I’ve felt a bit down this week, possibly due to the sinus infection I’m fighting. But rather than taking the path of least resistance and wallowing in a sea of saline, I am practicing cultivating a sense of gratitude. This is the single most useful exercise I took away from my yoga training.
How to Cultivate Gratitude
In a moment when you are feeling especially stressed, frustrated, sad, angry, depressed, or blasé, try to remember something that you are grateful for. What you are grateful for could be one or many, people or experiences, simple or complex – it doesn’t matter except for that it’s authentic.
For example, I awoke with a piercing headache, saw the sun outside and felt instant sadness and fear of missing out, being sick indoors on a summer day. Then I tried to remember what I am thankful for. “I am grateful for having even woke up this morning. I am grateful I can take a deep breath and not cough. I am grateful for my functioning mind. I am grateful for this apartment. I am grateful for my loving doggies who are licking my nose…”
The exercise is immediate and completely transformative. Suddenly your mind is occupied with the effort of remembering these things you are thankful for, and there is no more room for self-pity! That sadness or disappointment you felt a second ago is instantly put into new perspective.
Cultivating gratitude is a practice of self-reflection. It takes only a few seconds to stop, get out of your head, and become a witness to the beauty and value that exists inside and around you. You harness your emotions and limit that feeling of stress or despair. All you have to do is remember to cultivate a sense of gratitude; the act of remembering is the real work.
The brain is a muscle. The more often you practice cultivating a sense of gratitude, your natural tendency toward this state grows stronger. This can lead to feeling emotionally resilient, less stressed, being mentally strong, positive and having a greater sense of satisfaction with your life. Although we are born and conditioned to react to stimulus in a certain way, we can train ourselves to control or change that reaction. It takes the practice of being mindful and self-aware.
My yoga training included reading the sutras of Patanjali, which are a collection of short lessons that lay the foundation for Ashtanga yoga philosophy. Sutra 2.42 says that mental comfort and joy can be obtained by practicing an attitude of contentment (santosha) and feeling appreciation for what we have. Contentment comes from within. This makes sense to me.
The effects of gratitude on our heath have been studied by modern-day scientists including Robert Emmons (professor of psychology at University of California Davis), whose findings you can read more about here. According to these studies, people who consistently practice gratitude experience benefits such as:
- Stronger immune systems
- Better quality of sleep
- Greater alertness, more interested and curious
- Feeling less lonely / isolated, more social
Other Ways to Cultivate Gratitude
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Write + send a thank-you note (email or letter) to someone
- Keep a notepad on your nightstand and before bedtime write down three things that went well that day & why
- Perform an act of gratitude
Huffington Post Healthy Living: Why Giving Thanks is Good for the Psyche
Harvard Medical School: In Praise of Gratitude
Yoga Journal: Grounded in Gratitude