Gratitude

This is an excerpt of my forthcoming book, Great Work: How to do what matters most without sacrificing everything else, coming in May, 2022

Self-expertise about wellness is not only about solving problems when things aren’t working. In fact, some of the most powerful self-expertise is about what works! One positive habit that you’ll want to harness is the practices of gratitude. 

According to Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff in their book Savoring, there are three kinds of gratitude. Gratitude for things that you hope and expect to happen, called anticipation. Gratitude for something that is happening right now, called savoring. And gratitude for what has already happened, called reminiscence. Each of these three practices will operate differently for each of us, depending on our natural tendencies. You will discover that some things raise your emotion and generate gratitude quickly, while other things fall flat and feel empty. 

For some people, focusing on big moments of joy in their own life, such as reminiscing about their wedding day, is a sure-fire way to generate feelings of gratitude. For others, the real gratitude comes from thinking about smaller, ordinary moments, like when your partner brings you a cup of coffee or you get a great parking spot. For still others, gratitude for things that happen to others you love, such as when your sister called you to tell that she got a new job, generate waves of gratitude. As you practice anticipation, savoring, and reminiscence across the many moments of your life, you will learn what works best to bring on the gratitude. 

Across the board, the goal of a gratitude practice is to bring your attention to the positive details of your experience in a way that taps into emotion and evokes feelings of satisfaction, happiness, joy. When you are reminiscing, remember the warm feel of the cup of coffee in your cold hands. When savoring, notice the curl of your daughter hair, or the look on your managers face when you tell her you got the deal. Whenever you are engaging in gratitude, focus on these smaller details, as they evoke a deeper emotional connection than simply thinking about the overall memory.  

Try it for yourself! Bring to mind something for which you are grateful. It can be a family member you love, an accomplishment you are proud of, or a lovely experience you had. Let your self-expertise guide you. 

Let’s say that you are grateful for the fact that you live close to the ocean. Starting right there, think “I’m grateful that I live so close to the ocean.” And you might just feel a little surge of satisfaction in your chest.  

Now, let’s add details “I’m glad I live close enough to drive past the ocean three times a day. I love to stop, get out of the car, stand on the sand, and admire the vastness of the ocean. Or I can close my eyes and listen, hearing seagulls overhead and the crash of the waves down below.” Visualizing this experience, in all its specificity, allows you to feel the deep peace you get when you are near the ocean. Can you feel the difference?

The push to generate details, as well as the recommendation that you re-activate your gratitude multiple times, is because this is how gratitude hacks your brain. You see, your brain (and mine) has a strong negativity bias. Researchers estimate that your brain will return to a negative experience ten times more often than it will return to a positive experience. Some of this negativity bias comes from our protective instincts to stay safe, but some of it comes from simple habit. Memories that we revisit are strengthened. That strengthening means that they are more likely to be visited again, even without your conscious intent. 

A gratitude practice activates our positive memories several times. Anticipating a positive experience gives our positive memory a strong, connected starting place. Paying attention to the details as good things occur in the moment creates a strong memory trace to return to. Re-activating the memory and the connected emotions while reminiscing allows us to “prime” these positive memories so they occur to us again even without our conscious effort. 

            My son recently decided that he wanted to learn to play the guitar. As such, we bought him an electric guitar (or a “rock guitar” as he calls it) and signed him for lessons at the School of Rock. Their program, just like in the movie, is designed around a live performance. Every week he goes for one private lesson and one group performance lesson. The performance is based around a particular artist or style of music. Alex chose a performance program focused on The Beatles. Suddenly, my home was ringing with the harmonies of “Let it Be,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Come Together,” and “Hey Jude.” About halfway through the program, Alex asked if he could sing in the performance, to which they agreed. Alex and I both thought that this was very good news, and I made it my business to savor all of it while it was happening. 

I brought my attention to the details:

  • I savored the excitement in Alex’s voice when he said, “Hey Siri, play ‘Come Together.’” 
  • As a family we spent an entire afternoon listening to the Beatles top hits. We discovered that while most of us appreciate Paul McCartney’s songwriting, Alex naturally fell toward John Lennon. I noticed that Alex took pride in being the only one who could fully appreciate the gritter and more personal lyrics of John Lennon.
  • I put my arm around Alex as he and I sat on his bed practicing his songs. The feeling of his little body shaking as he projected his voice to sing loud and proud, brought tears to my eyes.

If savoring is about being as fully aware of the goodness as it occurs, anticipation is about looking forward to a lovely moment before it occurs. In the weeks leading up to the performance I shared stories with Alex of my own performance experiences. We bought Beatles shirts for all of us to wear to the performance. I rallied our friends and family, providing a link and a few reminders so they could watch his performance over Zoom. I told everyone at work how excited I was to attend his performance. And, on the day of his performance we practiced, got dressed in Beatles shirts, and cheered when we dropped him off at rehearsal. 

After his performance, we intentionally reminisced as a family over dinner. We reviewed the performance, sharing our favorite moments. We sang the songs again, and asked Alex what it was like for him, allowing him to reminisce, too. Since then, whenever one of us wears our Beatles shirt, we tell a story from his performance, reigniting those memories and experiencing gratitude all over again.

All of these intentional efforts help us to see all that our lives has to offer, and will fundamentally change our perception of our lives, seeing it more positively. So, when we activate and re-activate positive memories, we will perceive our life as more positive and we will be happier, even if nothing else changes. 

Of course, it’s not like nothing else will change. In fact, other things definitely will change. Gratitude makes us happier, which in turns makes us more open to new experiences. It makes us feel more satisfied, which improves our relationships. And gratitude can reduce cortisol (a stress hormone) in our blood, which can ease some physical complaints. The intentional practice of gratitude has been linked a number of positive outcomes, all of which lead to a greater feeling over overall wellness. 

Peter benefited greatly from a gratitude practice while he was figuring out how to make progress on his screenplay. Before his writing was flowing, he expressed gratitude for the great ideas he was collecting in his brainstorming app. When his words began to flow, he expressed gratitude for every one of them. And when he had his first breakthrough day, he paid attention to the details, and took note of how excited, relieved, and delighted he was to have found his voice gain.

Peter used the Aligned Time Journal to support his gratitude practice. Every day it prompted him to name something for which he was grateful. I encouraged him dig into the details of what he was grateful for, so that he could activate a specific, emotional memory. Instead of “I’m grateful that I was able to write today” he wrote “I’m grateful that I wrote 500 words today. It felt like such a relief when I felt myself sink into the zone for the first time in a few weeks. And I loved the dialogue that came pouring out in the second act.” These details will allow him to revisit this memory and feel those feelings again, giving him twice the impact from one breakthrough.

At the end of every day, he was prompted to reminisce about his favorite memory from that day. Making the good parts of our life visible through a daily gratitude practice gives us a deep well of memories to visit when we have a hard day and need a reminder of how far we’ve come. Reflecting on these memories has another benefit, too: you become keenly aware of what you like, what you value, and who you are. This self-expertise will be critical as you work to keep your health and happiness intact while doing your Great Work. 

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. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost a 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.