positive event or encounter and sit with that grateful emotion for at least twenty seconds—fully savoring it and anchoring the experience.
The more you do that throughout your day, you’ll start to gravitate towards the positive and form a positivity bias. And it makes sense why gratitude is so important to our minds because it is this practice of forming a bias to the positive.
Therefore, gratitude is the path to a positive outlook on life, but we can’t just “write out” gratitude. We must practice feeling gratitude.
Feelings and emotions are so important to our memory. For example, we do not remember events by the details of what happened. We remember events by the way they made us feel. In the same way, we cannot feel gratitude without practicing the feeling of gratitude.
This practice has been a game-changer for me. It has brought tears to my eyes because the emotions feel so real in the present, even though the feeling occurred in the past. My whole day takes on a new shape—much more than a shrug of “I guess my life is not so bad.” And if I do start to feel down, or alone, or anxious, I can go back to the positive memories I’ve engaged with in my practice, and pull up the one I need. For instance, if I feel lonely, I pull up the emotions from thinking of a meaningful relationship I am grateful for.
EXERCISE To form a positive bias
So, let me walk you through a life coaching exercise to start putting into practice the experience of positive emotions and how to distance from the negative ones.
First, write down 3-5 events or negative thoughts that somewhat bother you like, “I was late for work and I felt unprofessional.” Then, write 3-5 positive memories when you remember feeling amazing that you want to feel and focus on, like feeling loved by a friend.
Start with the negative events but don’t let yourself feel the emotion—simply observe it. You can use any method or visualization technique you need to as long as you don’t engage the emotion.
To be able to emotionally detach, I had to mentally organize my events as if they were cards placed face-down. I imagined picking up the card and observing its scene—like the one of me late--then I put it back, face down.
I did this with each event, and if a card brought any negative emotion, I pushed it further away from me until I could not feel it.
Once you’ve moved through your negative list, then move to the positive list. Begin to engage with your first positive event or emotion, like feeling loved by a certain friend.
Close your eyes and start imagining a friend’s face with a loving expression towards you. Remember a specific time when you were very grateful for this friend.
Bring that memory to the forefront as if it were happening right now.
Soak in that feeling of being cared for, seen, and loved.
Fully feel the gratitude that you have for this friend in your life.
Stay immersed in these feelings for at least twenty seconds before you continue to the next positive memory or event.
At this point, your heart should be experiencing each emotion with gratitude and feeling the warmth, fully engaging with them and feeling their embrace. You can let yourself feel it as long as possible. Also, remind yourself that you can pull up this feeling anytime you need it. Plus, give yourself permission to only observe negative thoughts and emotions, not feel them.
Organizing your thoughts and choosing which ones to feel and focus on is a life-changing practice. You are able to determine your outlook on life, which gives you a different lens to view your surroundings and relationships. When you have a positive outlook, you start to notice a lot more things to be grateful for.
Ultimately, this engagement with the emotions of your positive memories is the practice of gratitude.
So to answer the question, “Does gratitude really change our attitude?”
The answer is, No.
It is the practice of feeling gratitude that changes our attitude.
So savor the feeling.
Be intentional to seek positive emotions—
and welcome them to stay.
You’ll not only change your attitude but your whole outlook on life.