About a year ago, I was up to my ears in full-scale burnout.  I hadn’t had a real break in months and the pace of work seemed to be ever-increasing.  What I remember disliking the most about that time was how generalized my unhappiness was. Everywhere I looked was more work; I just couldn’t see the joy.

One Saturday, my son (who was 3 at the time) was standing on our coffee table wearing star-shaped glasses, holding a crayon like a microphone, singing “Let it Grow” from The Lorax.  I, on the other hand, was obsessively conveying some story to my husband about how something had happened and then someone said something, and then something else happened (you know that story, I’m sure. It’s NEVER interesting.). He looked at me and said “Ok, I hear you, but right now- look at this.” and he physically turned me around to face my son.

I laughed out loud and my son, ever the clown, stuck his tongue out at me and kept singing. My husband whispered in my ear “Go get him” and I did.  I grabbed him off the table and tickled him until he was blue in the face. And then I kissed him and said “You are my favorite boy. I think you are very cute and I love your silly faces.”

And while he probably felt pretty good in that moment (I’ve never met anyone so ticklish), I think I probably felt better and benefitted more.

Gratitude is for you. And them… but also you.

Feeling grateful for what you have is a really healthy way to be.  There are hundreds of roundups around the internet (here’s one) highlighting how gratitude benefits your physical health, mental strength, resilience, sleep, self-esteem, emotional stability… the list goes on and on.

Why would that be true?  One reason is straight-up neurobiological. Let’s remember how the brain works: What you think about regularly stays right at the top of your mind to be thought about again. That means that you will notice things that you’ve recently thought about more than you will notice things that you haven’t thought about lately (that’s an awkward sentence, but stay with me).

Think about the last time you learned a new word. I recently learned the meaning of the word “anathema”  People would sometimes say, “X or Y is anathema to education in the United States” and I would nod sagely but have no idea what they were talking about. Was it good? Was it bad? I had no idea.  So I looked it up.

Anathema (n): a person or thing detested or loathed.

Well, now that I had spent that time thinking about the word anathema it was suddenly everywhere! Everyone is saying it! Rachel Maddow said it on her show the other day, for crying out loud!  Is the use of the term anathema actually on the rise? No, I’m sure it’s not. What’s “on the rise” is my brain’s willingness to notice that word.  Because that’s how the brain works.

So, what does this have to do with gratitude and feeling grateful?  Well, if you make it your business to acknowledge and appreciate the good things that you have in your life (a ticklish boy in star-shaped sunglasses) even when something else is going horribly awry (your work is sucking the life out of you) you will suddenly notice more and more to be grateful for.

Suddenly, joy and feeling grateful is on the rise.

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Appreciation is gratitude made manifest

When times are rough you might need to work a little harder or get a little help to see the good things around you.  That’s where this blog post comes in.

One of the fastest ways to encounter the things you have to be grateful for is to express explicit appreciation. Appreciation, after all, is gratitude made manifest.  Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose someone from your life.  The teacher in the classroom across the hall. Your virtual assistant. Your favorite client. Your child. Your husband.
  2. Think about what you SPECIFICALLY like about them. It doesn’t have to be a rare trait or even something they “need to hear.”  Just be explicit.  Don’t say “I like you,” say “I’m so amazed by how positive and welcoming you are to everyone you meet,” instead.
  3. Decide on your delivery method. I like to write so I might go to the CVS and buy a pack of Thank You cards. You might want to see them react, so you may plan to go over there to tell them in person.
  4. Lay it out there.  Say “I just wanted you to know that I’ve noticed how early you are getting here. I am amazed by how hard you work. You are truly an inspiration.”
  5. Don’t follow with the word BUT.  It’s not “I’m amazed by how hard you work, BUT don’t you worry that you’re giving the wrong message to the boss?” It’s not “I love your website BUT how do you have the time to do that?” Instead say, “I love your website! It’s so colorful and cheerful!”
  6. Don’t worry if it feels a little fraught.  People don’t often get such explicit appreciation, so she might seem a little suspicious or stare at you, just waiting for that “but” or for you to get to the real reason for your visit.  You might need to say “That’s all.  Have a great day!” before she snaps out of it and says “Thank you!  What a nice thing to say!”
  7. Don’t do it expecting return compliments (though you might get them). Do it to remind your brain that you do have thoughtful, creative colleagues and friends.  And then your brain will do you the favor of pointing out more of them to you.

8. Repeat!

The Aligned Time Journal asks you to identify a gratitude every morning BEFORE you set your to-dos for the day.  I challenge you to take 2-3 of them and turn them into appreciation this week. You’ll be surprised by how quickly the vim and vigor return to your life!  

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About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.