PsycNET, the search platform designed to deliver content of the American Psychological Association, provides an abstract of a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol 84(2), Feb 2003, 377-389) entitled Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.
Drs. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, both psychologists, set out to discover how a grateful outlook might affect people psychologically and physically. In their first two studies, the good doctors randomly assigned participants to keep track of one out of three conditions: what the participants felt hassled by, things they were grateful for, or neutral life events. The participants then recorded, on a daily or weekly basis, how they felt, how they coped, whether they engaged in behaviors to maintain or improve health, bodily symptoms, and how they appraised their lives. In a third study, participants with neuromuscular disease were assigned to either the gratitude list or a control condition.
According to PsycNet, "The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits."
There you have it: scientific evidence that we may well be healthier mentally and physically if we simply acknowledge what stimulates us to be grateful. But why would that be?
It all goes back to our very earliest ancestors. When they first showed up on the planet, they were remarkably vulnerable. They hadn't yet developed immunity. They hadn't yet invented weapons. They had no natural armor, unlike other animals who are fortunate enough to have a shell or thicker skin than ours. Their teeth weren't especially threatening. And they weren't large enough to inspire fear in most of their predators.
Consequently, one of the first things they had to learn was to be incessantly on guard. They had to scan the horizon all day, every day looking for anything that might be a threat to their continued well-being. They didn't know what it might be, where it might come from, when it might arrive, or what their chances against it might be. They just knew they had to be constantly vigilant. Sounds pretty stressful, doesn't it?
Since that was one of the first, if not THE first thing our ancestors developed, it is still very much a part of us today. In the deepest part of our subconscious minds, the part we often refer to as the primitive mind (some also call it the lizard brain or the monkey mind), we are still always on the lookout for the negative. All day, every day. We're not aware of it consciously, it just seems to most of us that there are more things to complain about than there are things to inspire gratitude.
Because it's so stressful and tiring to be looking for negativity continuously, when we know what it is that we're stressed about, there's actually some relief in that. We still know we don't like whatever has triggered the stress. We know we wish it hadn't happened or that it would go away, but at least now we know what it is we're dealing with. We have something to focus on, the negativity is in our sights, and, better, we know that we're surviving it.
This tendency to search incessantly for the negative comes naturally to us now, having been passed down from one generation to the next over millennia. If you have any doubt that most of us tend to focus more on the negative than the positive, simply open Facebook and read a couple of posts.
Therefore, we actually have to train ourselves to change that, and practicing gratitude is a perfect way to do it, as the aforementioned study proves. Simply taking a few seconds once, twice or three times a day to think of something that makes you feel thankful might be all you need to enact this improved lifestyle. We all have things that can arouse our gratitude. They can be in any category: something you saw, someone you know, something you heard. A pleasant fragrance. Perhaps a stranger smiled at you. You woke up today. Maybe you feel good.
Simply trying to think of something you're grateful for is very helpful in alleviating stress, but writing it down will accomplish even more. Writing is what's known as an ideomotor activity. Ideo, like idea, involves your mind. Motor, like motion, involves your body. Anything you do that involves both your mind and your body is going to be much more powerful than things you do utilizing only one.
A suggestion I make to most of my clients is to keep a notebook and pen near your bed. The two are to be used only for this project. In the half hour before you go to sleep or when you first wake up, write down at least one thing for which you are grateful. If you can think of more, do that. You can write as much as you want. Just don't put any pressure on yourself. You don't want practicing gratitude to become an arduous task.
The reason I suggest doing it right before your fall asleep or right after you awaken is that, during these times, you pass through your alpha brainwave state. When you're in this state, you are more suggestible than you are when you're wide awake or sound asleep. You are more likely, therefore, to be affected by any positives or negatives that you become aware of in your environment. The sense of negativity or positivity will be magnified for you. Engaging in a positive activity, like praying, saying affirmations, or writing the list of things you're grateful for will have an even greater impact upon you than it will if you carry out this experiment it at other times of the day.
By doing this simple task, you can actually begin to change your mind. You will, each time you participate, alter slightly your natural inclination to look for negativity, the one that was so graciously handed down to you from many generations ago. Day-by-day, not only will you become more likely to seek out the positive, but you'll also be more likely to find it.
"Seek and ye shall find," a wise man once said. It's absolutely true.
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