|Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash|
I can stand in the middle of certain stores and pick up plenty of items that might "spark joy." I'll bet you can too. But there's a ripple effect to retail therapy. When I look for joy in belongings, I always need the thrill of something new. Contentment is short-lived, because the next acquisition beckons. Then I need more space to store stuff, more time to take care of stuff, and more stuff to keep me interested once I've tired of the "old stuff."
If you've ever turned to shopping as a source of comfort and pleasure, I'd like to suggest a powerful replacement.
The practice of gratitude actually changes your brain in multiple positive ways.
Current research shows that gratitude increases serotonin levels, improving sleep, mood, and metabolism. Even more interesting, an attitude of thankfulness stimulates the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that's activated when something good unexpectedly happens. While acquiring a new pair of cute shoes can release a burst of dopamine, so can sitting down with a gratitude journal.
Dr. Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral, has discovered that even searching for things to be thankful for is beneficial. He writes:
Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.His research looks at how this reverses symptoms of depression.
Unlike buying something new, the daily (or even weekly) practice of gratitude will lead to long-lasting satisfaction. When you focus on what you're grateful for, you essentially crowd out your more negative thoughts. And since the brain constantly looks for things that prove what you already believe (it's called confirmation bias), by regularly scanning your life for what's good, your mind will start finding even more good things for you to appreciate.
Most of us have a lot to be happy about, even if we don't think so. And if we spend more time focusing on those good things -- cultivating gratitude -- we will feel happier. So gratefulness leads to happiness. It's an essential part of a quality life.
Unfortunately, many of us have the habit of focusing on our problems and woes. We spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves and finding fault with others. And just like gratitude, complaining and pessimism get easier with practice. So developing appreciation takes conscious effort. This is where a journal can be so beneficial.
Actually writing down what you're grateful for forces you to slow down, be more mindful, and really pay attention to the goodness in your life.
According to Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, psychologists at the University of California, Davis, research shows that those who keep gratitude journals are not only more optimistic, but also experience more energy, enthusiasm, and emotional connection to others, while seeing more progress toward important personal goals. That's exciting!
So how do you journal your gratitude?
It's pretty easy to write a general list of items you're thankful for: nice weather, your spouse or a friend, your reliable car, a delicious omelet for breakfast. But if you take the time to get more specific, you'll create a stronger emotional response and a more powerful impact.
For example, I could list "I'm grateful for my husband Jon." And that's true, but it's very general and doesn't really inspire good feelings. But if I write
I'm grateful for Jon because he encourages my writing, slows his pace so he can walk beside me, and makes me laugh. I'm grateful because we always have so much to talk about, and really enjoy spending time together, even after 35 years of marriage.
Now I've written something that gets to the heart of why I'm grateful for Jon, and it inspires me.
Eventually, just listing things you appreciate might become repetitious. Your kids, good health, seeing a good movie or a gorgeous sunset, a new pair of jeans that really fit.... Things like that are going to go on a gratitude list again and again. In one sense, that's great, because having continued good health and enjoying lots of beautiful sunsets is wonderful, and you should be grateful for those things. But in another sense it can start to feel uninspired, like you're just going through the motions, and you might be tempted to set aside your journaling practice.
But if you get more specific, and pay attention to the details that evoke good feelings or memories, you'll gain more benefit as you write. Each time you mention that you appreciate nice weather, for example, your gratitude has probably been inspired for a different reason. Describe it. Later, if you reread parts of your journal, you'll experience those feelings again.
I'm grateful for this windy fall day. The clouds are moving quickly, with occasional gleams of sunlight piercing through. I love the sound of wind in the trees and the freshness of the air. I'm thankful for the scent of approaching rain because we really need it!
Sometimes you might want to choose a focus for your gratitude. Consider:
- current or past relationships that have helped you
- wonderful experiences that you've had
- opportunities that have come or are coming your way
- things in the natural world that you love
- foods, items of clothing, movies, music, books, or other things you appreciate
Journaling your gratitude first thing in the morning will help you start your day with optimism and energy. It's been described as "a hit of caffeine for the soul." Making the practice part of your bedtime routine lets you reflect on good things that happened during the day, increasing your sense of calm and well-being and thus improving your sleep. Choose either time (or both). Just start today!